Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, pp. 8-12
If you were ever a Cold War kid, then at some point you’ve thought about what you would do when they drop the Big One — when the big map from War Games lights up, the red phone starts blinking, and mushroom clouds start blooming on the horizon.
If you had a particularly vivid — or particularly morbid — imagination, then you may have even concocted several elaborate scenarios for how you might escape and survive The Day After. Me too.
But I know it wasn’t just me. I’ve talked to dozens of folks who had daydreams and nightmares that played out this scenario. I’ve heard or read or watched endless variations of these “what would you do if …” or “what will you do when …” schemes.*
Yet in all those fearful fantasies from all those conversations, articles, books, TV shows and movies, I don’t ever recall anyone saying: “Well, the very first thing I would do is hightail it to a luxury car dealership and buy myself an overpriced, gas-guzzling SUV.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Last week I was too distracted by the aggressive sexism of these pages to note the jarringly weird interlude that begins at the top of page 8. Armed soldiers of the Antichrist have just whisked away Rayford and Amanda Steele, leaving Buck and Chloe alone on the side of a clogged highway in the middle of World War III. And then, abruptly, this:
“This reminds me of when we were first married,” Buck said as Chloe snuggled close to him.
“What do you mean ‘when we were first married’? We’re still newlyweds!”
“Shh!” Buck said quickly. “What’re they saying about New York City?”
Chloe turned up the radio. “… devastating carnage everywhere here in the heart of Manhattan. Bombed-out buildings, emergency vehicles picking their way through debris, Civil Defense workers pleading with people over loudspeakers to stay underground.”
Savor that. Look at those first two paragraphs, then at the second two, and admire the awful audacity of trying to place them in the same chapter, let alone right next to each other like that.
Leave aside the logistical difficulties of “snuggling” in a car that doesn’t have bench seats and just try to imagine what Buck could possibly mean when he says this situation reminds him of “when we were first married.” It’s been less than an hour since they learned that Bruce, the friend who performed their wedding, is dead. Oh, and by the way, World War III has just begun with millions dead as at least three major cities have been destroyed. It might be a time for holding one another close as a shield against the shock, horror and trauma still unfolding around them. But I don’t really think it’s “snuggle” time.
The radio news report is from “the Cable News/Global Community News Network,” which is these books’ version of CNN. Notice that CN/GCNN, at least, is reporting on World War III as it happens. Contrast that with Global Community Weekly, which is not. This doesn’t seem to bother the man in charge of GCW, who only briefly mentioned needing to get to his office before forgetting all about that. He’s now content to snuggle in traffic and let someone else cover this breaking news.
Two things about Jerry Jenkins’ portrayal of CNN here ring true: 1) When a big story breaks, even other journalists turn to them for the initial report; and 2) That initial report is sketchy and uninformative.
The unnamed CN/GCNN reporter in New York doesn’t so much report on the destruction of that city as shout random phrases about his own efforts to escape it:
Buck heard the panic in the reporter’s voice as he continued. “I’m seeking shelter myself now, probably too late to avoid the effects of radiation. No one knows for certain if the warheads were nuclear, but everyone is being urged to take no risks. Damage estimates will be in the billions of dollars. Life as we know it here may never be the same. There’s devastation as far as the eye can see.”
The reporter doesn’t say “as far as the eye can see” from where, but since he seems to be somewhere in Manhattan, I’m going to make a bold guess that these bombs were not nuclear. The map to the right comes courtesy of Carlos Labs’ “Ground Zero” app. It shows the heat effects of a single 1958-era nuclear bomb (like the one Slim Pickens rode in Dr. Strangelove) striking midtown Manhattan. This is only the heat effects — not the blast radius or the radiation effects. That big dark green circle would be on fire. Anyone in the next three concentric circles would suffer third, second or first-degree burns, respectively.
I would guess, then, that if “damage estimates” are only “in the billions of dollars,” and if there are so many survivors that “everyone is being urged to take no risks,” and if “take no risks” remains an imaginable option, then this could not have been a nuclear bomb.
Hard to say, though, since this reporter doesn’t mention any locations, landmarks or people in his report. (I’m not sure he even tries to answer Who, What, When or Where in that report.) What does he focus on? What is the major theme of his perilous effort to report live from the site of a perhaps-nuclear bomb attack? What else?
All major transportation centers have been closed if not destroyed. Huge traffic jams have snarled the Lincoln Tunnel, the Triborough Bridge, and every major artery out of New York City. What has been known as the capital of the world looks like the set of a disaster movie. Now back to the Cable News/Global Community News Network in Atlanta.
The Triboro, as that name suggests, is not an “artery out of New York City.” (At first it seemed strange to me that so many people would be trying to flee to Queens, but then I realized that there are a lot of car rental places out by LaGuardia and — as we’re about to learn — in the world of Left Behind, one’s first concern following a nuclear attack should be to return one’s rental car.)
Having a reporter describe the devastation of a real-life bomb blast as “like the set of a disaster movie” could be a good device in a satirical novel skewering the ineptitude of broadcast journalists or lampooning the abstraction of our mediated culture. But this not-CNN reporter uses this phrase because Jerry Jenkins thought it was a sufficient, meaningful and vivid description. (Apprentice level courses still only $1,000 at the Christian Writer’s Guild!)
Here is where we get a page of Chloe whining and fretting indecisively while Buck ponders his own manly resourcefulness and perceives the powerful-yet-unused engine of his car as a metonymy for his manhood. And then:
Suddenly an explosion rocked their car and nearly lifted it off its tires. Buck wouldn’t have been surprised had the windows blown in around them. Chloe shrieked and buried her head in Buck’s chest. Buck scanned the horizon for what might have caused the concussion. Several cars around them quickly pulled off the road. In the rearview mirror Buck saw a mushroom cloud slowly rise and assumed it was in the neighborhood of O’Hare International Airport, several miles away.
I don’t know for certain if that mushroom cloud is nuclear, but I would urge everyone to take no risks. (If that was a nuclear bomb, and it merely “rocked their car,” then I’ll assume that Nicolae Carpathia is just stretching his legs in the early going of World War III by using up all the little nukes the Global Community confiscated from places like the former nations of Pakistan and North Korea before he moves on to the big ones confiscated from the former nations of the U.S. and Russia.)
Buck’s response is his idea of the manliest thing that a man’s man can do:
Buck looked quickly behind him and out both side windows. As soon as the car ahead gave him room, he whipped the wheel left and punched the accelerator. Chloe gasped as the car jumped the curb and went down through a culvert and up the other side. Buck drove on a parkway and passed long lines of creeping vehicles.
“What are you doing, Buck?” Chloe said, bracing herself on the dashboard.
“I don’t know what I’m doing, babe, but I know one thing I’m not doing: I’m not poking along in a traffic jam while the world goes to hell.”
In every town in America, there’s a road with a douchebag lane. It might be the shoulder of a highway, or the stretch of left lane after the third sign warning “left lane ends 500 feet.” Or it might be a “right turn only” lane at a busy stoplight.
The d-bag lane wasn’t intended to be the d-bag lane. It was intended to be the shoulder, or a right-turn only lane, and it is still, occasionally, used for those intended purposes. But more often it’s used by d-bags. Hence the name. Thus while everyone else is merging in an orderly manner on the highway, or while all the rest of the cars going straight at the light wait their turn in the proper lane, the d-bags use their designated lane to speed past all those other suckers and cut to the front.
Like all line-jumpers, the drivers who use the d-bag lane seem to think this is an ingeniously clever ploy. They seem to imagine that everyone else waiting their turn in traffic or in any other such line is only doing so because they weren’t clever enough to come up with the idea of running to the front and cutting everyone else off. They seem to imagine that the rest of the people in the line, seeing them pull this d-bag move, are kicking themselves and thinking, “Wow, he just went all the way to the front without waiting! Why didn’t I think of that?”
I always assumed that none of the people in that line, or in any line, ever, was actually thinking that. But apparently Jerry Jenkins was. Apparently one day he saw some d-bag race past a line of cars in the right-turn-only lane and thought to himself, “That guy is so cool! Someday I’m going to have the hero of my novel do that so that readers will see just how awesomely clever he is!”
One difference between the usual scenario of d-bags using their designated lane and what Buck is doing here is that usually there isn’t a mushroom cloud rising just a few short miles away. It seems unlikely that Buck would be the only driver to decide to get creative after seeing that.
Buck was waved at, pointed at, and hollered at by traffic cops, and he was honked at and obscenely gestured at by other motorists.
He was not deterred.
Because, you see, everyone’s car was just rocked by the blast of a perhaps-nuclear bomb and everyone sees the mushroom cloud, but only Buck Williams thinks about trying to get away. So there’s no mass panic, no other cars trying to cut across medians or swerve onto the shoulder. No pile-ups and collisions as thousands of drivers simultaneously slam on the gas thinking “Holy crap! A mushroom cloud!”
Nope, only Buck.
I think that sentence — “He was not deterred” — does a good job of getting inside the head of the kind of person who utilizes the d-bag lane. All those people waving, pointing, hollering and honking may perceive him, rightly, as a colossal douchebag, but he perceives himself as brave, resolute, resourceful and “undeterred.”
“Where are you going?” Chloe insisted.
“I need a new car,” he said. “Something tells me it’s going to be our only chance to survive.”
“What are you talking about?”
With that last question, I think, Chloe speaks for all of us.
“Don’t you see, Chlo’?” he said. “This war has just broken out. It’s not going to end soon. It’s going to be impossible to drive a normal vehicle anywhere.”
“So what’re you gonna do, buy a tank?”
“If it wasn’t so conspicuous, I just might.”
I would not. An M1 Abrams tank gets about 0.6 miles to the gallon, and even though we’re only about an hour into World War III at this point in the story, I’m guessing that gasoline is already difficult, if not impossible, to purchase even paying 10 times yesterday’s prices. Plus a tank only has a maximum speed of about 45 mph.
Come the apocalypse, I’d go with a motorcycle. Much better fuel economy, much easier to navigate around traffic jams and checkpoints.
Better yet, in this particular form of apocalypse, I’d go with a horse. By that I also mean that I’d make a beeline for the kind of place where a horse makes more sense than a car. “Flee to the mountains” Jesus advised in the one place where LaHaye-style End Times enthusiasts believe he directly addressed their obsession. Seems like good advice in this scenario.
Buck drives “between tennis courts and across soccer and football fields” and we get a couple more paragraphs about the geography of suburban Chicago (“write what you know”):
He wanted to wind up on Northwest Highway, where a series of car dealerships comprised a ghetto of commercialism.
A last sweeping turn led Buck out of the subdivision, and he saw what his favorite traffic reporter always said was “heavy, slow, stop-and-go” traffic all along Northwest Highway. He was in a mood and a groove, so he just kept going.
As with the instance quoted earlier, in which Buck refers to Chloe as “babe,” I’m reminded here that there are some words that some people just shouldn’t try to use. Buck Williams should not say “babe,” ever. And Jerry Jenkins should probably avoid the word “groove.” Also: “ghetto.”
Pulling around angry drivers, he rode along a soft shoulder for more than a mile until he came upon those car dealerships.
“Bingo!” he said.
Imagine you work at a car dealership on the Northwest Highway near Chicago.
It’s kind of a slow morning. Business has picked up over the last few months after the auto market cratered in the aftermath of the Event. But today there’s not much happening.
And then World War III starts. New York, London and Washington are all destroyed and there’s even been an airstrike at an old military base not far from where you are. After that you get almost no foot-traffic at all in the dealership. So you and your co-workers are just sitting around watching the scenes of devastation unfolding on the television as “the Cable News/Global Community News Network in Atlanta” breathlessly fails to provide any coherent details of what’s happening.
Then the walls shake and the CN/GCNN anchor reports:
“This from Chicago: Our news base there has been taken out by a huge blast. No word yet on whether this was an attack by militia forces or a Global Community retaliatory strike. We have so many reports of warfare, bloodshed, devastation, and death in so many major cities around the globe that it will be impossible for us to keep up with all of it. …”
You don’t hear the rest of the broadcast, though, because this d-bag pulls up in a Lincoln and says he wants to buy a car.
That’s the annoying thing about trying to follow a breaking news story when you’re at work. It seems like some customer always interrupts you just before you get to hear what the deal is with that mushroom cloud you see out the window.
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* I’ve never seen any studies on this, exploring the potential or actual effect of growing up with a constant background fear/expectation of nuclear annihilation. It seems odd not to think it would have some effect. I’ve no idea how such a thing might be measured, but it seems to me that two generations raised with the prolonged anxiety that their future may consist of only mushroom clouds might have something to do with how those generations think and plan for the future. Maybe some small contributing factor in our inability to come to grips with the long-term implications of climate change, or our failure to think long-term when it comes to maintaining and upgrading the national infrastructure. Perhaps this even contributes to the notorious failure of boomers and Gen X-ers to save for retirement (although the biggest factor there, I think, is that these generations were taught that income rises over time — which hasn’t been true since the oldest boomers were kids).
This question of anxiety and fear of a futureless world, and how such views affect one’s ability to plan for the long-term also seem pertinent with regard to the followers of apocalyptic “Bible prophecy” teachers like Tim LaHaye. It seems to me that if it’s 1995, and you’re reading Left Behind and believing every word it says about how Jesus is coming back very, very, very soon, then you probably don’t much care that your city’s water mains were built 90 years ago and were originally intended to be replaced after 50 years. They’ve made it this far, you probably think, so they should last until Jesus comes back, right?
P.S. The title of this post comes from a terrific Daniel Amos song spoofing prosperity gospel preachers. Here’s how it sounded on the 1983 album Doppelgänger, and here’s how it sounds these days from the still-out-there-working band.
I mention this here because I love that song, and because it’s yet another reminder to myself to see if I can’t someday get around to that big post exploring how early Jesus rockers like DA moved past the End Times-obsessed themes of Left Behind to a more sustainable form of faith.