The missiles spared Sacramento. This confused a lot of folks. On its own, California was a nuclear superpower. Most of the Naval shipyards all the way from Mare Island clear down to 32nd Street in San Diego were either already outfitted for handling nuclear material or could be rapidly converted in wartime. Granted, California’s power and communications grids were, well, let’s go ahead and be generous and say that they weren’t particularly robust against enemy disruption. If you topple Sacramento, you gut the CA ARNG end strength. If you gut the ARNG end strength, the wide, beautiful beaches described by Walter Sobchak at Donny’s funeral are almost entirely free of pillboxes. Invading forces can waltz right in. But if Sacramento stands, every single armory will stand ready under titles 10 and 32 to repel enemy invaders. With the discipline the Guard forces have gained since their Iraq mobilizations, gone are the slapstick Mayberry days. The US Army National Guard is nearly indistinguishable from regular Army in terms of combat readiness. Sparing Sacramento was more than a mere tactical blunder, it was utter stupidity writ large. “What gives?” was the most common question I heard from the landlubber nomads I took up with from time to time, at least once they discovered that I was former military. It was one of the first questions Anika asked after she caught up with me two days outside the Louisiana plantation where her beloved pet rat was taken from her and fed to the merciless steel teeth of the mulcher.
I’ve never been exactly sure how to hedge speculation around kids. Even more-or-less rational adults in the best of circumstances are notoriously terrible at evaluating the quality of evidence, and even worse at adjusting their beliefs accordingly, particularly when the subject is alien to them and doubly particularly when the person offering information projects an air of authority. If adults are bad at this, just imagine how much worse kids are. And then take that, and remember that once upon a time, we forced our kids to sit in lecture halls for twelve years, absorbing the state’s catechism. The collapse of civilization may have been rough, but maybe it wasn’t all that bad, after all. Right?
When Anika first asked me “what gives?” about the sparing of Sacramento, I waved my hands and basically said I didn’t know. The second time though, I think her question was more pointed, and twofold. First, we were west of the Sierra Nevadas by then, heading north towards the old artichoke and lettuce fields, so the topic was appropriate for our journey’s destination. Second, and perhaps more important, since it didn’t make sense, tactically or strategically, a lot of folks worried that Sacramento was just the other shoe that hadn’t dropped… yet. Anika was a toddler when the lights winked out. If she remembered anything from those frenzied days, it’s probably all just a blur now. If she did catch any of the gossip about the purges, she probably wouldn’t have known what to make of it all. From her point of view, there might still be some Chinese aircraft carriers just off shore, waiting for Orchardland to slip into sleepy complacency just before they launch a single, devastating attack. From my point of view, Vladivostok probably didn’t have a pump casing ready in time to get one of the old Typhoons out of its berth in time for scheduled deployment.
Me: “It’s usually a good idea to stay away from conspiracy theories when plain incompetence will get the job done.”
Anika: “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Me: “It’s a lot more likely that Sacramento was spared because of a shipyard mistake than because of some sinister, inscrutable, diabolical plan by endlessly patient enemy forces.” I thought for a brief moment, then added, “it’s not that it’s impossible, just that it’s unlikely. Have you ever heard of Occam’s Razor?”
She wrinkled her nose a bit, rummaging through the cedar bin of her memory.
Anika: “We used to castrate the hogs with a razor. Is that what you mean?”
It took me a little longer to silently compose myself than it probably should have.
Me: “It’s been a while since I’ve seen the formal definition, but the idea is something like this: when you have a bunch of different possible explanations for something, the simplest one is most likely the closest to the correct one.”
Anika: “I like that. It sounds true.”
Me: “Well, the problem is that it’s just a guideline. It isn’t always true.”
Anika: “It isn’t?”
Me: “We’re about ten miles outside of the Sacramento city limits. You’ll see what I mean this afternoon.”
The citrus orchards in the south had been generous. Bumper crops mean lower prices. Lower prices mean more DHOJ (dehydrated orange juice, in case you’re reading this in a far future where FCOJ can finally make a comeback) in my ALICE pack. I liked to mix my DHOJ with my handmade stoneground peanut butter. It was bitter, revolting, and difficult to swallow. It made me feel alive in this dead world. Anika mixed it in her water to mask the iodine tablet’s pungent aroma. We split some possum jerky and passed the next few miles in silence.
The silence was broken when the first gallows pole swerved into view. Anika’s size six Converse All-Stars shuffled to a two-step halt on the cracked asphalt of I-5 and she uttered a tiny “meep.” I could tell that she was about to suggest we turn around and head for the Thornton Bypass. I preempted her objections.
Me: “That’s not for migrants.”
I don’t keep track of calendar years any more. I’m hardly alone in that. But I reckon that I’m about 40 now. And in the four decades I’ve spent on this green-blue orb we call earth, I cannot endeavor to identify a single instance in which someone has ever gazed at me with such a look of unvarnished, raw skepticism as what she shot me there under the noonday sun.
Me: “I’m serious. This is the Hanging Garden. Haven’t you ever heard of it?”
If anything, her pose radiated more skepticism. I was frankly impressed. It was quite a feat for a kid her age.
Me: “Look, I’ll show you. Check out the first platform. Do you see anything unusual?”
Anika: “It doesn’t look like it’s been used.”
Me: “But it has. Look: the trapdoor is down and the noose is still around the scaffold.”
Me: “So you don’t string the rope until just before the condemned is marched up the steps, and you definitely don’t leave the trapdoor just swinging there like that. What you see here is an old hanging. The birds and the wind and the rain have erased the obvious evidence that anyone ever kicked the wind here, but if you get a closer look at the rope, you’ll see two important things: it’s been out in the weather too long to be a good hanging rope anymore and it’s made of hemp.”
Anika: “It looks like a thick enough rope, I bet it could still hold the weight of a prisoner.”
Her hand snuck its way of to her throat. She’d obviously seen a hanging before, maybe back on the plantation. Capital punishment had come back in a big way on the mainland after things like DNA testing and constitutionally-guaranteed due process vanished for good. Explaining to an eight year old why this made sense using game theory seemed more trouble than it was worth. I made a mental note to broach the subject some other day.
Me: “It’s not the thickness or the strength. What you want to avoid in a hanging rope is springiness. A merciful hangman will want the snap to be fast and clean. If the condemned bounces at the bottom, or if his feet hit the dirt, the neck won’t break and he’ll slowly throttle to death. That’s cruel. That’s why you want a thick hangman’s knot, a generous drop, and a sturdy, new natural-fiber rope. This was a good gallows when it was first built. They used it for petty bureaucrats.”
Anika: “How do you know that?”
Me: “There’s an old English tradition. When you have to hang a noble, you use a silk rope. Americans didn’t have this rule, but Americans threw out a lot of the old English common law when they dumped all that tea into Boston Harbor.” I ignored the quick transformation from skepticism to puzzlement at this remark and continued, “for reasons I don’t quite understand, the mob in Sacramento decided to bring back the silken rope rule for elected officials above the midline of the ballot. This meant anyone from Sheriff to the Governor. Everyone else got hemp.”
Anika: “Why did they hang all those people?”
Me: “I’ve thought about that a lot these last few years.” By now, we had resumed our northward trek. She wasn’t exactly at ease, but she no longer looked like she was ready to scurry down the embankment. “I think folks finally got fed up with the pettifoggery and the tiny tyrannies. It doesn’t really take all that much effort for a determined mob to erect a makeshift gallows and begin stretching necks. And once you do it a couple dozen times in the frenzy of a riot, it’s a lot easier to set up a more methodical system. They split into two main groups: the fire brigade burned down all the government offices, from the FBI field office right down to the local DMV, and the hanging battalion rounded up the officials and the bureaucracy. The system, they argued, was beyond reasonable repair. Fire would cleanse the institutions and rope would end the ambitions of the people.”
Anika shivered, despite the early summer, mid-afternoon warmth. She fell pensive for a moment, then without lifting her eyes from her shoelaces muttered.
Anika: “Like Templeton.”
Anika: “Templeton. My friend. My rat friend. Don’t you remember? The day we met I had a rat with me. His name was Templeton and they just killed him, just like that.” She snapped her fingers. “He never hurt anyone and they killed him anyway. Put him in the mulcher.”
She seemed impossibly frail.
Me: “It’s almost never anyone’s specific fault. Incentives and institutions dominate human behavior, especially large, complex systems like whole societies. But any oncologist will tell you that the innocence of a metastasized cell is irrelevant. To save the patient, you have to excise the tumor.” I could tell my little speech wasn’t particularly convincing. “To… to save the Republic, we had to burn it to the ground.”
I looked to the horizon. Fading into the jagged, broken skyline of the dead city, bare nooses nodded their grim assent in a stippled grove of naked trees.