On the evening of Jan. 16, 1991, I sat between my fiancé, Michael, and my father on a coral-silk brocade couch in Palm Beach as we watched television in my aging uncle’s claustrophobically small and poorly air-conditioned living room. We were in Florida to celebrate my 34th birthday earlier that week and to introduce Michael to my uncle, my father’s older brother.
We’d returned from what was, for the three of us Northerners, a very early dinner and what was, for my uncle, a very late one. My uncle wanted to check the weather — which is what folks who live in Florida do during the winter to reassure themselves that the rest of the country is in constant misery — and President H.W. George Bush appeared.
Broadcasting from the Oval Office, Bush sat behind the desk and, looking directly into the camera, explained, “attacks are underway” against Iraq. They had begun, he told us, a few hours earlier.
At dinner a few hours earlier, I’d been nervous about ordering the shrimp special because I wasn’t sure how much it cost, and I knew Michael and I would be picking up the tab. We’d just moved into the house we were attempting to buy back home, renting until we could afford to make an offer. The difference between a $12 entrée and a $24 one seemed monumental, but I was too embarrassed to ask the server for the price. I ordered a cheaper pasta dish instead.
And now Bush was explaining that “28 nations — countries from five continents, Europe and Asia, Africa, and the Arab League — have forces in the Gulf area standing shoulder to shoulder against Saddam Hussein,” in order to force him to leave Kuwait. We watched as reporters from CNN showed us American and allied planes bombing Baghdad.
It was, quite simply, terrifying, although the rush of cold through my bones didn’t prevent me from thinking I should have ordered the shrimp. If we were going to war — or if, as the president seemed to be saying, we were already at war — then I should have had the special. Who knows what would happen next?
What happened next, however, is what made the details of that night indelible: The electricity went out in my uncle’s house.
For maybe four seconds, I was certain our country was being bombed. I thought Washington, D.C., had been destroyed; I thought we were next.
Then, the electricity flickered back on, and as if blinking its eyes, the TV screen went to gray stripes and then back to the night’s highly irregular programming, showing lights screaming across the sky half a world away.
We all laughed uneasily. My father made a bad joke about dying in the Sunshine State. My uncle, focused as ever, failed to find the weather on any station and so announced he was going to bed.
Michael and I bought the house later in 1991 and were married in the living room. My uncle passed away, and I assume he is in a warm place. Several years later, my father died (but not in the Sunshine State, to his great satisfaction).
While many things have changed, some things haven’t changed enough.
Here I am during another birthday week, and we’re watching the news as yet another American president talks about the possibility of waging war in the Middle East.
It’s President Trump this time, speaking from the Grand Foyer of the White House, surrounded by senior military in full-dress uniforms as if to prove he had support from other parts of the U.S. government — despite the fact that he acted without congressional approval before killing Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani.
Compared to Trump, Bush now seems articulate and trustworthy. At least Bush saw citizens and not ratings when he looked into the camera and made decisions informed by history and international law.
Although 29 years have passed, I remember my realization that night in Palm Beach that others would endure a lifetime defined by such moments of chaos and terror.
And I know, just as surely as I know I should have ordered the shrimp, that some kid sitting next to her father today will, in 29 years’ time, remember this week and will share my aging worries.
But I hope she has nothing more to worry about than the weather.
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books.