End Times

I am headed to Florida as my country continues its occupation in Iraq. Protests still rage across the world, but I do not join the protesters. Really, how could anybody be for war? Every year I’ve been alive a war has been fought somewhere, and not just for oil, but for ideology, faith, power, sex, drugs, and ego. Women raped. Children killed. Men debased. Atrocities carried out by vacant-eyed teenagers firing AK-47s, their minds poisoned from ganja or meth. Even without the use of bullets, we kill millions with machetes and axes in places like Rwanda and Liberia. Century upon century, bodies pile up like cordwood. Families vanish into the netherworld of refugee camps, where there is no home, only bowls of dust. This is the world I live in.

In Chris Hedges’s book What Every Person Should Know about War he cites the following: "Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history ... At least 108 million people were killed in wars in the twentieth century. Estimates for the total number killed in wars throughout all of the human history range from 150 million to 1 billion."

Ninety-two percent of the time there will be war. We will not "give peace a chance," not this year, or the next, or the one after that. We fight with our families, our neighbors, the police, nature, the media, and yet we expect peace. As valiant as protesting war is, I’m beginning to liken it to Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."

"At the beginning of 2003 there were 30 wars going on around the world," Hedges writes. "These included conflicts in Afghanistan, Algeria, Burundi, China, Colombia, the Congo, India, Indonesia, Israel, Iraq, Liberia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda." I guess we can now include Haiti. 

Nonetheless, I am on my way to the Florida Gulf for rest, relaxation, and shrimp—part of an annual migration of Midwesterners, college kids, and heat-seeking Canadians. I will drive through five states in nine hours, right through the Bible Belt, across red dirt roads, over and under train tracks, up and down steep piney hills. With each passing mile, I pass pin-sharp spires, three crosses, and gravelly tracks that lead back to churches with names that include Victory, Victorious, Liberty, Apage, Primitive.

In Dyersburg, Tennessee, a knot of men and women stand on a busy intersection, yelling, holding signs that announce, "The end is coming," "Are you prepared?," "Repent," and "Prepare for Christ." The women wear floral dresses; the men white shirts, skinny black ties, and shiny suits. I watch as they tumble out of a Baptist church van and take over an intersection of fast food joints and box stores. They yell and beckon at me, practicing their own form of war protest, a religious civil disobedience.

Maybe the end is near. We’ve had a good run. Besides, who’s to say that the human race should go on forever? Doesn’t the earth deserve a rest? Is human life any more sacred than the life of a cockroach? A mountain lion? Are we really more vital to the earth than a toad?

What is "End Time" the end of? Of secular life, of an overly consumptive lifestyle, of war, poverty, and hatred? The beginning of duct tape, gas masks, and hurried injections of Sipro? Would it be the worst thing in the universe if life as we’ve known it on this planet ended? Many other planets are still available—an infinite amount. Life would begin again: a big bang or a tiny amoeba; a life form crawling on all fours (or sixes) from the swamp. A primitive lung, some fins, then wings, then upright limbs. Eventually a belief system must be invented to explain the miraculous: the creation of a creation myth; the fabrication of a god-like figure (maybe this time, she’s Thai, dark, and the size of a marble). Then a counter movement of disbelievers or an alternative religion evolves, followed by bad blood between the groups. Someone picks up a stone or a club. The first child dies in the crossfire. A slight pause until vengeance overtakes common sense. The war continues. End Time then is perhaps a beginning, not an end. An endless loop, a karmic broken record.

If the end is near then everything turns precious, all the Piggly Wigglys, Waffle Houses, Dollar Generals, Burger King’s, and Winn-Dixies. And how can I ignore the beauty in a modest birthday party for a young southern boy I witness at a McDonald’s? The boy is happy, radiant even. The food smells and tastes good. His obese relatives polish off quarter-pounders with cheese, super sized fries and Coke products. They are glowing. This is precious too.

Everywhere I travel I see signs. Not far off the Hank Williams Lost Highway in Montgomery, just past Rosa Parks Avenue, past check cashing/pay day loan offices, and low-slung fried chicken shacks, sits a brightly decorated VW van with the slogan: "Love God as much as you love yourself, love others with all your heart."

I overhear a young man confess how he and his wife have turned their life around. "We are going to credit counseling and I changed shifts at Outback. God is with us in all things. Thanks to Him we are going to make it."

I fill the gas tank next to a carload of perky coeds in halters and cutoffs heading down to Panama City, Florida. Their stereo blares with the U2 song "It’s a Beautiful Day." It sounds like a hymn.

Wars rage across the planet and, yet, it really is a beautiful day.

On a humid Sunday in southern Alabama the church parking lots overflow onto the highway. Vans packed with parishioners stop at shotgun houses to pick up more. The after-church crowd packs into Cracker Barrel. The special is fried something, either catfish or chicken. Everyone is dressed to the nines. Outside on the highway, convoys of desert-camouflaged military trucks, jeeps, and Hummers out of Ft. Rucker and Ft. Campbell pass by on the highway. Bumper stickers urge us to "Support our troops." American flag pennants waggle from car windows. A clerk in Walgreen’s asks if I want a free flag decal with my purchase. I’m flustered and reply "No, I have lots of flags," which I don’t. I do have a flag lapel pin, which I bought just after 9-11.

In Perry, Florida—population around 7,000—I drink Tecate beer and absently page through the phone book until it falls to "churches," seventy listings in all including: House of Deliverance, Word of Truth Tabernacle, Church of God of Prophecy, Spring Warrior Church of Christ, New Jerusalem Primitive Baptist, and New Beginnings Deliverance Center.

I want to call every preacher in the area and ask them if the end is near, or if this is just another in a along line of false alarms.

Instead, I surf the television hoping for a break, a "Seinfeld" or "Survivor" episode. I land on a public access channel featuring a local Baptist church service. The preacher reads from Revelations 21: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…And God shall wipe away every tear…and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away."

How can I not look forward to that? But then he continues, "But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for the murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is second death." Doesn’t this list apply to all of us? I am confused so I turn on CNN, where President Bush assures us that democracy is only a few months away in Iraq and that weapons of mass destruction will be found.

In Homosassa Springs, Florida, a woman in yet another print dress stands alone on the highway, holding a sign with a picture of a cross on a hill. She makes eye contact with me, looks directly into my soul, and points to the words, "His Pain, Your Gain."

A few miles later: a sign with one word, "Faith." Then another: "To see God in everything makes life the greatest adventure there is." Hey, no argument from me. I’m beginning to believe.

A year ago on the same trip, I read the following newspaper headline: "Huge 21,000-pound Bomb Tested in Florida." The bomb, 40 percent heavier than the Air Force’s 15,000-pound BLU-82, or "daisy-cutter"—is officially named "MOAB" for Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or unofficially, "Mother Of All Bombs." Windows rattled, the ground quivered, and some residents in the testing area reported seeing a white mushroom cloud. A local sheriff’s sergeant said it was "the sound of freedom." A Best Western hotel clerk said, "It was kind of weak." Maybe so. I was just a hundred miles away and I never felt a thing. 

Now, a parrot outside a store in Cedar Key, Florida, asks me "Who Are You? Who Are You?’ but it sounds like "You Are Doomed. You Are Doomed." 

But the parrot’s original question haunts me for the rest of the trip. Yes, who am I? Maybe those church folks in Dyersburg have it right. The end is near. Time to get my life in order. Say my many apologies, finally finish Moby Dick, lose that ten pounds. Or, instead, veer off course. Go to a strip club. Read comics. Consume slabs of raw ribeyes. Smoke unfiltered Camels. Forget all this jogging and fiber consumption. Stop feeling guilty. This second list brings instant relief.     

I’m ready for End Time. The concept thrills me. As I write this, I’m looking out at the Gulf from a tiny fishing key on the central coast of Florida. I’m drinking my third cup of coffee and watching the shrimp fleet motor out to open water. Everything I see from my limited earthly perspective is more brilliant. The locals pedal around on old bikes or electric golf carts conserving energy. Brown pelicans swoop overhead like, well, stealth fighters. On a nearby coastal river, hundreds of black vultures cluster in cypress trees and wait out the next death. Two manatees float into the cove like a royal wedding procession. Turtles bask like hubcaps perched on partially submerged logs. Arrow-sharp garfish pierce the riparian shadows: Now you see them; now you don’t. Baby alligators doze next to baby cottonmouths, coiled in their venom. At least at this moment, I’m prepared.

Will the center hold? After 1,300 miles, I arrive in Ft. Myers Beach to a red tide warning. Strewn on the beach are thousands of dead stingrays, sharks, catfish, and many other species of fish I can’t identify. The beach stinks. On the beach, men shovel dead fish into trash barrels and then rake the sand. Overhead, military transports and black helicopters prowl low, along with piper cubs trailing banners that "Welcome Spring Breakers." I wonder how comfortable thong bikinis are. Globs of plastic trap an osprey’s talons so that it can’t gain elevation. A pelican has a large fish stuck in its throat. Jimmy Buffet sings every song that drifts out from the beachside bars. (I had no idea he was still so popular.) We are wasting away in Margaritaville. We have blown out our flip-flops. We are searching for our lost shaker of salt. A tremendous amount of fish are dying. We will always be at war. And we know, it’s own damn fault.

A local newscaster gives the wrong six numbers in the weekly lottery drawing. She later apologizes, recites the correct numbers, and then adds, "I hope I have just been the bearer of good news instead of costing someone a million dollars." Her co-anchor chimes in, "Uh, that’s $50 million dollars. Next, the weekend weather." 

I fill in my NCAA basketball brackets and passively watch the latest Baghdad roadside bomb footage. Or maybe it’s a crowded Jerusalem bus. I advance Notre Dame past Illinois to the Sweet Sixteen. March Madness is under way. Kentucky should win it all, one analyst predicts.

In each hotel lobby I walk into, FOX and CNN announce another American casualty. I ask a clerk, "Is the war over yet?" She makes a sour face. "We should have bombed them and left."     

For ten days in March I dutifully jog past the dead fish on the sand each morning and listen to sound bites from my fellow Americans: "Saddam’s fox hole." "This red tide is ruining my vacation." "What time is the early-bird special?" 

That night, just before the basketball tournament resumes, the president addresses the nation. I decide to go swimming instead. The pool is empty. The Gulf air is soft. The sunset breathtaking. I float on my back and look up at the Florida timeshare where I am staying. In every window, above the same entertainment center, on the same 21-inch color television controlled by the same remote, dozens of images of the President look down at me. It seems to me that each time President Bush talks to us he is preparing for End Times. He also looks drained and extremely tired.     

His lips move, but I can’t hear a word. When I turn back over I see my president’s stern face reflected in the water. When I skim my arms across the surface of the pool the image breaks up into hundreds of pieces. When I stop moving, his face comes back together. But now, because the hour is late, the leader of the free world begins to fade into the night, replaced by a infinite carpet of stars and dozens of circling satellites.
About the author:
Stephen Lyons is a native of the South Side of Chicago and, after living for almost thirty years in the West, now resides in a small farming town in central Illinois. He's been employed in nine different states as a tree planter, daffodil picker, dude ranch cook, ice cream vendor, magazine editor, phone solicitor, newspaper reporter, professional tofu maker, grain truck driver, assistant dairy herdsman, and agricultural extension editor.   He once worked for a week in Colorado pulling nails out of two-by-fours, and for one twelve-hour day picking hops in southern Oregon. He was fired from the hops job after accusing the foreman of having bad karma. He was also fired from the phone solicitor job when he was overheard telling prospective customers that the deal (a lifetime of magazine subscriptions at creative interest rates) was a scam.
Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart: Writings on Daughters and Journeys, a single father's memoir. His next book—profiles, journalism, and essays from the Inland Northwest—will be published by Globe Pequot in September. Order your copy here
Stephen writes articles, reviews, essays, and poems for a variety of national magazines, newspapers, and journals including Northern Lights, Washington Post, Salon, Newsweek, Sierra, USA Today, High Country News, Manoa, San Francisco Chronicle, The Sun, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Whole Earth Review, Hope, and The Christian Science Monitor. Lyons' poetry appears in the anthologies Passionate Hearts, Bless the Day, and Split Verse.  He also appeared in last year’s anthology, Life As We Know It, Essays for Living from Salon.com.  For appearance fees or to send Lyons feedback, write: midlife@austinmama.com