THIS IS NOT A DRILL

The following first appeared in the Jan 19 issue of the Hawaii Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Honolulu. It was written by Patrick Downes, editor.

“Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.”

Modern technology appeared to amend Jesus’ warning when an emergency alert in Hawaii gave both the day, Jan. 13, and the hour, 8 a.m.

It was seven minutes after 8 o’clock when hundreds of thousands of cellphones across the state buzzed in unison with a stunning text message: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

We were having breakfast at a family restaurant in Honolulu — my wife and I, our three adult children, two sons-in-law and three little grandchildren. It was a final get-together before our eldest and her family of five headed back to the mainland. They had come home for the wedding of our second daughter. A close family friend also was with us.

We had just ordered our meals.

Reading the alert, my heart dropped to the pit of my stomach. Was this for real?

We read the message again. And again. There was no getting around the stark words.

We scanned the crowded restaurant. The looks on people’s faces were of puzzlement and bewilderment. But everyone stayed put. Where could we go? It would only take about 20 minutes for a North Korean missile to reach the islands.

It occurred to me that the restaurant was only a quarter-mile from Pearl Harbor, a logical target for the start of World War III. I pictured the explosion coming through the windows we were seated next to — clearly not a good place to be in a nuclear blast. Warning drills say to duck under the nearest table, but that seemed ridiculous.

The restaurant staff didn’t seem to know what was happening, maybe because they didn’t have their cellphones on the job. Omelets and hash browns and pancakes were being delivered to tables without any noticeable heed to the impending Armageddon.

We called 911 but the lines were jammed. TV news wasn’t reporting anything.

The skeptical and humorous streak that runs through my family offered some relief.

My second daughter consoled me by saying the North Koreans have real bad aim.

My son said that the missile was probably carrying nothing but used plywood.

My eldest daughter, with the patience, acceptance and wisdom of motherhood, simply said wasn’t it good that we were all together?

She was right. I had thought about praying, but even that seemed like a distraction, a waste of precious minutes with loved ones. Yes, I was thankful we were all together.

As the time ticked away, we had no real option except to enjoy the moment, however long it might turn out to be. So we passed the Tabasco, cut the pancakes into bite-sized pieces for the kids and accepted refills of coffee.

And it seemed the people around us had come to the same graced conclusion. They kept calm and carried on with their meals.

Elsewhere in the islands, people were running for their lives, crowding in hotel basements, huddling in bathtubs, even sending their children down manholes.

The longer we waited, the more an attack seemed unlikely. The 20-minute threshold passed. We heard no air-raid sirens (which had been tested a few weeks earlier). We saw no police on the streets, no fighter jets taking off from nearby Hickam Air Force Base. And the internet was having its doubts.

The official all-clear came a long 38 minutes after the initial alarm. “There is no missile threat or danger to the state of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.”

It was almost anti-climactic, though I will admit my eggs Benedict began to taste better after the all-clear sounded.

Our family received a gift that day: a meal together we will never forget. A realization that the best times together are the ordinary ones. At least that’s what I received. My family actually took it all in stride. Besides, my daughter still had some last-minute packing to do to catch the 2:05 p.m. plane to Seattle.

Upon reflection, there was a detonation of sorts during those 38 tense minutes. Our family connections became a little bit stronger, the grandkids a little more cherished, our lovely island home more tranquil, and life itself more precious. And now finally there was time enough for prayer, a prayer of gratitude for the protective hands of a tender God who, in his inscrutable wisdom, allows us to be rattled every so often if only to remind us once again of his abundant love and mercy.

 

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