I’m writing this well ahead of Friday’s end of the world, in the absolute certainty that it will be published two days later.
I’ve survived enough end-of-the-world scares to know them for what they are, ways to grab headlines, scare people and sell products. Edgar Cayce, Harold Camping, the Mayan calendar, the Ides of Looniness … we’ve survived them all and will survive more. As long as there are end-of-the-world suckers, there will be end of the world hucksters.
In Mexico, where the Mayans lived, people have told me that they didn’t predict the end of the world on Dec. 21 at all: they believed that it was the end of the age of power and the beginning of the age of knowledge. Vastly preferable.
My skepticism for dire predictions about the fate of the nation or the world began in childhood with the man my family considered to be the font of all knowledge, my eccentric Uncle Bill.
Uncle Bill was an unforgettable character. He was larger than life, partly due to his physical presence. He was a big man, tall and broad and imposing, with a personality to match. He seemed to be smarter, better informed and more articulate than anyone else. He was charming, eloquent, charismatic – and wrong about almost everything.
When Uncle Bill was on his soapbox, which he was at every opportunity, he was mesmerizing. He could tell you, and back it up with a mind-numbing array of “facts,” that the free world was in danger of being overrun by Lithuanian Druids and make it sound credible.
To my sister and me and, sadly, to our parents, his stories were never doubted until it was too late. Our family saw Uncle Bill as infallible, and paid a price for it.
Two of his doomsday yarns will live forever in my memory. The first was a bombshell dropped during a family visit to his home in California in about 1960. You can imagine the stunned reaction when the family oracle told us, with a straight face, that the Russian Communists would announce from the steps of the nation’s capital on July 4, 1963 that they had taken us over.
“We’ll be a Communist country, and they won’t have to fire a shot,” he said. “We’ll fall into their hands like a ripe plum.”
He embellished the claim with nonsense masquerading as facts, which in his defense he believed to be true. The Communists had infiltrated Hollywood, the media and the highest levels of our government. President Kennedy was, if not a Communist outright, a willing Communist sympathizer. We were virtually a Communist nation already; it had only to be announced. All any of us could do was prepare for the worst.
From that day on, our family lived in terror of the coming Communist takeover. My parents bought emergency food supplies and stored them in the basement. My father bought gold coins (because our currency would become worthless) and buried them in the crawlspace. Two lucky plumbers stumbled on them after his death and went home with a small fortune in “finders’ fees” from my grateful mother. Consideration was given to building a bomb shelter. The idea was rejected because, in the gospel according to Uncle Bill, the takeover was a fait accompli. It would require neither bombs nor bullets. My parents aged noticeably during the three-year wait for it.
The fateful July 4 came and went. The sun rose, the birds sang, America’s birthday was celebrated with parades, fireworks and – to our immense relief – stars and stripes rather than hammers and sickles. The dreaded Communist takeover prediction was never mentioned again.
The second Uncle Bill story ended very differently. A decade had passed, the Communist sympathizer JFK had been laid to rest and the paranoia that had brought nuclear warheads and bomb shelters was, if not over, subsiding. The world seemed to be a safer place.
To everyone but Uncle Bill – who I think secretly missed the Communists. Lacking them as grist for the doomsday mill, he turned to religion. It was was not a Communist takeover we now had to fear, but a chastisement from God.
The chastisement, he said, was a warmup for the end of the world. It would bring a strange darkness and kill millions of people. Only the worthy would be spared, and then only if they locked themselves up in safe places and covered their windows, like Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments.” And because of his superior intellect and diligence in obtaining “inside information,” Uncle Bill knew the chastisement’s exact date.
It was agreed that the safest place to spend the preceding night would be my sister’s house. My wife and I were by then the clan’s lone skeptics, but we went to keep the peace. My sister lived in a two-bedroom home just large enough for herself and her two boys. An evening of prayer and worry about what dire events the morning might bring ended with taping paper over the windows and flopping on couches, makeshift beds and whatever else would sleep the overflow crowd.
It was not a restful night. Lots of tossing and turning, looking at the clock and peeking outside through cracks between the papers taped over the windows. It was early morning by the time we finally fell into something approaching sleep.
You know that strange state between dozing and waking? You’re not awake, but you’re not really asleep, either? That’s where we were when it happened.
“Do you hear that?” I asked.
“Yes!” my wife replied, sounding uncharacteristically alarmed.
“Dear God! He was right, after all!”
“He was! This is it!”
We lay bug-eyed in fright, the room dimly illuminated by a spectral glow. Ghostly music was playing, an eerie blend of classical and classic horror-movie. Coming suddenly and seemingly from nowhere, in near darkness and the apocalyptic gloom concocted by you-know-who, it was terrifying.
Until we realized what it was.
The source of the ghostly glow was the radium dial on my sister’s radio alarm clock – which was also the source of the eerie music.
We laughed for a long time about that, then got up to live another day. The sun rose, the birds sang, life went on as always.
Uncle Bill is gone now, as are my parents and virtually everyone else who lived in fear of his predictions. It seems silly now that they ever believed in any of them, but they did – fervently. If they’d devoted the time and energy to other things that they spent needlessly worrying, they’d have had happier lives.
He was right about one thing, though. In one way or another, the world as we know it will end.
Don’t even think about it.