I think it was the matches that finally pushed me over the edge.
My mother, grandmother, and aunt were huddled around the kitchen table preparing for nuclear war. My 9-year-old cousin and I watched warily from across the room.
In hushed and panicked voices they inventoried the items for our survival kit. First came the canned creamed corn. Then the bandages and iodine. And finally, with much fanfare, my Mom revealed the pièce de résistance, the item she was sure would save our extended family when the nuclear fallout fell - 20 cans of baked brown bread.
I admit that their survival planning brought me vicarious thrills. I could imagine we resisters hunkering down in the legendary bunkers of the Warsaw ghetto, laying in wait to let the Nazis have it. Only this time, in 1961, the peril would not come from German flame-throwers but from Soviet missiles aimed directly at our suburb of West Covina, Calif., where our bunker would be the screened-in patio off the back porch.
My fantasy fizzled when Grandma brought out the matches. One hundred boxes of authentic, wooden Diamond Kitchen matches. Grandma was convinced that we would be all right if we used the matches to heat the creamed corn when the big blast blew out our power supply. My cousin and I were only 9 and 10, yet somehow we understood intuitively that something more than a little goofy was going on.
I've been thinking of those matches and that canned bread the US worked itself into a frenzy of duct tape and bottled water, but my perspective changed last week when Fred Rogers died.
I don't for a minute minimize the importance of national and individual preparedness for the all-too-palpable possibilities of future attacks on American soil. I smelled the burning World Trade Center and lost a neighbor in the rubble. I'm as anxious as anyone to do everything possible to protect my family from unspeakable horror.
But the passing of the gentle, reassuring Mr. Rogers is an opportunity to re- examine our confused approach to the current challenge of our collective safety.
Like my well-meaning Mom in 1961, we have been engaged in a national "safety buying" spree. There is no peril that cannot be neutralized with a hardware purchase. Yet the illusion of security does not satisfy. The duct tape that reassured us last week will become obsolete when the new "super weapons resistant" version hits the shelves.