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Beating The August Blues, With Help From Uncle Sam

The news of late has been particularly worrying. Stock market stumbles, famine in Africa and precious human cargo lost in Afghanistan make even an optimist seek reassurance.

But writer Gwen Thompkins says that bad news always stings more during the month of August. She says the best way to beat the August blues is with old-fashioned American know-how.

This is the time of year when I like to thumb through one of my favorite books. I know exactly where it is on the shelf. There's a stain on the cover, and some of the pages are crumpled from my rolling over in bed and sleeping on top of it.

Come August, it's time to revisit the U.S. Army Survival Manual.

In August, thoughts of survival are ever-present. Because August, unlike other months, is about inevitability.

If something bad happens to you in April or July, or heaven forbid December, there's a sense among your loved ones that your misfortune was somehow ill-timed.

But if a natural or man-made calamity happens to you in August, there's a whisper of a belief among your friends and family that it was fated to happen. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse must earn time-and-a-half in August. And they're riding Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Foolish Pleasure and Man o'War.

By August, the promise of summer has turned into a witch's cackle. There's the heat, of course, otherwise known as, "the horror, the horror." In New Orleans, the long nights are above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hear that ole train in the background? Hop it and you're only going to end up somewhere as clammy as the inside of a dog's mouth. Nobody here even sits on the porch this time of year — unless it's hotter inside.

No month connects our species to prehistoric times the way August does. All the affectations born of human achievement fall away and we are simply animals up from the muck. If the masters of war could ever find a way to make a weapon out of heat and humidity, they'd rule the universe. That's probably what all those comic book villains are after: the power to sic August on us at will.

That hag Katrina was an August storm.

Both atomic bombs fell in August.

Philippine leader Benigno Aquino Jr. and that poor Bolshevik — Leon Trotsky — were both murdered in August; Aquino by a sniper's bullet and Trotsky, an ice pick to the eye. Ouch!

But the U.S. Army Survival Manual reminds us that we have a hand in our own fate. Or, at the very least, it suggests that there will be a September.

"Vanquish fear and panic," the manual says. "Improvise." On the practical side, it tells us to keep clean. If you are out of soap, it says, you can use ashes or sand. If water is scarce, take an "air bath": "Remove as much of your clothing as practical and expose your body to sun and air."

That I can do.

I love August, because at the end of the 31 days I feel as if I've won the Medal of Honor — or Freedom, whichever is cooler.

If — as the manual says — you can avoid female fleas laying eggs under your toenails, or leeches burrowing through your shoe eyelets, or drinking too much alcohol, if you can conserve sweat, gather potable water in a tree crotch, rest regularly and let the sun direct you, then you might just make it through.

The most helpful advice the U.S. Army Survival Manual offers is to value living. It says, "Stubbornness, a refusal to give in to problems and obstacles that face you, will give you the mental and physical strength to endure."

And, if I may, I would add that the occasional popsicle helps, too.

Gwen Thompkins is a writer in New Orleans. Formerly she was the East Africa correspondent for NPR News.

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