Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#69, January 11, 2000


by Marylaine Block

Y2K has come and gone, and after dallying 'til the last possible moment, spending millions of hours correcting millions of lines of code, and staring catastrophe in the face, we have emerged unscathed.

It's how Americans do things: wait and hurry up.

Give us an ongoing, low-level problem, and count on us, we'll ignore it. Give us a disaster, though, and we'll spring into action and improvise like crazy. You just have to hit us over the head with a two by four to engage our attention.

Bombing Pearl Harbor, for instance. We didn't want to go to war in 1941. We figured that mess in Europe was THEIR problem,. Heck, we'd already gone over there and fixed their problems in 1917, and once a century should be good enough for anybody.

We weren't prepared for war, either -- we didn't have much in the way of a standing army, and a whole lot of our ships and planes got blown to hell in Pearl Harbor. But within months, we had millions of men on their way to North Africa and the South Pacific. Within months our pilots were running raids on Germany alongside the Brits.

During World War II my dad was the city planner in Wichita, which in 1940 had one sleepy little aircraft factory and by 1943 had five airplane factories working round the clock. The planes we were churning out weren't fancy, but they did the job and they just kept on coming -- we flat out out-manufactured our enemies. When the Japanese cut off vital raw materials, within months we improvised substitutes.

The North wasn't prepared to fight a civil war in 1861. All the while tensions were building between North and South, somehow nobody noticed how many of the best West Point-trained generals were southerners, and how many munitions depots were concentrated in the South. The north was outfought for two years, by shrewd generals and highly motivated men defending their own land.

What the North DID have was unrestricted rail lines and shipping, unlimited raw materials, factories churning out war materiel night and day, and a whole lot of people who were outraged by the attack on Fort Sumter. Once Lincoln also found generals who knew how to run a military campaign, the north finally just wore the south down. Chalk another one up for the American gift for improvisation.

Wait and hurry up isn't just how we fight wars; it's how we do everything. Polio, for instance, was present but relatively uncommon early in the century, ignored except for the occasional mention that FDR had suffered from it. But when it reached epidemic level after World War II, we mobilized: mothers marched to raise dimes (and dollars) for research, and Salk developed the vaccine in record time.

Think of the brilliantly handled poisoned Tylenol scare. Johnson and Johnson restored trust by recalling, at enormous cost, all the bottles in all the drugstores of America, and then threw all its resources into developing tamper-resistant packaging. Within weeks, it had Tylenol, now guaranteed safe, back on the shelves.

Think about how quickly the space program developed, once Russia had beaten us in a space race we hadn't even known we were in. Kennedy said we'd put a man on the moon within a decade, and we did it.

Consider how quickly we respond to floods and tornadoes and earthquakes -- highways were rebuilt within a year of the Northridge quake. Somehow that's easier for us than noticing how many people have moved into disaster-prone areas in the first place; fifty percent of our population now lives in coastal areas, susceptible to hurricanes and flooding.

We've been lucky with our fixes so far. As the saying goes, God takes care of fools, drunks and the United States. But that luck lets us take unnecessary risks, like sending the Challenger off on that dangerously cold January morning.

And someday, maybe, we might not have quite enough time for our last-minute ingenuity to work its magic.

We Americans are without peer in disasters; we're born improvisers. And for sure we're the best high wire act around. But it might be nice if we started at last to think about providing ourselves with some nets.

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