perpetual red alert (warning: long, rambling content inside)
The terror alert level will most likely go up to orange today. I try to color coordinate my outfits when the level changes but I don't have anything orange except for an old Miami Dolphins t-shirt that I refuse to wear for aesthetical reasons.
I don't mean to make light of a scary situation, but the terror level alerts have always struck me as overkill. Perhaps just one lighted billboard hanging outside the White House press room flashing the words "Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid" will suffice. Yellow, orange, red, it doesn't really matter what the color dujour is. I've been pretty much on high alert since September 11, 2001.
There is an underlying menace to the new threats that was missing from the previous alerts, in that they are warning of biolgical and chemical attacks. A low flying plane, you can see that coming. You run. You hide. Masked men running down your street with guns blazing is usually a good sign that you should hide, also.
Germs and gas are pretty hard to avoid. I had one of those horrid 3am visions of school cafeteria food across the country being poisoned. It's enough to make you want to grab your children and run for the nearest fallout shelter.
In my son's school (which was also my school), the fallout shelter symbol that haunted me in my youth is still there. It's on the stairwell that leads down to the school basement, which is now used for the early intervention program. The wall leading down to the basement has since been painted a bright blue and complimented with some fluffly clouds, rainbows, bunnies and the ever present fallout shelter sign. I imagine a horde of terrified kids being led down to the school basement as sirens blair and military helicopters fly overhead, the bunnies on the wall grinning at the children as they clutch the bannister and cry for their mothers.
The same hallways in which I had to crouch and tuck my head between my legs when the air raid drill rang out 30 years ago is now the hallway that boasts a huge banner with the scrawl of at least hundred children blazing across it - a tribute to those who died on September 11, still hanging there with it's hastily scribbled flags and crudely painted depictions of buildings on fire.
The air raid drills were never real for me. I often thought that they made us practice the duck-and-cover because the teachers liked to see us in such a submissive position. Sometimes I would take a peek at what the teachers were doing while we crouched in the hallway and I could see Mr. Dillon swining the yardstick he always carried around and I was sure that one day he was just going to snap and start whacking us all in the head with the stick while we sat there waiting for the mushroom cloud that never came.
They say the level of concern is "now at its highest" since September 11, 2001 but I think for some of us, the level of concern has been at elevated for a long time. I certainly don't need a color coordinated chart to tell me that my life is at risk every single day. Between slippery roads, toxic meat, crazed dictators and high cholesterol my life has been one long red alert, punctuated by short periods where I slip into a blissful memory fog, willfully blocking my memories of the Vietnam War or the Iranian hostage crisis.
So I look at today's possible orange beacon of danger and think that it's all just a bunch of stating the obvious. Our lives are always in danger, and the alerts are always right in front of us. Stop signs and package warnings and "do not remove this tag under the penalty of law" scream at us daily that there is danger, Wil Robinson.
I bravely walk through my day, smiling in the face of terror threats, making jokes about Hussein and driving a bit faster than I should be.
Then 3am comes and I am laying in the darkness with a fear that sometimes smothers me. I'm afraid when no one can see me. The brave front slips and I dream up all kinds of crazy scenarios; nuclear bombs, crop dusters spraying disease all over our streets. I think the oil burner is making a funny noise and I get up and whack the carbon monoxide detector to make sure it's working. Then I go and check on the kids. Still, at 13 and 10, I check on them at least once a night, standing above them to watch the rise and fall of their chests. My son is a deep sleeper and I hold my breath as I wait for his and when his shallow, barely perceptible breath doesn't come fast enough, I gently hold my hand over his heart to make sure he's still breathing.
I go back to bed and dream of war and terror, flames and plane crashes, zombies and tax auditors. I often wake up gasping for air.
And then the morning comes and the bravado wakes with me, keeping me laughing and joking and acting all arrogant in the face of new threats, and all the time I am on red alert, always on red altert.