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LeBARON: 'End of the world' stories never die

Published: Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 3:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 3:24 p.m.

We are deep into the end-of-the-year honorifics — TIME’s Person of the year (it used to be Man of the Year, so we are making progress), athletes of the year, movie of the year, book of the year and, I suppose if you dig deeply enough into this mound of reflections, you’d find the dog of the year. It’s a perfect storm of a media blitz to carry us off on the wings of hype into 2013.

We all have our own special moments from 2012. My Most Startling Moment came late in the year, just a week or so ago, when I read a wire service news story about a Vatican announcement that the Pope is now Twittering.

He will answer questions, the press release said, about the faith. Now, that squeezes the whole social media phenomena into one tiny kernel of wonder.

What I wonder is what the world’s most potent religious leader can tell us about faith in 140 characters or less.

I mentioned this to an iconoclastic friend who suggested the answer might be “Because I said so ...” but I’m sure that isn’t the case. Although I’m no expert in these matters.

NEITHER am I an expert in the matter of the end of the world.

I was pretty sure, however, that the Mayan calendar prophecy was nothing to worry about.

I saw a cartoon somewhere, within the past month, showing two ancient Mayans, one with a block of stone and a chisel, saying to the other something like: Well, that’s it for this calendar, I’ve run out of stone.”

And the other responding: “That could cause confusion somewhere down the road.”

When you’ve been hanging out in the same old place for years on end, everything reminds you of a story. And the whole Mayan thing reminded me of some previous doomsdays, which I would like to share as my hopeful New Year’s gift to you all.

FIRST, of course, there was the Y2K thing — all those discussions of how unsettled the world becomes in the years around a century change and how a decade that marks the passage of a thousand years was sure to be 10 times worse.

In 2000 (some said 2001, it seemed unclear when the century actually ended) computers were going to crash the system worldwide and — as we all knew — a world without computers could not possibly survive.

That flap was reminiscent of an earlier prediction, one that affected just a small section of the world — but, alas, it was our world that was doomed.

This came in 1968 with the publication of a fanciful work of fiction by author Curt Gentry called “The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California.”

Gentry wrote about a cataclysmic earthquake that would break off a portion of the Pacific Coast — our portion — and drop it into the sea. The coastline would be re-established somewhere around Lovelock, Nevada. And we Californians would be ... well, toast.

I remember all this so very well because it occasioned a remarkable note from my editor, Art Volkerts.

It came to me on a piece of copy paper, a device that preceded office email, and, in Art’s familiar journalistic shorthand, it read: “caller sez people in old folks homes getting worried. can you say something soothing about the earthquake?”

This is my favorite memo of all time. I consider it a testimony to the impossible job of being a daily columnist. And I’ve always said that if I ever write a book about writing a column in a town like Santa Rosa, the title would be: “Say Something Soothing About the Earthquake.”

MOST OF all, the Mayan matter reminded me of Father Raters, a memory that goes back to 1957 or ’58, when I was a new reporter condemned to work on Saturdays and do the odd jobs.

Monsignor Henry Raters was the pastor of St. Rose Church in the days when it was the only Roman Catholic Church in town. He was a crusty old German by the time I knew him, and, to a neophyte journalist, seemed unapproachable.

But I was called upon to contact Fr. Raters on a Saturday morning when the news editor, Dick Torkelson, told me that his kids had come from school terrified because the word was out that a letter from Our Lady of Fatima had been opened by the Pope and it said the world was coming to an end at midnight on that very Saturday.

“Call somebody,” Dick said, “and write a little brightener for page one on Sunday saying that we’re still here.”

So I called Fr. Raters. It being Fatima and all, he seemed the logical choice.

I explained my mission, feeling foolish, and he didn’t hesitate one second.

“Don’t be silly!” he barked into the phone. “If the world were going to end, I’d know it.”

And that was that.

BACK TO the Vatican’s Twitter announcement. It’s the sort of thing we have to carry us into the new year. It is indeed a brave, new world. And we have to be brave.

Predictions of doomsday, the apocalypse, Armageddon — call it what you will — will always be with us.

The Big Scare, proliferated now by every electronic medium imaginable, has happened before. It will happen again.

That should be a soothing thought.

For a more definitive answer, you can Tweet the Pope.

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