Doomsday Disciples

Be it nuclear holocaust, quake or hurricane, St. Louis' Zombie Squad is ready for anything — even an attack from the living dead.

Around the same time, financial advisor Howard Ruff inspired thousands to buy gold and hoard supplies with such books as Famine and Survival in Americaand How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years.

Reached by phone, though, Ruff distances himself from the survivalist movement, calling it "bizarre" and his books misunderstood. He says he stores a year's worth of food at his Saratoga Springs, Utah, home because he is a Mormon and is encouraged to do so by the church.

The movement eventually became associated with anti-government fringe players like "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, who lived in a Montana cabin he'd built himself and preached the evils of technology, and it evolved into a public laughingstock around the turn of the millennium.

Monster mash: Zombie Squadders (from left) Mike Malorin, Gary Labrot, Chris Cyr, William Spencer, Michelle Hatfield, Jennifer Spencer and Kyle Ladd.
Mike Dressler
Monster mash: Zombie Squadders (from left) Mike Malorin, Gary Labrot, Chris Cyr, William Spencer, Michelle Hatfield, Jennifer Spencer and Kyle Ladd.
Monster mash: Zombie Squadders (from left) Mike Malorin, 
Gary Labrot, Chris Cyr, William Spencer, Michelle Hatfield, 
Jennifer Spencer and Kyle Ladd.
Mike Dressler
Monster mash: Zombie Squadders (from left) Mike Malorin, Gary Labrot, Chris Cyr, William Spencer, Michelle Hatfield, Jennifer Spencer and Kyle Ladd.

People stockpiling supplies in preparation for the "Y2K bug" were roundly mocked. So was former United States Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge when he famously suggested Americans keep a stash of plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal their houses against a biological or chemical attack.

It took Hurricane Katrina, say some Zombie Squad members, to lend legitimacy to survivalism. "We always think there's a plan to handle these types of disasters — that's why we pay taxes," says Cyr. "In the case of Katrina, maybe there was a plan, but the plan failed. It shows you need to be prepared to rely on yourself."

Many Zombie Squad are convinced that a wide-scale disaster in their lifetime is inevitable. Ethan Dotson, a 27-year-old computer-security specialist, says it's only a matter of time before a monster flood, tornado or earthquake strikes the St. Louis region.

"Every time there's a power outage, there's a run on kerosene heaters, water and generators at local stores — anything that would help alleviate problems," says Dotson, noting that his south St. Louis county home has lost power three times since he moved in a year ago.

"People fight over them, and it quickly turns into a mob mentality. It's better to have this stuff in advance, to be prepared."


It's nine at night and nineteen degrees on Lindell Boulevard the day after the ice storm. Ten members of the Zombie Squad are still traversing icy sidewalks toward Forest Park.

As folks line up to watch the new James Bond movie within the cozy confines of the Chase Park Plaza, the group trudges past without so much as glancing at the marquee. They cross North Kingshighway into the park and soon find a wind-sheltered spot to set down their bug-out bags.

Squatting in the snow, they unpack camping stoves and begin preparing a canned-and-dried feast, including chicken soup, Dinty Moore beef stew, instant coffee and tuna fish. Someone's even brought a bottle of Jägermeister.

Nobody prepares a fire for this ersatz camping experience (you're not exactly allowed to forage for underbrush in a city park), but if anyone's feeling cold, they're not letting on.

"I'm going to start the quiz," announces Pete Hanson, the organizer of tonight's mock bug-out. "How many people know what potassium iodide is used for?"

Points are given for the correct answer — it blocks radiation exposure — and more points are dispensed for well-stuffed knapsacks. One Zombie Squad member has a hatchet, another a saw. But the competition eventually breaks down in favor of a discussion about the merits of different water-purification chemicals. (Chlorine is preferable to iodine, apparently, as iodine drops taste foul and can harm one's kidneys.)

They'd stay out all weekend if they didn't have families and jobs to get back to. Now, four hours and seven long miles after setting out, the Zombie Squad returns to the Tap Room. There, they toast themselves with coffee stouts and hefeweizens.

Before long, the conversation returns to doomsday scenarios. "I'm glad my house is made of wood," offers Chris Bellers, "because brick houses would come right down during an earthquake."

By the end of the night, the warming alcohol has eased the pain of the marathon, and they begin plotting their winter camping expedition in the Great Smoky Mountains next month.

Yes, it too will be punishing, they concede — but that's the point. Life's a treacherous, icy journey — not a climate-controlled destination. Though they know their skills and gear may never be tested by a full-fledged apocalypse, at least they can always say they were ready. Who can say more?

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