High anxiety of Dec. 3, 1990, wasn't all Iben Browning's fault

December 1, 2013 

There are only a few dates set permanently in my memory.

Birthdays. Holidays. Wedding. Anniversaries.D Day. Irrelevant sports trivia.

And Dec. 3, 1990.

For the past 23 years, there has not been a Dec. 3 pass when I haven't paused and thought about Iben Browning and his bad prediction that a major earthquake would occur on the New Madrid Fault.

I learned a lesson that day. It was only partly about a failed earthquake prediction. Mostly, it was about priorities and what really matters.

First, I think Iben Browning got a bad rap. He was a smart man who made a wrong prediction. So what? He's not the first, or last, smart person to make a bad prediction.

Here's why I remember Dec. 3, 1990, vividly:

At the time, I was working in communications-marketing for a financial trade association in west St. Louis County. Newly married. No children yet.

The Browning earthquake hype in the Midwest grew overwhelming. I started to believe it could happen. Nobody could tell me it couldn't happen, right?

I got sucked into the hype.

Iben jokes were everywhere.

Iben making this stuff up.

Iben good, Santa.

Iben workin' on the railroad.

I've never been a big fan of bridges. The last place I wanted to be during an earthquake was on the Poplar Street Bridge, heading to or from work. So I scheduled Dec. 3 as a vacation day. Just in case.

As if being on a bridge would have mattered. I figured I'd have a better chance of surviving if I fell into a crack in my front yard than I did if I fell into the Mississippi River.

Hype and fear will do that to you.

Makes you think irrationally.

I didn't stock up on survival supplies. No granola bars, bottled water or batteries. I figured if I survived the big one, others would have, too, and Schnucks would be open.

At least that was somewhat rational.

I wasn't alone. At work, many people signed up to take a vacation day on Dec. 3, too. Amemo came out from management stating some of us would have to work. Because I lived across the river in another country called Illinois, I could take off, though. Nobody said it aloud. But it was the bridge factor again.

But in fall 1990, as earthquake frenzy multiplied, there was bad news in my family that suddenly put things into perspective.

My dad was diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis was not good. I stopped paying attention to Iben Browning.

I took Dec. 3 as a vacation day but not because of the earthquake. I took my dad back to Barnes-Jewish Hospital that day because he was deteriorating fast.

On Dec. 3, 1990, I crossed the Poplar Street Bridge and thought of the irony of the moment. There I was, on the bridge, on Earthquake Day, the last place I wanted to be.

I was full of anxiety and fear.

But not about bridges and earthquakes.

I didn't talk about the earthquake with Dad that day on the bridge. I don't think we talked about anything, really. Maybe the Blues. Or Mom.

The national TV stations were camped out in tiny New Madrid, Mo. I turned off all TVs I encountered because if an earthquake happened, I didn't want to be watching it live on TV.

Of course, an earthquake never occurred on Dec. 3, and my dad never came home from the hospital.

Twenty-three years later, there has not been a major earthquake on The New Madrid Fault but scientists say it can and will happen someday.

I don't listen much.

Iben Browning died at his home in New Mexico on July 18, 1991, from a heart attack at the age of 73.

A decade later, there was hype and hysteria about Y2K. All the naysayers were predicting the world as we knew it would end. I didn't get very excited, though.

What was the lesson I learned from Iben Browning on Dec. 3, 1990?

Iben thinking.

Iben serious.

Iben getting old.

Life brings natural disasters that will shake up your world. Real stuff. Family style. For 23 years and counting, I've not allowed myself to get sucked into hype about other predictions that may or may not happen.

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