Abandoned Places: Chapter Four – Apocalypse Wheeling

Apocalypse Day Four:

West Virginia, Suburb of Wheeling 11:30 AM

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Wheeling, West Virginia

For three days I rode West on an old Mountain bike, occasionally stopping to walk amidst a bewildering array of destroyed buildings, stores and houses without finding anyone, alive or dead.

I saw no moving cars, no planes, no signs of life. At night, one by one it seemed that the power went out to the various towns and cities.

Some buildings may have had generators and kept some light and power. I would walk in and smash vending machines. I could still get iced coffee from the machines in the zombie-power buildings.

I would walk amongst the cubicles and computers, now devoid of internet like an ant colony without a leader. Photos of families and vacations, posters on team building for non-existent teams. Boshavel industries. No clue what they produced.

I slept indoors in these abandoned office buildings to avoid returning homeowners, if any. I would lock the door of some Office so no-one could find me or sneak up on me.

My primary mission was, according to Defense Protocol 36, which I had only followed once before in my 30 year military career, back on September 11th, was as follows:

’In the event of a national emergency, all military personnel, not on the official retirement list shall report to the nearest military facility, collect arriving military personnel and organize to provide for the national defense in accordance with the last official issued orders of the chain of command.’

And now here I was, but alone. After  three days, the beleaguered mountain bike finally just fell apart.

Some of the roads were unexpectedly intact. It was warm and dry, almost summer, so I was able to move about and find some supplies. But now, I was on foot. What would you do in my situation?

I didn’t have a gun, but I had my old Army Knives, one being an old Marine 4-1/2 inch K-Bar and the other a 7 inch Canadian Army knife, gifts from my wife and brother respectively, that I had carried overseas in two different wars.

I carried my green army bug-out bag from my last tour in Iraq. I wore my old Army combat fatigues. I suppose that is your standard post-apocalyptic scenario, but the uniform gave me some legitimacy.

I crossed into West Virginia on foot. I knew Wheeling from Running 10k’s there. Wheeling was a quaint city being re-imagined. Myriad bridges, fascinating buildings, quaint little shops. But it was like walking on an empty movie set.

Wheeling was white stone and red bricks. The trees smelled richly of spring.

I walked back around the empty city and up the mountain by the Main Street. I found myself walking in some nice suburban neighborhood where an access road ran above the four-lane collector road separated by a drainage ditch or creek of some sort.

The creek was clear and clean. A slight breeze wafted along the access road. I was conscious of walking on the dirt path next to the roadway. It was soft on my feet.

I stayed along the ridgeline in defilade. That means that I was hiding along the wood line as I walked. My pack was heavy with food and water. I could smell flowers and foliage. I could hear insects buzzing. The forest was a vivid green on my right, but the road was grey and dull on my left. I saw a Post Office down below, symbol of the Federal Government.

I followed my old Army instinct, which is both stupid and cliché, but two concepts that always worked out well for me.

The key to success in any survival situation is to spot an adversary before they spot you. So, I played it low key.

I had a cool radio, a portable metallic-red soft plastic AM-FM-SW and weather box which worked by hand crank. Hence, no batteries needed. A gift from my mom. A silly gift at the time for my age, but now a lifesaver. The problem was, other than a repeating weather and emergency message from some unattended satellite, I got no new information.

I lacked some important skills. I did not know how to kill and dress a game animal or how to prepare a fish. I barely knew how to make fire. I was still on the lookout for a non-looted store.

The access road was pebbled concrete, maybe an anachronism, but no weeds grew in the cracks, so I assumed it was still in use.

My thoughts were suddenly broken almost like an electric shock down my spine. I heard a rhythmic thump of a car going over the connecting points of a road slab from behind.

I stepped back into the woods before the car crested the horizon. The car stopped almost next to me, because the small overpass that connected the ends of the road was gone.

There was no trace of roadway in the creek below. Maybe it really was an abandoned road.

I examined the car. It was a 4×4 SUV. The passenger saw me as I was kneeling in the woods.

The driver was a woman of about 40, the passenger a girl of about 15. Her window was open. I walked up to the passenger door.

”Are you with The Army?” The passenger  asked.

”What’s left of it.” I said quietly. It was true: U.S. Army Retired Reserve. I wasn’t 60 yet, and hadn’t started to draw the pension that I would now never get, so theoretically I was at the last lowest level of legitimate connection to the Army.

“You don’t have a gun.” Said the mother.

”Yeah, well, I don’t need a gun, I’m a master of Kung Fu.” I said dryly.

They both laughed.

”Thank god we found you. We haven’t seen a soul for days. You wouldn’t hurt us would you?”

Said the girl with a nervous look on her face. She was pretty with brown hair and green eyes. I also had brown hair and green eyes, so maybe she was a long lost ninth cousin.

”What an odd question, Miss. If I were going to hurt you, I would say no. If I wasn’t going to hurt you I would say no. So no.”

I had a wife and a daughter about her age. I don’t know what happened to them so I can’t think about it. I had to focus on the now. These women were very vulnerable in this situation and they needed my help.

“Our key to survival, as I’ve seen from the Wars, is people working together. How can I help?”

I advised.

They pulled the car over into the woods. They got out and we stood around the car surveying the situation.

”What are you trying to do? Where are you going?”

I asked as I sat in my mini Army folding chair. I feared the worst: that in the end, I wouldn’t be able to help them.

”We have guns, but we don’t know how to use them. They were my grand-dad’s. I grabbed his guns and ammo boxes.”

Said Andrea.

”May I see what you have? I may be able to teach you how to use them or maybe you could lend me one of the guns while we are working together.”

She opened the back of the massive SUV. I examined the weapons. A pistol and a rifle.

”We have these. Are they any good?”

Said Andrea hopefully.

There was a Springfield rifle with a clip. I picked up the gun. I tested the bolt. It was clean and oiled. I put in a clip. I put the cleaning kit and the remaining clips into my pack. I slung  the rifle over my shoulder.

”These are very good, may I have the rifle for now?”

I inquired.

”Yes, I don’t know how to use it.”

Said Andrea.

I thought about my pack. I had binocs and a compass. I had road maps. Even an old US travel map book. I even had several folding knives and multi-tools.

My number one skill as an Army combat officer was designing missions on the fly. I only needed a master vision and I could create missions in my own. I had been a combat trainer and liaison officer. Both of which actually required independent critical thinking skills. No-one planned for you, you had to do it all yourself.

“My name is William Lewis Peterson, Lieutenant Colonel, US Army Retired Reserves. People call me ‘Whelp’.”

”My name is Andrea (pronounced On-dray-uh) and my daughter is Bethany. We have been on the road for a week. My dad lives East of here somewhere in Pennsylvania, but I haven’t seen him in a while, long story, but he’s the only one we have left. He contacted us the day before this started and he asked us to try to get to him. He has a place in the state game lands.”

”Hi Andrea, hi Bethany.”

I drank from my canteen.

“I was a family man, not just an Army guy. Think about it. First instincts are best. You didn’t fear me right off the bat. I’m a huge guy in an Army Uniform and you were not afraid of me, so I’m not someone for you to fear. By the same token, you seem like nice people. Let’s sort things out.”

They both looked at each other and nodded in unison.

”Where does your dad live, Andrea?”

I asked.

”On the ridge near Juniata in a town on Sideling Hill.”

I calculated the distance and terrain in my mind’s eye.

”Wow. That’s a way and you’re headed West not East. So wow. It’s Four and a half hours by car  on a bright sunny weekday on the highways. In this environment? Also the vehicle.  It’s easy for an enemy to spot, but it provides shelter and transportation. But gasoline? Without working city power, gas pumps will not operate, so it’s siphoning at best or boosting cars with full tanks. Bethany, what can you tell me about your grandfather?”

I wondered.

“Grandpa is a cool guy. I’ve met him a few times. He’s about your age. He’s a scientist of some kind. He worked at a government laboratory in Maryland. He’s very smart.”

Answered Bethany. She looked scared and sad. I felt bad for her. On the road with Mom, lost, displaced from her life.

A light wind swept through the woods. I looked up for a minute. I could see birds flying in the distance.

It was daunting, but we were alive. I wanted to reassure them that anything was possible. Never let people lose hope. The problem was not knowing what happened and what was out there.

Andrea spoke up again. She was very pretty. Blonde green-eyed, dressed in a green t-shirt and jeans.

“We kept getting turned around as the roads are out. What do we do now?”

I shook my canteen.

“Well, I suppose we risk keeping the vehicle. On foot, it’s a serious haul.”

I thought about saying we. But for now it was ‘we’.

“I see at the crossroad up ahead what looks like a business district, but if there are enemies, zombies or free-roaming criminals it will be dangerous. The upside is that we could stockpile medicals, batteries, flashlights food, water and supplies from abandoned stores.”

I made notes in my little green cloth-bound Army notebook. It was weird. I thought that after I retired from the Army I would  never use it again. It picked right up from the last entry: January 10, 2009 Qalat Salih, Iraq. Now I knew how the Iraqis felt. How the Bosnians felt. To them we were the zombie apocalypse back then. Like the bewildered citizens of those lands, we had no plan other than to survive.

Mission 1: Reconnoiter Surburban Business District for Supplies

I wanted to let the girls know that they had no obligation to follow me.

“I will present you with my ideas, and you have the right to go along or not.”

I was looking back and forth at each of them. I sensed  that I was staring at Andrea. Bethany looked at me nervously.

”You’re very sure of yourself. Do you know even know what you are doing?”

Bethany said, standing up protectively with her hands on her hips.

”I’ve survived two different wars in two different places and I grew up in one of the most violent neighborhoods of New York City in the City’s most violent era, so my instincts are good. That I’m here right now means I survived whatever happened. Survival has its own cachet.”

I sensed that it was getting warm out, so I handed each of them a six-ounce water bottle.

”Are you a zombie?”

Bethany asked.

”There’s no such thing. We have some enemy. It could be invasion, revolution, catastrophic environmental event, sunspots, radiation, disease, nuclear war. I don’t know. I get a weather report, so someone has power. There is an emergency warning every hour in the hour, but they don’t say what. Phones are dead, AM and FM are dead, but I forgot to listen to shortwave. My first mistake.”

“So what do we do now?”

Asked Andrea.

“Rule number one when chaos strikes, is – if you are safe where you are, stay where you are. In other words, if we are even having this conversation, we are by definition safe, but time is our enemy. We will need water, fuel, food, medicine, hygiene supplies, cleaning supplies, Ammunition. We don’t have a doctor or dentist so we are at risk. If we find a medical person they will join us voluntarily or not.”

I smiled when I said that, so they would be less afraid of me. I’m not sure that it worked. How would you react?

”OK, what do we do now, Army man?”

Asked Andrea. She had a slight look of disgust whenever she looked at me. I wasn’t the guy who played the hero in the movie, I suppose.

”We leave the vehicles here, locked. The pistol comes with us. Water comes with us. We check out the business district. If the district is empty, come back to the vehicle and load it with supplies. We also stockpile supplies as we go, in case we need to fall back somewhere. How much gas do you have?”

I asked.

”Theee quarters full? We haven’t been on the road long.”

Andrea responded. She looked down to the ground for a minute, then she looked up and inhaled like she was summoning her courage.

I stood up.

”I’m going to show you how to operate each weapon, how to load it, how to be safe in case something happens to me.”

I stated.

We spent a few minutes in the woods going over the weapons. I had Andrea lock the car.

We climbed down a path on the bank of the creek and we went up the other side.

It was only a quarter mile to the business district. It was utterly deserted. Or so we thought.

We walked through a pharmacy, and a small grocery store. There was a sight smell of rotting food.

There was no gun store. There was a small general store with hardware and a service station.

When we were in the service station I saw a young man walking up the street. He was an intelligent-looking young man in a button down shirt and jeans.

”Wait here.”

The girls knelt down.

”Hey!”

The boy was startled when he saw the gun and he held his hands up. He was tall, about 16. He also had green eyes. Odd all four of us with green eyes. What are the odds? It was like reuniting an ancient tribe.

”Are you in the Army? Are you on our side?”

He asked. He looked very afraid.

”Yes, put your hands down, kid. Are you alone?”

He walked up to me.

”I just have my dog. I haven’t seen anyone for days. I’ve been living in the convenience store. Where are the other Army people?”

Asked the boy.

”I haven’t seen any. What’s your story, kid? Do you have people? Did you see anything odd?”

”My name is Michael. Everyone is gone. I’ve been here for days. I haven’t seen people, cars, planes, bodies… nothing.”

He called his dog ‘Boo’ a chocolate lab. What a silly dog name, I thought. A dog should have a macho name like Spike or Fido.

We walked into the service station. Standing on the street too long could allow us to be observed.

“This is Michael and Boo. They are friends.”

”Hi.” Said Andrea giving Michael a hug.

Bethany gave the dog a big hug. A little bit of normalcy for her, I supposed.

Michale and Bethany started chatting. This was good. They had peers now to make sense of things.

Andrea pulled me aside as the teenagers talked and pet the dog.

”My husband was nothing like you. He was very good looking, wealthy, successful, stylish, but a complete jerk. We got divorced when she was little. It’s nice to have someone watching out for us.”

Andrea said to me. I thought about the back-handed compliment. Despite our grave situation, she still had time to prove that because she was attractive that she held superior cards.

I was suddenly annoyed with Andrea, I was her lifeline and she seemed obsessed with petty games. I only ever had eyes for my long lost beloved Abagail and I chafed at attempts at manipulation by any other.

”I can leave you both here if you prefer that I not join you. I have other fish to fry, Andrea.”

I said quietly. But Bethany had observed the entire interaction.

”Mom why are you being a wench? Why did you have to insult him? You do this to everyone.”

Snapped Bethany.

“We need your help. I apologize for my mother being ignorant. Please don’t leave us alone.”

Bethany said, gripping my left hand and staring down her mother.

”I’m sorry.” Said Andrea insincerely. “I just didn’t want you to get any ideas.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Wow, when did I give that impression, lady? Hey if my help is not appreciated, I wish you both the very best of luck. What I should be doing is locating other military personnel to assemble for national defense. So have fun, Andrea, peace out, I’m leaving.”

I said, abruptly walking out the door.

”Mom!” Bethany screamed, grabbing my arm.

”I’m sorry we really need your help. I apologize. Please help us. We’re all alone.”

Said Andrea.

Michael looked concerned. He looked at Bethany and back at me.

“Please help us, Sir, Colonel? I can see your rank. I know it from gaming. You’re all we have. I don’t know what to do. I’m afraid I’ll die alone out here.”

Said Michael. He seemed like a good kid.

”OK. Just remember that I’m here to help. I’m not your enemy. Time is our enemy. Let’s get moving.”

We sat on the plastic chairs in the service station.

“Michael, do you drive?”

I asked.

”I have a learner’s permit.”

He Said.

”How well do you know your neighborhood?”

“I know every inch of it. I grew up here.”

He mentioned. He lit up now that he was being engaged in our plan.

“Michael, can you and Boo go and bring back their SUV? It’s in the pull off by where the old access road ends at the creek on the far side across from a post office.”

I inquired.

”I know exactly where it is. I’ll take my bicycle there. I’ll be back in 30 minutes.”

We had to trust him. He seemed  like an honest kid and while he was genuinely frightened he seemed sincerely glad that he had found us.

He went and grabbed his bike and pedaled away with the dog running alongside him.

”OK, let’s forage for supplies. Water bottles by the gallon, medicine, medical supplies, tents, tools, food, dog food, antifreeze, windshield fluid, plastic bags to keep things dry, a hose for siphoning, bleach to purify water, lighters, lanterns, camping stoves, pots and pans you know not too much, but enough. Go together. Scream if you need help.”

I instructed.

They nodded and went off store to store. I went in my own to find supplies.

The girls came back in about 30 minutes, proud of their foraging skills.

”Nice job, ladies, good stuff.”

”Were good at shopping.” Said Bethany. She seemed like a girl who needed a dad. She reminded me of my daughters.

Then the idea hit me. Why not get another vehicle? We checked vehicles for keys. A van was parked outside the general store. It was the only vehicle with both keys and a full tank of gas.

Michael was back in about 30 minutes. We shared the two-vehicle plan. The women would ride together and follow us. Michael would drive first and we would head for Pennsylvania if we could find a bridge.

We discussed protocols for contact with other people and how to get water and fuel how to go slow to avoid accidents.

Another key to survival is to never split up unless absolutely necessary. Without communication, finding each other again is near impossible. It is possible if you declare a meeting point a date and a time and contingency dates and times. Everyone has a sign, so you know they were there.

Andrea picked the upper case ‘A’. Bethany picked an uppercase ‘B’. Michael picked an ‘M’. I picked a P so it wouldn’t be confused with an upside-down M.

We packed the vehicles and we were ready.

Mission 2: Head East, Link up With Andrea’s Dad

It was 3:00 PM, we had at least six hours of sunlight. And we were off.

We lucked out. The main Bridge to Ohio was intact but littered with abandoned vehicles and deserted big rigs. One of them was a gasoline truck, so I started it up and I topped off the vehicles.

We crossed into Ohio and we stayed on the river road all the way to the Pennsylvania line. We saw no people, but lots of abandoned dogs.

We stopped at a little remote garden store so everyone could use the bathroom. We looted the cooler of bottled drinks and we found fresh apples and pears. I grabbed a shovel and some small garden spades.

The situation was insane. In reality I had no idea what i was doing. But I always believed that there are no bad decisions if well-reasoned, only bad results. In other words, as long as your decision is based on good instinct and solid reasoning and not obviously  stupid or high-risk, then it’s up to the fates to decide.

”What are we going to do if we get there Colonel?”

Asked Michael.

”You have a family, friends somewhere, but staying alone was not an option for you. The girls, they have a family, friends.  I have no agenda other than making sure you three are safe and eventually finding other military people to see if I can be of assistance.”

I was thinking about all of the little things that people do for us in a functioning society that were not happening now. I remember walking an airfield with a group of USAF airmen and officers. We were picking up stones and debris. What happens where you have debris? How does a plane land safely. After only four days, despite being dry, their were rocks, branches, small car parts, rocks. We had to drive maybe 30 mph to be safe.

I realized that we could not stop for gas. If we got lucky again, we could find an abandoned gas truck. Siphoning was always risky. We even had to think about windshield wiper fluid.

How would we wash clothes? What happens when they wore out? I had three uniforms but that was it. I would never take the uniform off again if I had the choice.

My goal was to get off the Interstate and just travel the Old National Highways. We took the risk of bridges being out. We could cross rivers by stealing boats but obviously if we did we would need to commandeer new vehicles. People get comfortable in vehicles and getting a new one is a chore.

We saw no planes in the sky, even when we drive past the airport. I had a notion to stop at the Army PX and Commissary.

The grounds of the airfield, Reserve Center and PX were also abandoned. I swapped out the van for a military van. I also found a tanker and several gas cans we filled with regular gas.

I looted the PX for tools, knives, flashlights, compasses, tents, camping supplies, bolt cutters and more uniforms, boots and the like. We grabbed water, canned food, dried food as much as we could carry. Then we were off again.

Around 7:00PM we were on the Old National Highway. I found a remote Office park. It was also abandoned. I looked for a building with an internal parking lot where the vehicles would not be seen. We parked the vehicles and we walked up to an internal conference room that we could stage out of. We shut any blinds so our flashlights would not be visible in the event of unwanted visitors.

They had a gym, and bizarrely enough Running water at least for a while. We walked all around the floor to check for any risks or any forageable supplies. I grabbed pens, pencils, markers notebooks, tape and a few other items.

”Listen folks, once nightfall comes we need to stay on this floor. No one should be alone on another floor. We don’t know if any people are around or not. I’m going to work out if anyone wants to join me.”

I set up two electric lanterns in the gym so we could work out. Andrea and Bethany used the stationary bikes and the gazelles. Michales and I used the machines and dumbbells.

 

TO BE CONTINUED

 

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