"The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient awaiting its collapse, meanwhile redeeming the time, so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us, to renew and rebuild civilization, and to save the world from suicide."
-- T.S. Eliot, Thoughts After Lambeth
-- Isaiah 21:11
The tiny chamber was damp on one wall and the new day's sunlight made a golden aura of the edges of the coarse cloth wrapped around the man's shoulders. The light came through the window shaped roughly like a tall triangle. Its stone frame could be sealed by a matching piece of rocklike material that swung inward on a hinge. The man's shoulders were hunched over a sunlit table with a sheet of paper before him. Short, heavy fingers held his pen poised eternally over the clean off-white surface. He seemed to be unused to writing by hand -- though not unused to writing -- and almost afraid to soil the surface of the paper until his thought had been written, re-written, and re-written to perfection.
Slowly his hand crept forward to the page's top and the tip of the pen nearly touched its surface. But the arm withdrew to a state of rest as a long sigh came from the seated figure.
Finally, he raised his arms above his head stretching toward the stucco ceiling. "And I'm supposed to be a journalist," he muttered disgustedly to the emptiness.Again he returned to his writing position. He could almost feel the graying stubble of his beard grow as he cast about in his mind for the right words -- the right approach to his subject.
The hand moved back to the page top and to its center.
I never before understood the true value of History. In my youth, the quotation of George Santyana was popular: Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it. Both the Left and the Right lavishly used various versions of the quote which they gleefully tossed into their potpourri of rhetoric. Neither had much use for the actual study of History. Not only had they failed to learn from History, they didn't even know it.
In any event, I have now -- belatedly -- taken the time to actually read history (especially, the history of Western Civilization). Without a doubt, Santyana was right -- but right in a way that was beyond the petty arguments of this-or-that country being "another Vietnam" or some tin-pot despot in the Middle-East being "the new Stalin." The sweeping ascents and disastrous dives of history are more than evidence of a collection of individual virtues or sins. The real cultural rises fly on wings of beliefs -- on ideas. Other ideas clip those wings. And the shape of these ideas is molded by forces both conscious and unconscious.
I'll sign and date it later, he thought.
The door behind him moaned. He turned to greet an old man -- though the man was younger than he.
"Good day, sir," he said.
"Good day, Foster," the other replied. "How are we coming on our project?"
Foster caught the "we" and "our" in the sentence. The Old Man -- for thus he was called -- was wont to see that all was done as a community project. "We have no choice but to live and act as one," he often reminded, "or die."
Foster had come to agree.
"I've only gotten an introduction, sir." The formal address came from the impression one had that the Old Man was an ancient, venerable monk with robe and cowl despite the fact that he wore simple dungarees and a grey flannel shirt.
"Fine, fine, will you allow me to read it?"
The Old Man lingered over the text and finally emitted a "Hm-m-m" which indicated his pleasure.
"Now remember, Foster, there is no need to write in a reportorial fashion for this. It is designed to be interpretive. We need to see modern history as you now see it. I have no desire to tell you what conclusions to draw. Your perspective as a non-religious person will be very valuable to our archives."
Foster scratched vigorously at his new beard wishing he had such growth on top of his head. The flimsy, gray remnants of a head of hair circled behind his head from ear to ear.
"The hard thing is to know where to start. Do I stick to what happened to me personally? Or do I cover events around the country?" The Old Man smiled. "I think you must do both. You must tell of the changes in law and public sentiment and tell of how they affect you personally -- illustrate from personal experience. Maybe the best way is to write both this work here and a separate first-person story of the events that led you here. Remember what you told me happened with the Hate Crime laws? How you were forced to throw out a well documented piece on Japanese businesses because it could be construed as an anti-Japanese bias? Something like that. Perhaps you could write them both simultaneously -- the personal piece might help you to focus on your historical commentary."
"To tell the truth, sir, I'm still not sure if I'm up to this. There's a lot I haven't thought out," Foster said.
"There is no timetable, Foster," the Old Man replied. "When you want to study more -- the library is at your disposal. If you wish to think -- these mountains will give you plenty of solitude. When you wish to discuss some idea -- I, and the others, will gladly oblige you. We have several projects of this kind, you know, besides our collection work." The Old Man looked out the window. "Well, I must be about my other duties." He turned to the door.
Foster stood. "I'll go with you as far as the library, if you don't mind." "Not at all," the Old Man replied.
As they walked down the hall, Foster began, "I know that Western Civilization was based on Judeo-Christian ideals, but isn't it possible that those ideals could have also grown out of the evolution of . . . "
The Old Man and the council had asked everyone not to speculate on the story of the man who had appeared in the desert. They would -- at this time -- only admit he existed and that he was yet unconscious and would be held incommunicado until a determination could be reached if he posed a danger to the community.
But human nature decreed that speculation would be rife. Who was he? Was it true about his bizarre clothing? If he was an civvy agent, what would be done with him? Imprisonment? Death? That question was one of several the community had never addressed. If things went as believed, sooner or later something of that kind was bound to happen.
The debate raged, though none had any real notion of the actual facts. What was known -- at least to those in leadership -- was that the man had no identification, he wore clothing of long-outdated design and manufacture (though apparently relatively new) from Sears, a defunct merchandising chain, he wore a lab coat, he had staggered to the place he was found from the west (though his backtracks were no longer readable after several miles), and he had a serious case of dehydration.
A small medical team, a doctor and a nurse, were chosen as the only ones to have contact with him, and he was housed in an interior cell which had had an exterior lock added to its door since his arrival. Already, the council of advisors had been in heated debate over him. "We've got to get rid of him," said one. "We cannot allow people in who are not screened by the Collectors."
Another responded, "We can't condemn the man without a cause. We have a duty to provide humane treatment."
The Old Man listened thoughtfully as emotions began to heat up. But, though these questions were unresolved, a larger issue was weighing on his mind. All along, the Old Man had maintained absolute and final authority, though he had selected advisors whom he thought were wise and considerate to help him with difficult decisions. But this was the first time such issues had arisen -- and, he knew, they would arise again. Not only now, but after his passing. He was now only peripherally paying attention to the present argument.
He now could see that the simple governmental structure of "Me boss; you not!" would not suffice into the future he imagined for the community. There was a larger question of establishing an interim government that would revert back to a libertarian constitutional form once the crisis had passed. How could such a thing be accomplished without knowing what the future would bring?
Any democratic form would surely fail in the face of the base survival needs the community faced. But autocratic or oligarchic forms would tend to want to retain power even after the "New Dark Age," as the Old Man called it, was over. He hoped that the remnants of Western civilization would not have to rebuild through feudalism and monarchy on the road back to a republican form of government as it had after the first Dark Age.
"The man's got to have some rights," one of the advisors flung out. "After all, if we can't preserve that about Western culture, there is not much else worth having."
Here, in the middle of the council's debate, he muttered out of his own thoughts, seeming to coincide with the last comment, "We may be preserving the U.S. Constitution, but how do we preserve its principles?"
The group stopped talking, as they usually did when the Old Man stepped in with his comments.
"I would like to stop the discussion right here," he said. "Only now am I beginning to see the depth of preparation we are going to need for the future for this community to survive. We are going to have to answer some difficult questions, as the one you've been talking about. But there are more basic ones still -- the question of government, rights, constitutions are going to have to be decided before the fate of the stranger can be properly addressed.
"Here's what I suggest. The stranger will be cared for and held in his cell with minimal contact for now. But I will draw up a list of some of these essential questions for you to consider, think about, pray about, and draw up solutions to beginning with our next formal session. You will get copies within a couple of days. Is that satisfactory?"
An equivocating grumble arouse from the group and the Old Man pronounced the meeting over.
"Censorship! It was censorship that did us in," Foster told the handful of men and women.
Beads of sweat stood out on his flushed face as he pounded an ineffectual fist on the table. Foster was only marginally aware of the mysterious stranger and the great debate surrounding him. He was immersed in his own thoughts, his own experiences, and his own new ideas. Everything seemed to point back to them.
When he had first come to the room, there had been several small discussions going on. But his passion for his new discoveries soon overwhelmed all other topics and focused on discussion of the path of the outside world. The community was comprised of a large contingent of intellectuals -- who love nothing better than a good discussion.
The room they were in was dark like most of the others. Dusky light came through the small window on the western wall. One of the men flicked the light but dimmed it to conserve precious power.
"I don't follow," a man at the table said. "It seems to me that there is too much liberty in speech and press. Public pornography is commonplace, there are no 'thoughts' or 'expressions' too crude or mean to be prohibited -- or even to bring up a blush."
"Ah, you confuse the false 'liberty' of the infant with the true liberty brought about by self-discipline." Foster stood and leaned over the table and squinted at the others. His rotund little shape almost looked comic in the pull-over tunics common in the community. "This censorship was censorship of the great literature -- censorship of the truly thought provoking. It was sly -- crafty -- well beyond any arcane conspiracy. Each set of players did what they did with disparate motive, yet the cumulative result is so diabolical that I am tempted to believe those who argue the existence of a Devil."
"When I learned journalism, I was told that regular news stories were written at a fourth to sixth grade reading level. Anything more than this, they said, would be too hard on the readers and they wouldn't 'feel informed' -- not be informed, mind you, feel informed. A lot of this was due to the kind of education they had. As people began to derive less and less pleasure from reading -- they did less and less of it. Their kids never saw them reading -- at least, not enjoying it, so they naturally stayed as far from reading as possible.
Within two generations, books may as well have been banned or burned because they were destroyed in people's minds."
The remains of the sun had dipped below the jagged horizon of these coarse mountains. The group sat in the dimly lit cubicle trying to absorb what Foster had said.
"Tell us more," a young woman asked.
Educators -- like anyone else -- are loathe to admit failure. It is hard to tell if there were any who were aware of the deleterious effects of "look-say" -- most probably were not. But there is some evidence to suggest that social engineers in the field of education like Dewey and many of his elitist ilk were well aware of it and saw it as a means of bringing about an egalitarian future.
When reading subsequently declined, educators scrambled for cover. Texts were "dumbed down" with less effective -- and less difficult -- language. "Abridged" classics became the rage. It was much like the society of Orwell's 1984 where language was being deliberately reduced -- only this was not done with malicious intent as in Orwell's classic tale. But even well-intentioned censorship has the same evil effects.
The effects were enormous. It was soon realized that if the schools were discharging graduates who read at lower levels, then the daily, real-life reading would also require more infantile vocabularies. Besides the "dumbing down" of newspapers, new editions of the Bible were translated for the declining reading public. Where once grade-schoolers understood the archaic King James language in the Bible, even adults now had difficulty with the new versions which were said to be translated to fifth grade English. School test scores plummeted, so the tests were "restructured" to eliminate "biases" -- most notably the bias against those who could not read well (or at all). But the bred-in dislike of reading inherent in the "look-say" method was not reversed by such hysterical thrashing and the scores still dropped. States, meanwhile, prided themselves on being at the top of the nation's SAT1 -- at the top of sinking scholarship.
Many other effects were consequent.
"We'd better get to quarters," Foster said cutting short his diatribe. He left the room and headed down the tunnel to his cubicle. The window was still open as he had left it this morning and the evening chill had already invaded the room. Foster sat on his cot and loaded his pipe from his dwindling tobacco supply. Just as he scritched the match, the power ended and Foster's eyes adjusted to see the faint reflections in the room as the match light flared from his draughts on the pipe.
The chill was a welcome sensation at the end of these summer days, but the thought of the winter was unwelcome to Foster. It's going to be cold then, he thought, Damn cold.
Foster was standing there in nothing but his boxer shorts. In his hand, he held a cheap ball-point pen.
The android dogs suddenly sprang into a dead run toward him. Foster instinctively threw the pen at them and one fell yelping to the side of the alley. The other -- the more vicious of the two -- kept coming. It was flying toward him, its rabid, slavering jaws angrily agape . . .
Beads of perspiration were covering Foster as he awoke to his small room -- his blanket lay crumpled up on the floor beside the cot. The cool desert air came in through the open window. Before this time, Foster would have been skeptical of anyone who suggested that dreams had meaning, but now most everything seemed to have some deep allegorical bent. He shook to think of the android dog. Outside he could hear the tapping of tools and the low murmur of voices from those community members who had early tasks. He knew that the Old Man would be up and about. In fact, he knew precisely where he would be. Foster wanted to talk.
The man-made tunnel suddenly broke out into a natural cavern. The eerie, elongated cones of the stalactites had the effect of teeth in the open mouth of the entry. It reminded Foster of the dream. The cavern was about 25 yards across and the same in height. Everyone called it The Chapel, though no group religious activities were held there. It was, however, a place of solitude -- an out-of-the-way dead end to an unused tunnel. Kerosene lanterns hung unlit on pegs just outside for those who wished to add a little light to their aloneness.
Foster could see the reflections of the Old Man's light already in The Chapel. Quietly he walked in and looked to the right where the Old Man sat on an outcropping about ten yards away. The Old Man had the kind of receding hairline that created bays on either side of the dome of his forehead leaving a long, pointed peninsula of hair forming an exaggerated widows peak nearly touching the furrows of his brow. His hair had been sandy in color but was now about half silver. He combed it straight back and it stood out from his scalp forming what resembled a silver-gold mane. The low light of the lantern only accentuated the allusion.
The Old Man did not appear to notice Foster's entry.
Foster waited patiently for a break in the Old Man's prayers. After a moment, the Old Man looked up.
"Foster," he said. "Have you been there long?"
"No, sir. I have something I want to discuss with you -- something about the project."
Foster's native skepticism forbade him to discuss his dream with anyone.
It's just a stupid dream, he thought.
"Do you want to talk here, or shall we go elsewhere?"
"Here is fine. I've been here for three months now and I still don't know exactly what all this is about. I mean, I know the main purpose of preserving literature and scientific knowledge and all that, but how did all this come about?"
The Old Man stood and rubbed his clean-shaven, narrow chin. He stood about five and a half feet and was wiry in frame -- not skinny, just wiry. It was impossible to guess his age. Some of his features matched his moniker, others had the glow of youth.
"You know something of the community's purpose -- as you say -- but history. . . ah, yes, its history," he answered. There was a gleam in his eye despite the absence of strong light.
"It was about 20 years ago when I first came to this area. I had provisioned myself to ride out the societal storm -- that's back when I thought there might yet be an early end to the impending darkness. I felt there might be a sudden collapse of the culture and that there would be some cry for sanity from the rubble. It was one of many scenarios I envisioned and -- being the optimist that I am -- I bet on it." "Optimist?" Foster could not refrain from the comment.
The Old Man looked directly in Foster's eyes. A smile crept to the corners of his mouth. "Yes, an optimist -- though not hysterically so. Because I know the nature of man, I expect falls and a continual drag toward the barbarian in us. But, because I know God, I believe that light will always follow darkness. But my hope for a short darkness was very optimistic considering my understanding of the situation." "I'm sorry, sir" Foster stuttered. "I didn't mean. . ."
"Quite alright, Foster. It is just uncommon knowledge that being an optimist does not exclude being a realist.
"Anyway, my first impression of these sandstone cliffs and subterranean paths was just a personal hideaway for myself until my services might be more acceptable. It was then that I discovered the trove. I was amusing myself climbing about in the rocks one morning when I was brought up short by a huge rattler staring me eye to eye as I pulled myself up to a ledge. I lost my footing and handholds and began to slide down the slope only to bounce off a large boulder and into a narrow crevasse. There was no ready exit -- nor was there much light. It would be high noon before anything would illuminate this hidden cranny of the hills. It was positioned such that one would have to be directly upon the opening to know it was there. Fool that I was, I didn't even have a spare rope and I knew that people rarely came to those hills.
"As the sun rose in the sky, I eventually was able to see the rock at the lip of the crevasse. I could make out old markings on the rock face leading down to where I was. 'Spelunkers,' I thought, 'Maybe there are some old climbing supplies in here' and I started to feel around. I felt something made of cloth -- canvas -- but it was rotten and disintegrated in my hand. Beneath the cloth though was metal -- round chips of metal. Even in the dark, I knew they were coins. My heart leapt. I felt around and there were other containers but I could see nothing. Not only was the cranny dark but these things were back in horizontally under a lip.
"About this time the sun moved directly overhead and the markings I had seen earlier became part of a larger pattern -- a pattern of footholds leading back to the top. I was not about to miss the chance so I stuffed a handful of the coins into one pocket and crawled like a fly up the rock wall and out of the riff. Once out, I took out the coins and, as I had suspected by their weight, discovered that they were gold coins. Spanish coins and small ingots -- all gold. I've done some research since that indicates that the trove was probably that of the Emperor Maxmillian, who had it smuggled out of Mexico in advance of his never-to-be-fulfilled escape plan. Treasure hunters have generally thought that it was far to the south and east of here near Pecos, Texas, but I have reason to believe that this find was it -- or part of it." Foster sat down on the outcropping.
The Old Man remained on his feet and looked intently into the darkness. "It was then that I knew," the Old Man said, "that God had other plans for my being out there. In a flash of insight I could see that we were beyond any hope of recovery in this country -- and in nearly all the Western world. Not, however, beyond any hope at all. But, that there was going to be a new dark -- a new and a long dark time ahead. A cultural night. The treasure I had found would help me begin the work of preserving learning in the arts and sciences. I was well aware that the gold will not last the duration -- but it was a start. What you see of the community has been born from the gift of God in my discovering the treasure."
"But what if you are found out?" Foster asked.
"We're careful, Foster. At the moment, I don't think the world much cares if we do this. To them we would be just a cult group that collects books -- the same books that are in the libraries of their cities. No threat in that. But ultimately, the activist barbarians will come into power -- then, we will have to be hidden by God's grace. These barbarians would seek to destroy us because they hate all that would expose their barbarity -- art, literature, science, and faith. At the moment, fortunately, people are too much at ease to bother with us. For this reason we are still able to trade in our gold and coins and buy books, supplies, and bring them in. As the situation becomes more rocky -- say in about 10 or 15 more years or maybe less -- we will have to become almost entirely self-sufficient. And we will have to have the bulk of our collecting done.
"Our plan is to become invisible -- or as nearly so as possible. That is why the room you occupy has a window that is incorporated into a natural rock formation on the outside and the 'shutter' -- if you will -- appears to be rock from the outside. We've designed the complex for the future -- for the times when we will most need to be hidden.
"It's interesting, all the science fiction writers and futurists have predicted a new dark age based on a third world war -- nuclear, chemical, or biological -- none suspected that it would be a result of the society's own licentious liberality."
Foster looked at the Old Man in awe. "I admit I had wondered how you got all this accomplished. I knew it took plenty of money. But you could just have easily set yourself up with your wealth and lived life to the hilt."
"Nope, nope," the Old Man shook his head increasing the mane-like look of his hair. "Never would have worked. God gave me a vision and the wherewithal to see it through. I don't think I could have gotten away with using it some other way."
"Well, you're a Christian, right? I thought Christians believed this was the end of the world -- that Jesus was coming any minute. The ones I heard said, 'It's all gonna burn anyway,' so why go through all this trouble?"
A troubled look came into the Old Man's eyes and he turned away from Foster.
"I'm afraid you've pointed out the great weakness of the modern Church -- dodging responsibility. It is a foible common to man, but modern Christians make it more odious by putting a Biblical spin on it. We are fortunate that those who preserved civilization through the first Dark Age did not feel as these do. In fact, it is the majority of today's churchmen who have adopted this mentality who, in my mind, have been a major cause of our decline.
"I also happen to be of the doctrinal school that believes we are in the last days -- but nothing in my Bible tells me to quit being salt and light to my world just because Jesus is coming soon. In that case, it would seem, I would be a contributor to the terrible last days conditions that I was decrying. Hypocrisy! Besides, I could be wrong about it being the last days."
"That's not an admission you would get out of many of your brethren," Foster injected with a cynical note.
"True enough," the Old Man replied. "And you probably would not have gotten it from me before I started this project. But Jesus never excused apathy. It took me a while to see through my own self-delusion. I had to be honest enough about my natural laziness not to try to cloak it with Biblical garb. And it took a shock to open my eyes to the truth that I was letting my doctrine of the last days excuse me from acting on the plain, simple commands of Scripture. I remember when it first happened -- when I first saw my problem with this. I read in the news about a man in Oregon who kidnapped a baby from a hospital. The hospital was going to starve the baby to death because he had Down's Syndrome."
"I remember the story," Foster said. "Crabtree was his name -- no, no, it was Crabb, Jason Crabb. Yeah, he bounced around the country for months with the baby. Finally crashed the Irish Embassy in Washington, D.C. and pled for political asylum -- got it, too, if I remember right."
"That's the one," the Old Man answered. "I was both angry and convicted by the story. The regular news covered it mostly as a kidnapper-terrorist story. One paper's story was about the same as another -- very few new facts."
"They write the stuff off the wire and press releases. It's called 'herd journalism.' An outgrowth of wire services and fax machines," Foster interjected.
The Old Man continued. "Like most Christians, I took the paper's story as gospel much like the early Christians often formed their opinions of Paul the apostle from the latest gossip. Anyway, I was offended that Crabb would put Christians in such a bad light -- yet, I was strangely hot with the question of what would I have done differently. After all, the Bible clearly commands Christians to help the helpless and my 'end of the world -- its all going to go anyway' opinions wouldn't have helped that little baby. It would be like what James warned about -- faith without works is dead. The more I heard about Crabb's willingness to sacrifice for his faith, the more ashamed of my own attitudes I became."
"So you came out here and built this?"
"Not right away. That was many years before this project, but this work is the culmination of my belief that I must act upon Christ's commands whether I know if it will be useful in the end or not."
They both sat quietly for several minutes before Foster continued.
"But isn't this project like running away from responsibility?"
"I suppose it might look that way but it would be impossible for me to operate in the open any more. I am involved in a number of other things besides this, but this is my main calling. There is a time when a culture may be retrieved, Foster, and a time when it is beyond help. I believe this one is the latter and that this work of ours is one hope that all will not be lost."