The last thing that happened before we left Madagascar was Y2K. At the turn of the millennium our time in Madagascar was drawing to a close. We were planning a holiday trip with our friends the Reddy’s. John Reddy is actually responsible for the title of this blog. We were at a resort having a drink together on an earlier trip when I started telling him my Uganda rafting tale. He lifted his hand in the three finger Boy Scout salute. “What’s with the three fingers?” I asked, cutting my tale short. “I love your stories, Michael, and I’d listen to any of them twice,” he said, always the gentleman. “But we need some way for me to signal when I’ve already heard them three times.” Thus began my Thrice Told Tales.
But back to the millennium. It came loaded with fears of a societal collapse denoted by the shorthand ‘Y2K’. There was a growing consensus that crossing the millennium would cause widespread computer clock failures. Y2Kers believed that ‘1900’ was hard-coded into critical computer programs. This suggested that 1999 was coded only as ‘99’, because the code assumed the ‘1900’. If that were the case, then ’99 plus 1’ would revert critical systems back to 1900 rather than jumping ahead to 2000.
The doomsday scenarios included airplanes falling from the sky and banking systems crumbling. In December, 1999, the Nairobi and Tanzania Embassy bombings were still recent memories. Now the scythe-clutching, hood-shrouded specter of Y2K was just ahead. Out of ‘an abundance of caution’, the Embassy required that we all ‘shelter in place’ over the New Year. So we were to remain in the capital, Antananarivo, as the clock struck 2000. And that put an end to our travel plans.
The USAID Director graciously offered to host a New Year’s Eve at her home as consolation. At nine pm, December 31st, 1999, a large number of us showed up her gates. There was also a massive showing by the Locally Engaged Staff (LES). Each LES received a short-fused bottle rocket as they passed the main gate. I got a foot long sparkler instead. “I’d prefer one of those,” I said, snatching a bottle rocket from one of the guards. When he offered token resistance, I said, “Gees, what’s the problem? I’m not going to blow the place up.” He reluctantly agreed.
We sipped champagne under the billowing folds of parachute tents scattered about the yard. As Y2K approached, the lawn filled with dazzling luminous trails of sparklers set alight. The first of the LES’s sent his bottle rocket streaming into the night sky. I grabbed an empty bottle and a full box of matches from a nearby table. As I set my match to the fuse, the person next to me eyes grew wide. “You’re under the tent,” he said, jabbing his finger into the air. I glanced around in alarm and noted a large darken garage area behind me. I aimed the rocket on a horizontal trajectory and let it fly. The rocket streaked off towards the open garage and exploded inside with a loud bang. An instant later, five black-clad commandos charged out of the garage. Certain they were taking fire, they waved their submachine guns at the crowd, seeking potential targets.
“It was an accident,” I shouted, waving madly to get their attention. “I did it. It was me. I shot my bottle rocket in there. It was me. I did it by mistake.” For a moment they continued to scan, ready to shoot. Then the one in charge lowered his weapon and told the others to stand down. “Jesus Christ,” he said, approaching me in disbelief. “That was a hair’s breadth from bloodshed.” I nodded and welcomed in the new century.