Alas Babylon: Chapters 3-4
Randy goes directly to the bank in Fort Repose. Edgar Quisenberry, the bank president, gives him a hard time about cashing the five-thousand-dollar check, but finally hands over the money. At the grocery store, Randy buys a vast quantity of food, astonishing the checkout clerk and other customers. And at the liquor store, he purchases a case and a half of bourbon and a bottle of Scotch, telling the store owner he is expecting guests. He doesn’t tell anyone in town about the impending disaster, not wanting to stir up panic.
Randy’s neighbors on River Road are an African-American family, the Henrys. Malachai Henry, a trustworthy, dependable man, works as Randy’s gardener. Randy feels responsible for the family and decides to tell Malachai about the emergency. To Randy’s surprise, Malachai is less than shocked. He’s been reading about the world situation and figured that something like this might happen. He reminds Randy of the artesian well on the Henrys’ property. At least, he points out, they will always have clean water to drink, no matter what the circumstances.
After Malachai leaves, Randy’s girlfriend, Elizabeth “Lib” McGovern, drops by. Lib, the daughter of a retired Cleveland businessman, is impatient with Randy’s lazy lifestyle. She proposes that Randy find a job in a northern city, after which they can live together and get married. “Too late,” Randy begins. But before he can explain, Dan Gunn, the town doctor, arrives at the door. Randy tells them both the terrible news. Dan promises to order oral medicine for Lib’s mother, a diabetic, and gather other medicines they may need to have on hand. Lib leaves to tell her parents. Randy packs away a small crate of delicacies, including tea and candies, in a chest in his office, as rations for later.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Mediterranean, a task group of American military ships detects a spy plane overhead.
In Omaha, Mark is saying goodbye to his wife and children, who are flying to the safety of Fort Repose while he stays behind at his post with the Strategic Air Command intelligence. Mark reassures his family that he’ll be safe in the underground SAC headquarters, or “the Hole,” but they know it’s unlikely. Back in Fort Repose, Randy loads up on oil, kerosene, and gasoline, and visits his girlfriend, Lib McGovern. Lib’s parents, the McGoverns, are northerners who have built an expensive designer house that is impractical to the realities of Floridian life (glass walls that let in tropical sun; an indoor/outdoor bathtub that invites poisonous snakes). The McGoverns dislike Randy, and refuse to believe his warning of war. However, Randy convinces them it’s better to be prepared.
In the Eastern Mediterranean, Ensign James “Peewee” Cobb, a young U.S. fighter pilot who wants to prove he is more than a “peewee,” aggressively pursues an enemy spy plane. While trying to fire, he accidentally bombs the Syrian port of Latakia, hitting an ammunition train and creating a huge explosion. A major naval base, Latakia was heavily fortified by the Russians, and the bombing is interpreted as an unprovoked attack. At work in “the Hole,” Mark discusses the Latakia bombing with a general. Washington has not issued any statements of apology, and Russia is silent—ominously silent. Mark worries the Russians now have an excuse for war and have ordered a massive strike.
Mark’s wife Helen and their son and daughter, Ben Franklin and Peyton, arrive at the Orlando airport. The children, ages 13 and 11, have guessed what is happening, and Helen notices how calmly they take the news of impending nuclear war. They’ve lived under the shadow of war all their lives, and this seems normal to them.
At dawn, Washington finally releases a statement on the Latakia incident, calling it a “regrettable mechanical error,” but it is too late. There is no response from Russia. SAC headquarters gets permission from Washington to use their weapons and issues a red alert. Four incoming ballistic missiles are detected on radar, one fired from a Russian base and the rest from submarines at sea. The war is on.
Analysis of Chapters 3–4
Suspense builds in Chapters 3–4 and the mood is dark as the plot moves forward inexorably to war. Readers during the Cold War time, who lived with the threat of such a war looming, would certainly have found Randy’s situation immediate and frightening. As Frank describes how Randy prepares for the emergency, readers are led to wonder, “What would I do if I knew war was imminent?”
In Chapter 3, readers are introduced to the other major characters of the story—Helen and her children, the Henrys, the McGoverns, and Doctor Dan Gunn—all of whom are let in on the secret. These people will form part of Randy’s support network in the time after the war, and it is suggested that the doctor’s expertise combined with the Henrys’ resources will be crucial to the group’s survival. The characters of Bill and particularly Lavinia McGovern appear as potential antagonists. As northerners who have not adapted particularly well to their new Floridian home, they seem unlikely candidates for survival in the event of nuclear war.
Chapter 4 includes a window scene into the “War Room” or the “Hole” at Strategic Air Command headquarters. Author Pat Frank had the opportunity to visit this command center as well as several other SAC operational bases while working on assignment as a reporter, so he knows the setting well. Frank paints the Americans—who have names like “Ace,” “Dutch,” and “General Hawker”—as the unambiguous heroes of the conflict, while the Russians are the unseen, evil enemy. Frank also shows the role of chance and folly in war when Ensign “Peewee” Cobb drops a rocket on a Syrian harbor. But although this incident is the catalyst that will begin the war, the Soviets are clearly the villains of the story, as it is implied that they were only waiting for an excuse.