“And if it’s one thing I hate more than prophecy, it’s self-fulfilling prophecy.” –Bill Maher
Sorting Through: The End
There’s more than one way for the world to end.
Isn’t that a line from a movie? Some back-alley herald? It must be.
It has to be. Or, at least, it should be.
As We Know It
Wikipedia’s incomplete “List of Dates Predicted for Apocalyptic events” contains 159 past predictions of Apocalypse as far back as 634 B.C., when Romans feared the end of Rome due to a dozen so-called prophetic eagles. The source or claimant, via Wikipedia? “Various Romans.”
My mother made her own failed prediction on the day I was born, the same day Vanessa Williams lost her Miss America crown. My mother foretold that I would someday win back that crown. Never mind that Vanessa was the first African American winner, or that we were white folks on welfare watching her win in our government-subsidized trailer—the date overruled all. Her loss coincided with my birth, and marked the first in a long line of familial prophecies.
Since my mother’s doomed prediction on July 21, 1984, there have been approximately 50 worldwide doomsday prophecies. The ’80s were particularly busy with “end-of-days” predictions; there were lulls in 1983 and 1986, but near-death prophecies picked right back up about three months after I was born, and continued on through most of the decade. My sister Daisy arrived in 1985, the year Lester Sumrall released his book I Predict 1985 and asked his few readers, “Who will survive 1985?” (Lester’s guess was no one, naturally.) My brother Ronnie showed up two years after that, in 1987, when Leland Jensen promised apocalyptic doom by Halley’s Comet. Lester and Leland were off by approximately 21 years—my family’s world would end in 2008. Looking back, there were certainly signs, but no one prophecy that spoke of the inevitable.
This year is remarkably lacking in tales of the Apocalypse (unless you happen talk to my maternal grandpa, diehard Steelers fan, hater of communism, lover of God’s wrath, and regular Armchair Nostradamus). In all likelihood, the lack of predictions today is due in part to 2012’s abundance of imminent divinations. The most famous and widely anticipated 12/21/12 prophecy was based upon a misread (or over-interpreted) Mayan calendar. The Mayan long-form calendar, on which this prophecy was based, ended a significant cycle of time on 12/21/12; it certainly didn’t help that all of the numbers in this date were ones or twos, as conspiracy theorists and dooms-dayers love a good pattern. The website www.december122112.com admits defiantly, “NO the world did not end on December 21 2012,” but it is quick to add “you can rest assured that the prophecies have been fulfilled.” Those who gathered at Mayan ruins on the fate-less December day would leave with little more than a sunburn and a t-shirt declaring “The End of the World: I Was There.”
My brother Ronald once asked me about the Mayan calendar prophecy. He called me from the barracks in Fort Hood, Texas, at the start of 2008, just before he deployed to Iraq for the first and last time. Did he have a premonition? Did he suspect a world could end in more ways than one?
“Do you think it’s real? Are the Mayans right? Is the world going to end, Sammy?” his newly adult voice asked, octaves lower than his baby face.
“Nah. No. I doubt it,” I said, answering him as best I could from my studio apartment in New York City.
Our sister had the same questions from her naval post in Spain. Meanwhile we all wished our conspiracy-loving father (another Ronald—all of them gone now) were still alive to pick up the conversational slack.
There is a sort of glory in remembering where you were when the world changed forever, when the world ended—just before it began again. I ask my mother where she was when the Wall fell, when the Challenger exploded, when JFK was assassinated. “I was in high school when Reagan was shot,” my mother offers feebly. She doesn’t remember how she felt, or how the adults reacted, or a feeling of impending doom, just that he survived and she was in high school and it happened then.
Yet she remembers many other things, and has a tendency to invoke a colorful past: “When I was pregnant with you, I ate a lot of corn, straight from the can”; “I used to walk home from school and birds would dive at my frizzy hair”; “Your dad came in and bought a pack of Marlboros and the other 7-11 clerk said if I didn’t date him, she would.” But my mom’s not keen on reciting tragedies, at least not aloud, or outside of her room where she cries behind the closed door.
It is like naming a child, the near-holy recitation of death and destruction: you name this to bring back life; you name this to call it home; you name this to remember and never forget.
“Never Forget,” the bumper stickers exhort, and I cringe at the politics and pain; because it is both, the slogan works—it propagates a vague but undeniable hurt. Never Forget: it’s despondent and cloying, like a widow’s perfume. For my generation, 9/11 is our linchpin: our lives remembered are before and after, cause and effect. This is a day we learn there are many ways for the world to end; we discover that there are many worlds, and many ends more.
I was driving Ronnie to school the moment the first tower fell. We watched the world burn on TV from the safety of our classrooms in Fountain-Fort Carson High School (of Fountain, Colorado—the National Civic League-named All-American City of 2002), and tried to memorize the tingling in our bodies, the expressions on people’s faces, if only to recount the day for those who missed it or those too young to understand, though we were both.
“You went down. Like the Twin Towers,” my melodramatic friend said about the day, the time, the moment my husband called and told me my brother was gone, he was not coming back. We were eating at a Chili’s in Colorado. I hate Chili’s. The bill came and the phone rang and the sound of my husband’s voice was doomed. I left a credit card on the table and croaked “Not yet,” before I hustled to the parking lot to accept or deny whatever dreadful thing was coming. I would not take it in the restaurant, surrounded by bottomless chips and salsa, by gourds of margaritas.
“Ronnie…” he said into the phone.
I dropped the phone and the world dropped me, I told someone once: the predictable line plays in my mind like a broken record, a fucked-up melody. The world ended—or it should have. But the ground was still there, the black gritty tar, sun-soaked and radiating, and my best friends were there, running from Chili’s. This, a hysterical sight—run! Run from the shitty Tex-Mex and the threats of queso!—had they not been running to hoist me back up. Had they not been insisting on existence.
The limbo, there: the end, the linchpin, the semi-colon, the prophecy realized and true. It hovered, still hovers, between the second I fell and the moment they yanked me up. There is a sanctified switch, a wrinkle in time, a white noise. The death; the resurrection. Before, I am the oldest of three children. We are funny, loyal, freckled, all three. After, we are two. We are imbalanced and lost. That kind of grief—that limbo between—is a high because it is a point of no return, and then a return despite. It is the edge of a flat, flat world, and then the stumbling back.
“You saw him! You saw him!” they wept from all sides as we drove to my mom’s house, the Chili’s a punch-line, hallowed ground, behind us. I did; I had. I had seen him three times that day, April 30, 2008, and I had told my friends this just an hour before the horrific phone call. The day that he died I saw him three times before the two men in uniform came to my mother’s door, before my husband let them into the house, before my mom had only two children left. I saw him once at the 7-11, standing behind me in line, tall and broad-shouldered, grinning as he always did; I saw him in Wal-Mart, casually ambling out in front of me as I left with a bag of mascara that should have been waterproof; I saw him speed by in a blue Honda Civic, and he glanced at me through the reflection of the passenger side mirror, gave a slight nod, and then flicked a cigarette off into the sun.
He was hours dead in Iraq and at my every premonitory turn in Colorado. Why he chose to show up in convenience stores, in discount aisles, in some GI’s government-funded street racer, I cannot say. Had I not told my friends—just an hour before the call in the parking lot—that I’d seen him, three times, I would not have believed it was true.
I don’t believe in omens or prophecies, but I believe in the last of days. And when it gets too sunny in Colorado (300 days a year), I rewind—I watch myself walk out of the Chili’s. I observe the clouds race in, then halt. I see my best friends flee from chips and queso, and I try to get back to that fateful or fated car ride to my mother’s home, everyone gathered there but our Ronnie. The tragedies, the end-of-days, are slower and easy to pause, examine at length. They demand it; they are holy.
I watch my April 30th self through the windshield, convulsing in the passenger seat and clawing at the glove box, the seat belt, the suffocating oxygen: I chant his name like a password or prayer, I name him and my sister and me—three, three, I’m the oldest of three.
Seeking: White Male Prophet
The majority of failed predictions have come from aging (or aged) white men, zealots in their own right. Perhaps for some the uncertainty of death is only soothed by all-encompassing declarations. I’d ask my father why so many men have these sorts of needs, but he predicted his own early and fated death; he’d raise his glass and slur the future. A man without money, his zealotry was contained, and died with him.
Harold Camping is one of those privileged old men, a Christian radio host and evangelist, and he is unable to go long spans of time without making an “educated” or at least Biblically-motivated guess at a coming Rapture and succeeding Apocalypse. On May 21, 2011, when I was hiding out in South Korea—avoiding the reality of my brother’s death in Iraq, the echoes of my father’s not long before—dear Harold promised mass large-scale earthquakes and the taking of God’s most loyal. It was a Saturday, an inconvenient day for a Rapture; Mondays ring more appropriate as one’s last day on Earth, assuming you are one of the chosen, though my brother’s last day on Earth was a Wednesday. The Korean weather report did its part and forecasted rain, but the morning began sunny “as Hell,” my husband claimed. I called my mother long-distance. “Did you call to wish me a happy Rapture?” she asked. I wonder—what is it like to live and see your prophecy fail? Harold had been wrong before, and he’d be wrong again, and in any case, he’d be in the company of a long insufferable line of wrong white men.
And as such, we must consider the host and producer of The 700 Club and loyal supporter of misogyny, Pat Robertson. Mr. Robertson goes by “Pat” but is legally named Marion, none of which is relevant to his prediction of doom in 1982, the last year my mother would be a mother to no one, before she had one, two, three, a trinity of children (for those who are searching for signs). Robertson was also a Marine and a Senator’s son and self-proclaimed war hero; of those three titles, only two are true. Marion “Pat” Robertson never saw combat. He never fought in a war, and so he never died in war. He instead lived on to promise some kind of salvation to millions.
My Companion Bible (King James Version) is heavy, like a brick or a weapon, and has those lovely gold-edged pages that flutter like a gilded dove when you flip from cover to cover. Grandpa gave it to me in 2010, two years after Ronnie died, months before I fled to Korea to teach English, to start over. One sunny afternoon I accidentally participated in one of his religious rants, and he grew agitated and prophetic. “The red dragon will rise,” he droned. “But, you know, not an actual dragon.”
“Yes, like a metaphor,” I should not have offered.
“Metaphor!” he shouted. It’s hard for him to get back to an inside volume once he’s stuck on rant, but he calmed himself, and muttered approval at my understanding of complex words like “metaphor” and “Sodomite.” And later that month he gifted me The Companion Bible.
It was expensive, surely, as it arrived in its own sturdy box, though I doubt anyone would question its sturdiness outside of the box. I have opened it five times now, in as many years. It is a self-referential Bible—that is, not to say humorous or reflective, but instead full of footnotes and numerical references. Thanks to Grandpa, I have a Bible with its own in-page Wikipedia. Revelation CHPTS 1-6 is scrawled on a yellowing scrap of lined notebook paper waiting in the glossary, below John 1:1, and above ROMANS, GENESIS, and EZE CHP 40. He was delicate, deliberate, in choosing the passages I should read. His handwriting is steadier here than I am accustomed to seeing—it is obvious in the clarity of this particular sample of penmanship that he took great care in assigning these passages.
But I can’t bring myself to read The Companion Bible, just like I can’t bring myself to tune into the “That’s not my ARMY!” rants, the easy mixing he does between his God, his Past, his Country. “In my day the commissary wasn’t full of these men holding hands, wearing tutus!” he growls. I don’t know what commissary he shops in, but it would be more thrilling to shop with him and apologize to some imagined gay men than to listen to his preaching in the den. From the Agnostic hill from which I watch him now, it’s a teeny push and a short roll down to the Atheist plains below.
Instead of reading through The Companion Bible, I Google “Revelations,” incorrectly, it turns out; the term is actually “Revelation.” More mushroom clouds. Definitions: the act of revealing or disclosing. A map and directions to Revelations Steel LLC, and a dexknows.com customer review: “Great service, able to get all the pipe and angle I need.” One painting of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, who at one time I thought were four Norse Men. The horsemen are gaudily dressed, and I note their flamboyant attire: caped or shielded or flaming. I put the Companion Bible back on the bottom corner of my dustiest shelf, keep blankly smiling and nodding through my grandpa’s rants and prophecies.
What would he say to me then, his eldest and faithless grandchild, if he knew that I was harboring more than a bit of doubt? I can hear the harsh challenge from Grandpa, his tough love stance, his quivering lips pursed and uncompromising:
“If there is no God, where is your brother then?”
Ronnie is in Times Square on his first and last visit to New York City. It is 2007, and he wears a huge black parka in the December cold, the coat puffy and making him twice his already large size. He is 5’11” or 6’0”, and husky, not fat. He is solid. He can carry my sister and me like babies, and we laugh, hysterical at the thought of our little brother now hulking, of him carrying us. He is always, always grinning, his squinty blue eyes made smaller by a smile that reaches past his eyelids; he is open-mouthed and always laughing. This is the look on his face as we walk out of the 42nd Street station, as the Broadway bulbs and the pulsing crowds overtake us.
We rush to the center of the lights, where the ball will drop on New Year’s Eve, and he thrusts his hands into the air in a V for Victory, reaches up toward the glittering heights of the heart of New York City, his arms flung open as if ready for an embrace. He shouts then, “I’m rich, bitch!” or something else just as ridiculous, and I snap a picture of his delight. I struggle with his abandon, struggle to let him be wild because that would be an admission that he may have little time left—that he is going to war and who knows how, when, or if he’ll come back. I hold on to caution, scold him for taking a 75-dollar black SUV from JFK to my apartment instead of a 50-dollar yellow taxi; I fret over his new tattoos, the stretched cursive on his forearms pronouncing he is both “Fightin to live” and “Livin to die.”
I need you to know that our momentary—fleeting but captured—happiness overwhelms the picture I take of Ronnie in Times Square, and now it moves past the glossy edges and into some long-ago night in December 2007, two months before he leaves for the desert, four months before his twenty-first birthday, five months before the end of the world.
When you grow up in a military town, it is very easy to point to what is prescribed as a “hero.” They are your grandparents and parents, or your friend’s parents, your teachers who retired their camouflage and took up business casual; your classmates are likely to be them some day, and perhaps your spouse—hell, if the recruiters who lurk in the hallways or the cafeteria of your heavily government-funded, almost half-military/half-civilian high school are right, it could be you someday.
It could be you.
Let us linger:
- Both of my grandfathers were in the Army, having fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. My father and his brother were both enlisted. Three of these men are buried in the Fort Logan National Cemetery, though one against his will.
- There are two ways out of my hometown, two exits off of the interstate, one of which leads directly to an Army base named Fort Carson.
- Just north of our city is another city featuring two Air Force bases, one of which is home to the prestigious Air Force Academy.
- The official colors of Fountain Fort-Carson High School are red, white, and blue.
- The west-facing wall of our high school library is all glass. Through it one must gaze upon Cheyenne Mountain, and nestled at the base of the mountain is Fort Carson; a little higher up the mountain is NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Local news stations give NORAD sanctioned updates on the whereabouts of Santa on Christmas Eve. Santa is a patriot if nothing else.
But my brother Ronnie wasn’t a patriot; he wasn’t looking to be a hero. Ronnie was an average student. He didn’t like sitting still. He wanted to do things. Ronnie was not searching for rebirth or holiness or a heroic end; his decision to join the Army was a means to an end—an impoverished small-town life of continually dropping out of and re-enrolling in community college, of smoking weed and sleeping through alarm clocks—a means to an end which was more like that complex process called “growing up” that ended, rather than a beginning and then some over-simplified end.
“When Revelation was written, only God had the capacity to end the world. But now man does too,” Bill Maher says in the opening of his film Religulous. He proselytizes his atheist schtick from Megiddo, Israel—the spot to which many Christians believe Christ will return in time for the grandest finale. Maher’s speech is spliced with images of blossoming mushroom clouds on a horizon, with flashes of glorious reds and yellows and oranges burning out the blue sky.
Julius Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, died from throat cancer in 1962—a very natural death in his very own home, his very own bed. The New York Times wrote of his death (note: they did not write of my brother’s): A brilliant nuclear physicist, with a comprehensive grasp of his field, Dr. Oppenheimer was also a cultivated scholar, a humanist, a linguist of eight tongues and a brooding searcher for ultimate spiritual values. And, from the moment that the test bomb exploded at Alamogordo, N.M., he was haunted by the implications for man in the unleashing of the basic forces of the universe.
Many quotes are attributed to Oppenheimer, perhaps none more famous than the dire “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”—a phrase taken from the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text excerpted from the epic Mahabharata. In the Gita, as it is often known, the god Krishna has a straightforward, 700-verse conversation with the mortal prince Arjuna on the simpler things in life: human nature, the purpose of existence, doctrines of selfless action, the killing of one’s own kin. Krishna says that life is not what matters. Krishna says that there is no need to worry about killing kin if it is, in fact, in the name of some—or someone’s?—higher purpose.
Whatever his theological inclinations, whatever mine, Mr. Oppenheimer and his cohorts in the Manhattan Project succeeded in the following: creating enriched uranium; testing the first full-blown nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945 (a year suspiciously void of recorded apocalyptic prophecy); and effectively ending World War II by enabling the United States to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first—and thus far only—use of a wartime nuke in recorded history.
These days, explosions manifest on a smaller scale.
Improvised Explosive Devices are common enough to be known in acronym form, and can be detonated by cell phone or computer, remote controls, magnets, all from a distance. They are designed for use against armored vehicles, and designed with enough power to penetrate the formerly indestructible, to get through personnel carriers and tanks to reach the people inside. An IED can wait, hidden, by the side of a road in the desert. It can be set off by a 21-year-old “insurgent”; it can explode beneath the armored vehicle of a 21-year-old “soldier.” It can start a chain-reaction whereby whole blocks of cities and lives are disintegrated, clay and mortar and ash and bone, so people can tell other people, “We caught him, we got the bad guy.”
Apocalypse Now, or Later
The apocalyptic film genre has nearly doubled in every decade since the fifties. Apes have prevailed in some, airborne viruses in others, and throughout all the nukes have waited in the wings. Some are lazily literal (I must say, my brother and father would have delighted in Mayan prophecy come true in 2012, with dizzying 3-D tsunamis and a collapsing Everest), while most fail without Will Smith at the helm.
It is, perhaps, an obvious thing to trace apocalypse movie plotlines through the decades, as they act as projection or reflection of their surrounding realities. And yet, in all their distorted portrayals of the world of which they were borne, there is something to be said for each generation’s version of imminent doom. 1950s classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and War of the Worlds improbably sent extraterrestrials in to do the job, but managed subtle (or not) thematic revelations under style; these films offered waves of Christian parallels, McCarthyist commentaries, and Nature—with a capital “N”—set to prevail over Martians rather than man-made atomic bombs.
In subsequent decades, threats of Earth-bound Armageddon surpassed science fiction. When war became the norm and not the exception, the apocalyptic film genre—yes—exploded. Kubrick himself managed nuclear satire in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb. In the classic film, a man rides the bomb like a cowboy on a bull, a desperate new cowboy on a frantically changing frontier; at the finale, the good doctor miraculously walks out of his wheelchair—just prior to complete nuclear holocaust.
Bombs and aliens are dated these days; zombies are Hollywood’s newest It-Girl. George A. Romero’s iconic black and white Night of the Living Dead was only the first cult classic in a long line of the reanimated. The Zs have moved from Voodoo-resurrected corpses to the slightly intelligent, brain-devouring infected. They can run fast now, and are at times capable of regenerative romance. They recruit most of us in 28 days, and sometimes they force us to kill our loved ones, watch them die once more. In pop culture, the undead lurch in comic books, actual books, literature (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), television shows, board games, video games, pop music, and zombie-themed 5K charity runs. It is troubling to analyze what they reflect about us, those walking dead. It is a rotten thing, and yet a thing we have numbly embraced—we are the zombies—and a thing, a place, wherein we ourselves are the end.
Most apocalyptic movies—be it monster, bomb, or man—focus their plot just before the destruction of mankind, or else—more commonly—they roam the aftermath. Audiences want to see the cause, that which might have been prevented. I suspect they want to witness the effects to assess their own chances of survival. Some men just want to watch the world burn; I’d venture most of them are more interested in putting the fire out.
The Show Must
Oh, Harold Camping, oh back-alley Herald! The world did not cease on May 21, 2011—the first time I was old enough or aware enough to appreciate a good impending Rapture or Apocalypse, three years since the death of my brother—although at times I suspected it could end. It was the end of my first year of living in Korea, so why not the end of all of my years?
We practiced As You Like It in the park, me a red-haired Rosalind, my husband the dashing, goateed Orlando. A fog rolled in over the bay and crept up over the amphitheater stage as a small group of Koreans gathered to watch our white faces create community! theatre! (which is, for some, a fitting vision of hell). An armored black centipede slid through the grass as I studied my lines, and so, I admitted, we, the good of us, the chosen—though what if I am not?—would soon cease to exist. Six inches long and sinister, the centipede was only a little less horrifying than the sulfuric tones of the public restrooms stage right. And there, stage right—where an elderly Korean man waited, dead drunk in the bushes, or simply dead.
O Herald! We thought the end was nigh when an undulating thunder roared over the hill towards our insubstantial acting troupe, but it was just a Korean biker gang. And though we were in the future, my mother’s world did not end (once more) in her American time zone, and you, dear Herald, changed our last day to October 21st instead.
And besides—You! Messenger Camping, could not, could never end what already had to begin again, a world ended on April 30, 2008, the day the best of us was already taken, the day we got the knock at the door and found my brother would not be coming back. And so we went on—we go on—past prophecy, as the show must; we recite our lines and aspire to The Globe.
Under Wikipedia’s “List of Dates Predicted for Apocalyptic Events,” there is a warning, in wary italics: This is an incomplete list, which may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness.
Wikipedia suggests I remedy this, that I can help—I must expand this list with my own reliably-sourced entries.
I visit the veteran memorial, The Wall of Honor, in Fountain, my red-white-and-blue hometown; I cannot deny the veil of fate I must brush out of my eyes to see his name carved in stone. That low brick wall with all of their names on it, those who served and retired and passed, those who served and died while doing so, Ronnie’s name on two separate bricks—one purchased by my mother, and the other by some anonymous person who watches and recognizes our loss, our end, and validates our need to question and despair.
And so that loss is not our own. It belongs to many people, and many others still. It will not be satisfied.
It is yours, if you will have it.