Alas Babylon: Chapters 7-8
The loss of electricity creates huge problems for Fort Repose, and there is no hope of recovering power, since the power plants themselves are gone. Without electric pumps, there is no water. Suddenly, Randy remembers the Henrys’ artesian well. The water smells sulphuric, but it is safe to drink. With the help of the Henrys and Ben Franklin, Randy is able to connect the artesian line to the water system in the Braggs’ pumphouse. Later, they connect the line to Florence Wechek’s home.
On the third day, Helen finds that all the food in the freezer has thawed. Randy goes into town to get salt to preserve the stock of meat. The supermarket shelves are empty, but he finds Pete Hernandez, the manager, in the stockroom guarding the last of the supplies. Randy pays him $200 for two sacks of salt. At the hardware store, Randy finds the proprietor, Mr. Beck, presiding over near-empty shelves. He refuses to accept money for the Mason jars Randy wants to buy, commenting, “That safe is full up to the top with money. That’s all I’ve got left—money. Ain’t that funny—nothing but money?”
Meanwhile, Randy finds a mess at the Medical Arts Building. Drug addicts have broken into the facility and stolen a stock of narcotics, killing two police officers and beating an elderly doctor to death. Randy invites Dr. Gunn to come stay at his home on River Road, where he will be safe. That evening, the Braggs, McGoverns, Henrys, Sam Hazzard, and Dr. Gunn enjoy a steak dinner. The radio announces the areas of the U.S. that have been declared Contaminated Zones. Most of the nation is affected, including Omaha and the entire state of Florida.
Six days after the attack, the Riverside Inn burns down, likely because someone tried to cook in one of the rooms. There are few survivors. On the ninth day, Lib’s mother Lavinia, a diabetic, dies when her insulin supplies spoil due to lack of refrigeration. As the town undertaker is ill with dysentery and gasoline is an expensive commodity, Lavinia is buried the McGoverns’ backyard.
Lib and her father, Bill, come to stay at Randy’s home. Bill McGovern, a former machinist and president of Central Tool and Plate, has felt useless since his retirement. Now he regains his sense of self-worth, as his know-how with machinery is vital in the new era. Malachai Henry, for his part, is a skilled mechanic. Bill helps Malachai and Admiral Hazzard rig up a battery charger from the Henrys’ Model A. With the battery charger they devise, they will be able to continue listening to the Admiral’s short-wave radio and learn what is going on in the world.
One evening, Florence becomes very upset. Her cat has eaten her pet bird, and her treasured tropical fish have died. “Survival of the fittest,” Randy remarks. He continues:
The strong survive. The frail die. The exotic fish die because the aquarium isn’t heated. The common guppy lives. So does the tough catfish. The house cat turns hunter and eats the pet bird. If he didn’t, he’d starve. That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s going to be. (146)
This chapter opens four months after The Day. Randy misses many of the pleasures he enjoyed before the war. He can no longer listen to music, as he lacks electricity for his record player. Soap is used sparingly. Other luxury items, such as tobacco, whisky, and coffee, are now hard to find and must be bartered for. Traders gather in the town park to swap clothing, food, and other goods. Forced to eat less and work harder, Randy has become leaner and fitter than before.
The family relies on citrus, fish, and eggs as their main sources of food. Now the Henrys are losing chickens, perhaps to an animal or a human thief. A pig has been killed as well. Randy decides that they must take turns guarding the livestock by night. Ben Franklin will take a turn along with the other men in the house.
Dan has continued to make house calls using the Henrys’ Model A, taking gasoline in trade for his services. Although the town doesn’t appear to have been affected by fallout, Dan Gunn is alarmed to discover three serious cases of radiation poisoning in Fort Repose. The victims are Porky Logan, a sleazy and bigoted local politician; “Bigmouth” Bill Cullen, a liquor dealer; and Pete Hernandez, the former supermarket manager. After some investigation, Dan and Randy are able to find out the source of the radiation poisoning. Porky Logan had found an abandoned jewelry shop in one of the contaminated areas and looted all the jewelry from it. He then traded the expensive watches and jewelry for liquor from Bigmouth Bill and food from Pete Hernandez. Even Rita, Pete’s sister and Randy’s former girlfriend, is affected; the skin on her finger turns black when she wears a contaminated ring. While Rita survives, the three men are not so lucky. Porky Logan is found dead with his hands buried in his stock of loot; Bill and Pete die later in the book. The episode highlights the importance of education. Had the residents of the town been properly informed of the dangers of radiation, the three men’s lives would have been spared.
Analysis of Chapters 7–8
Various themes are developed in Chapters 7–8, as author Pat Frank encourages readers to imagine what life might actually be like for the survivors of a nuclear war. One is the survival of the fittest. Even had she not perished from complications related to diabetes, it is difficult to imagine the impractical, emotionally fragile Lavinia as being fit enough to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. It is no surprise when she is one of the first to die.
Another theme is the uselessness of material wealth and expensive appliances. In the absence of a cash economy, a barter system develops. Now that gasoline is scarce, two bicycle tires are worth more than an expensive car. A morality tale emerges as Porky Logan, Bigmouth Bill Cullen, and Pete Hernandez are victims of radiation poisoning in part because they try to accumulate wealth for themselves. Their greed leads to their downfall, as the jewelry they hoard sickens each man and kills him in turn.
A final theme is that cooperation is the key to survival. Lacking the modern conveniences and supplies they have come to rely on, the citizens of Fort Repose are plunged into chaos. The Braggs and Henrys, however, by working together and pooling their resources, are in a far better position. Each family brings a valuable asset to the group. Randy has supplies, the Henrys have livestock and crops, Admiral Hazzard has access to information. When the McGoverns move into Randy’s mansion, Bill brings his expertise in machining.