I woke up to Honolulu sunlight streaming through my window and frantic knocking on my door. It was Saturday. I stood up sluggishly, head humming with a light hangover, and opened the door to see my normally cool Jersey surfer/math PhD roommate, Mike, with eyes wide and hair frazzled. He shoved his phone in my face. “What do you make of this?” he said.
“Emergency Alert: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
It was early 2018, when the North Korea nuclear scare was still something we talked about. I stared at the screen. What did I make of it? If there are nukes coming, we’re dead. But he was waiting for an answer, and if there’s one thing I learned from my ten years in the Navy, it’s that even when you’re at the brink of a nervous breakdown, doing anything is infinitely better than doing nothing at all.
“Let’s go,” I said.
We scrambled for supplies. Luckily, my gear was somewhat staged for an imminent zombie apocalypse: two guns, the body armor I’d scavenged from the overstock gear pile at work, and two ziploc bags full of ammo. I filled a knapsack with cans of tuna, water bottles, and the diced tomatoes I’d been saving for some marinara sauce. But where was my med kit?
“How ‘bout it, boys?” said Keenan, our third roommate. He was barefoot, his hair was in a do-rag, and his bearded, toothy grin made his eyes squint shut.
“We’re driving around the backside of the mountain,” Mike said in mid-sprint. “It might shield us from the blast.”
“Shoots,” Keenan said through pursed lips before walking to the bathroom.
With bare necessities thrown haphazardly in the backseat of my Subaru, I ran inside for some last minute accessories. The great thing about nukes is that if you’re not jellied by the initial shock wave, thermal pulse, and gamma ray burst, you still have radioactive fallout to warrant some concern. Now, alpha particles only hurt you if they’re ingested or inhaled, but Betas can be absorbed through your skin. On the bright side, Betas can be stopped with something as thin as a Starbucks napkin, and Alphas with a face mask, so I grabbed gloves, full body pajamas, and a rag.
Just then, Keenan walked out of the bathroom with his hair in a wrap, his face covered in cream, and… was that my Olaf towel around his waist? I asked if he was coming, acting as if I hadn’t completely forgotten he was there.
“Nah man,” he said. “I’m gonna sit on the roof and burn up. Watch it come in, you know?”
I did know. I’d taken the Chem/Bio/Nuke response classes that in a nutshell said, “If this actually happens, you’ll be dead or very, very miserable.” I pictured us huddled over a stick fire, starving or shitting our intestines out, boils and blisters on the skin that hadn’t sloughed off, waiting hopelessly for rescue from a world that had sunk into its third major war. Part of me wished I could succumb to Sheehan’s oblivion — to be absolved of responsibility and to no longer worry about finding food, shelter or medical supplies, or fighting off radioactive cannibals. I mean, isn’t that the way to go? Sit on a roof with a view of the ocean, high as the Cookie Monster, and watch the nuke that starts World War III turn your neighborhood into a radioactive swamp?
But I couldn’t. I kept thinking about the tiny rodent mammals in Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos, the ones who burrowed to escape the dinosaurs, barely survived for generation upon wretched generation, then emerged after the Chicxulub meteorite to find a new world, one permissible to mammal reproduction and evolution. We owe our existence to those tough little critters and one day someone will owe their existence to us. Somebody will have to be tomorrow’s ancestors and by god I’d drink my own piss — drink Mike’s piss if I had to — to give future generations a chance.
“Shoots,” I told Keenan. I gave him a hug and we were on our way.
We made a pretty good team, I thought, Mike and I, a math PhD and a former Navy SEAL. We’d start our own clan, surround ourselves with survival-minded people — progressive ones, innovative ones, who knew how to live off the land and liked end-of-the-world orgies. We’d build a fort from the wreckage, with a drawbridge maybe, and soup up our cars to Mad Max standards. I’d wear an eye patch, just for fun. I’d switch it around, too, throw off the clan representatives who came to plead for alliances.
“Damn this traffic,” Mike said, snapping me back to the reality of my air conditioner-less Subaru. He was supposed to be navigating, but the maps weren’t loading, and he was on the phone with his long-distance girlfriend, explaining our plan. I couldn’t think of whom I wanted to call with so little to say, like “Hey, I’m about to die but no news otherwise. Oh, and don’t open my third bedside dresser drawer.”
But when he called his mom, my eye — just one eye — got ever so slightly wet. I couldn’t call mine. She was in Greece and probably asleep, and anyway, I didn’t trust myself to not say anything that would turn her, or me, into a sobbing wreck. I didn’t want the image of her face, twisted and running with tears, to be the last one on my mind. I sent her a kissy face through Messenger.
Mike kept fiddling with his phone. “I can’t choose the last song I want to listen to,” he said.
We made it around the mountain in just under twenty minutes and parked on the roadside with groups of other survivalists, none of whom I would have been thrilled to invite to the aforementioned orgies. Give it time, I told myself.
We waited for a blast that never came. Then, we waited some more.
Finally, after calls, texts, calls, Googles, and Instagram stories, it turned out that all we’d accomplished was missing Saturday morning drills at Island Jiu Jitsu. There were two buttons, apparently, in the Hawaii State Department. One said “Missile Emergency: This is NOT a drill,” and another said “Missile Emergency: This IS a drill.” They were installed very close together and looked very much alike. Someone had mixed them up.
Keenan was still on the roof when we backed into the driveway. A cucumber slice fell off one of his eyes as he waved to us. Mike and I unloaded the car, giddy with an unearned post-survival glow. We took turns taking stuff inside — the guns, food, water, long underwear, the ziploc bags bursting with 9mm ammunition — and under them all were Mike’s contributions to our survival endeavor: a half-eaten box of Cheerios and a handle of Tito’s Vodka.
“What?” he said. “It’s for wound cleaning.”
When this happened two years ago, I thought my takeaways were simple: keep a pre-planned route, have a couple loaded mags handy, and live like there’s no tomorrow. But today, staring at a deserted campus from my dorm room window, I have to reassess. I don’t even have a car anymore, and if I did, there’s nowhere to go. “Any ghost will tell you that pestilence carves its own path,” says Adam Johnson in his novel, Parasites Like Us.
It’s tempting to stockpile, barricade, or party like tomorrow is the end of the world, but the reality is that it probably won’t be. We’re always moving through times of turmoil, more or less: ice ages and agriculture, famines and inquisitions, reformations and revolutions, or the last few seasons of “Game Of Thrones.” But through it all, for better or worse, we keep surviving.
Some of us will die, as we always have and always will, but the ones who survive will do so having seen how they truly react in a time of crisis. They’ll know whether they were selfish or caring, frantic or calm, survivalist or reefer-roofing, or, most likely, some very human combination of the above. How will we respond? There’s only one rule for the world, according to Kurt Vonnegut: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”