Hawaii woke up to a perfect sunny Saturday that, at 8:07 a.m., Hawaii Standard Time, became a statewide panic fueled by millions of people wondering how to take “what a beautiful day to die” literally.
In bed, on beaches, in cars and grocery lines, homes and hotel rooms, tens of thousands of residents and visitors were startled by claxon alarms blaring from cell phones as an authoritative male voice repeatedly warned:
“Emergency Alert: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
The doomsday drumbeat – “THIS IS NOT A DRILL THIS IS NOT A DRILL” – turned my subliminal worries about nuclear warfare into an unthinkable reality for me and the 1.5 million residents on our seven specks of mid-Pacific volcanic rock who live farther away from any other land mass than anyone else on the planet.
Officials previously had estimated Hawaii has roughly 20 minutes from launch to nuclear missile strike if the twitter brinkmanship between President Donald J. Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un triggered the “supreme leader” to push the button on his desk.
Saturday morning, as happened on another sunny weekend morning in Hawaii 76 years ago, my husband and I half-believed – for 38 agonizing minutes – we could be at ground zero of an attack by a foreign power.
As the clock continued to tick and claxons blared, we belatedly reacted.
Still in my nightgown, I thought “I have to put on underwear!”
Dean said, “we aren’t ready.”
But who is? As this story unfolds it is obvious almost no one in the state and possibly the country — except the President and the Joint Chiefs — is prepared for thermonuclear attack.
Underwear on, I texted my brother vacationing in California. He texted back “Can I call you later?”
My cell rang. When I told him, he said it wasn’t on CNN. He is an attorney and I am a journalist. We argued. I told him the warning came from Hawaii officials. A trial lawyer, he pressed — “it must be a false alarm” (he turned out to be right) – but then his “naval officer in combat” persona kicked in. He focused me on a checklist.
Loading our “survival gear” into a white plastic laundry basket, Sherpa Dean shuttled scissors, a sharp knife, medicines, blankets, towels, soap, cell phones, iPads, cords, batteries, a can opener, a pink porcelain piggy bank with $500 in coins, a radio that runs on batteries and also has a crank, our end-of-life notebook, checkbooks, passports, toilet paper, raincoats, a dog-eared paper address book, three family photos, and a very good bottle of wine we’d been hoarding for our 40th anniversary next Dec. 7 (the irony isn’t lost on us).
On his final trip, I grabbed a corkscrew and the protesting cat and followed him down a rocky path to our walkout basement. I called my brother to say I loved him and his family, added “do what you gotta do,” and hung up.
We were already at 15 minutes in. We weren’t incinerated, we had not been blinded by a flash of light. The TV was still broadcasting a basketball game and there still was no news crawl on the screen. The cat purred. Dean and I looked at one another, we touched hands. Together we savored the view of ocean, sky, trees, birds and flowers we’ve been blessed to see daily for 23 years.
My heart was pounding but I felt OK with whatever happened. I had no choice. I thought of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk’s gentle advice almost a half century ago: “At the moment of death, smile.” I can’t say I went that far, but I held the thought.
Nothing happened. Twenty minutes later, the claxons blared again. False Alarm. All Clear. I happily score one for my brother. We put the cat outdoors and returned to our living room.
Basketball had been replaced by breathless commentators cross-talking and speculating, politicians on split screens eagerly interrupting each other to find scapegoats, and most mute (male) state officials, including Hawaii Gov. David Ige, opening their mouths to sputter (paraphrasing here) — golly gee, we don’t know what happened, but we plan to find out — mea culpas. The scroll briskly moved right to left.
“Let’s have breakfast, then drink the wine,” Dean said.
Good idea. I’m still smiling.
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