An "URGENT" Letter from Florida

OCTOBER 30, 2001: Earlier this month, the government warned us about the potential for another terrorist attack. Soon thereafter, two U.S. senators, several newspapers, and the news divisions of multiple TV networks were mailed envelopes full of anthrax spores. Then, a day or two ago, the U.S. Attorney General issued yet another non-specific warning to the public. Police agencies nationwide are already on their highest state of alert. But without something specific to go on, what more can be done? Maybe the CDC should send each of us a hazmat suit.

Ask my stepdad, and he’ll tell you that opening the mailbox is now a lot like defusing a bomb. We can blame his wariness of opening the front door to his house on TV news — cable TV news, in particular — which exists to cause its viewers stress. In sooth, if news of newborn puppies and bunnies held our attention as fully as news of strife and calamity, we’d be an entirely different species — and likely extinct by now.

But stepdad’s inflamed state of panic is something of a chronic disease. Every time CNN reports that a satellite is losing its orbit, stepdad automatically assumes that it’s hurtling toward him. If there’s a recall on bagged lettuce, stepdad won’t touch salad for a year. The forecast of a thunderstorm sends him scrambling for a hammer, nails, and wood — not to board up the windows of the house, but to get back to building his ark.

OCTOBER 31, 2001: My mother received a letter from a “doctor” in Florida. The words “URGENT” and “CONFIDENTIAL” and “OPEN IMMEDIATELY” are stamped on the front of the envelope. There’s just one little problem. Ma doesn’t know anybody who practices medicine in The Sunshine State.

Stepdad, who no doubt believes he deserves a medal for simply retrieving the mail, notices that the “URGENT” letter’s envelope is unsealed. (That’s how “urgent” this letter was.) But to the grown man who concludes that the sky is falling every time he looks out a window, any unsealed envelope marked “URGENT,” etc., can only mean one thing: terrorism. So what does stepdad do with this missive? He rushes through the house, picks up the phone, and calls… his wife.

Perhaps, in a way, he’s proud to’ve been chosen. (Strictly speaking, his spouse had been chosen, since the letter was addressed to her. But anthrax doesn’t discriminate.)

Stepdad reports this potentially life-threatening discovery to my mother. Does he caution her against coming home? Nope. He tells her to bring him a box of plastic gloves. Ma promises to do so. Stepdad hangs up and returns the “URGENT” unsealed letter to the mailbox.

When ma gets home, she pulls on a pair of plastic gloves, retrieves the letter, drops it in a heavy duty trash bag, and tosses it into the garage (where, incidentally, stepdad’s 1965 Opel Kadett Caravan* is intombed). Next, Ma and stepdad walk over to the nearby firehouse.

I’m sorry, but I have some trouble believing that the course of action aforementioned was recommended by any of the experts interviewed on the nightly newscasts, whether local or national, credible or sensational.

At the firehouse, ma and stepdad are greeted by an old-timer and a whippersnapper. Stepdad tells them about the letter. The whippersnapper slaps the table, jumps up, and backs off. “You didn’t bring it here, did you?” The old-timer swivels his squeaky chair around. “Shut up,” he says to the rookie. And he says it the way you’d say it to a grown adult who’d say, “Dessert comes last?”
 Or, “Red light means stop?”
 Or, “Letters go in the mailbox?”
 Or, “Cups are for drinks?”

The old-timer swivels back around to face ma and stepdad. “Are you two somehow connected to the government?” he says. 
They aren’t. 
“Are either of you… anybody important?” 
“Throw the letter away,” says the old-timer. “Forget about it.”

Ma was satisfied; 
stepdad was not. 
The letter stayed in the garage 
(with the Opel).

A few days later, the local police department held a community meeting about terrorist threats and hoaxes. Stepdad attended by himself. He told the cops about the letter. They said they’d come pick it up. The following day, they did.

Ma called to share this tale while stepdad was at the meeting.

“Ok, but neither of you are likely targets.” 

“It’s a very suspicious letter.” 

“Did you check the envelope for white powder?” 


“Well, if it’s in there, you’re already infected.” 


“Isn’t that the point of getting all worked up?” 

“It’s the thought that counts.” 

“Well I didn’t send the letter.”

*[06/13/21: Stepdad inherited the Opel from an uncle who lived in Arkansas. Said uncle bought said vehicle from Bill Clinton’s stepfather. Said vehicle hasn’t left the garage since stepdad parked it there in 1984. For all of you FireVaney conspiracy theorists out there, please note that the year is only coincidentally the title of Mr. Orwell’s famous novel.]

[06/13/21: Let’s bring “whippersnapper” back into common usage. It’s a fun word to roll your eyes over, isn’t it. It’s even more fun to say aloud. Wherever you are, try it now. Look up from this screen, clear your throat, and make it a forceful declaration. If you’re alone, get up, throw open a window, and shout it at the first person you happen to see. Then slam your window shut, yank the curtains together, flip the lights off, and go to bed. This how I end every day with a smile on my face. Don’t “Enjoy Coca-Cola.” Instead, “Enjoy whippersnapper.” Why not? It’s sugar free! And not only is zero calories, it’ll burn calories!]

[06/13/21: It remains something of a mystery as to why stepdad didn’t dial 911 to begin with. He departed us dearly several years ago.]

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