A Winters Tale: The Apocalypse that Wasn't

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We welcomed in the new year last week as we almost always do, quietly.  Dinner with friends, dropping into a party, but not staying long, then home to fall asleep well before the old year slips away and the latest one arrives.   But before the night ended, I found myself thinking of a very different New Year’s Eve, one exactly 20 years ago. That night the world was on edge, wondering if all the technology we depended upon would stop working at midnight, throwing the planet into chaos. It was called Y2K. To refresh your memory, it was feared that when the clocks inside the world’s computers, programmed decades earlier with only the last two digits representing the year, rolled over at the stroke of midnight, the devices would think it was 1900, not 2000. And then, presumably, all hell would break loose. Bank accounts would disappear, planes would fall out of the sky, the country’s military would be defenseless, and no microwave oven would be able to reheat the previous night’s macaroni and cheese. As a correspondent for CBS News, my assignment was simple. Travel to the very first place on the planet where the calendar would change, be among the first humans to welcome in the new century, and dutifully report.   Since this might have been the end of civilization, I brought my wife Judy along as a witness.   After three flights, each in smaller and smaller aircraft, we arrived on the tiny Fijian island of Taveuni, a dot in the South Pacific. It is one of only a handful of territories on earth which intersect the International Date Line.  (the rest being in the middle of the ocean). In order to film anything, we had to seek permission of the local tribal chief, known as the Ratu. We drove to his village, shook hands (he spoke no English), then sat cross-legged around a campfire, while a welcoming ceremony was held. We were each presented with gifts, some kind of animal horn on a rope. I thought this was a nice gesture, until I learned that we had actually paid for the gifts in advance, and this was all for show. There was tribal music, and dancers, and once respects had been paid, we left to do our work. Easier said than done. Turns out a rival Ratu had decided that in honor of Y2K, he had placed a curse upon the island. According to the natives, he had arranged for sharks to infest the local waters. In a decision I would hear about well into the new millennium, I decided Judy should investigate, and off she went, waterproof camera in hand. Brave as she was, there were no sharks to be found. While she was offshore, I went to the international date line to film a demonstration. I hopped from one side to another. “Here, it is today,” I said, then stepping back across, “and here, it is tomorrow.” I thought this was brilliant until, in the editing room, we realized that I’d gotten it backwards. I had to return and re-shoot the segment. Finally, came the moment we were waiting for. As midnight approached, a small crowd gathered in a local park.  All sorts had travelled here for this event, wanting to witness history. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a strange man. Short, disheveled, unshaven, eyes darting about, clutching a worn leather satchel to his chest.  No one recognized him.   Afraid he was  a lunatic intent on staging the first terrorist attack of the new century, we asked one of the tribal officials to check him out. Turns out, he was a Polish national who had saved his money to travel all the way to Fiji, and had just arrived, exhausted. His satchel contained his clothes, not a bomb.  Finally, it was time for the countdown. On a rickety stage with a microphone in hand, one of the Ratu’s men began: 30, 29, 28. When he reached 10, the man became confused and began counting forward: 11, 12, 13. Realizing his mistake, he quickly jumped ahead to: 3, 2, 1.  And then it was over. Fireworks were lit, the crowd cheered, the year 2000 had arrived. By the next morning, it was clear that all the fears over Y2K were unfounded. Nothing happened. Planes flew, our money was safe, computers and toasters kept on working. I thought about all of this as we tucked ourselves into bed last week, a million miles from Fiji, here in Winters, the sky pitch black, not a sound to be heard. On January first, we awoke to a few clouds, a view toward the Berryessa Gap, and a small group of jackrabbits skittering across our back field. Now, that’s the way to begin a new year.]]>

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