President Bush was saying the other day that he intended to get our rebate checks to us early so we could quit all this worrying about the high cost of groceries and gasoline.

Did that sound like a man who knew whereof he spoke? Or like one who'd never gone hungry, and who'd never gassed up on the credit card knowing he didn't have the cash in the bank to cover it?

Those who haven't been so broke it scared them, who have never been serenaded by the gripey gut of the first degree, shouldn't blather on about such serious topics — topics that discourage, and do great indignity, and hurt pride, and batter confidence.

It's one thing if you've been there. Otherwise, just shut up about it. 

That same day, an article in the Wall Street Journal confided that, imbecilic presidential assurances notwithstanding, the time had come for Mr. and Mrs. America to start stockpiling essentials that might soon be in short supply, or become altogether unavailable. Food, especially, and, if possible, fuel.

Rice riots are already occurring in China and India, and even here in the land of the fatted calf, rice and other grains are being rationed at outlets like Costco and Sam's. Omens? Auguries? Why take chances? Get what you can while the getting's good. Or while the getting's possible.

It turned out that the Lancasters had an advantage when it came to laying in a couple years' worth of groceries. We still had the duct-tape Homeland Security bunker, created, lived in, and abandoned all in that panicky, color-coded 3-week span back in  Aught Three, and it still featured lots of storage space, if pretty sadly mildewed and vermin-run.

All we had to do was liquidate all our assets — get the equity out of the house, cash in both the savings bonds, dig up all those canisters of valuables buried over the years in the back yard — and rent us a big old dump truck and head down to the Mad Butcher and tell them to load up a cord or a gross or a few hundredweight or several bushel baskets of everything that would keep or that the rats couldn't easily make off with or that we could cram into the big freezer that we keep outside on the front porch of our doublewide.

That's the freezer, you may recall, that before the Aught Three panic contained the historic collection of frost-burned wild ducks gifted by a variety of generous hunter-neighbors over the 50-year period, 1949-1999, onto my in-laws, who apparently never ate, gave away, or disposed of a single one of the damned things. I cleaned it out back when we were expecting terrorism swoops momentarily, and so this time it provided us with even more space to stash grub for the lean times a-coming.

Stockpiling groceries was manageable, if not exactly affordable, but hoarding up enough gasoline to matter is another kettle of fish. I don't have a container that big, and even if I did, I don't imagine the neighbors would be too thrilled. I mean, this is a classy neighborhood, and a 100,000-gallon drum sitting here beside the doublewide, dwarfing it, and dwarfing the other residences around here too, I have to say, wouldn't exactly make me Mr. Popular at our next Neighborhood Improvement Association get-together.

I don't expect there's a drum that big around here anyhow. They took down the old high-standing municipal water tank a few years ago, and it was plenty big, and I could've painted over all that “Srs. '78” and “Beat the Hornets” graffiti, but of course nobody back then was thinking about stockpiling gasoline and we let an old scrap dealer get away with the water tank for next to nothing, and probably even paid him to haul it off.

He had to take a cutting torch and cut it into big sheets and then bring in some special equipment to load the sheets onto a flatbed — or several flatbeds — and then negotiate those dangerous shifty wide loads over the narrow highways around here to get the scrap wherever he decided to take it, so we couldn't have charged him a whole lot for taking it off our hands, but if we'd seen this gasoline crisis coming you can bet we would've got more out of it than we did.

It wasn't right of him to take advantage of our lack of foresight, but I suppose there's nothing to be done about it now. Anyway, at the time, we had the notion that we might be taking advantage of him, and that wasn't right on our part, either, but that's how things work in the dog-eat-dog world of commerce.

The reason we took down the old water tank — this is what I've heard — was because someone at Homeland Security decided that a terrorist here in rural middle Arkansas might crash a crop-duster airplane into it, and do it in the middle of the night so that it would kill purt near all of us townsfolk by poisoning our drinking water with pesticide before we woke up the next morning and realized what was going on. This wasn't widely regarded as plausible, but, as I said, a different psychology held us in thrall in those days, and we weren't of a mind to take chances.



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