Last Friday morning, over breakfast, I read a front-page story in The New York Times about a man who was predicting that the world would come to an end on Saturday.
I was very concerned about this. It’s one thing to see a bedraggled fellow in sandals and a white robe going down the sidewalk carrying a sign to that effect. What does he know? But it’s another to see a prominent story on the front page of The New York Times about it.
I looked at my watch. It was 8 a.m. There were just 16 hours to go. But then I thought, what the hell? This is ridiculous. But then another voice said what if it is true?
I know a lot of people who calmly carry on with their lives not worrying about things like this. They say they take things as they come up. I am not one of them. I worry about everything all the time.
Then I thought I ought to write about this world coming to an end thing and my reaction to the prospect of it. But then I thought, why do that? Dan’s Papers comes out next Thursday. If nobody reads it, the writing of it would be a big waste of time. So then I decided to wait until after Saturday to see what would happen. I could write it then.
As near as I could understand it, for years, an 89-year-old retired civil engineer named Harold Camping has been predicting that the end would come on this date. He has made millions of dollars with this prediction, assembling this enormous group of followers who, going to different churches he created around the country and sending money into a radio station called Family Radio he started, believed him when he said that Saturday, May 21, 2011, would be it. It was exactly 7,000 years since Noah and the Ark and the great flood that wiped everything out and 7,000 years was all we were going to get to make things right. On May 21, the divine spirit would swoop down in a great rapture, gather up 200,000 faithful followers, and then leave the rest of us to die in the worldwide earthquakes that would begin on this day, or if we survived them, various plagues, tornados, famines, typhoons and floods finally ending in a great fireball on October 31, which would consume everything that was left.
Apparently, there were quite a number of followers of Harold Camping. Maybe as many as the whole 200,000 allowed, and now with the day almost at hand, Mr. Camping was sending them out with leaflets and fliers all over to warn people of the coming apocalypse. Mr. Camping also had purchased billboards and other advertising spaces to announce what was coming.
The New York Times reporter who had written this front page article interviewed Abby and Robert Carson, who had driven to New York City in a van with their three teenage children to hand out fliers and leaflets, and visit some of their old friends in the city to whom they intended to say goodbye. In anticipation of this, Abby quit her nursing job, they ceased fixing up their house and they stopped putting money in their savings account college fund for their kids. Why bother?
“I have mixed feelings,” said Abby. “I’m very excited about the Lord’s return, but I’m fearful that my children might get left behind. But you have to accept God’s will.”
Their teenage children, however, were not so sure about all of this. One of them, Joseph, said he was not a believer as his parents were and he tried to keep his friends as far away from his parents as possible. Another, Grace, who is 16, said, “my mom has told me directly that I’m not going to get into heaven. At first it was really upsetting, but it’s what she honestly believes.”
The Times reporter, Ashley Parker, also interviewed a man named Gary Daniels, 27, who had also driven to New York to say goodbye to relatives in Brooklyn. This would be later on Friday. Because late Friday night he was planning to return to his home in Newark, Delaware, to watch television the next morning and see the first earthquakes hitting New Zealand, where the day, Saturday, begins, and then continues along all over the rest of the world.
“I know I’m not going to see them again,” he said, referring to his relatives. “I weep to know that they don’t have any idea that this overwhelming thing is coming right at them, pummeling toward them like a meteor.”
I didn’t pay much attention to this story for the rest of Friday because I was pretty busy with this and that, but at 11 that night, a bolt of fear suddenly went through me. In another hour it would be midnight.
“I wonder if the earthquakes are going to jolt us awake in the middle of the night?” I asked my wife.
My wife is one of those people who doesn’t worry about things until it’s time to worry about them. Then I thought I had read somewhere that on Saturday we would be having the end of the world, it would begin to happen at 6 p.m. So then I went to sleep.
Did you know that years ago there was a guy here on eastern Long Island who very famously predicted that the world would end on February 6, 1925? He was a housepainter and paperhanger named Robert Reidt, and he lived in a small house on a hill in Yaphank, Long Island, not far from where the Brookhaven National Laboratory is today. I’d read about this as I recall in a coffee table history book called LONG ISLAND HISTORY published by Newsday some years ago, and now here it was in a sidebar article in Friday’s Times, with much written from the front page coverage that the Times had given the story for three consecutive days leading up to the end of the world back in 1925.
Here is the Times coverage on the first of the three days before the end. The reporter noted who was at Reidt’s house chanting, praying, fasting and subsiding only on carrots and water.
“Reidt, a pale-faced, fat little man of 33 (was there, along with) his buxom German wife, four pallid, frightened-looking children between the ages of 6 and 12, who repeat their father’s story in pathetic, parrot-like sentences, a bearded old farmer known only as Mr. Downs, a middle-aged spinster, a youth of 23 and four blacks from Valley Stream.”
Reidt had made his prophesy based on the dates he’d read about in the works of a Seventh Day Adventist named Margaret Rowen. The world would end at one minute after midnight on February 6, 1925.
That night, newspaper reporters, photographers and newsreel filmmakers from all over Long Island and New York City came out to his home and set up lights on the front lawn in the hopes that he would come out at midnight to see the signs from heaven and the death and destruction that would follow.
At five minutes to midnight, one of the reporters knocked on his front door and asked if he was coming out. There was no answer. But at exactly midnight, out he came. Flashbulbs popped and the magnesium lights of the moviemakers flared and Reidt shaded his eyes and looked up into the night sky as best as he could. Then at two minutes past midnight he went back indoors.
The world did not end, but the next morning, Reidt was interviewed and he said yes he had seen the sign in the sky but it was hard to see because he had been blinded by all the magnesium movie flares people were setting off. The next day after that, he and his family moved out of this area, leaving all their possessions behind.
DOOM APOSTLE LEAVES IN FORD, NOT IN CLOUD, headlined The New York Times.
Well, I am writing this sitting outside by our pool in East Hampton on Saturday, May 21, at 4 p.m.
It’s a sunny beautiful afternoon with the temperatures in the 70s and so far nothing has happened, but of course the day is not done.
I sure hope you are reading this on Thursday. As I said, one thing I really hate is taking the time to write something that never appears in the paper and nobody gets to read. So I’m taking a chance here.
There’s nothing so far from New Zealand anyway, at least according to FOX online. [/expand]