Scared of a Little Bug? Not Me

One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13, because it shows how talented people who refuse to panic during a crisis can solve problems that seem insurmountable. And one of the best moments in the film occurs when a group of NASA technicians dumps a pile of hardware, flexible tubing, and other gear onto a table, trying to figure out how the astronauts can modify the items into emergency equipment that will help them survive in the damaged spacecraft.

I think about that scene every time a news story mentions the infamous Y2K problem, also known as the "millennium bug." It's supposed to cause havoc on Jan. 1, 2000, as calendars inside computer systems mistake the zeros for the year 1900. Recently, I have heard several callers on talk-radio shows who claimed to be stockpiling household goods as a precaution against massive Y2K disruptions.

Could a software glitch have the same devastating impact on society as a major earthquake, or minor asteroid collision? Perhaps I'm overconfident, but the Y2K situation doesn't generate the same feelings of alarm or dread that I used to experience when reading civil-defense pamphlets that graphically described the effects of a nuclear attack. And when I think about those NASA engineers rescuing Apollo 13 with a box of parts, I realize my box of tricks is formidable enough to overcome whatever Y2K dishes out.

My pens and pencils will be unaffected. This means I'll be able to write messages to friends and neighbors in the area, so we can coordinate any mutual support efforts that may be needed.

Cars will still operate normally, providing mass mobility, which is extremely important during any large-scale crisis. Remember the 1,200 Paris taxicabs that rushed French soldiers to the front lines in the "Miracle of the Marne" during World War I? Never underestimate the value of reliable rolling stock.

Matches will continue to ignite, allowing me to fire up the gas barbecue for cooking and boiling water if the kitchen stove is on the fritz. The list of resources in my favor is lengthy, and it doesn't include all the useful items I've forgotten about, packed in unmarked boxes out in the garage.

Even when I think of the worst possible Y2K scenario, with computer networks crashing, cell phones going dead, cable TV winking off the air, it sounds as if American society would be thrown back into the everyday conditions that existed around 1973.

I hope it won't happen, but the challenge doesn't terrify me. We learned how to wait in line at gas stations during the 1970s, and I still take quick showers after living through the great California drought. Experiencing that decade again would be tough, but certainly not disastrous. I'm prepared to give it my best effort. As long as I don't have to wear bell bottoms.

* Jeffrey Shaffer is a Monitor humor columnist living in Portland, Ore.

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