Therefore shall her plagues come in one day, death, and mourning, and famine; and she shall be utterly burned with fire: for strong is the Lord God who judgeth her. And the kings of the earth, who have committed fornication and lived deliciously with her, shall bewail her, and lament for her, when they shall see the smoke of her burning, standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, Alas, alas that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come.

-- Revelation 18:8-10

Taking its title from the above passage, "Alas, Babylon" by Pat Frank, published in 1959, is a novel in which the residents of the small Central Florida town of Fort Repose first survive nuclear war and then must survive the aftermath, in which many of the accomplishments of human civilization, from running water to electricity to long-distance communication, have ceased to exist.

As the book begins, the residents are going about a normal Friday, pretty much ignoring the news on TV and on the radio about the Soviet Union launching another Sputnik and reports of trouble in the Middle East. Then prominent local lawyer Randy Bragg receives a telegram from his brother in the Strategic Air Command reading "Alas, Babylon," their private code phrase for an emergency.

The advance notice that something's up helps Bragg and his family prepare somewhat, but then he is awakened the next morning by an earthquake, and there's a glow in the southern sky, towards Miami; soon afterwards, a brilliant flash appears to the southeast. Soon that Saturday becomes known as The Day, and to say it changes the lives of all the book's characters would be an understatement.

"Alas, Babylon" is doubly creepy and discomforting for the reader because there's so much detail in it, from messages that come over the Western Union teletype ("PK TO CIRCUIT: BIG EXPLOSION DIRECTION JAX. WE CAN SEE MUSHROOM CLOUD") to the CONELRAD system in action on the radio, the predecessor to the Emergency Broadcast System. Even though it takes place in the late 1950s, it's not hard to either project yourself back to that time period or to project the characters forward 40-plus years to the present day.

It's triply creepy and discomforting when it's read for the first time in an eighth grade social studies class during the 1987-88 school year, with Ronald Reagan still in the White House, and although the Cold War seems to be waning, there's still a lot of uncertainty about just what's going on in the USSR.

It's quadruply creepy and discomforting, if such a thing is possible, when that class is taking place in Tampa, which is mentioned twice in the book: early on, a woman in Fort Repose watching Dave Garroway on "Channel 8, Tampa" turns him off because of the bad news. Later, the aforementioned flash in the southeast sky is explained as "That means Tampa."

Surprisingly, it turns out to be a fairly uplifting story, more so than other postnuclear works of fiction, such as "The Day After."

Alas, Babylon: Mount Dora, Florida

Alas, Babylon is set in central Florida in the fictional town of Fort Repose. Author Pat Frank lived in a 4,744-square-foot house on Lake Beauclaire in Tangerine, Florida. Frank wrote the book while living there and published it in 1959 (Winefordner; Award Winning Novelist 7-F). Pistolville, an Alas, Babylon town close to Fort Repose, was also an authentic place adjacent to the real city of Mount Dora (King; Lavin).

Pistleville or Pistolville was the focus of racist activity in the 1920's (King). R. Eugene Burley, author of Mount Dora: The Rest of the Story Plus!, claims that Pistolville was corrupted by Prohibition era moonshine, gambling, "unsavory characters," and the poor Southern Crackers" (qtd. in King). By the 1950's many blacks had fled to nearby (and segregated) East Town (King). Mount Dora is today just under forty minutes north of Orlando. In 1957 East Town, northeast of Mount Dora, was known for having the first pool in central Florida that would permit black Americans to swin in its waters (Lavin).

The word "Pistolville" is obscure. A full-text keyword search of the ProQuest Newspapers database, which contains newspaper articles as early as 1984 and content from sixty different newspapers, found only Lee King's article.

Author Vivian Owens describes Pistolville as being a section of Mount Dora on the southern edge, just before Tangerine. She notes that until the 1920's African Americans in downtown Mount Dora, East Town, and Pistolville all shared a common way of life (29,40). Owens states definitively: "Used as the setting for Pat Frank's most famous book, Alas, Babylon, Mount Dora is referred to as The {sic} New England of the South. . . ." (20).

The Sylvan Shores community, parts of which were incorporated into Mount Dora (Sharman), is home to the Catacombs. A group of twenty-five families secretly constructed this large, underground nuclear bomb shelter in Sylvan Shores. Pat Frank acknowledged J. B. (James Basil) Hall, Lake County Health Director, and wrote about the shelter in his 1962 book How to Survive the H-Bomb and Why. Ramsey Campbell interviewed Dr. Hall (who provided a detailed history of the Catacombs) in 1991. Campbell, in his article and interview with Hall, also spoke with Federal Emergency Management Agency representative Bob Blair. Blair was unaware of any privately financed shelter constructed on the scale of the Catacombs.

Researcher and columnist Barry Schrader, writing for the internet web site Current History Detectives, found that another similar structure had been built for thirty families in Livermore, California. Though not a secret, the subterranean complex sat on six acres and held thirty-three rooms.

Works Cited

"Award Winning Novelist Toured the World and Took Florida." Orlando Sentinel. 3 May 1959: 7-F+.

Campbell, Ramsey. "A Cocoon as Big as the Fear That Built It in 1961, Mount Dora Families Afraid of Nuclear Holocaust Built the Ultimate Hideway. It Still Stands--Unused." Orlando Sentinel 22 Dec. 1991, 3 star ed.: A1. ProQuest Newspapers. ProQuest. 16 Oct. 2006 www.proquest.com

Frank, Pat. Alas, Babylon. 1959. 1st Perennial Classics ed. New York: Perennial-Harper, 1999.

---. How to Survive the H-Bomb and Why. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1962.

King, Lee. "Books Detail Mount Dora's Racial History." Orlando Sentinel 10 Feb. 2001, Florida ed.: 1. Proquest Newspapers. Proquest. 16 Oct. 2006. www.proquest.com

Lavin, Chris. "A Clash Out of the Past, Quaint Florida City Is Torn by Latent and Blatant Racism." St.Petersburg Times 4 June 1989: 1B. Proquest Newspapers. Proquest. 16 Oct. 2006. www.proquest.com

Owens, Vivian W. The Mount Dorans: African American History Notes of a Florida Town. Waynesboro: Eschar, 2000.

Schrader, Barry. "Underground Shelters Abound in Valley Part 1." History Detectives. 9 Feb. 2006. 16 Oct. 2006 http://www.bunnweb.org/histdect/2-16-06.htm

Sharman, G. K. "History Shapes Sylvan Shores' Future: The Community Clings to Its Niche with Charm Established Over Decades, and Its Popularity Is on an Upswing." Orlando Sentinel 10 Sep. 1995, central Florida ed.: 1. ProQuest Newspapers. ProQuest. 16 Oct. 2006 www.proquest.com

Winefordner, Terri. "The Home Front." Orlando Sentinel. 28 Sep. 1996, metro ed.: G1. Proquest Newspapers. Proquest. 16 Oct. 2006 www.proquest.com

Works Consulted
CTCStrela. "Girding for the Apocalypse." Online posting. 21 Feb. 2005. CurEvents.com--a Global Current Events Discussion Forum. 16 Oct. 2006 http://www.curevents.com/vb/showthread.php?t=8803

Copyright 2006.

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