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I especially remember one old guy, batty as hell, his face covered with pus, his bald scalp peeling, his tongue swollen and hanging out of his mouth like a steer at an old-time Kansas City slaughterhouse. I was pulling guard duty and I spotted him when he was a half mile down the hill that leads up to the compound. At noon the day we buried the kid, we saw smoke, a single pencil-thin curl that rose into the sky like jet exhaust, except there weren't any jets any more.
Pete suddenly had that mongrel look on his face, a strange cross between outrage and guilt, but he didn't say anything. Pete was carrying a shotgun, one of the pumper-action Ted Williams models we'd scavenged out of a Sears Roebuck store somewhere along the line. We had only about a hundred shells of buckshot left, but Mather had insisted we take every last one of them.
That night, Tony and Mather stayed behind with the women and Eric, eleven months old, our only offspring. It was summer, the summer of my twenty-seventh year, and it had been the most glorious summer of my life. I have to believe the guy upstairs has a pretty mean streak of irony because that wasn't it by a long shot. Maybe it was the test of a new killer technology related to the so-called Star Wars program that the late President Reagan had announced a decade before. Maybe the Martians landed in a Kansas cornfield and decided to zap ninety-five percent of the human race, just for kicks.
Whatever it was, it silently and quickly burned off half the upper atmosphere, leaving plants to die, food chains to be disrupted and destroyed. We didn't know how bad it had really been until it turned winter, and winter brought no dirty snow on Fifth Avenue, no frost on Macy's windows, no skating in Central Park, no temperatures lower than the sixties, not even in January or February. By spring, the hospitals and doctors were overloaded with skin-cancer cases and people whose vision was fading away to darkness. By summer, the effects of the failed wheat and corn crops were filtering down, and grocery stores experienced their first shortages.
We were in Boston when the fabric of American society began to dissolve, slowly but completely, like a cube of sugar in water.
Mather had decided to put down roots, at least until we could figure out what the long-term plan would be.
Why they didn't establish camps like the rest of us was a mystery not even Mather pretended to be able to solve. But it wasn't only noise that made the nights strange -- temperatures had been thrown all out of whack, too. Some had been torched and some had self-combusted, but most of the houses still stood -- a curious mixture of white Colonials and shingled Capes and ticko-tacko pre-fab ranches that had been all the rage during the prosperous, inflationless fifties. You didn't need a historian to see that the Quannapowitt in the old days had been a healthy, full-fledged river -- upstream a mile you could see the remains of a dozen mills.
Getting to the barn was easy: Crouching low, we simply followed a waist-high stone wall that ran up to it from the river. What I was prepared for, I suppose, was the usual band of roamers: a group of men and women, middle-aged or younger, with one kid, possibly two.
There were no grown men in this group -- no able-bodied grown men, that is, only a wizened old character who looked to be eighty or more sitting closest to the fire.
If the empty cans were any clue, they'd recently finished dinner, but there hadn't been much to eat.
Mather later theorized that they had been in hiding somewhere, and had recently been forced out somehow -- maybe when their food ran low, maybe at the hands of some belligerent roamers. With my father's encouragement and guidance, and on very wobbly ankles, I would circle that rink, hour after hour.
I learned, for example, that being good and decent and kind is its own reward, and that working hard is a virtue.
Those who know me best may observe, correctly, that I have not taken all of my father's lessons to heart. I had arrived early in Boston for animal rounds, in which the week's experiments on pigs and baboons are reviewed by the scientist and his staff of fellows, post-docs and senior investigators. They are what they've always been, regardless of topic: fairness, balance, accuracy, clarity, and so forth. Merely keeping on top of the field is daunting, as the list of publications in that Boston lab demonstrates. Which leads to the deeper questions, the moral, religious, cultural and ethical ones -- those raised by people like Christopher Reeve, who sat here two weeks ago in his wheelchair and asked us to ponder the origin of human life. And so, another of our responsibilities as journalists -- perhaps the most important one -- is facilitating a public discourse that will lead to a sound public policy. Many years ago, when a farmhouse graced the top of Wolf Hill, the path could accommodate vehicles; one, a bus, ended its last journey up there and its rotting remains continue to be a source of wonderment to all who happen upon it. Not that we hadn't seen our share of roamers since coming north to Vermont a year ago, after the Great Fire leveled Boston and half of eastern Massachusetts. Since the sky blew off, every sunset has been spectacular, nothing any artist or photographer could ever hope to capture. He was all bundled up in canvas, canvas that was ripped and tattered like a sail that'd spent a week in a hurricane. It was an automatic response by then, as natural and routine as guard duty or sleeping during the day.
He was on his ass, resting, looking our way and trying to figure if it was worth the effort to make the climb. It was coming from the rubble that used to be Bradford Village, one of the suburbs of Burlington.
Since Robbie and Sloane got ambushed -- it happened when we were escaping the Great Fire -- Tony, Pete, Charles, Mather, and I were the only males in our camp. Pete was our resident tech whiz -- he'd designed the hatchery, come up with the ventilation scheme that kept the temps down inside, even managed to hook up running water and plumbing. Those gorgeous pinks and yellows were draining from the sky, leaving behind a cold, inky night loaded with stars.
He'd been trying to soft-pedal his gut feelings, but you could see he was deeply concerned.
He'd been correct on every issue since he took charge two years ago when the sky blew off, the crops started wilting, and the world's population started dying by the hundreds of millions. We were living in New York, then, all of us, living in style and with more than our fair share of creature comforts in an upper West Side neighborhood that only recently had been gentrified. I don't know if anyone anywhere ever really learned the answer to that question, not at the beginning, when the only effects were those amazing technicolor sunsets and that crazy shift in the jet-stream, or, later on, when political institutions and economies were disintegrating faster than global temperatures and the seas were rising.
There was no big bang, no escalation of crisis, no state of alert, no Warsaw Pact troops marching across Germany, no Colonel Khadafy dropping a surprise on Israel -- just a sky the color of fresh blood the evening of July twenty-sixth. Maybe it was the test of something the Soviets had up their sleeves that our intelligence never picked up.
When we did have to go outside, no matter how briefly, Mather made sure we wore sunglasses and painted ourselves with sunscreen, protection factor fifteen. It was September, the hottest September ever recorded by the National Weather Service, and no one any longer had any doubt what was happening. After disposing of a gang of winos, we'd made our home in an abandoned subway tunnel near Park Street Station, which is almost directly under City Hall. Bodies strewn everywhere, smoldering or just plain rotting, every one of them guaranteed to be harboring enough disease to wipe us out a thousand times over.
His best guess was that it had something to do with intelligence, or lack thereof, and I imagine he was right.
If you closed your eyes, you could picture it as it might have been before the sky blew off: a charming little blue-collar village, where neighbor knew neighbor and treated him with proper Yankee respect, a place where the machinery of life hummed quietly along in a more-or-less well-greased fashion. It was coming from across the Quannapowitt River, and as we got closer, we could see flickering shapes. Unless some of their number were off somewhere in the shadows, this was going to be a milk run.
Since the sky blew off, the Quannapowitt had shrunk to a trickle, six inches deep at its deepest with no more power to drive a loom than water from a faucet. That was the description of all the bands we'd seen, and it made sense they were like that.
That rink -- surely no bigger than about 15 by 15, but an arena to a boy of five or six -- is where I learned to skate.
I laughed myself almost silly at that, and my father, without complaint, closed his eyes again. I am delighted to be part of this discussion tonight, and I would like to thank the University of Rhode Island for inviting me.
I thought of the Wright Brothers and the other pioneers of flight and how the risks they took and the innovations they made revolutionized their world.
They are but a handful among the thousands of journals, Web sites, list servs, press releases and the like that we could encounter.
Many mainstream readers and viewers -- not to mention mass-media writers and editors -- are only now learning the differences between adult stems and embryonic stems, between therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning -- never mind the implications of research. For him, a man who might walk again if certain genetic work succeeds, it is not simply acceptable but morally imperative to use unfertilized eggs to grow stem cells. These past few months, I have managed to worm my way into places where I technically don't belong in order to claim a front-row seat to history. By telling the stories of the researchers, I hope to bring the research to a wide and general audience.
We don't like bugs, the ticks and mosquitoes especially, and anyway, we're drawn to the beach at Wallum Lake, which is just up the road. Every year the mountain laurel and pine claim more of the path, and this year was no exception, but there was still plenty of room -- more than sufficient, I informed Cal, for another good flying- saucer run this winter. The air seemed fresher as we continued, the light through the foliage stronger, and soon enough we'd reached the peak. An inventory of our pockets disclosed sticks, pebbles, acorns, flowers, mushrooms and a bright yellow leaf, which Cal had selected for his mom. He arrived at dusk, and when no one answered his cries, he finally fell into a restless sleep in the dust and half-dead weeds along the front perimeter.
It didn't occur to me then, but somebody must have told him that canvas was about the best protection you could have when you were outside. Night was always the best time to be on the move, whether it was a disposal operation or a raid on one of the few warehouses or stores that had anything left worth raiding. Found it beneath a crucifix on the altar of a burned-out Catholic church in Manchester, New Hampshire, when we were making our way north from Boston. We were the brie-chablis crowd, the folks with the MBA's and the designer bathrooms who spent weekends on Cape Cod and February vacations in Aspen. In the early days, when the presses still ran and the six o'clock news was still being broadcast, there was all sorts of talk that it had been the test of some new thermonuclear weapon -- more frightening and more secret than the Bomb, which had every true-blooded Yuppie doing flips back then.
We got out of the city in June, before the real panic hit, and we headed up the Connecticut coast. Eventually there was a run on sunscreen and finally supplies dried up, but Mather had been smart enough to buy cases of it before John Q.
From a defensive perspective, the tunnel was a dream -- only one entrance, which we kept clear with occasional firefights. Immediately Mather decided to head north, where, he said, we would have the best chance of establishing a camp. You needed brains to build a camp, defend it, find a way to eat -- in our case, a small but successful fish hatchery, supplemented by freeze-dried and canned stuff we'd managed to hoard. The moon was three-quarters full and between that and the usual stunning array of stars we had no trouble keeping up a good clip.
You could imagine being born in that village, growing up there, raising a family, walking your children down the aisle, bouncing your grandchildren on your knee, going to your grave a reasonably satisfied man. They were just beyond the bank of the river, roughly three hundred yards away, a band of people huddled in a circle on flat ground next to a burned-out but still standing barn. Sun and disease had taken their toll, a toll few of the very young or very old were able to pay. The noise was startling, but before anyone down there could react much, I emptied the shotgun in their direction eight times. I suddenly had an old-fashioned thirst for an ice-cold beer, but there wasn't any beer any more. General Hospital, is exploring a number of new medical treatments, including ones involving gene therapy. I was thinking about tonight's forum, and what I would say about the role and responsibilities of journalists in this new world we have all entered. My eye moved to the titles of the periodicals on the library shelves: Immunology Today, Gene Therapy, and Xenotransplantation, to name a few.
At the risk of inferring that some issues deserve a higher standard of journalistic excellence than others, I believe that nothing in the news today is more important than the genetics revolution and biotechnology in general. Today's intimacy of capitalism with genetics -- of IPOs with DNA -- has brought a new element, even to respected academic labs like the one in Boston. I have that seat, but now comes the real challenge: getting inside the heads of the scientists. Cal insisted on taking the lead and, unlike our last walk, in April, he refused assistance getting past deadfalls. Only a cellar hole is left of the farmhouse, destroyed some thirty years ago in a fire of suspicious origin. I wanted to carry him or at least hold his hand; instead, I took a breath and was silent on the matter. We left the quarry and made our way back to the cart path through a stand of towering Balsam firs, unlike any other on Wolf Hill. We knew about other parts of the country, where whole camps had been wiped out by typhus, diphtheria, all the diseases that had gone completely out of control since the sky blew off.
The only ones we'd disposed of were the ones that got too close or started acting too weird or hung around too long, like stray dogs begging for handouts. She'd probably been pretty once, but the sun had left her skin runny and raw and made her hair fall out. Pinks layered over blues and oranges and yellows, some soft strokes, some bold ones splashed up there with a powerful hand. He'd told me more than once that killing still turned his stomach, no matter how many times he saw it or did it. At night, you didn't have to worry about whether the ultraviolet was going to burn the skin off your back or make you go blind or cook your brains or fry your sperm. There wasn't a one of us who wasn't making fifty grand then, minimum, not a one of us who wasn't employed with one of Wall Street's or Madison Avenue's most reputable firms. There was still gas left, although there were shortages and growing lines at the stations, so we drove, charging up a storm on our American Express and Visa cards as we went.
From the survival point of view, it gave us decent access to stores and warehouses, particularly those mammoth ones along the waterfront, which were still stocked weeks after everything else ran out.
We passed other bands as we walked, and we had some skirmishes, losing two of our original group in the process. It took brains to beat the sun, escape the heat, and it took brains to keep the germs at bay. I wanted to get in and out quickly; I had some business back with Lisa, who'd been my girlfriend in the West Side days, and who Mather had decided was still an acceptable mate for me. And the cars that were parked in the driveways were beginning to rust; every tire was flat, and roamers had busted the windshields. We'd have a devil of a time tracking them down, and some would probably slip away, and then there'd be hell to pay with Mather. The river wasn't cool, no rivers were any more, but it still felt refreshing around the ankles.
Huddled at their feet in the dirt were a half dozen children, most younger than the kid who'd made it to our perimeter.
What there was was hooch, which Mather had discovered you could make from canned peaches, dandelions, anything that had sugar in it, even bark from certain trees.
Life-saving protocols already in clinical use have been pioneered in this lab, and I expect that more will follow. And this thought, hopefully not a trite one, occurred to me: The Wright Brothers transported people. It came this year at the customary time, when the sugar maples are at their peak and the oaks are only beginning to turn. Rusting machinery, barrels and bedframes are strewn about, and the woods are slowly claiming them, too.
The quarry has not been worked since the 1800s, but if you look around town, you will see many foundations made of its imperfect granite. His body quivered a bit and then his mouth became a fountain of blood, but it didn't last long. She was delirious, talking nonsense about salvation, redemption, apocalypse, all that other Bible crap, like so many of the roamers we'd seen since New York. Back when I was in parochial school, I remember thinking the walls of heaven must look that beautiful.
Didn't have to take your chances bundled in a hundred layers of clothes and sunscreen coating your body like axle grease.
Perhaps the good father gave his final sermon, then put it to his head and squeezed off a round.
That disposing of them might be a greater logistical problem than we'd had to deal with in a long, long time, maybe ever. The day the looting began in earnest, we grabbed enough canned juices and beef stew and hams for at least a year, according to Mather's calculations. He hadn't assigned Pete a woman, but he had occasional privileges, which he was always pleased to exercise.
The trees that once had shaded back yard barbecues now were blighted, their leafless branches waving in the wind like the thin fingers of a skeleton.
Except for the wrinkles, they wore identical expressions: that peculiar hybrid of fright and exhaustion and malnutrition I'd seen on roamers before.
On my way out of the barn, I was lucky -- I found a five-gallon can of gas, and it was full. It is one of several labs in New England where I have been hanging around over the last few months. Scientists today are on the verge of being able to DESIGN people -- and if not design them, then certainly change them in ways that can -- or should -- make their lives better and longer. Often lost in the reporting of stem-cell research, for example, is the fact that embryonic stem cells can grow uncontrollably into teratomas, or cancer. Imagine when the first scientist doesn't merely clone a baby, but custom-builds one by manipulating the germline. The temperature at dawn read 29 or 30 degrees, depending on the angle the thermometer was viewed.
We went through the backyard and onto the cart path that ascends Wolf Hill, a fanciful name in the nineties, even for a rural town like ours.
We marveled together at a sight as strange as grape vines entwined around a bedframe, and I tried explaining how a house not unlike our own had been reduced to ruin, but I don't believe I succeeded, nor did I really try.
It resembles a den, and the forest floor is softly carpeted and often dotted with toadstools -- certainly a spot, I allowed, where elves dance under the starry sky. In less than three minutes, long enough for a smoke, his nerves stopped firing and he was still. We didn't find a body, but maybe one of his parishioners had dragged it away for burial when that Mass was over. I have written a handful of pieces for The Journal, and over the next many months will write more. And adult stem cells are notoriously difficult to isolate and direct, another fact that is sometimes overlooked. Water has long filled where men once labored, of course, and a century's worth of sediment covers the bottom, making it impossible to gauge true depth (although we have tried, with our sticks). When Cal is a little older, I will tell him -- as I did his sisters -- spooky stories of the goings-on here when the moon is full.
Wearing gloves and masks, we carried him downhill, away from the hatchery, and put him ten feet under, as deep as we could dig in the two hours we had before the sun came up. There was only one way to know for sure, I said: Some fine summer night, we would have to camp out here, being careful to stay awake until midnight. Then we burned our clothes and bathed in rubbing alcohol and Lysol we'd come across on our last trip to the A&P warehouse. A few nocturnal animals still survived, owls and raccoons among them, and their voices seemed to come from a hundred directions at once, or no direction at all.
When we were done, we walked naked back inside the compound, pulling the razor wire tight behind us. Our April walk was during a nor'easter, and we got soaked playing in the waterfall, but it was gone now, too. Rachel is in high school now, and Katy, four years younger, is sneaking looks at Seventeen. Cal was worried it would never return, but I reassured him it would, with the next steady downpour. He'd been keen on mushrooms since our last swim at Wallum Lake, when he found ones as big as my hand that had materialized overnight beneath a picnic bench. He was tired, and as I carried him home, I promised we'd camp out next summer, bugs and all.
He also gathered acorns, which he proposed to feed to squirrels, a word he still had difficulty pronouncing.
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