Opinion: True survivors
Prepping (preparation for surviving the “End Times” or other worst-case scenarios) has become big business in recent years. It started with that big flop, Y2K, and has steamrolled with all the relentless news about climate change, record-setting storms, Peak Oil, revolutions, nuclear disasters, antibiotic-resistant diseases, and the intractable disease afflicting the United States — degenerating ever further into a feverish warmongering police/surveillance state over a decade after 9/11.
There’s a reality TV show about “Preppers,” and thousands of Youtube videos about everything from testing ultimate survival guns to making your own rain gear. I’m an unabashed Prepper myself — I do read the news. And I was raised for a part of my youth by my grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression. Every nook and cranny of that large kitchen was always crammed to the gills with storable food.
Or you can read “old” news — history — and come to the conclusion that we have lived in uniquely blessed times for the last 100 years, at least materially. The world’s most developed continent in the 1800s, Europe, was still racked by widespread famines and plagues that killed millions — a tradition going back to the dawn of civilization. In the 20th century, millions more were slaughtered by authoritarian governments of the both the far Left and far Right.
Prepping is also a good excuse to indulge your consumer lusts by buying a lot of cool new gear — much of it still made in America, so you’re helping the economy, too! But how little we really need to survive the harshest conditions for prolonged periods is demonstrated by two extraordinary cases: one set in the steamy jungles of southeast Asia, another from the frozen outback of Siberia.
This past January, Hiroo Onoda died at the age of 91. He was the most famous Japanese holdout from WWII, surviving for 29 years in the jungle on Labang Island, Philippines, unknowing that the war had ended. He and his three comrades continued guerrilla operations over the years, raiding and killing some 30 Filipino natives they considered the enemy. One of Onoda’s comrades eventually surrendered, the other two died, and Onoda was left alone until 1974, when a Japanese student found him and told him it was time to give it up. He refused to come out until he heard orders from his former commanding officer, who flew to the island and relieved him. Ferdinand Marcos pardoned him, and he became a celebrity back in Japan. Another holdout, Shoichi Yokoi, survived in the jungles of Guam until 1972.
Onoda’s and Yokoi’s homes for all those years were trench caves dug into the jungle floor, barely large enough to sleep in, and huts made of bamboo poles and coconut leaves. Both survived largely on the basic primate diet: bananas, mangoes, coconuts, nuts, crabs, prawns, eels, snails, trapped rats, pigeons, and the occasional wild hog or cow shot with their Arisaka bolt rifles. They used pounded bark from the Pago tree or fibers from a hemp-like weed to make clothes. Both used palm-fiber toothbrushes and boiled all their drinking water, using flashlight lenses to start fires. Having never experienced McDonalds or Dunkin’ Donuts, both were declared perfectly healthy by physicians after their discovery. Incredibly, Onoda had no dental cavities.
But even more astonishing is the case of a Russian nuclear family that did not even know WWII had begun, until they were discovered living in a remote valley of the Siberian taiga (mountainous forest) by a team of airborne Soviet geologists in 1978. For 42 years they had no contact with civilization, the nearest small town being 150 miles distant.
The parents, Karp and Akulina Lykov, were Old Believers — a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian sect that had been persecuted since the days of Peter the Great. After Stalin came to power, it got worse; Karp’s brother was shot by an NVKD patrol, and he fled into the forest with his wife and two children, aged 9 and 2, in 1936. They carried a crude spinning wheel and loom, ax, saw, copper kettles, plates, and little else.
Pushing deeper into the taiga, they finally built a large log cabin and a terraced garden on a hillside. The growing season was short, but the forest provided plenty of water, berries, pine nuts and firewood for the frigid winters. They wove and patched clothes from hemp, and made galoshes and buckets from birch bark. Their staple was potato patties mixed with ground rye and hemp seeds. With no firearms, they eventually learned to trap animals for the hides, fur and meat, and drive off bears by banging pots. Two more children were born, and the youngest son, Dmitri, would chase young elk in the deep snow until they were exhausted, finish them off with a knife, and carry the carcass back across his shoulders. Yet their kettles eventually rusted, and they lived on the edge of famine; in the 1950s, Akulina starved herself to death to feed her children.
By the time of their discovery, most of their tools and utensils had worn out, and they were grateful for gifts from the geologists. Karp refused to believe that men had landed on the moon, and he was most amazed by cellophane: “Lord, what have they thought up — it is glass, but it crumples!” By 1981, three of the children died from pneumonia or kidney failure. The survivors, Karp and his youngest daughter, Agafia, refused to leave their home in the woods, but on infrequent visits to the geologists’ camp, they could not resist the “sin” of television.
Karp died in 1988, leaving Agafia alone to tend the homestead. In her 70s, she was still foraging, gardening, trapping, hunting with a donated shotgun, hauling firewood, and staring down marauding bears. She visited relatives in the city of Abakan five times, but got sick every time and had no desire to live there. A retired one-legged geologist, Yerofei, eventually moved in next to her. He had a radio, but Agafia didn’t like to listen. “It’s always about someone murdering somebody else,” she said. “Or people with explosives, killing other people and themselves. Or people dying in coal mines. Why should I listen to that?”
I am of two minds about these stories. Perhaps the most important asset for survival in harsh conditions is a strong mind, committed to something higher than one’s self. For the Lykovs, it was faith in their God; for Onoda and Yokoi, it was absolute devotion to their nation and divine Emperor. Materially, at least, they lived rather miserable lives. Doing without salt for 40 years was “true torture,” said Karp Lykov. His children never had the opportunity to find love and raise their own families. Hiroo Onoda was constantly tormented by mosquitoes, and confessed that “during my entire 30 years on Labang, I never once slept soundly through the night.” Perhaps if their beliefs had been less rigid, they might have rejoined civilization to lead more comfortable lives.
Yet an editorial in a Tokyo newspaper offers a different perspective: “Onoda has shown us that there is much more in life than just material affluence and selfish pursuits. There is the spiritual aspect, something we may have forgotten.”
Despite all the privations, these extraordinary people may have found a life more meaningful, after all, than being mesmerized by an iPhone all day long, or stocking up the garage with new toys and baubles from the mall and eBay.
GJ Free Press columnist Travis Kelly is a web/graphic designer, writer and cartoonist in Grand Junction. See his work or contact him at http://www.traviskelly.com.
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