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The Prize Goes to the Looniest

To Hell in a Handbasket

by Everett Wilson
March 25, 2011

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The Prize Goes  to the Looniest


After an inner debate on the title of this column, I gave the headline to the winner. The runner-up is the subtitle.

Both came to mind because of two experiences in one day. They merged to form  a parable of the  human condition--at least an  American expression of it.  

The parable begins on an Interstate highway in a thirty-mile construction zone that lay between us and our destination. The project had restricted the highway to two lanes each way; a solid wall replaced the shoulder on the inside lane, and  a token strip of sod   separated the pavement  from a steep drop-off  on the outside lane.  It was better than one lane each way, which is not uncommon on prairie Interstates. The speed limit was 65 instead of 55, but tempered by  a common-sense rule posted often:  "Stay in Your Lane." Almost as often there was a posted warning: "Fines Double in Construction Zones."

I set the  cruise  control on 65,  dropped back from the car in front of me to provide a safe interval, and looked forward to a comfortable drive.

It worked for a little while. Then a driver   behind me saw an opening to my right, changed lanes,  and whipped around us.  He had to be going 75 before he could squeeze back into place.  It was crazy; he was depending on me and everybody else clogging the lanes not being as crazy as he was.

I guess we weren't, because I am writing this instead of lying in state at a funeral home. 

"Well, there is always one nut," I thought.  Then another driver pulled the same stunt,  then another and another.  I wish I had counted them, but I was too focused on the road. 

Then there was one who couldn't weave because there was no space to weave into. He tailgated instead, trying to bully me into speeding up and pulling  away from him. I didn't fall for it, because a moron who will tailgate at  65 can't be trusted not to do it at 75.

On the other  hand, while I won't make my car go 75 under those conditions, I am going on 75 myself, whatever I'm doing. Do those scofflaws really trust drivers my age and older to make no mistakes as we try to avoid them and, not so incidentally, prevent them from committing motor vehicle homicide?

We made it to our destination without a collision.  We also made it without ever seeing the highway patrol, either in traffic or parked  at an exit ramp. The "fines double" sign was an empty bluff that day. 

That concludes the first half of the parable.  It reminded me of a line written by Karl Olsson fifty years ago, as he was describing traffic on the Pennsylvania Turnpike during an ice storm:  "like an insane stock-car race where the prize goes to the looniest." 

We were  visiting at our  destination  when something in the conversation alerted my imagination to the second half of the parable.    I suddenly realized that the family room in which we were sitting was within the evacuation radius of a nuclear power plant  of  the same type threatening the life and livelihood of countless people in Japan.  It's on the banks of a major North American river and within a few miles  of a fault line.  

An  earthquake here is nothing like one in Japan, but they happen.      

I can predict a reader leaving the column at this point and switching to email in order to   write me a letter  patiently explaining (meaning, as is usual with patient tones, impatiently) that nuclear energy is safer than burning fossil fuels. "And beside that, you live in tornado country yourself, Everett."

In just as patient a tone I would reply that my column is not about nuclear energy or bad weather, but about betting our lives on best-case scenarios driven by profit and convenience. We'll do  it in a board room to keep profits up;  we'll do it behind the wheel of a car if we're late for lunch. To the degree that I understand it, I   grant the safety of nuclear energy on the same grounds that I drive on the Interstate: it's safe when everybody keeps the rules. 

But not everybody does. That's why  the best-case scenario is not as true to life as  the average-case scenario. 

"To hell in a handbasket" is the alliterative, polished  version of an expression dating from the days  when our ancestors  feared hell more than they hoped for heaven.  For the last 150 years or so its use has expanded  to evoke an image of a trivial cause under our control;  when we do not interrupt it, dreadful consequences may ensue.  The prize goes to the looniest.  Hell in a handbasket  describes the prize.     

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