Two-dozen little shoe soles squeaked and squelched across the linoleum of the hallway.The teacher at our church school, leading the way, walked backwards for a few steps, winding the cord of her whistle around her finger.The whistle clacked against her rings.She pivoted to lead us into the library, and the squeaks turned to shuffling on the carpet in the dark.We could see the shapes of things we moved between – tables and shelves.We could see the projector and the screen, and with a click of sound the screen held a square of light and the square of light held our moving shadows.When we lowered to sit on a cleared space on the floor, there was a tingle at my fingertips that traveled all the way up my arm, across my chest, buzzing in my rib cage.A movie.
Last time, we’d watched a teeny tiny animated submarine chugging through the currents of somebody’s animated blood stream.The time before that, Ben Hur (anything featuring Charlton Heston in man-sandals was a winner here). And before that, a cartoon tooth demonstrating how to brush himself.It didn’t really matter to me what it was.I could be in class braiding the strips torn off the edges of spiral notebook pages or I could be sitting here watching the film threading through the projector and producing dark blips on the screen.I loved the blips and I loved the pop of sound coming on and I loved the rapid clacking of the reels as the film, whatever it was, began in earnest.
Today, it was something quite different, as the teacher with her hand overlapping the other in the projector stream had told us, and what I remember of it I remember in a sort of grim collage: mothers and children running through woods, pant hems snagging on fallen limbs and twigs and making crackles of sound. They hold their faces and glance around in panic.A woman buying apples is asked to show a mark on her hand, but her hand is bare. The apples are yanked away. She is yanked away with her plain bare hands. Sunlight winks across an empty sky. Blank faces tip toward it. People in a slow moving line step toward a guillotine. A little girl goes first.The glint of the blade, a metallic swoosh, the thunk of a chop, and the little girl’s balloon drifts into the empty sky and gets smaller and smaller like a speck on the projector lens no one can wipe off.
The excited flutter in my stomach suddenly crumpled up into knot of anxiety that’s been there ever since.
“So that’s why you have to memorize your Bible verses, boys and girls, for the time when it gets taken away from you at the end of the world,” the teacher said, her body stooping slightly in our direction over the slack tangle of her hands. “It’ll all be in your head then.And no one can take what’s in your head.”
Not even when they chop it off, I thought.Not even when they chop it off.
The church school had a habit of inciting my obsessive interests, and not in the things they wanted to me to be obsessively interested in.For example, they played Alice Cooper’s “Cold Ethyl” for us once to exemplify that which we should never be obsessively interested in.A week later, I brought to my piano lesson the sheet music for “Welcome to my Nightmare” I’d discovered in my older sister’s Big ’77 Songbook.When I was punished with sorting the library’s record collection in afterschool detention for neglecting to turn in an assignment, I discovered the pleasure of filching albums via gaucho pant leg.Still in my vinyl collection to this day, their album covers affixed with the library slip:The Imperials, Sandi Patty, and Bullfrogs and Butterflies.I mean, they were no Alice Cooper, but they were shiny and they were mine, secretly mine.
Not that I’m a rebel or anything.You ask me to look at a spot in the center of something and I just instinctively wander away and find something different to look at off to the left.Maybe the church school simply wasn’t the right place for me, because instead of wanting to learn my Bible verses after the head-chopping film I wanted to explore every conceivable aspect of our inevitable apocalyptic demise.Fear muddled with fascination.A kid daring herself to shimmy on elbows across Boo Radley’s yard in the dark, take a peak through the tattered eyelet curtains of his house, and run away screaming.
Such has been the lure of the disaster film for me ever since.Mind you, I’m a paranoid sort.Maybe naturally.Maybe because of the head-chopping film.Maybe because my mom used to put rubber-bands around her wrists during lightning storms and hide.Maybe all of the above.For family trips as a kid, I’d always empty my toy doctor’s kit and fill it with crackers and jelly beans just in case the station wagon plummeted off the road and down a jagged hillside and landed in a creek with the only signs of life our plaintive voices echoing off the mountains around us as we ran away, me clutching my doctor’s kit, from the station wagon exploding into a massive black cloud scrolling out over our heads.When I’d moved to Binghamton, New York as a graduate student and heard blasts rattling the horizon past the dark hills around my house, I’d immediately dialed authorities.“I think we’re being attacked by rogue militia!” I’d reported.
“Try fireworks at the baseball stadium,” I was told flatly, “and word of warning, Chicken Little, they do this every week.”
On the eve of y2k, I’d stockpiled enough juice pouches and canned ravioli to run a daycare for a year.And right about now, I’m drawing up specs for a fabulous backyard bunker ahead of 2012.It’s going to have room for a ping-pong table.And a hand-cranked frozen margarita maker.
The Book of Eli.Terminator Salvation.Legion.9.The Road.2012.It would seem the new millennium has ramped up a taste for post-apocalyptic dystopias and massive destruction at the cinema, and none of them have done too terribly at the box office either despite the fact that we can get plenty of the real thing live on any twenty-four-hour news outlet.I suppose that, like me, people at this point want to have the sort of dangling-in-the-mouth-of-the-volcano kind of insider’s view of what’s in store that a good CGI-infused film can afford them.They want to “experience it” before they experience it.Because this is how lives are saved.
That’s my plan, anyway.When the world collapses like a folding chair and calls it quits I will defer to cinema for all-important lessons in survival, the first and foremost lesson being do not buy, barter for, steal, accept, or in any way have in my possession a balloon of any kind.Problem is, though I’m fairly certain I have it in me to avoid balloons, all other cinematic survival skills are a little outside my skills set (which includes, in case you were wondering, dangling a spoon from my nose while singing “Lonely Goatherd”).
The last time I held a rifle at a shooting range I ended up sprawled in the dirt with a bruised clavicle.I don’t run.Not even to catch a plane.In a rush, I lope, only faster, like a camel skittering over cobblestones.That’s my run.My diet plan involves being too disgusted to eat by watching Bear Grylls on “Man vs. Wild” thumb a little frog out of the muddy wall of an abandoned railway tunnel in Vietnam, pop it in his mouth and chew.Watching him drink his own urine means I lose five pounds.I once threw my favorite slacks away because the hems got muddy at a music festival.I’d spent hours squatted on folded-up legs in a random tailgate chair in an attempt to avoid said mud at said music festival.Then they made me climb down and go home, thus the muddy hems, thus the pants in the trashcan wadded up under a fan in the shape of a Heineken bottle.
That said, disaster films have taught me that whatever plan I forge in the bitter end must involve the immediate attachment of myself to someone who is the opposite of me (I’m taking applications).Someone without a balloon or a desire to purchase apples in a store run by the antichrist.So that’s my big plan.That’s all I got.That and my ping-pong table.And a margarita.Cheers!