Alas Babylon: Chapters 5-6
Randy is awakened by what he thinks is an earthquake, but is actually two massive nuclear explosions. One warhead destroys the SAC base at Homestead in Florida and the second obliterates Miami’s International Airport. Randy, Helen, and the children hurry out onto the porch in time to see the glow in the sky which represents the death of a million people. American fighter jets streak overhead, in pursuit of the enemy. A third impact hits, which Randy figures has destroyed MacDill Air Base, as well as the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg. The bright light from the explosion leaves Peyton blinded, and Randy rushes into town to find Doctor Gunn.
On his way into town, Randy encounters a woman lying on the side of the road, having wrecked her car. He nearly drives past, but his conscience calls him to stop and confirm that she is dead. In town, the gas station and shops are mobbed. At the Riverside Inn, guests are in a panic. One has died of a heart attack, and another is in labor. Dan Gunn, the doctor, has his hands full, but promises to visit Peyton later. He reassures Randy that Peyton’s eyesight will recover with rest and the use of eye drops. Randy returns to his home on River Road, passing a gang of escaped convicts on the way. He finds Florence and Alice on their way into town and warns them to be on guard.
Florence arrives at the telegraph office to find a swarm of people, but she is unable to send or receive any messages for them. Telegrams are limited to official emergency messages, and no communication is possible to points north of Jacksonville, suggesting that major cities throughout the U.S. have been destroyed. Edgar Quisenberry, the bank president, insists that Florence send a wire to Jacksonville, but as she attempts to do so, Jacksonville is wiped out by a nuclear explosion.
Back at the bank, Edgar allows people to withdraw money freely, hoping this will stem the tide of panic. However, he soon realizes that he cannot cash out-of-town checks, travelers’ checks, or even government bonds, since the banks that issued them may no longer exist. Long lines form, and Edgar is forced to close the bank for fear the funds will be wiped out entirely. Meanwhile, shops in and around Fort Repose are swiftly being wiped out, with no way to replenish their stock. Dollars are meaningless since there is nothing left to buy, and Edgar’s beloved bank is fast becoming “a heap of stone filled with worthless paper.” Unable to accept this new reality, Edgar shoots himself.
This chapter provides a bigger picture of the destruction. Forever afterward, the disastrous day of the nuclear attacks would be known simply as “The Day.” After “The Day,” everything changes. Randy learns from an emergency clear channel broadcast that many of the major cities of the U.S. have been destroyed and others contaminated by radiation. Washington DC has been wiped out, along with the President and the entire central government. The new acting chief executive is Josephine Vanbruuker-Brown, the former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, who happened to be away from Washington when it was attacked. The war continues as the U.S. retaliates forcefully against the Russians, and Vanbruuker-Brown has declared martial law. Helen and the children wonder whether Mark has survived the attack.
That evening, Dan Gunn examines Peyton and finds that her eyesight is returning. He comments that while there have been three suicides and a number of other shock-related deaths that day, Randy seems to be handling the crisis well: “Some nations and some people melt in the heat of crisis and come apart like fat in the pan. Others meet the challenge and harden. I think you’re going to harden” (111). They discuss the danger from fallout. Luckily for Fort Repose, there has been a strong east wind, blowing the radiation away from the town and out to sea. However, the danger from radiation, including radiation-contaminated food, is still very real.
That evening, Randy and Helen visit Randy’s neighbor Sam Hazzard, a retired navy admiral who keeps up with military manuevers on his short-wave radio. From Sam, they learn that the SAC headquarters in Omaha has likely been obliterated in the attack. While there remains some hope that Mark may be alive down in the deep shelter of “the Hole,” it is unlikely. For the first time, Helen sheds a tear. The Admiral notes that he receives no radio signal from the BBC, Paris, and Bonn, indicating that the Russians struck heavily on America’s allies in Western Europe. On the bright side, he figures that the U.S. had enough warning to launch a strong counterattack, and may already have defeated the enemy. This is small comfort for Randy and Helen. At that moment, the lights go out as another explosion hits Orlando, cutting off the power supply and plunging Fort Repose into permanent darkness.
Analysis of Chapters 5–6
This section of the novel begins and ends with explosions as the state of Florida is hit with nuclear bombs. Author Pat Frank lived in Florida while writing this novel, and he was of course very aware that the state, with its important military bases, would be a major target in the event of war.
Frank conveys the message that the United States is ill prepared for a potential war. He paints a terrifying picture of what might happen if the Soviets were to attack: the President and his entire Cabinet are killed, along with the Congress. The government is headed by a minor Cabinet secretary. Communications would be cut off, as Mark points out, and the Conelrad (Control of Electromagnetic [or Electronic] Radiation) emergency broadcasting system (initiated in 1951, but later replaced by the Emergency Broadcast System) is inadequate. As supplies were cut off, the entire financial system would go into collapse, and of course, with the loss of electricity, society would, in more ways than one, essentially go back into the Dark Ages.
As disaster strikes, the law of “survival of the fittest” goes into effect. The weak in body and spirit die almost immediately. Those who, like Edgar Quisenberry, are unable to adapt to a new reality, perish. People like Randy, however, “meet the challenge and harden.” Several events in these chapters indicate Randy’s strength of will and character. For instance, at the hotel, Randy strikes a man to jar him out of shock so he will answer Randy’s question. His action surprises Randy himself, as he hasn’t struck anyone in years. But it shows that Randy is willing to do what is necessary to get through a crisis—that is, short of giving up his moral code. He won’t or can’t do that, as shown by his inability to pass an accident in the road, even when he is desperately searching for help for his own kin. Randy is tough enough and fit enough to survive without having to harm or neglect others in the process.