‘What we had was unspoken: a richer bond, exponentially greater than the sum of our parts. … Arms around each other, we peered heavenward and wondered what it was all about.’
Like a Baptist Cassandra—nerves fraught, voice gravely—my mother proclaimed that the end of the world was nigh.
Aged 13, I was sitting in the passenger seat in our butter-colored Pontiac, parked outside the Red Food Store on Ringgold Road in Chattanooga. It was twilight. I was still sweaty and cleated from soccer practice. My mother had just strapped herself behind the steering wheel, her hair teased to a halo of Streisand-like curls. She’d flipped on the radio for the six o’ clock news. A skinny, pimpled bag boy ferried paper sacks onto the rear floorboard. A violet light played across the dashboard, easing in a somber, contemplative mood.
The news did not seem dire. Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat, has agreed to travel to Jerusalem to address the Knesset, the newscaster intoned, an overture to Israel that could lead to a normalization of diplomatic relations.
My mother rapped her fist on the wheel. “Don’t you see, Sugar,” she said, her eyes wild. “He’s the Anti-Christ! Just as the Bible prophesied!”
“Who?” I asked, feeling a wave of dread coming off her.
“Sadat!” Her voice was a hushed scream. “What does Revelation say about the Anti-Christ? That he will be a so-called peacemaker? All of the other signs have been fulfilled.”
I tapped the heels of my cleats together, discomfited less by her vision of the End Times and more by the mania in her voice. As far as I was concerned, the world might end tomorrow, or it might not. The back door slammed shut as she twisted the key in the ignition. We coasted backward and then lurched into drive, buoyed by the torque of her reverie.
“I bet you if you lifted the lock of his hair you’d find ‘666’ etched into his forehead.”
“But Mom, I’ve seen Sadat on television—he’s bald.”
In 1977, the world was crashing around my parents: hijackings, terrorist plots, witchcraft in high schools, free love, be-ins, bras torched by bands of harpies called “feminists.” A society taxed by threats at home and an erosion of trust in its elected leaders. A surge of talk about the End Times, pastors thundering about the imminent Rapture from their pulpits, books and television shows and films opining on the tribulations at hand, geared to the faithful who swarmed into churches in advance of the approaching apocalypse.
Like their fellow Baptists, they prayed and prepared. They attended study groups in the sanctuary. They dutifully read and re-read the Book of Revelations, attempting to discern its opaque prophesies. The establishment of Israel? Check. The European common market? Check. And the bit about Babylon? Clearly a reference to the Soviet Union. The only unfulfilled sign, as my mother scribbled in the margin of her Bible, was the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The Bible’s satin ribbon would flutter across the pew’s plush cushion as she made notes.
The faithful knew what to do. They devised rituals to keep their kids away from pool halls and pinball arcades. Brother Odie, the youth minister, furnished a dank room beneath the church gymnasium, fitting it out with donated couches, fabric ripped and leaking foam rubber, a bean bag chair and a vintage highboy table. A Coke machine stood along one wall. As a seventh-grader, I was allowed free use of the Youth Lounge. My friends and I would fidget on one of the couches while Renee Sanders, a junior, would pick a guitar, fretting the chords of “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” the theme song from the classic Rapture film A Thief in the Night, which I’d seen as a child.
Life was filled with guns and war,
and everyone got trampled on the floor,
I wish we’d all been ready …
This song gave a creepy thrill at the end. We’d all croon the final chorus until, on cue, we’d break off in mid-syllable:
You’ve been left behind
You’ve been left behind
You’ve been left be—
We’d stare bug-eyed around the silent room, lost in the fantasy, as Renee would slowly lower the guitar into its case.