When the Lights Go Out

Nick Martens relates the tale of his senior-year physics teacher, and how the old coot’s ramblings sound a bit less rambly these days.

I can’t help but sound like a Holden Caulfied-esque liar when I talk about Mr. Thomas. He taught my physics class during my senior year of high school, and he had one leg. He lost the other years earlier when he crashed one of his Jaguar racing cars. Then he built his own prosthesis, and would occasionally leave class because the thing was, in his words, “leaking green goo” all over the floor.

As with all enigmatic figures, Mr. Thomas’s mystique developed as his own tales mixed with baseless teenage folklore. Five years removed, the two have blended inseparably in my mind. Here’s how I remember him: He was deported from post-war Germany for selling guns he pillaged from old Nazi weapons caches; he speaks something like seven or ten different languages, including dead ones like Aramaic; he once built a submarine in the school’s pond and brought in fighter jets for his students to work on; he basically stole millions of dollars of high-tech science equipment from an old laboratory job (I know this one is true); and he can tell you how much gold is stored in a safe on the thirteenth floor of a skyscraper by detecting variations in gravity using instruments in a plane flying over the building.

Mr. Thomas taught at my school for decades, and I took the last class he ever offered. That year, he was in and out the hospital for several operations on his back, and it felt like he could go any time. But Mr. Thomas never seemed bothered about his mortality. He told us that he wanted to get his back into shape so he could hunt Cape Buffalo in Africa. He liked them as game because they only give you two shots. After you fire, it starts charging. You have time for one more shot, but if you miss, you get trampled. He saw those as even odds.

When I had him, Mr. Thomas health was bad enough that he shouldn’t have been teaching. And, honestly, his style was so anachronistic that none us could follow the material anyway. But he didn’t toil through pain so he could help seventeen-year-olds learn about kinetic energy. He had a mission.

The real reason Mr. Thomas spent so much time teaching high school, as we learned near the end of the year, was that he figured teenagers would be easy to brainwash. As we prepared to graduate, he started to talk about mining. His favorite phrase became, “when the lights go out.” When the lights go out, he asked us, what will happen to our country? When nuclear war arrives, where will America get the resources to rebuild? He felt that we had outsourced the spine of modern civilization — the mining of raw materials — and that when World War III inevitably breaks out, we’ll be left in the dark. (Incidentally, he also told us how to knock the Earth out of orbit and send it into the Sun.)

For the last weeks of school, he turned into an evangelist for mining. He wanted to bring the industry back to the United States — not as an economic engine, but as a safeguard against apocalypse. And he wanted his students to lead the charge. In fact, some of his kids did end up going to the Colorado School of Mines, buy I think they sent in their applications before Mr. Thomas’s sales pitch began.

Since that year, I’ve thought Mr. Thomas was a little cracked up. The whole nuclear holocaust thing feels a bit sci-fi as far as personal philosophies go. But as the world thunders into a horrible moneyless pit, I’ve come to see the logic underlying Mr. Thomas’s paranoia. Maybe the surface of the planet won’t become a shriveled cinder, but the economy just might.

What does this country do? I’ve been looking for jobs, and everything I see is either technology, service, or medicine. You can’t get a job making something where I live (not that you can get a job anyway). You can’t do anything that creates and projects concrete value into the world. I realize this is an old, tired thought, but I can’t seem to shake it.

The anxiety is compounded by another thought: the United States rose to global supremacy on the back of the industrial revolution. Then we got rid of most of our industries. We had a solid, tangible foundation upon which to build a society, but that foundation didn’t even last a century. Given how easily the whole apparatus has been shaken this past year, maybe we shouldn’t have given up that foundation so readily.

I don’t mean any of this as serious economic discourse; it’s just my own personal relationship with the financial crisis. I always thought pining over blue-collar, steel mill jobs was crap, but now I’m not so sure. Some people in California lose their houses, some jackasses in Manhattan panic, and in Seattle my English degree is twice as useless as normal. If this is how we react to a largely meaningless hiccup in our system, then I truly am terrified of what we’ll do when the lights go out.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.