03/23/2011 01:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Panic Is Not An Option

"You Can SURVIVE." That's my credo these days, watching all the news
anchors gasping out the latest updates on earthquakes, tsunamis, and most
spine-chilling of all -- leaking nuclear power plants.

I repeat: You Can SURVIVE. This simple, reassuring statement is
printed in bold letters on the first page of a slim booklet entitled
"Survival Under Atomic Attack" that my mother preserved in our family
archives, and right now seems like a good time to re-familiarize the
American public with basic radiological facts that helped me maintain a
semi-positive attitude during the tense decades of the Cold War.

The booklet was produced in 1950 and the writing has what I call a "Look,
buddy" tone , as in "Look, buddy, here's what you gotta be ready for." So
right off the bat, on page 4, is a headline asking "WHAT ARE YOUR CHANCES?"
The answer isn't sugar-coated: "Should you happen to be one of the unlucky
people right under the bomb, there is practically no hope of living through

Amazing, isn't it? A government publication with the blunt honesty to
admit that luck is going to play a key role in your life, or death. The
Army and Navy veterans who had returned from duty in World War II a few
years earlier would have accepted the idea without the slightest
reservation. I've read numerous entries in combat diaries that say
something like, "The shells screamed over our heads and landed on the unit
behind us. God Almighty, those unlucky bastards never had a chance!"

But the estimates of atomic mortality aren't all dire. A few sentences
later comes this prediction: "On the other hand... from one-half to 1 mile
away, you have a 50-50 chance." As the old saying goes, prepare for the
worst and be optimistic when it comes. A glass half-empty is also

It's also important to know the warning signs of trouble and make sure
you don't jump to negative conclusions if some signs begin popping up. On
page 12 is this carefully balanced declaration: "...the first indication
that you had been pierced by the rays probably wouldn't show up for a couple
of hours. Then you most likely would get sick at your stomach and begin to
vomit. However, you might be sick at your stomach for other reasons, too,
so vomiting won't always mean you have radiation sickness."

Point taken, and I can vouch for it personally. Once in 5th grade and
again in 8th I suddenly felt queasy, ran out of class, blew chunks in the
boys' room, got sent home, and came back fine the next day. Sometimes the
stress of daily life is all that's required to turn your stomach inside out, and you better believe
there will be stress up the wazoo if any sort of nuclear-related crisis
breaks loose in this country.

In my opinion, the most useful information in the booklet comes under the
headline that asks "Where Is The Best Place To Go?" There's no place like
home, obviously, with Job One being to relocate into the basement ASAP. But
a whole lot of us may be out jogging or raking the lawn when catastrophe
strikes and the instructions for that scenario are clear and simple:
"...look around your neighborhood for a nearby shelter you can get to
quickly in an emergency. Such a shelter might be a culvert, a deep gully,
or another building within easy reach."

Attention parents -- do your children even know what a culvert IS? Don't
depend on the educational system to fill these crucial knowledge gaps. The
old-school term that applies here is "field observation." The fate of entire
families may depend on local topographical features and I seriously doubt
the GPS on your car dashboard will be able to find any of them.

Some people reading this will say, "Oh great, another lecture from a smug
baby boomer who never actually went through any of the things he's warning
us about." And my response is, "Please remember to add the words SO FAR."
Atomic attack, rogue asteroid, massive solar eruption, who knows what
dreadful incident is lurking out there in the near future, ready to inflict
mass devastation without the slightest warning? As Yogi Berra warned us
all--"It ain't over 'till it's over."

One line in that little safety manual will never go out of date. On page
25 it says, "Always do what you can to help other people." Those are words
to survive by. When you leap into a culvert to escape the blast and find
yourself lying on top of me, rest assured I won't throw you out. There
should be plenty of room for both us. If we're lucky.