BY AARON STELLA Well, here we are again with another exciting edition of GAYDAR! This week, we’re traveling back in time to turn-of-the-century Alabama, the land of pork rinds, pickled pigs feet, deep-fried snickers and Creationism. Know that it wasn’t the simple fare or the relaxed colloquialisms, or even the Biblical science, that drew my family to the middle of nowhere. We were pilgrims, in the loosest sense of the word, in that we desired a new start, and a place where we could worship freely with fellow Catholics — oh yeah, and we were on the run from the impending doom of then-imminent Y2K. It’s hard to remember now, especially post 9/11, but there was a time when nobody was quite sure just what would happen to the global computer grid when the counter flipped over to 2000. Many Evangelicals saw it as a sign that The Rapture was soon upon us.
Have you ever watched EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network)? It’s the Catholic channel, basically, starring a relatively famous nun by the name of Mother Angelica. Perhaps you’ve heard of her. In any event, right before Y2K rolled around, Angelica had just put the finishing touches on her 15th century-style Franciscan monastery in Hanceville, Alabama, a sparsely populated hamlet of chicken farmers. The Monastery was fantastical spectacle, outfitted with a huge piazza, rose marble floors in a chapel with everything gilded—oh yeah, and a gift shop that looked like a miniature castle, with turrets and flags and all that theme-park rubbish. Setting aside for the moment the fact that Franciscans all take vows of poverty, on the grand continuum of the Catholic Church’s history of costly financial misadventures, this was but a modest blip: 10 million dollars, conservatively. This is where we would weather the coming of the New Millennium, come Hell or high water.
My father’s roommate from Oxford-Emery went on to become an ordained priest and the headmaster of a Catholic prep school in Cullman, Alabama, which closely neighbors Hanceville. Cullman county is in the Guinness World Book of records for two counts: for being the largest chicken-farming county, and for having the most churches on a single block than any other in the world. From time to time, my father would visit his ol’ college buddy to catch up. During one such visit, my father’s buddy drove him out to observe the progress of Angelica’s Monastery; and it just so happened that my father’s buddy knew of a family who were building houses on the outskirts of the soon-to-be-completed monastery to accommodate the influx of settlers sure to be attracted by the presence of Angelica’s Monastery. The thought of owning property that bordered so holy a place was too tempting for my father to resist.
Before the decision to move was final, my father took the family on vacation to Alabama in hopes of wowing us into agreement that moving would benefit both our social and spiritual lives: our property would border sacred ground, and reverent Catholics would comprise our network of friends. The house itself was modest, both in size and appearance, which was strange considering my father’s appetite for extravagance. On the other hand, the house was equipped with some lovely amenities, all of a bucolic nature, of course: a well-water pump exposed above ground, a spacious front and backyard, a trail leading into a dense forest, and, of course, a charming veranda that overlooked verdant pastures of grazing cows. As for the family that we bought the house from, their collective personality mirrored the house’s: the women were demure and soft-spoken, and were clothed in long dresses, hiding their iniquitous ankles. The men, too, were reserved and stoic. Don’t get me wrong: they were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met — but think about how many times you’ve said that about somebody. Were they really the nicest people ever? Maybe. At the time, I hadn’t yet picked up on the duality of the South: People are both sweet as pie and fiercely judgmental. I mention this, because later, after I would come out, these same people would shun me.
Nonetheless, once my father found work in one of the local hospitals, and I got accepted in the Alabama School of Fine Arts, there was no turning back.We began our rigorous preparations for the terrible dawn of Y2K. My father charged my mother with the task of acquiring a long list of supplies: Candy, dried milk, 50 pound-bags of Morton’s salt, 47 bottles of pickled relish, and many other bulk items that constituted our end-of-the-world diet; we purchased huge quantities of liquor with which my father said he could use to concoct tinctures and potions to cure various mild illnesses in case modern medicine becomes scarce; 10,000 plus dollars worth in solid gold, unmarked coins secretly stowed in tube stocks would be used for bartering; and a generator would be used to power the entire house, if necessary, for up to 500 hours.
We weren’t alone in these End Time preparations. One guy who lived on the outskirts of the neighborhood dug out the side of a hill and parked a white school bus packed from top to bottom with every kind of provision you would need for the end of the world. Likewise, many of the residences in the area had storm shelters that had been transformed into makeshift dwellings, furnished to the nines.
On New Year’s Eve 2000, my family attended midnight Mass at Mother Angelica’s Shrine. All of the small town’s Christian elite were present, looking severe and austere, their faces a mask of dread and anxiety. The pervasive fear of Y2K had taken its toll. In any event, my father, now a somewhat respected figure of the elect, stood with his hands folded, muttering prayers along with the celebrant priest. He didn’t even look concerned. We had prepared; everything was going to be fine. In actuality, I was a little excited for the Y2K wasteland to manifest — but then I looked at my watch. It read 12:05 a.m. I must have lost track of time. Nothing happened. What?!? Absolutely nothing happened: no power outages, no social unrest, no calamities haling from stormy skies, no Muslim invasion. I tugged at my father’s sleeve to get his attention; and when I had it, I threw up my hands to express my confusion and building exasperation. And you know what?—all that bastard did was shrug his shoulders. That is how the world ends, folks: not with a bang nor a whimper, but a shrug of your old man’s shoulders.