Survival Books—Some Recent Reads

June 11, 2012

Read the full post for details.

I’m reading survival books. It’s not something I should be doing. In fact I think there is a clause in my relationship contract which prohibits me from doing so—in an effort to head off nightmares and other late-night terrors. I know survival programs on television are definitely off limits—the “I should be dead” franchise sort of thing.

I’m the type of person who has an endless capacity and energy to think through worse case scenarios. Dick jokes that I have a better utility belt than Batman. But beneath that jovial layer of kidding lies the hard reality of a mind always whirring noisily with “what-if?” schemes. 

I spent too many hours as a child sitting in the laps of men who had survived Bataan, or who were Japanese POWs in WWII. I listened to everything. And I learned early on it it was always important to wear sensible shoes and carry a couple essentials.

Of course over the years those essentials grew to include things I could survive without—my journal is ultimately a luxury even though it is how I process; dental floss is an essential. (In a pinch I can use dental floss to lash small things together.)

I don’t actively seek out the survival section in the bookstore (Yes, there is one!). Despite that avoidance I have ended up over the years with quite a number of books that have SAS (Special Air Service) in their titles. If push came to shove (and with my dislike of heights it would have to come to that) I could fashion a rudimentary harness and repel down the side of…well something. I could lash things together to make longer or stronger things; I could braid and weave a hat from non-poisonous vegetation; and I know not to eat a diet solely consisting of polar bear liver—you’ll die of vitamin A poisoning, something North Pole explorers have understood since 1596. (I try to keep up.)

Mostly I just try to keep myself out of any situations involving polar bears. I dated a geologist in college who spent his summers in the arctic doing research. He told me polar bears could smell you 20 miles away, upwind (i.e., the wind is blowing towards you—you should smell them way before they smell you). You do not have to be someone who had the privilege to work with two amazing scent dogs to understand how incredibly awesome a feat that is—and how overwhelmingly demoralizing it is for anyone lower than a polar bear on the food chain.

Even with the prohibitions and restrictions in my life centering on survival books and media, the other day I found myself in the survival section of Barnes and Noble. It is next to “Sports.” (At least in the HarMar store.)

I was looking for books on golf for my father’s birthday. All the golf books were in the “how to create the perfect swing for the rest of your life” mode. 

Since my father is 83, even though he is healthy, I thought any books in that vein would appear too tardy, an afterthought, or simply in bad taste; almost an affront or commentary on his skills to date (which actually are excellent).

So in order to avoid what could only be interpreted as an “ironic” gift, given my record in the family as “lippy,” I rounded the corner of the bookshelf and started to search through the vast miscellaneous sports section, in search of a mis-shelved golf book or a sports memoir of someone my father might have enjoyed—someone who didn’t use steroids. 

Suddenly the subject on the shelf changed to biking, and then abruptly the titles were all “Survival.”

If the books had been less shopworn (and why is that exactly?) I would have come home with many more titles. What I purchased were the following:

SAS and Elite Forces Guide, Ropes and Knots: Essential Rope Skills from the World’s Elite Units, by Charles Stronge (Isn’t that wonderful? I couldn’t make this shit up.)

“Includes step-by-step guides and expert advice for each knot.” (Don’t you love it?!)

(Note to self—they seriously need help designing covers! It’s arguably the most unattractive book I’ve ever purchased.)

As promised the book is full of diagrams and instructions for knotting. Did you know that a jury rig is the knot used to lash a broken mast together so you can still sail home? (The last time I was at sea I was 14 or 15—but it’s good to know, if for no other reason than people are always talking about jury rigging something or other out of nothing; it's fun to know where the phrase came from.)

What struck me immediately upon opening this book is why doesn’t anyone who wants to try out for “Survivor” read this book and know all this before they ever show up for the show? Useful knots like the Palomar knot, the Jansik Special, and the Turle knot would benefit anyone trying to fish. Knowing how to set a snare or make a basket trap might have helped several contestants in their bid to win the one million dollar prize.

If you’re interested in knots you might want to check out this book. If you’re going on “Survivor,” read it without delay.

I also purchased:

Getting Out Alive: 13 Deadly Scenarios and How Others Survived, by Scott B. Williams. 

I’ve only dipped into this book. I can’t do more than that. I have to look away…Maybe that’s why people read these books—the same people read these books as puddle and rubberneck around car wrecks. (I simply cannot even look at a wreck—even before my first responder training.)

This book has descriptions of what you can expect on day 1, 2, 3…of your ordeal. (Just watch the original “Flight of the Phoenix” with a wrenching performance by James Stewart and a marvelously nuanced and balanced performance by Richard Attenborough if you want to see what happens to your body in the desert.)

Interspersed throughout these chapters are “cases.” These are short blurbs about actual events. Often they don’t turn out well.

Each chapter ends with a list of tips like “10 Top Tips for Making It Out of the Jungle Alive.”

(For me, in a book on survival I guess I would like all the tips please, even if there are 11 or 15.)

The book is totally hampered by the lack of an index, which pegs it as a book for voyeurs, so I cannot give it a recommendation, though its chatty presentation may help you remember some of the information should you later find yourself in the middle of an "ordeal."

I’m still puzzling over the scenario of a woman who drown in 1988 in with one leg stuck in Alaskan tidal mud. As the tide recedes the mud, which is a fine silt, captures whatever gets stuck in it like cement. On the date in question equipment was needed to pump the young woman out. They didn't have time to set up the equipment. The tide returned while she was being held up by a state trooper; supported until the water covered her head and she drowned.

This is beyond tragic for all parties involved.

What I don’t understand is why someone didn’t tourniquet her leg, amputate, and get her the hell out of there, before the water came back in? Hindsight is 20/20, but this is the way my mind works 24/7. Maybe you don’t want to go to Alaska with me.

But I tell you this, if I die before you in any scenario where there is no food, I insist that you butcher my carcass and feed yourself. If the situation is reversed you can bet I’m going to fricassée your ass, with a selection of edible plants and wild herbs, all topped off with a wild berry reduction.

    • Karen
    • June 11, 2012

    OMG, Roz. I knew this about you, but here’s the proof. I thought the arctic explorers who ate polar bear died of the intenstinal worms. Didn’t know about the Vitamin A.

    • Joyce
    • June 11, 2012

    What a great opening to my day! I hope my today’s adventures end well as I don’t have any survival manuals on my book shelves. It’ll be “do or die” You are hilarious, Roz, and thanks for a good read!

  1. Reply

    Karen intestinal worms are a problem too (don’t get me started on parasites!!!! I know more about them than survival). But it’s the vitamin A that’s the quicker killer.

  2. Reply

    Sheryl, technically fricasseé means to make a stew and there is typically a cream sauce of some sort, but I figure I’ll have to make several adaptations in those circumstances!

  3. Reply

    Joyce, glad you enjoyed the post. I too hope that your adventures today so far, and continuing, don’t require any survival or worst case scenario actions!

  4. Reply

    I always liked the Girl Scout handbook! I hop eto find my original when I clean out my parents’ basement. Hey, history has proved: the creative survive!
    When West Nile Virus had its epicenter on MY BLOCK years ago in NY….it was a strage combo of fascinatin’ and terrifyin’….

    • Carol Kunnerup
    • June 11, 2012

    love this post. I, too, am a worrier, worst case scenario imaginer. I have to jump from the doorway to the bed when reading Stephen King and that is fiction! the real stuff would scare me under the covers for always. though I do know how to make several knots–I taught preschoolers and girl scouts, and they taught me new ones without names. ;D I would not do anything so fancy as fricassee, a nice little open flame barbecue with varios roots would have to do it for me. ;D

    • j.long
    • June 11, 2012

    You’re great! What a great post. I love how you mind works. Perfect.

  5. Reply

    Ellen, I’m glad you survived the hit of West Nile. I remember when it hit here and took out the entire riverside crow flock, which was thousands of birds. It was heartwrenching. It has taken years and years but they have come back.

  6. Reply

    they call it catastrophic thinking.

  7. Reply

    Carol, I’m not a worrier, I’m a planner. I run scenarios through my head without anxiety or worry, but with the idea of being prepared and planning. I can’t help it. I assume the worst is going to happen and then plan for it, but there isn’t any worry involved. I think it might even in some way be fun for me to do this.

    I’m glad you have your knots and camp cooking all set to go!

  8. Reply

    Thanks J. Long! Glad you enjoyed this post.

  9. Reply

    Marta, who are “they”? I do like the use of catastrophic in that phrase.

  10. Reply

    I agree with where you’re coming from in acquiring survival knowledge (although you surpass me in breadth). I have several books on What To Do If….. I always have a bag packed for the hospital or emergencies. We have survival gear in case of disasters etc. I don’t consider it extreme. Life throws all kinds of unexpected crap your way. Prepare as best you can.

  11. Reply

    ROZ: I know, those poor birds! But I think the New York response by dropping insecticides by helicopter—low enough to tell if the pilot was cute or not( single then)… and having to avoid getting dosed on the street as it rained down—was surreal. I plan for everything too: all about the contingency plan. It may be an outlet for creative energies,since it is really a search for ” possibility and knowledge”!

  12. Reply

    I will have you know, i would most likely be delicious. But you would want to try and keep me around – i like survival stuff too, so between the two of us, we might make a good team 😉

    • Nina / Apple-Pine
    • June 11, 2012

    oh, Roz – you are a treasure 🙂 Want to go to Alaska with me this summer? 😉

  13. Reply

    I once had a teacher refer to me as an optimist, and I was stunned (I was young and still thought most teachers had insight). I consistently expect the worst, but since it so seldom happens, most of my days are delightfully happy. However, your post hit a nerve with me because I have a totally irrational fear of polar bears. Well, actually polar bears (that whole tracking by scent thing – really, 20 miles, what is not terrifying about that?), octopi (they can squeeze through anything AND open jars) and a not totally irrational fear of raccoons (opposable thumbs). My children concocted the apocalyptical trifecta of an octopus and raccoon riding a polar bear to my door (the bear would know it was my door), the octopus would squeeze in and unlock it and the raccoon could simply turn the knob for the polar bear. This image has kept me awake nights even while it gives them a good laugh.

    • Laura
    • June 12, 2012

    There’s a piece in today’s NYT ( ) about “coping with anxiety through hypothetical analytical planning.” I’m all over that strategy, though I try to stop short of stockpiling supplies. Well, other than art supplies. 😉

  14. Reply

    Skulleigh, being a first responder I would of course try to keep everyone around as long as possible!

  15. Reply

    Ellen, I think you’re right it is a use of creativity. I just like to solve problems. (It’s why I boss all my friends around.)

  16. Reply

    Thanks Nina. Some year perhaps. I do want to get there (even with the giant mosquitos). Glad you enjoyed the post.

  17. Reply

    LizzieBo I don’t think it’s irrational to fear polar bears. I mean one should pretty much stay away from them, that’s the rational behavior. It would be irrational fear only if you believed that they were going to come down your street and get you and you lived in say Chicago. (Wait I read further and you do worry about that so it is an irrational fear for you.)

    I love that an octopus can open a jar! I didn’t know this. That may come in handy sometime!

    I don’t have any fears or worries of these sorts at all. Though I do take what amounts to obsessive precautions to avoid sharks. That’s it, sharks. And I have history for why that’s so, so I can’t call that irrational.

    I think your children need a talking to!

  18. Reply

    Laura, I’ll check that out, but since I don’t have ANY anxiety about any of this…I think as Ellen pointed out it’s an outlet for my creative energies.

    I actually don’t understand why everyone isn’t like me on this particular behavior because it would cure all anxieties. I don’t understand why people don’t plan.

    For some certain worst case scenarios aren’t ever going to happen so you don’t have to think about them at all, but isn’t it easier to have plans and know what to do in situations you find yourself in?

    I WISH I were better at planning things like a good pantry for any disruption in food (tornado problems would be the natural disaster in my area). I actually had been toying with a short post about the woeful inadequacies of my pantry.

    That seems like more work (pantry planning). And my current activities are simply fun. Or what I do, and in the process are fun.

    This is my entertainment. It’s too bad there isn’t a game show for this sort of thing because I’d be really really good on it and win lots of prizes!

  19. Reply

    Molly, that’s what I’m talking about. First responder kit in the car, extra “cold weather” stuff (because it is Minnesota). It all just makes sense to me. Maybe my predilection in this direction comes in part from so much travel as a child—always having to pack and have the essentials at hand. And it certainly didn’t hurt to listen to all those men who’d been through something way worse than I’ll ever experience, to learn that there was no place for worry, just action and clear thought. I guess I admired them all so much that they just seemed good role models.

  20. Reply

    If you have not read this already you must:

  21. Reply

    Elizabeth, thank you for the recommendation. I didn’t know about this book. I will get it right away!

  22. Reply

    Roz, I can totally relate. I’m not into the grusome scenarios, the give me nightmares. You can bet I’ve got an emergency kit in the trunk of the car, in the glovebox, at work, two at the house (one inside, one outside–what good is the one inside after the big earthquake hits?). I attribute it to having a father who flew missions during the Cuban missile crises and never unsubscribed to his ‘be prepared’ feed.

  23. Reply

    Geo Wendy I think you’re placement of emergency kits is simply prudent! I’m the only one in my family who prepares for “these” types of incidents.

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