Life aboard the battleship USS Wisconsin usually is drill after numbing drill. Alarms sound. Sailors run up stairs to battle stations. After an hour the all-clear sounds.
Then the war began.
Five of us were aboard to watch as members of a Pentagon press pool. We observed the first wartime launch of cruise missiles, the shots that began the war, missiles that began their fight with a terrifying roar and a blinding ball of flame. Officers then assumed the shipboard drama was over and that the only excitement would come from more drills.
But were they ever wrong.
My battle station was an observation platform eight levels above the main deck. My assignment was to keep out of the way and to enjoy the view.
Someone mentioned the word "vampire." The only time to be frightened was if the word was broadcast during an alert; it meant a missile was heading toward the ship. The consensus was that by the time a missile was sighted, defensive measures would be too late.
Not to worry, every sailor said. No one had ever heard the word.
Two days after the war started, someone saw an approaching aircraft on a radar screen. Then a blip representing the missile. The blip was headed toward us. The alert was sounded.
There was pushing and shoving after the alarm sounded, and I did my share. The lieutenant arrived in helmet, underwear and gas mask. He hammered a wrench on the auxiliary bridge door to get a navigator to yell out the range. The weapons center ordered anyone seeing something in the sky to fire.
The next announcement was to brace for impact. We crouche and began counting the time to impact.
A mistake, of course. A pilot coming back from Iraq who probably was on a tremendous high from being alive had locked his radar onto the ship and played games with various weapons systems. So no missile.
We talked about the experience, of course; joked about it, told each other about our fright and our relief and understood a little more about people returning from combat to regular life -- especially those encountering more than a false alarm.