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Illusions and News Coverage

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There must have been over a hundred cans in the shopping basket. Dad was worried. I’d never seen Dad worried before. Dad was a war hero. He knew everything. If he were worried…

It was 1961, back when the Civil Defense authority was active and alert. Radios were manufactured with little triangles pointing at the two Conalrad stations you were to tune in if the sirens went off. The sirens would sound every Friday at noon. We were hearing a lot of reminders about that on the radio so we wouldn’t panic this Friday. The sirens sat atop the phone company switching station downtown. A twenty-story tan brick building with no windows, it contained all the electronic switches for the phone company’s central routers. I was on the inside once. The sound of tens of thousands of tiny electronic switches clicking open and closed as conversations began and ended was deafening. On the roof were eight horns, each the size of a Ford Explorer. Sitting in a fifth grade classroom I would hear them every Friday as they were tested. Hear them at any other time and it meant catastrophe was minutes away. In October of 1961, catastrophe was imminent. We were eyeball to eyeball with the Russians over their missiles in Cuba and it looked like war. Nuclear war scenarios were being dusted off and new ones created. Survivability was discussed. The Cuban missile crisis ended on Sunday, October 28, when we secretly agreed to remove our own missiles from Russia’s neighbor, Turkey. In spite of the agreement reached on Sunday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs suggested a surprise military air strike on Monday.

We were at the local grocery stocking up. I don’t know if Dad knew it then, but Houston would have been one of the first targets in a nuclear exchange. As the cornerstone of the largest petrochemical refinery complex in the world, stretching from Houston to Baton Rouge, more refineries, storage facilities and chemical processing plants are concentrated here than anywhere else on the planet. A 50 megaton nuclear weapon exploded over the Houston Ship Channel would have killed half a million people. Our family would have succumbed to radiation poisoning within a month. We had enough canned spinach to last for three. Unbeknownst to me, Dad, like most of the population, was clueless.

One of those refineries blew up recently. The disc jockey on the radio said details were sketchy but there had been an explosion in Deer Park. He hated to start his week off with this kind of news, he said. I logged on and checked my web portal for news. They rarely carry anything local. I went to the local TV stations’ websites. The NBC affiliate’s “Big Story” was about a murder trial beginning this week. “Coming soon” is returned when you try to access the ABC affiliate as they don’t yet have a website. The CBS affiliate’s site carried a banner “Live Coverage of Ship Channel Explosion.” One click later I was looking at real time live video.

I went back to the NBC affiliate. A banner at the bottom of the page invited phone calls from citizens with hot news tips.

I called.

“Newsroom, ” he said.

“There was an explosion in Deer Park, ” I advised.

“We’ve been on the air with it for three hours. ”

I could almost see his eyes rolling up. Yet another yokel unaware and unappreciative of the crack local news team covering “The Big Story.”

“You guys have nothing on your website about it and your competition has a live video feed. ”

“I’ll get it updated, ” he said, “thanks. ”

“Sure thing, ” I said.

Within fifteen minutes, “The Big Story” was changed.

Over a hundred professionals work in that news division. No one remembered to update the web site. That night they interviewed the local citizenry for their reaction to the explosion. It was loud and scary, we learned. The population around the refineries has been told the best thing for them to do in case of an explosion or chemical leak is to “shelter in place.” That means stay home and turn off the air conditioning. The reason they’re told that, of course, is because it would be too late for those living close by to do anything but clog the roads, making life for the “first responders” more difficult. Shelter in place – like duck and cover.

As a child I waited on the sirens every Friday at noon. They were reassuring, comforting. People, knowledgeable people, were constantly on the lookout for missiles. We would be warned if something really terrible were about to happen. I know now that siren would have been a death knell.

The dad that knew everything, shelter in place, the sirens that warn us, our leaders making wise decisions for our welfare, illusions all.

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