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A Millennium Christmas Carol

by Larry Shook

Richard Proudfit eventually turned up about midway down the aisle with the big yurt on display. In the mob of worried millennialists who gathered at the Convention Center before Thanksgiving for Spokane's 'Y2K Expo,' finding him took forever. Proudfit just didn't stand out among the gold merchants, the generator salesmen, the solar panelists, the boiler purveyors (there was a boiler big enough to power a Mississippi riverboat), woodstove peddlers, vendors hawking their wares in one breath and quoting a militia publication called 'The Spotlight' in the next, and entrepreneurs of survival goods of every kind. Over the noise, and amid the icy currents of conversation -- '...a year's worth of food...' 'get a gun, learn how to use it...' -- Richard Proudfit's soft voice was hard to hear.

The hope of finding Proudfit, a man I'd been told was talking charity to a crowd shopping for itself, was the only thing that brought me back to the Expo a second time. I'd checked it out the night before, opening night, and came away feeling lonely and sad and out of place. Too many people selling fear. Too many people paying good money for the snake oil of personal security in a world collectively challenged by this strange computer problem. Compared to many, I'm a Johnny-come-lately to Y2K. But I've researched and written about nothing else for a few months now, and I see nothing inherently unmanageable about it.

Y2K is a widespread computer programming error that could cause many systems to malfunction by not recognizing the millennium date change. Because computers regulate modern life from soup to nuts, some inconvenience is considered inevitable. Will it be worse than that? No one knows, and that's the rub.

Clearly, the most conservative response is to plan for protracted interruption of electricity, food, water, transportation, medical services, etc. The mayor of Kauai, for instance, is urging her community to prepare for three months of disruption. Most responsible observers don't expect the sky to fall, but that's not the point. With adequate contingency plans in place, if the worst happened it would be like planning for a hurricane that showed up. If the worst didn't happen, the public would simply have some extra supplies to use up.

Humans have spent most of their time on Earth without the conveniences of electricity, supermarkets, indoor plumbing and many other fixtures of modern life. Modern population density makes these services more important than in the past, but have they become so important as to make their temporary loss unavoidably fatal? That seems absurd. We should be able to plan on managing their interruption without hearing the hoofbeats of the apocalypse.

What is NOT absurd, however, is the danger of epidemic fear. Every dog for himself would be ugly. Dedication to the commonweal will see us through. In this regard, Y2K probably isn't that different from many challenges faced by humanity in other times.

What I found touching about the survivalist consumerism at Spokane's millennium fair was the belief that it made sense in the world we live in. Hardcore survivalists seem to assume that if Y2K does wreak havoc, cold and hungry neighbors can be held at bay with enough firepower. Fine, but if there's that much social disorder, who's going to mind civilization's store? Particularly that part of the store where the radiological and hazardous wastes of the last century are kept.

Take the results of U.S. nuclear weapons production alone, a process that has been so ferociously toxic as to saddle future generations with something like the aftermath of nuclear war.

Item: Some one billion cubic feet of radioactive and hazardous waste contaminate the nation's nuclear weapons facilities. That's enough to dust a 7,300 square-mile city with a sixteenth-inch of the deadliest poisons known.

Item: The federal government plans to let farming resume around its Boulder, Colorado Rocky Flats Plant in soil contaminated with plutonium at levels almost 40 times above what was agreed to for cleaning up Rongelap and Johnston Atolls in the Pacific Ocean, where nuclear bombs were exploded.

Item: At the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, in the heart of Washington state, the infamous 'K Basins' store 2,200 tons of highly radioactive fuel rods which must be kept permanently covered with water, water pumped by electricity. U.S. Department of Energy insiders confirm that loss of basin water would cause the rods to burn, resulting in radiation releases many times greater than the Chernobyl disaster.

Item: The nation's greatest concentration of high level radioactive waste -- 54 million gallons, 198 million curies -- is also stored at Hanford, in 177 large underground tanks. Nearby flows the Columbia River, one of the planet's major freshwater arteries. These wastes, too, must be kept out of the environment essentially forever, but the technology for doing so awaits invention. Meanwhile, the tanks are leaking.

All over our industrialized planet there are countless places like Hanford -- shadows of modern civilization -- where deadly toxins are managed. Nuclear reactors and nuclear arms. Oil refineries and drilling rigs. Millions of dangerous manufacturing sites. Chemical stores. Chemical and biological weapons sites. Hazardous waste dumps.

These legacies of one of history's most materialistic and militaristic eras are managed by technology. Technology that includes computer systems, some of which may be upset by Y2K. The repair, maintenance and continued development of that technology requires calm and coherent social structures. This is our watch -- those of us now alive -- and it's up to us to provide the needed social cohesion. Without it, what island in what far sea, what end of the Earth is far enough away from the mess that could result?

Self preservation is a healthy instinct, and the urge to run from trouble is normal enough. But what's fascinating about Y2K is the moral of the story. We really are in this together. It's literally true that there's no place to run or hide. Like it or not, we have become, not just one another's keepers, but the keepers of life on Earth into a deep future vastly greater than what we now call history. Was there ever a generation to inherit such an obligation as ours?

Before I went looking for Richard Proudfit, a friend and I ruminated on the rich and potentially instructive ironies of Y2K. We talked about how unworkable are strategies of private survival -- our world and welcome to it, a place in which all things really are one after all. My friend said the survivalist impulse -- which even the most saintly among us can feel -- reminds her of that stage of childhood development when toddlers cover their eyes and think they can't be seen.

In my wanderings, the big yurt became a landmark. It was a friendly structure with its simple shape and warm interior light, and I found myself imagining what it would be like to ride out a blizzard in a yurt. Visions of camaraderie danced in my head as chatter of the apocalypse rang in my ears. I pictured myself with friends in the cheerful dome beside dark woods, huddled in a cone of lamplight around a potbelly stove, sipping mulled cider and telling stories as the wind howled and snow drifted outside. After a while I realized that it was the yurt's very iconography that mesmerized me, this humble little home invented by Old World shepherds of the Asian steppe. A yurt is a circular dwelling. The circle symbolizes wholeness, connection, inclusion. In my reverie, I found myself recalling a history I'd once heard told by a Sioux Indian. He said that his people were a culture of the circle. White Europeans were people of the line. The meeting didn't turn out well for the circle people.

And so here was this circular abode casting its warm spell over me as my own people, we of the line, tried to sort out what our culture might have wrought with this curious computer glitch. How odd, I thought, to approach this majestic boundary of the years with such halting steps. It was as though, like a clan of neo-nomads, we had come into the presence of some surprising shadow -- of a new mountain range, maybe, where last season there'd been a plain. Or maybe it was just a thunder storm. In any case, it was a thing of awesome proportion but whose actual dimensions none of us could make out...

And suddenly, there he was. Richard Proudfit, an energetic, silver-haired extrovert somewhere in his sixties, was cheerfully stirring a rice concoction in an electric skillet. It smelled pretty good. He kept up a happy banter as he handed out samples in little paper cups.

'Careful, that's hot! Don't burn yourself! Isn't that delicious!? This stuff is potent!'

That was his favorite line: 'This stuff is potent!'

His bags of food were selling handsomely, and people liked his friendly rap. Traffic bunched up in front of his booth. He could work a crowd, Richard Proudfit.

But still I wasn't sure I was in the right place. The central display at Proudfit's stand was for Future Foods, Inc. of New Hope, Minnesota. The graphic was of a sheaf of wheat bound by a red ribbon, plus a Cornucopia spilling its bright plenty. The promotional language differed little from that of surrounding millennial mercantilists.

'MEETS FAMILY NEEDS. Y2K CRISES. FOOD SHORTAGES. Get prepared to [sic] what this nation is about to endure. EMERGENCY FOOD -- SURVIVAL -- PREPAREDNESS.'

Off to the side, however, much less noticeable, was another display for something called 'Feed My Starving Children.' Proudfit handed me one of his samples, which tasted pretty good, like the fare at a neighborhood cafe. Proudfit has the eyes of a Viking, blue, color of deep ice.

'What's this?' I asked him, holding up a Feed My Starving Children pamphlet. In a flash the man's eyes changed -- like a merry old elf who'd been caught playing a trick.

'Well,' he said, 'that's who we really are.'

Everyone else at the Y2K Expo may have been worried about the future, but the Millennium Bug struck Richard Proudfit as a possible godsend. For him it is just one more miracle (his word) in an endless 15-year-long parade of them. I don't know if any of the other exhibitors were consciously working a con, but Proudfit was delighted to discuss his.

The president of a Minneapolis-based manufacturing concern, Proudfit has been a winner all his life. An all-state basketball player, then a merchant marine who loved the sea but came ashore to marry, then a business wunderkind. The companies he started under the umbrella of Cardinal Industries never did anything but make money about as fast as Proudfit could count it. Forty years of relentless success in the plastics and rubber field, he says, made him the quintessential hard-driving, take-no-prisoners businessman.

'You couldn't tell me anything,' he says.

And then he heard the voice. Since then his life has been... different.

It was The Voice, Proudfit eventually concluded. Maybe it was the one that Scrooge heard -- Dickens always maintained that it wasn't he who wrote 'A Christmas Carol,' that the immortal story was told to him by a 'spirit.' In any case, Proudfit maintains that it was the old, old voice that came to him, the one that melts the heart and clears the eye of motes and logs, revealing the world's eternal newness. He did not come to the conclusion readily.

Proudfit happens to be constitutionally unfit for vacations. To rest he has to work. He was resting in 1974 by helping some humanitarian American doctors clean up after Hurricane Fifi in Honduras, which killed 10,000 people -- setting up generators for field clinics, that sort of thing. And then, all alone in a rumbling utility van, on a lonely jungle road, he heard:

'Stop the car.'

So he did.

'Get out,' ordered the voice.

He did.

'Look up.'

Proudfit was overcome by a beauty that struck him dumb. The ethereal rainforest in a vast bowl of towering mountains cleaved by valleys curtained in mist, the whole saturated in a throbbing color of impossible intensity.

'I made this all for you,' said the voice.

Richard Proudfit stood there weeping from a nameless joy, thinking his nervous breakdown had begun.

He told no one and just kept working. Then one day a Honduran mother thrust her dying infant into the businessman's face and before he could get away he looked deep into the baby's soft brown eyes. (During his orientation he'd been warned not to meet people's gazes in order to avoid heartbreak.) But this baby's eyes had become a window on the world's soul, and the soul conveyed its needs. As in a trance, Richard Proudfit lifted the baby from the mother's arms and found a doctor. And the doctor told him he saved the child's life. Richard Proudfit was shocked.

That experience began what Proudfit calls 'a disturbing time' that lasted for several years. It was characterized by eerie coincidences he couldn't explain. And still he told no one, not his wife, not his colleagues. He genuinely feared he was losing his mind. That, or else God was trying to talk to him.

I asked him if he was a religious man. He said, 'I went to church for 34 years, sat in a pew... I didn't know God was alive.'

There finally came a Saturday when he was alone in his office and could take it no more. In his most stentorian boss's voice he bellowed: 'I want to know what's up, and I want to know what's up right now!'

In retrospect, he says he can't recommend getting tough with God.

'That night at about two or three in the morning, a bolt of lightening came horizontally across the room. Within a split second I'm standing about five to ten feet from the bed, and the voice came and said, 'Feed... my... starving children. It will be package food. It will go by airplane. And five million dollars.' '

Richard Proudfit still doesn't know what the five million dollars is about. Maybe it means he will sell his companies. He's ready to, if need be. But after fifteen years, the rest of the story is clear. Beginning in 1984, he spent three years in research and development of the product he was selling that night at the Y2K Expo -- 'Fortified Rice-Soy Casserole' in flavors of chicken and beef, six servings to the fifteen-ounce bag, each packing 11 grams of protein, 10 of fat, 41.5 grams of carbohydrates, plus vitamins and minerals. 'Potent stuff.' It saves starving children all over the world. It could save the world, too, Proudfit believes.

Proudfit relates one miracle after another that brought him the assistance of such corporate giants as Cargil, Pillsbury, General Mills, Northwest Airlines, that put military cargo airlifts at his disposal; one chance encounter after another that, 12 years ago, launched Feed My Starving Children's global efforts.

Richard Proudfit began traveling the world, personally hand-picking distributors for the food, 'because we're accountable. If somebody gives us a dollar to feed a starving child, we have to be accountable that that dollar gets to that child. Because, we're businessmen, now. We're a little bit tougher, we're a little bit different.'

By the many gross tons of pallets his little bags of potent stuff have fed the starving children of Haiti, Africa, Russia, Latin America, the Middle East, the Philippines, Mongolia. Just delivering food isn't enough, however, because of pandemic corruption in food distribution. Mother Theresa helped Proudfit put Haitian blackmailers in line. A Russian general at a secret remote airbase helped him manage the Russian Mafia. Every day there are miracles that still shock him. But they don't surprise him anymore, they just keep him in a constant state of excitement. 'I'm so excited I need a seat belt to hold me down,' he told me that night in the Convention Center as people milled about us, wide-eyed with millennium fever. He has found that children are the planet's universal language, in every land strangers waiting in the wings to help. They just keep materializing, as though out of the fog of dry ice wafting in from just off-stage. He need only step into the next episode to meet them. After 12 years he has stories that would take him weeks to recount. Like that time near the Red Sea.

In 1990, Richard Proudfit flew into Asmera, capitol city of Eritrea, in the middle of a civil war. Guerrillas ringed the city. An angry man at the airport lobby asked if he was American. 'Yes,' said Proudfit. 'Well, you're the only one here,' the man snarled. 'We kicked all you guys out.' 'Thanks,' answered Proudfit, 'you made my day.' Proudfit makes no bones about condemning the foreign policy that has made America hated around the world.

Proudfit was looking for the local arm of UNICEF, which he considers 'one of the finest feeding organizations in the world.' He wanted to present his program to the local boss. With a box of his food and a knapsack he wandered the city for two hours, temper rising in the 90-degree heat, asking strangers for help. No one understood him. Finally, exhausted, he stood at a curb, staring down at his feet, then looked up and blurted, 'Oh, God! YOU find UNICEF!'

'The last syllable out of my mouth, a car stopped at the stop sign right in front of me, and on the door was UNICEF. I stepped off of the curb. I walked toward the car. The Ethiopian behind the wheel rolled the window down, and in perfect English says, 'What do you want?' I says, 'I would like to go find your office to find your boss to present my feeding program.' He says, 'Why don't you get in the back seat, the boss is in the back seat.' For the next 45 minutes I had a personal interview with the boss of UNICEF for Eritrea.'

Coincidentally, it was the boss's first day on the job; he'd arrived from Nigeria only the day before.

For several years now Feed My Starving Children has struggled to keep up with the demand for its product. Last year an army of 8,000 teenage volunteers packaged the organization's food, a contribution worth millions in saved labor costs. Next year Proudfit expects 10,000 kids. He dreams of 100,000 American youths joining the crusade. He never knows where the financial support will come from to finance the growth. It just keeps coming, part of the miraculous stagecraft.

Not long ago Proudfit asked a top corporate executive for a contribution to feed the starving children of the Dominican Republic. Shades of Scrooge's bah humbug about letting the needy die 'and decrease the surplus population,' the executive responded, 'I don't care about the kids in the Dominican Republic. Let 'em die! What are you doing for kids in this country?'

Richard Proudfit answered: 'Did you know your son was out packaging last night? Fed three thousand kids.'

The executive produced his check book.

In the beginning, the voice hadn't specified WHICH starving children to feed. Seemingly, then, it meant all of them. How many is that? Proudfit wondered. He started crunching the numbers and learned that 40,000 children under the age of five perish of starvation daily. Each day another 250,000 in the same age group enter malnutrition's terminal stage. Figure in the hungry over age five, the numbers become 'monstrous.'

'I almost cracked up,' says Proudfit. 'Literally. I needed the key to Fort Knox. It was in the beginning when I didn't have the faith and I didn't know what was going on.'

A business problem he'd once faced gave him his bearings. His company had been asked to design a non-drip spout and cap for the Tide® soap bottle. The size of the order staggered Proudfit: 300,000 prototypes. What, he asked the client, would the production run look like? Six billion was the answer.

'I laughed, and he laughed, and he says, 'You're a small company, I know you can't do that. But if you'll do an engineering job for us in the development of this product, you'll save us millions.' I related that to the children. That's what's happening. This is so big and so monstrous that I can't even visualize how big it is. But I believe that if we plant this seed in the world we can bring the world together as a community. The world is getting too small. We can't be building bombs, atomic -- this is all over. You can't do this anymore. I believe this package,' he says, holding up a bag of the Fortified Rice-Soy Casserole, 'could be a peace offering for the world. With my whole heart I believe that. We can come together as human beings.'

That belief brought Richard Proudfit to Spokane's Y2K Expo. The cost of his global feeding efforts now runs $150 million annually. And he needs more, much more, so hungry is the planet. A few months ago, wondering once again where the money would come, he began fielding a strange question. Did Feed My Starving Children offer emergency Y2K provisions? He hardly knew what Y2K was.


Future Foods was born. The gimmick: every penny of profit goes to Feed My Starving Children. Proudfit believes that Y2K demand for his products could expand Feed My Starving Children's volume 500-fold. But that ranks among the more modest of his convictions.

Richard Proudfit lives with a clear picture these days. It is of a tired world that has had about all of what Scrooge called the 'avarice and hard dealing and griping cares' it can handle. The time has come, in Proudfit's view, for humanity to care about what really matters. He hears in Y2K the summons of chimes not unlike those that announced Scrooge's phantoms, and for Richard Proudfit the fateful tolling conjures possibilities.

He held up one of his potent little packages and said: 'I'm almost in tears to think of what this can do to begin to change the world from the direction it's going in. We are spiraling down. Because this has met so many needs other than just pure food, I'm saying because of the Year 2K, now, this food package can do more than just feed. We can begin to touch the people in a loving, caring way, to come together. And share. First let's share the food. Let's share resources. Let's share your strength with my strength.'

Proudfit believes that Feed My Starving Children's track record illuminates potential of two distinct types, one pragmatic, the other profound. First, just as the six billion Tide® bottle caps required that a design solution precede production, he's convinced that, because of its proven design, FMSC could prepare the nation for any food shortage Y2K could cause. Simultaneously, the organization can be grown, he says, to feed the world's hungry. Accomplishing the latter would require relatively modest contributions from affluent nations, companies, citizens.

Such a gesture would be tantamount to advice he gives all his organization's volunteers who go into the field.

'I want you to feed that little five-year-old kid. Give 'im a hug. Tell 'im you love him. You will never be the same. It will change your life forever. I'm telling you, the simple hug of a child will change your life. Do you see what a little package can do?'

Richard Proudfit told me that it saddened him to encounter the kind of fear he did at the Y2K Expo. Garv Brakel, the City of Spokane's top Y2K manager, said the same thing. He described arriving at the city's booth on the Expo's first morning to be mobbed by a stream of alarmed people.

'I don't know what presentation those folks were coming out of, but they were SCARED,' said Brakel.

'Some of the people coming by our booth wanted to scream,' said Proudfit.

He then described how he helped them calmly assess their actual needs and realize how modest and attainable they really are. He shared his conviction that the solution to Y2K, and the deeper challenges surrounding it, is not worry but care, not fear but compassion.

'Fear says, 'I'm self-centered. I don't care about my neighbor anymore,' ' Proudfit told visitors to his booth.

His words resonated with many, because they told him that they suddenly saw in Y2K a surprising gift. A gift which, because of its extraordinary global scope, might at last persuade people everywhere that the only hope lies in cherishing one another -- in giving to one another -- instead of endlessly perfecting the means of taking.

'We had people come up to us for two days and say, 'This is the best thing that we've seen at this show.' '

As Proudfit recounted his experience I had an image of Y2K as the last and grimmest of Scrooge's ghosts: the towering phantom of the apocalypse in its dark, cowled robe. And as Proudfit spoke, the awful hood and dress shrank and collapsed, as on the first morning of a world made new by the lessons of a terrifying dream.

I imagined the vast possibilities implied by Proudfit's hopes. True, they would require a global change of heart and mind along the lines of what Scrooge experienced. But maybe that IS Y2K's gift. Richard Proudfit knows such a change of heart is possible. For him it has already happened.

Richard Proudfitt can be reached at: Feed My Starving Children, 5407 Boone Ave.N., New Hope, MN 55428. Phone: (612) 504-2919, fax (612) 504-2943.