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Taping up our nervous nation

By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2003

It seems that when I wrote a few months ago about the many uses of duct tape, I left some out.

Duct tape, and some plastic sheeting from your friendly local building supply store, will protect you from anthrax, smallpox, nerve agents and radiation.

Yeah, and, while we're at it, magnetic mattresses cure cancer, green M&Ms are aphrodisiacs and MicroSoft will send you a lot of money for forwarding stupid e-mails to as many people as you can.

And don't forget, the federal heebie-jeebie mood ring is officially set at orange this week, so it behooves all good Americans to be slightly more nervous and upset, and, of course, vigilant than they were yesterday. We can't tell you what, exactly, to be nervous about or what to be on the lookout for during your increased state of vigilance, just tighten the screws of your nervous tension another quarter-turn or so and stand by.

As a nation we, traditionally, have a real need to plan on doing something . . . anything . . . in case of emergencies. I grew up in a home where we kept canned food and bottled water ready to take off for the Everglades when the Ruskies nuked Miami (disabling the nation by cutting off beach access) and anarchy would rule.

It was so engraved on my psyche that, 50 years later with Russia considered only slightly less friendly than France, I still feel uncomfortable without a couple of cans of Spam and Dinty Moore Beef Stew in the kitchen cabinets.

As children we learned to hide our eyes so as not to be blinded by nuclear flashes and shield our necks so that we wouldn't be decapitated by falling glass, and that kind of thinking was considered healthy.

Not many years after that, the federal government issued guidelines for making sure everyone got change of address cards to file with the post office after the missiles flew -- because it was important, I guess, that the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes promotions could be properly delivered to the disincorporated atoms of our bodies swirling in the places where our homes used to be.

The same panic that had gullible people snapping up hazardous material suits and gas masks after Sept. 11, 2001 now has them rushing out to buy duct tape, plastic sheeting and bottled water because Homeland Security is flashing the orange warning light at them.

The chances are that there will be no warning of a biological attack and that those affected may not know that they are for days or weeks, at which time it is a little late to start sealing up the windows, and the micro-organisms involved are so small they would get through such homespun barriers. Nerve agents will leave you just about enough time to think about duct tape, but not to start using it.

You could, of course, start sealing everything up now, which one expert told my colleague, Leanora Minai, will give you about four hours of breathable air . . . and you can't turn on the air conditioner or heating system.

The truth is most of this stuff is designed to give you something to keep busy doing. A cynic might even think it had something to do with distracting you from the fact that the stock market is in the toilet, your chances for a decent retirement fade every day and health care reform is about as close to becoming a reality as Michael Jackson is to becoming a Navy Seal.

Buying bottled water makes sense. Water supplies are vulnerable to natural and man-made catastrophes, and the worst that can happen is peace will break out and you can use it to make better-tasting coffee. Batteries and battery operated radios probably are also a good idea. If you can find a radio station with anything vaguely resembling a news operation.

For my money the smartest response to the latest set of hysteria-producing pronouncements would be a buying stock in Home Depot (throw in one hurricane alert and a run on plywood and you're in fat city).

And the most appropriate use of duct tape would be to place strips of it securely over the mouths of those in charge who should realize that their histrionic babbling is doing more in the furtherance of terrorism than most terrorist acts themselves do.

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