By ALEXI VENICE—
We were staying on the Hawaiian island of Molokai when I received the below text around 8 a.m. in the morning.
In disbelief, I showed the message to Bill (who had apparently opted out of Emergency Alerts on his iPhone). He showed the same level of excitement when I told him the Packer quarterback was dating a NASCAR driver. Ho-hum, an incoming missile. Aaron Rodgers and Danica Patrick. A snow storm. A high surf. They’re all the same.
(You have to understand us. We’ve been rewarded in our careers for showing restraint in tense situations, so have perfected the art of under-reaction. God forbid we’re ever accused of becoming hysterical or overreacting to something. That condemnation would be worse than, well, dying from a North Korean missile).
I reread the last line of the Emergency Alert: This is not a drill. Chills ran down my spine. Not knowing what to do, I texted my friends back in Wisconsin for a reality check. They immediately hopped into action and started Googling, updating our text string with “I’m not seeing anything.” Nothing. Radio silence.
I pictured Kim Jong-un’s chubby face in his black Mao-collared suit coat. Rocket Man sent a missile to Hawaii? Is it nuclear-tipped? Will there be radioactive fallout? Will the target be Honolulu on Oahu? Or Molokai—where I’m sitting? Or all of them? How good is his aim? Don’t we have an anti-missile defense system on Kauai? Will we live?
I kept all of these thoughts to myself, however, so Bill wouldn’t think I was irrational or panicking. Rather than sit and stare at Bill, who was on his iPad, I decided I had to do something. Take some sort of life-preserving action. I couldn’t handle just sitting on the sofa, trolling through news outlets. My friends were already doing that.
I tried to force myself to think rationally: What will happen next if we go to war with—gulp—North Korea? After the carnage, there will be no water. No food. No electricity. I decided to save water and charge our electronic devices.
I filled every container I could find in the well-stocked condo. We were renting directly from the owner, and she uses this condo herself, so there were plenty of water bottles and miscellaneous food items. After the bottles, I moved onto pitchers, which weren’t ideal because they weren’t sealed, hence subject to radioactive fallout. Do the metal, glass and plastic containers keep radioactive fallout at bay? No time for questions, just keep filling containers.
In addition to several bags of rice and flour in a cupboard, I found the spice drawer, some wine, beer and Aleve. (I heard somewhere that exploding missiles can cause the worst headaches.)
We even had a can of SPAM! Finally, Hawaii’s obsession with SPAM made sense. I vaguely remembered that SPAM played a role in WWII, so I looked it up for this article. Beginning in 1937, Hormel provided 15 million cans of SPAM per week to Allied forces in Europe. We had one can for three people for God knows how long, but I didn’t mention this to Bill because I didn’t want him to think I was overthinking the situation. SPAM=Small Problem at Molokai.
I also pictured images of WWII battles in the South Pacific islands, triggering the Mexican jumping beans to ricochet off my stomach lining in Brownian motion. In a very calm voice, I asked Bill. “Does this mean North Korea will send in troops?”
Bill smirked from his chair, not bothering to make eye contact. “North Korea doesn’t have a navy, so Kim Jung-un’s troops (the lines of robots who swing their legs up high in unison while marching) won’t be landing in Hawaii any time soon.”
Bootie Pepper awoke and came down the stairs from the loft, inquiring what we thought of the message that she, too, had received on her iPhone. (Like her mother, she opted to receive Emergency Alerts.)
We didn’t want to alarm our 22-year-old daughter, so we demonstrated how one under-reacts to a life-threatening situation. I said, “I don’t know. My friends are researching whether it’s true, your dad is on his iPad, and I’m filling water bottles.” (There was no need for us to tell her we loved her in that moment because she should have been able to glean that by the stern looks on our faces and the thin lines of our lips.)
“Water bottles?!” she exclaimed. “Shouldn’t we be looking for a bomb shelter?”
“Start Googling bomb shelters on Molokai,” I suggested (in a calm tone), even though I suspected there were none. Why state the obvious? Give her something to do because that’s what people should be doing while waiting for a missile strike—something.
I doubted that our second-floor condo (with rubber roofing and wood walls) could withstand a well-aimed pea shooter much less a bomb blast or radiation cloud. I was longing for a concrete basement, but didn’t bother to express that to Bill or Bootie. (It might upset them, and one does not get upset over the notion of annihilation.)
The song Benedictus was going through my head—the slow rolling, ominous sound of a life well-lived that is about to end abruptly. I pictured the palm trees all turning an orange glow and bending at 90-degree angles in the aftershock of a bomb. The three of us, in our t-shirts, shorts and flip flops, being scorched and burned and radiated to oblivion. We’re all gonna die, but my epitaph would say, “She calmly faced death without becoming hysterical.”
I stopped filling water bottles and looked at Bill. “Do you think we’ll see a missile on the horizon coming at us?”
“No. They have a trajectory that takes them straight up to the stratosphere, so you’d see a flash coming down out of the sky. If this is real, we’re about to see how well the missile defense system known as ‘Barking Sands’ on Kauai works,” Bill said from his comfortable chair, his legs propped up. (I’ve seen him get more excited about discovering we’re out of flour.)
Bill was referring to the Military Base we had visited the year prior while we were on Kauai. Here’s a link describing Barking Sands: Wikipedia.
Like the mindful blogger I am, I decided that I was damn well going to get video of a missile explosion to post on my blog and FB before I was incinerated. I went out on the lanai with my iPhone to watch for missiles over Oahu (40 miles away) and Kauai (on the other side of Oahu).
The morning was beautiful, peaceful and calm. The birds were singing and the wild turkeys were walking below our deck. (Leave it to me to get bored with the blue sky and instead focus on a flock of turkeys.)
I thought about the movies I’d watched over the years where everyone was doing their daily routine when a bomb fell, their lives ending in sub-second time. I had a new appreciation for how afraid the residents of London must have been during the WWII bombings. Terrified. Your life hanging in the balance. Left to fate in the hands of a madman. Zero control over your destiny.
Living in the Midwest, we’ve never had to cope with an imminent military threat in our backyards. (We cannot count Justin Trudeau’s handsome face as a threat. He just makes us dizzy.) We don’t know what a devastating, legitimate and continuous military threat feels like. My heart beat faster, my adrenaline pumped through my veins, my anxiety level rose meteorically, and I formed a hatred of Kim Jung-un. I hadn’t experienced this us-or-them hatred before. What a horrible reality that a man of his nature controlled the fate of so many innocent people.
I don’t know what emotions Bill was experiencing because we wouldn’t express something like that to each other. He’s a thinking man, so apparently spent several minutes researching Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then informed us that we weren’t in the immediate “blast zone” if a nuclear missile hit Honolulu. However, we certainly would be exposed to deadly radiation if the wind was blowing toward Molokai. Humph. (He used the same tone of voice as if saying he was going to Festival to buy groceries.)
Okay. Right. Remain clam. Tick tock on the clock.
They say the residents of Hawaii have 12 minutes (or less) if Kim Jung-un launches a missile at them. We passed the 12-minute mark so fast that we were barely conscious of it. We had taken virtually no protective measures. A family would have to run some drills to accomplish any sort of meaningful preparedness. In reality, one would have to prepare weeks in advance by stocking supplies in a concrete bunker, which is the only protection from radiation.
Since our condo unit was at sea level, I asked Bill about a tsunami forming at the site of the bomb explosion, and he rubbed his chin and considered that for a moment. He said that if a missile went into the ocean, it might create a large wave that could come ashore where we were staying. Oh good, a triple threat: immediate blast zone, radiation cloud and/or tsunami. Well, I’d get that wave on video, too.
While we discussed these possibilities in calm, measured tones, 38 minutes passed, and we received the following false alarm message on our iPhones.
Not only did this new message confirm that the first message was INDEED A REAL ONE, but also that I could stop looking for missiles in the sky. After reading the emerging social media posts and news feeds, we thanked our lucky stars and walked down to the beach to enjoy what God created and man hadn’t yet destroyed.
Bill and Bootie Pepper were able to relax and chat about the incoming waves, but I had so much nervous energy that I had to do a CrossFit workout with my 20-pound lava rock. That’s my way of coping—working out. We processed what had just happened while talking about HOW REAL the event felt to us even though it was the product of an error.
We decided that the frozen tundra of subzero temperatures and remote living back in the Midwest sounded welcome in comparison to the proximity of North Korea.
I feel so sorry for people around the world who have to endure war, or even the threat of war. I can only imagine how terrifying their lives are on a daily basis. While I’m happy to be home, I still worry about (and pray for) the residents of Hawaii as well as others for whom this is not an isolated experience.