As a kid growing up in southern Wyoming, I’d always been interested in “surviving”. Looking back, this was nurtured by the sparse population, geographic isolation and harsh climate of the area. That, coupled with a kid's desire to be cool, led me and my friends to cram all sorts of things in our field jackets in anticipation of being asked , “ what’s your SE”. SE, meaning Survival Expectancy, being the code phrase for , whatcha got in your pockets that’d keep us alive when the Commies try and bomb us back into the stone age. We’d pull out the pocket first aid kit, snare wires, canteen, pocket knife, matches, tuna can paraffin stove, pocket space blanket…. We all had healthy imaginations and were avid Science Fiction readers and had read, “ No Blade of Grass", "Farnham’s Freehold", "Alas Babylon", "On the Beach", and "A Boy and His Dog"” to name a few. The Commies never bombed, at least not yet.
Now fast forward about 10 years. I was in the Hampton Roads, Virginia area in the Navy. I’d pretty much forgotten about my “SE” by then and was much more concerned with the duties of my naval career. My wife and new baby daughter filled out the rest of my busy life. On one of the deployment schedules I had arranged to take leave while the ship was undergoing refresher training in the Rosy Roads Op area in the Caribbean. They were to be gone 21 days and so was I. Life was good.
Well, not exactly.
I, like all junior enlisted personnel in the U. S. Navy, lived from pay check to pay check. The thing I’d forgotten was when the ship deployed they took my pay records with them. I was due to get paid the end of the first week of the deployment. I didn’t know you didn’t get paid without a pay record. So on pay day I went to Norfolk Operations Base to the dispersing center and stood on line from about eight o’clock in the morning until about noon only to find out they wouldn’t pay me because I didn’t have my pay record. I was referred to the Navy Wives' Ombudsman and basically told it would take a month to work through the paper work for a hardship payment. A MONTH, we’d be kicked out of the apartment and starving by then. I did find out I could go to the enlisted men's mess hall for meals, but my family would have to pay retail to eat. And no take outs.
This blew my little mind away . We lived about 15 miles from the base. I had a 1969 Chrysler Fury III which got 16 miles to the gallon. I had 7 dollars and change in my pocket and a half tank of gas. I didn’t have a credit card, and no money in the bank. I didn’t know anyone in Virginia. The ship was gone another 2 weeks and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. I drove home during rush hour in a case of shock. My cozy navy life had dissolved.
When I got home, my wife commented at how long I’d taken to get home and asked to see my check. I told her what had happened and she turned gray. It was her turn to be in shock. Our checking account was empty. We had no savings and between the two of us we had less than ten dollars, a newborn to feed, and two weeks until I could get paid. The only good thing about the whole deal was the apartment and utilities were paid for until the day the ship got back and not delinquent until the week after the ship was due in port.
We sat down and looked at what we did have. If we stayed home and didn’t go anywhere unnecessary, we figured we could stretch the gas out so I could go to work and get paid after the ship got back and still have 2 gallons of reserve fuel. We looked in the pantry, such as it was and planned out the meals. If we ate two meals a day we’d only have to worry about the last day and a half depending on the leftovers as to if we’d go hungry. The baby had to have her formula because my wife’s milk was insufficient in quantity. This meant driving to the store and buying formula. We had a partial can on the shelf which had some in it but not enough to make the full duration of the emergency. The cost of a can of baby formula was just about all the cash we had. But we had to care for our child.
We started living the thin life. No clothing to be washed until it made you retch to be close to it (pay laundry). No driving at all. Diapers and formula would be the only expenses. Other than that, do without. So we did. We were just a couple of scared kids in a place far away and on our own. We stayed at home. We entertained each other and looked after the baby. And ate 2 meals a day and lost weight. We were 21 years old and all alone.
After two weeks and the novelty of eating weird stuff like noodles with peanut butter and flour gravy on rice my ship came in. And in this case there was a real meaning in the cliché , 'My ship had come in and we were delivered from evil'. Literally. I dressed in the Uniform of the day, went to the Naval Base, got on board my ship, had a real cup of coffee and got paid. On the way home I stopped at J. C. Penny's in the Chesapeake Square Mall on Portsmouth Blvd. and got a tank of gas. When I got home, I gave my pay to my wife and we went to the store and bought groceries. After returning home we inventoried what we had left for food prior to restocking.
We had some tea bags, a handful of pinto beans, a couple cups of flour, some rice, condiments, and a frozen turkey thigh along with the babies formula. That was it. I made a vow to never ever be in such dire straits again. From that day forward we bought more food than what we would use between store visits. I never wanted to feel so helpless as I had felt then. And we tried to save money which was very hard to do. (Still is)
I’m sure there are those who read this and think, “What an idiot. He could have gone to social services and gotten all the food stamps he needed.” Yeah you’re right. I probably could have. But at that time, I didn’t know I could have. And for that matter, I could have called my parents in Alaska explaining my situation and they would have wired money to tide us over. I could have gotten a second job. But in my young mind it never occurred to me there were other avenues of support which I could have drawn from. I was like the man who dies of hypothermia in the desert or dies of dehydration in a snow field. I had all the elements for my survival there but didn’t have the knowledge or equipment to act on them.
Which brings me back to survivalism. As a survivalist, I now have the skill base and equipment to take care of me and mine. Unlike that young sailor who started on the survivalist road in 1978 I now know what to do in most bad situations. I have the knowledge. I have the skills . And I have the tools. I know there is still much to learn. But now I’m able to analyze situations, and based upon the analysis, draw informed sound conclusions. And all it took was a turkey thigh.
So, what is survivalism to me? Let me 'splain it to you Lucy. Every day I make a concerted effort to do or learn something which may be of use in a “survival” situation, whatever that is. Is it being able to sweat solder a pipe? Yes. Is it being able to hold your son immobile in the street with several compound fractures while the paramedics stabilize him to the point he can be transported to the Emergency Room and from there Life-Flighted to Salt Lake City for a two week stay in intensive care followed by the rest of the summer in a wheel chair? Most definitely. Is it packing and repacking your pack until it’s tight and right? Yes sir. Is it being able to keep your garden from freezing in late June due the occasional snowstorm? Yes. Is it being able to sit quietly waiting until the elk breaks the clearing so you can get the clean shot? Yup. Is it being able to finally learn to write in coherent sentences and actually be able to say something of worth? You betcha. All these things are survivalism. And more. If you’re reading this, then you’ve decided to take charge of your life in whatever capacity you can and take care of your self and loved ones. You’re not necessarily a homesteader, retreater, paramedic, tree hugger, electrician, gun nut, engineer or ( Fill in the blank ). Those are just labels used to pigeon hole people in little boxes. You are here because you are interested in taking care of you and yours. Because nobody else will. Guess what? You’re a survivalist. Or you will be. Or maybe you’re a renaissance man, which is another label for the same thing.
What’s my “SE” today? Pretty good actually, and I don’t have to pull a rabbit out of my hat to do it.
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