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Chaos Manor Special Reports

Notes from a Survival Sage

March 1983

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

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  During the 1980's I was an editor and columnist for SURVIVE Magazine. Reader Greg Hemsath has found one of the old issues. I am not sure where mine are.

From March 1983, then:



Cleaning out storage (long overdue) I found one of my old copies of Survive, March/April 1983. I OCR'ed your article, and the text version is pasted below for your records--for whatever it is worth to you. If I find any more I'll send them along.

Greg Hemsath



Notes from a Survival Sage

Jerry Pournelle

AT a writers' party not long ago, my partner Larry Niven and I met the author of the humorous best-seller Real Men Don't Eat Quiche. "Real men," Larry informed him, "eat whatever they damned well please."

I bring this up because from time to time well-meaning friends chide me for living in a big city. I should, it seems, move to Rogue River, Oregon, or Resume Speed, Iowa, or some such place where I'd be safer.

There's only one problem: I don't want to move. I like living in cities. The word "civilized" originally meant those who can–and do–live in cities, and I happen to care a lot for my civilization. When challenged, I can make a reasoned defense of city life, but I shouldn't have to. I like it here. I don't intend to let the barbarians chase me out, and there's an end to the discussion!

Certainly it costs me. I live in Hollywood, which means I spend a bit on air conditioners and air purifiers. I must take some fairly extreme measures to foil burglars. I live in the hills, which periodically catch fire, so I've had to make some preparations for that, too.

With sensible precautions, city life can be rewarding; the question is, can it be safe?

Well, no; but then nothing else is. The primary threat to civilization is nuclear war. The best way to survive a nuclear war is not to have one. Even those who've made the most stringent preparations aren't likely to be better off after an ICBM exchange. Those who live will have a considerably shorter life expectancy and be worse off than they are now.

It's fashionable among scaremongers to act as if nuclear war will start with a sneak attack on our cities. Huge multi-megaton weapons, they predict, will detonate out of the blue over New York, Los Angeles and the like. The fact is, though, that the Soviets haven't tested a "big-mutha" weapon in ten years, and aren't likely to risk a surprise with ancient and obsolete bombs. They may use them later, but not in that way. Additionally, cities aren't much of a military target. There are far more vital things to destroy if you intend to win the war.

And that's what the Soviets say they want to do: win. Their internal publications, circulated only to senior officers, don't talk about sneak attacks with city busters; they're much more interested in our missile, naval and air bases. True, there's also interest in our industrial base as part of the "permanently operating factors" in war, but these are clearly of lesser importance than our immediate military capabilities.

Thus, we city people do have a chance of getting out. (Of course, we had better know where we're going.) Meanwhile, we can work to prevent nuclear war, and enjoy the benefits of city life until comes That Day. I can work more effectively for the L-5 Society and the High Frontier Project from Los Angeles than I can from Resume Speed, Iowa.

Given all that, it's still sensible to recognize that things can come apart, and to prepare as necessary.

One problem with city life is that it's difficult to practice basic firearms skills. There are ranges, but it's not always easy to reach them, and transporting weapons can cause problems with the police. Yet the importance of pistol practice can't be overemphasized. In my own case, I can go for months without firing a rifle and still hit something first shot, but in just a few weeks my pistol skills (never all that good to begin with) can go all to hell.

There's a simple solution to the problem: Air guns and an indoor target. I have a Beeman "Tempest" pistol (actually made by the British Webley firm), and a Beeman 4030 silent bullet trap. The pistol stays in my desk drawer with a supply of pellets; the bullet trap sits across the room, opposite the door so no one will unexpectedly wander into the line of fire. Whenever I can't write, I can always target practice. Nancy Tappan tells me that Mel used to do the same thing. It improves my nerves and does remarkable things for my accuracy.

In addition, I have a Beeman R-1 .22 (German-made) air rifle. This tiger with its scope sights is accurate enough to strike matches at 20 yards, about the maximum distance I can manage inside my property, and develops over 700-feet-per second velocity–enough to kill rats with no problem at all.

Both these guns are nearly silent. I've fired literally thousands of pellets with them–I suspect I get a lot more actual shooting practice than many of my colleagues who've moved into high-maintenance property out in the country–and I've never had a complaint.

I strongly recommend a good air pistol for practice and a good air rifle as an indispensable survival tool. The latter will bring down about as much game as a .22 rimfire rifle, the ammunition keeps forever, and you can afford to buy thousands of pellets. The only real problem with air guns is choosing them, since there's such a bewildering variety. Whatever brand you're contemplating, get the Beeman catalog first; it has about 30 pages of important information on air guns, as well as recommendations of various kits required with different guns. (Beeman is offering their catalog free; write Beeman Precision Airguns, Inc., Dept. SV, 47-PR Paul Dr., San Rafael, CA 94903-7121.) When making your purchase, also get maintenance tools, spare parts and lots of ammunition.

I also recommend Beeman for reliability and service. My information is based not only on personal experience, but on the experience of others and from the letters I get. (Mail can always reach me in care of SURVIVE).

In my last column (Sept./Oct. '82) I began a discussion of vital books. It is absolutely necessary to build up one's survival library, and I will, in the next year, spend a lot of time on this subject.

Unfortunately, there's an awful lot of garbage being published under the category of "Survival Books;" to make it worse, some of our best publishers lump the drek in with the real gems.

For example, Desert Publications' (Dept. SV, Cornville, AZ 86325) catalog lists a number of useful books, such as Nuclear Survival, a compilation of public domain information including fallout shelter plans; and the invaluable Checklist For Survival by Tony and Jo-Anne Lesce. Alas, they also sell–and enthusiastically promote–the silly book We Never Went To The Moon, which "proves" that the Apollo mission was a giant swindle. Then there's Suppressed Inventions, which they say is "a virtual encyclopedia of practical, energy-efficient (and energy-producing) devices which never reached the marketplace." One of these devices is the Pogue carburetor–a "suppressed" device I knew about in high school before the Korean war.

Now, of course, we all believe in free speech, and I'd be the last to advocate suppression of books, but how are you to tell which ones are reliable when silly things like these are treated as "important"?

Another nearly indispensable source of survival books is Paladin Press (Dept. SV, Box 1307, Boulder, CO 80306). Paladin publishes Bruce Clayton's important Life After Doomsday and the very useful Better Read Than Dead by Thomas Nieman, with more shelter and equipment plans, as well as a raft of other excellent books. They also sell the usual line of "secret" Oriental arts books (I've often wondered how the Japanese managed to lose the war) and a bunch of urban-survival books that look interesting.

One of Paladin's best-selling authors is Ragnar Benson. Benson's books are interesting, and often useful, if taken with a dose of salt. For example, in Survival Poaching, Benson tells how he and his son used automatic weapons to defend the territory they poached. He explains how to make ammonium iodide, but neglects to tell you just how unstable it is when dry. All in all, the book is a fair roundup of ways to snare, trap, poison and otherwise catch animals–but some of the methods, such as dynamiting lakes, are pretty obvious, while others, such as using rotenone on ponds, are wasteful and ecologically unsound. Paladin claims, "The methods and traps described by Benson are known only to one Indian tribe and a few old-timers," which is sheer nonsense.

A better book is Live Off the Land in the City and Country by Ragnar Benson and Devon Christenson, featuring tips not found in Kephart's Camping and Woodcraft. (Kephart's book is the real old-timer's bible and, even though most of the equipment mentioned is obsolete, it is still among the first outdoorsmanship books one ought to own.)

Another source of good books is Caroline House Publishers (Dept. SV, 920 W. Industrial Dr., Aurora, IL 60506), which distributes the absolutely vital Nuclear War Survival Skills by Cresson Kearny. Even if you already have the American Security Council version, get the revised edition. Caroline House also sells two other required books, Mel Tappan's famous Survival Guns and Tappan On Survival.

One of the next books to get is Paladin's The Great Survival Resource Book, a sort of "Whole Earth Catalog" of equipment. It features lots of addresses of firms that offer catalogs. After you've sent for a couple dozen catalogs, send $12 for a year's subscription to Journal of Civil Defense. Dept. SV, Box 910. Starke, Florida 32091; it's worth it.

Probably the most valuable book I own is MacKenzie's 10,000 Formulas. Published in 1868, it has 400 pages telling how to make everything known about at the time. The section on medicines is useful only for amusement, but MacKenzie shows how to butcher animals, smoke and preserve meat, make soap, gunpowder and fireworks, and how to brew beer–from choosing the barley and hops to malting the barley ("Throw the malt up into a heap as high as possible, where let it lie till it grows as hot as the hand can bear it, which usually happens in the space of about 30 hours"). Alas, nothing else like MacKenzie's book seems to be available.

However, you can often find old formula books in used-book stores. The 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, is particularly valuable for "how-to" articles. Naturally these old books aren't going to tell you anything about electronics and other modern wonders, but they have a lot of information on labor-intensive farming and manufacturing. And those of us who survive a nuclear war must learn such things; farm machinery may become a luxury. My survival group boasts many "obsolete" skills which are at least as valuable as weapons training.