Yesterday’s blog ended up saying that to optimize your chances for survival in a famine avoid being in the following categories, being: male, old and scholarly inclined. But that is about like saying to succeed in life choose your parents very carefully. Today, I will write about how to recover from a famine when you are offered food. It isn’t as easy as you might think.
In 1960 the U.S. Air Force thought it to their benefit to send me to Survival School for six weeks. There were several of these schools, each set up for learning how to cope with various potential problems like tropical or desert, or arctic etc. The one at Reno, Nevada at the Stead Air Force Base, the winter of 1960 was definitely arctic. After several weeks of lectures and a few days in a very realistic prisoner-of-war fenced-in compound complete with tortures, we went on an five day wilderness survival, escape and evasion hike high in the mountains. Our particular survival location was about twenty miles north of Donner Lake and several thousand feet higher in elevation. That was an interesting choice of locations because it was there at that lake where in 1846 the wagon train called the Donner Party got blocked from getting to California by an early snow storm and was reduced to cannibalism to survive. Needless to say everyone didn’t survive.
The last week of January, when I had the pleasure of being there, it turned out to be a particularly cold winter. I remember the mornings were so cold they had that sort of tinkly sound. It is hard to describe, but when it is tinkly you know it is really cold. Actually, it is only at night that it was painfully cold because it was very clear air and in the daytime when you could get out into the sun it was warm and pleasant. Oh, I should mention, for the entire time I was issued one left-over WW II K-ration. That treat consists of a block of twenty year old compacted cheese, compacted pemmican, compacted chocolate, a tea bag, a cigarette and a couple of matches. The whole thing will fit easily in a pants pocket. It was in a heavily waxed khaki wrapper which was designed for starting camp fires. I also had a decent down sleeping bag for 32 degree weather, and four panels of parachute to make a tent with, sort of, but it wasn’t near 32 degrees and when you are being pursued by aggressors an orange parachute isn’t quite the ideal tent. In addition to those limitations we were expected to travel several miles through deep snow in this mountainous terrain every day, and later at night also.
A short week of this isn’t famine but it does give one a taste of what you can do and what you are going to have trouble doing. I found it sort of fun the first night finding guys who couldn’t stand to eat the pemmican, and their swapping a whole one of those out for half one of my chocolate bars and then later finding someone who couldn’t stand the cheese and swapping a whole one of those for half a pemmican bar. After all those shenanigans I think I ended up with almost two K-rations worth of that horrid stuff. Wow, two crappy meals and I only had to survive for five days. There was a bit of hard physical efforts involved, and trying to sleep in below freezing weather burns up calories fast. What a beautiful vacation in the high Sierras … and at government expense. Some guys grumbled at the fact that we were not to receive TDY (temporary duty pay), but the government’s position was that they were providing us with everything we needed. Imagine the largess, the whole outdoors in a beautiful resort setting, and you can have anything you can find for food and shelter. The only problem with that was that we were being pursued by their aggressor forces who got points for catching us so we had to keep running and hiding every night; also we didn’t have much time to trap rabbits. Of course we never saw the slightest sign of any rabbits. The only things even remotely edible were the other survivors … ala Donner Party tasty bits but it didn’t quite come to that.
I could wax on long into the night, if I had a few beers and some companions who went through survival school. Watch Les Stroud the Survivor Man on TV to get a bit of the flavor of surviving for a week without eating much of anything. Well, I did survive so I can say with assurance that the one of the most dangerous parts of surviving is suddenly having unlimited food. The evening we were brought out of the wilderness, Harrah’s Casino in Reno gave us survivors $10 gambling money, and a free all you could eat buffet dinner. I don’t think they did this out of malice; it was just a friendly business gesture, but we were in a very fragile and suggestible condition, and they knew it. One of my buddies gambled away three months pay that night, and probably he would have squandered more if he had access to it.
Last month at the University of California, Berkeley I attended a lecture on recovery from famine which was in part a tribute to Ancel Keys, a Berkeley grad. The lecture was a continuation of the study of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment of 1944-45. In that study thirty-six conscientious objectors to the war were volunteers for a starvation study. Considering how many people have starved to death over the course of humanity, or even over the last few hundred years where good records might have been kept, there is very little known about how it actually works.
One thing I can assure you of is that after you are starved for only eight days and you get access to food you will eat to the point of pain and then eat some more. It is really stupid. You know you are past the famine situation and will have easy access to food from now on, but somehow it is near impossible to stop eating. After WW II when the allies came to prison camps with unlimited food there were many cases, in fact it appeared common, for people to literally kill themselves by eating too much too quickly.
The best advice I can give is to go to Probaway – Metascale Body Mass. On that chart there are suggestions for how to cope with various levels of body weight. Basically, a starving person needs food now, but they should be fed slowly, and frequently at first with very small portions. What is probably okay for the first twenty-four hours is to start off with one ounce of sugared water by mouth every five minutes for the first hour and then at that same volume rate start adding into this beverage small but increasing amounts of easily digested pureed general foods like a tea spoon of applesauce.