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I hadn't heard from Butch Forest since about this time last year, when I had just finished writing about the La Porte entrepreneur and his semi-industrial brand of living off the land in a Houston Press cover story ["King of the Pile," December 17, 1998], but the voice on the answering machine was unmistakably his.
"Give me a call," he said. "I've got a present for you."
When I finally tracked him down on his new cell phone, he told me to drive on down to his place -- he and his wife are holed up in a mobile home near the fire-damaged house where most of Forest's stuff is stored -- and told me again that he had a present for me.
What, I wanted to know, was the present.
"Well, it's boxes."
"What are you doing about New Year's Eve?" he wanted to know.
"I got some boxes of supplies for you. What kind of food do you eat?"
Most kinds, I guess.
"Are you worried about your water going out?"
Not really, I told him. I guess maybe...
"Here's what you do," he instructed, jumping right in. "Get yourself a waterbed mattress -- you can get one cheaper than those storage barrels everyone's trying to sell -- you put it in your backyard and fill it with water. You have an attic? You want running water? You put your mattress up in your attic before you fill it up, then run a hose down into the house, you've got running water. How about that?"
I told Butch I'd come down the next weekend for my present, and then just out of curiosity, called Wal-Mart. King-size waterbed mattresses, it turns out, sell for a mere $39.96. Not, it seemed, a bad idea.
Butch Forest doesn't actually think much of consequence will change with the turn of the new year, and what problems there may be, he suspects, will be caused by folk waiting until the last minute to buy their just-in-case supplies, like the consumer rush before an incoming hurricane. Either way, though, he'd rather be safe than sorry, and dealing as he does in the weird economic niche of bulk barter and warehouse liquidation, it's easy enough for Butch to put his hands on thousands of cans of food in the course of his usual business, whereas most of the people he knows are already so strapped by the demands of the holiday season that stockpiling isn't an option.
Using a homemade arithmetic, he estimates that a family of two can eat well on a diet consisting of two cans for breakfast (canned milk and fruit), three cans for lunch (beans, corn and meat) and another three cans for dinner; Forest figures eight cans a day will support two people almost indefinitely. Over the past three months, he has amassed enough cans for ten families to eat for two to three months.
"If nothing happens, we just donate it to the women's shelter. You can't lose."
In the meantime, though, an entire room of Forest's mobile home is stocked with canned goods and boxes of over-the-counter medicines and tissue paper, and every closet is packed with cartoonish quantities of canned tuna and pickle jars and bags of candy. He has more than he thinks he'll need, more than he thinks his hypothetical ten families will need; from the excess he is compiling Y2K packages for a short list of friends and associates -- apparently I fall into this category -- in much the same way that a different sort of businessman might send out fruit baskets or honeybaked hams.
Butch hands me a box and leads me into the storage room.
"Take 50 or 60 cans," he says. "Whatever you like to eat."
There are canned pintos, and tomato halves, and refried beans, and green beans, and peas, and corn both kerneled and creamed, and a dozen varieties of soup, and beef broth, and pickles, and nuts, and fruit cocktail, and peanut butter, and tuna, and chili with beans and without.
Never mind that many of the cans are dented. As long as the tops aren't puffed out, Butch swears, they'll be okay, and besides, if they've gone bad you'll know it when they explode upon opening. So I take them, though I'm not at all sure it's a good idea. I later call the consumer service numbers on several of the cans, and they say they don't recommend that I eat them -- advice no doubt inspired by an army of corporate lawyers. But on a recent camping trip I do in fact eat several of them, and they're just fine.
Then there's the medicine. Cold and allergy tablets, vitamins, itch cream, almost all of it recently past its expiration date. Again I call the companies. They say they don't test their products for use after the expiration date, so they can't say what might happen if they're used. Butch swears that the medicine's efficacy simply wears down after the expiration dates, that vitamins slowly become less effective, that's all. Maybe he's right. Who knows.
I load four boxes into the back of my truck, and then Butch starts in with the extras. Listerine and small plastic garbage bags (for portable and semi-sanitary toilets should the sewer system go down); boxes and boxes of crackers (nutritionally similar to bread, but last much longer); toilet paper (the last thing you'd want to be without).
As the new year draws near, maybe a week before, Butch says, he'll finish off his "punch list" of items. He'll make sure that both of his vehicles and his wife's car are full of gasoline. Plus he's going to stash away another hundred gallons or so at various locations. He's going to load up on propane canisters to fuel the campstove he's got lined up to heat food.
And then there's those waterbed mattresses to buy.
Come the actual day itself, Butch says, he'll be at home in La Porte, or in any case, no more than about a mile from there. And just so the switch to 2000 still feels like a celebration, even through the fearful fog of millennial maybes, Butch Forest will have on hand a dozen or so bags of his favorite candy, Reese's Pieces, because some things just aren't worth surviving without.
E-mail Brad Tyer at email@example.com.