Grist for the Millennium

Y2K hucksters cash in on fear of cataclysmic calendar crash 'n' burn

One Mesa store with a booth at the summit, Grover's, recommends a year's food supply from Perma-Pak ($1,579) for each family member. Owner Rande Grover says the sales of survival products have increased "10 to 20 times" due to Y2K, but explains his rather extreme food supply recommendation is because he is Mormon and has always believed in maintaining a year's supply of food.

Another booth sells generators--Kawasaki, Yamaha, Winco--for anywhere from $700 to $2,500. Generators are a hot item, as the biggest fear among survivalists is losing electric power.

One shopper, looking at a generator price list remarks to a salesman, "You know, you can't get generators anymore in California."

And the salesman nods, encouraging his customer's concern, and recommends at least a 3,000-watt generator. Yet another vendor lending Y2K advice, another expert with a dog in this race.

In a sense, Wilson is also enabling this cottage industry.
Many survivalist equipment companies advertise in his magazine, though he says he's selective about which ads he'll run. One company wanted to advertise an army tank. Wilson said no.

Back in the main auditorium, some watching Wilson's speech get bored and leave. Wilson is, after all, reasonable, practical and inherently dull. It's no fun hearing Y2K will be an irritant, nothing more.

But wait. Here comes the next speaker on the roster: Ken Klein, a producer with a millennial video series for sale ($99). His spiel is more like it: The Book of Revelations! Satan! 666! Mandatory laser UPC bar code tattoos! UN invasions! This is fascinating stuff, and, admittedly, the stuff reporters want to quote. But it's also the material Y2K groupies most want to hear.

Klein draws the largest crowd--even more than Pat Boone--and audience members shout at him to continue when he exceeds his allotted time. Don't stop, give us more.

"If I go into overtime," he says joyously, "they can stone me!"
Klein is ecstatic because he sees the coming apocalypse as having wonderful potential. Many religious speakers here emphasize that the approaching millennium will result in untold thousands--millions, perhaps--giving themselves to Christianity. That such converts are gained out of fear doesn't seem to be a concern.

While Klein bravely goes into overtime at the podium, Wilson takes a cigarette break outside. Some of the other speakers are huddled a few feet away, leaving him alone.

Wilson has been traveling the Y2K lecture circuit for 10 months. With a bit of prompting, he gives up his private millennial prediction.

"It all hinges on electricity," he says. "Some places will lose power. Others will have periodic blackouts and brownouts. Electricity is the key."

Wilson has experienced blackouts, observed how lawlessness can become tempting. That's his fear. Without electricity, it doesn't matter if anything else is Y2K compliant.

It may seem like an awfully pessimistic view. As if Americans are electricity junkies, poised to panic the moment their never-ending fix is cut off. But Wilson has a point. Phoenix, for instance, is a city where homicides are regularly committed because of traffic altercations.

What if somebody of similar disposition is stuck in traffic for hours because street signals don't function? What if his home air conditioner doesn't work? What if he can't find food?

Y2K is not a computer problem, then, but a people problem. It's about shortage and fear of shortage. Attendees at this summit are, by and large, the Haves. They fear Y2K might make them the Have Nots. And for the hard-core survivalists, shortages among select products have already begun--you can't find generators in California.

That's why Wilson doesn't appreciate being called an "expert." There are too many so-called experts spreading panic to sell products that nobody needs.

"We got Y2K experts coming out of the woodwork," he says. "Every time I send a copy of my magazine off, I create another 'expert.' There are people at podiums across the country giving out [hysteria inducing] information."

"And you know what else? There's no such thing as a 'Y2K expert,'" Wilson says, "because nobody really knows what's going to happen."

Summit attendee Alyce Ball thanks God for Craig Smith, Rande Grover, Pat Boone and anybody else who has dedicated himself to meeting her needs. Her newfound needs.

"No one plans to fail," she says. "They only fail to plan."
And this time, Ball certainly hasn't failed to plan. Ball sits in her airy North Phoenix condo, surrounded by green plants, white shag carpeting and mirrors--many mirrors on every wall. She is in her 50s and today wears black and gold, her favorite colors. Ball has lived in this condo since her divorce, many years ago. She first heard about Y2K from a friend.

"At first, I pooh-poohed it," she says. "The government would never allow something like this to happen. Bill Gates will find a remedy."

But her friend was persistent, sending videos, audio tapes and literature, which, at first, Ball ignored. Then one day, Ball read a selection from Gary North's popular Y2K doom-mongering Web site. The passage concerned the railway system, which Ball believes is particularly susceptible to the millennium bug.

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