The old man in Cole’s novel lives in a postapocalyptic wasteland in the American southwest. Like the other members of his village, he salvages whatever he can find that still has value. He was once a hero, having made great finds, a refrigerator among them, but later he became a symbol of bad luck, cursed for bringing a radioactive radio into the village.
East is curst
Now the old man hunts alone.
‘If you couldn’t read, you wouldn’t have made it past the sentry gun. So you must be civilized. Or no one ever came and the building’s back-up batteries finally ran down, though that shouldn’t have happened for another hundred years after I wrote this. Which means I was the last and these markings mean nothing to you. So go ahead and burn it for fire. At least that might be the start of a civilization.’
‘If on the other hand you can read, it means you are probably from my time; is that the right answer? My civilization. You survived the bombs or knew someone who did and they taught you. I guess.’
The story starts easy enough, an old man decides to leave his granddaughter and his village behind and go look for scrap-page in the desert surrounding his community of survivors. Years ago, when he was still a child, America was attacked, bombed and a nuclear winter followed. After the winter passed, the survivors have found themselves holed up in different places. The Old man was somewhere near the Arizona desert.
His journey is similar to the one of “The old man and the sea” and he is faced with different dangers – a pack of wolves follows him, a massive man with a limp arm from a village of cruel savages follows him through the flash floods of the desert to kill him with a parking meter. Hunger and thirst are his constant companions.
He is craftfull and he manages to escape his dangers and survive.
On his journey, he ponders on where humanity has gone wrong and he is not the only one. In a hangar, he sees a set of rules left behind for future generations.
The Old Man continued down the tunnel and when he came to the next message he read: THERE CAN NEVER BE TWO ANSWERS TO THE SAME QUESTION. Further on he read: WE DIDN’T BELIEVE THOSE WHO HAD SWORN TO KILL US. WE TRIED TO FIRE GOD. POWER IS NEVER SATISFIED. BEWARE OF ANYONE WHO WANTS TO MAKE DESCIONS FOR YOU. PEOPLE WILL TELL LIES TO GET WHAT THEY WANT. A DIFFERENCE OF OPINION LEADS TO DEATH. CITIES BURN DOWN. FREEWILL WAS THE GREATEST GIFT EVER OFFERED. GOD IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT WE DID WITH IT. WE ARE. EVERY PLACE IS THE SAME. EVERYTHING YOU DO WILL BE FORGOTTEN. CHILDREN ARE THE ONLY THINGS YOU LEAVE BEHIND. CHILDREN ARE SMARTER THAN YOU THINK. HATE FIRE, AND OTHER THINGS THAT HURT YOU. HATE IS NOT WRONG WHEN WHAT YOU HATE IS WRONG. HISTORY HAS LIED TO US.
THE GOOD GUYS DIDN’T WIN.
DON’T LET SOMEONE SPEND MONEY WHO NEVER EARNED IT. DON’T LET ANYONE BUT A SOLDIER TELL YOU HOW TO FIGHT A WAR. IF YOU ABSOLUTLEY HAVE TO GO TO WAR, KILL EVERYONE. ROCKSTARS, ACTORS, AND POLITICIANS DON’T ACTUALLY DO ANYTHING. TEACHERS, ARCHITECTS, AND MOTHERS KNOW A LOT MORE THAN YOU THINK. THE YOUNG DISCOVERING THE WORLD FEEL LIKE CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS. THEY IGNORE THE INDIANS WHO HAVE BEEN HERE FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS. PEER PRESSURE IS WHEN YOU DECIDE TO LOB A FEW WARHEADS AT THIS WEEK’S NAZI BECAUSE CNN TOLD YOU TO . IT ONLY TAKES A BULLET TO SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE NAPOLEON, HITLER, POL POT, STALIN, SADDAM HUSSEIN. PEOPLE DON’T HATE EACH OTHER. THEY HATE EACH OTHER’S IDEAS. BEWARE OF THE SELF LOATHING GOVERNMENT.
These are like the ten commandments left from Moses to his people. A world that should be lived by the rules.
Here is what I think. Ready? Someone lived here. Lives here maybe even now. Or nearby. They wrote the words down in the tunnel as a warning to whomever comes next. Whomever? Not us. We are finished. We are just the survivors. But someday a society will happen. He left them a message. Telling them where we went wrong.
As he is walking through salvage from Phoenix to Picacho Peak, he reaches “the People’s” place. It’s a lawless place where women are raped and give birth to mutants and who kill their unwanted children by throwing them off a mountain edge (much like Spartans did with theirs).
They developed a society with no laws – as they believe the laws of men caused the jails to appear and evil to be spread into higher numbers and the atrocities to expand.
The Old Man stepped across the rotten charwood of the room and read the one marked ‘Laws of the People’.
THERE ARE NO LAWS
THERE IS NO GOD
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS WRONG
DON’T HATE ANYTHING
YOU ARE THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
Laws. Rules. I think that’s what lets people get along. It must have been shocking once someone wanted something that was yours. Or murdered someone you loved.
The post-apocalyptic novels like “The Stand” and “Oryx and Crake” are ultimately a story of finding out where humanity went wrong and a story of good versus evil and the hardness of rebuilding when all is lost. In “The long tomorrow“, the same type of observation arises about what people should be doing after a nuclear fallout (or a virus attack). Teach the kids how to hunt without guns (as bullets will run out) or teach the kids how to read so that they can rebuild society from the millions of books still in the libraries. Words can be there for ever and ever. But what good are words when you’re starving or slowly dying of radiation poisoning?
These words will be here long after I have gone. Long after my granddaughter’s granddaughters. The hieroglyphs in the pyramids were thousands of years old.
So why? Why do this? To tell the story. Maybe a warning. To who? Whoever comes next.
So who’s to say he’s right? He is, I guess. I don’t know that I will be around to argue. Do you agree?
The Old Man considered the world above. The frozen ground after the bombs. The ones who died of radiation sickness. The hunger. What it looked like when the United States ended in his review mirror that day at the beginning of his present life.
I will not spoil the ending but let me tell you it was very good. In search for salvage for his village, the old man knows more about the world and himself than when he started on this journey. He has grown wiser and if he survives, his story will be one that will not be easy to forget.
About the author
Nick Cole is a working actor living in Southern California. When he is not auditioning for commercials, going out for sitcoms or being shot, kicked, stabbed or beaten by the students of various film schools for their projects, he can often be found as a guard for King Phillip the Second of Spain in the Opera Don Carlo at Los Angeles Opera or some similar role. Nick Cole has been writing for most of his life and acting in Hollywood after serving in the U.S. Army.
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