Cover

Millennium COUNTDOWN

As the big night nears, revellers plan where to party while police fear violence and Y2K chaos

Barry Came November 1 1999
Cover

Millennium COUNTDOWN

As the big night nears, revellers plan where to party while police fear violence and Y2K chaos

Barry Came November 1 1999

Millennium COUNTDOWN

As the big night nears, revellers plan where to party while police fear violence and Y2K chaos

Cover

Barry Came

Bruce Beach has peered into the future, catching a glimpse of the fate he believes lies in wait for mankind. His is an unsetding vision, the darker shade of millennarian prophecy, involving computer meltdowns, civil unrest, nuclear winter. Unlike many a fellow seer, however, the 65-year-old has been actively dealing with his fears for much of his life. The results are scattered across the American Midwest, in more than 20 abandoned bunkers crumbling to dust in his native Kansas. But Beach’s masterwork rests 90 km north of Toronto, near the town of Horning’s Mills, where the affable, bespectacled, retired teacher has spent the past 20 years burying 42 school

buses four metres beneath southern Ontario’s rolling hills. The buses, cemented together, form a vast underground shelter, 900 square metres of damp rooms, dim corridors and filtered airshafts built to withstand whatever the millennium might have in store, including nuclear war.

A “cataclysmic event” is looming, in Beach’s view. And he has a hunch that it might be triggered this coming New Year’s Eve, when computer systems around the planet fall prey to Y2K—the infamous “millennium bug”—and fail to recognize the advent of the year 2000. “There could be a cascading effect,” says Beach in his reasonable, soft-spoken manner, the tones he used when he taught computer science. “One computer sends off the wrong date to another, then another. Eventually, one shuts down and the others overload.” The result, according to Beach, is likely to be serious, particularly in urban areas, with power outages, heating breakdowns, perhaps even riots. “If I had a family,” he muses, “and I were living in a city in a highrise apartment building and had, say, $100,000 in the bank, I would take my family to my shelter, just to be safe.”

To date, Beach has not exacdy been overwhelmed by a rush

of those seeking haven from the coming millennium’s woes. True, there have been inquiries from varied bands of Christian fundamentalists, roughly four or five a day as the new year approaches. And Beach, who gained a measure of notoriety in the 1980s for heading an ocean research firm that went bust while using government tax credits to build a high-tech ship, has even exchanged a dozen e-mails over the past year with the Ontario Provincial Police, who have been looking for “a secure compound” to harbour officers’ families in case of catastrophe. For there is a trace of fever in the air, a Millennium Madness that is intensifying across the globe as the big day nears.

The occasion is likely to be festive for most, a moment to joyously commemorate 2,000 years of the Christian epoch. The fact that licensing authorities just about everywhere are suspending normal bar closing hours seems calculated to add to the zest, not to mention the traditional post-New Year’s Eve blues. Greenwich, just downstream from Londons Big Ben, is the astronomically correct place to mark the dawn of the new millennium since it is the home of mean time, the device used to calibrate clocks wherever the Gregorian calendar is observed. But the party will already be well under way long before Big Ben begins to chime.

Out in the Pacific Ocean, the sun will appear, watched by anyone with pockets deep enough to afford a berth aboard a half-dozen liners cruising the international date line. For the more adventurous, it is possible to hitch a ride on a skydiver’s back to glimpse the rising sun a full 15 minutes before its rays touch land anywhere. Further west, you can play tag with the sun aboard a Concorde, follow it on South Africa’s Blue Train or watch it from mountaintops—Te Mata Peak in New Zealand or Kilimanjaro in Africa. It can be awaited while listening to a nightlong opera beside the Great Pyramid in Egypt, dancing atop the Kennedy Center in Washington or dining at the elegant Tour D’Argent overlooking Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Millennium projects abound: the world’s largest ferris wheel in London, the largest clock inTalinn in Estonia, the largest igloo in Swedish Lapland and the largest model of a dinosaur in Drumheller, Alta.

Blame it all on St. Augustine, says Jane Toswell of the University of Western Ontario, a professor of Old English and millennial studies. It was the fourth-century cleric, she

The adventurous can ride on a skydiver’s back to glimpse the rising sun 15 minutes before its rays touch any land

maintains, “who conceived this notion, which the Christian church has been hanging on to ever since, that the millennium is with us all the time. That we live it all the time because the millennium is our internal balance between good and evil.” What is undeniably true is that millennial events have the power to capture the public imagination, even if the purists argue that, since there was no year zero, the real millennium does not begin until 2001.

The coming celebrations, however, are causing concern among agents of authority across the globe, especially in places held sacred by Christians, or even their pagan forebears. British police have set up a special unit for a New Year’s Eve patrol of Stonehenge, whose antique pillars predate the birth of Christ by some 3,000 years. Spanish police have tripled the normal contingent on duty at Santiago de Compostela, destination for millions of marching penitents since

the Middle Ages. The Italians are doing the same in Rome. Nowhere is the concern more evident than in Israel, where more than three million tourists are expected to visit Holy Land sites next year. In a portent of what may lie ahead, the nervous Israelis have already expelled two Christian groups, including a hapless community of 25 Irish pilgrims earlier this month, who were then subsequently bounced with undue ceremony from Cyprus and Greece.

Canada, too, is bracing for the worst. Project Solstice was quietly established last December. It is a joint intelligence operation, drawing upon units from the RCMP, the defence department, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and a private security firm. The projects mandate is to “determine the potential for critical targeting and exploitation of the year 2000 vulnerabilities, by organized crime, terrorists, extremists and/or criminal sponsors of civil unrest.” RCMP Sgt. Chuck Waring, the Solstice team leader, says the unit is working closely with U.S. authorities. “I think there is a threat,”

he says. “Its a worldwide trend. Its nothing new—what is new is our awareness and vigilance about the threat.”

Companies, too, are betraying some anxiety. Major chemical plants in Europe and North America plan to suspend operations on New Years Eve as a precaution against toxic accidents and production foul-ups. The Bank of England has secreted $125 billion worth of 10and 20-pound notes in caches around Britain in anticipation of a huge surge in demand at automated cash dispensers. Canadian bankers say they, too, will have plenty of cash on hand. Virtually all of the globes major air carriers are cancelling flights due to their, or their passengers’, concerns about Y2K. Air Canada says it will shut down most of its domestic schedule from 6 p.m. local time on Dec. 31 to noon on Jan. 1, largely due to lack of demand, although it will maintain key international routes.

The main problem, of course, is the notorious millennium bug, the glitch that dates from the early years of the computer era when programmers chose to save precious memory by representing dates with only the last two digits of the year. Despite extensive preparations, especially in North America and Europe, no one is still quite sure what will happen when the 00 pops up on the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31. Not every computer may recognize the numbers as the beginning of the year 2000. In a flurry of studies recendy by the British foreign office and the U.S. state and transportation departments, the most concern centred on computer systems controlling critical public facilities in Russia, China and parts of Africa.

But aside from the bug, there is the sheer scale of the festivities planned to welcome the new millennium. In London, three million people are expected to throng the banks of the Thames to watch a 60-m-high wall of flame shoot up the river at 1,240 km/h from Big Ben to the new, $ 1.8-billion Millennium Dome, smack on the prime meridian at Greenwich. More than half a million are likely to jam Times Square in New York City to see Mayor Rudolph Giuliani press the button to drop the traditional ball, this year a 225-kg chunk of Waterford Crystal. In Washington, Giuliani’s likely opponent for the New York Senate seat, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, will host an anticipated crowd of 600,000 on The Mall for a daylong celebration highlighted by Steven Spielberg’s new film on the past century, UnfinishedJourney.

Canadians can choose from a host of local celebrations, or watch a marathon 26-hour CBC production that will follow the new day around the globe. That program, like the millennium itself, will commence at 5 a.m. eastern standard time in Canada, midnight on the international date line in the Pacific Ocean. Exacdy who will be first to glimpse the dawn of the next thousand years, however, remains a matter of some debate. A quartet of Pacific island nations are jostling for the honour. Tiny Kiribati is one, with a claim based on the country’s recent unilateral decision to shift the date line eastwards,

just beyond the edge of the uninhabited atoll of Caroline Island. But most authorities are accepting the verdict of the Royal Geographical Society, which has pinpointed New Zealand—or, to be precise, Hakepa Hill on Pitt Island in the Chatham archipelago.

As for major centres, there is no debate that the first city into the millennium will be Gisborne, on New Zealand’s North Island. There, more than 70 camera crews will patrol maternity wards on New Year’s Eve, eager to document the birth of the millennium’s first baby. Civic festivities will include a midnight mass marriage and a beachside dawn concert of classical and traditional Maori music performed by

Gisborne’s own Kiri Te Kanawa. There may be a few Canadians in the crowd. New Zealand-born, Vancouver-based interior designer Virginia Richards and her husband, John, an ophthalmologist, have planned a trip for themselves and 34 of their friends to witness the sun rising over her native country. “Seeing the new year dawn before anyone else was a big thrust for us to organize this trip,” explains Richards. “I’ve ordered three cellphones for the evening so people can phone home long before New Year’s happens in North America.”

In fact, there is no shortage of ways to celebrate the new year. Virtually every major hotel on the planet has a Millennium Eve special, often throwing in a bottle of French champagne, which, makers say, is in no danger of running out, despite rumours. It is even possible to celebrate twice on the same day, for anyone willing to pay $8,500 for a tour organized by a London-based firm. It begins with a banquet on Tonga, one of the first places to glimpse the dawn, and ends with a repeat performance on nearby Samoa, across the dateline, the last place on earth to see the setting sun on Dec. 31.

Yet while the rich may jet around the globe, many others will party at home. Canadian travel industry representatives say there is no unusual volume of year-end travel bookings. A recent poll by the U.S. Travel Industry Association found that more than 60 per cent of Americans had no plans to leave town for the holiday. Along with the fever, the University of Western Ontario’s Toswell says she detects “a sense of exhaustion” about the millennium. “People are tired of it,” she says, “and just want it over with.” Maybe so. But given the buildup, there’s a good chance they are not as tired now as they are going to be on New Year’s Day, 2000.

Susan McClelland