Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part III. ESCAPE
For a brief moment in history, the lives of 80 million Americans hung by a thread. On the plane ride to Chicago to see my parents, I read Robert F. Kennedy’s book about it, Thirteen Days.
The book describes the meetings that took place in President John F. Kennedy’s inner circle during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. For thirteen days, from the time the government learned the Russians were building a nuclear missile base some ninety miles off the U.S. coast in Cuba to the moment the Russians agreed to dismantle it, the world stood on the brink of nuclear war. According to historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in the event of an American invasion of Cuba—which many in the White House were advising—the Russians actually planned to fire the nukes at U.S. cities.
“One member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example, argued that we could use nuclear weapons, on the basis that our adversaries would use theirs against us in an attack,” Kennedy writes of proposed plans for a preemptive strike during those days. “I thought, as I listened, of the many times I had heard the military take positions which, if wrong, had the advantage that no one would be around at the end to know.”
As I read the book, I wondered: If I had come of age during the Cold War, attended school assemblies where they showed films about what to do in case of a nuclear attack, been told that Russia had missiles pointed at my home city, watched helplessly while the House Committee on Un-American Activities ruined the lives of innocent Americans by accusing them of being Communists, and been at risk of involuntary service during the Vietnam War, would I have left the country?
I wasn’t completely sure. So I asked my closest genetic match, my father. “Were you ever scared during the Cold War that something bad would happen to you or your family?”
“Not really,” he replied. “I’d say that right now is the scariest time I’ve been alive.”
Considering that my father had lived through World War II and the Cold War, in addition to serving as an army lieutenant in Korea, his answer gave some legitimacy to my concerns. “Why is it scarier now?” I asked him.
“In the Cold War, because of mutually assured destruction, you didn’t think about the Russians sending their nuclear things over. But now, with terrorists, you don’t know what’s going to happen. They’ve killed innocent people everywhere on the planet. So it’s scary at home and it’s scary when you travel. Nothing’s safe anymore.”
I’d stopped in Chicago to have dinner with my parents on the way to St. Kitts not just to tell them about my escape plan, but to see if they wanted to be included.
“If you want,” I offered, “I can look into adding family members to my citizenship application. This way, if anything happens in America, you have somewhere safe to go.”
“We’re fine,” my mom said, dismissing the proposal as quickly as she’d dismissed most of my ideas, jobs, and girlfriends.
“So you don’t want me to even check for you?” I asked, disappointed.
“Ask your father.”
“I don’t see the point,” my dad said. “We’re happy here.”
“Are you sure? I mean, you just said you were scared.” I wanted to give them another chance. Most people mistake comfort and familiarity for safety. Not until the flames are licking their rooftop will they leave—and even then they’ll dawdle, trying to grab every last memento and stuff it into their car, as if their possessions held the very essence of their identity. “I’ll do the work. All you’d need to do is sign the papers.”
“Just leave us out of it,” my mom said. The conversation was over.
“Okay, well, if you’re ever in trouble, you can come stay with me anyway.”
I’d wondered at times why I seemed to be the only one of my friends pursuing safety so voraciously. As I sat with my parents, I realized that it was in part because of my upbringing. My parents were worst-case thinkers, and used to constantly warn me about everything that could go wrong when I grew up and left home.
They also practiced what they preached. When we went on vacation, my brother and I weren’t allowed to tell our friends, so that no one knew our house was empty. And we’d leave for the airport in shifts: my father and I would take a taxi as my mother and brother pretended to say goodbye, and then they’d follow in another cab shortly afterward. While we were gone, the house lights were hooked up to timers so they’d go on and off as if we were still there. In short, I was raised in a world where strangers were enemies and privacy meant protection.
“You know what you might find interesting?” my father said, playing peacemaker. “There’s a book that came out when everyone was scared of the Russians. Someone bought it for me as a joke. It tells you how to build nuclear shelters and radiation suits.”
“I’m not that paranoid,” I told him, then added, “Do you still have it?”
“I’m pretty sure I threw it away. But it was called Life on Doomsday or something like that.”
After dinner, I went online and found the book, which was actually called Life after Doomsday. The author, Bruce Clayton, had written it during the tail end of the Cold War, and it quickly became somewhat of a bible for the burgeoning survivalist movement. He’d also written a sequel in response to 9/11, Life after Terrorism, which I ordered as well. Spencer’s obsession with guns, planes, and his latest and most outlandish escape plan, submarines, kept echoing through my head.
Later that night, I asked my brother if he wanted to get a second passport with me. At first he declined, saying he was worried there’d be negative consequences. After I reassured him, he said he didn’t have the money for the citizenship. So I told him I’d take out a loan and pay it off for him. Then he flatly declined.
I was alone.
There is a phenomenon known as social proof. It’s the idea that if everyone is doing something—whether it’s buying a certain pair of shoes, seeing a particular movie, or criticizing some unfortunate individual—it must be right. So if no one else was trying to escape the country besides me, then it must be wrong.
The problem with that logic is that by the time everyone is doing it—after the next terrorist attack or economic depression or political clampdown or epidemic disease—it will be too late. And those who want to escape will be left trying to barter money, sex, connections, and everything else they have just for the privilege of living.