Monday, June 22, 2009

Been there? Done that?

"Son, act like you've been there before." (Paul Brown, legendary football coach, to a player who had danced in the end zone after scoring a touchdown)
It's been almost a year since I was reminded that I live among hamsters, that rainy morning when flash flooding exposed many of my neighbors as totally clueless about their surroundings.

They didn't have the knowledge, experience or attitude to confront unfamiliar circumstances -- because they hadn't been there before.

That's inexcusable. There's no reason not to expect the unexpected because, sooner or later, trouble of some sort will find us.

A major traffic accident or a chemical spill will close the freeway. The power will go out some summer evening. An ice storm will leave us without heat for hours, or even days, in the dead of winter.

Traffic jams and weather events might well be on our personal radar, but sometimes the threat is greater and the stakes are higher -- much higher. An intruder will invade our home in the night. We'll suffer an injury at a place or time when medical help isn't available.

And at the risk of sounding like a tin-hatter here, consider this: A natural disaster will hit or civil unrest will boil over when we're miles from home. Could we defend ourselves? Find water and shelter? Build a fire? With or without a vehicle, could we get home?

For a graphic description of such a scenario, see "Cold, cold water."

Dealing effectively with these and other what-ifs depends largely on mindset. The biggest mistake we make, I think, is believing that we can wait 'til the last minute to conjure our must-do SHTF attitude.

Put another way, we can't "act like we've been there" if we've never even been close.

Whether we like it or not, personal preparedness is a full-time job. Fundamental to success -- and survival -- is actively and continually cultivating a working familiarity with tools, skills and surroundings.

It can start with something as ridiculously simple as spending time each day living in the dark. (No kidding.) There's nothing wrong with switching on a light, of course, but how often do we do that out of habit rather than need? By being aware of my using artificial light unnecessarily, I've seen how often I can do without it -- which, as it turns out, is most of the time.

My practice has given me confidence and familiarity (as well as night vision) that come in handy every time the power winks out. Obviously, keeping everything in its place helps. I mean, there's nothing quite as pathetic as needing a flashlight to find the candles -- or the batteries.

Our electric bills are a bit lower, too.

The time may come when embarrassment and utility bills would be the least of my concerns. If an armed intruder were to threaten my family and me in the middle of the night, I can lay my hands on everything I might need -- phone, eyeglasses, defensive weapon, etc. -- in ten seconds or less.

I know that for a fact because I do low-light, dry-fire drills at least once a week. Practice, promise.

When the fuel gauge on our vehicle starts approaching E and we're not sure when we'll see the next gas station, we start driving much more conservatively. We've all done it, trying to squeeze as much mileage as possible out of those last precious fumes in the tank.

The question is, what could we learn by driving that way -- on purpose -- more often? Or all the time? If the SHTF and we're stuck 25 miles from where we want to be with only enough gas to go 20 miles, maybe we could actually get there. Through practice, we stand a good chance of replacing "maybe" with "probably."

In eight months with my Chevy TrailBlazer, I've managed to increase overall fuel efficiency by 20% just by changing the way I drive. I wasn't a maniac to begin with, by the way, nor do I now pose a rolling hazard to my fellow motorists. The bottom line is that it is possible.

Firesteels and knives are essential survival tools, and a handgun can be an effective means of personal defense. Even the best tools are useless, however, if we don't practice with them long before our life depends on the outcome.

Building a fire in a Weber or backyard pit with only found materials, and then lighting it with a firesteel, hones what could be a lifesaving skill. An acquaintance likes to do it while being showered by a lawn sprinkler, to simulate doing it in the rain -- now that's an attitude.

The folding knife in our pocket or the fixed blade we carry in our last-ditch kit someday may be called upon to fashion an emergency shelter, a splint or a deadfall trap. Using those knives for ordinary lawn-and-garden chores, leaving fancy saws and pruners in the shed, can show us what can be done long before it must be done. The experience, albeit ordinary, can prove invaluable.

As for firearms, once again I defer to Col. Jeff Cooper:
"You are no more armed because you own a gun than you are a musician because you own a piano. The instrument is not the answer; the skill to use the instrument is the answer."
Rust is lethal. Get to the range, dammit. 'Nuff said.

There's much more, of course, but I believe I've begun to make the point that being prepared for the unexpected involves more than a full pantry, fresh batteries and a well-stocked bug-out bag. Since circumstances could turn against us any day, preparedness is a mindset we must live every day.

That's not paranoia -- it's only common sense.