Social Security numbers on your arm and those Cold War memories

I’m sure that by now you have read about this little jewel of disaster planning:

A local leader in one coastal Texas community is advising residents who are not evacuating ahead of Hurricane Harvey to mark their names and Social Security numbers on their arms.

The mayor pro tem of Rockport, Texas, said that grim step is necessary to prepare for the worst in case of deaths among people who remain in the area.

“We’re suggesting if people are going to stay here, mark their arm with a Sharpie pen with their name and Social Security number,” Rockport Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Rios said at a news conference this morning.

It’s  a lovely little bit of dramatic hyperbole meant to terrify citizens into heading to the Superdome other locations. Rescuers, he implies, will discover your water-logged corpse and make the identification by the social security number you had the foresight to Sharpie onto your forearms. Which raises an interesting question: why wouldn’t you just write your damn name instead? Do they really think a grieving mom will come down to the makeshift morgue and wail “Where’s my baby? Where’s my sweet 409-52-2002?” Of course not. So, while not as famously stupid as the last southern hurricane mayor’s statement, this one is still pretty silly.

Or…is it?

Did you know that at the height of the Cold War, some school districts issued dogtags to children to make their identification easier in case of that big atomic war that we were all expecting? True story. The fine folks at the NYC Board of Edumacation spent $159,000 (in 1952 money) to tag kids like they were elk. But, apparently, dogtags weren’t the only option.

430D639800000578-4776328-image-a-98_1502309278977At some point, someone suggested tattooing as a means of providing identification for citizens (adult and child) who might get caught up in the blast zone. While dogtags were probably not an easy sell, you can imagine the howling that would have followed if a government actor suggested tattooing the population…especially since this was about ten years after a buncha people already tried that sort of thing. (Trivia: as a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the late 70’s it was not unheard of in the summer to see faded tattoos on the bare arms of older men of certain cultural/religious backgrounds. I specifically recall a barber I went to once who had what was clearly a number tattooed on his forearm.)

All the articles I found on the subject were aghast at the concept of issuing dogtags to kids for the purpose of identifying their bodies. Apparently the snowflakes at Slate and similar venues feel that a better choice is for a parent to be denied closure and the comfort of knowing the final disposition of their child.

Nowadays, people take the tattooing thing way too far. There was a point in my lifetime where only a certain kind of woman had a tattoo, and if a man had a tattoo he probably also had a military career behind it. Now kids get tattooed to the point of looking like a comic book.

Even a decade after Katrina, there were still a couple dozen bodies that were unidentified….a big improvement from the 1000 that they started with.

For me, the issue of identification is a non-starter. Even in my day-to-day life I refuse to carry ID. If I die, I’m sure there will be plenty of evidence laying around to let people know who I was (or am, i suppose). But, back in the Cold War days it was a different story, I suppose.


13 thoughts on “Social Security numbers on your arm and those Cold War memories

  1. Back in the day I lived as a kid on a military base in Germany. All dependents were issued “dog tags.” They had convenient information like name, miltary parent’s serial number, blood type, religion (I only ever saw P, C and J) and T which I think was for having had a Tetanus shot. It was a time when kids were not expected to have social security numbers, and moving so often an address or phone number was a waste of time. The first number I had to memorize was my father’s serial number.

  2. Why wouldn’t you just write your damn name instead? To be fair it does say both “We’re suggesting if people are going to stay here, mark their arm with a Sharpie pen with their name and Social Security number” .
    But your old idea about Katrina is a lot better – Don’t be there.
    “Overall, I think the absolute biggest lesson of Katrina, which should be obvious to most folks, is that when every source of news tells you that an apocalyptic hurricane will be on your doorstep in 48 hours you should get in the car, hop on the bus, get on your bike and……leave. Don’t be there. Go visit Cousin Dave in Ohio for a week. If you decide that you’re going to stay, don’t be half-assed about it. Food, water, fuel, ammo, commo…the whole nine yards. But, in the long run, its probably cheaper to just get a room at the Super 8 in Nashville for a week.”

  3. I’m single, no kids, and I’ve outlived my parents. At this point I see no reason to care about what happens with my body after I’m done with it.

  4. In the late 80’s in Phoenix AZ, my elderly neighbor’s forearm tattoo was plainly visible. For her, EVERY DAY was a good day. Nothing bothered her that I could see.

    This storm, and the follow on IRMA (if it keeps coming) will be a defining point for most people. Remember that Rita followed closely on Katrina, so we have some history that Irma could hit us.

    Anyway, like many things, if you are going to act, act quickly and decisively. We have a neighbor that used to be allowed to return to her unflooded house (in the current flooded zone) but they’ve changed their minds and now she isn’t. She should have acted decisively and gotten what she wanted, expecting them to change.

    We are seeing infrastructure failures starting. Our neighborhood has been asked to limit inputs to the sewer system while they try to make repairs. This morning, I’ll be looking at ways to isolate us from the sewer. I think a big clog in the main cleanout should do it. We don’t already have a backflow preventer.

    I expect more of the incrementalism we’ve see so far to continue. Voluntary to mandatory, to forced evacuation and arrests.

    We are currently evaluating, restocking, and getting ready for Irma. My wife and I will pick some setpoints for acting later tonight. The big issue is- no where to go, and currently no problems here at home. I’ll wash in the yard and crap in a bag, but we’ve got little kids too…

    Currently mostly unaffected directly, knock on and indirect effects starting to build, safe in NW Houston,


  5. How many “John Williams” do you think they’ll have?
    Be nice to be able to tell one from another.

    And after a day or three floating in an open sewer swamp, unless you’ve seen that kind of body, you have no idea how hard it is to tell who you’ve got. After a few days, it’s tough to even pick out the race.

    But the main reason was to scare the hell out of the morons who thought they could grow gills and hang around in 10+ feet of coastal storm surge.

    Houston was rain and emptying reservoirs.
    Rockport was killer hurricane storm surge in front of a Cat III storm, and ain’t nobody gonna make it through that, most places.

    Me, I’d have told folks outright “We’ll be making no effort to identify bodies of those who stay, and subsequently drown; they’ll just be cremated when recovered and the ashes scattered at sea, and we’ll note that XX unknown victims’ bodies were recovered and destroyed. So if you want your families and kin to be in turmoil forever, be a hard-headed @$$hole, and hang around in the impact zone. We won’t waste time or resources on the dead, we’ll be too busy helping out the living. And by the way, if we have to rescue anyone in the evac zone who should have left, we will be billing you the full cost of the rescue; helicopter flight time starts billing at $300 and up/hour. Non-payment will be vigorously pursued, staring with liens on your property.”

  6. Well, Sarge is heading there in a week or so and it won’t be getting better soon, I bet. The instant care and humanity will fade with travail and Real Me will show up. That said, I am SO DAMN PROUD of my state and the people just taking care of business. All noted that even those that remained helped others as best they could. Interesting packing list for him, though…a lot more self-sustaining than prior assignments. And with the skeeters there now…a face net will be required.
    We have good friends in Rockport – just finished their Dream Home. It is a strange situation of one room totaled and another untouched. They’ll get it fixed eventually. But it was heartbreaking. Their neighbors who had a round house that survived 4 or 5 hurricanes said it was the strongest they’d experienced. They were evacuated after but they said the ground literally quaked. One hell of a storm.
    I think the comforting aspect for us was that even with 4 straight days of torrential rains and 50 mph winds nothing was hurt and our supplies went unused. The wind was hitting hard against 4 huge pecan trees in front of the house – I was sure they’d come through. One hell of an experience…

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