(From the 2007 Archives) LIVING IN FEAR IN THE USA …by Jim Stiles

As we limp and struggle into the second half of this “unprecedented, difficult, perilous, challenging, dangerous” Year 2020, I was reminded of a short essay I penned almost 15 years ago. It’s as if we’ve been in training for 2020 all along…JS

A recent Zephyr article about life in the former Soviet Union stirred Cold War memories of my own. Like other Baby Boomers, I grew up under the shadow of nuclear obliteration. And yet, though the threat hovered on a grander scale, it didn’t seem nearly as ominous as the world feels today.

Going back in time a few decades, I still remember the morning our neighbors began building a fallout shelter and I asked my dad if we planned to have one of our own. He tried to explain, as gently as possible, that a fallout shelter would not offer much protection if we received a direct hit. Since Louisville, Kentucky was home to nearby Fort Knox, major Ford and General Electric assembly plants and adjacent to a significant dam on the Ohio River, we were almost certain to be a “prime target.” Even then, I understood the power of a hydrogen bomb and quickly got his point.

Still, the idea that such insanity might actually occur seemed impossible and, in fact, thinking of nuclear war was as fantastic as some of the “Twilight Zone” episodes my family gathered to watch every Friday night with a bowl of popcorn and two RC Colas. The threat hung over us like a science fiction movie. We participated in “disaster drills” at school, and saw the fallout shelter signs that dotted the city, and listened to Khruschev pound his shoe on a table at the United Nations, but only once did the fear come close to home.

On October 22, 1962, Kennedy addressed the nation.
On October 22, 1962, Kennedy addressed the nation on the topic of Cuba.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962,  I vaguely sensed the gravity of the crisis. On the night Kennedy addressed the nation on television and announced a blockade of Cuba, I was playing in the basement with my friend Stat Geer—my mother called us upstairs to watch the president. “You should see this,” she said. “This is important.”

As the two superpowers inched toward total war, everything changed. Before, the Cold War had been something I watched or heard about; now we had become a part of it. My father, not a man to be swept up by hysteria, was concerned enough to assemble a box of emergency supplies—canned goods, matches, flashlight—and kept them next to the back door. I saw a map of Jefferson County sprawled across the kitchen table; on it my dad had highlighted a route from our home into the country. It was our escape route.

For the next few days, I measured the threat level by the proximity of that box to the trunk of our car. My parents shifted it several times. Finally, they removed the contents and threw out the box. The crisis was over. It’s the only time I recall being scared during those Cold War years.

In 2007, it’s as if we’re scared all the time. And not just by the threat of another 9/11 terror attack. We’re taught to be afraid of everything. We are bombarded daily with a never ending list of threats to our health, safety and well-being. We sit in front of the television, we surf the web for more signs of our imminent demise, we scan the papers for something else to worry about. The search doesn’t take long….consider these offerings:

Citizens in rural Colorado see “dark-complected people with a Middle Eastern appearance” and call the authorities. They ask, “Should we contact the FBI?” Commercial airliners consider multi-million dollar “counter measures” to deal with surface-to-air missile threats. A regional power outage immediately causes panic from citizens who think it’s a terror attack. The Australian spy agency warns us of “catastrophic biological and chemical attacks.” It says, “It’s only a matter of time.” Vice President Cheney says another 9/11 is “only a matter of time.” The Homeland Security Director says another 9/11 is “only a matter of time.” The FBI director says another 9/11 is “only a matter of time.”

The US Postal Service announces a plan to create “smart stamps” to track the identity of suspicious persons. The president of British Airways comments that the recent ban on liquids in carry-on luggage confirm’s America’s dedication to wage war on terrorist-laden toiletries. The recent e coli outbreak in spinach prompts a warning from the government regarding the threat of “agro-terrorism.”

e coli
e coli

And as the national media aims its laser focus on the poisoned spinach, it is rarely noted that of the millions of consumers who bought and ate Popeye’s favorite veggie, about 200 became ill and (as of press day) two died. Better odds than lightning, I’d bet.

There are, of course, other ailments to fret over and a plethora of medications to cure us. Just watch the network news commercials to find out what’s right for you. Activia will take care of the bloating and Viagra and Cialus will keep us guys firm when we want to be and there are more meds than stars in the sky for cholesterol and high blood pressure. Sometimes the ads don’t even tell us what the product cures…”Do you need Crestor? Ask your doctor!”

Witness the discovery of new illnesses and ailments we never knew were maladies in the first place. Chronic Dry Eye Disorder requires a dose of Rastasis. What about Restless Leg Syndrome? You can get a pill for that too. And did you know that Americans are developing a serious addiction to their Blackberries? Not the fruit. The handheld embellished cell phone. Blackberry victims are seeking professional help. Really.

ABC’s “World News Tonight” spent two evenings warning us of the risk of heartburn. Now every time I burp, I have a panic attack. But don’t worry, there’s a med for that too.

A father boosts his son onto his shoulders and the boy gets whacked by a ceiling fan. Is it time to recall ceiling fans?

A few years ago we learned that terrorists in Iraq were building roadside bombs to kill American troops. They called them “Improvised Explosive Devices” or IEDs. But recently the medical world grabbed those very same letters to describe another ailment. IED also means “Intermittent Explosive Disorder.” More medication please! My dad used to call it a temper tantrum and had his own effective ways of curing me. And consider “Celebrity Worship Disorder (CWD) and “Sweaty Palm Syndrome” (SPS)

It doesn’t stop…an airline pilot is arrested and fired when he makes a wisecrack about a shoe bomb. An 11 year old is expelled from school for a year when he brings a plastic toy gun to school. And a six year old is suspended for a week for bringing a two inch pink squirt gun to class. A SIX year old.

And finally, the threat of an allergic reaction to peanuts has all but eliminated them as a mid-flight snack on commercial flights. But don’t worry, an allergen-free peanut is being developed and may be available in the near future. Peanuts may return to flight-status after all—until terrorists find a way to conceal high explosives in nuts. And then the fear of peanuts will rise up all over again.

Webster’s says “fear” is “painful agitation in the presence or anticipation of danger.” But haven’t we come to anticipate perceived dangers so obsessively that we’ve forgotten the joy of living? Doesn’t there come a time when we need to acknowledge that being alive carries an element of risk, no matter how hard we try to avoid it?

At the height of the Cold War, even President Eisenhower said, “We must be vigilant, but we needn’t be hysterical.” Ike was right. Enjoy yourselves. Life’s too short.

Jim Stiles is Founding Publisher and Senior Editor of the Canyon Country Zephyr.

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2 comments for “(From the 2007 Archives) LIVING IN FEAR IN THE USA …by Jim Stiles

  1. Cherie Rohn
    September 7, 2020 at 7:45 pm

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Reading this brings back memories of school drills where we kids practiced hiding under our desks in preparation for the very real possibility of nuclear attack. Jim takes us back to the good ‘ol days when the national media had us obsessing over everything:

    “ABC’s “World News Tonight” spent two evenings warning us of the risk of heartburn. Now every time I burp, I have a panic attack. But don’t worry, there’s a med for that too.” or

    “A father boosts his son onto his shoulders and the boy gets whacked by a ceiling fan. Is it time to recall ceiling fans?”

    The list goes on and on. What’s more, we now have a whole new slew of big things to obsess over like a pandemic & being homeless. Not that these are at all funny. Plus we hear about them in the time it takes to say, oh frak! Anybody remember Battlestar Galactica? No wonder I have heartburn. Let me grab my Tums.

  2. September 10, 2020 at 4:55 pm

    rite awn, jim. still (¿hopefooly knot all-waize ?) topical. i mite be a bit older ‘n you, and remember in early elementary school all the boys (and some tomboy gurlz) would bring our plastic guns to school so we could re-recreate-relive the Civil War (usually) out on the playground during recess.

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