Theodicius

Good. Evil. Bratwurst.

The Day the Universe Changed

Posted on by arlen

“Arlen? It’s Bernie. Tell Zora to get in here. Now. It’s not a drill.”

I remember it every fall. It was a lazy Saturday morning. I hadn’t planned on getting up yet, but the phone call worked faster than a cold shower. I passed the message to my wife. It seemed no time at all before she was in uniform and heading out the door. The good bye lasted longer than usual. I watched her go, a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, wondering if this was going to be the last time.

We were at SAC headquarters in Nebraska. I’ll withold the date because the event may still be classified, but Mr. Gorbachev had not yet torn down that wall. She worked Avionics repair. I was a computer jockey; I wouldn’t be called in because my shop was fully staffed 24/7. I called in, wondering what was going on, and all I got from Dan was a rather tight, “Can’t talk now, talk to you if I see you again.”

Ulp. It was real. If you’ve seen the movie “Wargames”, you’ve seen Hollywood’s analog of my shop. And they were busy, down there in the basement. Very busy. I didn’t know the details, but we weren’t invovled in any basewide drills. If we were in this, it was serious. Armageddon-style serious.

What do you do as you wait for the world to end? I sat on the balcony for a while, watching the sleepy folks in Bellevue start to stir. For them it was a completely ordinary day. They didn’t know that in a matter of minutes the whole town, maybe the whole state, would be nothing but a smoking crater. After the third time I stifled the urge to scream at them to run and hide, for the sky was falling, I went back inside. There was no point in running. If it was coming it’d be here before anyone could get out of range, anyway.

I wandered around the apartment numbly, not knowing what to do. I found myself standing beside the crib of our daughter, just standing there watching her sleep.

I couldn’t help myself, I reached into the crib and picked her up. If she was going to die, she wasn’t going to die alone. I briefly thought about cupping her close, shielding her with my body. The thought was absurd; that wouldn’t make a nickel’s difference to the hard rain that was coming.

So I stood there, for an hour and a half, looking down into her eyes. It’s funny. That was the second time in my life I’d stared death in the face. The first time I was scared spitless. But this time was different. This time the blood wasn’t thundering in my head, my hands weren’t shaking, my breath wasn’t ragged.

There’s nothing like the immanence of death to clarify the mind and crystalize the thinking. Unlike the cliche, my life didn’t flash in front of me (I was glad, for it’d make a boring in-flight movie). Instead I saw my hopes and dreams float by. Each one came near to the precious bundle I held, and then vanished. I knew what was important, what would always be important. When you stare into the abyss, the abyss also stares back into you. “Please, God.” was all I could choke out.

The phone rang. The danger was over, but the alert would last for several more hours. A dollar-ninety-eight part had failed, and generated a false launch alert. All SAC snapped to alert, which alarmed the Soviets who immediately went on alert. It’d take a while for both of us to stand down, a little at a time because neither side fully trusted the other, but that was just detail. We would live. My daughter would live.

And the universe has never looked the same.

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