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Canning food, like knot-tying, is a common "prep" for disaster. Shown here: me being really, really bad at it.
Canning food, like knot-tying, is a common "prep" for disaster. Shown here: me being really, really bad at it.

Misery is optional: Doomsday Preppers in Wisconsin

Like most hypersensitive suburbanites, my parents bought out our local K-Mart’s canned-food aisle in preparation for Y2K.

I was sure nothing was going to happen, and told my mother I thought she was ridiculous. But I was secretly excited at the prospect of an apocalypse. I thought it sounded like an awful lot of fun. (News you can use: life is pretty dull in Ozaukee County before you get your driver’s license.)

Of course, nothing happened. Midnight came, the world kept spinning, we spent three years eating those canned peas and thought no more of the End of the World.

For George Booth, a self-described "prepper" who lives in Sun Prairie  and organizes a meet-up four times a month for like-minded people, Y2K was what started it all.

A former law-enforcement officer in another state, he became aware of how fragile the infrastructure of society really is. "I was asked by my supervisor to draft a preparedness plan for the police department for Y2K," he said. "It was everything from communication to food to water to gasoline to any kind of a breakdown in the confinement of the jail, social unrest … we didn’t know what to expect. It really opened my eyes."

"You expect the grocery stores will always be full of food and you’ll always be able to get gas from the gas station. But what if you couldn’t? Then what? When you pull your car into the driveway at night, if that was the last chance you could get fuel, how much fuel do you want to have in your vehicle?"

I tracked Booth down because of my burning curiosity about preppers and prepping lifestyle. Y2K, the apocalypse-that-wasn’t, left with me an interest in the people who stockpile even when stockpiling isn’t trendy. I wanted to hear about the Apocalypse from the Horseman’s mouth.

This spring, I became obsessed with NatGeo’s new show "Doomsday Preppers," which chronicles the lives and practices of people preparing for disaster in all its forms. Preppers is NGC’s highest-rated series ever, and it’s not difficult to see why. We all have a back-up supply of batteries for the flashlight when the power goes out. But these people take it to a whole new level.

One woman on "Preppers" has plans to stockpile condoms, mercy-kill her cat, and prostitute herself to ride out the oil crisis that she expects will bring civilization to its knees. One couple in Utah learned to tap out messages in Morse Code to one another so that they can communicate when their home is inevitably invaded by hostile bands of raiders (think Cormac McCarthy’s "The Road," but more Mormons). A suburban father from Jacksonville relocates to the remote mountains of Tennessee in preparation for a polar shift that will allegedly occur later this year and consequently will consume continents into the sea.

This is solid-gold reality television that not even a Kardashian could improve upon.

Booth doesn’t prescribe to any of those beliefs. But he does "live and breathe prepping" – food stockpiling, bug-out-location-having, firearm-slinging disaster preparedness. "Misery is optional," he told me.

He was happy to open up about the lifestyle to me, and even invited me to his prepper meet-up. "Just so you know?" he told me. "We don’t talk about the Mayans. We’re not like that."

Bummer.

But I did have to know if there were any militant crazies in the bunch. He said that if there were, he doesn’t want them at his meeting.

"I start out every meeting by saying, 'Look, we’re not going to talk about politics, we’re not going to talk about religion, we’re not going to talk about anything extreme. You want to build a cannon? Go find somebody else.'"

Booth, who was a police officer for 10 years, now runs a construction company (one of his specialties is underground bunkers). He told me that Y2K made him realize that he was taking a lot of things for granted that, in a time of crisis, would not be readily available. The recession of 2008 even further cemented his beliefs in disaster preparedness.

"I personally have concerns about a lot of different things," he said. "But one of them is an economic collapse and what that would look like for society."

"I have multiple locations, multiple people that I work with," he said about his endgame scenario for an economic breakdown. "I do store food, I do store water, first aid supplies. I try to educate and train myself constantly, and I don’t put all my eggs in one basket. I don’t have all my stuff in one place. It’s not a very wise decision. The more I can spread it out the more I will. The more food I can squirrel away food and other supplies, I will."

I had done some research on the American Preppers Network looking at discussion forums and noticed a large number of threats devoted to the issue of firearms. Members dished about the heat they packed ("a Para GI Expert M1911 … this gun has gone everywhere with me since I bought it") and when they packed it ("For bad locations I carry a Sig 220").

I asked Booth if the gun-slinging was a stereotype.

"Firearms are part of the prepping culture," he said. "They go hand in hand because we realize that if there is an economic collapse, we’re going to have to protect ourselves. I don’t think that people want to do that our even be capable of it if they want to but yeah, guns are part of the prepping culture."

So do people stockpile weapons?

"I never ask those questions, just like I never ask someone how much water they have or how much gold they have or how much food they have. Nor do we talk about suggestions for how much ammunition they should store."

It’s a taboo in prepping culture to be too curious about the specifics of someone’s prepping. Ultimately, it’s all about the endgame – and in a crisis situation, these people don’t to be viewed as a resource or as an easy conquest. These are realities of life that, however indelicate, Booth feels need to be taken into account.

"I think we live in the society where it’s blue sky, green grass, Wal-mart, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the problem is we think we’re untouchable. Historically we have been," he said. "The big doomsday scenario is what if the sh*t hits the fan, the power grid goes down – how long can those systems maintain order in those facilities (jails, etc.) It’s terrifying to think about. It would be absolutely horrendous if just one prison lost control of its population and they got out into society."

While Booth says he is not a conspiracy theorist, he is concerned about thousands of Hamas sleeper cells that would take advantage of a social or economic crisis. He is also concerned by the possibility of Iran detonating a nuclear weapon over the Heartland or an electromagnetic pulse from the sun.

After our interview, I had to see this prepper meet-up. Booth told me it would be better if I did not say who I was so that "people didn’t go running for the doors."

I had my doubts about whether or not I would stick out like a sore thumb. To be honest, in a doomsday scenario, I would be the first one to start crying and pulling at my hair. My version of prepping is stocking up on discount Bare Minerals eye shadow in case I go a few weeks without a paycheck. So I was a bit unsure of whether or not I could hang with the prepper crowd, or if I would get chased out with pitchforks.

Booth greeted me warmly at the meeting, held in his personal business facility in Sun Prairie, and explained that tonight’s presentations were going to be on knot-tying, firearm safety, and first aid kits. He graciously offered me a chair and rope.

"I figured most people would forget to bring rope," he said, although many of the people had remembered. I, obviously, was not one of those people.

We gathered in a circle and George set the ground rules: no talking about religion or politics, and nothing extreme. Everyone nodded their heads in agreement. We went around the room and introduced ourselves. There were a few former police officers and state troopers, as well as civilians like myself. People expressed curiosity about canning food and bug-out bags (a prepper's kit for "when the sh*t hits the fan" and it's time to get out of Dodge). Booth said he'd try to line up some presentations to educate them.

I was afraid people would look askance at me because of my age and gender. No one did. In fact, they were very welcoming. A very kind former state trooper next to me helped me learn the knot that the instructor told us "will save your life someday." This only made it more alarming that I was so bad at it. I didn’t understand the knot until it was explained to me in bunny terms: "Make the hole, now make the bunny ears, and the bunny runs into the hole …"

One man displayed his first-aid kit, which included everything from the usual (Band-Aids, gauze, scissors) to the intriguing (numbing agents) to the downright shocking (skin staplers). He was a former EMT. "I don’t know how to use some of this stuff, but if I’m around someone who does, then all the better," he said.

He mentioned that this wasn’t just for him – he wants to be prepared in case he’s driving down a road someday and somebody needs his help. It made me think of something Booth said earlier during our interview.

"My better half kind of sees the point in prepping, but not always," he had told me. "But I prep for her. My son sees no point in it, but I prep for him and for his girlfriend."

Hearing a comment like that and seeing this meet-up of helpful strangers made me realize that no, I would not want to ride out the end of the world in a bunker with Cat-Killer Lady from NatGeo and all her condoms. But I would want George and these folks on my side.

They do what they do because we live in a crazy world, and there can be crises of any type at any time. Maybe it won’t be an EMP exploding over Kansas. Maybe it’ll just be that you lose your job. Either way, the natural human instinct is to want to feel prepared. Who am I to tell you what’s the right way to do that?

I’m not going to compile a bug-out bag or learn to can food. But if you want to do that, and that’s your interpretation of being a responsible, self-sufficient citizen? Go ahead.

Just give me your cell number so I can call you if Iran does detonate an EMP over Kansas. Because we’ve already established that I literally cannot tie a knot to save my life.

Talkbacks

jakepi | July 23, 2012 at 9:13 p.m. (report)

If a EMP device is ever used having your cell phone won't matter unless it was off and shielded and all of the cell phone towers and connecting equipment was shielded as well, because none of it is ever going to work again. The smallest gap will permit the EMP wave to penetrate. The frequency determines the size of the gap the surge can penetrate and it's quite small. It's a good idea to prepare as much as possible but unless you can reach that tipping point where you can be really self sufficient it will only mean you have gained additional time but will eventually reach the same end point, so you need to see yourself going beyond just being initially prepared, unless you see help in the distant future as a possibility. Good luck to all, I will see you on the other side!

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