On Shaky Ground from Issue 97
My mental image of “home” will always be the bedroom that my older brother and I shared in the late 1950s on the second floor of a bungalow on East Sandusky Street in Findlay, Ohio. The house was at the very edge of town; our window revealed the Hancock Hybrids warehouse and silos—and beyond those, a tabletop of cornfields that stretched as far as the eye could see.
Every Midwesterner knows that terrible things can blow in from wide open spaces like that: a tornado perhaps, or if you had a staunchly Methodist grandmother, “the hand of God”—and who’s to say that one can’t be the agent of the other? Grandma’s phrase surely accounted for a recurring dream that I had in that room. I would be gazing out the window when the postcard-blue sky began to turn gray and an approaching shadow slowly transformed the cornfields from green to black. Once everything was pitch dark, a gleaming fissure suddenly opened in the sky and a huge hand appeared, poised to reach downward. This, I figured, was the proverbial hand of God—though today I’d call it a tornado theologized by a boy-Methodist.
That room also hosted its share of pleasant dreams: flying on a magic-carpet bed to exotic places like New York and London, hitting homeruns for the Detroit Tigers, or finding treasures in an Egyptian tomb. I learned that I could increase the odds of having good dreams like these by staring at certain bedside objects before turning off the lamp: a world map taped to the wall, a collection of baseball cards, a picture of King Tut clipped from the Toledo Blade and glued to a piece of plywood.
My bed, satisfyingly wedged under an eave, sat in a cozy triangle defined by the wall, the slanted ceiling, and a desk. The need to defend this space was constant. My brother had a million hobbies, and all his stuff —radio parts, HO-scale trains, and back issues of Popular Science—was constantly spilling over into my side of the room. A second spot, more exclusively mine, was in a closet that faced south: its dormer window and broad sill made it a perfect place to sit, snug between hanging winter coats while drawing or reading. Despite the hand-of-God nightmare, I knew that tornadoes wouldn’t come from the east, but from the southwest. This made the closet an ideal vantage point for watching out for them on stormy days.
* * *
We lived in that house for thirteen years, from 1952 to 1965. Built in 1920, it last sold—all 995 square feet of it—in 2004 for $40,000. The Internet tells me that its current value is $63,000. I might have paid that just to enter it again, were it not for the fact that this lifelong dream came true for free during a rare trip back to Findlay in the summer of 2006. As I drove by and spotted two men around my age sitting on the front porch, I summoned my courage, pulled over, and struggled to find an original way to say “I grew up in this house.” Those were my exact words, of course, and after a brief chat with the owner and the other man, who turned out to be his brother-in-law, I was invited to come in and look around.
Though the house felt surprisingly small, everything was pretty much as I remembered it: the shapes and locations of the rooms, the direction and slant of the light, the color and grain of the hardwood floors. As I slowly grasped the reality of where I was standing, the house began to fill up with friendly ghosts. In the front room my father, then 89 and living with my mother in an assisted-living facility in Columbus, rematerialized as he looked in his mid-forties, reading the Toledo Blade in his recliner. At that moment my brother could have been mowing his lawn in Greenville, South Carolina, but here he was again, practicing his lessons on the old piano that once occupied the dining room. When I peered into my parents’ bedroom, I could almost see my mother folding laundry on the bed.
As I made my way up the staircase that I had tumbled down when I was five or six, my grandparents appeared, as they had on that day, to see if I was all right. My sister, divorced and living in a Columbus suburb, was once again lying on her bed, surrounded by stuffed animals and chatting on a Princess phone. My brother popped up a second time in our old room, assembling a model train. All of this was pleasant enough, in an eerie way, but when I peered into the bedroom closet, an odd feeling of guilt swept over me. It was as if I were invading my own childhood privacy: for an instant I wondered if that kid ever sensed the presence of his fifty-six-year-old self looming behind him and watching him draw. When I turned to leave, I noticed that the fields beyond the Hancock Hybrids warehouse were now dotted with houses.
During my tour the current owner seemed mildly uncomfortable. And why not? Not only was a complete stranger traipsing through his house, but that stranger was a ghost—an errant spirit who did not belong in this place anymore. Maybe I reminded him that someday he would be a ghost here, too.
* * *
The temporal disorientation that I felt upon re-entering that house underscores the fluidity of time and place—and also, of course, of us as we move through both, usually forward but sometimes looping back for another look that is never the same as the first look. It’s a cliché to say that places abide while people come and go, but the stability of places as they exist in our minds obscures the fact that they have lives of their own. Places come and go, too.
I may have sensed this when I was eight and saw, for the first time, a place that wasn’t a place anymore. My brother’s obsession with trains had led him to investigate a crumbling pylon in the nearby fairgrounds. Suspecting that it had once supported a railroad trestle, he found an 1887 map in the public library that identified the abandoned line as a spur of the old Cincinnati, Sandusky, and Cleveland Railroad. The map revealed something else that had vanished: a village named Huber. Apparently, a ghost town lay just three miles from our house.
One Saturday my brother and I hiked the faint rise of the old roadbed as it led out into the countryside. Where it passed through small stands of trees, rotted ties and coal cinders marked a clear path; in cornfields it was nearly invisible. As we tip-toed past cattle and skirted farmyards to pick up the roadbed on the other side, my head teemed with TV images of Western ghost towns. I was certain that we would find another Deadwood or Tombstone—but when we finally reached Huber, there were no abandoned saloons or creaky boardwalks, just more fields and a county road with a bump where the tracks had crossed it. Near the drainage ditch we kicked up several rusted, square-bodied nails. Although the earth had reclaimed Huber with stunning efficiency, those nails revealed that the historical slate is rarely wiped totally clean—a fact confirmed by the presence of two or three faint rectangles in the ground: the foundations of someone’s abandoned dream.
My brother had found the name of one of Huber’s dreamers in an old commercial directory: William T. Callahan had operated the general store. I made it a point to stand in the middle of each rectangle. How else could I be certain of connecting with someone who had just become a friendly ghost? When I wondered out loud if Mr. Callahan had died here, in the middle of nowhere, my brother assured me that he had simply moved on when the railroad shut down, probably to a bigger and better store in Findlay.
* * *
Immediately after touring our old house, I made the short drive to the Hancock County fairgrounds, where barns, grandstands, stretches of wild grass, and a small stand of trees had provided us neighborhood kids with endless adventures. Our favorite spot was a low-lying concrete culvert that crossed Lye Creek. Although the pylon that had pointed the way to Huber was gone, the culvert was still there—and as I drove across it, Lye Creek was at its usual sedate trickle. My friends and I used to spend hours lying face down here, peering into the water and grabbing anything of interest that floated by: empty cigarette packs, Dixie cups, old rags, and a variety of fish and small animals. Most of these creatures were dead, but occasionally one of them would jerk to life in our hands, startling us with its muscular wriggling. The rats that occasionally floated by weren’t playing dead, but some of the garter snakes were—and a few of them bit us.
The creek offered other appealing risks, including the possibility of losing a prized toy. A favorite game involved placing two or three toy soldiers in a plastic soapdish upstream, then racing back to the culvert to rescue them before they rushed beneath it and shot into a deeper, inaccessible part of the creek. I did not grieve for the armymen that I lost this way so much as I envied them. Wouldn’t they eventually drift into the Maumee and then downstream to Toledo, where they would sail out into Lake Erie and the wider world?
As I stared at the culvert it occurred to me that my most vivid memory of this place was not of this place at all, but of the Toledo harbor. What’s more, that memory was the product of my imagination, not my senses. The image of a soapdish of armymen drifting past Toledo’s port remained clearer in my mind’s eye than anything that I ever snatched from Lye Creek, including the real-life snakes that bit me.
* * *
Places persist in memory not so much for what we once encountered there, but for what our imaginations made of the encounter. Those armymen suggest this, and so does my old tornado dream: something I that never actually saw through that bedroom window now seems more real than everything I did. Maybe the unseen, scary thing stuck with me because it held more appeal: whenever the town’s storm siren sounded and our family scrambled down to the southwest corner of the basement, the excitement was palpable.
I must have craved the scary kind of excitement the day I begged my brother to drive me out to an isolated county cemetery to see the fabled Carey Tombstone. Legend had it that a man had strangled his wife: years later, after he died, their faces mysteriously appeared on their shared stone. When we finally found the stone, it did not disappoint. Black marbling traced the profile of a woman with wild, streaming hair; her bony hand reached toward the neck of a man whose face was bisected by the stone’s left edge. Clearly, this was a story of revenge from beyond the grave. Although the stone had supposedly been replaced several times, I was told that the faces kept reappearing—and each time, the hand inched closer to the man’s throat. Looking at those faces proved to be a lot more frightening than hearing a storm siren. The instant I saw them, I was sorry that we had come: for months afterwards I had nightmares about them.
At this moment I am studying a photograph of the Carey Tombstone that I found on a website devoted to Ohio oddities. Although the lines on the stone’s surface correspond vaguely to what I remember seeing, the faces are surprisingly indistinct: you have to work fairly hard to see the woman, and the man is a mere tangle of lines. What’s more, I had the story all wrong. According to the website, most people saw the hand reaching for the woman’s neck, not the man’s. The photo bears this out: far from taking her revenge, she’s getting strangled all over again.
Because the website dates the photograph to 1958, the year of my ill-conceived pilgrimage, this must be what I actually saw: so much for the recollections of an eight-year-old. But what about those of a seventeen-year-old? I recently called my brother to ask what he remembered, and he did not recall seeing the man or the hand—just the woman, who was “definitely screaming.” He was positive about this. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the woman in the photo has no discernible mouth.
Whatever we did or did not see that day, the Carey Tombstone was destined, like Huber, to become a non-place. In a story that the Toledo Blade ran in 1970 on the day before Halloween, the descendants of the “strangled” woman explained that there had been no murder. The stone itself had generated the story, along with the frequent vandalism of nearby stones over the years. When the family and the cemetery administrators had finally had enough, the top of the infamous stone—the part containing the faces—was lopped off, and the couple’s names and dates were re-cut on the remaining stump.
* * *
Like most children in post-war America, I learned about the persistent impact that the past exerts on places from the Indians. Thanks to the same TV westerns that fired my hopes regarding Huber, Indians exerted so powerful an influence on Fifties kids that it was hard to accept the fact that they were gone. We were told, of course, that they had moved on, like William T. Callahan, to bigger and better forests—or in the case of northwest Ohio, to any forests. The farmers who drained what was then called the Great Black Swamp and cleared the trees had been devastatingly thorough: the miles of cornfields that I could see through my bedroom window bore ample witness to that.
The irony of playing Cowboys and Indians among rows of corn was lost on my friends and me. Wouldn’t fifty acres of hybrid corn be the last place on earth to find a cowboy or an Indian, let alone be one? We played anyway, transforming the place where we were into an imagined approximation of what it used to be: a thick, humid forest teeming with hunters and gatherers padding stealthily along in moccasins.
The only nearby spot that had apparently remained unchanged since the Indian days was the small woods in the fairgrounds, where I routinely kept an eye out for Indian campsites in a stubborn attempt, I suppose, to reverse time’s flow. My fantasy, as compelling as it was unlikely, was to stumble upon the Last of the Wyandottes, who would be surviving—as I imagined it—by pilfering ears of corn from the Hancock Hybrids silos and roasting them in these very woods. Late one afternoon I actually found a campsite there, but it belonged to a hobo who yelled “Git!” when he showed up carrying dead branches for a fire. As I made my sullen way home, I was convinced that the Last of the Wyandottes would have been nicer: he might even have shared his corn with me.
* * *
I now suspect that I found Indians so appealing because they gave my place a recognizable past. They were about the only thing that did: although I enjoyed learning about history at school, the events that we studied were always happening somewhere else, like Rome or Boston. Julius Caesar and Paul Revere never made it to Ohio, but the Indians assuredly had—and this fact made them irresistible.
A real Indian site lay not too far from Findlay: the Olentangy Indian Caverns. I must have been ten or eleven when our family stopped there on our way to visit my brother, then a sophomore at Ohio State. We were probably studying Greek mythology at school, because I remember thinking of the Caverns as Ohio’s entrance to “The Underworld.” It made perfect sense that the Buckeye Underworld would be populated not by ancient Greeks, but by Indians.
Our guide, a girl who looked to be around my brother’s age, brightly assured me that yes, this was a genuine Indian site. Before being shipped off to a reservation in Kansas in the 1840s, the Wyandottes had gathered in these subterranean chambers to hold powwows, make arrowheads, and hide from enemies. This being the Buckeye Underworld, however, I imagined the Caverns as a vast tomb: a gathering place for dead Indians, not living ones. Inching my way along the roped-off path, I was careful not to brush against the cave walls for fear of dislodging a rock and exposing an Indian skeleton. Strangely, I don’t recall being frightened so much as mesmerized: Indian ghosts were even more mysterious than regular ghosts.
I’ve checked, and the small shed that afforded our entry into the Olentangy Indian Caverns has been replaced by a faux-woodsy “Trading Post.” Also new are some nature trails, a facility for family “gem mining,” and a miniature golf course with Indian-themed obstacles and hazards. Current admission is $9.50 for adults and $6.95 for children between seven and sixteen; at those prices, my father would surely have kept driving to Columbus. Still, commerce has not blunted the mystery of this place. According to the Caverns’ website, many underground passages and levels are yet to be explored.
The same cannot be said for the fairgrounds woods; during my stop at the Lye Creek culvert, I noticed that the trees had been completely cleared. My fantasies of finding an Indian campsite were not entirely absurd, however, because I’ve learned that there actually was a Last of the Ohio Wyandottes. As late as the 1930s, an old man named Bill Moose Crowfoot was occasionally spotted camping along the Scioto and Olentangy rivers near Columbus. I missed him by only four counties and twenty years.
* * *
What our imaginations impose on a place can be so powerful that what lies before our eyes nearly disappears: at such times we can find ourselves standing in one place but seeing another. At Lye Creek I visualized toy soldiers bobbing through Toledo—but one time when I was actually in Toledo, what I mostly saw was the mountainous desert across the Nile from Luxor. This experience of being both in and not in Toledo took place when I was twelve and a modest collection of Tutankhamen artifacts came to the Toledo Museum of Art. I rarely asked to be taken anywhere, but this was different: when would genuine ancient Egyptian objects ever get this close to me again?
Before the construction of Interstate 75, family trips to Toledo—usually to visit the zoo—necessitated taking the two-lane Route 68 north and dealing with the many close calls prompted by drivers eager to pass slower cars. Visiting the zoo was always fun, but the ordeal of getting there and back had made me a reluctant traveler.
When desire is strong enough, however, it can conquer fear even in a rabbity kid. One Saturday my mother braved the hazards of Route 68, dropped me off at the museum, and did some shopping. This was not indifferent parenting: I had insisted on seeing the Tutankhamen exhibit alone because I didn’t want to have to keep explaining to her the intricacies of ancient Egypt. I also sensed—correctly, as it turned out—that this pilgrimage demanded privacy: seeing that show felt more like worship than anything I had ever experienced at church. As I inched my way through the exhibit, it was easy to imagine sweat dripping from Howard Carter’s moustache as he pulled object after object from the sweltering darkness of Tut’s tomb so that I could see it. As I gazed at a miniature gold coffin that once held the king’s viscera, convinced that I was looking at the most beautiful thing in all of Ohio, I forgot all about the dangerous drive home that lay ahead.
Toledo was almost always worth the trip: our Gotham, Sorbonne, and Xanadu rolled into one, the city seemed impossibly huge. There was the zoo, of course, but also the tall buildings downtown, an amusement park called Maumee Kiddieland, and the vast Libby-Owens plant that gave Toledo its nickname: the Glass City. The fact that all our TV channels were based there made it seem as if Toledo contained the whole world. And yet, my most vivid memory from all of our family trips there is being transported to the Valley of the Kings during Egypt’s eighteenth dynasty.
* * *
I’m starting to believe that there’s no such thing as a place that cannot also be, depending on who sees it and when, every other place on earth. If I ever fulfill another lifelong dream and visit Egypt, who knows what my mind’s eye will see while I’m standing at a Luxor pier, waiting to board a ferry across the Nile to visit Hatshepsut’s temple and the Valley of the Kings?
My guess is that I’ll be seeing Toledo. Evidence for this dates from several years ago, when I was teaching a three-week course in northern Italy. Turin’s Egyptian Museum contains the world’s largest collection of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo: how could I not spend my first free day taking a train there? When would I ever get this close to genuine ancient Egyptian objects again?
Immediately after arriving at Turin’s Porta Nuova station, I began asking passers-by a well-rehearsed question: Mi scusi, dov’è il Museo Egizio, per piacere? People kept pointing me in the right direction until there it was: a place that I had heard of all my life but never expected to see. Too excited to notice the ticket booth in the lobby, I rushed into the first gallery without a ticket. As the guard gently directed me back to the booth, it dawned on me that after my first week in Italy, my most frequently used phrase had become Mi dispiace!—“I’m sorry!”
As I made my way through room after room filled with objects familiar from pictures that I had studied as a child, the anxieties of a still-reluctant traveler melted away. The high point was the half-hour I spent with one of the museum’s most famous possessions: a colossal seated statue of Rameses the Great holding the shepherd’s crook that symbolized his protection of his people.
Gazing up at the pharaoh’s serene face, I was transported back to that other Saturday nearly half a century ago, when Tutankhamen’s treasures had prompted a risky trip to the Glass City. I suddenly realized that I had come to Turin less for me than for the boy-Egyptomaniac who was still wandering through the Toledo Museum of Art. Flying across the Atlantic would have frightened that kid even more than the drive north on Route 68—but he would have found the trip well worth it while gazing at the seated Rameses whose picture he had seen a hundred times. I could almost sense this boy standing beside me, wishing that I would go away so he could savor the moment without having to explain anything to me.
* * *
Wherever we are, we eventually move on. Rameses the Great did—and so did William T. Callahan and those toy soldiers sailing into Lake Erie. As it turns out, the Wyandottes were just passing through, too: they had originally come to Ohio from Ontario. What’s not so obvious is that our cherished places move on as well. The fact that other people continue to inhabit them makes these places pursue their own willful narratives, oblivious to our wish that they would just stay put. When it comes to topography, Heraclitus’s river never stops flowing: there’s no stability in the shaky ground on which we think we stand.
When I entered that exhibit in Toledo, it felt as if I were standing on holy ground. But Tut’s artifacts had already visited fifteen other venues, most recently the Detroit Institute of Arts. Toledo was their last stop before returning to Cairo—and the space where I saw them would soon get re-sanctified in different ways for other visitors with a taste for, say, Benin bronzes, Whistler drawings, or stacked Brillo boxes. Even “permanent” exhibits refuse to stand still. At this very moment, someone is probably finding Turin’s colossal Rameses anything but calming: who could feel calm in the presence of an artifact stolen from a country whose treasures were systematically looted by Europeans? Although that person’s Egyptian Museum would definitely not be mine, our two Hubers would surely have more in common: as Gertrude Stein never said, a cornfield is a cornfield is a cornfield.
And what about that East Sandusky Street house, the one with an uncanny ability to bend time to the point of making a long-gone family rematerialize? I would be nice for its story to have ended with my visit—but didn’t I say that places keep pursuing their own willful narratives? Two summers later, a teenage boy got into a fight at the local Pizza Hut and sped off in someone else’s car. As he raced out of town on East Sandusky, he lost control and plowed into the house, just below my parents’ bedroom window. He was reportedly doing about seventy when he ran off the road.
Unaware that he had severed a gas line, a fact that prompted a 90-minute evacuation of the neighborhood, the boy ran from the scene only to be arrested several hours later at home, sleeping off a night to remember. Neither of us chose this, but one of my significant places had just become one of his: that boy and I are joined at the hip forever. In the midst of all this topographic flux, one thing is certain: if he ever feels the impulse to reflect on the important places of his youth, his East Sandusky Street story will be entirely different from mine.
The Sense of an Ending: Farewell to the Apocalypse from Issue 88
A perfect storm of apocalyptic expectation lay beneath the bright surfaces of American life in the late Fifties. Despite the upbeat vibe of the polio vaccine, TV dinners, and the burgeoning suburbs, a pervasive fear of nuclear attack gave disturbing concreteness to the phrase “the end of the world.” Those of us who were children then still hear that phrase with a keenly remembered blend of terror and excitement. How can we not, when we first confronted it as a real possibility? Whenever we practiced the now-infamous school drill to “duck and cover” by crouching under our desks and burying our heads in our arms, our teachers’ faces showed that this was no joke. In reality, of course, it was: even we kids sensed the futility of the exercise. I remember wondering why we had to die in so uncomfortable a position.
My playmates and I were fairly certain that Findlay, Ohio, contained nothing that the Russians would consider worth bombing. Toledo, however, lay only fifty miles to the north: didn’t its industrial glass factories make it a certain target? We all agreed on how an attack on Toledo would affect us. First we would see a blinding flash of light in the north, and for a few seconds we would resemble X-Rays. Then we’d vaporize, like the victims of that Martian death-ray in the movie “War of the Worlds” — unless we happened to be in a basement, in which case we’d survive for a day or two while our fingers fell off. We knew that the president would go into an underground bunker. So would the rich families in town, all of whom had bomb shelters – or so we believed. Nobody on our street had one, so one day we decided to make an elaborate, multi-family shelter in a vacant lot. After spending several hours digging a hole suitable for a shallow grave or two, we gave up and resigned ourselves, at best, to dying fingerless beside our mothers’ washing machines.
You might think that the prospect of nuclear annihilation would make us hide under our beds all day, but it didn’t. Although the Bomb was scary, it was also interesting. For kids living in a small town where nothing much seemed to happen, it fostered the thrill of an imagined cessation of everyday routines: no more casseroles, Saturday night baths, or school. We rehearsed this future by setting plastic armymen on fire and watching them melt. We also immolated cities of milk cartons and cardboard boxes while burning the day’s trash in backyard oil drums.
Most of all, we played an ongoing game of “What Would You Do?” Would you ride your bike downtown and loot the candy store for one last riot of excess? Or would you grab a Boy Scout handbook and some Spam and head for the woods behind the fairgrounds? A Catholic boy who lived across the street said that he would spend his post-Bomb time praying to Jesus and Mary. Though impressed by his response, I knew that I couldn’t follow suit. As a boy-Methodist, I somehow equated the Bomb with Jesus’ Second Coming: how could I ask Jesus to save me when he was using the Bomb to announce his return? Convinced that the End would bring Jesus and a nuclear flash blowing down from Toledo, arm-in-arm, I sometimes avoided looking north. It would be better not to see either of them coming.
At least my Catholic playmate got the politics right. Praying for the conversion of Russia struck me as an admirably practical tactic, because the Communists wouldn’t bomb us once they joined our side as Christians. We Methodists were given a more individualized Doomsday mandate: get right with God before it was too late. Jesus couldn’t keep you from getting vaporized, but he could get you into heaven afterwards. The main thing was to be on God’s side when the End came: if you weren’t, you’d be a dead duck.
As mini-theologians, we were eerily prescient. Apocalyptic narratives have always embodied revenge fantasies against outsiders. In the Abrahamic faiths, the End is expected to bring the Great Winnowing: a separation of wheat from chaff and sheep from goats in a final vindication of believers. The Jewish messiah will redeem his people and expunge the original sin that corrupted God’s creation. The Christian tribulation will be followed by Christ’s return as Judge to rid the world of evil. Muslims believe that the end of the world will be followed by a Day of Resurrection and Judgment. All three religions agree that the End will right all wrongs, including wrong beliefs and allegiances — and whoever is telling the story gets to draw the line between the children of light and the children of darkness. I know of no religion that preaches a Doomsday at which its adherents will burn like dried twigs. That fate, or something like it, is always reserved for outsiders, for other people.
Apocalyptic thinking usually prevails among groups that are undergoing persecution, whether in fact or perception. The belief that God will save us transforms threatened underdogs into overdogs who enjoy divine approval and protection. These scenarios are based on an underlying trope of reversal – a cosmic inversion that rewrites the final tragedy into an insider’s comedy, complete with a happy ending. The final joy of the children of light constitutes a theologically endorsed Schadenfreude of watching adversaries get what they deserve.
Although the American Fifties were unusual in combining apocalyptic thinking with widespread prosperity, the Bomb forced us to imagine just this sort of inversion: one push of a button by a deranged Soviet, and the good times fueled by the booming post-war economy would vanish in the twinkling of an eye. Indeed, the bad times of nuclear war were so easy to imagine that it felt almost as if they had already arrived. End-time fantasies usually crop up, however, when times are unambiguously bad. Threats to the cultural identity of Palestinian Jews posed by Hellenization gave rise to Jewish apocalypticism, as expressed in the book of Daniel. Later oppression by the Romans produced a Messianic variety of Judaism that centered on Jesus as the promised redeemer: God’s kingdom would replace Caesar’s, and soon. As Paul’s letters and the “little apocalypse” in Mark, the source for similar prophecies in Matthew and Luke, make clear, the earliest Christians expected to see this divine deliverance within their lifetimes. This sense of urgency was reinforced by the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple.
For Jews and Jewish Christians alike, the loss of the Temple was a catastrophe equivalent to Cold-War imaginings of The Bomb. Yet life went on – and both faiths toned down their eschatological urgency in response to relatively more peaceful times and places. Deprived of the Temple cult, Judaism re-centered itself around fidelity to the Law and its interpretation by scholarly rabbis. Christianity spread to Greek-speaking areas where Jewish apocalypticism held less sway and the fall of Jerusalem was less traumatic. The End was still coming — just not right away..
Specific afflictions, however, could revive the apocalyptic mindset. The Book of Revelation, probably written in response to persecutions ordered by the Emperor Domitian, illustrates this phenomenon. This strange little book, destined to become the primary source for subsequent Western imaginings of the End, almost didn’t make it into the New Testament. This was because times had gotten much better for Christians when the collection was being assembled into its final form.
This pattern would define the history of apocalypticism in the West: a waxing and waning in response to how bad or good conditions seemed. The collapse of the Roman Empire saw the rise of monasticism as a retreat from this world in anticipation of the next one. Various afflictions during the Middle Ages, especially plagues and economic turmoil, prompted numerous predictions of an imminent End. Joachim of Fiora declared that the “Third Age” of the Spirit – the Millennium — would begin in 1260. Nostradamus also weighed in, but was wily enough to set a date sufficiently remote – around the year 4000, by some reckonings – to avoid potential embarrassment.
Growing secularism during the Renaissance pushed many Protestant reformers into an apocalyptic mode: Martin Luther speculated that the End would come before 1600. The oppression of English dissenters prompted some to seek the Latter Days in the howling wilderness of New England, where they never tired of anticipating their divine vindication. Michael Wigglesworth’s “The Day of Doom,” published in 1662, remained the best-selling poem in America for over a century. Nineteenth-century sects followed suit. The Shakers foresaw an impending End of Days; Joseph Smith expected the Second Coming to occur within his lifetime; and John Wesley, my Methodist forebear, predicted that the Millennium would begin in 1836. The most famous prediction of the End came from Baptist minister William Miller, who announced that the Second Coming would occur on October 22, 1844. When the big day came and went, the great inversion that Miller anticipated came to be known as “The Great Disappointment.”
While it’s tempting to attribute American millennialism to a persistent strain of anti-intellectualism in our national life, people have always looked for signs of the End. The earliest gospel shows the disciples posing the universal question: “When shall these things be?” (Mark 13:4). Although overheated Bible study is the usual catalyst for faux-Ends, Jesus’ answer is usually ignored: “And then if any man shall say to you, Lo, here is Christ; or, lo, he is there; believe him not: / For false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall shew signs and wonders, to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect” (Mark 13:21-22). This is one biblical prophecy, at least, that came true, fulfilled by an endless parade of Doomsday prophets. Mark’s Jesus admits that even he doesn’t know when the End is coming (Mark 13:32), but no matter. Plenty of modern End-daters have claimed to know better, from Jeanne Dixon, Hal Lindsay, and Herbert W. Armstrong right up to Harold Camping, who has been issuing and retracting End-time dates since the mid-1990s, the latest being two different days in 2011. I don’t question Camping’s sincerity or biblical knowledge, but I’m still here – and if you’re reading this, so are you.
There’s Harold Camping, bless him, and then there’s the rest of us. Mainstream culture has reduced the End to little more than a dramatic metaphor for change: don’t our newspapers routinely call all sorts of things the “end of an era”? But change is noticeable only against a backdrop of continuity, an ongoing unfolding of events. Being human, we want those events to add up to something, to form a story. Because there can be no story without a beginning, a middle, and an end, it’s tempting to become a minor-league Aristotle and search for a potentially coherent ending. We live our lives in an ongoing middle — but since middles are maddeningly ambiguous, we’ll follow any light that seems to illuminate the end of the tunnel. As literary critic Frank Kermode famously pointed out, however, endings complicate stories because they force a reinterpretation of everything that precedes them. By retrojecting thematic significance onto our lives, End-time scenarios create an attractive element of suspense: will things turn out as we anticipate, or not?
The ongoing quest for personal meaning keeps us sniffing the air for premonitions of an End that might convey extra-personal meaning, especially if we’re feeling marginalized or ignored. The current obsession with the Rapture among fundamentalist Christians is, in part, a response to the so-called Culture Wars of the past few decades. If you feel vastly outnumbered by godless humanists, one of Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind novels will reassure you that the great inversion is right around the corner. The text most commonly cited as prophesying the Rapture comes from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians: at the End, “we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess 4: 16-17). Rapturists believe that Matthew’s Jesus elaborates on this event: “Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. / Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left” (Matt 24: 40-41). This passage intensifies the End by domesticating it. If you can get raptured while grinding grain, you can also get raptured from the light-fixtures department at Lowe’s. If you get snatched up while reading a LaHaye book, don’t worry: you’ll see first-hand how it turns out.
I realize that it’s neither charitable nor politically correct to mock other people’s religious views, but the stakes here are high: when pushed far enough, the apocalyptic mindset can veer from delusion to insanity. This usually involves submitting to a charismatic leader who promises to guide you to the Latter Days. The old Christian mandate to “watch and wait” might tax the patience of such a leader – and maybe yours as well. Why wait, when indescribable bliss lies just ahead? We’ve all seen the aftermath of rushed Raptures. The End came to the residents of Jonestown in 1978, leaving the rest of us to contemplate aerial photos of neatly laid out corpses. The End came to David Koresh and his flock at Waco in 1993, and here, too, all that remained was the carnage of another ill-conceived End-time narrative. Bad end-of-the-world stories need not be limited to this world. Members of the Heaven’s Gate cult in California committed suicide in 1997 as the prerequisite for boarding an alien spaceship that would whisk them away from Armageddon: another bad End-time story, with more bodies to clean up.
The take-away from these bungled Raptures is clear. If your culture, religion, or personal history has given you a bad End-time story, you have two choices: either learn not to take it so seriously, or else find yourself a new one. You probably won’t be able to dispense with such a story altogether, because the habit of envisioning endings is almost impossible to resist. Even New Agers, who usually reject traditional religion, are susceptible to the fantasy of a Happy End of Days. Some are now claiming that anyone who heeds the Mayan glyphs won’t be making any plans for after December 21, 2012. Though New Agers aren’t big on the sheep-from-goats separation, they do tend to draw a firm line between those who possess the insider’s wisdom and who those who don’t. This wisdom is not ethical so much as it is ecological: we’re all children of darkness because we’ve all abused the earth. We deserve to be swept away and replaced in the Chain of Being by fruit flies, flatworms, and other creatures whose carbon footprint is more modest than ours.
The science behind environmental concerns is sound, but isn’t this just another version of the same old story? God is dead, but Nature is poised to enact the ancient vengeance. The righteous indignation fueling the classic apocalypse is now leveled at ourselves, and the rhetoric of Hell has shifted from human suffering to human absence: Eden will be restored only after we’ve been expelled from it by the incremental Angels of chemistry, biology, and climatology.
Like other End-time stories, the environmental apocalypse is satisfying to contemplate. It also confirms that we’re still capable of imagining the End on a global scale. Indeed, residual apocalypticism pops up everywhere nowadays. Doesn’t it inform our obsession with political and historical transitions, in phrases like “the end of socialism” and “the end of capitalism”? At the breakup of the Soviet Union, a gentler end to the Cold War than we Fifties kids ever imagined, political theorist Francis Fukuyama announced “the end of history.” The perceived waning of American power and prestige is often framed as a semi-cosmic inevitability: the “end of the American Century.” The potential collapse of the euro now threatens to bring about a similar “end of Europe.”
Technology, usually seen as the antithesis of religion, can also succumb to the apocalyptic impulse, as witnessed most famously by the Y2K hysteria at the end of the American Century. We’ll all be dead ducks, the story went, once we reach the year 2000 and older software fails to make the requisite date-flip of four digits. The apocalyptic mix of fear and excitement was irresistible, and as I tentatively turned on my old computer shortly after midnight, I felt something of the old thrill. Although I half-expected that the screen would reveal the radiation-illuminated face of Second-Coming Jesus, Windows booted up normally. Not only did the world not end, but my computer shrank from the End by propelling itself back to 1980.
Precisely because they lend significance to the present, End-time scenarios have always functioned as supreme antidotes to boredom: maybe all these random events will actually add up to something. This is why such scenarios have special appeal to young people. Notoriously impatient with the cluelessness of their elders, the young are adept at imagining the End as an ironic commentary on human limitations. This attitude was embodied in a famous late-Sixties poster satirizing the buoyant rationality of nuclear preparedness: the last instruction in its official-sounding list was “Kiss Your Ass Goodbye.” Such dark humor reflects a response common among the young whenever they contemplate the End: insouciance sparked by desperation. My playmates and I felt this as we watched our plastic armymen and milk-carton cities burn. It can also be heard in the R.E.M. song “The End of the World as We Know It.” The phrase “as we know it” redeems the loss, because something else will emerge that we don’t know yet but really want to. Given all the crap that deserves to be swept away, the song’s refrain makes perfect sense: “I feel fine!”
Here, for once, apocalyptic glee is openly acknowledged. This same glee might also be energizing hardcore gamers, for whom technology offers a vehicle for updated End-time play. Computer games feature the same moral agon and crisp resolution that have traditionally been projected onto the eschatological future. The only difference is that the players themselves get to be pixilated Jesuses, destroying enemies in so spectacular a fashion that the Book of Revelation reads like the minutes of a zoning meeting. And don’t kids play these games with an intensity that recalls the ecstatic visionaries of old? Whenever they break through to the next level, their faces convey an ancient joy that used to come from singing the Dies Irae. This notion of apocalyptic gaming is neither gratuitous nor new. We’ve always played with the End, feverishly manipulating its gory details to suit whatever outcome we desire.
Sometimes, of course, the End is not a game. As those corpses at Jonestown and Waco revealed, the end of the world is happening all around us, all the time. For the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the apocalypse that my playmates and I imagined had already come – though we certainly didn’t dwell on that. Proud that our fathers had won the war, we felt the atavistic mix of relief and shame that comes from outliving other people. Perhaps we unwittingly tried to ease our survivors’ guilt by bringing an atomic End into our imagined future. However creepy this sounds, it is not an uncommon response. Don’t we always find other people’s Latter Days fascinating? Movies about fictive disasters are usually blockbusters, and YouTube videos of real disasters attract millions of viewers. There but for the grace of God – or the Bomb, terrorist attacks, plane crashes, tornadoes, and tsunamis — go us. Even as we lament the tragedy, we can’t take our eyes off it.
At root, End-time scenarios offer distractions from – and denials of — our own death: with their illusion of control, these grisly melodramas ease the terror of not knowing when and how we’re going to die. We might not see a heart attack coming, but a fiercely glowing Jesus swooping down from Toledo is a legible thing – sufficiently legible, perhaps, for us to put our houses in order. A glowing Jesus is also intrinsically more interesting than a heart attack. There’s no story in a coronary muscle giving out: it’s just something that happens, like a rotted tree falling in the woods. By contrast, the Son of Man returning to sort us out is a compelling narrative indeed. And even if we get lumped with the goats, a readable story will have been imposed onto our lives: either we did good, or we didn’t. The expectation that everybody else will receive the same Judgment suggests another comfort that apocalyptic scenarios offer: they provide narrative balms to the singularity of our own death, countering its terrifying loneliness by giving it a communal setting. The psychology at work here is as poignant as it is self-serving: we can bear anything so long as others have to bear it, too. That’s only fair — and isn’t making things fair what the Latter Days are all about?
Therein lies the unintended irony of all end-of-the-world scenarios. Stories that evoke a final separation of ingroup from outgroup ultimately backfire, because all they really confirm is that we’re going to die and there’s nothing we can do about it. Our awareness of this fact is what separates us from real sheep and goats; any additional distinctions merely reflect the human compulsion to whistle in the dark. And since the darkness that gets us whistling is always the same, the End of the World is really the scariest of all verbs conjugated in the future tense: I will die, you will die, he or she will die, we will die, you-all will die, they will die. Seen from a certain perspective, there’s nothing morbid or depressing about this. It simply folds our collective and individual fates into a natural order that cares nothing about our obsession with conflict, rising action, climax, and denouement.
The most viable End-time story might actually be a non-story. Granted, non-stories are difficult to tell and hear, let alone believe: they go against our most basic instincts, especially the fear of death that gives rise to all of the stories that we tell ourselves, including those about Doomsday. While an apocalyptic non-story would invest the End with a comforting mundanity, it would also rob the End of its darker pleasures. If we try to imagine what this non-story might look like, we can see the teleological rigidity of the apocalyptic scenario – its relentlessly linear march toward the Big Day – curling into itself like a sleeping cat or, more pedantically, like the hermetic snake that bites its own tail. Like all circles, this one offers no discernible End, no signs and wonders to reveal when we jumped on and when we’re going to jump off. To stare at this circle long enough is to realize that the world is constantly ending – and beginning anew.
This is not to say that we’ll ever shake our longstanding addiction to the Bomb, nuclear Jesus, space-alien deliverers, carbon-saturated air, rising sea levels, errant asteroids, and other potential agents of the great inversion. That’s because everyone needs, in Kermode’s phrase, “the sense of an ending.” A former boy-Methodist who was once repelled and fascinated by a nuclear Armageddon will naturally seek his sense of an ending in the Bible. He will find terrifying things there, but he will also hear Jesus proclaim that “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation . . . for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). With some minor tweaking, these words let me ponder the Latter Days and still feel fine. The end of the world is within us, exactly where it has always been.
Excerpt from Brushes with Greatness from Issue 63/64
A story often heard in our family was the time my father received a personal salute from Dwight David Eisenhower. It was several months after V.J. Day and Ike was reviewing the troops at Newport, Rhode Island. My father and his brother, both in the Navy, hitchhiked down from Charlestown, where they were stationed, to see the hero of the European theater. Unable to find a good vantage point in the crowd, Dad and uncle Haven decided to climb a lamppost opposite the reviewing stand. They wanted to pay their personal respect to the Allied Supreme Commander. For over half an hour, as a cold wind passed beneath Ike’s gaze, the brothers clung to the pole and directed a steady salute toward the General. When they finally caught his eye, Ike flashed his crooked grin and snapped them a return salute.
Whenever my father told this story, he insisted that he wouldn’t have held that salute for so long is he had know that Ike was going to run for president as a Republican. As a General, though, Ike knew how to carry himself: didn’t he take the trouble to acknowledge a couple of enlisted men? It was this that made the incident, in my father’s phrase, a “brush with greatness,” a prime example of how the famous and the obscure ought to interact within the great American democracy.
My father had a perspective on celebrity that I absorbed totally while growing up in small-town Ohio: namely, we’re all in this together, the famous and the obscure floating in vast soup of time, place, and happenstance. Year later I was a sucker for Forrest Gump because the movie articulated this perspective perfectly. Within the random flux of America, the militantly rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, playing his small but indispensable role in the course of human events. At root, Forrest Gump was a cornpone rehash of Woody Allen’s Zelig: both offered left-handed celebrations of fame, extolling the rich and the famous even as they invoked sentimental hymns to Everyman.