Thursday, November 02, 2006


Visions of hell and atomic-bomb drills


John Chuckman

The night the president said he was sending more troops to Vietnam Jack had a terrible dream.

He was alone in the apartment, the old apartment on 79th Street. He went to bed after watching a late movie on T.V. and just lay there for a while in the humid, summery darkness, listening to sounds out on the street, trying to fall asleep. Finally, he did.

Then suddenly he was awake again. It was still dark. There was a loud sound outside. It was a harsh, wailing sound that kept rising and falling.

He knew what it was. He'd heard that sound so many times. Every Tuesday morning at 10:30, for years. It was the air-raid siren. He lay there, terrified, listening to the gloomy, mechanical sound, hoping it would stop. But it didn't stop.

He jumped up from bed, breathing hard, feeling sweaty and clammy all over. He ran to the living room. The windows were open because it was hot. A thin breeze was pushing at the curtains.

Jack knelt in front of a window and looked out. He was relieved that it was such an ordinary-looking summer night, except for the people standing down on the street corner. It was late for so many people to be there. They were all looking up, listening, wondering what the sirens meant.

Suddenly the entire sky lit up with an electric-blue flash that was dazzling. It was so intense, Jack thought he could actually feel it penetrating the backs of his eyes. His face and eyes were stinging.

Jack sensed that the light faded quickly, as quickly as it appeared, although he was blinded by its afterimage. He noticed the sirens had stopped.

He could smell something burning. Then, dimly at first, he saw fires all over the neighborhood. Everything that could burn had burst into flames. Signs, awnings, doors, paint, curtains and tree tops all were burning, shooting sparks up.

He saw the people again on the street corner. They were burning, too. He watched in horror as their naked bodies stood burning, ashes flying up into the fire-lighted sky. Their flesh melted and ran in thick drops like hot candle wax.

He saw something off in the distance, just the edge of a huge, dark, blurry shape, towards downtown. His view wasn't clear, but it didn't matter. He knew what it was.

Within seconds he heard a tremendous explosion. He not only heard the sound, he felt it vibrate through everything. Just like the light flash, the sound of the explosion entered directly into his brain. Almost at the same time, a wind, more like a tidal wave than a wind, roared across everything in front of him.

The building trembled underneath him. Every pane of glass in the apartment seemed to shatter. Trees bent over and cracked, some were swept away like giant tumble weeds. The burning bodies were hurled off their feet, joining a torrent of signs and litter and trees, tumbling end over end down the street, some of it crashing into walls.

Then the walls that seemed so solid, as bodies and debris struck them, began to crumble. At first the brick walls swayed and looked almost rubbery. Then bricks broke loose and flew away on the raging wind. Finally, whole walls and buildings were swept away as the last bit of whatever anchored them broke loose.

Jack had this overwhelming sense of hopelessness, of everything he ever knew or cared about being wrecked and swept away.

Then there was another terrible sound. It was unrecognizable at first. It wasn't an explosion, although it was unbelievably loud. Actually, he had a sense of it not even being a real sound, yet somehow he heard it. It was the sound of trumpets.

He saw the dead people, burnt and broken, come back to life. They were standing again on the street. Again their faces, though all charred and misshapen, looked up to see what was happening. Jack didn't think it strange at all that corpses were alive.

Then the smoke and darkness simply disappeared, and it was a shining summer day. A small, brilliant spot appeared in the sky and quickly grew until it was larger than the sun. It was like a whirlpool of intense golden light.

A tiny figure appeared in the center of it and seemed to be moving down toward earth. It just seemed to glide down and looked bigger and bigger as it got closer. In a minute he recognized the figure. It was Christ. He looked exactly the way he looked in old pictures from Sunday school.

Almost instantly Jack was transported to a place he didn't recognize. It was a vast area, and it was filled with people as far as he could see. He knew they all had died.

He looked up. Christ was right in front of him. Only now he didn't look like Christ. There was the same white robe and long hair to the shoulders and beard, but the face was different.

It looked more like the face of a devil, and Jack knew it was gloating. There was something else in the face, almost like a second face projected onto the first. It was shadowy at first, but it grew clearer and clearer. It was the president's face.