I suspect I’ve already been as wise as I’m going to be about what writers are calling Hawai’i’s “Thirty-Eight Minutes of Terror.” It entirely changed the sermon (except, oddly enough, the title) – “The Discomfort of Faith” – that I preached the next day. It did prompt me to do some reflection, since I heard about a number of responses to the warning, some of which sounded a little like mine, and most of which did not.
I had just finished my hopefully-soon-to-be-ended daily ritual of changing the bandage on my nose (I had a growth removed this month) when the alert tone sounded. I stepped over the see what it was, expecting it to be a tsunami warning.
You know what it said. I read it three times. “This is not a drill,” it said. Each time.
I sat on the side of my bed staring at the phone, wondering what to do now.
It said, “Take shelter,” but what shelter did I have? In Hawai’i, we build to keep things cool, not for protection against an explosive blast. The bathroom has windows right over the tub. All the rooms have windows. The best I could come up with was the walk-in closet right in front of me. OK. That was the best I was going to do.
To what point, if the house fell in on me?
Well, there was one thing I was going to do before I died. I was going to put some pants on.
(I know you’re laughing. I’ll wait.)
So I stood up, stepped into the closet, and grabbed the black slacks I was planning to wear to the Ho ‘Ike celebration at a church just south of here. I reached as well for an aloha shirt that I would wear to that celebration, too: blue and gold with a bold, contemporary pattern. I think I even stepped over to the bureau to retrieve socks.
(Like most people here, I leave my shoes at the door to the house. Socks only go on my feet when I’m planning to leave.)
I made no pretense at a coherent prayer. Just, “Oh, God, be near.”
Already, something had struck me as wrong about the alert. Like many others, I plunged onto the Internet on my phone. I checked the emergency management agency pages for Hawai’i County (that’s the Big Island) and the State of Hawai’i. Neither showed an active alert. Google knew nothing of a heightened threat from North Korea.
Oddly enough, I didn’t think to check Twitter or Facebook. I was looking for authoritative information, after all.
And I realized what bothered me about the alert. Even as Hawai’i News Now used its “push” feature to repeat the official warning, I noticed that the sirens were not wailing. Moreover, the radio was on – and playing normal programming, not an official emergency broadcast. News commentators hadn’t even interrupted NPR’s Weekend Edition on its five hour delay to repeat the alert.
That seemed wrong.
I’d reassured myself, but not entirely. It could still be coming. It was unlikely that a North Korean ICBM would be aimed at Hilo, but if it was, there was no shelter that would protect me three miles from the airport. And, I realized, while I had heard about the range of North Korean missiles, I knew nothing about their accuracy. It seemed possible that a missile aimed at the US military facilities on O’ahu could land on Hilo, 210 miles away.
So I decided I’d step on into my day as if it was going to go on. In my dress slacks and shirt, I walked through the house, picking out the music I planned to share at the church and picking up my guitar.
As I did, Hawai’i News Now pushed out the story that the alert was an error, a mistake, a false alarm.
It took another half hour before the officials dispatched the same message.
A couple things surprise me in retrospect. I never even considered calling loved ones to say, “I love you.” I’ve heard others repeat this time after time. I’ve heard of couples and families that gathered together in whatever they could find for shelter, and of people who made hasty calls to the mainland, all to reassure their loved ones that they loved them.
I didn’t do that. It didn’t even occur to me.
So one of the reasons I’m writing this today is to assure my family and friends, near and far, that I do love you, more than I can possibly say. What I can’t promise is that in a crisis, when my life’s end might be at hand, I’ll think to tell you so. I make no excuses and I do offer an apology, but if this event was any indication, I’m likely to await imminent death on my own.
(I make no predictions about lingering death.)
I also found that my feelings amidst it all were nearly impossible to describe. There was some fear, but it wasn’t panic. It wasn’t paralyzing. I did not, as a colleague of mine said later, step out of doors to accept the transition to glory. I had no eagerness to step from this life into the next one. The thought running through my mind was simply, “Oh. So this is how it ends,” mixing hope; resignation; some anger at the profound arrogance, stupidity, and malice of those making nuclear war; and, yes, acceptance.
Though I rapidly looked for signs that it might not be true. Let’s not forget that.
It also exposed my blasé naiveté. I wasn’t prepared for a disaster. Although surviving a nuclear holocaust seems perishingly unlikely, there are other disasters that strike nearly as quickly and, as Puerto Rico’s experience tells us, could leave me living without accustomed resources for a very long time.
It’s past time to assemble the disaster supplies.
I have no desire to see the employee who sent out the mistaken warning suffer. I’d like that person to learn something, and some articles I’ve read suggest that I’d also like to see the people who created a system that was so easy to misread also learn something.
The fact that every single person in Hawai’i – and everyone else who’s heard the story in the aftermath – knew exactly where this missile was (not) coming from, and why, means that I also hope that the United States President and State Department has learned something. Their ham-handed “diplomacy” landed us in a place where a mistaken attack warning was eminently believable.
Let me say that again: We believed the warning in great part because of the threats and bluster of leaders on both sides of the Pacific. Those need to stop, and now. Diplomacy requires respectful language even between adversaries who deeply dislike and resent each other. It’s lengthy, frustrating, and not always successful.
But talking is always better than a nuclear detonation over people.
So, dear friends and family: I love you dearly, even if I don’t think to call when a missile is on the way. And I promise to get that disaster kit together.
I also pledge to tell the world’s leaders to get their acts together, lest a mistake become a monstrosity.
Because life is not a drill.