Ballistic Missile Threat: Processing the End of the World

The newspaper headline following the Ballistic Missile Threat in Hawaii.

The newspaper headline following the Ballistic Missile Threat in Hawaii.

When we were booking our vacation rental in Hawaii, we looked at the number of bedrooms, the distance to the beach, and whether or not it had a great outdoor sitting area. We didn’t really think about whether or not this AirBnB would be a good ballistic missile shelter. But that’s what it became.

It was another perfect day in paradise. My toddler still wasn’t on the right time zone, so we were up before the sun that morning. I had coffee with my parents while Tommy toddled around, still trying out this new walking thing he’d figured out just before leaving Alaska two days ago. The sun came up, roosters were calling every few minutes, and both of my sisters and brother-in-law joined us out on the Lanai. We started making plans for what our day was going to look like. We wanted to hit the Farmer’s Market, I had a photoshoot on the island later that evening, and my husband’s flight would be arriving at noon.

Tommy started doing the “hungry” sign, just like we’d taught him— though he didn’t understand yet that food wasn’t always instantaneous. Grandma and Grandpa tried to entertain him while my sister, Laura, and I went into the rental’s amazing kitchen to start breakfast. We filled up the stovetop with non-stick pans and started heating oil for hash browns and eggs. My older sister, Emily, had brought frozen croissants with her from Oregon, but they’d started rising in her suitcase and needed to be used that morning.

Just then, the most horrific and startling alarm I’d ever heard started screeching through the house. I thought it was Emily’s phone with an obnoxious alarm for the croissants, and was just about to tell her she should seriously consider picking a new ringtone when Laura picked up her phone and read aloud, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” I looked at her phone, needing my own verification. There it was, in all caps. Within that short amount of time, everyone else had come in from the porch. I took Tommy from my Mom, while my Dad immediately reverted back into his military command days.

“Grab closed-toed shoes. Blankets.” I heard his voice in the background, while I went on to autopilot. I turned off all the burners and the oven. “Move people, we don’t have much time. Get to the garage.” I saw my Mom grab the pallet of water bottles we’d picked up at Costco. Emily grabbed a bag of tortilla chips and some other food. I thought of feeding Tommy, who has a lot of food allergies, and grabbed a bag of allergy-free muffins. I ran into our bedroom and rummaged for diapers and wipes. I couldn’t find any shoes for him.

Tommy and I were the last ones to the garage. The only light came from two windows, with slats that didn’t close all the way. Emily and her husband, Brandon, were moving a stand-up paddle board away from the wall. I paced in front of the washer and dryer, not sure what to do.

My Dad put his hands in the air. “Listen to me,” he said. “Now, nobody talk. Here is what is going to happen.” His voice was hoarse and commanding. “You are going to see a flash of light. Do not look at the light. If you look at the light, you will go blind. Once you know where the light is coming from, you need to get down and put your head in that direction.” My mind tried to wrap around how I was supposed to look at the light, but not look at it. Notice the light, but don’t look at it.

Tommy was wriggling in my arms, trying to get down. This was a new room he hadn’t explored yet. He squawked as I held onto him. Laura, Emily, and Brandon were all under a built-in table along the back wall in the garage. They’d unfolded a wind-surfing kite and had it spread out over them.

“Sarah, where are you and Tommy going to go?” My Mom asked. I’d started to shake at this point, and realized I’d moved the same blanket three times. She took a rug from the dryer and led me to the other side of the room. She spread the rug out on the concrete— the same rug that Tommy’d smeared with almond butter yesterday—and we laid down.

“There will be a wall of heat, moving at 100 MPH,” my Dad continued. “It will be the hottest thing you’ve ever felt.” I heard my brother-in-law say then perhaps they shouldn’t be covering themselves with something synthetic that would melt into their skin, and a new debate began about whether they should use the kite to cover themselves.

“I love you guys,” I heard Laura whisper.

I thought of my husband, flying our way— though probably rerouted now. Maybe they’d heard about the missile through the onboard wifi, and he was worried? There was no way to get ahold of him to tell him that I loved him, and that I would do whatever it took to keep our son safe.

“Don’t look at the light,” I heard my Dad say again, and he began repeating all of the same instructions.

I crouched now, my body over my son, and a blanket over both of us. It was one of those heavy, polyester-feeling duvets that are often in hotels. It was stifling under the blanket, which now really frustrated my busy little toddler. He shook his head at me and pouted, the way he always does when I was doing something he didn’t want to do like change his diaper or suck boogers out of his nose. When that didn’t work, he made the sign for “hungry” again. I started to nurse him, thinking at least this would calm him down and hopefully quell the hunger. I’d never nursed him from an emergency position though, and he didn’t really like the fact that I was still crouching over him. He started crying.

I looked down into his beautiful dark-brown eyes. His cheeks were red and flushed under the blanket. I thought of all the women who’d been in this situation around the world. I thought of mothers trying to hide their babies. I remembered stories I’d read about women in WWII who accidentally suffocated their babies trying to keep them quiet and safe. I thought about the women around the world who have shielded their children’s bodies with their own. I was so lucky to be 33 and never once needed to do this.

My Dad was starting to tell us about the light again, and I asked him to please stop. I didn’t want my last minutes filled with any more instructions. I wanted my last minutes to be cuddling my son. I pulled the blankets off of us and cradled my son in my arms. I started singing him songs that we’d learned in music class.

“I’m a little frog, and my Mommy loves me… I’m a little frog, and my Daddy loves me…” We rocked back and forth. My voice now the only thing you could hear in the garage. “And when they tuck me in to say ‘good night’, they say ‘ribbit, ribbit, ribbit’. Good night, goooood night. Good night my little darling, good night.”

Then I sang the one about the sleeping black bear. I wracked my brain trying to remember the song about the horse. I tried to remember if I’d turned off the stove. Seriously, how did that horse song go?

Almost half an hour had passed. I saw Brandon a few feet away on his phone, trying to find any information about what was going on. My Dad said something about the fact that a missile could travel from North Korea in about 37 minutes, so it wouldn’t be much longer. My Mom reminded everyone to wrap themselves and everyone in danger in white light.

Then it hit. Not the missile, but the news that it was a false alarm. I didn’t believe it at first. How could I? I can’t even remember how we found out. Was it just something Brandon found online? Was it the follow-up text with the equally horrifying alarm sound? Either way, I didn’t feel ready to leave the garage. I was prepared in my little corner. Outside felt too exposed.

But then 37 minutes passed. No blinding light or wall of speeding heat.

I felt thankful that we weren’t at war— or at least hoped that Donald Trump hadn’t pushed a nuclear button in haste while I’d been crouching on the floor. I felt relief that I was once again safe— though it took a while to set in. I was thankful that I wouldn’t have to explain this to my son or that he was never scared. The adrenaline was still coursing through me, but I didn’t think this was the reason I felt so horrible.

I felt for all of those families who lived this daily reality. I felt sad that our country had become a place where it felt plausible for nuclear war to occur. For 37 minutes, I’d lived in a fear unlike anything I’ve ever known— and then was rewarded with the gift of life minutes later. I wasn’t going to die that day, nor was I going to have to survive a nuclear holocaust. I thought of how unprepared I was— both here and at home.

Once we returned to our beautiful rental home, I turned the burners on again. The house smelled like chocolate croissants— even though the oven was now cold. I dumped hash browns into a pan and popped a bottle of champagne for our morning mimosas. Everything felt like a gift— we were still alive. And yet, now I really knew and understood that it could change in a matter of seconds and with one little text message.