They sat side by side, these men who had spent their professional lives pointing nuclear missiles at each other, inside the windowless room at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. Officers of the U.S. Space Command and their Russian counterparts had gathered, the day before New Year's Eve, to keep the world from ending: together they would monitor the early-warning system so that no Y2K-befuddled computer would mistakenly signal an ICBM launch, precipitate an all-too-real response and make this a really short millennium. Russian Lt. Col. Viktor Grigorenko kept glancing nervously from his desktop computer to the wall clock showing the time in Moscow. "Three minutes" to midnight, someone called out. "Two minutes..." And then, as the room fell silent, the officers stared at the TV screen showing the first fireworks arcing over Red Square in the final seconds of the old millennium. Three Russians in the room grabbed their hot lines to Moscow. "One minute..." And then it came: rollover to 2000. After listening to the report from home, the senior Russian broke into a grin: midnight had marched from Petropavlovsk to Moscow without a single major Y2K disaster. As the officers shook hands, fireworks turned the gables and onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral into a resplendent phantasm.
It was that kind of night. In counterpoint to the 10, 9, 8... prefacing the pop of champagne corks and the rainbow bursts of fireworks, there was a parallel countdown: three, two, one... exhale.
Every New Year's Eve inspires a jumble of contradictory feelings--a yearning for an ever-receding past, apprehension about an unknown future, nostalgia, hope, memories and dreams. But the eve of this millennium outdid all other new year eves in uneasy contrasts. Even as pumped-up crowds gathered in Times Square, Coast Guard helicopters hovered over Manhattan. Even as celebrants stocked up on party hats, they laid in a supply of batteries. Even as the first seconds of 2000 fell upon Kiritimati and Tonga, it was impossible to hear a radio or television broadcast, read a newspaper or even have a casual conversation without being bombarded with warnings about New Year's Eve mayhem. On this calendar turn as on no other, a specter haunted the celebrants. New Year's Eve, it seemed, could be hijacked either by terrorists or by the Y2K computer bug.
But as 11:59 flipped into 12:00 across the 24 time zones of the world, you could almost hear the soft pffft of air going out of the alarmists' balloon. The lights stayed on in Sydney. The phones rang in Vladivostok. The traffic lights worked in Cairo. The crowd of 2 million at the luminous Brandenburg Gate partied joyously, safely. And as countries that seemed least prepared to weather Y2K did so without so much as a need to reboot, it became clear that the United States, too, would evade the new year demons. The worst of the glitches were on the order of key cards' not working at a few nuclear power plants (the problem was fixed immediately), and Amtrak train signals' not showing up properly on controllers' screens (they entered the data manually). Oh, and wind-shear detectors went out at six U.S. airports (there was no wind shear anyway).
It was not only the cyberthreat that was missing in action. In time zone after time zone, terrorists held their fire (though thieves stole a Cezanne landscape from a museum in Oxford, England, as the streets outside throbbed with celebrating crowds). Doomsday cultists refrained from mass suicide. Presented with such slim pickings, the press struggled to find signs of disaster--and came up only with a drunk who electrocuted himself on a light pole in Las Vegas, an 11-year-old wounded by a bullet fired into the sky in Los Angeles, a bomb threat in Anchorage, Alaska, and a handful of fireworks deaths in Italy, the Netherlands and elsewhere. And so, mercifully spared anything more global, the world partied on.
Hong Kong staged an $8 million blowout for which high-tech tycoon Richard Li flew in Whitney Houston, Sister Sledge and others to entertain 1,000 celebrants. Five mock UFOs landed on a rooftop in downtown Seoul and deposited several friendly "aliens" as light beams blazed from the ships. Havana's Tropicana hotel was hopping like at no time since Batista.
Not every celebration was an over-the-top extravaganza, however. Yes, with 11 glittering Ferris wheels along the Champs-Elysees and a diademed Eiffel Tower, Paris surpassed its appellation as the City of Light and became a city of enchantment. But South Africa held its official celebration, with dancers of every race, on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 19 years, as if to underline that we forget the past at our peril. And yes, Cairo did greet its seventh millennium with a rollicking concert and light show at the Pyramids. But in Bethlehem 2,000 white doves of peace flew into the night sky to the strains of "Ode to Joy" and the theme from "2001," and in Derry, Northern Ireland, the voices of 2,000 Protestants and Roman Catholics filled the air with the melancholy strains of "Danny Boy."
Still, for all the revelry, in cities where a public bash had come to seem a matter of civic duty, fear or prudence cast a pall over the party. Radio hosts in Portland, Ore., joked about stealing the Space Needle from Seattle, which had canceled its celebration in the face of terrorism fears, but the 15,000 Portlanders who filled the colonnaded square were surrounded by cops with billy clubs and guns. Metal detectors, from Barbra Streisand's Vegas concert to a Detroit Red Wings game, were as de rigueur as noisemakers. Most people--more than anyone predicted when entrepreneurs laid plans for concerts and parties earlier this year--avoided large public gatherings. Doomsday predictions kept the crowd on the Las Vegas Strip below last year's 410,000. Thousands decided not to travel (airlines canceled scores of flights). And those who did venture out had continuous reminders that the night was far from carefree: sharpshooters on rooftops kept a wary eye on the 2 million people who jammed Times Square and environs. Other New York police carried anthrax-antidote kits in case of a bioweapons attack. At the Pyramids, security came in the form of antiaircraft guns as well as cops on camels.
The mark of status was not an invitation to the most exclusive party, anyway, but being needed at the office. Joining the usual crew of cops and ER doctors working or on call New Year's Eve were hospital administrators, bankers and emergency teams from virtually every American city. Microsoft president Steve Ballmer and 6,000 other 'softies were at work or on call; so were CEO Louis Gerstner and tens of thousands of other IBMers. Every single one of Israel's 25,000 police officers was on duty Friday night. To show her faith that planes would not fall from the sky when the system with which global aviation keeps time (Greenwich Mean Time, or "Zulu time" in the vernacular) rolled over to midnight, Federal Aviation Administrator Jane Garvey was about 30,000 feet over the Mississippi River en route from Dallas to San Francisco.
As each time zone crossed into 2000, it seemed to be waving back to those bringing up the rear in 1999: come on, the future isn't as scary as you were led to believe. For one night, at least, the world was on its best behavior. The confetti is now litter, the champagne is flat and the lasers are off. The sun has risen on a new century, but the midnight celebrations will go on as long as there are memories, symbols of the hope we can once again try to find in tomorrow.