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Free Study Guide: Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank - Free BookNotes

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ALAS, BABYLON: FREE ONLINE STUDY NOTES / CHAPTER SUMMARY

CHAPTER 5

Summary

Chapter 5 opens at dawn on Sunday with Randy and the rest of Fort Repose being awakened by the concussions from the nuclear attack on Florida. The attacks come just a few hours after Randy, Helen, and the children arrived in Fort Repose from the airport. Helen’s first comment was “So soon?” Within minutes, they hear the sounds of bombers and fighter jets coming from the southwest. Ben notices that the wind is from the east - something that will spare Fort Repose from the effects of radioactive fallout. For the rest of the novel, this day is simply known as “The Day.”

As they were watching the bombers, the flash of another nuclear strike - this one to the southwest, the direction in which they were looking - blinds Peyton.

Randy decides to go find Dr. Gunn at the hotel when he finds that the telephones are not working. On the way to the hotel, Randy sees a car wreck - the car wheels were still spinning, so it had happened only moments earlier. Randy initially thinks that the codes of civilized conduct have changed - yesterday he would have stopped but today he will not. However, he decides that the rules of civilized behavior must continue, regardless of the costs. He stops to examine the wreck and finds that the driver is dead. There being nothing he can do to help, and having more urgent matters at hand, he leaves. As he continues to the hotel, he finds that the local radio stations have switched to the CONELRAD broadcasting system. At this point, there is no real news of the war.

Randy reaches the hotel and finds that the hotel is filled with people completely oblivious to the reality of the situation. He finds Dr. Gunn and tells him about Peyton. The doctor tells him it is only flash burn and gives Randy some eye drops and instructions, promising to go to Randy’s house as soon as he can. On the way home, Randy meets Florence Wechek leaving for work. As the operator of the local Western Union station, she realizes that she may be the only conduit of outside news. When she opens the wire, she finds that no telegraph traffic is going out north of Jacksonville, and nothing is coming in. Alice also goes to work that Sunday. As the town’s librarian, she knows that people will want information and may want to read the Civil Defense pamphlets stored at the library.


Edgar Quisenberry, the president of the local bank, arrives at the Western Union station to send a telegram to the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta - he needs instructions on how to handle the current situation. Florence starts to send the message, but she and Edgar notice a flash of light. The return message from Jacksonville cuts off in mid-sentence - there is no longer a Jacksonville. Edgar allows people to withdraw cash to prevent a run on the bank, but he is as uncomprehending of the nature of the situation as the residents are at the hotel. As his cash reserves dwindle, he closes the bank. He still thinks that cash is important - he has not yet realized that money no longer has any value - and that money has become just little pieces of paper.

When Edgar arrives home, he finds that his wife is out shopping. He sits down and thinks through what has happened and reality finally sets in. Everything he believed in - the value of cash and bonds, the money-based economy, the social status awarded to him as president of the bank - was gone. Having no intention of being just another survivor - no better than anyone else is - he commits suicide.

Notes

This chapter has some of the best imagery in the entire novel, the result of Pat Frank’s extensive knowledge of the subject. His depiction of the attacks on the major cities and military bases in Florida, as well as the sequence of the attacks, is chillingly realistic.

Fort Repose is a fictional town, but the reader can use the clues from this chapter to deduce the general location - in the heart of central Florida, about 75 miles northeast of Tampa. The east wind that Ben noticed blows the fallout from Jacksonville over Tallahassee, resulting in the evacuation of Florida’s capital. However, there being no military bases east of Fort Repose (at least none justifying a Soviet nuclear weapon strike), the wind brings no invisible death to the town.

Randy’s mixed reaction at the scene of the wreck is important, not only for Randy’s character development, but also for the tone of the rest of the novel. First, he instinctively wants to stop and help. Then, thinking that the old order that required such action was dead, he chooses to move on. Finally, he understands that his job as a survivor is to help rebuild civilization. Western civilization could not be rebuilt if all the important values of the past were thrown out.

CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation) was a civil defense program in the 1950s. The idea behind it was to deny an enemy’s ability to home in on local radio signals during bombing runs. During a CONELRAD emergency, all FM radio went off the air. AM radio was limited to two frequencies and restricted to very low power output. When the
U.S. and the Soviet Union developed intercontinental ballistic missiles, the role of long-range bombers became more limited, and ICBMs did not use radio signals for targeting. As a result, CONELRAD was phased out and became the Emergency Broadcasting System in 1963.

Edgar Quisenberry is symbolic of those unable to fully comprehend that life as they knew it no longer existed. Some, including Edgar, had heard the news for the last few days but chose to ignore or disbelieve it - if they accepted the news, the ramifications were more terrible than they wanted, or were able, to comprehend. Edgar had an unshakable belief in the U.S. banking and financial system. The entire financial system was based on “the full faith and credit of the U.S. Government.” But, suddenly take the government out of the equation and the financial system collapses. Edgar, unable to even acknowledge the possibility of such an event until it is too late, becomes a dinosaur, doomed to extinction. Others, like the tourists and permanent residents of the hotel, will suffer the same fate.


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