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Gimme Shelter

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david:
 I had one of those bicycle training things once - just a frame on the floor with rolling cylinders.  Put the bike on it and ride in place.  Figured out I had to position it near a wall in case I needed to keep my balance.  Well, that ended sooner than expected.

So I bought a hugely fancy training bike full of controls and strap-ons that measured all my exertions.  Except it didn't, because I have an irregular heartbeat which cancelled out the accuracy of all the other readings.  My sister-in-law has the trainer now.  Says she uses it every day.  I don't believe her.  All I can say for sure is that she cleans it every day, dusting and polishing.  OCD keeps her fit.

Speaking of vacuums, ceteris paribus, could one ride a bicycle in a vacuum?  Is there friction in a vacuum?  Probably the tyres would burst, but that's all.

The old bike - a gold Motobécane, possibly one of the last ones manufactured - rests in peace now in a space under the cellar steps.  These are long granite blocks, cut when the house was built in 1888, and under them was where the family were supposed to shelter during a bombing raid in, oh, any of the wars, actually.

Not my family, though.  I grew up somewhere else, somewhere with its own bomb shelter.  A nuclear bomb shelter.  A fallout shelter.  This was in the 1950s in America, right up to and through the first half of the 1960s.  We were worried about radiation contamination.  We listened for special radio broadcasts on CONELRAD radio station broadcasting on the frequencies 640 and 1240 AM. 

CONELRAD stood for COntrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation, although I don't think we ever learnt that in school.  Cold War education seemed bland and too shy for telling many horror stories.  We had air raid drills which consisted of us sheltering under our desks, in a goalless game of hide-but-no-seek. 

Were I to draw a line between the old Soviet threat and the present-day threat of COVID-19, that line could be any shape, because it is invisible, like the enemy.  We always fear most what we cannot see, cannot imagine.  What we do see are the side-effects, the after-effects, the aftershock.  In the middle of a bomb blast there is believed to be no sound.  The exact middle of a wheel is motionless.

Think of that the next time you get on your bike to flee the invisible enemy.

david:
Ever since crawling and walking in infancy got boring, we have sought artificial means of locomotion.  Whether hitching a ride on the family dog or holding on to someone's coattails (coattails, anyone?), we needed to get from point A to point B.  Diversions and detours were unavoidable, until we wrested control of our engines.  Rule One of geometry (Never ask a comedian the definition of a straight line) became primary, and we soon learnt to push and pedal on our own.  Child-sized fire engines and sports cars gave way to tricycles.  Paradoxically, these were replaced by quadcycles, the trainer wheels of which were meant to correct our wobbles on the cobbles.  And finally, "two wheels good, four wheels bad", which brings us to …

Once upon a time (those early pioneer days really stretched until the end of the last century, believe me), a child's first valuable possession was a "big" bicycle.  It often appeared under the Christmas tree at the wrong time of year in many climates for its new owner to use it immediately.  You sat on it in the living room or in the hallway, eager to get going.  Cars have snow tyres, why can't bikes?  So, after Dad shovelled the driveway, you could at least ride around in circles or up and down whatever stretch of pavement had been cleared.  Old Miss Dutt from across waved at you from her picture window.  Now you're feeling sorry you lobbed a snowball at her front door yesterday, making her think someone had knocked.

Then in America, where pavements are called sidewalks, the paperboys rode their bikes to a distribution centre, gathered up yesterday's news printed to be read today, and grouped around the loading dock to fold the newspapers into neat square parcels, one end tucked in like the flap of an envelope.  Then, into the shoulder bags with these missiles, up on the bikes, and off to the 'hoods for delivery.

I don't recall other delivery services - postmen, milkmen, the occasional milliner or special messenger were all there, of course.  But there must have been barrowboys and such with vegetables and meat, beer and wine as well.  And then - there were none. Everyone drove themselves to shopping centres and malls away from city centres and small businesses.

Until again, in the time of disease, and even just beforehand, before anyone dry-coughed and fevered, people started having their wares delivered. Bicycles are back with a vengeance.  And not just bicycles with boys on - with belles on, too!  Hipsters delivering craft beers, teenagers cycling to pick up the recycling, women from pharmacies with aspirins and bandages and creams and lotions, butchers' boys with chops and sausages, supermarket men with shopping bags full of ordered items. 

All this used to be a luxury for middle-class working couples, then a necessity for them.  Now, it is a necessity for nearly all.  Now, in the time of plague.

david:
As I wrote earlier, in the 1950s and 60s in America many families created fallout shelters in their basements.  Ours was a set of fruit and vegetable cellars, next to the coal cellar, with the dividing wall taken down.  My father had been a carpenter at some point and used his skills to build the shelter according to government guidelines.  There were six of us in the house but bunkbeds along the wall for only four of us, so I guess my younger sister and I were to have slept on the floor.  The platforms were made from old doors and the torn-down dividing wall; bedding was whatever we already had.

On the opposite wall were the shelves for supplies.  We had no plastic containers in those days that I can recall.  Everything was glass or metal - bottles, jugs, jars, and tin cans.  We kept the gallon jugs filled with water, which we changed every so often (according to government guidelines, I presume).  There was no food in jars or tins which needed cooking.  And, yes, we had at least two can openers.  There was a good stock of toilet paper, and, in addition to a drain in the floor, there was also a large old hospital bucket with a tightly fitting lid.  We had candles and matches, as well as kerosene lanterns. 

How long would we have held out?  We had no battery radio then, not until at least in the 1960s.  I suppose we were to listen for sirens of All Clear.  We had no way of knowing whether there would be an electricity supply or not, but we kept a radio plugged in, just in case.  And we had reading material in abundance - every issue of National Geographic going back a good 50 years.  I recall seeing one dated 1905, I'm sure.  These would have been from my great-grandmother's time.  They kept the shelter nice and dry too - by absorbing all the moisture.  And so they succumbed to the ravages of time.

Luckily we never needed the shelter except for a few practice runs.  It reverted to being a storage room again.  But I did learn about preparing for a long haul.  Camping trips and Boy Scouts also contributed to my skills.  The next time I needed to prep was many years later.

Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on 1 August 1990.  I transferred to Damascus from the North of England in October of that year, joining with other foreign nationals to set about getting ready for the inevitable war.  Syria was an obvious target for Iraq, as the Syrian government had supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq war.  Were Israel to get involved, Syria was directly under the bomber flight path.  We could be bombed or spared, but we always knew we would get refugees escaping the fighting and needing our humanitarian aid and protection.

How many to expect - not only from our own nationalities but from the local population as well?  Probably hundreds, conceivably many, many more.  I shared a large flat with another foreign national.  We could house 20 to 25 people if need be.  We installed a safe room for ourselves in the servant's quarters, where we could keep an eye on our food and medical supplies.

We made forays into the Beka'a Valley in the Lebanon to buy these supplies, always paying with US dollars, the only currency anyone would accept.  First we needed storage containers - jars, air-tight plastic boxes, ziplock bags, and so on.  We bought special lockable trunks for the medicine, cash, and other valuables the refugees might bring with them.  Then rice and flour, pasta, sugar, milk powder, salt, water filters, gas canisters for cooking, tins of fruit and vegetables.  And paper plates, plastic cutlery and cups, napkins, towels, blankets.  And, yes, toilet paper, sanitary towels, soap and disinfectant.  Ans air freshener, as an afterthought.  The flat had five toilets, so we hoped that would be enough, even were they not to function exactly as they should. 

We needed a generator and fuel, but these were scarce - so scarce that we even considered commandeering one from private ownership.  These weren't just "our" people we were stockpiling for - there were also the local families and friends of "our" people.  And the journalists who were bound to arrive as soon as they could. 

We bought rolls of clear plastic sheeting to seal off the windows in the event of a gas attack.  We had a limited supply of gas masks, kept at our various embassies until needed.  We had walkie-talkies and used to conduct practice sessions perhaps a bit too often (it was fun, as you might imagine).  To my utter disappointment, I have since forgotten my wartime code name.

Many of our locals runs between shelter houses, embassies, international agency offices, co-ordinators, and so on were done on either bicycles or officially sanctioned motorbikes.  The general population were not allowed motorbikes for security reasons.  We were on two wheels much faster than on the four wheels of private cars or taxis.  Whilst we weren't the Hash House Harriers, there was the camaraderie of the peloton of early morning cyclists out for a spin on quiet days.  Soon cyclists from other "like-minded" agencies were joining in.

Now, before I go any further, let me say that, just as in the Soviet threat of earlier days, all our preparations were for nought.  The war came - Desert Storm.  Rockets passed overhead.  The only news I had was from the radio and from talking with the others.  I saw absolutely no television coverage of Desert Storm until years later.  We also had no refugees.  I gave away the last of the supplies I had kept with me - paper plates and plastic cutlery - just lasst year.

So, when the Corona virus started spreading, I had already been prepped for prepping.  I've always got kilos of flour, sugar, salt, pasta, rice, powdered milk, etc. in the pantry.  The only shortage I can report now is that of dried yeast.  I can get fresh yeast delivered, but not dried.  And I need the dried yeast for my favourite bread recipe. 

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