We open in Fort Repose, a "river town in Central Florida" (1.1). Disney's backdoor, baby.
Florence Wechek, an older woman, runs the town telegraph at the local Western Union. A telegraph was how you sent lost distance text messages before smartphones, kiddos.
It's early December, so we're sure the weather is frigid near Orlando. Just brutal.
Florence turns on the news. It's bad. Those darn Ruskies have just launched another "Sputnik," which is Florence's adorably 1950s way of referring to satellites.
There's also a war brewing in the Middle East. Shocker.
Florence changes clothes and nervously peeks out the window. He's out there again, that scoundrel, watching her undress through his binoculars. He is such a creep.
"He" is Randy Bragg, "one of the best known and most eligible young men in Timucuan County" (1.13). Florence doesn't know why he's checking out her of all people, but it's happened multiple times now.
Randy, meanwhile, is confused by Florence's cold greeting when she leaves for work. So, he's probably not peeping. Then what is he doing?
Our boy Randy lives alone his family's multigenerational home, a beautiful riverside manor he's converted into the bachelor pad to end all bachelor pads.
He pours himself a glass of whiskey. This is before breakfast, by the way. Not a good sign.
This pre-breakfast ritual is new for him. It only started after he lost his campaign for political office to a man named Porky Logan last year.
Porky Logan must be Wolverine's chunky older brother, we guess.
And how did this handsome Korean War veteran, son of a local judge, eligible bachelor named Randy Bragg, lose the race?
By not passionately supporting segregation and U.S. wars in Asia. Controversial.
Missouri, Randy's maid, enters the house to do her business. She complains about the McGovern family, who she also works for, and their strict demands.
She mentions that Lib McGovern is still digging on Randy. They must've had a fling.
Leaving Missouri, Randy climbs to the balcony atop his house. He gazes out over the river and nearby orange grove. This is all his.
And we mean that in a very real way: Randy is a descendant of Lieutenant Randolph Rowzee Peyton, who basically founded Fort Repose. Peyton had built his first home in this exact spot.
The Bragg family isn't quite riding so high these days, especially since Randy's parents passed away. Still, the family's grove produces a pretty penny for Randy and his brother Mark, "an Air Force colonel" with the "Strategic Air Command," or SAC (1.43).
Missouri calls out to Randy: Mark has just sent a telegram. Speak of the devil. But it's not from Mark's home in Omaha. It's from San Juan, Puerto Rico. That's odd.
It's short but not so sweet: Mark will be arriving at noon at Base McCoy in nearby Orlando, and wants Mark to meet him.
Mark's wife and children will be coming down to Orlando tonight, and Mark is to pick them up too. Thanks for the heads up, brother.
Oh, and one more thing: the telegram ends with the phrase "Alas, Babylon." Only a few pages in and we already have our titular reference.
"Alas, Babylon" happens to be a secret code between the Bragg brothers, culled from their childhood Sundays spent listening to Preacher Henry launch into fire-and-brimstone homilies.
To them, the phrase basically means "Oh drat," but it holds special significance in this context.
Last Christmas, Mark visited Fort Repose with his family. On the last night, sitting alone with his brother, he tells Randy everything he knows about global politics.
In summary: not looking good. The Soviet Union has now outpaced the U.S. in the nuclear arms race, Mark explains, and all-out war could be imminent.
At least it's not the normal holiday family drama.
Mark tells Randy that he'll send his family down to Florida if things get bad. He'll use a secret code phrase to let Randy know what's up. That phrase is—you guessed it—"Alas, Babylon."
Given this, you can understand why the telegram really freaks Randy out. He tells Missouri to prepare the house for visitors before rushing off to gather needed supplies.