This is How We Felt in Hawaii, During the False Nuclear Alert

Ryan Bradford | San Diego City Beat

I’m doing the most Hawaiian thing one could ever do when the threat of nuclear death descends upon us: snorkeling around a reef, looking at tropical fish. It’s dawn, supposedly the best time to to be in the water if you want to see a turtle, and boy, do I want to see a turtle. The sun is peeking out from behind the misty mountain top. Ukelele music isn’t playing per se, but the scene is so goddamn idyllic that it might as well be.

Back on the beach, my wife Jessica, along with my friends Lindsay and Steve, and Steve’s cousin James, are drying off. It’s the day before Lindsay and Steve are getting married, and this morning dip is supposed to be a brief calm before the deluge of stress that’s common with most weddings.

Sometime during the 20 minutes I’ve spent in the water—which accounts for the total amount of time I’ve ever snorkeled—I’ve already taken on an air of superiority toward the little creatures swimming underneath me. Life must suck in the ocean, I think, observing the tropical fish as they’re pushed around by current. How annoying it must be to have so little control.

I look toward the shore and notice James wading out toward me. He’s motioning me to come in, but there’s a noted calm in his movements. The kind of movements that people get when they want to break news gently. I’m immediately certain that James is warning me about a shark in the water, and that his subdued body language is an attempt to keep me from panicking. This does the exact opposite of its intended purpose and I half-swim, half-flail like an injured seal toward the shallows.

My mind races through all the other fearsome creatures of the deep: jellyfish, sting ray, Jaws, Godzilla.

Or it could just be a a riptide warning, I think, trying to calm myself, but jump back into panic mode: Or maybe a tsunami is headed our way.

I finally get close enough to hear what James is saying. It’s not the response I’m expecting.

“There’s been a—” he misspeaks: “a mallistic bissile warning.” The flub is a betrayal of his own attempts at keeping his shit together and it’s then that I realize the gravity of the situation. Even if James was trying to calm me with his body language, he just completely dismantled it.

A ballistic missile warning.

“There was a man running down the beach screaming, ‘Take cover! There’s a bomb coming!’” my friends say when I make it to shore. “We thought he was just crazy, but then we got this message.”

Jessica shows me her phone, displaying a text that does not fuck around.


It’s a strange feeling to face potential sudden and violent death. It feels too far-fetched to be real, and yet this is the world that we’re all living in—a world where a madman plays nuclear chicken with another maniac via the comfort of a Twitter account. (PS: Fuck you, Trump. Fuck you, Kim Jong-un. And fuck you, @jack, for enabling all this). My thoughts ping-pong between this can’t be real and this is absolutely real, and underneath the mental deliberations, the confusion becomes fear.

No, not just fear, but seeds of hysteria. Do I call my family and tell them I love them, or is that too dramatic? Have I lived a good enough life? Have I done everything that I wanted to do?  Will people miss me after I become particles? Will my death be eulogized by an idiot who uses my death to justify going to war with North Korea?

We start walking back toward Steve and Lindsay’s beachside hotel, although that seems as protective as the open water. Where is one supposed to take shelter from a nuclear blast? It doesn’t seem likely that poolside canopies will protect us from disintegration, but at least the trek gives us purpose. We’re mostly silent. Steve takes a phone call from a family member and ends it with “I love you.” I’m not ready to utter those words in distress yet, since it feels like doing so is complete acceptance of our fate.

I look out to the sky, expecting to actually see the glowing harbinger of our doom. By now, the sun has risen and the ocean shimmers. I guess Maui is as good of a place as any to get blown to bits. Paradise by the nuclear light.

Everyone we pass on the way up to the resort is either glued to their phone or has the ashen look of doom on their face. All I want to do is make it back to the hotel room and bust out the rum. Anything to keep this terror at bay.

By the time we make it to the lobby, however, the warning has been proven to be a false alarm.

It’s a relief, but not really. That night, during a cocktail party, we laugh about it, and only when we’re drunk do we, in hushed voices, admit to how scared we really were. We do this—speak quietly—because we feel like chumps and fools. It’s a reminder of how little in control we are and how we’re increasingly like those fish in the reef being pushed by waves we cannot control.

And it sucks.

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