The Last Time the World was Supposed to End

A Y2K bunker. Although it doesn’t look like this one was very well-supplied.

So we survived yet another supposed apocalypse.You know, I have never been able to take threats of the end of the world very seriously.  I suppose it’s due to the fact that in recent year, the talk of the end of days has come from the extreme type, those whose religious views are so out there that they may as well be something out of a bad movie about a cult.  I suppose our popular culture hasn’t helped either.  Turn on your average cable channel these days and while you surf through the low- class sideshow it has become (seriously, this is what I begged my parents for when I was a teenager?) you will more than likely come across a History Channel special where faux academics are interviewed about the vague statements made by someone before the flushable toilet was invented, or stuff like Doomsday Preppers.

I am not sure if the shows like these glorify these idiots or ridicule them.  It seems like the fringe is more in the spotlight than they ever were, but it is hard to consider them “legitimate” because there really aren’t any threats anymore.  It’s not like it’s 1962 anymore and we’re all building bombs shelters in our backyards because we are all scared of the bomb.  As advanced as I guess the Mayans seemed, it was an ancient prophecy that seemed as unlikely as the prediction made last year by some dipwad who claimed that The Rapture was upon us (although I always thought The Rapture was not really in the book of Revelation, and instead was manufactured by someone who wanted followers to give him money).  Besides, I had already become skeptical of apocalypse predictions years ago when Y2K didn’t happen.

Now, I’ m sure that most people who may read this remember what Y2K was, but its prominence as a threat to our society seems to have faded over time, becoming a footnote at least or the answer to a trivia question at best.  In fact, the sophomores I teach had no idea what I was talking about when we were talking about the Mayan Apocalypse during some down time on the last day of classes before Christmas break.  So, if you don’t know or don’t remember, Y2K was basically a widespread computer glitch that was going to destroy us all.  The problem, basically, was that most co.puters were programmed with internal clocks that only displayed years with two digits.  So, 1999 was simply 99.  And on January 1, 2000, these computers would all display “00,” and since they didn’t know the difference between centuries, the computers would think it was not 2000, but 1900, and would shut down or something (this NPR piece has a great summary of the issue).

I first learned about it in Time when I came  across the article “The End of the World As We Know It,” a title I suppose the magazine’s editors probably thought was hip but was really groan-worthy.  Anyway, I had come across the article when I was in the Honors Program study lounge at Loyola, intending to do what everyone who went to the lounge always did, which was nap on the couch.  Instead I got sucked into the story of the the Eckhart family of rural Ohio, who were among a population of very religious people who were convinced that it was the End of Days and had started to stockpile all sorts of supplies,including weapons, for the coming doom.  They had even gone as far as to make bunkers, just like it was the Cuban Missile Crisis all over again.  I was a typically self-absorbed college senior whose two major concerns were writing my weekly column in the student paper, and having the gas money to get to my girlfriend’s house on Friday night.  Besides, I was set to graduate in May and only pulling 12 credits that semester, so I really didn’t give a crap.

Okay, that’s not entirely true,because I did run a Y2K compliance check on my computer (because my PC was so decrepit at that point that I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had exploded that January 1), and I had seen enough science fiction to wonder if it could really happen.  But really, I just went about my business.

Which was a lot for one year in my life.  I snagged a job before graduation, spent the summer back and forth between Long Island and D.C., saw The Phantom Menace three times in the theater (don’t laugh, you did too), and in September packed up everything and moved to Arlington.  I started that job, with the CIA, in October, and remember having a very tough time adjusting to life on my own.  Sure, there was the routine of work that was relatively easy to adjust to, but I didn’t like the job at all and wound up becoming a pretty miserable pill most of the time.  I guess that drastic of a change in your living situation will do that, especially when you were as “green”as I was at 22.

Still, 1999 was a monumental year and 2000 was going to be monumental as well, or at least that is what the media kept telling us.  I remember seeing the word “millennium” plastered over everything as early as 1998, so what we were promised on 12/31/99 was the ultimate in Rockin’ Eves, complete with its own potential catastrophe.  What we got was … well, every other shitty New Year’s Eve.

Now, to be fair, I have never liked New Year’s Eve.  It’ s a forced party night where everything is overpriced and underwhelming.  I think there are only a handful in my life that I remember as good, so I don’t put much stock in the night.  It was a Friday, so I didn’t have to work, and so I headed to my future in-laws’ house and we watched ABC News’ global coverage all day.

This was pretty unprecedented for a major network.  Usually, they would air regularly scheduled programming all day and some sort of special at night.  ABC would start Dick Clark at around 10:00, break for the 11:00 news, and I’d stay up until about 12:15 (I am an insanely boring person).  In 1999, they did a marathon of coverage from all over the globe, showing all sorts of awesome fireworks displays.  They even had Sam Donaldson in the Y2K Command Center in Washington, just in case shit got real.  But what we got was …

Yeah, pretty much a check-in that was a non-humorous equivalent of “Our top story tonight:  General Francisco Franco is still dead.”  I mean, I think that by mid-morning, if I had any idea that planes would start falling out of the sky, that was shot completely apart because if it didn’t happen halfway across the world, it surely wasn’t going to happen here (because despite what NBC tries to do with the Olympics, the entire planet is not on Eastern Time).  I got up the next day, headed back to my apartment and went to work on January 2.  And January 3.  And with the exception of the occasional period of unemployment, every day since then.

As the Mayan Apocalypse loomed, however, I honestly wondered what happened to the people who were in the article.  A rudimentary Google search doesn’t turn anything up about these people specifically–they have a name that is rather ordinary so searching for them pulls up quite a number of people–and a search for stories about people who were in Y2K bunkers seem to be pretty rare.  I did come across a blog entry called “How I Survived the Y2K Disaster,” although while the author does detail the lengths her mother went to in order to stockpile for the coming disaster, the aftermath is simply, like “Oh well, we lived.”

Then again, I can imagine that quite a number of people came out of their bunkers and took whatever potential embarrassment there was in stride, clinging to whatever beliefs brought them to that place and continuing to insist that the end was still coming, it just didn’t happen right then and there.  I wonder if any stayed in there for a while and then came out.  I wonder if any are still there.  Hell, I wonder if any of them sold their houses in the years since and listed the “Y2K bunker” in the listing as a way to advertise the property.  Because, you know, I’m looking for that when I check out real estate–three bedrooms, two bathrooms, central air, stainless steel appliances, and a Y2K bunker.

But whatever happened to those people, they were at least good for some entertainment for a few months back at the turn of the century.  Tonight, I’ll simply be hanging out, maybe read a book, think of a few resolutions that I’ll most likely break before Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and think of Dick Clark as I watch the ball drop in Time Square and the world keeps going.

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