1 Hammer Time
“Liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us, at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood.”
—John Adams, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, 1765
Eight Years Before the Crunch
Adrian Evans had asked Ben to meet him at the bar after work. This was a meeting that wasn’t in Ben’s comfort zone. Ben Fielding only rarely set foot in a bar, and the only drinking that he did was tiny little communion cups of wine. But since he was about to move his family and he probably wouldn’t see Adrian again for many months, he reluctantly agreed.
Ben had just seen Adrian three days before, at a Sunday afternoon farewell barbeque. Nearly everyone from the law firm, and a couple of Ben and Rebecca’s neighbors, came over for the party. Because Ben was moving his family to the country, the get-together had been organized by Ben’s secretary as a theme party. Many of the guests wore colorful cowboy shirts or coveralls and straw hats. Most of the gifts were back-to-the-land tools. These included a push cultivator, various hand tools, a scythe, several shovels, and a hay fork. The latter, as everyone insisted, became
a prop for Ben to hold for clichéd portraits of Ben and Rebecca standing together, looking like the stern-faced couple in the Grant Wood painting American Gothic.
When Ben Fielding arrived at the Full Moon Saloon, he found that Adrian was already there, nursing a gin and tonic. They sat briefly at the bar while Ben ordered a glass of Sprite. Then they moved to a booth to talk. Adrian carried over a paper bag that was gathered at the top. It looked like it held a bottle of liquor for a goodbye gift. Ben was hoping that he wouldn’t have to come up with a “Thanks but no thanks” speech, to explain again that he was a nondrinker.
Their conversation started out essentially as a repeat of what they’d talked about at the farewell barbeque. Adrian wished Ben the best for his move to the largely Mennonite community of Muddy Pond. “I’m really jealous of you, Ben,” he said. “I’d love to move out to the country, and have a place to shoot my guns without having to pay to go to a range.”
Then their conversation moved on to expectations of what things would be like at the law firm after Ben left, and a bit about Adrian’s failed marriage.
Adrian noticed Ben glancing at the paper bag on the table and said, “After the party last weekend, I found a couple of more tools that I’d like to give you. Sorry that I didn’t wrap them or anything.”
He slid the bag over to Ben. Opening it, Ben found that it held a hammer and screwdriver.
Adrian explained, “I hope you like these. The screwdriver is pretty cool. It’s an original Winchester brand, from back when they had a chain of hardware stores, in the 1920s and 1930s. The Winchester-marked tools and signage are quite collectible, especially with gun enthusiasts looking to branch out. I already put together a full set of their screwdrivers for my collection, but this one was a duplicate, so it’s yours.”
“Thanks, so much. This is great.”
Adrian pointed to the well-worn hammer and said, “Now, that belonged to my grandfather. It was supposedly handmade by a blacksmith that he knew in Hartsville. The handle is hickory, and is just as stout today as the day it was made back in the 1930s.”
Ben hefted the short-handled hammer, which had a head that must have weighed a pound and a half. He said again, “Thanks, Adrian. You’ve been very generous. I appreciate the socket set and the gardening tools that you gave us at the party, too. They’ll all come in handy.”
Their conversation wandered into politics, then sports, and finally back to Adrian’s marriage. At just after 10 p.m., the bar’s cocktail waitress walked by and asked, “Would y’all like another?”
Ben waved her off and said, “No, thanks.” He turned to Adrian and said, “I’ve got to get home to Rebecca and the kids.”
Adrian nodded. “I understand.”
They both stood up, and Ben picked up the bag. The tip of the screwdriver was poking through the paper bag, so Ben shifted it to his coat pocket.
They went out the bar’s front door and shook hands. Adrian gave Ben a wink, and said, “You take good care of yourself, Ben. Where you parked?”
Adrian pointed to his BMW across the street and said, “I’m right here.” He waved and dashed across to the car, taking advantage of a gap in the traffic.
As Ben walked to the back parking lot, he was thinking about some of the things that Adrian had said about his ex-wife. He wondered if there was anything that he would have done differently, under the circumstances.
Two tall figures loomed up in the alley in front of him. One of them said, “Give me your wallet, ’tard.” The man raised his hand, and in the glow of the vapor light Ben could see the bare edge of a knife.
Instinctively, Ben swung with the hammer, still in the paper bag. The hammer connected with the man’s forearm in a half-glancing blow, and he dropped the knife. The other man moved in. Ben assumed that he also had a knife, so he swung with all the strength he could muster, and planted the hammer’s head in the side of the man’s neck. The attacker went down in a heap.
The first man shouted at Ben, “You’re dead, ’tard!” He reached behind the small of his back, as if pulling a gun. Ben stepped in and swung, again aiming for the neck. But the robber ducked. This time the hammer hit the man in the side of the head, making a strange slapping noise. The man fell to the ground next to the other robber.
Ben didn’t wait to see if they’d get up to charge at him again. He ran for his car, hopped in, and zoomed out the back of the parking lot.
His mind was racing. “What on earth just happened?” he asked himself aloud. He quickly got on I-65 and set his Ford’s cruise control at sixty. He was afraid that he might speed if he didn’t. He started praying. Ten minutes later, he was safely parked in his driveway. When he turned off the ignition, his hands were shaking. Growing up, Ben had never so much as been in an elementary school hallway fistfight. He felt overwhelmed by the enormity of what he’d just gone through. He fought to keep control of himself.
Ben picked up the hammer—still in the paper bag—and examined it under the car’s map light. There was no blood on the bag, but he decided to burn it regardless. He turned off the map light, and tried to get his breathing under control. He decided that it was best that he didn’t tell his wife what had happened. “I can’t burden her with this,” he said resignedly.
It took him a long time to get to sleep that night.
It wasn’t until two days later that Ben read in the online edition of the Tennessean that both of the robbers had died. One was dead at the scene, and the other died in the hospital emergency room of
internal bleeding. The paper reported that both of them had long criminal records. Two knives and a .380 pistol were found on the pavement. Ben was amazed that just one hammer blow to the head or neck could kill a man. But obviously it could.
After much prayer, Ben decided not to talk about the events with the police. He burned the bag and ran the hammer through an ultrasonic cleaner just in case. Then it went into his tool chest. He didn’t use it again, until after the Crunch. Whenever he saw the Winchester screwdriver or the hammer, they reminded him of that night.
Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana
September, the First Year
Joshua Watanabe was bored. As he told his squadron mates, “There’s bored, and then there’s world-class bored.”
Alerts were always interesting for the first couple of hours, but once the two duty officers were sealed in behind a blast door down in the launch control center (LCC) capsules, seventy-five feet underground, and after all the systems checks were complete, the boredom set in. Joshua had watched all his DVDs several times each. He disliked playing cards. Instead, he often read his Bible and by-subscription Bible study and devotional magazines.
Joshua was a senior airman missile maintenance NCO stationed at Malmstrom AFB, Montana. Malmstrom had the largest ballistic missile field in the United States. The array of silos was spread out over 23,000 square miles. The LGM-30 Minuteman missile launch facilities and LCCs were each separated by several miles, and connected electronically. This distancing ensured that a “full exchange” attack by incoming nuclear missiles or bombs would disable only a few of the ICBMs. This would leave the rest capable of being launched in retaliation. The downside of this wide separation was that huge distances had to be driven by alert
crews, security response teams (SRTs), and maintenance personnel. Montana was a huge state, and at times it seemed as if the missile fields occupied half of it.
Each squadron at Malmstrom was a grouping of fifty Minuteman silos, controlled by five missile alert facilities (MAFs). The MAFs housed the on-duty “60 Teams” and the off-duty “70 Teams.” Three squadrons constituted a “Wing.” Each MAF “Flight” controlled ten missile silos. The silos were also known as “launch facilities” (LFs). The MAFs each had several buildings, including a main office building, a garage building with roll-up doors, and two outlying radar buildings, each equipped with small white radomes. The taller of the two radomes was an EHF antenna shelter, designed to send and receive traffic using secure satellites via EHF radio. The short cone-shaped dome was a hardened UHF antenna, used for the line-of-sight UHF radio located in the MAF. The MAF crews used this radio to communicate with aircraft that were within line of sight.
Each MAF had a small sewage lagoon aeration pond, often positioned right in front. To a casual observer, these looked a lot like the livestock watering ponds that dotted the cattle ranches in the region, but they were constructed differently, with a rubber pond liner. At a staff briefing a few years before the Crunch, a major who had recently transferred into his first missile unit assignment from the Strategic Air Command (SAC) was watching an overview PowerPoint presentation about the LGM-30 system. Seeing a picture that included a sewage lagoon in front of an MAF, the major naively asked, “Do you ever swim in those ponds in the summer?” His question was answered by howls of laughter. Ever since then, the sewage lagoons were referred to as “SAC Officer Swimming Pools.”
Before the Crunch, there was almost always one or more camouflage-painted up-armored Humvees or ubiquitous Air Force Blue commercial pickup trucks parked out front of every MAF. During alerts, there would often be more vehicles.
The 341st Strategic Missile Wing was part of the Air Force Global Strike Command. There were three missile squadrons at Malmstrom. Joshua was assigned to the 10th Missile Squadron, nicknamed “the First Ace in the Hole.” They often jokingly called their headquarters “Burpelson” in honor of the fictional Air Force base in the movie Dr. Strangelove.
Joshua’s biggest frustration with the Air Force was the countless number of mandatory-attendance training sessions, refamiliarization classes, qualifications (“quals”), and briefings that he had to attend. Not only were these sessions often lengthy, but the requisite driving time was also onerous. Frequently, he would have maintenance tasks scheduled at a remote MAF or silo in the morning, but then he would have to drive more than two hours to attend a one-hour briefing in the early afternoon at the main Malmstrom complex. This would usually burn up the otherwise productive hours of the rest of the day. Most of the briefings were incredibly boring, with half-hour PowerPoint presentations on details of the latest Timepiece software, or documentation changes, or changes in regulations, or infinitesimally small changes to maintenance and repair procedures.
The Minuteman system hardware and software was relatively stable throughout Watanabe’s PCS tour at Malmstrom. The flurry of activity that had followed the 9/11 attacks was just a memory, and there were no major hardware or software changes during Joshua’s time.
Most Minuteman missiles carried a single warhead, although some were equipped with up to three Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs). Many of these MIRVs were only “penetration aids”—including radar-reflecting chaff, designed to confuse enemy missile defense radars. The missile warheads and penetration aids were a top item of interest for the logistics and maintenance staffs, and of course under extreme scrutiny and security procedures.
Most of the conversations that followed the logistics and maintenance briefings were more about the idiosyncrasies of the briefers, rather than the content of the briefings themselves. One of Joshua’s standard comments was “Gee, they crammed a twenty-minute briefing into two hours.” His NCOIC referred to such briefings as “Death by PowerPoint.” Whenever he heard this, it became a standing joke for Joshua to always correct him with “More accurately, that’s slow death by PowerPoint.” The same NCOIC’s favorite saying was “I seem to be rapidly approaching the apex of my mediocre career.”
As an “E-4 Over Four” Joshua’s base pay was only $2,266 per month. But he received $705 per month basic allowance for housing (BAH) and $348 per month for basic allowance for subsistence (BAS). He was able to rent a two-bedroom house on five acres for $950 per month. His rental house was on Red Coulee Road, two miles east of the hamlet of Fife. Though it was a named town, it was little more than a road junction. The Fife junction was six miles east of Malmstrom AFB, so his driving time to the main gate was about fifteen minutes in good weather.
The house had been built in the late 1980s, so it had double-pane windows and was well insulated. The woodstove in the house was rusty, but it still sealed tight and put out plenty of heat. The biggest attractions of the rental house were a small shop building, a combination horse and hay barn with two stalls, and good smooth wire horse fencing with a smaller-gauge top wire that was energized by an electric fence charger. Like his father, Joshua avoided pasturing horses inside barbed wire fences. He had seen too many horses injured by barbed wire.
Joshua’s specialty code was 2M0X2: Missile and Space Systems Maintenance. Most of his duties were preventive maintenance inspections, diagnostics, and LRU replacements at the MAFs. He also spent many hours assisting contractors as they swapped out the “limited life” components in each missile and its associated
systems. This included their peripheral part of the $2.5 billion program to replace Minutemen rocket engines.
Less than 20 percent of Joshua’s hands-on time was at the individual missile silos. And of that, it was nearly all just visual inspection, lubrication, and spot painting at exterior doors and in access stairways and tunnels. Very little of his time was spent around the missiles themselves. His standing joke was “Inspection complete: The bird is still present or accounted for.”
Joshua commuted to work in a re-engined four-wheel drive 1980 Dodge Power Wagon pickup. His squadron mates all jokingly called it the “Rust Bucket.” Joshua had bought the truck because he wanted a vehicle with four-wheel drive to negotiate icy roads, and one that could tow a horse trailer. His squadron’s NCOIC had encouraged Joshua to buy a late-model Toyota Tundra pickup like his own. But again following in his father’s footsteps, Joshua insisted on buying only American vehicles, and avoiding debt. Part of this stance, although he wouldn’t admit it, was that he didn’t want to be seen as a Japanese American who drove a Japanese-made vehicle.
The Rust Bucket had peeling paint on its hood and rusted-through spots at the top of both of the rear wheel wells. Despite umpteen wire brushings and spot paintings with brown Rustoleum, the pickup’s rust patches continued to grow. Mechanically, he kept the pickup in the best condition possible, given its age. From the exterior, the Rust Bucket looked like it was ready to expire, but under the hood it was in excellent condition. As the Crunch set in, there were only 22,000 miles clocked on the new engine.
Watanabe dreaded getting promoted to E-5. He knew that a promotion would mean that he’d probably have a headquarters desk job at Malmstrom, rather than his usual Maintenance Team member job out at the squadrons. Most likely he’d have several boring years as an NCO at the Base Trainer, an aboveground simulator
of an LCC capsule. Or he might get assigned as a liaison or “shepherd” for contractors, as MAFs were sequentially “de-altered” for equipment modifications or upgrades. That job would mean countless hours on the road, but without the fun of actually handling the equipment. With those prospects in mind, he applied for a slot at Officer Training School at the Air University, located at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. But his application was still pending when the Crunch came.
Joshua had proposed marriage twice to Kelly Monroe before the Crunch. But each time she had put him off, saying that she wanted to finish her degree before committing to marriage. When the Crunch came, Kelly was just starting her second year in business administration at Montana State University, Great Falls. She was hoping to get a job in Great Falls after she graduated so that she could live near her family.
Living in Montana, the Crunch seemed less traumatic than it was being described on television. There were no big riots in Montana. Society remained more or less intact and functional. There were 2.5 million cattle in Montana, but only 990,000 people, so Joshua didn’t expect that he would experience starvation. But the big cities on the east and west coasts had him worried. Those folks could indeed begin to starve.
The scarcity of gasoline, the hyperinflation, and the collapse of the electric power grid were the biggest effects felt in Montana. Everyone seemed intent on the huge scramble to stock up while their dollars could still buy something. The gas stations sold out of regular unleaded gas first, then premium, and finally diesel. It became impossible to find propane cylinders or ammunition. Soon after, the grocery store shelves were stripped clean.
As the news of the inflation and the rioting in the big cities reached a crescendo, Joshua drove out to the Monroe ranch and ran to the front porch. He knocked forcefully on the door. His knock was answered by Kelly’s father, Jim Monroe. Joshua said
agitatedly, “I’m here to propose to her again, and this time I won’t take ‘maybe later’ for an answer!”
Jim grinned and said, “Good for you, Josh. That’s the right attitude. I’ll let her know that you’re here.”
October, the First Year
It was a moment that Terry Layton would never forget: Her favorite morning talk radio host on WLS-AM was reading newspaper and Internet headlines. The host paused, audibly took a deep breath, and said, “This is it, folks. Inflation has gone triple digit and there’s no end in sight. This is the final destruction of the United States dollar. We can kiss it goodbye.”
They called it the Crunch. It was a credit collapse and economic depression that made the Great Depression of the 1930s seem small by comparison. The global credit market had come unglued. All around the world, markets were in free fall. Credit had dried up. Cities, counties, states, and even national governments were in default. Consumer prices soared. Interest rates skyrocketed. The price of precious metals soared. Bonds collapsed. Derivatives contracts cratered, leaving counterparties for trillions of dollars in contracts twisting in the wind. Television news commentators droned on and on about “hopes for a recovery.” Corporations of all sizes announced huge layoffs.
Terry’s husband, Ken, was worried. All the things that his friends Tom Kennedy and Todd Gray had been warning them about for so many years were coming true. When Ken walked through the waiting room at the shop, all the customers were transfixed, staring at the big HD television. CNN was reporting that the economy was crumbling, inflation was out of control, and now there were riots in cities all over the country. Ken got a cup of water at the water cooler. He lingered by the television for a
minute. He caught one of the news analysts saying, “. . . so this is where all that monetizing of the debt—the Quantitative Easing—has brought us, to the point of irreversible hyperinflation. Ron Paul was right after all. This is like some enormous boulder rolling downhill, picking up speed, and nothing can stop it now.” Ken shook his head in disgust, and headed back out to the bay in the shop to continue installing an RCD heavy-duty suspension kit on a 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon.
Ken was the assistant manager at Chet’s Crawlers and Haulers, which specialized in four-wheel drive vehicle modifications and repairs. It was one of the largest such specialty shops in the Midwest. Ironically, many of the shop’s customers were yuppies who rarely, if ever, drove off-road. They just wanted to make their trucks look tough.
Three years earlier, Ken had been invited to join a fledgling group of Chicago “preppers” who were planning to buy a survival retreat property in Idaho. Ken was recruited by Tom “T.K.” Kennedy, a bachelor in Ken and Terry’s Young Adults group at church. Ken had been of interest to T.K. because he was an automobile mechanic. Since they both liked to shoot and were interested in outdoor activities, both Ken and Terry were enthusiastic about joining the unnamed group. It was dubbed simply “The Group.” Ken of course became the group’s vehicle and generator mechanic, while Terry served as a logistician, coordinating group buys—mostly of long-term storage foods. The Laytons’ home garage was often heaped with boxes before each group buy was broken up and taken home by the members. After Todd and his wife, Mary, bought their ranch near Bovill, Idaho, more than half of the group’s supplies were tucked away in the Grays’ basement, carefully labeled with the members’ names and purchase dates.
Although he had the requisite academic prowess, Ken had shown no interest in pursuing college when he graduated from high school. Instead, he started working full-time as an automobile
mechanic. Ken enjoyed the satisfaction of turning wrenches. By the time he’d joined the group, Ken had changed jobs twice. He had also earned several ASE certifications and was about to become the assistant manager at Chet’s shop.
Ken enjoyed the pace of working at the shop, which was more relaxed than at the general auto repair shops where he had worked before. He also liked having a short commute from home—just nine minutes on average, all on surface streets. It was close enough that he even went home to be with his wife for one or two lunch hours each week, or on special occasions she would join him for lunch at a nearby restaurant.
The Laytons’ small two-story house was on South Campbell Avenue in Chicago, northeast of Douglas Park. It was an older neighborhood where houses were affordable, but the crime rate was high. Their house had been built in the 1930s and remodeled in the 1970s. They bought it in 2008, just before the peak of the housing market. When the Crunch came, Ken joked that with the rapid inflation they’d soon be able to pay off the $157,000 balance remaining on their mortgage. But this didn’t happen because his income didn’t increase rapidly enough to match the inflation. Inevitably, the hyperinflation was short-lived.
Since they owed more on the house than what they had paid on the principal, there was no way that they could sell it and move to Idaho, as they had hoped to do. Their only viable solution was “jingle mail”—abandoning their house to the bank, by mailing the bank the house keys with an explanatory note. Feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of moving out west without a job waiting for him, Ken stayed, and prayed.
The Laytons attended St. John Cantius Parish church in Chicago, three miles from their home. The trip to church was a straight shot up West Ogden Boulevard that took less than ten minutes. They had chosen to worship there because they celebrated Mass in
Latin. The church’s brochure and website read: “St. John Cantius Parish is also privileged to offer daily the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, commonly referred to as the Tridentine Latin Mass.”
The Latin Mass meant a lot to Ken because that was his parents’ preference, and he had grown up hearing it. His parents were part of what was then a “renegade” church—back when the Latin Mass was banned. Terry was also raised Catholic, but had never attended a Latin Mass until just before she married Ken. She grew to love it. They decided that when they had children, they would give them a classical homeschooling, and include Latin in their curriculum.
Unlike most young Catholic couples, the Laytons consciously delayed having children, using the church-approved rhythm and symptothermal method. They wanted to be more financially secure and have a good supply of storage food before starting a family. They followed the lead of Todd and Mary Gray, their survivalist group’s leaders, who had declared that they wouldn’t have kids until after they had their “beans, bullets, and Band-Aids together.”
For their own vehicles, Ken painstakingly restored a 1968 Ford Bronco and a 1967 Ford Mustang. Both vehicles had 302-cubic-inch engines—both rebuilt with .030 oversize pistons, hard piston seats, oversize Clevite bearings, advanced cam shafts, synthetic suspension parts, new radiators, and new exhaust systems from the manifolds back. Since these restorations replaced all of the major engine and driveline components, they were nearly “Zero Time” rebuilds—creating the equivalent of new vehicles with “zero time on the meter.” Ken also replaced the Bronco’s original steering-column-mounted gear shifter with a Hurst brand floor shifter—which he preferred.
The goal in restoring a late 1960s vehicle was to end up with an extremely reliable vehicle that was easy to work on. Unlike the
modern monstrosities that had been coming out of Detroit since the 1980s—with umpteen electronic components and a huge array of sensors, emission control tubes, and mostly plastic parts—the old Fords were old-school designs with plenty of sturdy steel, and a minimum of frippery. Opening the hood, the owner could immediately recognize the alternator, master cylinder, water pump, and power steering pump. Getting access to them for replacement was a breeze.
Another advantage of starting with the older vehicles was that they had traditional “distributor, points, and plugs” ignition systems. This made them virtually invulnerable to the effect of nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP), or its natural equivalent, caused by solar flares. Todd Gray’s philosophy was that the members of his group should make themselves ready for any and all eventualities.
One advantage of having Ken as a member of the group was that he had access to the garage at Chet’s after normal working hours. Although he volunteered to do most of the restoration work himself, at cost, he insisted that each group member be there and assist him during the most important phases of the work. This way, Ken reasoned, every group member would know how their vehicles were put together, how they worked, and, hopefully, how to handle most minor repairs.
The vehicle restoration process that Ken insisted on turned out to be relatively expensive and time-consuming. He started by pulling the engine and transmission from each vehicle and farming them out to other shops to be completely rebuilt. Next he would make minor body repairs, sand out the bodies, and put on a flat paint finish, usually in an earth tone. They used standard glossy car paint with a special flattener added. This gave much better rust protection than regular flat paint. At roughly the same time, he would either rebuild or replace the carburetor. Next, when the engine and transmission came back, he would reinstall them, replacing all of their auxiliary equipment, aside from carburetors,
with brand-new components. This included radiators, starters, alternators, fuel pumps, water pumps, batteries, voltage regulators, starter solenoids, hoses, and belts.
Next, Ken would rework the vehicle’s suspension, usually modifying it for tougher off-road use, and do an alignment and brake job, sometimes involving replacing the master cylinder. In most cases, the vehicle’s existing wiring harnesses did not need to be replaced. By the time he was done, Ken had in effect built a whole new vehicle that would be good for at least ten years of strenuous use.