The tension between the U.S. and North Korea might be growing. In Guam, though, people seem composed. USA TODAY
AGAT, Guam — At a beach park in southern Guam, three teenage girls sway to the music from a portable speaker and sing along. A toddler sticks his fingers in his ears.
A girl in a pink bathing suit and a boy in green shorts play in a stream while adults watch from under a nearby palm tree.
A young man and woman climb out of a white pickup truck and stroll hand-in-hand toward the ocean.
It is a sunny Sunday afternoon on a stunning tropical island, and kayaks glide through the water, Harleys roll down the street and barbecue smoke wafts through the air.
This is our community under the threat of nuclear attack.
Last week wasn’t the first time North Korea threatened to strike Guam, but some people say it feels different now. Robert Underwood, former Congressional delegate and current president of the University of Guam, says it might be the specificity of the plans laid out by North Korea. It may also be how President Trump responded to Kim Jong Un.
“It looks like these two individuals who have short tempers are intent on egging each other on,” Underwood says. “That’s creating some anxiety.”
Some anxiety, sure. Panic, no way.
People from around the world are surprised about that. I’ve spoken to international journalists who’ve asked about evacuations, and like most people here, I’ve had stateside friends and relatives urge me to get off the island, out of harm’s way.
I’m not going anywhere. There are seats available on departing flights, but I haven’t talked to anyone who seriously considers leaving.
When people elsewhere learn we aren’t leaving, they say, “Stay safe.”
The island is 30 miles long and eight miles wide. How do we stay safe? It is out of our control.
Our best bet for safety: The talk is all talk.
So far, that’s been the case.
I’m not a Guam native, but grew up as military brat during the Cold War. I had recurring nightmares of nuclear attack throughout childhood. One dream in particular I remember to this day: Standing on a beach with my mother, seeing an explosion in the distance and a wall of fire racing toward us, and telling her I loved her. I was about 7 or 8.
I was an adult when the Cold War ended and the nightmares stopped. I wondered if others of my generation had those dreams, and I thought it would be a beautiful thing if the collective nightmare faded away.
Most of the 163,000 people on Guam are American citizens. Anyone born here gets automatic citizenship. No matter where we were born, though, as Guam residents we don’t get to vote for president. We didn’t elect Donald Trump. Like other American communities, some people here support him and some people don’t. Guam is home to Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam. While opinions about the military presence are also mixed, most people here have some tie to the military. These are our loved ones and neighbors protecting us.
Last week, Guam Homeland Security told us a missile could reach us from North Korea in 14 minutes.
They said if a missile launched, we’d hear sirens. They gave us a terrifying, and slightly bizarre, fact sheet labeled “Preparing for an imminent missile threat” that advised us to avoid looking at the “flash or the fire ball,” hit the ground and cover your head and to avoid using conditioner after washing your hair “because it will bind radioactive material to your hair.”
Our second best bet for safety: If a missile is launched, either North Korea doesn’t have the capability to reach us with accuracy, or our military will destroy it before it gets here.
So far, from what we know, that seems reasonable.
In the news from the mainland U.S. and from around the world, people thousands of miles away talk about us and our situation, speculating about whether Kim is bluffing. They wonder if our missile defenses will work or if the North Korean missiles will fizzle.
None of that talk in Washington or Pyongyang has anything to do with what people here are doing — fishing in the derby, waiting for tax refunds, getting the kids ready to go back to school.
How can we be so calm? This may be as close to nuclear war as America has been in more than 50 years. And our community has been named as the target.
The other day, a friend with an infant daughter talked about how surreal this is. She said in the past, she’s watched news reports from the Middle East and wondered how people just go about living their lives when they are in danger. How do they go to restaurants and coffee shops and simply do everyday things?
Then she held up the coffee she bought that morning, and we both smiled.
We have no control over the situation with North Korea, and worrying about it won’t help. People who are thousands of miles away — people we do not know and who don’t know us — will make decisions that affect our lives. We can hope and pray that they make decisions that will keep us safe. But that’s where our involvement ends.
Times like this remind us to enjoy each day, to spend our time living, loving and laughing. Life is finite. Whether that means 100 years or 14 minutes, we don’t know. So we savor that trip to the beach, the delicious barbecue, the Sunday drive.
That’s what we do.
Dana Williams is the executive editor of the Pacific Daily News on Guam.
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