Friday, January 17, 1997
We're victims of a snow job

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Downtown streets were paved with rock salt.

(Before a flake fell.)

Schools closed early.

(And the sun was shining.)

Panicked shoppers jammed grocery stores.

(Gimme a case of toilet paper or the bagger gets it!)

TV ran continuous updates with the same message:

The white death is coming.

The end is near.

We're all gonna die!

A funny thing happened on the way to doomsday: Wednesday's storm of ice and snow never came.

The temperature hit the 40s.

Instead of sleet, we got rain.

And, we got lucky.

This kept the forecasters of gloom from throwing themselves in front of oncoming TV cameras to deliver bad news:

''This just in: Blizzard buries Tri-County Mall. Details at 11.''

Yes, we dodged the bullet. But we looked awfully silly doing the dance.

It's all because Cincinnati fell flat on its face, once more, from flake-o-phobia.

It was easy to fall. There was enough rock salt on the ground downtown to turn a one-block walk into a marathon race on pea gravel.

I'm not slamming the salt crews for using preventive medicine. How many winters have we griped about them clearing the streets after rush hour? Rather have them be too early than too late.

This isn't a blast of frigid Arctic air at the weathermen. I'm glad they were wrong. Again.

What bothers me is us. Cincinnati gets the willies at the mere mention of: Snow!!!!!!!

Fear of flakes

In medical terms, an unnatural fear of white stuff falling from the sky is called chionophobia.

The Encyclopedia of Phobias, Fears and Anxieties says chionophobia surfaced in the myths of ancient cultures where ''the end of the world is predicted to occur in winter, preceded by a barrage of snow.''

So, even mankind's earliest stories had someone running around like a nut and shrieking, ''We're all gonna die!''

Under this phobia's entry, there's a list of strange winter behavior. It's extensive and, yet, incomplete. No mention is made of Cincinnatians' urge to rush out and buy the four staples of snowstorm-mania: milk, bread, beer and toilet paper.

John Steffen, Dr. Phobia at the University of Cincinnati, says this city's dread of snow is a combination of mass hysteria and cultural differences.

''TV and radio scares us to death with those reports that go 'beep, beep, beep' on the air,'' he says. ''It's like they're going to drop The Bomb. Now!

''That gets us all whipped up about something we're not familiar with,'' he says. ''It doesn't snow all that much here, not like in Cleveland or Chicago.''

But Cincinnati is not Tahiti. It gets cold around here in the winter, and it snows. Remember the blizzard of '78 or the 14 inches of snow that fell last January?

John Steffen remembers. The associate professor of psychology lived through these snowfalls. Others did, too.

''They remember these storms just enough to have a memory of what it's like around here when it snows a lot,'' he says. ''Then, they panic.

''But, like so many things in life, the anticipation of the event is far worse than the event itself.''

Let it snow

Dr. Phobia offers a cure for the fear of flakes.

''We need TV weathermen to give laid-back forecasts and say: 'Don't panic.'''

I can just see Tim Hedrick, Channel 12's meteorologist, giving his forecast from a rocking chair. He's wearing a flannel shirt, old jeans and big woolly slippers.

It's his no-worry weather. No Doppler radar. No wind-chill factor readings. No winter-storm warnings.

He nods toward the map and says:

''It might snow. Then again, it might not. Don't worry. Enjoy it. That's all you can do.''

Then he leans forward in the rocker and says:

''But, just in case, if you're going to the store, would you mind grabbing me a loaf of bread?''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.