Fear and Fallout Shelters

One of my weirdly favorite episodes of Happy Days was the one where the Cunninghams build a nuclear fallout shelter. It took Fonzie all of two seconds to turn that thing into a swinging make-out lounge, which is only righteous. I was maybe 8 years old watching reruns of the show, a child of some fantastic Cold War pop culture propaganda (I also really loved the episode of Family Ties where the Russian chess player wants to defect. I may have watched too much television unsupervised). The Cunningham’s bomb shelter seemed neat and cozy, much like the very generic, Hollywood-ified mindset to building a shelter in the first place: everybody piles in to wait out the nukes in safety and we all live happily ever after. Except for, you know, the whole thing about genetic mutation and also because: not really.

Fallout family fun! Gee Mom, nuclear war is keen!
Fallout family fun! Gee Mom, nuclear war is keen!

I liked the delusion that should the unutterable occur there was a tidy solution to face it down. I liked feeling as if you could cleanly head horror off at the pass. This spoke to my control junky soul probably because deep down I knew I would never really need the bomb shelter. That scenario was way too far out there for my 8-year-old brain to cradle. But there are more things to fear than nuclear annihilation—cancer, debt, heartbreak, failure, change, loss, terrorism–and you can spend your life constructing fallout shelters for all of them.

Over the weekend one of my best friends dropped me a text to let me know her husband had spent the night in the hospital. Several years ago he had a major heart “event” (enough with the candy-assing of EVERYTHING already, it was a full-on-super-scary-no-bullshit-attack) and this past weekend, while shoveling snow off the roof (repeat that: off. the damn. roof, y’all. Seriousface. This winter, I can’t even) experienced some symptoms. Tests came back negative. The crisis or near crisis or crisis-in-making seemed to have passed.

If I did not want to see these texts, she sure as hell did not want to write them. This is another thing Judy Blume never warned us about: this grown-up frontier where you start worrying about or praying over spouses and partners, aging parents, and wayward children determined to make a career out of living at home into their 40s and eating cereal for lunch. It’s a time when hand-wringing over a little radiation seems pretty trite in comparison with the real Gremlins skulking in the shadows. It’s a time when you realize that there is no amount of disaster prepping on the planet that can bolster you for the tragedies—big and trifling—that pepper our lives. You can try, but you will fail.

When my brother and I were kids, one of our favorite ways to make fun of our mother was to mimic the phrase she seemed to always squawk at us: “Just in case.” “Take your mittens…just in case!” “Better grab an umbrella…just in case!” “Pack an extra bottle of water…just in case!” We’d echo the phrase saying things like “Make sure your rocket ship has enough fuel in it…just in case!” or “Put on clean underwear…just in case,” which absolutely KILLED until we got the “wait till your father gets home” look. We rarely had the patience or cranial capacity to even wonder what might seriously befall us if we found ourselves sans mittens, without that extra bottle of aqua. Because we weren’t looking for disaster, it never occurred to us that bad shit was out there waiting to jump us. And that’s the tricky business of being in the disaster preparedness club: what starts as logical safe guarding, as normal, rational steps to take to curb collateral becomes a very messy, exhausting courtship with anxiety.

Dread and worry and bad shit can find you in the bomb shelter too. Someone could eat your last package of Ding Dongs (c’mon, you know those are the only food products that have a survival chance in a nuclear melt down), someone could still break your heart, let you down, or worse. The walls we build don’t hold fear out, they don’t let joy in, and that is a big difference that even a Fonzie make-out session can’t sell.

Might as well suit up with a smile, a bit of grit, and a faith that’s bigger than your fears you know….just in case.


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