Everyone who's old enough remembers where he was and what he was doing the day President Kennedy was assassinated. The folks in the Greatest Generation also remember where they were when the radio blared out the news that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor.
I'm one up on those folks, though. I remember where I was and what I was doing the day that World War III began.
No, you did not misread that last sentence.
It happened like this:
I was sound asleep that night on Keflavik Air Base in Iceland when the alert sirens went off. Like the rest of the men in my Quonset hut, I sat up, yawned, made a few choice remarks about (expletive) practice alerts, yanked on my uniform, parka, and white bunny boots, grabbed my rifle out of my locker and headed for the orderly room to be issued ammunition and assigned a post--all part of the routine procedure.
This time, however, the atmosphere was very different in the line of GIs entering one end of the double-length Quonset hut that made up our back-to-back orderly room and supply building. Instead of the usual string of quiet curses growled out over being awakened again in the middle of the night for another lousy alert, what I heard were some very worried voices as the line moved along much faster than usual.
"What's up?" I asked the guy ahead of me, a radar operator.
"Oh," he said in a shaky voice. "Ain't you heard?"
It wasn't much of an answer, but before I could ask the question again the line moved up and we entered the orderly room. Once in there I didn't have to ask questions. The answer was obvious.
Always before, as we passed through the orderly room, our overweight, florid-faced drunkard of a first sergeant sat handing out half empty clips of ammo with a big grin on his face, making smart-aleck remarks about how tired and stupid we all looked. This time he was standing there in his uniform pants and a T-shirt, sweating like a pig, despite the frigid air blowing in the open door, and pushing full clips of ammo on everyone.
"Here," he told the man ahead of me, his shaking hands filled with clips.
"H-Here, Take all y-you want."
"What the (heck), Sarge?" I asked, as he pushed a double-handful of fifteen round clips on me.
"R-Real," he said. "Not an alert. The r-real thing."
I was so stunned I didn't say a word to a soul in the truck until Steve Wawerczyk and I were dropped off at a foxhole on the windy, frigid, air-raid-darkened flightline.
Then I asked Steve, "You believe it, Steve?"
"Believe it, man! Believe it!" he told me angrily. "I was in the radar shack when the word came through. (Expletive) Russians fired a missile at the States.
Right over the North Pole."
Think about it for a minute. Put yourself there. World War III, the nuclear holocaust everyone has feared has just begun. Some damn fool somewhere has pushed the button. You are sitting on Keflavik Air Base in Iceland, three thousand miles from home, at the rim of the Arctic Circle. Even if Russians don't nuke your base, which they most likely will, and even if there's a world left when the smoke clears, what chance is there that you will ever get back home?
Few and none!
It was, and still is, the most horrifying experience of my life. I think.
Steve said it all a few minutes later. He lit a cigarette--against alert regulations--and said, "It was a nice planet. Too bad we went and blew it up."
OK, so we found out in the morning that it was all a mistake. Someone had underestimated our new radar sets, which were supposed to have a maximum range of 3,000 miles, and one of those sets had read the moon rising and reported it as a missile coming over the North Pole. So what?
Doesn't make one bit of difference. It was real! To those of us who lived that moment, it was real!
Ever heard someone say that the grass looks greener? The sky looks bluer? The sun feels warmer?
Believe me, they did that morning when we found out that the world wasn't coming to an end. They still do. They always will.