Bumper-Sticker Bravado

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

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

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

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