Preparing for the Worst

I was never a Boy Scout, but I know that their number-one maxim is “Be prepared.”  (Tom Lehrer recorded a satirical song by that title, poking fun at the squeaky-clean image the Boy Scouts always tried to project.)  When I was a teenager, those of us too corrupt or anarchistic for Scouting also repeated the “be prepared” mantra.  It usually meant carrying a condom (usually purchased on the sly from a gas station vending machine) in the wallet, in the unlikely event of a sexual encounter.  (And it was a very good thing that sex seldom came to pass–condoms from gas station men’s rooms probably caused more pregnancies than most fertility drugs.)

This week, the focus on preparedness has been so intense that an actual emergency would almost be an anticlimax.  There have been emergency evacuation drills all week, two or three floors per day.  (To try to have this drill all at once would produce mass chaos in a 30-floor building.)  The notice for our floor popped up on my online calendar, so I know when it will be, although I think the element of surprise would really show the level of readiness for an event like that.

When it happened yesterday, it had the desired effect, including the surprise.  Two of my co-workers and I were doing our 10:30 trip down and up the stairs from the tenth to the first floor of the building.  We were on the downward trip, when the alarms began to sound.  The strobe lights above the alarm speakers began to blink.  Most worrisome, and what made me think that maybe this was the real thing, was that the blowers came on, which would be used to try to draw smoke from the stairway.

The three of us kept going, thinking that the stairway would be full of people in minutes.  (My colleague who is in dire need of a hip replacement was leading the way, so we were descending a little more slowly than usual.)  That didn’t happen, so we joined the crowd milling around in the front lobby.  (One of the people there was my supervisor, who had just come back in from smoking.  The security guards had roped off the entrance to the elevators, so there was nothing to do but wait.)

The irony was that I had texted her from the stairwell saying that we were waylaid because of the drill, and would be back on the tenth floor as soon as we could.  She saw me in person before she could read the text.

All the way through high school, we usually thought of fire drills as welcome and entertaining diversions from the drudgery of the classroom and schoolwork.  In Marietta, we were hardly in Tornado Alley (parts of Texas, Oklahoma, or Kansas), but they were always a possibility.  No one dismissed the possibility after the April 1974 tornado that demolished most of Xenia, three hours away.  What resonates with me from my elementary school stint as “safety captain” for my classroom is that for years, I could never remember whether to open or shut all the windows in a tornado.  I even posted the question last year to a meteorology Website, and also to a storm chasers’ site.  The general consensus was to leave them alone.  In a tornado, they’re the least of your worries.

The workers in my building will become numb to the education of these evacuation drills before long.  By the time Security has begun having extraterrestrial invasion drills, we’ll probably have cried wolf so many times that no one will raise an eyebrow when the real thing happens.

The precautions even extend to one of my more mundane daily chores, which is going across the street to the post office to pick up what mail there is in the department’s P.O. box.  I am glad to have that task, because it gives me a little time away from my desk and out of the building.

To get in the post office, which is on the first floor of the John W. Bricker Federal Building (the location of my office when I worked for the IRS) involves going through a metal detector and presenting an ID to the guard.  Before going through the metal detector, I have to remove my belt, watch, items in my pocket, and the lanyard around my neck (for my work ID) and put them in a gray tub, where it goes through an X ray machine.  (It’s similar to the pre-boarding procedure at an airport, except that–so far–you get to keep your shoes on.)

I learned a long time ago to prepare for this.  When I go to the post office, I leave everything except my work ID, my wallet, and the key to the box.  (The latter is supposed to hang on a push-pin on the wall of my pod, but more than once it has traveled to Olde North with me.)

And the security precautions are not finished when I return to my building with mail, if there is any.  Before I can return to the office, my next stop is the first of the two basement floors, where a security officer will put the envelopes through the X ray machine, and then stamp them safe for me.

I question the effectiveness of this.  The X ray machine will only find metal or solid objects, and if anyone is mailing anything dangerous in a standard letter envelope, it would most likely be anthrax or something poisonous, like what happened in the aftermath of 9/11.  The machine could not detect something like that.

An anthrax-laden letter to the New York Post, mailed in 2001

An anthrax-laden letter to the New York Post, mailed in 2001

Most, if not all, of the elementary schools I attended displayed the yellow and black FALLOUT SHELTER signs in the hallways.  It did not help me sleep better at night when my dad explained to me what fallout was.  It added another “what if” scenario that would bother me.

My parochial school (St. Mary’s Middle School in Marietta), where I spent seventh and eighth grades, had a plan in effect for nuclear attack.  The school was in the floors above what was then the Knights of Columbus hall on Scammel St., and in the basement there was a Geiger counter.  (I never saw it, but I have wondered if it also contained cots and food as well.)

Survivalism may have been a good idea before it was co-opted by the racist lunatics and the people who think the gub’mint is coming for their guns, but I never invested much effort or interest in the idea.  My preparedness comes from locking my doors at night, and taking part in Blockwatch meetings and events to the extent that I am able.

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