Tom Ridge's rainbow of terrorist threat levels can't faze me. I spent my childhood on permanent Orange Alert.
My mother believed that we were on the brink of Armageddon, that the antichrist would arrive at any moment with the singular goal of helping Satan seduce Christians away from the Lord. This meant we spent a lot of time preparing for the End of Days. The dank basement of our Milwaukee home became a sort of mini-mart for the apocalypse, with shelf after shelf of Campbell's soup, StarKist tuna, Skippy and Jif peanut butters (creamy and crunchy). There were Pop Tarts, canned fruit medley, pork and beans, cream-style corn.
My mother hoped her stockpile would keep us from having to sell our souls in order to eat during the final days. Any time my father teased her about her ever-growing grocery collection, she would just smile and say: "Laugh now, but you'll thank me when you have to choose between eating this and having 666 tattooed on your forehead so you can buy groceries."
We didn't go in much for fairy tales in my house. But I was certainly schooled in my mother's favorite literature: the New Testament's final book, The Revelation to John.
My mother believed that the Revelation was an actual blueprint for how the world would end. She wanted to protect us, so she constantly warned of the antichrist, who would pretend to be Jesus returned to Earth for the Second Coming.
She was certain that the time was at hand when only those willing to renounce God and accept the "mark of the beast" would be able to use credit cards, visit stores and function in society. And she was determined that none of us would be tempted during the dark days ahead.
No Jehovah's Witness or born-again Christian, my mother was an old-fashioned Irish American Catholic. She loved the church but thought it was making a tragic mistake by downplaying Armageddon. She wanted priests to start prepping parishioners for impending doom. But her apocalyptic beliefs frustrated Milwaukee's men of the cloth, who had little interest in a local housewife suggesting topics for their Sunday sermons. They were definitely not amused when she began writing letters to the pope encouraging him to address the issue. But her apocalyptic warnings never seemed to bother her Catholic friends -- probably because most who knew her suspected she was a modern-day saint.
My mother devoted her life to her five children, and she was motivated by genuine concern for our souls. But the years of apocalyptic training didn't do much for my psyche. I became a nervous child, terrified that, in a moment of weakness, I might grow so sick of gorging on potato flakes and dehydrated milk that I'd sneak into a satanic supermarket, get implanted with a bar code and find myself eternally damned.
By the time I was 7, I started worrying about the practical aspects of the Rapture, the time when angels are supposed to rescue true believers from hellfire and brimstone. What if I missed the Rapture call? Would the angels be able to find me down in that basement, eating tuna sandwiches? Would I have a moment to say goodbye to my unsaved friends before they died in the doomsday plagues that my mother described in vivid detail?
Later, my mother tried to organize Armageddon drills. We were to head for the cellar at the first sign of 666. We would then survive on nonperishables and wait for the incoming angels. But time -- and teenagehood -- had robbed my mother's words of their ability to terrify. Now I just rolled my eyes and went to my room. When she fretted about how we would get to the roof when we heard the Rapture call, my sister and I talked about designing "Break Glass in Case of Armageddon" emergency kits, complete with rope ladders for easy roof access. My mom was not amused. She insisted that we had no time for jokes, with the end being nigh and all.
The memories have all come back lately as we are told that all households and cities should prepare their own detailed disaster plans. It's beginning to seem that my mother was ahead of her time. I've thought of her with every story about terror-stricken Americans stocking up on plastic sheeting and duct tape and bottled water. It's no longer a lone devout mother sounding the alarm: The Department of Homeland Security has taken up the cry.
But it's too late for me to heed the call. I've given up living in constant terror. It's not that I think there aren't real threats out there. Plenty of countries hate the United States right now. Terrorists could strike at any time. Unexpected diseases like SARS can spread quickly and kill people.
There's nothing wrong with preparing for the worst, but I've seen firsthand how apocalyptic fears can consume you. I've lived that way, and it's exhausting. Growing up in a perpetual state of high alert never made me safer, but it did interfere with my ability to plan for an actual future.
I'm probably just being territorial, but it seems as if most of the nation has jumped on my mother's terror bandwagon. "These people are amateurs," I tell my sister. "Mom could have taught them a thing or two about this whole 'end of the world' thing."
My mother died of a heart attack in 1997, though, so I can only guess how she'd react to the national fear epidemic. Maybe she would have written to President Bush requesting a specific grocery list for each color level of alertness. Maybe she'd be advising neighbors preparing for an attack -- nuclear, chemical or biblical -- that if they're going to start hoarding duct tape and plastic sheeting, it can't hurt to stock up on a little cream-style corn too.
But I like to think that if she'd lived, she would have brought some clarity to this crisis, that she would now be able to warn people about how perpetual fear of an apocalyptic crisis can take over one's life, leaving one with more Jell-O than any family should consume in one lifetime.