6 Realities Of Growing Up Expecting The Apocalypse
Devin Powell was in middle school when his family packed up to await the 2011 apocalypse that evangelist Harold Camping had told America was coming. They had spent years preparing for the appointed date, and then, unless we missed something, the apocalypse did not in fact occur. What's it like to spend your childhood assuming the world will end, only to have the rug not pulled out from under you? We had to know.
For Some, The Impending Apocalypse Is An Everyday Part Of Childhood
In 1994, Evangelist radio host Harold Camping, fresh off a failed apocalypse prediction, claimed that he had made a math error and decreed that the rapture was actually going to happen on May 21, 2011, with the world ending for good by October. His prediction, based on the Bible and math (seriously), gained more and more believers as the date approached. Family Radio, his station, saw record listeners and donations -- to the tune of about $20 million a year. This was a huge deal.
"I was 11 at the time," says Powell, "and I was beginning to get that 'Do you have proof?' nagging. But the numbers made sense a bit. My mom definitely believed it."
The rest of his family grudgingly went along, like that family vacation where Mom drags everyone out to someplace called "Dollywood." As for Powell, he was just a kid who, at heart, wanted it to be true. "I remember Camping saying things like 'Everyone who matters to you you'll see in Heaven' ... I had to listen to it almost every day. It stuck. I was thinking about no more homework ever again. Laying on a beach all the time. And that day was coming up."
It wasn't only his family. They were in a circle of friends who all believed. Powell's mother had one particularly zealous friend who owned T-shirts and bumper stickers proclaiming the rapture message. She'd go around to colleges, spreading the good(?) news. She even hijacked one of Powell's Cub Scout meetings, explaining to the kids how she was burdened with the task of telling people of the approaching end times. While it made for a better lecture than how to make 28 types of knots, it wasn't the stuff that normal, healthy childhoods are made of. Especially considering that the rest of the time, little Devin had to be that zealot to his friends ...
Mockery From Other Students Planted Seeds Of Doubt
Unlike other kids around 2009-2011, who were into things like Phineas And Ferb and Scumbag Steve memes, all Powell would talk about was the world ending. But like any Nutralife salesperson, he had trouble getting anyone to be receptive except those that were already part of it. "Except for the son of my mom's friends, no one else in school believed ... at school, it was open season. I was made fun for believing in it, but I always brushed it off ... I figured I'd take these lumps now, and then I'd go to Heaven and they wouldn't."
He listened to hours of Camping's preaching, including his vivid description of what ascending would be like (basically, everything crumbling around you as you flew into the sky). It brought him peace. For a while, that is.
In about March of 2011, two months before the great human die-off was to begin, Powell's class did an exercise in which each student would play one of their classmates. Supposedly this was to teach respect for each other and in no way make kids feel terrible about all of their flaws and mannerisms being comically imitated by their peers. To Powell's surprise, every kid wanted to play him -- in this class, he was the impression everyone could do. He was their Tommy Wiseau. "I asked why, and a kid next to me said, 'Because all you do is say that the world's ending. You're so easy.' It was hurtful, but I'd endured worse. For some reason, though, it stuck with me."
In the eyes of his peers, Powell's crazy beliefs were all he was -- they had turned him into a caricature. Once that revelation hit, his mom allowed him onto the computer to read about Camping, in order to reassure him that it was the kids who were wrong, and that they would soon be facing the Lord's wrath. But little Devin was shocked by what he found.
"After I clicked a bit, I came across a list of every failed prediction like this ever. Many sounded like Camping. Part of me was still saying that these weren't predicted mathematically, but there were some lines others had said that Camping had said almost word for word." If you want to know why the grown-ups couldn't follow that same simple path of logic, well, good luck solving one of the most profound mysteries of the human condition.
The True Believers Abandoned Their Lives And Quit Their Jobs
Regardless of their son's growing doubts, Powell's family and other Camping believers started preparing for the end. They prayed together, listened to Camping, looked at maps of where destruction would be (on May 21st, each time zone would be rocked by disasters as it hit 6 p.m., since time zones are obviously a divine invention), made predictions on what would get destroyed (San Francisco would be tidal-waved, while next-door neighbor Oakland, where Camping was based, would be fine), and rented a bunker.
Strangely enough, Powell's father seemed to just go along with his wife's beliefs almost for his own amusement. (Spoiler alert: Their marriage would not survive this.) "My dad was not really into the rapture, but he did like history, and he thought that spending a day in a bunker that was used during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Y2K scare was pretty cool. The week leading up to it, after school, I was helping my dad stock it up. It had electricity and a phone line, so we had everything we needed to keep track of it as it happened."
Along with a family from Oregon who pulled up in a minivan with the word "REPENT" on the side, they were ready for the end. Only a day's worth of supplies were brought (because duh). The zealous family friend we mentioned earlier left her job and drove straight to Oakland. Many of Camping's listeners did the same, all spurred by Family Radio's $100 million worldwide apocalyptic promotional campaign. Powell's family, based on instructions in a broadcast, began writing up lists of people they wanted to visit in Heaven ... although Devin's list was quickly culled by his mom.
"I had a crush on Miley Cyrus, and she was #1 before my grandparents. My mom looked over my list and crossed her name out at the top. He reasoning was, 'She's the wrong kind of Baptist. She won't make it.' She also crossed out other names, so I was stuck with a list of family, a few friends, and my pastor."
Then Came The Most Awkward Moment Imaginable
On May 20th, Powell and his sisters were picked up at school and driven out to the bunker. Along with the Oregon family, they had a computer, radio, and TV up and running to track the destruction. As the day and night wore on, they couldn't help noticing that the Rapture was not occurring. Instead of earthquakes and fire, 2011 simply rolled on unabated, the peoples of the world obliviously planking while playing Angry Birds and hating Tim Tebow.
"I remember going to sleep, and when I woke up, I saw the four adults looking disappointed," recalls Powell. "By now, it had hit 6 p.m. in a lot of the world, and nothing had happened. My mom had been happy for weeks, but now she looked really worried. Our beds were cots, and I started taking off the sheets because I thought we would be going home, but she saw me and said, 'Leave them on. We won't need them where we're going.'"
By 7, his mother and the Oregon family were sobbing. "I didn't feel what they felt, but I had a feeling of 'Now what?' We stayed a bit longer, but my dad finally told us quietly to pack up. My youngest sister asked, 'When is it going to happen?' Dad said, 'I don't think it's happening after all.'"
With it being dark out and Family Radio being mysteriously quiet about the rapture not occurring, it was a long ride back to the intact, mundane world. "It was dark on the way back, but we'd get a streetlight here and there, and when it was on, for a second as we passed it, my mom looked devastated."
The Aftermath Was Even More Dire Than You'd Think
What's worse than the world not ending after years of waiting for it? Dealing with a world firmly in "Told ya so" mode. Church was awkward for his family, and his usually talkative mother was quiet. But the worst was to come Monday, when Powell had to meet the cruelest fate imaginable: mockery from middle school students.
They were, to put it succinctly, relentless. Even his teacher got in on it. "There was a serial homework forgetter in class, and when he forgot again, she said, 'You forgot it again? You are the only person to keep this up since the beginning of the school year. Even Devin stopped talking about the apocalypse!' It's not good when the fucking teacher lets you have it."
But it was bad for all of Camping's followers. Powell's mother was in a daze for weeks. Others had been giving away money in the last few days because they thought they didn't need it -- some in six and seven figures. Oh, and at least one person committed suicide.
"My mom was more in on it religiously," says Powell, "so this huge event that would save us didn't happen. There's this emptiness and sadness and anger my mom went through. She was always out there, and I'll always love her, but she was never the same after that. That 110 percent she always put into Camping and church in general was gone. She still went to church, but that was it. It happened with everyone who followed him."
It even happened to Camping. He bowed out after the secondary October 2011 date failed to end the world, severely crippling Family Radio along the way. Historically, that's about the best possible outcome for people who do this kind of shit.
It's Shocking How The Belief Sticks Around
"The craziest thing about this is that it never truly leaves you," says Powell. "If you ever see a documentary where former cult members still talk fondly about a cult leader , it's easy to say 'They're crazy,' but it's not that. Or not completely. I get why they're like that. Because this happened. I'm still tied to it a bit ..."
Even with what looks to the rest of the world like the most hilarious failure possible, there's still a part of Powell that believes. His parents actually divorced over it. Powell's father got custody thanks to his mother's, uh, leanings. "She said in front of the judge that she still believed the rapture was imminent, and I know today she still thinks it. Right now, she thinks the world will end in the next few years." (Yes, she found another Bible expert who claims to have discovered a secret truth.) And remember the hardcore friend of his mother? Powell says she wound up a Mayan apocalypse believer a few months after the Camping prediction, her car littered with "12.21.12 -- Repent" stickers.
Ultimately, people believe what they need to.
As for Powell, Camping's prediction instilled an interest in how the world was going to end, which led to him reading up on ways it could happen that involved real data and science that could be tested. This led to an interest in climate change, and thanks to that, when he starts college in the fall, he'll be going into atmospheric and oceanic studies.
"My mom isn't happy about that."
Evan V. Symon is a writer, interview finder, and journalist for the Personal Experiences section at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience you'd like to see up here? Then hit us up in the forums.
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