The fear among us
Now with essential oils
I walk over in the middle of a conversation.
A 400-plus-pound man, sitting in a motorized wheelchair behind a kiosk of pamphlets and equipment for sustainable gardening and survival homesteading, is talking to a thin man in a hat about chickens and gophers.
“Your problem solved, right there,” the man in the motorized wheelchair says, smiling. “I had amazing luck with gophers.”
Seems like a good time to interrupt.
“Excuse me, my name is Barry Friedman. I’m a writer for The Tulsa Voice, and I’m writing a story on preppers, on all this. Can I talk to you?”
“Sure,” says the man in the chair.
“Can I use your name?”
The man in the hat walks away; the one in the chair watches him leave.
“Sure,” he says, “but I’d rather you didn’t use my name.”
Welcome to The Greater Tulsa Survival & Green Living Expo at the Tulsa Expo Square’s Exchange Center.
Let’s call him T.J.
“Been walking around.” I continue, “So, how much of this—the exhibits, the seminars, and the gear—are about preparedness and survival, and how much is just batshit craziness and paranoia?”
“About 50-50, I’d guess,” T.J. says. “Look, if you’re in a hurricane, you want to prepare for a few days. If you’re in a more serious natural disaster, a few weeks, a month, but the people here for the Zombie Apocalypse are just crazy. Who wants to live that long, anyway, with your flesh falling off?”
A fabulous question.
“What drives it?” I ask.
“Well, it’s weird. All those people who stocked up when Obama was president because he was coming for their guns—”
“Even though he didn’t—”
“—Even though he didn’t,” T.J. repeats, “it drove up the price and they paid way too much, and now they can’t get rid of them.”
“So they were mad at Obama for forcing them to buy the guns they didn’t need in the first place and jacking up the prices, and now they’re mad at him for the drop in the price of all the guns he made them buy?”
“They mad at anybody else?”
“That has to be exhausting.”
“I mean, some of the people here are crazy, but you go to one of these shows in Missouri, and there’s a Missouri Militia tent recruiting members.”
“Why not here?”
“Oklahoma’s not really like that.”
He assumes, as Charles Pierce of Esquire likes to point out, “facts not in evidence.”
This show is for survivalists (aka preppers), for those planning for Armageddon, for what happens after the shit hits the American fan, after Korean nukes take out Sacramento, after illegal Mexicans take all the jobs, after married lesbians force all the mom-and-pop bakers out of business, and after the government implants the chips in your wrists to track your purchases.
Here, inside the Exchange Center, is America—if America is survival camps, End Times prophecy, Republican politics, and Jesus—which it may be. There’s a distrust here that goes beyond fake news. It’s the grid that’s the problem—the whole schema: Agenda 21, chemtrails, Chuck Schumer. Nobody is to be trusted—maybe not even Trump. We’re in this … alone. It’s just you, your family, your cattle, your water supply, and your excavation plan.
There are camouflage pants, shirts, and hats. It’s pro-America, pro-NRA, pro-Christ. There are tables of canteens, waterproof tents, freeze-dried food, camping supplies, solar power, bug-out kits, tactical gear, conceal-carry holsters, survival backpacks, generators, and seeds. The seminars, held behind a curtain on the center’s north side, have names like “Society Ending Events – The First 180 Days,” “Healthcare in a Grid-Down Society (for pets),” and, hysterically, “Everyday Uses with Essential Oils.”
There are t-shirts, too: “All CHRISTIAN Lives Matter” and “Kneel for the Cross, Stand for the Flag.” Books by Dick Morris and Dr. Atkins. And, of course, mugs and hats and shirts with Barack Obama in a dashiki and Hillary Clinton behind bars and with a bulge in her crotch.
Joe Fischer, the man in charge of the show, hands me his business card.
“Abilities and talent provided by God,” it reads on the back.
“What’s driving the shows now?” I ask. “You had Obama, and people here, your customers, I imagine, hated and feared him. But now where’s the fear?”
“All this survival gear is in preparation for an attack from North Korea?”
“I don’t expect that to happen. If North Korea does attack us, Trump won’t put up with any shit. People aren’t as worried anymore.”
“So how does raising your own chickens and living off the land outside of, say, Ponca City, protect you from an attack by Korea? And I’ve got to tell you, ‘not putting up with any shit’ isn’t foreign policy—it’s a bumper sticker.”
“But it feels better that you’re preparing. Look, whether you’re preparing for the hurricane or the apocalypse, preparation is preparation. It’s all the same.”
“I hear Trump has been bad for business. True?”
“We’ve seen better shows.”
“What about the perceptions and misconceptions, the unhinged paranoia that’s trumpeted and marketed here?”
“What do you mean?” he asks.
“The books on the end of the world, the food and money supply seminars, the doomsday scenarios about the one world order and the deep state.”
“I don’t subscribe to all those,” he says. “At one show, these two, these gays”—he whispers the word—“come up and tell me, ‘How can you support someone like Trump, who is going to put us in internment camps?’ ‘Now, he’s not going to do that,’ I tell them. Where do you think people get that kind of information from? That’s crazy.”
“That’s not really any more absurd than the people here who believe George Soros is Beelzebub and Obama was getting FEMA camps ready to house his Christian enemies.”
“There are fringes on both sides,” Fischer says.
“But the fringes on my—” I stop myself. This is not why I came. “Thanks for your time.”
“What’s this for, again?” he asks.
“I’m a columnist for an alternative weekly here in town.”
“Is it conservative?”
At another booth is Luke, a man who builds and sells racks for automatic weapons, across from a booth for a Christian electrician with a sign: “What the world needs is Faith Electric, Inc.”
“They real?” I ask about the guns.
“Yeah, I thought the guns would make the rack look good.”
“They for sale?”
“We can’t sell guns here because there’s a limit to how many gun shows you can have, and [RK Shows] reached their limit. Little sad,” he adds, “as it’s only February.”
The Firearm Legal Defense Program has a booth here, as well, and a man is explaining to a Latino couple how it’s perfectly legal to hang up on a 911 call.
“After a self-defense shooting, you will have the biggest adrenaline rush dump of your life, so you don’t want to say more than you have to.”
For $21.90 per month (with a $2 charge for each minor child), his organization will protect gun owners with legal advice and information because, as its brochure says, “If you use your gun, there will be an investigation, whether you pull the trigger or not.”
“Believe me,” he tells them. “I know.”
He is standing near a placard of a map of the United States, most of which is in green—but some states are in red.
“What’s green?” the man asks.
“Those are the states where Oklahoma gun laws are recognized,” the vendor says. “Which states are in red?” he asks rhetorically. “Those are the ones I like to call communist states. We don’t go there. We can’t protect you. Do you travel out of state?” he asks the couple.
“A little,” the woman whispers.
“Then you need this!” he insists.
I walk to the front entrance and sit by a booth at the concession stand. I see a woman standing by herself.
“Why are you here?” I ask.
“My father died about six months ago and he loved these things, so I guess I’m here to honor him. To see what this is all about. I’ve got all his stuff at home. I don’t know what to do with it. I guess I’m a prepper.”
“What do you think?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I guess it provides a level of comfort.”
“What do you do?”
“Work for Arvest.”
“Did you go to the seminar about the soulless corruption and evil in the banking industry?”
“Those people are so full of shit,” she says, smiling.
There is a panoply of olive and black. The only color that stands out, a bright orange, is from the rain slickers that are
The host of “The Crashing Dollar & How to Preserve Your Wealth” has just finished talking about the extent to which Roosevelt stole his grandfather’s retirement.
“Obama tried to do it again, folks, and the Republicans, thank God, stopped him.”
There are no words sometimes; sometimes there are too many of them.
I head for the exit.
The Exchange Center today is hopeless, and for all the in-your-face patriotism, the pride and vitriol, and the spoken and unspoken I-told-you-sos, the people here are afraid. America is not flexing its muscles; it’s cowering in someone’s acreage on the outskirts of town.
This is what will remain in the dystopia: long-winded preppers (whose flesh is falling off) and a supply of long-lasting batteries. The Garden of Eden will be filled with gophers. I look up an aisle and see a baby in a stroller being pushed by a man wearing glasses with one of its lenses blacked out. On the hood of the carriage, above the baby’s head, there are freshly-bought knives, a tarp, and other accessories, which I saw about the time I felt like screaming.