The Day the World Almost Ended

I don’t believe in prophecies any more. Like many people, I get an occasional glimpse of my own future, and remarkable as that might be to me, it has little impact on the world in general. I’ve followed the Hopi Prophecies and the Mayan Prophecies for most of my life, since I first learned of things like the Blue Star Kachina. I was still in grade school then and it fascinated me. Seemed to all be coming together recently, but of course when the Mayan Calendar ended and we traveled from the Fourth World to the Fifth World, we woke up the next morning and things were much the same. I’d say the weather is a little bit worse, but the weather is always a little bit worse.

The recent world shift made me remember some old things, though; things about my father that I hadn’t really understood before, became clear. Dad was a D-Day veteran, even though he came ashore a little bit late in the battle and the initial beachhead assault was already over. He didn’t talk about it much, actually not ever. It affected him greatly, though. He had long bouts of depression, drank a lot, woke up frequently from nightmares, and generally took a lot of his anger and fear out on the world and the people around him. A mortar shell blew part of his hand off at St. Lo, so he got a pension out of the deal and was fond of telling people that he was going to use the world up as fast as he could and did not care what happened after he was gone. I suppose that a lot of his generation felt the same way about things, and maybe some of the situation we face today is due to that. No generation is perfect, not even the Greatest one.

As a kid I was mostly just scared of Dad, living around him and working with him was kind of like waiting for an explosion that never came. We all knew he’d been through some terrible things, and whenever something traumatic came up, we all looked to him for advice because we figured he was familiar with it. This was way back in the Cold War days, when at school in the little classroom with the view of the hog lot and a smoky woodstove for heat, we trained in “Duck and Cover” skills and learned that our civilization was soon going to expire in a brief flash of overpowering flame. One summer evening at my grandparents’ home just down the road we put out all the kerosene lamps and filed solemnly out into the back yard by my grandmother’s rock garden to look up at a blinking star that the radio said was Sputnik. Everybody was really worried, I noticed. My grandmother was very nervous, always bit her lip repeatedly when she was, nibbling away at herself like a chipmunk with a peanut. My Dad was the expert on war, so she asked him if the Russians could drop atomic bombs on us from up there. Dad thought about it a minute and then said, Yeah. Yeah, I guess they could. That gave the little blinking light a lot more significance in my mind, and for awhile I tried to jump up and pull it down, because it didn’t really look all that far away. Like many other things, though, it was always a little out of reach.

A few years later, there was another tense evening when the radio was talking about something called The Bay of Pigs and we were all sitting in the living room listening to what happened. Sounded like a war. I was eleven, or about eleven, and I asked Dad if maybe I should enlist. He suggested that I maybe ought to wait awhile, we weren’t quite that far into the war as yet. That was a secret relief to me. As the battle unfolded it appeared to not be going well and the news people were talking about the airstrikes that weren’t happening, the Freedom Fighters pinned down on the beachhead. In my imagination I saw the American fighter jets streaking in overhead, blasting the Commie positions and saving the day. That never happened, freedom lost the battle, and Dad shook his head without a word as we turned off the news and let the songs of crickets and tree frogs take over the night.

The next real thing came as a surprise to me. It was in the fall, everything in the garden hot and dry and failing but the days still warm so my sisters and I ran about in the yard as though it were still summer. We lived in an area the Air Force used as a training ground, and during the summer we’d sometimes look up at battles in the sky above us, military jets in mock dogfights. The things that took split seconds up there happened in slow motion from below, fighters trying to get one-up on each other in slow arcs and lazy circles, then calling it off and going home. It looked really exciting. Sometimes in the middle of the night we’d all get shattered awake by tremendous explosions, sonic booms from supersonic aircraft going past. All the chickens would wake up and call out, while all of us would call out to each other to see if everything was still ok. It always was. Kind of like “The Waltons” with artillery fire.

Into that, a week crept in with strange things in the news that none of the adults wanted to discuss with children. I tried to make some sense out of the reports, on my own, but there was a lot of complicated talk about submarines and ships and missiles in Cuba. Cuba seemed like a very interesting place. I’d built a shortwave receiver from a mail-order Heathkit project and after a local ham radio expert helped me fixed all the problems I used to listen to Radio Cuba a lot, trying to figure out what all the fuss was about. Mom and Dad thought it might make a communist out of me, but it was mostly Cuban music and loud talking that didn’t hold a lot of information. This new situation had something to do with Cuba but I wasn’t really sure about the details. I just knew that everybody was worried about it, and when grown-ups don’t talk to you about something, it’s serious stuff.

Late one afternoon, Mom and Dad were in the house having coffee and talking, and my sisters and I were outside running about. I suppose we were playing some game, but as I remember childhood it was mostly just running about, with different names imposed upon it. Running was fun, not meaningful and not difficult. We looked up that day just as the first wave of jet fighters went over, heading south, flying so low we could see the faces of the pilots in the cockpits. That wasn’t unusual, and in the war games they played they’d often wave at us and smile as they cruised over the tops of the oaks and the hickories. That day, they looked down at us and they didn’t smile and they didn’t wave. Strange, I remember all three of us fell to the ground as the waves of jets passed over in rigid combat formation, on their way to their part in the end of the world. We sensed something real.

I ran inside, just as Mom and Dad ran outside to look at the squadron fading in the afternoon horizon. Dad said something to Mom that I didn’t hear, jumped into his “pickup” and headed for town. Dad’s pickup wasn’t really a pickup, it was an old Chevy van that he’d paid John Cowart ten dollars to cut down to pickup shape with a welding torch. It was black, with a round nose, and it belched a lot of blue smoke until it really got going. There was no back to the cab and no passenger seat, so if you went anyplace with him you just had to hold on. He left, driving as fast as he could.

About an hour later, he came back. Nothing more had happened in the sky. Dad sat down at the table and Mom gave him a cup of coffee. He didn’t say anything for awhile, and then he started to talk. He said he’d found the boys at the gas station and tried to get everyone to work together. They could get railroad ties from the sawmill, he’d told them, and block the train tracks to the tunnel under the town. They could put together some blast doors and seal off the tunnels, everyone could get inside, bring everything they could carry, he knew there was water in there from the springs because he collected crayfish there for bait, they could last in there until It was over. But nobody would listen to him, nobody would do anything, he tried all he could and then there was nothing to do but come home.

The rest of the day they just sat at the kitchen table, listening to the news, and we kept being told to play outside, so we sort of did that although it was obvious that something more important was happening, and we did want to know what it was. Now and then, Dad would say something like “They’re going to do it! Damn it, Alice! They’re going to do it!” and Mom would tell him it’s ok, you did what you could. Outside, we played Duck and Cover, running as fast as we could and then hitting the ground with our faces in the dirt, imagining waves of light washing over us, then jumping up because everybody knew if you Ducked and Covered you were ok, the first ones in the brave new world.

Supper was pretty strange that night. It seemed to all be over by then. Dad turned the radio off and we passed the mashed potatoes and the peas and a part of the calf we’d all called T-Bone until he “disappeared.” Nobody had any conversation, not even Mom or Dad. Every now and then, Dad would start to cry, and then he’d catch himself and stop. Mom would reach out and hold his good hand for a minute, and then tell us to eat the vegetables, too.

Dad died many decades later, breathing through a tube as the cancer ate away his lungs, bubbling like he was sucking up the last of the life in his cup and it was down to nothing but ice. I couldn’t listen to it, told Mom I needed to go. I was sitting in a booth in the Walmart coffee shop drinking a cup of coffee when he passed, and I knew the exact moment he died even though I wasn’t there, and even though I was still angry at him for a lot of things.

I asked Dad once what sort of training he did for D-Day, because I’ve always been interested in survival and emergency preparedness and all of that, probably not unusual for a kid who grew up thinking the world would end tomorrow. Ok, that’s wrong, but the day after tomorrow for sure :). Training is always good when you’re living on the edge of the Apocalypse. Dad looked at me funny and then explained some things. He was a lieutenant back then, a sergeant who got a sudden push into OCS because of the war. He spent his time in England censoring letters the American soldiers sent home, sat in an office all day blacking out lines of handwritten notes. On D-Day, he was assigned to lead a “pick-up” company; a bunch of leftover people who’d missed their regular units in the first deployment. Not everybody was sober when the armada left the harbor. He’d never trained in anything specific to D-Day, was just the officer in charge of the new infantry company. They landed in time to wade through the bodies from the two previous assaults and figured out the cliffs on their own. He did the best he could, laid out their positions for the night and told the boys where to dig their holes, and in the morning some of them were gone. Just gone. Right where he’d told them to be, there were just bigger holes. He never forgave himself for that, for picking the wrong spots.

Nothing is ever what you expect it to be. I guess I’ve lived my life the way I have because of all that stuff that happened, back in the Cold War when you never were sure the world would be here in the morning. Ducking and covering might not be entirely useful, but I have learned useful things. I always gravitate towards the basics and I’m happier there, learning what makes things work and what alternatives we have when things don’t work. At 61, I still judge my health by how fast I can run a mile.

Not as fast as I used to, heehee :).


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