The "Mom's Only Night" in the church basement seemed typical enough for meticulously suburban Columbia. Thirty-five women in sweaters and sweat shirts hashed out plans for a field trip to the Maryland Science Center and then tackled details for the fast-approaching Cookie Exchange Night.
Then talk turned to the millennium.
Mary Erickson, 39, stood before the women. Wearing blue jeans, a flower-embroidered pale green sweater, pearly earrings and a face full of concern, she beseeched the group not to take too lightly the potential for computer-driven global chaos in about 13 months.
"Well, ladies," she said with a nervous giggle, "I'd much rather be talking about sex or math than the end of the world as we know it."
The end won't sneak up on Erickson, her group or a growing number of mainstream moms and dads across the country.
Most experts have offered strong assurances that the end, if it comes anytime soon, will not be the result of millennium-induced computer failures.
But that has not stopped a small but increasingly visible population that is doing everything it can to physically prepare for the year 2000 -- for the coming "Y2K" problem, as it has become known.
Distinguished from fatalist religious groups preparing spiritually for the millennium, they are following preservation tactics more commonly employed by fringe survivalist groups who fear black helicopters and anything remotely connected to the government.
Their deadline arrives at the stroke of midnight when 1999 becomes 2000 -- when, they fear, computers all over the world could malfunction, causing grocery stores to close, faucets to run dry, ATMs to fritz out, cities to darken, and all manner of other calamity.
Sex and math? At Erickson's recent meeting they would have to take a back seat to instructions on how to store a year's worth of food, how to purify river water, how to buy an electric generator, how -- with technology suddenly short-circuiting society rather than propelling it forward -- to survive.
In their one-car, one-van homes on suburban cul-de-sacs, Erickson and her like adamantly believe in not having too much faith.
They are buying and storing tons of dry milk and other dehydrated foods. They are snatching up kerosene heaters, stashing water in their basements, batteries in their cupboards and money in their mattresses.
Whether Erickson and other like her number in the thousands or the tens of thousands is hard to determine. But what is clear is that the more fearful among them are buying gold in anticipation of a monetary collapse.
Some are storing guns, fearing civil upheaval. They are filling their bookshelves with titles such as "Self-Reliant Living," "Making the Basics" and "Don't Get Caught With Your Pantry Down."
"What's apparently happening is the massive mainstream is picking up where the religious fringe was for the last millennium," says Steven Conn, a professor of history at Ohio State University in Columbus.
He counts himself among historians who believe that there was widespread awareness at the coming of 1000 and that reactions included an increase in pilgrimages to Jerusalem and a surge in executions of heretics.
"A thousand years ago, there certainly was a kind of end-of-the-world strain to things that went on in advance of the first millennium," Conn says. "In a way, Y2K has become the more scientific metaphor for channeling all of their end-of-the-world anxieties.
"Before it was more, 'Christ is going to come, the world is going to end.' Now we have, 'The computers are going to crash; the world is going to end.' "
Those preparing for a Y2K problems crash say they are only ensuring themselves against the chance of serious disruptions, not the certainty of them.
"What we're doing," Erickson says, "is looking out for our families. You carry fire insurance even though you never think you're going to have a fire.
"How is this any different?"
Far from extremists
They are preparing, after all, for some of the same types of problems as the National Guard. The executive director of the National Guard Association of the United States told a U.S. Senate committee recently that he is certain the National Guard will be used to help quell problems when 2000 arrives.
Erickson and her husband, Loren, are far from extremists. And while they hope to survive the computer problems that may come, they do not consider themselves survivalists.
She is a homemaker; he is an Army physician. They have six children, live in Columbia and attend Columbia Presbyterian Church.
In addition to being a suburban homemaker, Mary Erickson also is a self-confessed computer junkie.
Lately, she has been getting her fix watching a growing number of Y2K-related Web sites pop up with such unsettling messages as, "Fortune 500 will not be ready," "U.S. Army, Navy and Airforce Disarmed," "World Chaos" and, most pessimistically, "Total Collapse."
"More and more people who study this think there are going to be problems," she says. "We homemakers, we're the ones responsible when our children make those little faces and say, 'What's to eat, Mommy?'
"And, you know, if the trains can't run because the computer chips fail, there's not going to be food in those grocery stores. If the electric grids fail, we're going to need a way to cook what we've stored," she adds.
"There are all these conflicting reports out there, so the wise thing is to prepare for the worst. I mean, if you ask a bank if they're going to be ready, do you think they're going to say, 'No, we're not ready. You better get all your money out while you can'?"
In fact, experts are split on just what will happen with the world's computers when the year ends in double zeros.
Programmers have been aware since the 1960s that, come 2000, certain computers would read the last two digits of the year and begin functioning as if it were 1900 -- or not function at all.
Analysts at the GartnerGroup of Connecticut, a technology consulting firm that has emerged as a leading researcher into Y2K, released a report last week aimed at consumers, hoping to quell fears of international disaster.
"The year 2000 problem is analogous to a major storm," the report said. "In this case it will be, at worst, similar to a hurricane, cyclone or bad snowstorm.
"For individuals, the year 2000 will not be a catastrophe such as a severe earthquake, a huge asteroid crashing into the Earth or a nuclear war."
The group recommends that families store food, water, fuel and medical supplies for potential problems, but it says five days' worth should be sufficient.
Peter de Jager, a Canadian computer programmer who brought the Y2K problem public, has softened his alarmist views and now says people are going overboard with their preparations.
Sen. Robert F. Bennett, chairman of the Senate committee studying Y2K, recently said that the United States is better prepared for 2000 than he once thought, though the Utah Republican added that overseas problems could cause problems here.
But people such as Greg Killian, a computer programmer for the Boeing Corp. in Seattle, have been creating Web sites warning that not all is nearly well. Minor disruptions, they say, are only a best-case scenario and probably not very realistic.
"Assume there's going to be no electricity for some time," he says. "That's what my advice boils down to, to figure out how to provide water, food and shelter for your family, assuming that there's no electricity."
Dana O'Sullivan is another Columbia mom taking that advice to heart.
"What would be crazy is not preparing for what could happen," says O'Sullivan, 40, who has begun storing a year's worth of supplies for her husband, Michael; her three children, Carter, Blake and Clancy; the family dogs, Maggie and Shadow; their cat, Miss Mittens; their bunnies, Marshmallow and Marmalade; and their chronically hungry fish, Sucker.
The family lives in a house with a two-car attached garage, a red wagon next to an autumn pumpkin on the porch, the children's signed handprints embedded in the concrete of the driveway.
"You could call us very average, very mainstream," she says. "If people think we're crazies, I would just encourage them to educate themselves on what could happen. It's not that we're doing it out of fear. It's more like just in case."
Silver and gold
Brian Ott, owner of Certified Rarities of Lutherville -- which, among other goods, deals in gold and silver -- says people like O'Sullivan and Erickson are helping his business.
His sales of gold and silver coins have increased about 50 percent over the past six months, he says, and while that may have as much to do with predictable stock market jitters as with generalized Y2K panic, he is seeing people like O'Sullivan and Erickson in his store for the first time.
And the run has driven prices skyward: A bag of the coins that went for $3,600 now sells for about $4,500.
This has occurred even as the price of silver bullion has fallen, Ott says, because people want the security of silver with the flexibility of accepted currency -- and a rush on the coins has left them in short supply.
"These are mainstream people buying," he says. "It used to be that a lot of the people who would buy from me would be survivalists who wanted to squirrel away silver coins for after the bomb dropped -- or, these days, after the economy crashes.
"The paranoid people still buy, but now we have a lot of average, normal folk coming in."
But his sales boom has been nothing like that experienced by companies such as Peace of Mind Essentials, which sells dehydrated food from Darby, Mont.
The company's owner, Mary Martel, has been encouraging people through its Web site to stock up on powdered eggs and dry milk, dehydrated meat and purified water. They have been listening, she says, boasting of a sales increase of 750 percent over the past year and a quickly expanding customer profile.
"Our customers were people who wanted to be self-sufficient, who didn't want to count on the government," Martel explains.
"I'm not saying extremists and I'm not saying survivalists, but people who really wanted to be independent.
"The people who are calling now are John Q. Public, people who have three kids and just want to be prepared."
Likewise at the Sunny's Surplus outlet in Bel Air, which sells cots, tents, generators and other outdoor goods, sales clerk Stacy Piazzi says a recent run on survival gear has been unmistakably driven by suburban moms who once found it a stretch to survive a weekend camping trip.
"We have whole families coming in looking for 55-gallon drums of water," she says. "They're looking for waterproof flashlights, wool blankets.
"They'll tell me, 'The banks are going to shut down, we're going to lose all our money, and gas and electric won't be able to run right.'
"They're coming in and getting water purification systems and all, you know, because they think they're going to have to get water out of the rivers and the streets.
"It's kind of funny," she adds. "But it's kind of not."
Erickson said she once thought the warnings of doom were funny, too. When she first ran into the Web sites warning of catastrophe, she did not take them seriously. The doubt -- the unknown -- has changed her mind.
"I thought they were a hoax," she says. "Then you get to the point where you start thinking, hmmm, what if ?"
Pub Date: 11/29/98