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One of my biggest inspirations is my father. He was the first person to introduce me to the idea that if I wanted to tell a story all I had to do was sit down and write it. I tapped out countless pages of nonsense on his electric typewriter, futzed about on his computer back when Microsoft Word still looked like DOS prompt, and showed him any number of (now cringe-worthy) Star Trek manuscripts and fan-fics to critique.

Among many of his articles and short stories, one in particular has always stuck with me. I reprint it here with permission:

What? No Post-Apocalypse Skills?
originally published August 24, 1998
© Charlotte Business Journal. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission
Welcome to my nightmare.

Each of us has a situation that we dread we’ll be a part of – a giant earthquake, walking into a really big web full of hairy spiders, having the second phrase of your column end in a preposition – pretty terrifying stuff. I want to let you in on mine. I want to TESTIFY!

I play solitaire on the computer. Yeah, like, you don’t? Why do you think the government’s after Bill Gates? A monopoly? Oh, please. The real reason is some CEO’s special assistant burnt up the mouse chasing that red seven. Because the sales department wanted to win one more game of FreeCell before they started their obligatory cold calls. Because there are thousands of offices out there in Business Land that grind to a halt on a regular basis when the action of the Microsoft Hearts Network is hot. But I digress . . .

I play when I should be working. Just the other night, when Daddy was “upstairs writing,” my nine year old son caught me in the middle of a tenacious game of Vegas Solitaire. The PC gods were smiling. I capped off the last king. The cards wheeled in their little Pentium mambo, ending in a bright green screen asking if I wanted to “Deal Again?”

My son said, “Gee, Dad. You’re good!”

There was no pretense. He actually thought his dad was King of the Keyboard. Master of the Mouse. Sultan of Solitaire. He was proud of me.

There’s something heady that comes from the unabashed adoration of a child. It is a fleeting feeling. I know, deep down in my primordial core, that sooner or later he’ll grow up, work a computer with the same ease I manage trimming my toenails and leave me in my old age, wheezing in his binary dust. But right now, he’s proud.

But was his pride based on the two novels I have lurking on the hard drive? The three dozen short stories searching for a publisher? The wall full of advertising awards? Nope. I play no-prisoners solitaire. It gave me pause. And brought me to my nightmare.

It’s after World War Three on Earth. India has obliterated Pakistan. China, defending its borders, has taken out India and, oops – ha-ha, one little rascally Scud slipped into Taiwan. America and Russia heave a couple of MIRV’s at China and France launches at the United States because it’s a good excuse to get back at us for introducing Le Drugstore into their language.

The radiation. Nuclear winter. Those are the up-sides, along with the fact all the talk-show hosts will be vaporized in the first strike. No, the bad thing is I survived.

And have no marketable skills whatsoever.

After they drop the Big One, what is going to be in demand? Society will need professionals to help it get back on its feet. Doctors, mechanical and electrical engineers, even farmers that can get the crops perked up will be the new barons of Armageddon Industry. And I’ll be at the bottom of the post-apocalyptic pecking order, right there with politicians, radio sales people and the Spice Girls.

Think about it. The last vestiges of humanity are scrapping for survival and the best I’ve got to offer is a dynamite Mr. Haney impression and my prowess at Solitaire. I’m a damn good public address announcer, but with the NBA experiencing a 30 megaton lockout, there goes that gig. If I only had something to offer my fellow survivors, a mastery of some necessary craft…

Bloodied, but bold leader –  “This computer is our last hope to get the power back on so the old people and children won’t freeze. Suggestions?”

Me –  “Umm . . . red jack on the black queen.”

I feel a sudden urge to walk around with a sign saying, “Take the Bomb outta Bombay.” And I will. Just as soon as this column finishes printing out.

Might as well play a little Solitaire ‘til it does.

As I write this, my old home town is currently under a State of Emergency. I’m a two-day drive from my parents as the National Guard marches in to stop rioters and looters. While my family isn’t near the worst of violence, I’m left sitting here living my father’s nightmare – there is a crisis and I’m just about useless during it. And that’s nothing compared to larger racial, political and terror concerns facing the world and the nations I call home.

I’ve spent many a long night staring out towards Lake Ontario, where night and water come together as one, and try not to be crushed by the worry and the sense of powerlessness. And on the more hopeful nights, I come back to this thought: if I need an escape, so does everyone else. What I do isn’t big. It won’t shape national policy or cure disease. It won’t end systemic violence or convince people to accept the simple concept of treating each other equally. But it will give people a few minutes of escape. As long as you’re invested in that comic, you’re taking a break from reality. Sometimes a breather is all you need to shoulder the burden you carry for just a bit longer.

So today I’m going to find that escape by working – with my phone, email and messenger all immediately in my grasp and a weather eye on the news.

Stay safe, everyone.

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