Monday, January 20, 2014

Alas, Babylon. Reproduced by permission of the author.

This first appeared on The Sipsey Street Irregulars. I saw it on Survival Blog.   Since Alas, Babylon is my favorite survival novel, I thought others might enjoy this piece as well.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Firearms and Ammunition of "Alas, Babylon": Pat Frank, Credible Deterrence of Evil and the .22 Long Rifle Ammo Famine. "The first thing I did was buy several thousand rounds of shotgun and small arms ammunition."

Alas, Babylon is a 1959 novel by American writer Pat Frank (the pen name of Harry Hart Frank). It was one of the first apocalyptic novels of the nuclear age and remains popular 54 years after it was first published, consistently ranking in's Top 20 Science Fiction Short Stories list (which groups together short story collections and novels). The novel deals with the effects of a nuclear war on the small town of Fort Repose, Florida, which is based upon the actual city of Mount Dora, Florida. The book's title is derived from Revelation 18:10: "Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come." -- Wikipedia.
I'm pretty sure my first copy of Alas, Babylon had a cover like the one above. If I recall correctly, I first read it in 5th or 6th grade after buying it at a school book fair. The book resonated with me, as it did with many of my generation, at least in part because it represented more than just fiction, but more likely our probable future. We had come through the Cuban Missile Crisis when the world held its collective breath and we schoolchildren were trained to seek shelter under our desks at air raid alarm drills. Rosey's school in West Memphis AR -- across the river from Memphis -- even went to the trouble of issuing dog tags to students so they could be identified in case of psychic trauma, physical injury or death. We had no trouble believing that a nuclear war could claim us all.
Later, as a teenager I volunteered to help the Marion County, Ohio, civil defense RADEF officer (Radiological Defense) inventory and calibrate CDV-700 radiation detectors and studied the thick, manila-colored, paper-bound manual "The Effects of Nuclear Weapons." It came up missing over the years, probably - like many of my books - at the time of The Great Divorce (circa 1984-85).
I turn to Alas, Babylon for my insomniac reading in the wee hours of the morning several times a year. Like many a good book, you occasionally discover a point upon a re-reading that you missed before. So it was with this passage the other night:
Randy decided not actually to take off his clothes and get into bed because once he got under the covers he would never get up. Instead, he took off his shoes and dropped on the couch in the living room. He stared at the the gunrack on the opposite wall. Until very recent years guns had been an important part of living on the Timucuan. Randy guessed they might become important again. He had quite an arsenal. There was the long, old-fashioned .30-40 Krag fitted with sporting sights; the carbine he had carried in Korea, dismantled, and smuggled home; two .22 rifles, one equipped with a scope; a twelve-gauge automatic, and a light beautifully balanced twenty-gauge double-barreled shotgun. In the drawer of his bedside table was a .45 Automatic and a .22 target pistol hung in a holster in his closet.
Ammo. He had more than he would ever need for the big rifle, the carbine, and the shotguns. But he had only a couple of boxes of .22's, and he guessed that the .22s might be the most useful weapons he owned, if economic chaos lasted for a long time, a meat shortage developed, and it became necessary to hunt small game. He rose and went into the hallway and shouted down at the stairwell, "Helen!"
"Yes?" She was at the front door.
"If you get a chance drop in at Beck's Hardware and buy some twenty-two long-rifle hollow points."
"Just a second, I'll write it down on my list. Twenty-two long-rifle hollow points. How many?"
"Ten boxes if they have them."
This is one of those passages that a modern mindset would find hopelessly naive and even dangerous. Mind you, this is the morning after the bombs have hit. Whike Fort Repose has not yet been affected by blast or overcome with refugees, Randy has already passed in his car on his earlier way into town a group of escaped road gang convicts, some armed with their dead guards revolvers and shotguns. Yet he lets his sister-in-law go into town unarmed and unescorted. The very existence of the gunrack where the entire inventory of rifles and shotguns are stored openly without thought to potential thievery from a B&E artist is dated and today would be unthinkable in all but the most isolated and insular of mountain communities here in Alabama.
And what did Frank mean when he wrote: "He had more than he would ever need for the big rifle, the carbine, and the shotguns"?
What quantity is "more than he would ever need"?
Here, we need to drop back a bit and look at who Pat Frank was, where he came from and what his journey was up until he wrote those words in 1959. Born in Chicago in 1908, Frank was a journalist and information handler for several newspapers, agencies, and government bureaus. He did not come from the rural existence he described in Alas, Babylon, although he moved there after a long career as a writer and reporter, and during his early years he lived mainly in New York, Washington, and overseas during World War II. He worked for the Office of War Information and was a a war correspondent in Italy, Austria, Germany, and Turkey during and after the war.
His novel, Hold Back the Night (another of my favorites) led to Frank's recall into government service and his appointment as a member of the United Nations Mission to Korea in 1952. The Amazon review calls Hold Back the Night "an excellent account of the withdrawal from the Korean reservoirs during the very worst days of the Korean War. It is compellingly and believably written, and tells a wonderful story of courage and dedication under fire, and the interactions and bonds that form in a small unit under continuous threat of attack. The writing is crisp, taut, and believable."
It is all of that. And Frank's description of the Marines of Dog Company on their cruel retreat demonstrates that Frank had absorbed the classic foot soldier's lesson, once expressed by General Walton Walker in the early, desperate days of the Korean War: "We can win without food, we cannot win without ammunition." Here's a couple of snippets from Hold Back the Night:
"It'll take air to find that company, and support it if it's still there," said the general.
"This whole coast is socked in," said the admiral. "I wouldn't send out a buzzard to fly in this weather."
It is decided to send out a one place helicopter to find Dog Company.
"What can it do?"
"I'm afraid not much for this job, sir. It's only designed for short-range reconnaissance, and spotting. It doesn't carry anything except a second lieutenant."
"Can't it drop anything?" the admiral asked. "Medical stores or anything?"
"Not very well, sir. . . "
"Well, what in hell is it good for except spot?"
"That's about all, sir. But it does have a couple of basket letters rigged on the outside, to pick up wounded. It's picked up quite a few wounded."
The admiral scratched his chin again, and then he scratched the back of his neck. "If it can bring back wounded," he said, it can bring up supplies. Ever think of that, commander?"
"No, sir."
"Well, have those basket litters filled with supplies, and send it out. We'll find out whether that company is still there, or not. What kind of supplies do you think they'll need, general, that is if they're still on the road?"
"Ammo," said the general of Marines. "Ammo and food and cigarettes."
"What kind of ammo?"
"Rifle, M-1." -- Pages 192-193.
Earlier, Frank quotes two of the quintessential soldier expressions of the Korean War, which rank in ubiquity just below the concept memorialized by that favorite song, "The Bugout Boogie."
"It isn't going to work, Sam. We haven't got dick." That was a strange and fatherless expression birthed by the Korean war. It could mean many things but one of the things it meant was that they didn't have the stuff, the punch, the power. It was the opposite of another expression of this war, "Ammo's running out my ass." -- Page 162.
Frank, and the anonymous soldiers and Marines he quotes have it right: Plenty of ammunition is one measure of power.
"A man can never have too much red wine, too many books, or too much ammunition." -- Rudyard Kipling
And as a reporter and student of the Korean War, Frank would have been aware of incidents such as this, described in S.L.A. Marshal's book, Pork Chop Hill:
On his way out, Locklear passed Crittenden, who said to him, "Get back to 200 and tell Fox Company that I've either got to have reinforcements or ammunition; I've got nothing with which to fight." It was hardly an overstatement. The BARs and machine guns were all dry; half of the carbines were empty; all grenades had been spent in getting to the first three bunkers. In the clutch, what saved Love Company for a little while was the discovery of two cases of grenades in one of the bunkers. -- Page 124.
So, if Frank was well informed on the necessity of ammunition to continue a fight, what then did he mean by "He had more than he would ever need for the big rifle, the carbine, and the shotguns"?
In his little neighborhood of River Road outside the fictional Fort Repose, Randy has neighbors: a poor black family, the Henry's, a spinster Western Union operator (who is joined by her friend the town librarian and a retired admiral. He also takes in for the duration of the emergency his brother's wife and two children, his girlfriend and her father and the local doctor. Between them they bring to the community arsenal one battered single barrel twelve gauge shotgun that works almost every time (the Henry's) and an automatic sixteen gauge shotgun (the admiral's). That's it.
Toward the end of the book, this community is forced to seek out, confront and defeat a small band of "highwaymen" armed with pistols and a Thompson submachine gun, Small wonder that they lose one of their number, Malachai Henry, KIA.
A clue to Frank's thinking about ammunition is found in his 1962 non-fiction work,How to survive the H-bomb, and why. Unlike Alas, Babylon, this slim volume of 160 pages only went through one edition and has never been reprinted. When I went in search of it last week, the cheapest example was $200.00. So, I did what I often do when confronted with an economic impossibility in looking for a published work -- I sought it out via inter-library loan and, presto! It appeared at my local library in two days. I now have a thoroughly uncollectible xerox of said work in my library and in explication of Frank's writing in Alas, Babylon I would like to draw your attention to Chapter 9: "Of Rats and Men, and Food and Drink and Drugs, and Animals and Ammo," which he wrote about the same time Rosey and I were being taught to "duck and cover."
In 1957-58, while researching Alas, Babylon, it occurred to me that we were singularly fortunate to live in an area abounding in small game. During this period some crisis flared -- I think it was Lebanon -- and we decided to prepare. The first thing I did was buy several thousand rounds of shotgun and small arms ammunition. "Whatever happens, we won't starve," I told my wife, Dodie. "At least we'll have quail, and dove, and rabbit and squirrel stew, not to speak of possums and coons and maybe alligator tail and rattlesnake steak. And we have a dozen varieties of citrus."
Several months later I learned more about fallout than I had known before. . . The obvious truth was and is that the same fallout that kills humans destroys other forms of animal life. And there will be few, if any, shelter "arks" for animals. . . So I belatedly discovered that buying ammunition to secure game was a waste of money. It would not only be silly and unsporting to shoot sick quail, rabbit, and squirrel, but downright dangerous to eat them. Their meat might be contaminated with long-lived radioactive elements unknowingly consumed as they dined on seeds, grain, nuts, and exposed vegetation. -- Pages 110-113.
Of course Frank was concerned about the principal threat to humanity at that point, nuclear war. The fact that such ammunition would have been of perfect utility in any other systemic crisis was not to his point. He was, I think, too hard on himself for buying ammunition. He seems to understand that as he continues:
There is another, very definite use for guns and ammo. You may have to repel two-legged beasts of prey -- men.
Here again, each man must make his own decision which will be based upon confusing factors -- moral, spiritual, material, emotional, interlaced with love for his family and normal dread of death, spliced to the situation in his own community, and the situation in the world. All I know is what I myself would do, or more properly, what I think I would do.
Assume that I own a staunch home with a deep cellar in (the mythical town of) Missile Gap (Pennsylvania), and in the cellar I have constructed a shelter, of solid concrete block, for my wife, three children, and myself. In the shelter we have water and food. In the kitchen, and the utility room that adjoins it, we have another month's supply of food. . .
On the third day, we hear scraping and shuffling over our heads -- an intruder in our kitchen.
I think, undoubtedly a looter, and what am I going to do about it?
I have a pistol . . .
I must move quietly. The intruders don't know we're down in the cellar unless they're relatives, friends, or neighbors.
So I take off my shoes and go up the cellar stairs as silently as possible. I open the door into the kitchen very carefully. I attempt to achieve tactical surprise.
If it is a genuine raider or raiding party I say nothing. I just start shooting. If i don't kill I can be certain I will be killed without mercy. And I will make very sure that the intruders are dead.
In Alas, Babylon, those of you who have read it will recall, the "highwaymen" do a home invasion on the beekeeper Jim Hickey and his family, killing him and his wife and stealing their food, including the honey and their car. They later pay for this on the covered bridge at the hands of Randy's ersatz River Road squad of militia. Frank continues with an appreciation of his situation -- and his friends and neighbors -- in own community for survival, as I have always believed, is a matter of community more than anything else.
In my own home, off the beaten track in the deep Florida countryside, it would be different. A gun rack is part of the furniture in almost every home hereabouts. All men, and most women, and all boys over twelve, handle firearms as part of their daily life. Even when they have sworn off shooting wildlife except with a camera, as i have, there are varmints to be destroyed -- moccasins and vicious alligator garfish around the dock, rattlesnakes in the grove, a rare coral snake, timid, beautiful, and fatal, slithering across a walk in the moonlight, the salamander rat that defaces our lawn. Only a desperate fool would invade property around here without first announcing himself, and his intentions.
Furthermore, people are serious and thoughtful about protecting their homes, should war come. Some miles away, one of my best friends and a few of his neighbors have combined to dig and equip a small community shelter. At the same time they are, in his words, "standardizing weapons." They have agreed to use the .357 magnum for both rifles and pistols. This is a powerful big-game cartridge that will knock down a tiger or pierce the motor block of an automobile. (MBV Note: A bit of hyperbole there, but isn't it fascinating that Americans were dealing with the same issues of "well-regulated militia" that we are faced with today -- and that our ancestors of the Founding Generation faced as well?)
If you don't have a gun and are concerned about protecting your home, I'd recommend the Remington 66, a .22-caliber automatic rifle with nylon stock, so light that your wife can easily handle it. The new high-velocity hollow-point ammunition makes it deadly, and the ammo is inexpensive. And if there is no war, it is a fun gun. Twice a year, around here, we declare open season on snapping turtles, and use the 66 to shoot off their heads. In many states you must have a permit to possess a psitol, but nowhere is a permit required for a rifle.
Also, for the inexperienced the rifle is more accurate than the pistol, even for snap shooting. If your rifle has a white bead sight, you can hit something in the gloom, in the night.
I have devoted too many words to a tertiary danger. While I was buying ammunition, my red-headed wife was doing something far more practical. She established a revolving food reserve. -- Pages 115-117.
Frank, of course, wrote about dangers as he perceived them in his own America, in his own time, some fifty years ago now. That country no longer exists. It is a different country, less homogenous, more fragile, with little of the social trust that exemplified Frank's America and the dangers are consequently greater, more immediate, more pressing, more deadly. Holding onto a food reserve, even with a community-based militia, is going to be problematic, especially without adequate ammunition. The slow breakdown described as coming over a period of months in Alas, Babylon would happen instantaneously today.
In Randy's Fort Repose, toward the end of the book, Frank describes an expedition up the river to secure salt:
Their five boats crewed thirteen men, all well armed. It would be the first night Randy has spent away from Lib since their marriage, and she seemed somewhat distressed by this. But Randy had no fear for her safety, or for the safety of Fort Repose. His company now numbered thirty men. It controlled the rivers and the roads. Knowing this, highwaymen shunned Fort Repose. The phrase "deterrent force" had been popular before The Day and effective so long as that force had been unmistakably superior. Randy's company was certainly the most efficient force in Central Florida, and he intended to keep it that way.
What works with common -- or even groups of uncommon -- criminals works with constitutional criminals and wannabe tyrants as well. I have written before for many years on the subject of Credible Deterrence & the Logistics of Liberty.
What did the Founders intend with the Second Amendment? Liberals aside, gunnies would all agree that their purpose was to codify the people's natural right to arms. As men who had been compelled to fight for independence by the British seizure of their arms, it was natural for them to ensure that the people of future generations be enabled to maintain the tools necessary to repel tyranny. But I think their purpose was not only to set up the preconditions to resist tyranny when it appeared, but also to deter it by providing future would-be tyrants with a credible deterrent that would discourage them from making the attempt to begin with.
As I wrote back then in 2007 during another ammo shortage:
And this is absent any significant push in the market. Should the Clintons return to the White House, or there's another LA riot or Katrina disaster, the rush will be on and prices that are thought to be high now will be looked upon with fond nostalgia. Unless somebody nukes China, the market forces are going to continue to squeeze us, cutting down on our range time (also important to maintain credible deterrence) and threatening to make our rifles nothing more than expensive clubs.
So I guess I've told you all of this, in part at least, as an investment tip. Buy now. Buy a LOT. Start stocking up on everything from finished rounds to reloading equipment and components. It is the only way to maintain credible deterrence with our political enemies who seek to disarm us on the quiet. We all must turn our attention to the logistics of liberty, lest we lose the deterrence and are forced to fight.
And that was before Obama, which makes those years rosy with "fond nostalgia" as I predicted.
I was in a gun store yesterday and a fellow came in searching for .22 Long Rifle cartridges. The store was out, except for some very high-end target ammo. The would be buyer was nonplussed and more than a little irritated. "Where IS it going?" he asked to anyone, everyone and no one all at the same time. "Where is it?!?"
It wasn't a government conspiracy, I told him, it was supply and demand and the demand was just absolutely unprecedented. Who was buying it? he demanded. The simple answer, I told him, was a lot more people for a lot more different reasons than in the past. First, there were a lot more weapons being sold in past few years. They had to fed. Then there was the fact that ammo in standard self defense calibers like 5.56 and .45 ACP was so expensive that owners of those firearms bought sub-caliber devices to train with the cheaper .22 Long Rifle, hence more demand for .22. Finally, I explained there was the undoubted fact that many folks were, even those who didn't own firearms, were investing in gold, silver and lead.
He looked puzzled. "Ever read a modern survival novel?" I asked him. In almost every one of them, I explained, the currency goes tits up and only items of real property retain their value. Econ 101, I explained: the value of a thing is what that thing will bring in commerce. If they no longer trust devalued currency, people will find a medium of exchange that know will retain its value. Hence, gold, silver and the poor man's investment, lead. .22 Long Rifle has long been considered a medium of exchange in a disaster scenario, the same with 12 Gauge shot shells. He began to understand.
Again, although I did not tell the frustrated customer this, I refer you gentle readers to Alas, Babylon. When the currency became worthless after The Day, the banker Edgar Quisenberry realized almost instantly that he had gone from being one of the biggest fish in the pond to flopping about the shore, gasping for the oxygen of power -- money.
Henrietta was a fool. This was the end. Civilization was ended. Of one thing Edgar was certain. He would not be crushed with the mob. He had been a banker all his life and that was the way he was going to die, a banker. He would not allow himself to be humiliated. He would not be reduced to begging gasoline or food, and be dragged down to the level of a probationary teller. He thought of all the notes outstanding that now would never be paid, and how his debtors must be chuckling. He scorned the improvident, and now the improvident would be as good as the careful, the sound, the thrifty. Well, let them try to go on without dollars. He would not accept such a world.
He found the old, nickel-plated revolver, purchased by his father many tears before, in the top drawer of his bureau. Edgar had never fired it. The bullets were green with mold and the hammer rusted. He put it to his temple, wondering whether it would work. It did.
Again in this scene, Frank has grasped and presented us with the essential. Even moldy ammunition in a rusted revolver is a means of power, even power so negatively applied and foolishly short-sighted. I continued to explain the ammo shortage to the anguished customer:
If you have to blame anybody for the shortage of .22 Long Rifle, blame Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve or the vastly expanded community Preppers who because of the Fed's actions no longer trust the currency and are trying to put their limited resources where it will retain the most value. That that happens to be .22 Long Rifle cartridges is your misfortune but they can hardly be blamed for it. They are just looking out for themselves in the most prudent and possible way they can. You might as well rage at the tide like King Canute.

King Canute commands the tide not to come in.
Just remember one thing. The rules of Pat Frank's world of Alas, Babylon no longer apply, especially as to time-stimulus-response. The day after whatever systemic collapse lays this country low, you will not be able to blithely drive down to Beck's Hardware to pick up ten boxes of twenty-two long rifle hollow-points. In the end, as evidenced by Pat Frank's non-fiction words quoted above, not even he trusted that to be true. And that was more than fifty years ago in a country that has long since disappeared. So stock up on ammunition of all calibers, including .22 Long Rifle as you can, where you can, paying what you must. It is credible deterrence in the box -- to common criminals or constitutional ones.
Mike Vanderboegh
PO Box 926
Pinson, AL 35126
(Permission to reproduce this in its entirety is granted as long as full attribution is given.)


  1. Ammo aside. The one part of "Alas Babylon" you won't see in today's world within the US. The part where the government actually granted retired officers and civilians the authority to uphold the law. Even in a nuclear situation I have no doubt some government Liberal is gonna be there trying to engineer our society.

    That's when the ammo comes in most handy.

    1. Because America has changed so much since it was written, the book has a great deal of anomalous content. It's still a pretty good story though. I have no doubt that here in the mountains, if civil authority broke down our county commissioner would try to set himself up as a tinpot dictator. He does that already.

  2. That book was also my introduction to survival literature, it was choice in my high school reading list and I'm glad I stumbled on it at an early age. The subject got my curiosity up and I began searching for similar subjects as well.

    Randy Bragg was a hunter / fisherman and was a big part of reason why I decided to read it. LUCIFER'S HAMMER and HATCHET was later and by then I was hooked . . . :^)

    1. I've read Lucifer's Hammer several times, and really enjoyed it. I have heard of Hatchet but have never come across a copy so haven't read it. In a lot of ways, the old printed books are better than some of the digital books today. If nothing else, many of the digital books are in need of a good editor.

    2. Here is a PDF copy of it to read if you find some spare time . . . :^)

  3. Hey Harry, saw this thought you might be interested.

    lol I have no hope I worked nights for years

    1. I'll take a look when I get off of here.

  4. G'day Harry,

    Very interesting article, this novel has been a favourite of mine for years, in fact my copy has the same cover as the one in the article, I found it in a second book shop in the 70's. I will have to go out and get myself a good .22 rifle now, haven't had one for years since I took up black powder shooting.

    1. Sgt, mine does too but it's falling apart, so I bought a new copy at a bookstore in Chattanooga. I've never been a fan of the .22 really, other than for plinking. In a recent episode of "Survivor Man" Les Stroud was going to try to shoot a cow with a 22. I'm glad he didn't, because it would just have run off wounded. Still, a .22 in the hand is better than a baseball bat.

    2. Harry, In the old days I used to be a big fan of the .22 magnum cartridge. I had a real beauty of a Winchester model 94 in this calibre, also a locally made bolt action rifle with a thumb hole stock which was really smooth to shoot. Alas, I sold both so I could buy my M14 when I took up Military shooting, if only I could have them back again!

    3. I've never had a .22 magnum. I hear good things about the cartridge, I just never came across a weapon chambered for it when I was in a buying mood, I guess. I wish you could still have your L1A1 and your M14. It reeks that a bunch of suits in air conditioned offices took them away from you. Especially you being Australian. I've read in lots of places that "Australians are riflemen." But without an NRA you guys didn't have a chance, it wasn't your fault.

    4. Yes Harry, we tried our best but at the end of the day there were a lot more city people who had never owned a rifle than us shooters and the political mood after the Port Arthur tragedy was that Semi Auto rifles were going no matter what it took!!

      Hunting and target shooting have a long and proud tradition in Australia, back in the 60's all of the fullbore rifle clubs (which shot target rifles in .303 or 7.62) used to be issued ammunition by the army and every High School had a Cadet unit (equipped with Lee Enfields and Bren guns!). The one bright spot is the fact that today there are more licensed shooters and clubs than ever existed before the bans and the numbers are growing steadily each year.

      I would really love to have my M14 and M1 carbine back, the L1A1 (SLR in Aussie) looked great and was nice to shoot but it was never what you would call super accurate, in fact I sold mine even before the gun buyback as I just never used it much.

    5. The .22 Magnum is a favorite of mine, but it really isn't a plinker / target rifle, its a hunting cartridge. If you have "Big Small Game" (i.e. javelina, turkey and other animals of 20 - 50 lbs), the .22 Magnum is an excellent choice.

      Cost is pretty high, about 412 - $15 a box of 50 so unless you really need it, probably isn't worth getting worked up about.