On the Road: Duck and Cover — and Other Games From the Nuclear Era


The sound of hundreds of alerts being issued simultaneously on hundreds of cell phones and digital devices filled the tropical night air.

Just one thought went through my mind.

“Uh oh … here we go again.”

It was winter break and I was in Hawaii with my husband, daughter and her friend from Sag Harbor. The setting was an open air shopping mall in Honolulu where lots of other people were also seeking solace from ice and snow. Being teenagers, the girls were in ecstasy and deep in hunter/gatherer/MasterCard mode as they sniffed out all the high-end chain stores we don’t have at home. Honestly, I don’t think the alarm even registered with them.

But for me, the series of harsh, staccato beeps transported me right back to the Cold War days and tests of the Emergency Broadcast System on my family’s 13-inch black and white Zenith. Without fail, those tests seemed to always come in the middle of “Captain Kangaroo,” right when Mr. Green Jeans was getting ready to do something good. But since we were in Hawaii, I was spooked by shades of that other, more recent warning about an impending missile attack on the state that gave me pause.

That warning, on January 13, was sent to cell phones across the state and said “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.” Fortunately, it was a drill (or rather a very stupid mistake) and that message was soon rescinded — but not nearly as quickly as many people would have liked.

And though the message we received was not rescinded, it was not quite as dire as an incoming missile from North Korea. It was, in fact, due to torrential rains that had soaked the islands throughout much of the day. While things were certainly damp where we were in Honolulu, the warning was really directed at people living up in the mountains and on the wetter side of the island where that much rainfall quickly overruns streams and waterways, causing dangerous and unpredictable flash flooding.

The alert we got.

Nobody seemed particularly concerned where we were, which got me to wondering how Hawaiians dealt with that other warning back in January. Missiles were already high on the public’s radar (pun intended) because back in December, Hawaii reinstated monthly tests of its nuclear warning siren system for the first time since the end of the Cold War. These big yellow sirens can be seen on tall poles throughout the islands and are the same ones used to warn of approaching tsunamis, but now, thanks to the resurgence of nuclear one-upmanship, once a month they’re playing a different tune.

While “mainstream media” drummed up the panic that ensued in Hawaii as a result of the errant missile alert in January, I thought it might be interesting to take the temperature of the island state by conducting an unscientific poll of my own. So every time we got into an Uber during our time on Oahu, I asked the driver what he was doing, or thinking, when the missile alert came in.

“They all ran into the walk-in fridge,” said one of our drivers who was at McDonald’s at the time. “They left me sitting at the drive-through waiting for my food … Only the tourists really panicked. I told my wife, ‘Well, we better get to Home Depot to buy some wood.’”

I wasn’t sure if the lumber was meant for a current home renovation project or if he was just thinking ahead about survival needs in the end times. Either way, it wasn’t a bad instinct.

Another young man we rode with said he had heard his phone go off but because he was half asleep, he ignored it. He said he wasn’t that concerned because the big warning sirens didn’t go off. Then his mom told him it was a missile alert.

“I decided to go down to the beach and enjoy it one last time,” he said. “I mean, why not? What else are you going to do?”

I get his point.

Four thousand eight hundred and twenty six miles. That’s the distance separating Washington D.C. from Honolulu.

Four thousand four hundred and eighty five miles. That’s the distance separating Honolulu from Pyongyang in North Korea.

Being pretty much geographically smack dab between two world leaders who often appear entirely off their rockers and both have their fingers on buttons seems to have instilled the Hawaiian people with a great sense of inner peace. I have always found them to be funny, warm, modest, welcoming and not overly concerned about their vulnerable situation in the middle of the Pacific. This confirmed it. I guess isolation will do that to you — teach you how to go it alone.

They’re also not afraid to speak their minds. During President Trump’s first official visit to Hawaii, he was met at the airport by citizens of the 50th state who were holding up signs reading “Welcome to Kenya.” You gotta love a state like that. Play it where it lies (pun intended). After all, where are they going to go should “Something Wicked This Way Comes” — other than Donald Trump, I mean.

Somehow, I don’t picture uptight New Yorkers accepting impending nuclear annihilation with the same grace and calm as the laid-back Hawaiians. Can you imagine if the East End got a warning like that on cell phones at the height of summer? People would jump in their overpriced luxury sedans and hit the well considered “evacuation route” out of town — that is, our humble little Route 27 leading to cozy County Road 39 and then they’d jam the “Atomic” Sunrise Highway, the R.I.P. LIE and any other Robert Moses inspired roadway between here and Manhattan. And if there really was an incoming missile, centuries from now when some beings from outer space finally worked up the nerve to check out the scene of this particular disaster, they’d find hundreds of thousands of skeletons sitting behind the wheels of acres of rusted-out Mercedes, Lexi and Teslas (though they’d swear they’d seen one of those somewhere else before) — parked for eternity on a literal Highway to Hell.

Nope, our Uber driver was right on the money. Head for the beach and soak up the gamma rays — it’s the only way to go.