Ballistic Missile Warnings and ACC Basketball

The main difference between waking up on the last Saturday of vacation versus all our other days in Hawaii is that instead of waking up to see sunrise, I woke up to a push notification about a ballistic missile warning and it not being a drill.

Or, more accurately: I woke up to a push notification on my wife’s phone. For some reason they never sent to me. As such, the very first thing I wondered was: is this a hack? The iPhone version of natural selection? In a post-apocalyptic, Walking Dead-type scenario I’ve always known I wouldn’t be a survivor. Maybe Apple did too.

We’d visited Pearl Harbor two days earlier. The language at the end of the notification is the same as the dispatch in 1941: “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

So yes, this feels real as I’m hopping out of bed. I walk into the kitchen and ask my friend Danylle (staying in the same house as us) to check her phone. Then everyone else in the house. Six have, three have not.

Seeking confirmation, we check the TV. Nothing on the news networks. Nothing on regular channels. The only place we find confirmation is the scroll of the Duke — Wake Forest game. Why just the scroll? Why not yank the programming? In the movies there’s always a Peter Jennings character breaking the news to us about the Thanos character who wants to invade the planet. In real life, the disaster scenario takes a back seat to Coach K complaining about a foul call. People need their ACC basketball.

So there we are, watching a blowout Duke game, the scroll saying the same thing over and over, nothing on news networks, nothing on Twitter. After a few minutes, a robotic voice interrupts the broadcast. Seek shelter. If you’re outside, move in. If you’re driving, pull over to the side of the road.

Oh. This is real. It’s not on CNN yet. But it’s real.

There are brief conversations about what to do, what did Trump tweet now, etc before we decide it’s better to be downstairs. Just before heading down, I post a quick photo on Instagram. If this is real, I want my last post to be a smiling, happy Mike and Jess at the LOST crash site. Makes sense at the time.

Everyone gathers in the hallway (only place away from windows) next to the bathroom. My friend Kristin is in the shower. Her husband has to knock on the door and say something like, “don’t come outside, we’re all in the hallway outside the door, there’s a ballistic missile warning, do you need any clothes?”

I want to turn the downstairs TV on in case there’s another robotic-voiced update. The batteries on the remote control are basically dead. I feel around the sides of the TV for an actual power button, but those were phased out years ago. Finally the remote works and I turn the TV on. The problems of the power button immediately take a backseat to the problems of the TV being stuck on the Sponge Bob channel. I’m pointing it directly at the right spot but the channel isn’t changing. I’m having a mini-freak out because the TV is near the window and the one safety thing I can control is to be away from windows. I press the “down” button on the remote hard, harder, hardest. I really mean it this time. The tip of my finger is turning white from pressing so hard. Come on! Work! I’ve never wanted to see ACC basketball so badly.

I’m about to give up when I get the TV to switch. Wake Forest is on offense and…oh God, this is hilarious. The homeowners didn’t spring for the HD package, so the ratios on the TV are off. We can’t read the scroll on the bottom. No robotic voice telling us what to do.

I leave the TV area and stand in the hallway. We’ve covered the bedroom window with a quilt. My friend Kirk is filling the bathtub with water. This is the extent of what we can do. No one packs emergency kits for a week in Hawaii.

Kristin goes upstairs to make cereal. Better to not go out hungry. A bunch of us are on phones, trying to figure out what’s going on.

Andy and Danylle want to pray. Their almost-three-year-old sits down with them. I pray with them too. We are officially praying for leaders of the world to not shoot missiles at each other.

I analyze my survival gear. I’m wearing a t-shirt plus flannel pajamas. This seems less than ideal. Too baggy. What should we be wearing? I ask my doctor friend Danylle. I keep asking Danylle what to do. I used to get mad at everyone on LOST for defaulting to Jack — “just because he’s a doctor doesn’t mean he knows what to do!” — and then I go and do the same thing. Don’t I want something more athletic? But walking back upstairs to change clothes feels like folly. In the movies, the people who separate themselves from the group are always the ones who get snuffed out. Stay with the group, Mike. Stay with the group!

I keep thinking about Pearl Harbor and how every single description talked about how loud the bombs were.

I keep thinking about how confusing this is. In an era where news allegedly goes faster than anyone can fact-check, how has this not yet hit the national media? It doesn’t feel real. I don’t mean that in a denial-ly “this can’t be happening” sense. It legitimately doesn’t feel real.

Finally, my brother-in-law walks in. It’s a false alarm. Confirmed by a government official. False alarm? How? It’s still not on national news. Twenty minutes later, (38 minutes after original message) the false alarm finally shows up on our phones (mine too, this time).

CNN finally picks up the story. They interview a national security advisor who looks like she just finished washing her hair. She’s on Skype but is doing the thing where she’s looking down at herself instead of the camera. She says she knew it was a false alarm because there was no TV alert. Apparently she didn’t know to check the Duke — Wake Forest game.

We keep watching TV throughout the day. Particularly alarming are the stories of people in densely-populated areas, some of whom heard Cold War-era sirens. Later, a college student is interviewed. He talks about there being Fallout Shelter signs around campus. He leads a pack of friends to hide in one…the doors are locked. Yeesh. That would be a bad ending.


Given time to reflect, some things to note:

• You see these movies where people, staring death in the eye, have mental space for regrets, processing what life means and similar existential crises. In real life, I only had one regret, which wasn’t about unmet aspirations or things I wished I’d said; I just wished I’d responded to my brother’s birthday email. Reminds me of how my friend Chris’ house burned down when he was in high school. As it happened his dad told him he had time to grab one thing. You’d think he’d grab something sentimental — his first baseball glove, a family picture, that sort of thing. Nope. Clothes. He knew he’d need them the next day. In a moment of truth, his brain went practical.

• Understandably, people keep asking if we were freaked out. On some level, yes. Enough to send an “I love you guys” text to my family. But even as I did that, I remember thinking “just in case.” Our primary feeling wasn’t panic as much as confusion. We spent more time on Twitter than we did in prayer. Mostly we wanted information.

• On work trips I’ll occasionally imagine a disaster scenario where I’m alone at some Doubletree Hotel in, like, Atlanta. In my head it’s me and a bunch of IT consultants trying to figure out how to make fire. Always feels so hollow and helpless. While our level of helplessness was probably the same, being amongst friends and family always makes it better.

• The strangest thing: afterwards we legitimately felt like we’d survived something. The rest of the day had an overwhelming feeling of relief. Walking around Kailua Beach, we’d hear other people discussing where they’d been, the way you would during an event that, you know, actually happened.

• People keep asking if I was angry afterwards. HECK NO. I’ll take a false alarm over an actual missile any day. But those were 38 strange minutes of my life.

So yeah. Try not to freak out. Be practical. Know that you’re loved. And if you’re wondering whether a situation is serious, make sure you continually monitor ACC basketball.