Summer Vacation, 1976
When I was growing up, my family would sometimes go back to my grandfather’s farm in South Dakota for a couple of weeks in the summer. I loved that place. It was so different from the world I knew. It was so alien, in fact, that my grandparents didn’t even own a television.
In 1976, when I was in my early teens, we somehow managed to go back for six weeks (I’m not sure, but that might have been the summer of the spreader.). Interestingly, the prospect of spending a summer without a television didn’t bother me at all—except for one thing…
That was summer that NASA landed Viking 1 on Mars. That was a big event. It was NASA’s first robotic probe to land on Mars. Among the various scientific equipment aboard, it had a biology lab. They were looking for life on Mars! Microbial life seemed a very real possibility back then. This was our best chance to find it. And I was stuck in the middle of Buttsuck, South Dakota, miles from a television.
We drove there and back in our 1969 Chevy station wagon. It was decadent! It had air conditioning and seat belts. Our prior car, a 1965 Ford Mustang, had neither (Actually, I think the Mustang had seat belts in the front. I guess the rear passengers, like rabbits, were expendable.).
We’d stop for gas and food at the wonderful truck stops and tourist traps along the interstate. I loved to buy their postcards of giant grasshoppers:
… jack rabbits:
… fur-bearing trout:
… and, the most famous of all, of course, the jackalope:
A lot of the gift shops also sold this book:
It was filled with all sorts of fun trivia about U.S. history. It was a good book to read on the trip, so I bought it. Here are the titles of some of the short articles:
- The last man to invade U.S. ended up as a guest at a banquet
- She was first woman in United States to wear pants—by an act of Congress!
- Five presidents have had beards and all five were Republicans
- Famous ghosts still walk halls of White House
- The day president U.S. Grant was arrested for speeding
Some of this book’s trivia I later confirmed in other books. One or two I’ve found were common myths. But overall, it was a fun read.
I have a good memory. Looking through this book today, I see that I have actually retained most of these stories in my massive brain.
Reading this article back then in the summer of ’76 was my first exposure to the concept of the doomsday cult. I had always known that there were crazy fundies perpetually predicting the end of the world. Until that point, I never knew that some of them were insane enough to actually abandon work, leave their fields unplanted, and sit on a hillside waiting to be raptured.
Welcome to the real America, kid. Ugly, isn’t it? (I wonder what I would have thought if I had known that 30 years later, I’d embark upon a 5+ year quest to document and expose the dangers of this insanity.)
So for your enlightenment, here is the article that I read that summer 35 years ago:
I love the last two words of that title: “It Didn’t!” Really? I would have thought he wouldn’t have needed to tell us. (At the very least, he should have preceded it with the words “Spoiler Alert!”)
That article doesn’t tell the entire story, though (and it gets a few of the minor details wrong). Those people didn’t just “[start] life all over again”. Nor did they learn their lesson. They became the Seventh Day Adventists.
Thinking back now on that article, I see a similarity between what I wanted to do that summer in 1976 and what the Millerites wanted to do in their day. Yet in that similarity I see an even bigger difference.
Both of us looked to the heavens.
The Millerites, though, were looking to a delusion of the past and hoping for the demise of mankind.
I was looking to man-made robot on Mars and dreaming of our future.