I boarded the train in one of those Eastern European capitals that make you feel like you've stepped back about a century in time. The train car itself did nothing to dispel this notion, as the windows looked like they had last been cleaned promptly after World War I... and forgotten ever since. The upholstery on the seats was worn and threadbare, but when I sat down in one, I found that at least they were well-padded and comfortable. I settled in and looked around at my fellow travelers.
There were a few groups of people strung out throughout the train car, who all ignored me completely. They looked like tired commuters on their way home, and this proved to be the case, as they all got off at the first dozen or so stops on the outskirts of the city. I thought I would be alone for the rest of the journey, but at the last suburban stop a very old woman got on and sat down across from me. She looked a little spooky, with an eyepatch over one eye, and a bandanna tied over her hair. A mystical perfume which hinted at far-off bazaars wafted its way over to me. Her wizened visage examined me critically, and I was surprised to see a small smirk develop on her face as she did so.
"You are American, yes?" she began, in heavily accented English.
"Yes, I am," I admitted sheepishly. While traveling through Europe recently I found that the label "American" brought out many responses in the locals, most of them unpleasant. Anger, disgust, and even rage had been the most common reactions so far, even in Western European countries. It had been getting to the point where I was considering sewing a large Canadian flag on my jacket and practicing saying "eh?" at the end of every sentence, just to be left alone in situations such as this. But the old crone surprised me, for the emotion she showed was pity.
"That's too bad. You are in for a very rough time in the near future."
"Mmm?" I responded, not too encouragingly. I had heard this rant too many times before -- our president was an idiot, Iraq was a huge mistake, Iran would be an even bigger mistake, etc., etc., etc. We had a long train ride in front of us, and I wasn't particularly interested in hearing this litany again.
She raised a crooked finger and tapped lightly on her eyepatch. Tap. Tap.
"You see, I was born with the second sight. And what I see coming for America will make your current troubles seem insignificant in comparison."
Just what I needed -- a crazy gypsy to foretell America's future. She was probably going to ask me for money to hear her fanciful tale of woe. But she surprised me.
"I should not tell you. You are better off not knowing." She turned to the window and looked out at the countryside flowing past us. We were slowly winding our way up into the mountains, and storm clouds were gathering on the peaks.
I waited, but she said nothing further. Finally, my curiosity got the better of me. "Please tell me what you think is going to happen," I said in a respectful voice. "I would really like to hear." She glanced back at me with her one visible eye and sighed.
"I should not have spoken." She appeared to think about it for a minute or so. "Very well, I will tell you, and then perhaps you will laugh to yourself and not believe me, which will spare you much worry."
She settled deeper into her seat to make herself more comfortable and began her story.
"Some time in the near future, the Pacific shipping lanes will be closed. The great ships will no longer ply their trade across the sea from Asia to America. Because of this..."
I had to interrupt her at this point. "What do you mean? How will the shipping lanes be closed?"
She wasn't happy I had interrupted. "The sight is not perfect, young man. Look out the window." I looked, at the rolling foothills and the distant mountain peaks. "You see the tops of the hills, and the peaks of the mountains, but you cannot see the valleys in between from here. You know the valleys exist, but you cannot see what is in them. If you were to walk towards one of the mountains, you would have to cross the valleys and you would know what was in them, but you cannot know ahead of time what they will look like. But you can still see your goal -- the peak of the mountain beyond. What I see of the future is much like this: I can see certain events, but sometimes I do not know exactly what leads up to these events."
Having satisfied herself on this point, she continued. "Perhaps there is a huge epidemic which comes out of China." I thought of the SARS and various bird flu scares of the past few years, and a shiver went up my spine. "Perhaps there is warfare between nations. Perhaps alien invaders start destroying all the ships like the Bermuda Triangle." I looked up sharply, and she was grinning. She obviously threw that last one in just to pull my leg.
"But no matter -- the reason is not important, and will become obvious with the passage of time. Maybe it just becomes too expensive to ship across the ocean due to events in the Middle East, who knows? But mark my words, the shipping will come to an almost complete halt."
There was that little shiver again. I began to seriously consider the idea of the Pacific being commercially shut down. I already didn't like what I was imagining.
"You almost got a taste of this a few years ago, when your West Coast longshoremen went on strike right before Christmas." I was startled that she knew about that, since most Americans barely remember it happening. "If they hadn't come to an agreement to end this strike, there would have been no toys for Christmas -- since almost all your toys are made in China now. Your nation, just recently, is beginning to see the true price of this outsourcing: you can buy a DVD player for $29, but your children's toys are unsafe and coated with lead, your pets die from tainted food, and your toothpaste is filled with antifreeze."
Now she was really beginning to get to me. "Because you worship capitalism and consumerism above all else, you have made a bargain with the devil -- cheap crap in your stores by the boatload, but you take your chances on buying any of it. And in the process, you have shipped not only your manufacturing jobs overseas, but you have shipped your factories and your manufacturing equipment overseas as well."
She seemed remarkably well-informed for a gypsy woman on a train, but she was just getting started.
"Now, all of a sudden, this pipeline of goods stops. Imagine this." I was doing precisely that, and I didn't like what I saw.
"The children of America have no toys. The adults of America have no consumer electronics to play with. You are forced to buy only American cars. All the goodies just stop coming." Her intensity was beginning to make me nervous.
"But that is not the worst of it, not by a long shot," she continued. "You may not be aware of it, but every so often some well-meaning member of your Congress introduces a bill to mandate that American military equipment -- fighter jets, naval vessels, missiles; all the high-tech weaponry in your arsenal, in other words -- be made entirely in America, with parts made entirely in America. These Congressmen are well-meaning, but they are foolish. You can mandate that a fighter jet is 100% 'made in America' but all you will be doing is guaranteeing that you will not build any more fighter jets. Because the basic building blocks of your electronic warfare machines -- transistors, chips, relays and all the rest of it -- simply are not made in America any more. Where are they made? For the most part, across the Pacific."
Now I was really getting scared. This was a whole different dimension to the problem.
"So. Pacific shipping stops, perhaps because of a pandemic outbreak of disease, perhaps for some other reason. Supply lines for consumer goods stop. The shelves in the stores are bare. Supply lines for your military stops. America has foolishly made herself dependent on 'world trade' not only for toys at Christmas, but also to maintain her military might. And now it has stopped. And you cannot just start it up again immediately, because all the machines which manufacture these items have also left America long ago. You are faced with not just starting up production lines, but actually starting production for the machines with which to start those production lines."
Now I was really beginning to sweat.
"But the worst is yet to come. China's economy is in deep trouble because of this disruption, and so they need all the hard currency they can get. They begin dumping their massive reserves of U.S. dollars on the world market to prop up their own economy. Americans finally realize what all the talk of a 'trade deficit' truly means, as the dollar's value crumbles. The next step is the world oil markets stop trading oil in dollars, and switch to Euros instead. This further accelerates the decline of the dollar, until the U.S. can't even afford to buy trade goods overseas, even if it were possible to ship them. Europe remains fairly stable, since the Euro is now backing oil, but America's economy is destroyed. Gasoline sells for $10 a gallon in America, then $20, then $40."
She was now scaring the living bejesus out of me, I fully admit.
"And because you have been quite publicly stating for the past few years that your Army is 'broken' and 'overstretched,' and now that the world sees your economy in a flaming wreckage, countries around the world are emboldened to make military moves they've been thinking about for decades. Not only are you incapable of making new war equipment, but you cannot even afford to fuel the equipment you already have."
She glanced at me, and I wasn't sure whether she was taking pity on me at this point or not. "This is one of the places where details are not clear. Perhaps China will attack Taiwan. Perhaps India and Pakistan will throw nuclear weapons at each other. Perhaps Russia will attempt to grab oil fields to its south. Perhaps it will be Israel versus all the Muslim nations. But whoever lights the match, it will end in flames and disaster."
She stopped at this point, and looked out the window again. We were gaining altitude, and coming much closer to the mountain passes. Rain suddenly beat on the windows, making the atmosphere in the train car even more gloomy. Great thunderclouds rose all around us.
"I am truly sorry. I should not have told you this. If it is to be, then perhaps it is best that you do not see it coming, and enjoy what time you have left, secure in your belief that everything will naturally always continue as it is. That is the American way, after all, isn't it?" She actually did look sad to have told me this story.
I finally had to speak. "But there must be some way to avoid this!" I cried. "This can't be the only future in store for us! Tell me how we can avoid such a fate."
She spoke for the last time.
"You cannot. The future is set, and what will be, will be. I pity you and your country. And the rest of the world, for that matter."
At this point, a massive lightning bolt struck the mountain peak we were traveling next to. The loudest thunder I've ever heard in my life shook the train as if it was a toy. The lights dimmed, then completely went out for four or five seconds.
When the lights came on again, I was alone.
Alone with my shaking, and alone with my sweat.
I tried to convince myself that it had all been a dream, but her mysterious perfume still lingered in the air.
It was the scariest Hallowe'en night of my life.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com