In the event of the apocalypse, these guys know what to do thanks to Johnny Tsai (right, front).
  • Connie Vaughn
  • In the event of the apocalypse, keep an eye out for these guys.

A few Sundays ago I took a break from sorting and labeling canned goods under the floorboards of my Rogers Park condo, watering a variety of heirloom seeds in my urban window garden, and killing and gutting park squirrels to attend the C.U.M.A. Urban Survival Training Course at Dan Ryan Woods-South.

OK, I’m lying about the canning and the seeds and the squirrel gutting. My entire urban-disaster survival plan relies on two half-full bottles of Vitaminwater in the fridge, the running gear that lives in my gym bag, and my United Airlines MileagePlus Visa card.

Fortunately for people like me, the C.U.M.A. (Combined Universal Martial Applications) course is for real. Founder and instructor Waysun Johnny Tsai (pronounced “tie”) applies his 34 years of experience in over a dozen martial arts—including kung fu, boxing, BJJ, freestyle wrestling, Kali, urban survival, improvised weapons training, edged weapons training, Muay Thai, and street fighting—to “combatives” (i.e., real-world defense instead of competitive fighting) and then, more broadly, to survival. Tsai trains law enforcement, military, and security personnel—he also designs knives—but now his survival class is becoming of greater interest to people who want to know what to do in the event of a natural or man-made disaster like the next Hurricane Sandy, Katrina, or 9/11. “Survival is a fight,” says Tsai.

And according to Gerald Celente of the Trends Research Institute, today’s neosurvivalist is no longer “the caricature, the guy with the AK-47 heading to the hills with enough ammunition and pork and beans to ride out the storm.” They’re everyday, (seemingly) normal people.

On this particular day, class is about “bugging out.” While many of Tsai’s classes are attended primarily by adult first-timers like me, this class is filled with his young martial arts students—including his son, Noah, 13, and his daughter, Nyah, 11—all of whom wield Tsai-designed Battle Cleavers. “Bugging in” is when you stay at home and wait out a disaster. “Bugging out” happens, ideally, shortly before your panicky, less-prepared neighbors run out of food and restlessly start pounding down your door or shooting at you. Those are the people, says Tsai, that are the real zombies of the apocalypse—the “brain dead” types who are a danger to others. “What people are willing to do to one another is horrible,” he says.

To bug out, you need to have already prepared a “GO” or “get-out” bag with enough supplies for 72 hours, the most dangerous time frame for surviving a disaster. Tsai estimates a basic GO bag can be filled with necessary gear and supplies for $100-$150, “but I got over a thousand dollars in my bag.” You also need a safe place to go and a plan for getting there. A relative’s house or an empty house away from the city center is usually better than the woods. You should know four “back alley” routes out of the city that do not require major highways. From Chicago, always move west to outlying, less-populated areas.

There are even more types of bags. A “get-home” bag is for people who commute to work and would need to get home without their vehicle; what amounts to an hour car ride can take days to walk. Then there’s a car bag for traveling in your vehicle. An “INCH” bag—”I’m Not Coming Home”—when, as Tsai says, “there’s no going back.” Even bugging in for a time requires gear: a food supply, a camp stove and fuel, water, containers, and purification. If you’re off the grid for three to six months or longer—which is possible in hurricanes, earthquakes, food shortages, and instances of civil unrest—you’ll start to need things like hunting gear, seeds, and a natural water source. All this “prepping” can be overwhelming and should be approached bit by bit, with the shortest time frames in mind first. Who you don’t want to be are the “hoarders” at Jewel in the snowstorm fighting over the last Twinkie on the shelf.

Tsais daughter, Nyah, builds a fire
  • Tsai’s daughter, Nyah, builds a fire.

Next, we practice making fires and building a lean-to in the woods. I make a fire I’m proud of, with the help of an accelerant from Walmart. (At C.U.M.A., they’re not purists—gear is acceptable.) It starts to rain and gets too slick for the combatives demo that Mike “Semper Fi” Morales has shown up to give.

I was hoping for at least a taste of good old-fashioned survivalism. Coach Josh Swanagon—who “lives the lifestyle” in a tiny Michigan town off the grid, writes for Survival Quarterly, and keeps a plastic-wrapped Bible and waterproofed copies of the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution in his GO bags—shows me the coolest damned knife I have ever seen: the ATAX. Imagine making a fist to punch someone. The ATAX is a square blade that runs along your knuckles while you grasp the handle between your index and middle finger into your palm. Basically, it’s brass knuckles, but the knuckles are a chopping blade. You’re punching with a blade. I’d never seen a knife—or any other weapon—that I wouldn’t be dork enough to be disarmed of in about two seconds. I like it a lot. I mean, a lot.

Coach Josh also explains how to buy GO bags that are unobtrusive and don’t look like backpacks full of valuable supplies and gear. He demonstrates how to wear them under your clothes and become a “gray man”: “You blend in, you don’t look like you have stuff. You look just as clueless, just as much of a sheep as everyone else.”

We end with a group trip to Menards. The store turns out to be made for preppers. The car section offers reflective warning signals, flares, tarps, tarp tape, cord, rope, bungee cables, spare gas cans, and a pump siphon for gas. We browse portable phone chargers, mobile power outlets, and large power generators. There’s a large organic vegetable seed section. And air-filter masks. “A 30-pack for 20 bucks. It’s worth keeping something like that around,” says Tsai. The camping section provides shovels, lantern fuel, bottled water, iodine tablets, compasses, ponchos, fire starters, freeze-dried camping meals, backpacks, and waterproof phone cases; and next to that, knives and multitools. I’m surprised how much of my own camping and running gear is applicable to this effort. Tsai admonishes us to carry three of everything: “Two is one and one is none.” Generally, if I remember one of everything when I’m camping, I feel way ahead of the game.

Tsai asks me if I’ll do anything different after this because, contrary to the typical go-it-alone mentality, the more people who are trained, the better. “But isn’t it a competition for resources?” I ask. Trained people are safer, he says, and a community that knows what to do saves lives. He adds: “People say it only happens to someone else. Well, I am your someone else, and you are my someone else.”

Tsai’s next Urban Survival Training Courses are being offered on May 31 and June 7.