At 8:00 this morning, just out of bed on a lazy Saturday but no coffee yet, this alarm appeared on my phone.
I didn’t doubt for a moment it wasn’t real. Neither did my 17 year old daughter when I yelled to her to get up and get dressed. I stared at the message, not breathing, reading it over and over. She stood in her bedroom door, confused, and then frightened.
We’ve been preparing for this for months, ever since Trump ramped up the Rocket Man and Big Button bullying he seems to revel in.
Here in Hawaii, we know we’re within range. We know we have 15 minutes from the time we get the alert until impact. We know what islands — and what parts of what islands—are most likely to be targeted. And we also know the chance of North Korea having precise aim isn’t so good, so we’re all in the cross-hairs. We know we’ll have to stay in shelter for two weeks to avoid the fall-out. That’s assuming we’re not part of the 15,000 to 20,000 people who die instantly. We even know what the nuclear warnings sound like, because our emergency management people test them right on schedule, every first Tuesday of the month at 11:45AM.
We live in a high-rise condo in Honolulu, a relatively new building with floor to ceiling windows throughout our home. I imagined seeing the impact through those windows. We threw some basics in a few Target bags — meds, breakfast bars, cereal, water, a radio and batteries, and a couple of lanterns. We grabbed one of our cats; the other one hid behind the washing machine. We retreated to the hallway, hoping it was safer.
A young military man came out of his apartment, a few doors down, his pack on his back. We say hi often, on the elevators, in the garage, but don’t know each other’s name. “Let’s go downstairs, to the tunnels going out to the dogpark,” he said, “And let’s take the stairs.”
My daughter agreed. She knows those tunnels well, walking dogs daily in our building. The tunnels are bunker-like, ominous dark hallways that weave through the bowels of electrical and water systems buildings like this one rely on. I glanced at my phone. It had been close to ten minutes since the alarm first came in. Down the eight flights, we joined other residents with the same idea.
The young couple with a cat and dog scanned their phones, looking for info, and strategized whether we were safer under the stairs or further down the corridor. An older woman kept fiddling with the dials on her transistor radio. No one spoke much. I texted both of my grown sons on the mainland to tell them I love them.
Our military neighbor looked at me and said, “There’s a family with a baby on our floor. I’m going back to get them.” Without waiting for a response, he dropped his pack on the floor and took the steps two at a time.
This man, with less than five minutes before the supposed impact of this ballistic missile, ran back up those stairs to save a family with a young baby. He didn’t hesitate. He just went. I thought of 9/11. I looked at my daughter. I thought of that young man’s mother.
By the time he returned, the tweets were coming in that it was a false alarm. No official notices, but ones that made us breathe a bit easier. A few at a time, we gathered our stuff and wandered out of the tunnels, into the lobby, where others confirmed it seemed to be a false alarm. We went home.
Back in our apartment, my daughter made a list of everything we need to assemble next time. We’d forgotten closed-toe shoes (important apparently), a deck of cards for the long two weeks, important papers, a change of clothes. Thirty eight long minutes after the alarm, we got the official all-clear.
I kept thinking about that young man running back up the stairs. I walked down the hall and knocked on his door. “You were a hero today,” I said to him, standing in his doorway. “You came back upstairs to save someone else.” Embarrassed, awkward, he deflected my words, saying the heroes were those who confirmed the false alarm. “Please tell your mom I said you’re a hero,” I said again.
He got quiet and nodded. “Ok,” he said. He looked sad, maybe scared a little too.
“I’m Powell,” I said, shaking his hand. “Thank you.”
“I’m Todd,” he replied. “Nice to meet you.” We laughed.
I went home, hands still shaking, tears still welling up. I could have died in that corridor with my daughter, watching her young life end before her magnificent, fierce voice could make its mark. The threat had passed; the impact was just settling in.
I texted my friend, visiting from the mainland and staying in my son’s funky 1950s apartment in Waikiki.
Laughter felt good. Outside, life returned to normal—construction across the street, surfboards heading to the beach, the sun now high in the sky of a perfect Hawaii day.
I made coffee and exhaled. My daughter hugged me and held on.
“Let’s eat junk food all day,” she said. I heartily agreed.
Once I post this, we’re heading to McDonalds. Then we’re seeing The Post, a timely movie about calling out the horrors of a corrupt administration many decades ago.
Life returns to normal—except now we have the list.