Year of Living Dangerously

Deep, deep below a gun shop in far west Houston, they waited.

It was almost exactly a year ago that they entered the vault and descended the circular stairway to their new home. Others -- the nonbelievers -- had scoffed that all this "Y2K" business was hogwash, media hype, and that society and government and the country would weather any crisis.

As they climbed down the steps at the approach of 2000, this collection of Houstonians knew better. Y2K would wreak havoc on computers, food supplies, the monetary system and the very fabric of America; chaos would reign and mere anarchy would be loosed upon the world.

They had packed well. The shelves of their stronghold were lined with nonperishable food items, everything from canned meat to powdered milk to the "snacks" that Southwest Airlines serves on its longer flights. Cell phones were charged and ready to communicate with the outer world if the need arose. Education was not forgotten: Both the kiddies and the adults would be able to indulge in an intellectual feast courtesy of back issues of Soldier of Fortune and The Limbaugh Letter.

These survivalists would have the last laugh. When the rest of the world cratered shortly after December 31, 1999, they would be safe, snug and happy in their new home. If somehow society didn't collapse, they'd be none the worse for their underground vacation.

It was simply a matter of staying inside their fortress until it was safe to come out. It would do no good to survive the first few months of chaos only to open their doors prematurely and step right into madness. They had to sit tight until the time was right.

A simple plan. But like so many simple plans, it soon went awry.

The first trouble sign was the cell phones. The idea was to call up to folks who had elected to stay above ground and get a feel for what was going on.

But most of the phones wouldn't work. Bob, head of the Communications Committee, insisted it was because they were 150 feet underground; he also darkly hinted that Construction Committee chair Wally had ineptly built their new home in the middle of "a bad cell." Wally pointed out that Bob had chosen his contractor based on the number of photocopied flyers the company had stapled to telephone poles.

Matters worsened when residents discovered that one of their number, an engineer named Dave, had used one of the few good phones three times a week to call the sports-radio shows to see how A&M was doing in recruiting. Compounding the residents' frustration was the fact that Dave, trying to sound like an old pro, inevitably would ask his question and then say, "I'll hang up and listen." With no radio reception available in their lair, the residents soon found themselves deprived not only of cell phones but of any information on the Aggies.

But Dave didn't have an engineering degree for nothing, and he set out to make things right. The batteries on the cell phones were so low that calling out was no longer an option, although he jury-rigged a few together in the hope that they could at least intercept some calls from the surface.

He thus inadvertently created the First Crisis of Confidence.

Hopes soared when Dave announced that he had the system working.

"I'm tapped into the official City of Houston cell-phone system," he said.

The crowd groaned. "The City of Houston? You expect us to get any kind of truth from a bunch of politicians?" one resident asked.

"I'm no fool," Dave retorted. "I'm not proposing we listen in on the mayor or one of those lefty councilmembers. But what would you say if I told you I could tap into Rob Todd's cell phone?"

Instantly, frowns turned into smiles. If there was a beacon of truth Up There in Houston, it would be Rob Todd, the family-values paragon who didn't let council business take too much time away from excoriating Bill Clinton and other Democrats for their decadent Bible-flouting ways.

"Now you're talking!" exulted Johnny, the group's leader. "Turn it on!"

Moms ran to gather up their kids. Just like families would congregate around the radio to listen to one of FDR's fireside chats, little groups of survivalists shared their nervous expectations as they got ready to listen to an elected official they could trust.

Static crackled through the speakers at first. Everyone leaned closer as they could begin to make out the reassuring sound of Todd's voice.

"What're you wearin', baby?" they heard.

And they heard more. A lot more. Moms held their hands over their kids' ears, but it just went on and on. Eventually they sent the young ones out of the room. Not too much later, the moms left the room. The dads stayed, to get ideas.  

It went on for hours, and days. At any time of the day or night, the phones would crackle to life and Suave Rob's dulcet tones would fill the room, talking to a woman that the residents eventually figured out was the wife of Todd's fellow Councilmember Bert Keller. "Doesn't he ever shut up?" Dave wondered.

A meeting was called. "It's disinformation!" one member yelled. "The liberals obviously have taken over the phone system and are trying to discredit our Rob!"

But that theory was soon dismissed -- no government, not even one run by Democratic-socialist-liberals, would spend so much time on the phone trying to discredit an opponent.

Despondency reigned in the underground world. Group leader Johnny, sensing the crisis, offered his own theory. "Look, folks, Bert Keller got caught driving while intoxicated and leaving the scene of an accident, right? He's a stand-up, tough-on-crime guy, so he must have done the honorable thing and accepted a jail sentence, right?"

"I guess," the residents said, knowing that even if he wasn't in jail, Keller would be very, very busy doing all his required community service work. And concentrating on not drinking or getting further traffic tickets.

"Now that means Rob can't keep in touch with Bert," Johnny continued. "But remember what was happening just before we came down here? The impeachment, the Monica mess. Rob can't talk to Bert, but he's trying to keep him informed. All that dirty talk is just him reading the Starr Report to Bert's wife so she can pass it on to Bert when she visits him."

Heads nodded. Johnny couldn't be sure if they bought it or not. But like a good leader, he knew they'd believe it because they wanted to believe it.

"And you can bet Rob reimbursed the city for all that cell-phone use, too," he added, for good measure.

Still, disquiet grew. Perhaps things were turning completely topsy-turvy up above. Was it possible that they were doomed to live underground for the rest of their lives?

Johnny again demonstrated the leadership that made him Salesman of the Month three months running at the gun shop. He ruled that one person be sent Up to reconnoiter.

Unwittingly, he unleashed the Second Crisis of Confidence.

Joe was picked as the man for the job. Levelheaded, they said. A good observer.

The plan was to send him downtown to survey the situation. Was grass growing on the streets? Were River Oaks matrons on the corners selling Steuben bowls for food? Had construction begun on the convention center hotel?

The residents braced themselves for bad news. But they never expected to hear what they did.

A wild-eyed Joe sat in the main room. He had run back home as fast as he could, and his was a tale that shook the residents to their very souls.

"It was awful," Joe said. "I went downtown, and there was this huge rally. People were in the streets screaming and cheering and worshiping this one man on stage. I can't begin to tell --"

"Who was this man?" Johnny barked. "Who has taken control of the masses? Was it Lee Brown? Was it one of Bill Clinton's stooges? Please tell me it was Tom DeLay, or at least Steve Hotze!"

"N-n-no," Joe stammered. "It was Bob McNair."

"Bob McNair?" a resident asked. "The guy who bought that new NFL team that they're going to name the Texans?"

"That's the guy. He was up there on stage, and every politician you could name was giving speeches saying he was the greatest person alive for what he had done," Joe said.

"What? Paying $700 million for a football team? There has to be more to it," Johnny said.

"There may be, but I was too scared to find out. That crowd was fanatical, I'm telling you. And every TV station and radio station was in town, and a bunch of reporters from the Chronicle."

Ominous visions -- directed by Leni Riefenstahl -- popped up in everyone's heads. Beer-soaked crowds following a Great Man, one who promised distractions from their sordid and dreary lives, one who pledged to restore the tradition of what once was.

"Maybe the media was there to expose this movement and nip it in the bud," one hopeful resident said.

"Not a chance -- they were in on the cover-up," Joe snorted. "Here was this big rally, here were all these worshipful speeches, and if you read the paper or watched TV they would have had you believe it was all just a ceremony to announce the name of the new football team."  

"The name? Hell, even we knew it was going to be the Texans," Johnny said. "What kind of idiot goes downtown to hear a name being announced? What kind of media outlet would just give it fawning press-release coverage?"

Slowly, the realization came. There was some kind of sinister political movement going on above ground. Bob McNair was raising an army of unquestioning, worshipful fanatics to do his will. And the media was all a part of it.

"We're staying down here," Johnny said, before going off to brood.

Houston, it seemed, had indeed given in to post-Y2K chaos.

Tempers grew short in the bunker. Johnny had known this would happen, so as a precaution he had taped a year's worth of the cheery light-and-bright stories that Channel 13's Dave Ward offered viewers at the end of the ten o'clock news each night.

But Johnny knew something was deeply wrong when even Ward's tales of faithful dogs or wacky DJ stunts or people doing things in the nude that aren't usually done in the nude failed to raise spirits. He considered playing his ace in the hole -- reading from Chronicle columnist Ken Hoffman's recycled Milton Berle jokes -- but that was a Last Resort, to be used to keep morale together only if they heard nuclear devices going off overhead.

Instead he decided on another scouting mission. Just how far had Bob McNair gone in his insane plan to rule Houston?

He briefed Joe again. "Look, even if he did bring football back to Houston, McNair can't be some kind of god," Johnny said. "What about the Astros? Didn't Enron Field open? With all that extra cash, Drayton McLane must have gotten some players to get over the hump, and a World Series win would steal the spotlight from McNair! We need answers, dammit!"

Joe went out into the bleak world again.

When he came back a few days later, he was a beaten man. He sagged visibly in his chair. The others tried to pump him for information.

"Don't tell me -- they got beat in the playoffs again," said Dave. "Those damn Braves!"

"No, it's worse than that," Joe said.

Their eyes grew wide in disbelief as Joe related the tale of the Astros' season: Enron Field had opened, all right -- and beers were more than five dollars each. Drayton had taken his new gift from the taxpayers and had cut the payroll, getting rid of Mike Hampton and Carl Everett because, ummm, he needed their lockers to store all his extra cash, Joe reasoned. Jose Lima had experienced a disastrous season. Ken Caminiti missed much of the year with injuries. The team had lost 90 games, just after a season in which they had won 97.

The residents huddled together.

"Obviously Joe got drugged by whatever McNair's putting in the water up there," one said. "Drayton would never cut the payroll after he got a new stadium for free -- that would go against everything he said during the referendum on whether to build the thing."

"And trade Hampton, of all people?" said another. "That'd be as nuts as trying to make an outfielder out of Daryle Ward. No one's that stupid."

"Sure, I believe the bit about Caminiti getting hurt. But Jose Lima tanking? He's just too darn irrepressible!"

It was agreed that Joe would be given a nice, long rest. Everyone assured him that they really, really did believe in a land of five-dollar beers where owners magically transformed playoff-quality teams into also-rans. They played him a lot of Dave Ward tapes.

But after he was safely stored away, they worried. What if McNair had co-opted McLane into his crazy scheme?

"He still couldn't pull it off," Johnny said. "Look, you can't consider a city to have gone totally off the deep end just because it spends $250 million for a baseball field and $380 million for football stadium. Remember: Just before we came down here, Houston rejected that nutty deal to build the Rockets an arena. So there is still some common sense up there!"

"Boss, I don't know," Dave said. "What if the Rockets had another referendum?"

"No way," Johnny snorted. "Remember all their bleating and whining? "If we lose this vote, we are definitely leaving town. We are gone. It's now or never.' There's no way they could come back and try to pull another vote off. What are they gonna say? "This time, we really, really mean it'? Who'd fall for that?"  

"Yeah, I guess you're right," Dave answered. "But maybe we should send someone up to check, just in case."

This time Dave was chosen to go up.

"And don't waste your time asking how A&M is doing in recruiting!" Johnny ordered. "I've been down here ten months, and I'll tell you how they're doing -- great! One of the best classes in the nation! They got them a quarterback who's going to finally open up the offense! And a year from now he'll be playing strong safety! It's the same every year, for crying out loud!"

Chastened, Dave went up. He stopped at Hooters, where one of the sports-talk shows was doing a remote. (A&M had the inside track on a back-up halfback out of Port Neches-Groves, he discovered.) He wanted to bribe a fellow diner into asking whether the hosts thought A&M would win the Big 12 South next year, but he knew he had a mission.

It was a mission he wished he'd never gone on.

When he returned to the bunker, he looked even more crestfallen than Joe had.

"What is it -- don't tell me they're building an arena," one asked.

"It's worse," Dave said.

"What? What could be more foolhardy than building three luxurious sports palaces, one right after the other?"

"It's it's"

"Spill it, son. It can't be that bad."

"It's the Olympics."

The group started giggling, relieved that Dave simply had been playing a joke on them by trying to act so shaken up.

"You scamp, you. You sure it wasn't the Iditarod Sled Race they're trying to get?"

"Yeah, or Wimbledon? Maybe the city's working on a bid to host the British Open at Memorial Park," another laughed. "The Olympics Good one, Dave. You had us worried."

Slowly they realized Dave was serious.

"You don't mean they're actually trying to get the Olympics in Houston, do ya?"

Dave just slowly nodded his head.

"We're staying," Johnny said, and went off to his room to brood once again.

The Y2K bug was a tougher bastard than any of them thought, he pondered to himself. First it makes Rob Todd crazy -- Johnny wasn't fooling himself, no matter what he told the others: No politician with the common sense God gave a dust mite would use a city cell phone to make $4,000 worth of calls to his colleague's wife.

Then the Astros collapse. You couldn't tell him that that wasn't all part of a plan -- no team drops so far, so fast without an ulterior motive.

Most troubling was the rise of McNair. Anointed as some sort of deity, with crowds in the streets and the media in his pocket. McNair had a plan to take over society, one that somehow involved building a lot of overpriced athletic facilities. If only Johnny could see what the plan was, he could stop it. But he just couldn't figure it out. Johnny knew his limitations, and he knew that more subtle minds than his were behind all this.

There was only one thing to do: He had to check out the situation himself.

He told the others he was going up. As he climbed the stairway he braced himself for the hellish vision he would have to endure: jackbooted thugs marching down Westheimer with McNair logos on their shirts, demanding that Houston build a new superbox-laden stadium for billiards, or Ping-Pong, or pinochle; Rob Todd, drooling into the receiver at a council meeting; the Astros, still trying to convince themselves Daryle Ward's an outfielder. He shuddered.

As he wandered around the city, however, he soon began to realize that nothing much had really changed. He found himself smiling at all the traditional things that made Houston Houston, all the little things he had taken for granted: Metro, still insisting it was going to spend hundreds of millions on light-rail; Allen Parkway Village, as ever a work in progress; the Houston Chronicle, still trying to make it seem that George W. Bush isn't really goofy.

This was still the city he knew, he told himself. This was still the city that could put an outdoor ice rink downtown and act surprised when it gets mushy on a 70-degree December day. This was still the Can Do city that led the nation in ozone problems and damn well wasn't going to let some so-called federal government make it do anything about it.

He felt as giddy as George Bailey shouting "Merry Christmas" to the ol' Building & Loan. It was all still here: the chemical fumes rising from the surface of the Ship Channel; the traffic cones on I-45; the pretentious soon-to-be-closed bars downtown.  

He saw that Y2K had failed to vanquish the indefatigable crassness of Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale: Something called the " Bowl"? What a perfect way to tell the world, "We're Houston!" (Or perhaps, "We're Houston, and we're embarrassed by the guy too!")

Maybe someday soon, he thought, the Aggies would get a chance to play in the Bowl, which no doubt will be around for years and years.

He saw that free enterprise, in the form of heedless yuppies, was continuing to transform that Sodom called Montrose into a condo-filled family fun center with no trace of anything that might offend. If this kept up, he thought gleefully to himself, the yuppies in the condos might soon be calling in noise complaints about bars that had long been there. Pretty soon Montrose might even become a gated community!

He saw that Steve Hotze, the political kingmaker who taught Rob Todd everything he needed to know about unctuous family values, had himself been charged with driving while intoxicated. Johnny opened a beer in celebration.

He saw that HL&P was now Reliant Energy, but he saw that Reliant hadn't lost any of its legendary chutzpah -- even while raising rates, the company was spending $300 million for naming rights to the Astrodome and the new football stadium.

He saw all this, and he saw it was good. It was Houston. Sure, the city might have been thrown a bit by the new millennium, but it was still itself. It had survived into 2000 and weathered the year just the same as ever.

Johnny strolled back to the gun shop, knowing soon he'd be back selling AK-47s to hunters who apparently were going up against some really, really agile deer. And with a Bush in the White House, well, things were looking up in the old right-to-bear-arms department.

He threw open the massive steel doors. His people looked up expectantly.

"We wait no longer, folks," he said grandly. "It's time to rejoin our city."

They walked up the circular stairway to the light. Blinking, covering their eyes from whatever sun cut through the chemical haze, they looked around in awed thanks.

"You know," said one as he peered at the vacant land surrounding the gun shop, "this would really be a great place for some town homes and a strip shopping center."

"I get dibs on the Blockbuster franchise," another chimed in.

Johnny smiled. Y2K was definitely over.

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