Nonfiction by Joanna Brooks from our Spring 2011 issue.
So there I was: a Mormon girl in Republican Orange County during the Reagan years of the Cold War, watching the jets and helicopters traverse the skies over the orange groves, witnessing with my bodily and spiritual eyes the last hurrah of the Southern California military-industrial complex.
“You see,” my mother would say, standing by the swimming pool, pointing out all the strategic targets within a few miles of our house—south across the groves to El Toro Marine Base, then west across the asparagus and strawberry fields to John Wayne Airport, and the two massive concrete blimp hangars at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station—“They’ll drop the bombs right on top of us.”
“We’ll be fine,” she says, her eyes on the horizon. “We’ll be gone in the twinkling of an eye.”
We hear the whirring of tandem rotors as a green Marine CH-46 helicopter makes its way down eucalyptus-lined Peters Canyon toward the Pacific Ocean.
“No radiation sickness for us,” my mother continues. “No losing teeth and hair. No starving out the nuclear winter.”
“We’re the lucky ones,” she tells herself, then turns and heads back into the house.
We lived, in those years, at the convergence of so many great and terrible narratives: the secular-political history of the late Cold War arms race, nuclear proliferation, Star Wars aligning with the sacred-time narrative of the Last Days. Our President Ronald Reagan the white-cowboy-hat hero of our end-times dreams. He was the rugged American cowboy ridden out from the West like a horseman of the apocalypse to save our divinely inspired Constitution from the dangers of one world government, godless communism, taxes, and other soul-destroying projects of liberalism.
Of course, when I was twelve years old, I did not know how to recognize, let alone reconcile, the beginnings of Mormonism as a renegade marginalized prophetic homegrown American sect driven by mobs beyond the frontiers of the United States into the Great Basin with our late twentieth-century metamorphosis into patriot partisans of the end times.
All I knew was that somehow, history was swinging our way, the way the prophets had always predicted, toward the great destruction that would bring the opening of the skies and the return of a beautiful Jesus, with healing in his wings. On the refrigerator in the kitchen, my mother hung a full color print of that moment: Jesus in his blue-tinged robes, a pink sash around his waist, arms open, troops of heavenly hosts raising their trumpets on either side, the heavens themselves parting, a breach in the fabric of time.
We prepared for that final moment, as well as for more everyday Southern California catastrophes—earthquake, riot, fire—in the most practical of ways. First, each member of my family had an emergency backpack designed to equip us with the necessities of life for at least seventy-two hours:
- a change of clothes
- five packets of nuts and raisins
- one silver space blanket
- three freeze-dried food bars
- two water bottles
- a poncho
- a tiny first aid kit
- a candle
- a bright orange plastic flashlight
Second, our family had an emergency water supply, in case a nuclear attack or ash falling from the skies rendered the water in the swimming pool unfit to drink: industrial-sized water barrels lined the back of the house, with enough water to last us a few weeks, assuming a consumption rate of two gallons of water per person per day. The cupboards in the garage were also stocked, on direction from church leaders, with a year’s supply of food to last the entire family: giant tin drums of hard red wheat kernels, textured vegetable protein, powdered milk, potato pearls, pinto beans, dried apples, and cooking oil.
Once a year or so, all the members of our Mormon congregation practiced what we might do in case of catastrophe, as we walked the house-to-house routes we would use to check on one another. Even eleven- and twelve-year old-girls like me learned the bare skills of survival: how to build fires, lash tables from tree branches, and perform advanced first aid. “Keep lots of trash bags around,” said Sister Triplett, at one of our Tuesday afternoon meetings down at the church building. “You may need them for latrines, or to dispose of dead bodies.” Another Tuesday afternoon, she taught us how to tie off a severed artery. “Just reach in, find the one that’s spurting, and tie a knot in it,” she said.
We prepared for the end times mentally and spiritually as well. I studied the little picture of Jesus’s second coming on the refrigerator, slowly accustoming myself to the idea of a breach in time, surprised by the relief the idea afforded me. My family prayed together every night, fasted once a month, and read our scriptures, a discipline that would sustain us through any disaster and ready us to receive the promptings of the Spirit that would guide us all to safety. In Sunday School, we rehearsed the list of signs of the times compiled from the words of the prophet Isaiah, John the Revelator, Book of Mormon prophets, and our own local homegrown experts, balding, heavy-set men who worked as aerospace engineers during the week, led Boy Scout outings on Saturdays, and studied Egyptology in their home offices on Sundays after church. These signs of the times were:
- Wars and rumors of wars
- Earthquakes in diverse places
- The desert blooming as a rose
- The teaching of organic evolution
- The construction of a great highway from the north
- The organization of the United Nations
- Bar codes on everything
- Strikes, anarchy, and violence
- Love waxing cold
- False prophets and anti-Christs
- The literal gathering of the twelve tribes of Israel—homeward movements of the remnants of Old Testament peoples now scattered across the continents
- Two missionaries or prophets being slain in the streets of Jerusalem, their bodies left to rot for two days
- The building of the New Jerusalem in Missouri
- The Constitution of the United States hanging by a thread, to be rescued by the Elders of the Mormon Church
- The gospel being preached in every nation, to every kindred, and in every tongue
- The ancient arch-enemy forces of Gog and Magog threatening the destruction of Israel
- A war of Armageddon
- The continents coming back together into one land mass
We studied the writings of experts like Cleon Skousen, Mormon conservative, FBI man, Brigham Young University professor, John Bircher, and staunch anti-Communist patrolman of the Mormon corridor, whose books lined the shelves of our Orange County ranch houses: The Naked Communist, The Naked Capitalist, The Making of America, The Miracle of America, The First Two Thousand Years, The Third Thousand Years, The Fourth Thousand Years, Prophecy and Modern Times.
Back in 1963, Skousen sniffed out the secret goals of the Communists in our midst, and compiled a list of warning signs published in anti-Communist bulletins from Florida to California. These warning signs of Communist infiltration included:
- US acceptance of coexistence as the only alternative to atomic war
- US willingness to capitulate in preference to engaging in atomic war
- Development of the illusion that total US disarmament would be an act of moral strength
- Development of free trade between all nations
- Provision of American aid to all nations
- Recognition of Red China
- Abolishment of loyalty oaths
- One or both of the political parties in the US being captured by the Communists
- Communists getting control of the schools, where they would soften the curriculum, and use them as transmission belts for socialism.
- Communist control of all student newspapers
- Infiltration of newspapers, radio, television, and the movies
- Elimination of artistic expression by directing communist-plant art directors and critics who celebrated “ugly, repulsive, meaningless art”
- Elimination of prayer in school
- Infiltration and control of the FBI, unions, and big business
- Discrediting of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers
- Promotion of pornography, homosexuality, divorce, atheism, secularism, and psychiatry
On the clay hills of Orange County, we studied and watched and prayed for the smoke plumes of the end times to rise from the rugged hillsides. What a thrill of relief I felt in the fall of my eleventh year, when the Santa Ana winds blew jets of fire down our dry canyons and the skies turned red, and we loaded our family photographs and books of genealogy into the station wagon and prepared to drive away. As the line of wildfire approached, burning through the eucalyptus groves, I monitored my insides. Terror, panic, tears, the urge to seek comfort from parents—these I observed and then cancelled, proud of my emotional preparedness. In these moments, I soberly reasoned, there was no room for such extravagance.
There were a few signs of the times, signs of creeping moral decay undermining the social fabric of the divinely designed American nuclear family, that Cleon Skousen did not foresee. There was, for example, Phil Donahue, who wedged himself and his liberal prodding microphone into Southern California network television in the early 1980s, his coming forewhispered by my mother and other stalwarts against unwholesome television programming like Three’s Company and other screenfuls of cohabitational jiggling blondes who a simple turn of the dial might admit into our living rooms. Nor did Cleon Skousen foresee the national campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment, to which the Mormon Church declared its formal public opposition in 1979.
When my teacher Mrs. Stick assigned our fourth-grade term paper, I immediately chose the ERA as my research topic. Finding nothing about the amendment on the shelves of my school library, I asked my mother for help. On the kitchen table, she laid out a rainbow arc of glossy pamphlets: the Mormon Church’s official briefing, “The Church and the Proposed Equal Rights Amendment: A Moral Issue,” mailed to every Mormon home, as well as slick little American-flag-festooned brochures produced by Phyllis Schlafly, the carefully coiffured blond matriarch founder of the anti-Communist, pro-family Eagle Forum. I studied the pamphlets closely. From them, I learned that if the United States of America adopted into its Constitution the statement that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” these words would in fact not correct longstanding gender inequities but rather endanger our families, demean the special and sacred roles of women, and harm the United States. Married women and mothers would be drafted into the military. Courts would no longer require men to provide for their wives and children. More women would become lesbians. And, worst of all, the new law might institute unisex bathrooms.
“Of course we don’t oppose equal rights for women,” my mother explained, precise and articulate, as she placed a block of frozen ground beef in the microwave oven. “It’s just that the Equal Rights Amendment is the wrong way to go about it.”
Sitting at the kitchen table, a stack of blank notebook paper before me, with the chunk of frozen beef spinning, warming, and graying in the microwave, I listened and took careful notes. Unisex bathrooms? I tried not to imagine the giant shoes in the next stall, the sight of men’s backsides as they faced the wall holding their private parts: not the innocuous pink digit I had seen when I changed my baby brother’s diaper, but the unimaginable member of the adult male body. In what moral universe, I wondered, was the sight of a strange man’s penis a moral or political good? Surely, if there were a sign of the times, unisex bathrooms could be it.
The summer after sixth grade, I attended a special summer camp for girls at Brigham Young University, where in addition to taking classes in scripture study, scrapbooking, and modest fashions, we gathered every morning in our Sunday dresses in great air-conditioned lecture halls to hear speeches from the men who made a living teaching Church-sponsored seminary classes in Utah public schools.
Driving wood-paneled station wagons and wearing dark polyester suits, they came to point out all the wickedness and worldliness that threatened to engulf us on every side. They told us that we were a powerful generation, living in the sixth millennium since the earth’s creation, the Saturday of time, Sunday being the seventh millennium, the second coming of Jesus Christ. They promised that we ourselves would do battle with Satanic hosts, and some described their own experiences in the mission field, spiritual linebackers clashing with and blocking unseen powers of darkness.
One teacher named Brother Christianson specialized in the dangers of popular music, an urgent hazard facing us youth of the latter days. He told us that Satan specialized in presenting bad things in the guise of good things, transfiguring himself into an angel of light, just to deceive and confuse us. To illustrate his point, he related a local Utah high school legend: how some cheerleaders had once tricked haughty but unsuspecting basketball players into what they thought was a caramel apple eating contest at a pep rally; not until they had wolfed down half the “apples” did the players realize they were actually eating caramel-covered onions. That’s how Satan works too, Brother Christianson said—the caramel is music, one of the sweetest mediums on earth, but instead of wrapping it around wholesome, inspiriting goodness, Satan wraps it around the stinky pungency of pure evil. Cunning as a vengeful cheerleader, he was, that old Satan.
Brother Christianson told us that the music our shaggy-haired seventeen-year-old cousins listened to—Zeppelin, the Eagles, Styx, Electric Light Orchestra—had Satanic messages specially ironed onto its sonic backside. He wheeled out a giant reel-to-reel tape player, and we all leaned forward in our seats in the BYU auditorium to hear Robert Plant make gurgling sounds Brother Christianson decoded for us as “Here’s to my sweet Satan.”
When Brother Christianson finished, we left the air-conditioned lecture halls and wandered out into the bright, ninety-degree summer afternoons, changed from our Sunday dresses into modest one-piece swimsuits, and walked to the dormitory pools, or bought ice cream from the BYU Agriculture Department creamery. Grasshoppers gnashed their heads against the cinderblock walls and yellow grasses. Red-headed boys from nearby farm towns wearing goat ropers and Wrangler jeans waited around outside the lobby, daring themselves to strike up a conversation with out-of-town girls. A few blocks away at the Missionary Training Center, a pageant of farm families and city families boiled over with tears as they one after another kissed their nineteen-year-old missionary sons goodbye for two years.
At night, the nineteen-year-old missionaries in training memorized lessons in Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, and Italian, preparing to fulfill the prophecy that in the last days the gospel would be taught in every nation, to every kindred, and in every tongue. Meanwhile, up in the high-rise Deseret Towers dormitories, my new summer camp girlfriends from small Mormon towns in Wyoming and Nevada and I lay on our narrow dormitory beds in our cotton flannel pajamas. Outside the window, the golden spires of the Provo Temple shone brightly against the shale-covered Wasatch foothills.
Gazing up at the acoustic tile ceilings, my new girlfriends and I talked about all that was afoot in these latter days:
- How the inexplicable little Procter & Gamble insignia—a crescent man-in-the-moon face and stars—was in fact a Satanic emblem, with little “6 6 6”s curled up in his beard in the design.
- How, according to the journals of nineteenth-century Mormon missionaries, Bigfoot is Cain, marked by a suit of dark fur for his crime against his brother, and condemned forever to wander the foothills of the intermountain west.
- How three faithful men from Book of Mormon times who were excused from death by Jesus himself are like Bigfoot-Cain, now wandering the backroads and byways of the intermountain west in the guise of friendly hitchhikers who bail out Mormon cars broken down in the heat or snow.
Growing giddy as the night grew late, we broke out in Disney torch songs adapted for the end times: “Someday, my prince will come . . . In the millennium!” Could it be that we would not attain our maturity before the second coming of Christ? Could it be that the end would come before our first kiss, our first boyfriend? Could it be that a rent in the fabric of time would circumvent our destined confrontation with the unspeakable mysteries of the marriage bed, the reality of the adult male member? Could the end times save us from that end? Might we be transmuted into the eternities unchanged, as chaste as we were in our flannel pajamas in the single-sex BYU dormitories, as chaste as ministering angels?
We could only hope.
A few months after I got home from summer camp, my cousin Ronnie, a Judas Priest fan, shot himself between the eyes with a Saturday night special. He survived, the entire left side of his body crumpled inward and palsied, a living, limping monument to all the warnings and forewhisperings of our teachers and parents in these latter days.
Saturday’s Warrior was the name of a Mormon musical that made the rounds of church houses across the American west during those last years of the Cold War. The play opened in the gauzy realms of pre-earthly life, with a family promising each other to look after one another on earth and help each other return safely home to heaven. The urgency of their promises were, of course, heightened by the fact that it was the Saturday of time, and many apostasy-inducing dangers afoot on the earth threatened the security of the family. In wardhouse cultural halls all across the Mormon west, we saw ourselves, our families on stage, and we sang:
These are the few, the warriors
Saved for Saturday,
To come the last day of the world
These are they, on Saturday.
These are the strong, the warriors
Rising in the might
To win the battle raging in
The hearts of men, on Saturday.
When I was twelve, I dreamed that my father and I were running down the empty freeways of Orange County, California, up and down the overpasses, as the hills turned red with fire and dissolved into great pools of oil. “Oh,” I turned and said to him in great relief, “Isn’t it wonderful that what is going on outside finally matches what is taking place inside the human heart?”
What a gift it was growing up in a world taut with conflict and luminous with meaning, to experience time not as empty, the days not as a sequence of identical rooms to be filled with whatever thin, bright fantasies I myself might collect from television sitcoms and project upon the sheetrock walls, but instead time as a vector of godly intention, the fractal plume of something expansive and infinite, and my purpose to discern the patterns of its unfolding. We rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed the great stories of destruction, the fall of the ancient American civilizations of the Book of Mormon, in my illustrated edition, the gray-haired prophet Mormon deposed in exhaustion on a hill of slain Nephites, cradling the golden plates of the Book of Mormon in one arm, the other arm outstretched toward the red horizon, the wingspans of vultures arcing against the sky: “O, ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord?” We grew up always ready to abandon this world, to take our small backpacks of bottled water, freeze-dried food, first aid kits, and candles, and simply walk away, walk as far as Missouri if we had to, if that was where the New Jerusalem would be built.
What comfort there was in going to sleep each night with a head full of first aid tips, a three-day backpack in the bedroom closet, and down the hall a thousand pounds of wheat sealed up against doom. What a gift it was to be a twelve-year-old girl nestled high and tight in the dormitories at Brigham Young University, while the missionaries-in-training chanted their lessons just a few hundred yards away, and the couples in church clothes with little suitcases came and went from the Provo Temple at all hours steadily doing proxy baptisms and eternal marriages for dead United States presidents and regular people. Like bees in a hive, we were, all about our business—workers, receivers, and foragers—held together by the frequencies of our dance. What a gift it was to be taught to think of myself as a warrior.
For where else as a middle-class white girl in the suburban American west would I find anyone who dared to map an unfolding universe on a chalkboard or hint that time itself might be capable of dilation and compression, as what was experienced as one day in heaven constituted more than a thousand years on earth? Who else could confirm my not altogether incorrect perception that there were powerful forces at work that I myself had little hope of directing, and yet might somehow survive? Who else would teach me how to do the actual work of surviving?
It is September 1,1983. I am twelve years old. We are folding laundry in front of “Days of Our Lives” on the little television set in my mother’s bedroom. Suddenly, a somber-faced Tom Brokaw appears onscreen, with an illustration of a plane hovering over his left shoulder. He announces that Korean Airlines Flight 007 had just been shot down by Soviet jet fighters over the Sea of Japan.
“Oh!” my mother exclaims, bolting upright, her eyes fixed on Tom Brokaw.
My younger sister Melissa looks to me to explain.
“Shhhhh! It’s the Soviets!” my mother hisses, her voice electric with thrill. “This could be it! This could be the end!”
But this was not the end. The skies did not rend. The hills did not melt into pools of oil.
My mind got up and left the room where my mother sat enraptured before the television. My mind stepped outside the vector of time drawn taut by purposeful endings. Upon inspection, I found that the skies were whole and empty of enemies. The canyon winds did not breathe fire. Eucalyptus leaves scratched and scattered against the sidewalk.
It has taken a few decades to adjust to this other world, where time unspools aimlessly, as breath follows breath follows breath. Most of the people I love live here too. They are kind and patient with me, especially when I reach the end of most days feeling what one might call a lack of accomplishment. The people I love drink wine and kiss my cheeks. They invent mini-crises—political, social—to delight themselves. It’s okay, they tell me. Yes, it is, I tell them, my eyes glinting. Yes, it will be. After all, I have enough rice and beans in my garage to last us nine months.
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This essay is featured content from the Spring 2011 issue.
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