The Mast-Head: On Edge Again

Some among our group of picnickers assumed the end was nigh

A group of us were on the beach Sunday night watching the sunset over the hills across the bay as a sound like thunder rolled across the water. Because it was not quite dark, our assumption was that it could not be fireworks, and no distant sparks could be seen on the horizon, and some among our group of picnickers assumed the end was nigh.

I am only half-kidding. Though I declared that it was likely the rumbling had come from a festival finale in Greenport, someone pulled out a cellphone to check if the North Koreans had attacked Connecticut.

It has been a long time since fear of potential devastation swept the country, and I am not sure that the current foolishness between President Trump and Kim Jong-un really counts. Still, the thought did collectively cross our minds, as we sat and watched the sky change, that missiles could be flying.

In 1991, as the United States military and its allies began retaking Kuwait with a barrage of missiles and bombs, a single thunderclap rang out over East Hampton Village. Watching the news on television in the apartment I lived in at the time near Hook Mill, I felt my heart drop.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans were sure that terrorists were about to attack everywhere and anywhere. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation visited a close friend here because someone had heard him talking about a visit to Iran. During the anthrax mail scare the same year, some people opened their letters outdoors wearing protective clothing and respirators. There was a run on pharmacies for Cipro, an antibiotic that could fight the toxin.

It was with a familiar, if long sleeping, sense of dread that our sunset dinner suddenly turned ominous. Intellectually, we knew that North Korea’s long-range arsenal, if it works at all, could reach only into the far Pacific, not halfway around the globe, and was not able to target anything we might notice from Amagansett.

During the Cold War, as we did our duck and cover drills at East Hampton Middle School, we thought the submarine base across the Sound at Groton might be something that the Soviet Union would want to destroy in an all-out nuclear exchange. Still, huddling in the basement, in my memory, we were hardly scared at all.

Now, as adults, perhaps the world seems more frightening. More than 20 years of violent surprises, culminating when terrorists flew jet aircraft into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, leaves us perpetually on edge. It is strange, yet perhaps not surprising, that some noises off the north at dusk can make us worry for a moment that some new war has begun, as far fetched as that may be.