Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a healthy fear of the apocalypse.
My parents sent me to Sunday school but didn’t have the heart to reinforce any of the dogma. So when I’d tell the lords of the church (ministers? priests? scary robe men?) that I didn’t believe in that big bearded dude in the sky, they’d kindly explain that well in that case I was going to Hell.
And when you’re just a kid, the Hell thing is a rather daunting prospect. There’s all this burning and general unpleasantness that, in my minor experience with burning, seemed like it would not be nearly as much fun as, say, playing in the jungle gym.
I never understood why parents send their kids to these fire and brimstone churchy things. I guess maybe it helps turn their offspring away from sin, but in my case, all I gained was the certainty of eternal damnation. If you’re as frequent a sinner as I am, there’s really no hope, and as far as I can figure, eternity lasts a pretty long time. It’s a concept that can freak anyone out, let alone someone who gets scared every time he commits to going on vacation for a whole weekend. When will I get my writing done?!
James Joyce has this incredible passage in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man that goes something like, “Imagine that once every hundred years, a bird flies to a beach to pick up a single grain of sand. Now imagine that this bird has the beak-control to perform such a task, and that it can live forever so it can complete said task a lot of times. And imagine that it has some important reason to continue doing this, like, say, it made a promise to its dying wife. Now that you really understand where this bird is coming from, what’s driving it, think about how long it would take the bird to clear the entire beach of sand. A long time, right? After it had cleared a thousand million cajillion beaches, not even one single instant of eternity would have passed. So you have to wonder, why does the bird take only one grain every hundred years? I mean, it can live forever, so it must not have to forage for food or anything. What else has it got to do? If I’m this bird, and moving the entire beach is my only goal, I’m taking at least one grain every thirty, thirty-five years minimum.”
That’s one of my favorite Joyce quotes. I can really relate to the way he so masterfully examines the ineptitude of birds. Anyway, the point of the matter is that eternity takes forever, and if I’m going to be stuck experiencing it, I’d rather it be pleasant. And after having suffered through Dante’s Divine Comedy, I know that Hell, whether it’s fiery or icy, is not a place I want to end up. Although, no matter what it’s like, it probably won’t be as bad as reading Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Still, whenever I close my eyes, I see images of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding through the sky and running amok. I was never clear on what they did exactly, so it always came down to “running amok.” Do they attack you? Or are they just there to look scary while all the good people are taken up to Heaven? Do they simply stop by earth to enjoy a game of polo? I don’t know.
I spent most of my childhood and teenage years and present day considering every possible Apocalyptic scenario, debating the likelihood of each. Aliens were a frontrunner for a long time, especially after I saw Independence Day. I was sure they’d come down through some wormhole/slipstream thingy and enslave us all, or at least do a good deal of probing. But then I took a physics class and my professor convinced me that space travel was impossible, and even if some aliens somehow managed it, they’d probably be disinterested in probing. So I switched to zombies.
The television was always convincing me that humanity would create some virus that turns us into the walking dead, and if I can’t trust that magical talking box in my living room, what can I trust? Or would we recreate dinosaurs? Or would radiation make cockroaches into giant, people-eating monstrosities? Or would we create artificial intelligence so powerful that our robots would turn on their masters? There were so many ways it could all end!
Despite this neurotic and never-ending fear, I still manage to cope…mostly. But there was one day in high school when I lost it, sure that the world was ending and I’d soon be saying hi to nice Mr. Satan.
It was a Friday night, and my friend Tom had a football game. His parents were on vacation, so he was set to spend the night at my house. Sleepover! Yay! But like, for dudes. It’s an exciting game (he’s playing running back), but on this play toward the end, he just gets blown up by one of the defenders. Suddenly he’s on the ground and his face is bleeding everywhere and he can barely form sentences. The game ends and now he’s in my care. He clearly has a concussion, and I’m completely unprepared to handle the situation. Are concussions life-threatening? Or do I like, get him an ice pack?
I decide to drive him home and reassess with the aid of adults, but on the way to the car, we run into some huge guys from the rival team, and they start taunting us.
“Hey stupid!” they yell, cleverly. “How’d you like that loss?”
I respond the way I always respond to this sort of thing. “It was the best!” I like to be overenthusiastic and as genuinely excited as possible. “Losing is my favorite!”
“Hey shithead, you messing with me?”
“What? Why, I never! Me? Mess with you? It couldn’t be.”
Tom chimes in. “Russ,” he says, woozily. “These guys could kill us. We have to get out of here.”
This sparks my fear of death, so I wrap up my pleasant conversation and stuff him into the car.
That night, after much worrying on the part of my parents, Tom and I finally manage to fall asleep downstairs in our sleeping bags.
The next morning, I awake to the Apocalypse.
It’s just past dawn, and something isn’t right. Tom is missing, and I’m hoping he hasn’t wandered away in a fit of concussion madness. Then I see him outside, arms extended, head facing the heavens, as if he were embracing an oncoming tidal wave. Or as if he were enjoying a bout of concussion madness.
I join him and immediately understand. The heavens are alight with brilliant color. This is no sunrise; the entire sky, once blue, has turned to blood and fire.
The air is filled with ash, floating down upon our shoulders, swirling through the daylight, landing on the pool, burning our lungs. It might be my imagination, but I’m pretty sure I see some horsemen just above the tree line.
I immediately begin remembering everything I’d ever done wrong and wondering if it adds up to enough to warrant eternal damnation.
Tom hasn’t said anything, trapped in similar contemplation. The world is utterly silent. Maybe everyone else had already been taken to Heaven and Tom and I are the only two left. This strikes me as odd, since Tom had always seemed such a decent fellow. Maybe Tom’s concussion has somehow rubbed off on me and neither of us is seeing clearly. Or maybe those guys really had beaten us up and now I’m in some sort of coma.
In the midst of our silent introspection, the crowing began.
The chickens had somehow escaped their pen, perhaps driven mad with a desire for freedom by the tearing of the sky. And thanks to some primal instinct, they had flown to the highest point they could find, the peak of our roof. There they stood, beckoning the end with their demonic cries, silhouetted upon a backdrop of fire and uncertainty, the unholy harbingers of the Apocalypse, there to judge you and, with their beady eyes, measure your worth.
Turns out this was the morning of the devastating San Diego fires, and not, as I thought, the end times. Rather than the entire world being destroyed, it had only been a gigantic swath of the wilderness and a few hundred houses. And instead of the horror of eternal damnation, I got to skip school for a week. Still, being confronted with the possibility of divine retribution makes you think, you never know when that day is going to come, so I’d better go try to be a nice person, or if not that, maybe a funny one. Does blogging help offset sinning? I sure hope so.