By on December 31, 2013

Supra

At the stroke of midnight, a new millennium would begin and the whole world was supposed to come unhinged. Religious leaders were telling us that we needed to be afraid because Jesus Christ, aka the “Prince of Peace,” was coming back to wreak holy vengeance upon us all, cosmologists hinted that that an ominous planetary alignment was going to totally screw up our Feng Shui and computer experts were saying that the silicon chips that they had been relentlessly incorporating into everything since the late 1980s were going to suddenly freak out. It was this last thing that got most people’s panties in a twist. When the computers stopped, we were told, power grids would fail and modern society would grind to a halt. Anything that had an internal clock, they said, would simply stop working.

By the dawn of that fateful New Year’s Eve, I was firmly established in my new life as an English conversation teacher in Japan. My move to the Land of the Rising Sun was a jump made of the sort of desperation that only poverty can induce, but my change of scenery had done little to improve my situation. Where my previous hell had been my childhood bedroom at my mom’s house, it was now a tiny, virtually uninsulated, one-room “mansion” in the Kyoto area where I slept fully clothed under a few thin blankets atop a lumpy futon spread out on the floor over an electric carpet while the winter wind, right off the Siberian steppes, whistled and wailed as it forced its way into the shabby little room through a million small openings. Although I ran the heater almost constantly, I had given up hope of actually trying to warm the space and now the cold added just one more layer of misery. The world was a shitty place, I had decided and it t really didn’t matter to me if it ended. In fact, thanks to the sudden resurgence in popularity of “1999” by Prince, I was looking forward to it.

There is a certain mindset that comes with grinding, persistent poverty. Managing your money becomes an all-consuming thing and you pick and choose your luxuries. For me, someone who has always loved vehicles, my own personal mobility took priority over some of the other luxuries I might have enjoyed and, over the 9 months I had been in-country I had managed to acquire two reliable, but beat-down vehicles of my own, a Honda motorcycle and a Toyota Supra. Now, as Y2K bore down upon me the weight of what those computer experts had been saying was beginning to hit home. Both of my vehicles, I knew, had chips in them and, as they were both old, there was a chance they might actually be affected by the software glitch. Would they start on the day after? Could I fix them if they didn’t? I wondered.

cbr

As the fateful day approached, my girlfriend decided that we needed to ring in the New Year with a trip to Lake Biwa. Japan doesn’t really have any mighty rivers, no inland seas or anything even remotely like the Great Lakes, but given the small size of the country, at 39 miles long and 14 miles wide, Biwako does a pretty good impersonation. Set in Shiga prefecture, just across the prefectural boundary from Kyoto, the lake is a scenic attraction and its shores are lined with industry, hotels and entertainment complexes. One of these hotels was planning a celebratory fireworks show to ring in the New Year and, I was told, we would be going.

We headed out early in the evening, wending our way through the busy holiday traffic and through the center of the city of Kyoto before turning east through the small mountain pass that separated the city from the lake. Traffic intensified as we neared the shore and we eventually found a parking place in a crowded hotel garage an hour before the event was set to start. As we left the car and moved towards the viewing stands, I noticed a row of gasoline powered high intensity work lights, the kind that are often used during night time road construction, along the edge of the garage and it suddenly struck me why they were there. At the stroke of midnight, should the power fail, these would be fired up to provide the light that people would need to get back to their cars. Someone was taking this pretty seriously, I thought, it was an ominous sign.

Despite all the hype, until that moment I hadn’t thought of the Y2K problem outside of my own little miserable bubble. Now, it hit me with a real force. If the doomsayers were actually right, I realized, I was out on a limb. I would be trapped in a foreign country on the other side of the planet from my own personal support network and if things really came unglued, I would be irrevocably on my own. I felt a touch of fear rise up but just as quickly as it emerged, I shoved it back into its place. The threat of disaster doesn’t equal the real thing, I reasoned, and I wasn’t about to let it ruin my night. If poverty had taught me anything it had been to focus on the here and now. Tomorrow, for better or worse, would arrive soon enough.

My girlfriend and I climbed the stairs, found our places in the viewing stands and had a great night. As the seconds ticked down the lights dimmed and then went out as the fireworks show began. It was so engrossing that the possibility of disaster didn’t even cross my mind again until the show was over and the hotel lights came back up. As we walked back to the garage, I noticed the overhead lights burned as brightly as ever and that the line of generators stood silent and alone, sentinels against a darkness that did not come. I found my Supra safe in its parking place and smiled to myself as the engine snapped to life at the turn of the key. The world would continue, technology had triumphed and fear had been banished.

I pulled into the lane and joined a long line of cars making their way out of the facility. One by one the line of cars moved towards the street and then slipped away into the night, each vehicle whisking its occupants away into their own individual futures. When my own turn came I turned onto the street and pressed the accelerator. As the revs came up, the twin turbos on my 14 year old Supra sang their own special song and pushed the car forward with a sense of urgency and purpose. The new millenium was upon us.

Toyota Supra

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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26 Comments on “The Stroke Of Midnight...”


  • avatar
    Halftruth

    I find it amusing that the back up lights were there to assist folks in getting to cars that may not start (given the Y2K hype about the 2 digit date thing).

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Well put Thomas ;

    By that time I was relatively secure vis-a-vis the poverty thing but I *do* remember being grindingly poor and trying to feed my family in that situation ~ it changes how you think and approach live , even 40 years later .

    As the millennium approached I remember the fools and paranoids stocking up on ammo and buying gensets is mass quantities , many were never even gassed up and initially tested , I see them for sale everywhere these days .

    I’m hoping for more of your descriptions of Japan again soon , maybe some with the Moto ? .

    -Nate

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks always, Nate. I was approached by one of TTAC’s many sister sites recently about motorcycle related content. With Jack and Derek’s approval I began contributing at Motorcycle.com a couple of weeks ago. My first tale is here:

      http://www.motorcycle.com/features/observations-road-youthful-dreams-come-gone.html

      • 0 avatar
        -Nate

        THANK _YOU_ Thomas ! .

        That was nice and timely too as 12/15 I watched the last of three truckloads of old BMW /5′s drove away , I also held a fistfull of dollars and mixed feelings .

        I tried to reply to your post there but I cannot join yet another site as I have too many (300 + daily) e-mails coming in now….

        Keep up the good work please .

        I once had a memorable ride on my 1937 Harley-Davidson EL 61″ ” KunckleHead” Moto from Guatemala City to El Salvador and back…

        -Nate

    • 0 avatar

      Hey Nate, Thomas! Yes,I do too love the Japan stories. A very foreign world in many regards. About motorcycles or cars, keep them coming, pls.

  • avatar
    ...m...

    …i always love reading your pieces, thomas; they’re a welcomed respite of lucidity, keep them coming…

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    I love the story, but I must be pedantic regarding its final sentence.

    The 3rd Christian Millennium began in the year 2001 per Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal science fiction novel. 2000 A.D. was the final year of the 2nd Christian Millennium.

    Anyone wishing to contradict me must provide a link to their proof of existence of a year zero in the A.D. calender system, otherwise SYFC and have a slice of the crow quiche sitting on the hot plate over there.

    • 0 avatar

      You know, it just doesn’t have the same zing if I write, “The final year of the old millenium was upon us.”

    • 0 avatar
      05lgt

      Felis, I love me some Arthur C. Clarke, but he’s not really the source you should be citing. Try the US Naval Observatory at http://aa.usno.navy.mil/faq/docs/millennium.php (you’re still correct, but Thomas can write ;p)

    • 0 avatar

      @F. concolor: you are, of course, technically correct. And I generally am a stickler for technical correctness. But

      1. in this case, the majesty of going from 1999 to 2000 trumps a year out of a couple of thousand years. I mean, who even thinks about when we went from 2000 to 2001? Who ever thought about that before 2000? Yet I always knew that when the 1 in the thousands place was replaced by the 2, I would be the same age–to within 10 days–as JFK was when he was assassinated. And for years, I had wondered whether my parents would live to see 2000 (they did, my mother just barely).

      2. Millennia in the Christian (or any other) calendar are cultural constructs. But the culture focuses on 1999-2000, not 2000-2001.

  • avatar

    I remember my friends wanting to know if “Darth Vader’s bathroom” would work (my 1986 Pontiac 6000-STE that sported the full digital dash) so we all piled out to the car at 12:15 to see that yes it would work and yes the world would still be just fine.

    I remember the hysteria about all that, and I always countered that everything will work but the dates might be screwed up.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      I don’t recall people being worried about their cars, though I was 14 at the time. Didn’t they realize the old cars only know what date it is because of you setting the clock?

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      “Darth Vader’s bathroom”

      I enjoyed that description.

      http://i181.photobucket.com/albums/x76/dangrus4060/My%20X%20Cars/IM001767.jpg

  • avatar

    Very nice story. However…

    Please don’t tar cosmologists with nutty notions of planetary alignments causing disasters. Real cosmologists don’t engage in anything so unscientific. The pseudo-scientists who worry about planetary alignments bollixing earthly affairs are astrologers.

  • avatar
    LeeK

    The Y2K issue was indeed real, but widespread mitigation activity by millions of engineers, programmers, and IT specialists made it the non-event that it turned out to be. Billions of dollars were spent rewriting old computer code that would have certainly failed. It consumed my life for months and I distinctly recall the war rooms my company setup in the weeks prior to and during the event to insure that anything that happened was quickly dealt with. We shut down all warehouses six hours early, quiesced mainframe computer systems, and carefully rebooted them after midnight. It was a very big deal.

    Very nice story Thom. I would love to hear more about those days, even if the memories are somewhat painful, as I would imagine they are.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      This. I spent most of 1999 running around like my pants were on fire upgrading Xenix systems that WERE going to fail to Unix. Joy. All over the country, including one memorable trip for 4 weeks straight away from home working my way down the east coast all the way to Georgia and back to Maine driving my Volvo 745T. Two days per store, had one weekend off in Delaware with my Aunt and Uncle. Nice mileage check from that one! None of our customers had any issues with my company’s systems.

      • 0 avatar

        All you computer guys can consider my glib remarks proof that you did your jobs well. From my perspective as an average Joe, it was a seamless transition.

        Maybe its 13 years too late in coming, but thanks for the hard work.

        @Lee, I revisit those days once in a while. Despite the hardship, in some ways it turned out to be some of the best times of my life. Janice Joplin was right when she sang “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

        I knew before I went that going there was a one way trip down a dead end street. Once I got to the end, I had to climb the wall, but I wound up climbing right out of the maze I had been trapped in.

    • 0 avatar
      kuponoodles

      I was too young and too inexperienced to get a job cleaning up cobol based systems and might be too old for the Unix 2038 issue. But I appreciate the level of complexity and coordination needed for all I.T. professionals…. As long as their useless bosses stay outta their way.

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      I worked in an IT department of a major electric utility at the time as well. There was no way the lights were going out because every system and piece of software had to be tested and signed off as Y2K compliant by 01/01/2000. I agree with those who said Y2K turned out to be a big non-issue because the hype was so great that everyone took it seriously, and were therefore prepared when the time came.

      Those of us who know our Bible and history weren’t expecting anything either. The Greogrian calendar has been revised several times; to where the exact time since Jesus ascended is not exactly 2,000 years; no knows exactly how long it has been. Coupled with the scriptures that state that “not even the angels know the time”, and that the “days will be forshortened for the elect’s sake”; and no one has any idea; those who think otherwise are proven wrong again and again and again.

      Of course we will all live past the end of the Mayan calendar as well. You can buy Zombie insurance online if you wish; but you will never use it. And no need to say anything more about end of big oil or gloral warming. We have turned into a society that runs from one pending disaster to another; with some using the panic that is induced to make money or push their agenda.

      What amazed me at the time was as late as the late 1990s; people were still using Commodore 64s, and were still writing new versions of the GEOS operating system for it. Windows 95 and NT (much more stable and less prone to crashing than Windows 3.x), the growth of the internet, and yes Y2K finally killed it off.

    • 0 avatar
      Japanese Buick

      I work for a major enterprise technology company and did in 2000 as well. We were all told to be available by our phones to come in, in case of a meltdown. By 10pm on New Year’s Eve the managers were calling everyone to tell us “it’s all good, never mind”.

      Btw there was another calendar related event that caused a major ripple and date related teeth gnashing and code scrubbing in the software world that didn’t get near the publicity: the recent change to when daylight savings time begins and ends.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Only the wackos think Jesus sticks to a manmade calendar; they thought the same thing in 1000.

    An entertaining Y2K movie is “Entrapment”, with Catherine Zeta-Jones, and some guy who used to play James Bond.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    A lot of people freaked out . At the time my boss , in the events bizness, refused to book any work that night .

  • avatar
    Blackcloud_9

    Thanks for the story. As silly as it seems, my favorite line in this piece is:

    “In fact, thanks to the sudden resurgence in popularity of “1999” by Prince, I was looking forward to it.”

    Not being a very big Prince fan, I remember hearing that song in January of ’99 and thinking to myself “Oh joy! Guess what’s going to be the most overplayed song this year”


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