Column: During tense times, false alarms can leave you a nervous mess

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Recently, five juveniles sprayed an unknown substance in the Hy-Vee store in Waseca. Some people became ill from the spray. A lot of folks became frightened. The fear of the unknown along with the worry of a possible attack by an enemy of our country made it easy to panic. The substance turned out to be hot pepper spray. It is not completely harmless, as the spray causes respiratory distress and burning of the eyes, nose and throat. People were forced to wear oxygen masks and visit the hospital because of an irritating chemical sprayed by some irritating youths.

To cause fear like this in people is a terrible thing to do. I hope and trust that the juveniles will receive proper punishment. I cannot understand why the youths would want to do such a thing, but I can understand why the shoppers became frightened. I can understand their fear.

Life doesn’t have back-up lights, but it does have a rearview mirror. This allows us to look back. Life was always as it is today &045; the worst it had ever been according to some. I remember when I was a young boy furthering my education at the Hartland Grade School and I experienced heart-stopping fear. This took place in the years when I was being constantly instructed what to do in the case of an atomic bomb attack. I was taught to put my head under my desk. The older kids joked that this would make it easier for me to kiss my rear end goodbye.

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I thought the best defense against the bomb was to not be around when it went off. The bomb was scarier to me than the legendary boogeyman. No one I knew had ever seen the boogeyman, but I had seen the bomb. On a regular basis, we were shown filmstrips about the bomb. The filmstrip typically burned in two and contained numerous splices making it possible for the film to pass through the projector. The filmstrip was poorly done, with a monotone voice droning on about the effects of the bomb in a very matter-of-fact way. Even with these weaknesses, it is still the scariest film that I have ever seen. I had seen the film so many times that I had it memorized. Even after seeing the film so often, it still came as a shock to me every time the mushroom cloud appeared on the classroom screen. Once the image of the mushroom cloud was on the screen when the screen decided, all on its own, to roll itself back up into its metal case. Whoosh, fwap, fwap, fwap! It scared us poor, innocent children out of three years of life.

We also performed another drill in school. The fire drill. We practiced regularly what we would do in case the school should ever catch fire. I knew what I would do if such an occurrence should happen. I would get a day off. Our teacher told us that we were to rise slowly from our desks, making sure that all of our instruments of learning were properly stowed within our desks. Then we were to form a nice, straight line in the aisles. From that point, upon our fearless teacher’s signal, we were to exit the room in a calm and orderly fashion. Yes, that is what we were supposed to do.

One day, while I had my face buried in a riveting Dick and Jane book &045; I had suspected Sally to be the guilty party right from the start &045; something happened that taught me true fear. A fertilizer tank at the local elevator had a brief, but hot, encounter with a grain dryer. It exploded with such incredible heat that it scorched all the paint off a highway patrolman’s vehicle. The patrolman had brought a trucker into the scale to see if his truck was overweight. The explosion was loud enough to rattle the windowpanes of the Hartland Grade School some blocks away from the elevator. I looked up from my book &045; Poor Dick, he was put upon &045; toward the sounding glass. Then I saw it. It was a mushroom cloud just like the one I had seen in the crummy filmstrip. There was only one difference: This one was real. My stomach found a place in my throat as I watched flames lick the air. Then I panicked. My Dick and Jane book went flying. I didn’t know whether I should put my head under my desk or become a part of a calm, uniform line. I decided to run screaming from the school &045; just like I did every other day.

Hartland resident Al Batt writes columns for the Wednesday and Sunday editions of the Tribune.