It Might Be Scarier Than We Think: Hard Lessons Learned in a Reality Check
By Sandra Lane
Planning for emergencies and disasters is what we do as Preppers. We try to imagine every possible scenario and know every possible contingency plan for each and every one. For some of us it’s in the blood, for others it’s ingrained from generation to generation, and still, for others, it’s a hard-learned way of life. And, for many of us, it’s taken us almost a lifetime to learn it, and a lifetime of earning to pay for it. Unfortunately, our brains aren’t spacious enough to contain all the knowledge available. Eventually, we will forget something. It’s pretty much a given.
Psychology Today says we forget because we focus on understanding the world, not on remembering it. “Memory is profoundly important in retrospectively defining ourselves, but we don’t approach new events in the world with the primary goal of remembering them. We appreciate, manage, enjoy, negotiate, confront, praise, love, argue, get through — all ways of understanding.” That means learning or even just experiencing something once (or even twice) isn’t enough. Continuous practice is paramount for the purpose of remembering it later. Let’s not forget: the brain is an organ but (for now – and in this capacity) it also behaves like a muscle. That means ‘Muscle Memory’ is king.
Think of the things you do without really thinking about them. Making the same cake from scratch for the umpteenth time without using the recipe. Hitting the ‘R’ on the keyboard without looking. Changing the oil on the car/truck yourself without instructions/directions. Driving home from the store and not exactly remembering when you took a certain turn. Handwriting. Tying your shoes. It’s all muscle memory and, chances are, if we think too hard about it we’ll totally forget how we did it. That’s one reason why our teachers had us write the alphabet so many times, and why we had our kids learn to tie their own shoes. Not only is it a habit, but it becomes muscle memory, and it’s that same muscle memory that could save our lives.
Let me share a personal story that shows how easy it is to forget things.
For our 38th Wedding Anniversary (May 25, 2019) our kids got together and gave us a trip to Pensacola, Florida. Needless to say, we were ecstatic. We had both been to the east coast but never to the Gulf, I absolutely love the beach, the heat in our neck of the woods was already as hot as it was in Florida, and our daughter had sprung for rooms at the Hilton (a perk of her job). So we were more than ready to get away for a few days. We packed just about everything but the kitchen sink and the stray cats in the yard (last count at 19), made arrangements for our son to feed and water the strays and water the garden too while we were gone, and took off.
We had pillows and chargers and snacks and cameras, clothes, changes of clothes, shoes galore, beach towels, coolers (more than one), and even both of our Bug Out Bags packed in the van. We forgot nothing. We hit the interstate and didn’t stop until we got to the nice air-conditioned hotel. The next morning, after the hotel breakfast, we loaded the van up with water, ice in the coolers, sandals and suntan lotion, and headed for our first stop: Fort Pickens, a beautiful historic military fort on Santa Rosa Island, and all the beaches that park had to offer.
We got to the Fort with no problems, got out of the van, grabbed my walking stick, locked everything up, and headed for the entrance. The whole fort was massive and enchanting to me and I was actually giddy with excitement. My husband was just glad that it wasn’t a plain wooden fort like Fort Boonsboro. For me though, weird as I am, it was like I had stepped straight into a video game that I have played, complete with the houses on the beach. I was simply enthralled. We weren’t inside 3 minutes before we found ourselves split up and completely alone with no cell service. But I told myself it was ok. I had my walking stick (because of Achilles tendon surgery last year) and even though I have a low tolerance for heat there was a very nice breeze throughout the concrete tunnels in the fort. It was pretty nice, and in minutes I was taking pictures of this room and that, tunnels and cells, and before long I met back up with my husband and we continued on. Only I wasn’t feeling so good.
Genetic and environmental reasons usually dictate that most of the time I’m on the verge of dehydration. It never bothered me as a kid much, and I was raised to not drink anything until after I had eaten a meal (don’t ask me why; I have no clue), which is not the way to live, but old habits die hard I suppose and I’m still trying to retrain myself to drink water, period. An interesting fact though is that a person’s sense of thirst becomes less acute as they age. So at my age, with the training I had growing up (right or wrong) I found myself in a 95’ Fahrenheit environment, and 100’ heat index, already dehydrated. But I figured I was tough enough and could do it.
Forgetting crucial items can lead to life-threatening situations.
Upon meeting up with me, my husband noted that I was extremely flushed, and I noticed that he was sweating a lot. I became very concerned for him because he sweats a lot when he’s hot, and he has asthma. Since heat can be a trigger for asthma we decided to rest for a few minutes against one of the fort walls and drink something. We then realized that in our excitement to get into the fort, we had left the water in the van. However, we did have a bottle of warm (yuck) fruit juice and so we split it. Even so, I seemed to keep feeling worse: my stomach was upset, my head was now pounding, and my heart felt like it was racing. I recognized that I needed to get out of the heat and cool down a bit. We agreed to go back to the van, get some water, then continue our exploration of the fort in a little while. Sadly, we were now 1/4 mile from the van, there was nowhere, not even in the fort bookstore, to cool down and rehydrate, and the weakness was hitting me fast. I wasn’t sweating. Looking around and listening, I realized the fort was pretty much empty. I had failed. In my excitement, I had left our only water, had not paid attention to our surroundings, had wandered too far, and was now starting to shiver. My body temperature was now hotter than the air around me.
Finally, I couldn’t walk any further. My husband was doing fine, and we had worked our way to the wall closest to our van, attempting to remain out of the sun at every possibility. I found myself weirdly wary of the shadow lines on the ground and making sure I didn’t dare cross them like some kind of vampire might do. We got halfway to the end of the shaded areas and realized we had to make a decision. I was extremely weak, breathing fast, and knew there was no way I could make that walk to the van in full sun, let alone in the rest of the shade. There was still no sign of anyone around us and I was shaking and ready to just sit in the sand. I told my husband I needed him to leave me there and go get the van.
If you will, let me explain how great my husband is. He’s a very hard worker, and very kind – he would truly give someone his last dime if it would help them – however, he doesn’t know how to take initiative very well. He’s not the kind of man who will take being ordered around all the time, but he does need direction in some areas. This was one of them. He also has, as do many, many people, a bad case of normalcy bias. It would’ve taken me passing out, or a major argument that I didn’t have the energy for before he would’ve agreed to call 911. It’s just difficult for him to realize something is really wrong. Despite what I knew was happening it was simply much faster to get to the van than go through all that. So off he went to the parking lot.
Thankfully, muscle memory took over and saved me.
I made it to the last corner of the shadows when the van came into view on the open side of the fort. After maybe 20 feet of walking in sunshine, I was finally in the van and under the AC. My husband then backed out of the fort, parked, and started doing everything I asked. Here is where muscle memory comes into play.
I’m not a nurse or doctor, but I’d had a lot of experience caring for victims of heat-related illness. So I ended up in a reclined seat, partly stripped down with wet towels and cloths under my arms, behind my neck and knees, covering as much of me as possible, directly under the ac in the van with a bottle of water. And the water for the towels and cloths came from a case of water that wasn’t in the cooler of ice, but boy it felt cold to me!
It took about 45 minutes for me to cool down to the point where I wasn’t so sluggish, was more alert and talkative, and was able to look back at how I’d handled the mini-crisis. What I had done was methodical. I had done it so many times in the past that I didn’t have to think, and thank goodness for that because severe heat illnesses can cause confusion and disorientation. Just as important – I wasn’t alone. I could easily have died from heat stroke, and many do every year. Even knowing what to do wouldn’t have helped me at all had I been alone.
Fort Pickens is out on the end of the island of Santa Rosa and west of Pensacola Beach. The nearest Fire/Rescue was 20 miles away with no guarantee of response time with Memorial Day weekend traffic. So even if I had insisted on calling EMT/Paramedics it was probably quicker for us to attempt getting to the van on our own. Most likely though the EMTs would’ve have started a line with cool saline and taken a core temp to make sure I wasn’t too close to a heat stroke threshold. Thankfully though, I didn’t have to find out. I was extremely lucky.
The whole thing could have been prevented in a variety of ways.
We could have been smarter by utilizing situational awareness. We could have been smarter by carrying some water with us. I did absolutely nothing I would have urged my kids to do. We could have paused for a few minutes and made sure we would be able to keep cool and have something to drink before just walking in mindlessly and carefree – made sure we had at least one BoB on us instead of in the van. Or, we could have acclimated ourselves before going in the first place. It is possible to acclimate to the heat, dry or humid, when given time.
I can recall in a split second the vivid memory of jumping with the waves as they crashed to shore. In reality that was 40 years ago. This time, as I waded out into the gulf, simple waves that came up to my thighs knocked me down. It didn’t help that I was still supposedly recovering from surgery on my Achilles tendon but I simply couldn’t keep my balance. I can also recall in a split second laying on a beach towel, hoping to tan and not burn, while kids made sand castles and screamed when the waves threatened to wash them away. That too was 40 years ago, back when I didn’t suffer from heat exhaustion. I also played basketball, ran track, graduated, went to college, got married, raised three kids… And now I can’t stand up in a three-foot wave.
These are hard lessons I learned in just one 3 day weekend.
The argument could be made that we all get that way as we get older, and there is some truth to that, but as we’ve prepared for everything else that can happen – from job loss to nuclear war – a factor that we can’t forget that will affect every one of us is “Age”. Whether you’re 30 or 70, if we don’t remain active, if we don’t keep moving, if we don’t stay in the best shape we can, whatever comes at us may be scarier than we expect it to be because we may not be physically, and therefore mentally, ready for it.
Sandra D. Lane is city born and bred but is a country girl at heart, a published artist (acrylic paintings) and photographer, fellow prepper, animal advocate, handgun competition participant, and Theologian. She currently lives with her husband of 38 years in Tennessee with an ever-growing number of outdoor stray cats.