The Courier

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Hawaii is beautiful: palm trees, sandy beaches, sunshine and warm weather, delightful cocktails, nuclear missile alerts.  It’s got it all.

Padre (Major) Howard Rittenhouse – File Photo

Yes, that’s right.  I was in Hawaii when the state-wide missile alert went off five years ago this month.  The alert went out on all cell phones at about 0800hrs and for 38 minutes everyone thought, “This is it!  This is the big one!  I’m coming home, Momma!”  Everyone except us.  The six of us on holiday weren’t tied to our cell phones so we didn’t see the alert for more than half an hour.  When we finally clued in, we had a few minutes of confusion, surreal feelings, and I found myself angry: there was no WAY I was going to die with this particular chaplain (with whom we were vacationing)!  I’d shove him over the railing of our 8th floor condo first just so I could die peacefully.  Fortunately, they retracted the alert in time (in time for him, that is).  And then I found myself a little sad – I’d enjoyed imagining his swan dive into the pool.

Now you might imagine that I was also frightened, singing hymns, praying, crying like a small child who’s been told Santa isn’t real, or all of the above.  Oddly enough – and perhaps this has to do with how brief the time was that we were even aware of the ‘threat’ – but I don’t remember much of any reaction (other than, “I’m not dying with him!”).  So either I’m more brave than three battalions of infantry, or maybe just dense.  Neither is true (well, I can be quite dense, but not that dense).  I think I just didn’t find the threat very credible or perhaps I couldn’t accept it as real.  Is that faith?  Possibly.  My first reaction, I’m ashamed to admit, wasn’t to pray or even hold my wife.  I recall that we all said, “Well, there are worse places to die.”  

Don’t worry, I’m not taking this in a fire-and-brimstone, repent-the-end-is-near direction.  However, it must be said that I’ve seen some incredibly peaceful people on the edge of death and all due to their faith.  I don’t think it’s possible to predict with certainty how one will react in the face of threat and or/death (even if it is among palm trees and irritating fellow padres).  I’ve heard over and over again from combat veterans and read numerous accounts from the same and the consensus seems to be until you’re faced with it, how you may react is a question mark.  And this has caused a lot of soldiers a great deal of anxiety.  It’s not so much they don’t want to be perceived as cowards; more importantly, they don’t want to let their buddies down.  And in the vast majority of cases, they haven’t.  Training kicks in, emotions are numbed, or anger falls over them like a veil (I know what that’s like – I can still see that railing).  

Many of us will never see combat, but we may experience threats or trauma from accidents, illness, or other causes.  Many already have.  How we face those things, our own mortality, is not a case of bravery; it runs deeper than that.  And yes, faith plays a bigger role than some think.  

I didn’t expect to contemplate mortality in Hawaii, but then, most of us don’t expect – or prefer not to dwell on – what inevitably happens, do we?

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