Late one night as a child, in bed in my room, with heat lightning quaking sourceless on the horizon and lighting the world in quick flashes, I convinced myself the missiles had flown and the bombs had begun to fall. After each flash came a low concussion like the coughs of my cancer-killed uncle, and while waiting for the brief white light that came before forever and forever, I fell to my knees and asked God to spare this sinful world. Down the road a quarter mile I could see in the lightning strikes the spire of the Baptist church where I’d first learned of the lake of eternal fire and heard grown men speak of the end as a thing soon to be, and kneeling there on the floor of my unclean room, I swore it had come.
This was 1983, not long after the Soviet Union’s early warning system erroneously reported the launch of American Minuteman missiles, and the world came as close as it had ever come to nuclear war. I was eleven years old, voice not yet deepened, the Cold War still as cold as the nuclear winter scientists theorized would descend on us after the bombs fell and the world caught fire, and the smoke from the burning obscured the sun, turned it black as sackcloth. The Four Horsemen would come riding down from the sky in missile streaks, and those distant flashes of lightning would grow to envelop us all. In my elementary school we had learned what to do in case of nuclear war, sirens went off at regular intervals, and on spring afternoons when black clouds boiled out of the west and bent the trees horizontal, we crawled under our desks as the wind howled and howled, and our born-again teacher led us in prayer or read to us the story of Jesus calming the storm.
This was it, I was sure. I’d never seen lightning like this, every few seconds the world gone white and bright as day. The tops of the trees stirred in a wind that didn’t touch the ground, as if unseen airplanes streaked low overhead, and long growls of thunder joined one with another until the ground shook and the windows rattled violently in their panes. I’ve never been as scared as I was at that moment, with the only exception being the two times my wife lay giving birth, and I wore a pacing hole at the foot of the hospital bed and made myself sick with worry until heads crowned, and these tiny beautiful daughters came crying into the world. Any second now, I thought that night, thin wires of fire would fall out of the heavens, and everything we knew and loved would end. Only a few weeks before, the Soviet Union had shot down a Korean airliner with a U.S. Congressman on board, and every storm that raged through our town seemed another sign that the end was near. The pastors preached it from the pulpit and even the president seemed to fear what might fall on us out of the sky.
Twenty years later, in March 2003, as airplanes began to descend toward Baghdad, a spring storm sent the shadows of the trees swaying on the walls of my daughters’ bedroom, and they woke crying after a sudden clap of thunder sounded loud as the last days of the earth. My wife and I rushed to hold them, whisper soft words in their ears. Our daughters were six and three then, terrified of the violent world outside the window, and so we stood there giving them what words we could to comfort them, saying It will be all right and Everything’s fine.
Later we’d hear the news that another Gulf War had begun, not far from the Plains of Megiddo, where prophecy says the final battle will take place. We’d see the footage of what looked like lightning over a dark city, hear the harsh thundering cough of too-close bombs, the dull drum of machine-gun fire, the cameras capturing the night all shaking, the sky rattling in each explosion. Smoke rose like mist from the river, and children woke to sounds they did not understand, as brief white light flashed on the quaking bedroom walls.
Paul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays 2005 and 2011, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Ecotone, Glimmer Train, Epiphany, North American Review, and Southern Humanities Review, among others.