End times and apocalypse…I know all the signs are here. The Middle East is exploding. Global warming is creating super storms on rising seas. Earthquakes crack the planet’s mantle and release red dragons of some sort or other. Nations stand at war’s doorstep, knocking rapaciously… “Can Johnny come out and play?” Famine, usually made by men’s greedy hands, frequently sprouts up in desolate African soil. The “Game Over” sign is starting to flicker on our global pinball machine.
But I’ve heard “end times” all my life. I guess it started with the nuclear world paranoia in the early 1960’s. Back then we practiced air raid drills to special horns that blared a God awful baritone, lower than a fire siren but more disturbing, like the howl of a mythical dragon/wolf. They came from squared off yellow funnel horns atop tall poles. We had one at Virginia Hills Elementary School. I guess that was part of the nuclear defense strategy of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. There were public fall out shelters back then also with the yellow and black symbol of nuclear danger. In 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis led to increased sales of boxed water and canned goods, and fall out shelter bunkers. At St. Louis Elementary School on Popkins Lane we kneeled in the hallways and put our heads against the walls, trying to tuck them between our knees. First graders, mind you, the first time away from Mom and home… “and now you’re all gonna die”. It was the “kiss your ass goodbye” posture, as we called it later on. Humor soothes anxiety, but it’s usually heard on the bus ride home.
I didn’t realize that my family had made preparations for nuclear attack until many years later while I was painting my parents’ bedroom. (It had to be the 1970’s by the time I was safe to hold a wet paintbrush.) In their closet was a box of water and canned goods from 1962. There it was, alongside a copy of Life Magazine, the Kennedy assassination issue. It was set aside in a plastic garment bag, a holy relic of a wicked deed, the death of a secular saint, the Catholic Lincoln, Camelot desiccated.I wonder what sort of insecurities grew out of such a childhood? Was Jackie holding his head or a large oyster shell in the open limo?
In 1968 I recall riding the bus to school and seeing black smoke billowing above Washington, D.C. just over the horizon in April. Martin Luther King had been assassinated and cities were burning. I had been collecting for my newspaper route the night of April 4. I heard a cheer go up in the next customer’s house. The man of the house greeted my knock with a delirious smile and PBR in hand, cigarette clenched in hyena teeth, wearing a wife beater t-shirt, of course. “They finally got that nigger!” he gushed. Something like a snake slithered through my intestines. He tipped me fifty cents, joyous in the spilled blood of a great man.
And then my hero Bobby Kennedy was murdered in June. I was in sixth grade and following his primaries as part of social studies class for Mrs. Keim. (She lived down the street until her husband the football coach divorced her.) We felt grown up discussing presidential hopefuls and tracked their delegate totals. My dad woke me up that June morning. “Something big is on the television.” It was the same black and white t.v. that my parents bought when JFK had been murdered in November 1963. They had to watch the terrible news, so they ran out and impulsively bought a t.v., which was very out of character for them. Then for a week they wept in silence as the presidential funeral processed and the country recoiled from the armadillo-like LBJ. No comfort there.
Meanwhile 18 year old boys were worried about the draft and Vietnam. The hippies openly defied authority everywhere. Drug use and the LSD stories ramped up. Anti-war demonstrations erupted all over America. It was a heck of a year that wound up in Chicago with police beating protesters bloody at the Democratic Party’s National Convention. Violence came up everywhere and seemed to win that year in Vietnam and at home. 16,899 dead Americans in Vietnam that year. A few dozen died in the domestic riots, plus MLK and RFK…and anyone’s sense of security. I cried for something lost.
Apocalypse, so the dictionary says, means “to uncover”. What was uncovered in the Apocalypse of 1968? It was an odd combination of war hawks vs. no war doves; Black minority vs. White majority; old conservatives vs. young liberals; military vs. civilian; communists vs. western democracies; order vs. chaos. Richard Nixon rode to victory on his promises of law and order, which is ironic since he is best known for breaking the law he knew so well. Nixon won 55% of the popular vote. But before you go saying, “The blind leading the blind”, George Wallace, the segregationist hater, won five Southern states that year and almost 10% of the popular vote. What was uncovered? Maybe what had lain covered for decades. Fear, so much fear that angry hate rose up to squash it like an adder’s egg. Blind fear that bunches all things into one pile and sets it afire was on display all over the USA that long bloody year. It rose up not from China or Russia or Nebraska. Nope. It came out of Everyman’s heart of darkness.
So now, 45 years later, hearing “end times” all over again just confirms to me that not much has changed, despite all the rhetoric. The targets have moved to the most unlikely places– Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Those weapons of mass destruction are not in Cuba or Iraq this week. They have come up in Syria. Okay, turn the page. Somewhere a family is stocking up on food and water and saving today’s magazines. Their kids are joining in the pursuit of vengeance, a long, long serpent under the veils of justice.