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38 Minutes

By Jordan E. Virtue

I woke up at 8:08 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 13. I sleepily rolled over and glanced, still bleary-eyed, at my phone. After a second of processing, I shot out of bed, sprinting down the hallway as my whole body throbbed in terror.

One minute before, at 8:07 a.m., my phone received the alert: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

I nearly ploughed into my mom, who was on the phone with my brother. We were at my uncle’s house on Maui, and my brother was on the opposite side of the island warming up for his tennis tournament. My mom had already called my dad, who was home alone on the Big Island. My dad barricaded himself inside our bathroom with my dog, but after a few minutes he went and stood outside in our driveway—he refused to die in a bathroom. He left Sparky inside.

I sat with my mom and uncle along the hallway wall and frantically tried to call my tennis coach. Like any other Saturday, he held 8 a.m. tennis practice at the public park near my house. He didn’t answer the phone, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the elementary schoolers chattering away, wildly swinging at tennis balls and completely unaware of an impending North Korean attack. I texted my brother to make sure he was inside and told him that I loved him.

Then, we waited.

Military experts estimate that a North Korean missile would take 20 minutes to reach Hawaii, and residents would have about 12 minutes of notice before impact. After 10 or 15 minutes, we started to realize that it couldn’t be real. We scoured TV channels and online news for any information about what was going on. No one was covering it.

Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard tweeted at 8:19 a.m. that the alarm was false. She went on CNN shortly afterwards, which is when we finally heard that there was no immediate threat. The state did not send out an official false alarm message until 38 minutes after the initial alert.

My story is relatively unexciting compared to others. Some people pulled mattresses over bathtubs to shield themselves. Some stuffed their children down manhole covers in an effort to protect them from a blast. Some stood on their porches with binoculars. Many called their family members to say goodbye, certain they would be dead within minutes.

Once it became clear that the alert was false, emotions quickly turned from fear and sadness to anger, and rightly so. I’m angry, too. I’m angry that the state government is inept, and I’m angry that my home is at their mercy. I’m angry that 9 and 10 year olds asked me the “what ifs” of nuclear war on the tennis court when I got home, and I didn’t have any answers for them.

That was exactly one month ago today. For many people, especially on the mainland United States, the 38 minute Hawaiian missile crisis has faded away, a shocking headline that dissipated as the news cycle moved on. But it hasn’t gone away for me.

We drove out to Lahaina a few hours later to cheer on my brother in his tennis matches. I sat with my uncle and squinted through the fence, my shoulders becoming progressively more sunburned. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

As I watched my brother change sides, I realized that I had never really paid attention to the unusual way he walks. He towers over me at six feet one inches tall, yet he has a remarkably short stride for his height.

I’m furious with myself that it took the threat of a North Korean attack to notice that about my own brother. I’ve always prided myself on being conscious of the ordinary, grateful for the small beauties around me. But I couldn’t even start to comprehend all I have to be grateful for before Jan. 13.

When you feel like your biggest accomplishment of the day is not being killed by a ballistic missile, everything becomes extraordinary. Of course, there was no missile; nothing happened. But somehow even brushing my teeth that night felt miraculous.

Since then, I’ve been tormented by forgotten things I should remember. Why couldn’t I remember the model of the car my teacher drove to school? Why couldn’t I remember the shape of the doorknob I use every time I walk inside my house? Why couldn’t I remember the way it felt when I hugged my dad for what really could have been the last time?

These used to just be incidental curiosities, observations that made me feel good for “being present” in the world. They have now assumed a fierce and immediate importance. Someone has to take notice of them, because I have reached the jarring conclusion that they could all be vaporized in a matter of minutes. Not just me, but everything and everyone that I love.

I hope no one has to ever experience what Hawaii experienced a few weeks ago. But don’t wait for a ballistic missile to notice the blessedness of the ordinary. Paying attention to the seemingly ordinary details of the world cannot be postponed or put off for a more convenient time.

It only takes a few extra seconds, and we never really know how many of those we have left.

Jordan E. Virtue ’20 is an English concentrator living in Winthrop House.

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