Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Remember Y2K? Me, Neither

A decade ago, we weren't supposed to survive the turn of the millennium. But here we are.

Remember Y2K? Me, Neither


This blog post is for anyone who, like me, has been on vacation since Christmas and whose brain aches at the thought of returning to work this week. 

To adjust my attitude, I'm trying to embrace gratitude for two things: One, that I even have a job in this dreary economic climate, and 2) that we all got through the first decade of a millennium that doomsayers once said the human race would never survive.

What, you don't remember Y2K Panic? Me, neither.

That's why it was fun to re-read an old column I wrote in advance Y2K (I've pasted it in below), about the coming Armageddon and how cautious people were planning for it. It was published on Nov. 11, 1999, and titled "YOUR SURVIVAL IS THEIR BUSINESS."

If you feel like reading it, here ya go. And, fyi, I never did buy that canned ham.

I am sitting in a Y2K survival class. As I scan the long list of provisions I should've stored by now in preparation for the big event, a single thought spools round my brain like an old fan belt:

 I am so, so screwed.

 It's seven weeks to millennial meltdown, and I've not so much as purchased a canned ham to get me through whatever might happen at midnight on Jan. 1.

 Not so my nine fellow classmates this evening. Most have been prepping for months. They grimly nod their heads in agreement as our teacher, Kathleen Merkle, explains why we need to learn how to create nutritious, protein-filled meals from our stored bins of grains and beans.

 "Once you've eaten all the deer, rabbits and squirrels in Pennypack Park, where will you get meat for protein?" she asks.

 I begin to chuckle, then realize nervously that Merkle isn't kidding.

 She's sincerely convinced that the human race is on a collision course with Armageddon.

 If the chaos isn't caused by Y2K , she believes, it'll be triggered by something else we don't or refuse to see coming - a bigger Floyd, a meteor hit, a government breakdown that'll make us wish we got off as lightly as those lucky Kosovars.

 "It's not a matter of if something happens," Merkle warns us. "It's a matter of when. "

 Merkle and her husband, Bill, have been preparing for "when" since 1974, when they opened the health-foods store that has slowly evolved into Pennsylvania Survival Products - PSP, for brevity's sake - where tonight's class is taking place.

 A sort of one-stop shop for all your basic survival needs, their business is located between a fabulous Italian restaurant and an equally divine German supermarket on Oxford Avenue in Fox Chase. When the wind blows right, you can steal a contact high off the aromas that infuse the villagey block.

 It's a darn odd location for the sort of store most people would expect to find run by armed, bearded and beady-eyed mountain men in remote, live-free-or-die locales.

 Then again, the Merkles, 56 and 61 respectively, are childhood sweethearts who grew up in Northeast Philly and have family here, including their four grown children. Why should they leave the 'hood to preach their gospel of self-sufficiency?

 "If anyone needs to learn to fend for themselves, it's city dwellers," Merkle tells the class, as she's told countless others who've attended the frequent four-hour workshops. "They don't know how to do anything with their hands anymore! When disaster strikes, their computer skills and desk jobs will mean nothing. "

 She looks at me with kind blue eyes, like she somehow knows my writer's hands are roughened by nothing but irony. I quickly jam them in my pockets.

 Merkle, a clinical nutritional analyst, says she and Bill have always been passionate "survivalists" who believe no one is truly free if they have to depend on their government for food, water and services. They didn't begin strongly pushing the self-sufficiency concept in their store, however, until the last decade or so.

 "People hear the word `survivalist' and they think `wacko,' " she says, standing amidst the tubs of grains, herbal tinctures, wood-burning stoves and water-filtration systems of every grade that so cram the store, there's barely room for the Merkles' toddler grandson to scamper along the skinny aisles.

 Lately, though, she and Bill sense they have a lot more company in their survivalist demographic.

 "People are watching TV and seeing more and more world disasters" - natural and otherwise, she emphasizes with raised brow - "and they're shocked by scenes of everyday people wandering through bombed-out streets, waiting in line for bread or medicine. They're thinking, `If that happened here, what would I do? ' "

 For sure, there are political undertones to the Merkles' beliefs. They tell us of their distrust for news they don't glean from shortwave radio or certain survival sites on the Internet. They share their contempt for President Clinton, whom they believe is hell-bent on signing any executive order he can to destroy the rights our forefathers died for.

 But the political screeds number only a few in the copious handouts they distribute in class. The remainder detail the many items we'll need to live with assistance from no one. Merkle moves urgently through the list like our lives depend on it: freeze-dried food, homeopathic sickness remedies, wood-burning stoves and kerosene lamps, and bartering items like tobacco and liquor.

 Bartering items?

 "Believe me," she says, "when the stores have been looted, cigarettes and booze are going to be worth a lot more to people than American dollars. "

 At the very least, she tells the least-prepared among us, we must have enough stored food. "If Y2K doesn't come to pass, the worst thing you'll have done is stockpile food. I tell everyone, ` Y2K is an edible mistake. ' "

 Though it's late in the game, she'll help us prepare as best she can. Her offer, however, is good only through the third week of December. After that, the Merkles are fleeing the city to a secret location, armed with everything they'll need to live for years, if they have to, with help from no one.

 "People have accused us of trying to create panic," she says wearily, giving us food samples to take home after class. "We think we're helping to avert it. If enough people store food and supplies now, they won't be shooting their neighbors for it later. "

Daily News Columnist
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About this blog

When my phone rings here at the Daily News, nine times out of ten the caller begins the conversation with, “Yeah, so what happened was…”.

Because this is Philly, the caller doesn’t say, “My name is Bob” – or Mary – “and I wonder if I could have a moment of your time?” Philadelphians are too direct for that. They just say, “Yeah, so what happened was…”, and then tumble into a tale they think oughta be shared with a wider audience. I love getting these calls (even the ones where it becomes clear, after 30 seconds, where the caller sowed the seeds of his own misery), because they give me chance to connect with fellow citizens in a way that no other job allows. Well, okay, no other job for which I’m remotely qualified.

That’s why my blog is titled “So What Happened Was…”. To me, it’s the quintessentially Philly way of saying, “Once upon a time.” When I hear it, I know a good story is coming. And I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Ronnie Polaneczky has been an award-winning columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News since 1999, offering a front-steps perspective on every aspect of city life, from the sublime to the stupid. In her past life, she was the editor-in-chief of Atlantic City Magazine, associate editor at Philadelphia Magazine and a fulltime freelancer published in Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Reader's Digest, Men's Health, MarieClaire and others. She lives with her husband, daughter and various pets in the city's Fairmount section, where she dreams of one day singing The National Anthem at an Eagles game. In addition to her column and blog, you can enjoy Ronnie's musings in podcast form here.

Read more from Ronnie Polaneczky at Earth to Philly, the Daily News blog on anything and everything "Green Reach Ronnie at

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