Monday, October 31, 2016

Pseudo-Post Apocalyptic

In previous posts I’ve given you stories about dancing seabirds, fascinating flowers, endangered seals, and charming men from Thailand. Today though I want to share with you a darker view of Midway. If you’re the kind of person that has bad dreams after reading disturbing things, this might not be the blog post for you. And if there are children in the room, this might be a good time to lock them in the coal closet (well, at least that’s what my parents used to do when they wanted to get rid of us for a spell).

Upon arriving at Midway I was struck by the incredible abundance of seabirds which, coupled with the remoteness of the island and the lack of fear exhibited by wildlife, give the island a surreal flavor for sure. Visitors to the Galapagos or other remote islands would likely have similar impressions and feelings. But the strangeness didn’t stop there. Riding my bicycle across pot-holed roads, among derelict buildings, passing by rusty heaps of scrap metal and old guns, with not another human soul in sight, I have often found myself thinking about what it would be like to one of a handful of survivors of some kind of apocalypse. Some of these buildings are impressive hulks that can even be entered to consummate the feeling of post-nuclear near-annihilation. The seaplane hangar, which suffered great damage during a Japanese bombing raid during World War II, is a great place to do some thinking about the fragility of human societies.

The Seaplane Hangar, an enormous steel framed building  was bombed
on December 7th, 1941 and nearly destroyed. Though never repaired, it's still used for storage.

Many aspects of life on Midway add to the impression that we live in some sort of post-apocalyptic world. It is a motley crew out here: a dozen or so Americans that for whatever reason decided to station themselves thousands of miles from anywhere. Add to this a couple dozen men from Thailand that certainly must be escaping something, if only perhaps pitiful wages in their home country. When away from my desk and computer, it’s not hard to imagine that this we are the only ones in the world remaining.  Although writers and filmmakers have imagined many variations on what the world might be like should catastrophe come to pass, most agree that motorized modes of transportation would be scarce as the facilities used in the production of oil and gasoline would be the first targets hit. So if we forget about the birds for minute we can easily imagine a more sinister reason why Midway’s residents travel about the island on old rusty bicycles and golf carts.

Midway's only ambulance seems to be a relic passed on from another, more prosperous time and is an example of the island's tradition of keeping old equipment in service as long as possible.

Folks on the island seem to be pretty much oblivious to things happening in the outside world, including even major US elections1. I remember an occasion last summer when a group of a dozen or so of us argued back and forth on the topic of when and where the Olympic Games were to be held that summer. After five minutes of back and forth – in both English and Thai – no one could offer a definitive answer we weren't even sure if they had already happened or not. It was almost like we were discussing something hypothetical or imaginary. In the so-called civilized world, this kind of ridiculous conversation, unlikely as it might be, would quickly be settled with someone pulling out a smartphone to look it up, but given the lack of connectivity here at Midway that is not something that ever happens. It’s not that people don’t have smartphones, most do, but in proper post-apocalyptic fashion, they seem more like souvenirs from a more technologically-advanced world that was left behind.

Derelict and dilapidated: a few of Midway's pseudo-post-apocalyptic treasures. Clockwise from upper left: The old power plant where WWII hero George Cannon suffered fatal injuries yet refused to leave his post; abandoned office in old Naval Air Facilities (NAF) hangar; massive generators of the old power plant; mysterious cross and refrigerator in room in NAF hangar.

Nothing speaks post-apocalypse better than Midway’s “boneyard”, an assortment of junk piles that covers several acres by the harbor. It is here – not Wal-Mart – that residents of the atoll go when they find themselves in need of something. In fact, on Midway, when you say you’re going “shopping”, it means you’re heading over to the boneyard to find something (wear sturdy shoes and be sure you're up to date on your tetanus vaccinations). Here I’ve found old, but serviceable, aluminum poles, cricket bats, a functional cooler, a giant bolt that I use as a stake, snowshoes, and a table and chair. You could also find wrecked cars, boats heavy equipment (there is, I think, a giant asphalt-grinding machine), washing machines, refrigerators, satellite dishes and nearly anything else you might desire. Common household trash judged to have no value is taken to a giant burn pile on the edge of the island an on certain days when the wind is right the acrid smoke burns your nostrils as it blows by. But anything that could even possibly find purpose in the future is hoarded. There are small piles of possibly valuable things cached nearly everywhere on the island. Closets are crammed with surplus clothing, spare rooms in houses piled high with old furniture and nick knacks, and a drawer in the kitchen of my with dozens of MREs (the famous “meals, ready to eat” which have caused nearly as many cases of post-traumatic stress disorder as shell shock). Should materials be needed for the set of the next Mad Max sequel, the boneyard would be a profitable place to seek them.

There's something for everyone in the Boneyard. At first glance it looks somewhat
random but closer inspection reveals considerable organization.

The hydroponic garden, located next the abandoned, former dining hall, provides fresh vegetables to supplement the island exile’s diet of canned and deep-frozen foods, and could also be envisioned in a post-apocalyptic outpost. But as soon as my stomach's rumbling sends me to the Clipper House for lunch, the illusion falls apart. Whereas my fantasy had me living disconnected from the outside world and post-civilization, life here on Midway is in reality completely the opposite. Food grown in various parts of the world is hauled in by ship and by jet. Thousands of gallons of fuel are burned each month to keep the lights on and the air conditioners humming. And even if most island residents ignore the news, they maintain close communication with family and friends back home and frequently share photos and stories through social media thanks to our satellite communications system. Maybe what we have here is more like pseudo-post apocalyptic?

Midway has played a key role throughout US military history including as a surveillance outpost
during the Cold War years.

While it is true that many of the things that lend Midway a post-apocalyptic feel are simply a consequence of its remoteness and decaying infrastructure, it is hard to escape the historical importance it's held during times when it seemed not too far fetched that the most world's most powerful nations might just bomb each other into oblivion. The Battle of Midway is famously recognized as a pivotal victory for the US against the Japanese. Less well known is the role that Midway played during the Cold War. Shortly after the Korean War the Soviet Union began military maneuvers in the Pacific prompting the US to deploy the “Airborne Early Warning Barrier”, a system to keep track of Soviet planes. Midway was a key resource with over 30 flight crews stationed on the atoll and flights departing the island's airfield every four hours to conduct surveillance across the Pacific all the way to Adak Island in the Aleutians. Midway also served an important function during the Vietnam war, as a fueling station for ships and aircraft and also as a base for the Missile Impact Locating System and other weapons programs. Should things have gone a little differently in this small corner of the globe, it is hard to say how things would have turned out but it would probably be fair to say that there were times when apocalypse was a very real possibility.

1 - A notable exception was the recent death of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej which was was met by island residents with deep sadness.

Postscript: Popular culture has conjured many visions for a post-apocalyptic world but none for me has been more compelling than The Road  by Cormac MacCarthy. In this dark novel, the protagonists, an unnamed father and his son (the boy), wander through a world so ruined that nature as we know it no longer exists. A recommended, though very dark, read!


  1. Really interesting and I can just picture it. Thanks Rob! Glad it wasn't as dark as The Road though. I almost didn't make it through that one, but of course, had to keep reading!

  2. Thoroughly loved this post! Your descriptions and concepts tie together the present and times past, humans in their environment (read natural world). I will look forward to your next update!

    I wish I could go scout in the bone yard.

  3. Excellent post, honey! I especially love the vision of y'all arguing over the locale of the Olympics! And I love the ambulance - it really still runs?!

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  5. I just discovered your wonderful blog as I was doing some research on a blog I have. I see you haven't written since you left Midway, and that's because this blog was about your time on Midway. But I do hope you still get notices of comments. Your experiences are so like mine when I was there!