Sunday, February 16, 2003


In 1960s, fear was black-and-white, not orange


In 1963 at Silver Spring Elementary in the suburbs of Washington, when the air-raid siren went off, I squeezed underneath my desk and pulled my chair in tight. When the Russians dropped the big bomb downtown and all the phones melted, I'd be OK. Life was simpler then.

In Washington this week, they're shopping for plastic sheeting, bottled water and duct tape. At Strosnider's Hardware in Bethesda, Md., they ran out of plastic. I went to Strosnider's when I was a kid, to buy washers the same size and heft as quarters. I used them in the Coke machine. (Do as I say, kids, not as I did.)

The plastic, we are told, is part of a "safe room" kit. You attach the plastic with the duct tape to the door frame of your safe room, sealing the room from all unwanted intrusions, such as sarin gas and anthrax. We're all supposed to have a safe room now.

In the early '60s, we knew what to prepare for. Nikita Kruschev was banging his shoe at the United Nations. The Russians were moving missiles into Cuba. Glowing was a distinct possibility. Now, we are at Code Orange.

Code Orange means we should be more on guard than we were at Code Yellow but not as prepared as we'd need to be if we were at Code Red. Orange is different from Red, yes. But how different? What am I supposed to do, as a patriotic Orange American, that I didn't do in the good, old Yellow days?

I'll probably buy a few more flashlight batteries.

In 1963, when I was 5, the president was murdered, we were sending "advisers'' to someplace called Vietnam and everybody wondered what would happen if a million Chinese soldiers decided to take an interest. We had serious discussions about whom we'd allow in our bomb shelters. Those were some real Orange days.

Now, we are told to buy three days of groceries.

What if you live in Kodiak, Alaska, or Tucumcari, N.M.? Is Red there the same as Red in Central Park? Shouldn't there be some distinction? If you're at the bar in Kodiak, are you supposed to be more alert for Middle Eastern men acting suspiciously? What sort of behavior is permissible on Green days that is absolutely forbidden on Red ones?

Jim Daugherty recalls at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis walking a street in downtown D.C. and glancing at televisions in an appliance store window. They were showing images of Russian ships, ferrying nukes to Cuba. "We were all scared (witless),'' my dad said this week.

It's not that I don't take this seriously. I just don't know how I'm supposed to be. I'm starting to feel like one of those nut jobs in Montana, jamming six months worth of sardines and saltines into a bunker. I don't know whether to be frightened or hire a building contractor.

Be careful, but don't panic. Be vigilant, but don't assume.

Live your newly Orange life. Be, in fact, Orange. Except when you're not.

When Kruschev banged his shoe on the United Nations table and slid his nukes into Cuba, we in Mrs. Kellahin's first-grade class hunkered down beneath our desks. We knew the drill. Now, we're guessing.


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