I have no personal experience of war. In the late 60's, I watched my high school friends and my brother be drafted and go off to Viet Nam. Almost all of them came back. They were changed, but they came back.
My parents fought in World War II. Mom told us about the Blitzkrieg in London. My dad was a 8th Air Force navigator for a bomber. But for all the stories they told, there was so much more they never spoke about.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, I began to think about that. How would it be to hear the air raid sirens go off and run for a shelter?
How would it be to emerge from a shelter and find your home gone?
I couldn't imagine it. But I've tried. I suspect this is a pale shadow of what it would really be like. But I wanted to think about it, to write in my family and friends, and speculate what it might be like. To try to understand something that is so real to so many people, so far from my house.
The War Comes to My House
Copyright 2022 Robin Hobb
For days and days, everyone said it wouldn't happen. "Don't be silly," they told me. "You listen to the news too much. You are so anxious about something that won't happen. Our governments are talking. It's all bluster."
Still, I worried. When I went to the store, I bought a few extra cans of this and that. I filled up my propane tank for the cook stove. I topped off the gas in our truck and filled up a gas can.
When it began, everyone said, "It's only going to be the big cities on the coast. New York, places like that. Maybe Portland. Seattle. Everett. Places that they need to control. They won't bother with Tacoma. And out where you are, it won't happen at all."
Then one morning, I woke up to my cell phone ringing. It was Carli. "It's happening! The War is coming to our house. We're hearing gunfire in downtown Seattle. It's getting closer."
"Please, God, no," I said. I groped for my glasses and put her on speaker phone as I padded out to turn on the coffee pot.
"It started about three in the morning. Just a few shots at first. But now it's closer. Can I bring the kids there? It might be safer."
"Of course. But remember that my place is not that far from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. If they are bringing the War here, I'm sure that will be a big target for them."
"Bigger than Seattle? Bigger than our port in Tacoma?"
"I think so, yes," I said. "Lots of weaponry there. Airstrip. Helicopters."
She was quiet for a moment and then said, "But you're out in the country. It has to be safer. Can I bring the kids to you? And Lulu."
"Every time I-5 gets blocked, they divert traffic this way. When that train derailed, the traffic was backed up on Harts Lake Road. I couldn't even get out of my driveway. It may be hard to get here."
"But you are out in the country. The War won't come to Roy!"
She had to be right. The War was never coming to my house. "Okay. Bring Lulu's dog food. The stuff I have makes her barf. Oh, and we're muddy down here. Make sure the kids pack their boots and extra clothes they can get dirty."
"I will," Carli said, and rang off.
I called to Ed to wake up. "Carli says the War is coming to her neighborhood. She's bringing the kids here. And Lulu, " I told him.
"Here? The War is coming here?"
"No. Not here. But it's in Carli's neighborhood."
Ed sat up. "Is there coffee? I need coffee. This makes no sense. Why would people who don't even know us want to kill us?"
"Why does anyone want a war?" We didn't know the answer to that. Skip it. Just do the things. "There is coffee. We should get ready for kids. I should have bought more milk, and maybe ice cream. We might have to make a run to the store." I said.
"I doubt the stores are open if the War is coming here."
We looked at each other. We'd never had a war come so close. We'd never had a war come to our town or even our state. I remembered some of the things my mother had told me about the time some people had brought a war to England when she was a young woman. "I'll pack up some food and cache it outside. So we can get to it even if the house is bombed."
Ed laughed. "No one's going to bomb our house. It's not going to happen, but it's like an earthquake. It doesn't hurt to be prepared anyway." He thought for a minute. "Put some sleeping bags and the tent out there. Bleach, in case we have to purify water to drink. The first aid kit, the big one."
"I'll get the earthquake/tsunami kit down." It had all sorts of things in that footlocker. A crank radio that could charge a cell phone. Kerosene lamps and lamp oil. A camp stove and some little tanks of propane. I left Ed to get dressed and went to the garage. I hauled the footlocker down from the loft and put it in a wheelbarrow and trundled it to the edge of our bit of forest. If anyone came to loot our house, I'd still have some basics hidden there. I shook my head at myself. I was being silly.
I turned on the radio. It was still playing pop music and local ads. There was always news and weather on the hour. But the hour came and went and the music and ads continued. I got stew meat out from the freezer, thawed it in the microwave, browned it and started a big pot of stew to feed everyone. I went out to the garden for an onion. I'd have to use the store potatoes. Our plants were doing well but they had no spuds yet. In a few more weeks, I'd be able to harvest some new potatoes, but not yet. The tomatoes weren't setting much fruit yet. Pollinators. I was worried about the lack of bees.
My cell phone jingled as I was cutting up the onion. I hastily rinsed and dried my hands and answered it. It was my younger daughter, Sarah. "Mom, the War is coming here."
"That's what Carli said. She's bringing me the kids. It's hard to believe. "
I heard distant explosions on the phone. At almost the same instant, I heard far away sirens and closer the dull thuds of the big guns at Fort Lewis. The bumping of the artillery was a familiar noise. "Probably just practice," Ed said as he went by. We were accustomed to late night artillery practice. It was the price we paid for living near a military base. But today it sounded more threatening than it ever had.
"Did you hear that?" Sarah asked me.
"Yeah. The base has their big guns going, too. But I think it's just a drill."
"Not that, the sirens. There's black smoke coming up from the harbor. I'm going to call Carli. If she hasn't left yet, I'm going to send Hex to you. The gunfire is freaking her out. And if I have to bug out of Tacoma, I won't be able to come back here and get her."
"Okay," I said reluctantly. Sarah's cat loves only Sarah. Keeping Hex from getting into fights with my cats and the dogs was going to be tricky. "Send her cat box. I'll probably have to shut her in one of the bedrooms to keep the peace. Wait, why don't you bring Hex yourself?"
"Jeff called. He and Sam and Jak are rounding up tires. Les Schwab has a bunch of old tires they're giving out. We're going to stockpile them on the I-5 freeway ramp, the 133 one, so we can blockade I-5 if we have to."
"Why is Jeff dragging Sam and Jak into this?" Jeff, my younger son, had given both his daughters boy's names. And now he was dragging them into a war.
"You know Jeff. He never misses a crisis. Sam and Jak are young women now, not kids. They're angry. You know the T-shirt. Tacoma Versus Everyone. We're all mad. Everyone's armed and heading out to help make blockades and set up positions for shooting from the overpasses. There's a neighborhood party in the alley. People are making Molotov cocktails from all the bottles in the recycling bins."
"What the hell! Where is Lois and Teddy in all this?"
"Jeff sent them off to the mountains last night. His old friend Eric has a cabin up there. Eric and his wife and kids are already there. They still have it stocked from the Covid quarantine. Generator, all that stuff. It's far away from everything."
"Did they take Teddy's meds?"
"Mom, of course they did. I got to hang up and call Carli before she leaves town."
"Okay." I felt numb. My family was scattering, some going to the most dangerous places I could think of. I'd been filled with anxiety when Sarah had marched onto the freeway with Black Lives Matter. This was a thousand times worse. "Have you heard anything from Al and Carol?" My elder son and his wife.
"Not yet. You should call them. Mom, I've got to call Carli and see if she can pick up Hex."
As soon as she hung up, I called Al. "Are you okay? Carli and Sarah say the War is coming to Tacoma. Do you want to come down here?"
"It's coming. The gunfire is getting closer." My elder son always sounds deadly calm. High functioning autism. Yet his calmness made me feel a bit better.
"Load up now and get Carol down here."
He sighed. "Mom, you know her mobility scooter bogs down in the yard there. And she can't walk on uneven ground. We have to stay here. Don't worry. We got food stockpiled in the garage, and I'm filling the bath with water. And we have lots of ammunition."
They both were Cowboy Action Shooting enthusiasts. Once a month or so, they went off to the gatherings. Fast draw target shooting. Cowboy cosplay. Ed reloaded a lot of ammo for them. "Where's Carol now?" I asked hopelessly.
"She's in the living room. Greypuppy is in her basket beside Carol's chair. And Carol has a gun on her lap and fifty rounds of ammo in her chair pocket."
I felt sick. "And what are you doing?"
"I was helping the neighbors. We're putting RV's and boats on trailers in all the intersections. With some luck, they'll bypass our neighborhood. And if not, well I'm heeled, with a pocket full of extra ammunition. And a couple of speed loaders for the .32. "
He was so calm. I was not. I choked out the words. "Be careful. Stay safe." Useless, meaningless words.
"I've got to go. Something big is rumbling up 30th. It doesn't sound like a semi. Maybe something armored."
"I love you. Tell Carol I love her!" But he had already hung up.
Ed was out in the garage. I went to pass on the news to him. He had cleared his work bench of woodworking tools and was setting supplies out in a row. Brass. Primers. Powder and a powder scale. Gleaming Hornady bullets. Lee loaders in 30.06 and .270 caliber.
"What are you doing?" I asked, but already knew. For years, he'd reloaded his own ammunition for hunting and for Al's hobby, and for the neighbors.
"Assembly line. When the kids get here, we're doing arts and crafts out here. Ammunition assembly line. I wish I had more powder."
"What are you thinking? Do you think we're going to be shooting at people? You and I, shooting at people?" I didn't need this drama.
"If we have to. If we need to, we'll have the ammunition. The kids can help."
"Demi's only eight."
"If she can assemble Lego kits and play Minecraft, she can reload ammunition. She's smart. And Sven's a teenager." He picked up a rifle leaning against the woodworking bench, removed the bolt and looked down the barrel. One of his hunting rifles, unused for years. "I'm going to give this a cleaning."
"I'm making stew. Anything else I should do?"
"Put the house shotgun on the table and see how many shells we have."
I headed back to the house. In the distance, the Fort Lewis artillery was still thumping. I hoped it was a drill, or practice or something. Just as I reached the door, the dogs went off, barking and wagging and leaping at the gate. A minute later, Carli pulled into the drive. I went to open the gate for her. She pulled in and parked. Kids and dogs spilled from the car. She opened the hatchback and took out two cat carriers. A youngster I didn't know well took one of them from her as I went to help her unload.
"Hi! Oh, you brought Joshua, too?"
"I'm sorry., I should have mentioned it. Yes, I did. And his cat. Charles asked if I could take them and how could I say no?"
Charles was her boyfriend, and Joshua was his younger son, eleven or so. Lulu and Chloe, their family dogs were racing in circles with my dogs, barking and play fighting with each other. I took the cat carrier from Joshua and he ran off after Demi in a race for the tire swing. Carli and I carried the cat carriers into the house. "Does Hex get along with Joshua's cat?" I asked.
"Of course not. I bought the extra cat boxes."
It was almost a relief to focus on settling the cats in different rooms. Food, water, cat litter in boxes and shut the door.
"Coffee?" I asked Carli.
"Oh, please. But then I have to get back."
The kids ran up to me. "Can we take the dogs and go play by the stream?" they demanded as soon as they reached me.
"Not today. Today you have to stay where I can see you." I turned back to Carli. "Dad wants to show them how to reload ammunition."
"Oh my God. They'll love it."
Demi had overheard us. "I'm a good shot. Mommy showed me how to shoot the bb gun."
"Me, too," insisted Joshua. "I'm learning."
Ed came out of the shop. He crossed the yard and handed me my father's old .45 automatic and two clips. I shook my head at him.
"You know I can't work the slide anymore. My arthritis," I explained to Carli.
"I think that if you have to, you'll be able to," he said. He tried to smile. "Come on, kids! We have a project!"
"Can we shoot the BB guns?" Joshua demanded.
"Not this minute. But later today, we'll set up a target on some straw bales and you can shoot a .22."
Carli and I exchanged a look. I glanced back at her car and said, "Wait. Where's Sven? I thought you were bringing all the kids."
Her smile was stiff. "He went to school."
"He got a phone call last night. The Jesuits were evacuating a couple of homeless camps to the gym at Bellarmine. They needed volunteers. He went."
"You shouldn't have let him."
"He's seventeen. He didn't ask permission. There was no 'let' about it."
Neither of us spoke as we headed toward the kitchen. It almost felt normal when I took out creamer and poured coffee into my Buck mugs. "What the hell is happening? I feel like I stepped into another dimension. I was going to finish a story today. Deadhead the roses. Plant more radishes."
Carli nodded. "I had work. Shooting a Microsoft commercial." She snorted angrily. "I need to unload the car still. I brought sleeping bags, extra clothes for kids, dog food. Cat food."
"I'll set you up in the extra bedroom. You and Demi can have the bed, and Joshua will have to take an air mattress on the floor."
She was nodding, but then she shook her head. "I can't stay. I have to get back to Sven, and Charles and Aaron. They were fortifying the house when I left. I wanted them to come with me, but he said something about 'they did this to us once. And it will never happen again.' And Aaron agreed."
"Aaron's only thirteen."
"That doesn't seem to matter now."
There wasn't much to say to that. We drank our coffee, unloaded the car, and tried to find places for all the stuff they'd brought. I-pads and lap tops. Phone chargers, dog food, cat food, rubber boots. I kept walking past my dad's old military .45, artifact from a different war on the kitchen table. Ed came in with a rack of shiny new ammunition. "Demi's on brass cleaning. Joshua is meticulous about measuring powder. They're a good team."
In the back room, Hex the cat was singing an angry song. My Ginger dog was sniffing along the bottom of the door. She yelped and leaped back when Hex made a swipe at her under the door.
Ed set the ammunition on top of the bookcase and leaned a 30.06 rifle next to it.
"We look like an armed camp," I said.
"We are an armed camp," he said. "I'm going to fire up the tractor and move the firewood pile across the gate."
"Not yet," said Carli. "Let me get out of here first."
Predictably, they argued. Ed wasn't happy to hear that Sven had stayed in Tacoma. But he finally said, "Okay. We'll keep the kids here for a few days. I'm betting this is going to be done and over very quickly. But for now, go collect everyone else and come back."
Carli left, and Ed fired up the tractor. I went to help as we loaded unsplit log sections into the scoop on the front and then stacked them across the gate. That finished, he went back to supervise the ammo factory while I cut up carrots and potatoes and added them to the simmering stew. I took out the Bisquick and tried to decide if we would have biscuits or dumplings with the stew. Biscuits, and home made jam, I decided. There was ice cream in the big freezer for dessert.
The sound of the big guns was louder. The window panes were shivering with each impact. The power was flickering, too. Thank God for gas stoves. We'd have a hot dinner even if the power went out. The kids came in.
"Wash hands. Dinner soon."
"Can we watch tv?"
"You know the rule. No screen time during daylight hours. Go wash your hands, and then tell grandpa it's time to eat."
They left the room grumbling. I set the table and filled up water glasses. The kids went out to get Ed.
I called Al's number. No answer. Nothing unusual there. I tried Carol's cell. No answer, and that was troubling. I texted, "update me, please!"
I tried Sarah's number. She answered.
"Can't talk. We're setting tires on fire. Smoke screen for our snipers on the overpass. Mom, all these guys turned up with guns, but half of them just bought them a few years ago and never shot them at anything.Some of them think Sam and Jak and I shouldn't shoot. It's the stupid gender thing again. It's so frustrating."
"What?" The crack of gunfire, and a much bigger explosion of something.
"Got to go. Sorry." She hung up.
A moment later, my cell phone rang. Carli. "Are you home safe now?" I asked. The habitual question.
"Mom, the War has blocked the roads. I'm stuck in a line of stopped cars and soldiers are working their way down the stopped cars. They're pulling people out of their cars. Families. I can see them coming. You have to take the kids and get out of there. Head for Canada. Get across the border. Please. Go now."
"Carli, get out and run! The kids don't have passports. Where are you? What road is blocked?"
The phone went dead.
I redialed her number. Nothing. I called Carol's number. "So far, so good," she answered. "How are things down there?"
"Carli said soldiers stopped her car. Then her phone went dead."
"Oh my God," said Carol.
There was a sudden explosion outside. Two windows rushed into the house in fragments. It took me a moment to realize I was on the floor. I got to my feet, yelling for Ed. I could barely hear myself. The dogs were barking wildly but they sounded far away. I looked out the window and saw that something had landed in our field. Fruit trees I had planted thirty years ago were broken branches on the ground around a big hole in the earth. "I'm too old," I thought stupidly. "I don't have enough years left to regrow those trees."
Ed slammed the door behind him. He carried two rifles and herded the kids and dogs before him. It was hard to focus on him. He said something.
"What?" I asked him. "What?"
He shouted. "It's here. The War has come to our house."
I felt dizzy. No. I couldn't be hurt. I had to be functioning. We had only the truck. Single cab. Not enough seats. It didn't matter. "We need to load up the kids and run." And the dogs. And the cats. Let the chickens out of their pen to fend for themselves. I felt so dizzy.
"It's too late."
And I don't want to write this story anymore. I don't want my family to be in this story.
No one wants to be in this story.
Copyright 2022 Robin Hobb