Our church made the evening news that night.
We watched as footage from the circling helicopter cut to a roadside camera where several vehicles passed by on an old dirt road. It looked like they were covering something out of a warzone. A line of big trucks and SUVs with rusted metal and faded paint were caravanning to something we called “the farm.”
They said we were a cult on TV, and comparisons to David Koresh’s commune in Waco immediately surfaced.
My world became still, the wind stolen from all our sails.
“Cult.” It’s a word that brings shame, hurt and denial faster than anything I’ve experienced, and it wasn’t the first time I’d heard it used when talking about our church. I usually heard it coming from our own pulpit, where the pastor liked to distinguish us from known cults by pointing out technicalities and reminding us that, unlike cults, we were free to leave any time we wanted. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” he would always say. But who would leave? The world was always ending and everyone you cared about was in the room with us.
Anyway. Church made the evening news that night, and I was panicked.
I was just a boy in high school back then. My peers were spending their weekends and summers playing baseball, goofing off with backyard shenanigans or getting ahead on schoolwork. I was at the farm swinging a hammer at stubborn nails and stacking, moving, and restacking huge piles of perfectly blocked firewood. Nothing was more important. We were building a refuge.
Well, I was hardly building anything. I was pretending to be useful with pounds of needless metal enshrining the suede leather tool belt wrapped around my thin waist. I was mostly a bucket of endless youth that could be tapped and deputized for some of the more tedious and back-breaking work.
The purpose of this refuge was surviving the impending Y2K apocalypse, and it was only for active attendees of the church I was raised in. Y2K was a “doomsday” event occurring at the turn of the century from 1999 to 2000, where it was believed computers would face a calendar error that might leave computerized technology functionless. There was good cause for concern of Y2K, and some people were actively working to resolve it, but our pastor latched onto it as the perfect excuse to instill fear into his flock of sheep— to further desecrate any familiarity of conventional life. Whether that was his goal or not, there was an established pattern of this behavior: Imprisoning the will of his flock to live by sparking fear and quickly shuffling past failed prophecies with prescient new ones.
For Y2K, people would run out of food, tensions would snap, and streets would fill with blood. Or so we would be led to believe.
At the refuge, we built makeshift homes out of wooden sheds purchased from the local home improvement store. I don’t remember how many we had, but I’m convinced that we alone could’ve kept them in business that year with all the tools and supplies we hoarded out.
The sheds, which we called “cabins,” were maybe 200 square feet in size. They were uniformly tan with green trim. A traditional barn roof draped over a heavy swinging door, which was big enough to let in all the mud daubers in the county with every passing breeze. Inside, particleboard-lined walls fought to establish a depressing ambiance, while little sunshine broke through the window to reveal whatever decorations dared to counteract it. A narrow wooden ladder steeply ascended to a tiny loft – which I was told would become my and my older brother’s bedroom soon enough. We had cots, a sink without running water, basic dishes, and surfaces for doing simple work.
The most glorious creature comfort we had was a solar panel just outside. It charged a couple of car batteries and provided a small amount of electricity for a light and a few other things. I often wondered what the point of that light was. It always seemed to get tricked into sticking to the dark walls before finding its way to anything we needed to see. Still, the fact of any electricity at all promised hope for a small TV and video game set, and that was enough for this young high schooler.
The cabins were set apart roughly in the shape of an oblong circle following the path of a dirt track that came in and looped back to the gravel road you traveled in on. There was at least twenty feet between each of them, and the doors faced outward toward a short electric cattle fence that made a perimeter around camp. Our front-porch view beyond the fence was of thick, straw-like grass emerging from red clay with patches of stinging bull nettle, prickly pear cactus and poison ivy maliciously hidden among endless thorny mesquite trees. I always felt great adventures must have waited beyond it all, but because the land out there was not owned by us, those adventures would have to wait until after the apocalypse.
Security was always talked about and taken very seriously, and I don’t know if the cabins pointed outward for privacy from each other, or so everyone would naturally be looking toward potential strangers approaching camp. It seemed unnecessary, though. The locked metal gate to the farm sat inconspicuously on a seldom-traveled gravel road in the middle of nowhere. Even if you stopped at the gate and looked, the farm was a good distance from it and a hill blocked its view. We were quite hidden.
Still, I remember hearing the conversation about what we would do if people came to us for help at the refuge after the collapse of civilization. We were told to expect they would pretend to be there for our pastor’s teachings, but that they couldn’t be trusted. They would be turned away at gunpoint, and if necessary, shot. I expected gunfights would eventually be a thing. Always John Wayne were we, never Jimmy Stewart.
In the center of the cabins sat the latrines and a large metal building that had been professionally constructed. We called it the assembly building. It was solar panel-equipped and home to several folding chairs, a big TV and DVD player for the occasional movie night, and a pulpit for holding church sermons. At any turn you could find tanks for storing water, stocks of supplies, and mountains of dried food from companies that made their business preying on the paranoid. The inner walls were left entirely unadorned, and the flooring was just the concrete pad the building was set upon. There was space left in the back for the pastor’s office, and one corner was cordoned off for the infirmary. They thought of everything, it had seemed, except for having a real doctor.
Looking back now as an adult, the whole place was excessively dull. It was a tyranny of brown and green and not a single flash of color dared to challenge its reign. It was uncomfortable, irresponsible, and frivolous. People had exchanged their retirement portfolios for this.
But as a youth that dreamed about adventure in every waking and sleeping moment, of waking up to the challenge of hunting, gathering firewood or participating in other more obsoleted tasks of a first world country rather than facing my own social awkwardness at a school I didn’t want to be a part of… part of me found it all very exciting.
Until we were on TV.
Now we were fearful, and we understood that we weren’t invincible. Or at least I did. We rolled off the news cycle in time, but the warning sirens had sounded. We became more careful and were given orders not to caravan to the farm any longer. “Don’t give them something to look at”, we were told, as if we weren’t already a giant pimple on the face of an otherwise typical small town.
After the turn of the millennium came and passed, Y2K didn’t end the world and it was all yet another cycle in an endless pattern of catastrophizing nothing. Society didn’t buckle. Blood never ran in the streets. I still had to go to school and face my awkwardness.
Nearly everything stayed in place at the farm as a kind of apocalyptic insurance policy for at least seven or eight years. Cabin owners would take turns spending the night at the farm on “guard duty” to keep drifters from vandalizing or breaking into the cabins. I remember doing this a few times with my dad while I was still quite young. They made good memories. I felt like we had something we could bond over.
Eventually, most of the cabins were sold off and a tiny fraction of the money spent was returned to its investors. Preparation for the end of the world never stopped, though, at least not while I was a part of this church. There was always an end-times prophecy frantically knocking at the door of inevitability. Promises of rapture and blood-run streets echoed until my ears no longer heard them.
It seemed more and more clear to me that living your life preparing for the world to end was not actually living your life. I wondered: “What might it be like to be on the news for doing something wonderful?”
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Stephen: This is brilliant writing equal to any award winning author I have ever read. Truly captivating and wanting me to read the next chapter; the book! I absolutely was caught into your narrative. I felt your youthful excitement and awkward confusion.
I love this. Please continue! – Jerry
Jerry, thank you for your kind words. You always inspire me to continue writing.