Bumper-Sticker Bravado

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I don't get to town much, so being cut off in traffic should have been a novelty. A stream of bumper-to-bumper day jobbers droning homeward, doing 60 in a 45 zone, light turning red 200 yards ahead, and this nonsignaling knothead shoots in front of me, then stomps the brakes like he's smashing a rat. And so I sat behind him, wondering if I had time to rip out his valve stems before the light changed. His baseball cap was on backward, of course, his stereo was--as I'm sure he would have put it--'cranked,' and he was driving one of those yappy little four-wheel-drive pickups that have become the toy poodles of the truck world.

While all of these things triggered my pique, it was the 'No Fear' sticker in his rear window that sustains my rant. Irksomely ubiquitous on windshields, T-shirts, caps, billboards, and bumper stickers, this bellicose bit of marketing has caused me to ponder what I know of fear. Very little, I suspect. Not because I am immune, or brave, or drive a hot little truck, but because of good fortune, and because what fear I have experienced has been, in the scope of things, fairly superficial. But in today's society, where rebellion amounts to a nipple ring, a Kool-Aid rinse, or an exquisite tattoo, superficial covers it.

What sort of vacuous buffoonery allows us to adopt a slogan like this? Consider the case of the lump of gristle with a pulse who cut me off in traffic. Cosseted in a society where rebellion has been co-opted by commerce, where individuality is glorified in fashion campaigns that put youth in worldwide lockstep with an efficiency despots only dream of (assuming, of course, that the people who own athletic shoe companies are not despots), raging youth finds itself sitting at a red light, steeped in the same hormonal invincibility that fuels ravaging armies, with nothing to do but wait to tromp the accelerator of a trendy little pickup. Who knows fear?

I once hitchhiked a ride with a cane hauler in Belize. I couldn't speak Spanish; he couldn't speak English. It didn't matter: The bellowing engine precluded conversation. We simply grinned at each other as he hurled the truck through the twists in the road, the scorched sugar cane swaying high above our heads. The truck was of indeterminate vintage. The play in the steering was such that an entire half-spin of the wheel was required before the truck responded. The previous evening, on a blind corner, a pickup had veered over the center line, crashing head-on with a tractor hauling cane. Two men had been killed. As we shot the same curve that morning, the wreckage still remained; grieving clusters of family stood along the roadside. We hit that curve full tilt, blowing a backwash of cane leaves over the upended tractor. I sneaked a peek at the speedometer. It was completely obscured by a circular decal of the Virgin Mary. We grinned at each other again.

Two men, both driving dangerously in trucks, both expressing themselves through adhesive symbols. And yet there is an instructive distinction. If the cane hauler drives without fear it is because he has acknowledged fear, and then turned it over to the Blessed Virgin. The fellow in the four-wheel poodle, on the other hand, is fearless because he has never been forced to acknowledge fear's existence. He has made the quintessentially American mistake of thinking his life is special, his bumper sticker is bold, his truck is shiny . because he is special. His fearlessness is an inane statement construed through an accident of birth. In contrast, the cane hauler may dispense with fear, but he knows better than to scoff at it.

Ernest Hemingway wrote about people living 'essential, dangerous lives.' Those three words say so much about what we are or aren't, and explain why, in a world filled with fear, we would choose to disguise the sheltered nature of our existence through mindless sloganizing. Perhaps the pickup driver could back up his bravado, could swagger through a Rwandan refugee camp, exhort those pitiful laggards to get a set of decent basketball shoes, hoist a microbrew, and shake off this unattractive predilection to fear. Tell 'em this is Planet Reebok, and on Planet Reebok we have no room for the fearful. Better yet, he could earn his 'No Fear' decal by strapping on his favorite Nikes and sprinting down Sniper Alley beside a 12-year-old Sarajevan on a water run.

Somehow, after that, I think he'd prefer to keep his rear window clear, the better to see what fearful thing might be creeping up on him.

From Troika (Fall 1997). Subscriptions: $10/yr. (4 issues) from Box 1006, Weston, CT 06883.






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