Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part II. FIVE STEPS
Despite having a rockabilly singer for a leader, the House of Yahweh was not a house to fuck with.
An apocalyptic cult run by Yisrayl Hawkins (known as Buffalo Bill in his rockabilly days), the House of Yahweh had received a lot of heat after Waco because of its similarities to the Branch Davidians. As a result, it was being watched closely by the FBI’s antiterrorist Y2K task force.
Because its members are secretive to the point of paranoia—even posting armed guards around their forty-four-acre Texas compound—I dialed their bunker with some trepidation.
“Hello, how may I help you?” a woman’s melodious voice answered.
I was taken aback. She seemed friendly. “Is this the House of Yahweh?” I asked.
“It is,” she said warmly, professionally. “What extension may I transfer you to?”
She sounded like a law firm secretary. The only difference was, at this law firm it would be impossible to look people up by their last names: they had all changed their family name to Hawkins in honor of their leader.
“Do you have, like, a publicist?” I stammered. “Or maybe someone who sort of deals with the press?”
“One moment,” she sang into my ear. “Please hold for Shaul Hawkins.”
The great thing about real life is that it will always surprise you. Nothing ever turns out the way you expect. I suppose that’s why I write nonfiction. If this were a movie, the organization would already have traced my number, bugged my phone, and kidnapped my brother. Instead I was being transferred to the publicist and media relations executive for a death cult.
“I’m doing a story for the New York Times,” I told Shaul when he answered. “They’re sending reporters to different places to, um, ring in the New Year. And I wanted to see what you were doing.”
I’m the worst reporter, because I get nervous every time I talk to someone. Instead of sounding like a sharp, tough-minded journalist fighting for truth, I sounded like I was asking him out on a date.
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” he responded.
I wasn’t surprised anymore.
He went on to explain that the group doesn’t believe in the year 2000. They believe in the Torah and follow the Hebrew calendar, in which the year is 5760. The only thing happening in the compound on New Year’s Eve, he said, would be their normal Friday Sabbath celebration.
He sounded like a nice guy, normal, someone I could hang out with. But then he continued. They always seem to do that.
“We do encourage people to store food, but not for the year 2000. After the Y2K fears don’t pan out, everyone is going to think the world is okay. But in the book of Isaiah, it talks about the earth being burned and no one left. The only way this is going to happen is with nuclear weapons.”
All right, now I was getting somewhere. At least they thought the world was going to end—maybe not on December 31, but sometime.
“It’s going to happen soon, and it’s going to be over the seven-year agreement that took place on the White House lawn between [Yitzhak] Rabin and [Yasser] Arafat,” he went on. “In the news, Russia and China met and told the U.S. to stick its nose out of their business. It’s a very small incident, but it could also lead to major upheavals and terrorist actions. Even Clinton was warning that we’re facing biological and chemical warfare and mentioned giving out gas masks.”
He paused for effect, then concluded: “There isn’t going to be any warning.”
“That makes sense,” I replied. Those words actually came out of my mouth. I’m a very empathic person. I tend to see a person’s point of view easily, even if he’s criminally insane. But it does seem to be a good way to make new friends, because moments later Shaul was inviting me to join the group on a pilgrimage to Israel.
“I’ll see if the paper will let me,” I said.
Why do I say these things?
I hung up and returned to my research. I had my heart set on a sleepover with a doomsday group. After all, New Year’s Eve had always been anticlimactic. The year before I’d been at a party in a studio apartment where I only knew one person. When midnight came, I just stood there like an idiot, weakly mouthing “Happy New Year!” to anyone who accidentally made eye contact with me. So the year 2000 promised to be extra anticlimactic—unless I could find someone who wasn’t just paying lip service to the apocalypse.
The solution came in the form of a follower of Gary North, a Christian Reconstructionist and the Typhoid Mary of Y2K paranoia. Since 1998, after what he claimed were four thousand hours of research, he’d been warning that when the clock struck midnight, power plants, which run on preprogrammed computer chips supposedly unable to handle the changeover from 99 to 00, would shut down. This, he predicted, would lead to a domino effect of disasters and riots that could result in two billion deaths.
Though North and one of his predecessors, the survivalist pioneer Kurt Saxon, weren’t speaking to the media, I learned that a group of their followers had built a self-sufficient community called Prayer Lake in the hills outside Huntsville, Arkansas.
They believed that with faith alone they would weather the coming devastation. They also stockpiled some food, water, and emergency supplies in case they ran out of faith. Unlike other survivalists, they didn’t have guns or artillery. Rather than training to fight looters, they built additional homes and saved extra food to give potential robbers as a peace offering.
Thanks to the miracle of directory assistance, I found a phone number for Bob Rutz, who had come up with the idea for Prayer Lake. I imagined sitting in Rutz’s new house with his family, praying and waiting to see what happened at midnight. But of course he had other plans.
“There’s a countywide event at the local skating rink,” he told me. “We’ll be there skating, praying, and eating.”
Though Rutz was reluctant to talk to the press about Y2K for fear of being labeled a “crazy,” he spent the next half hour speaking with me about it anyway. “I believe it’s going to be very bad, but I’m not going to be very worried about it,” he said. “All I can do is have faith in God.”
President Clinton, Rutz believed, was planning to take complete control of the country by using the Y2K panic as an excuse to enact martial law.
“So many simultaneous things are fixing to happen,” he continued. “The Chinese have an agenda, the Iraqis want to wipe us off the map, the Russians have a use-it-or-lose-it mentality, and the Muslim terrorists want to destroy us. The other line of evidence I’m looking at is the amount of oil getting to your gas tank. I used to be an engineer for Fluor in the Persian Gulf, and I know those legacy computer systems. If we had three more years and a couple million dollars more, we still couldn’t get ready. All you can do is get to know the Lord better.”
I thought Rutz might be the one. Sure, he was going to a skating rink in Huntsville, but at least I’d get some interesting conspiracy theory, a handful of Scripture quotations, and a good headline like “The Last Skate.”
“If God tells you that you should be with us, then you may,” he finally said. “Come on over to the rink at six or seven in the evening. We’ll be together—whatever happens.”
He recommended a place to stay in town called the Faubus Motel, so I called and asked if they had any rooms available on December 31. “When the rollover comes,” the owner warned in a slow Southern drawl, “we’re not responsible if the utilities go out. You can’t get your money back or nothing like that.”
I asked if I should bring anything in case that happened.
“Well,” he replied, taking his time with each syllable, “I served in the Gulf War. And there’s something my commanding officer told me that I will now tell you: ‘A good soldier is always prepared.’”
The next day, I set the afternoon aside to prepare. I didn’t know of any survival supply stores in the neighborhood, so I went to a corner deli and bought a bag of beef jerky, a flashlight, and a bottle of water. Realistically, I doubted anything was going to happen, and even if it did, I knew Rutz had stocked up on extra provisions for looters. So all I had to do was start looting, and the treasure would be mine.
However, there was one last item I knew I’d need to bolster my credibility with Rutz. So I went to a bookstore and bought a Bible.
I still had two weeks until the New Year. And, despite my skepticism, the closer it approached, the more my heart tightened.
In the late nineties, Western civilization appeared to have advanced beyond religious wars, beyond genocide, beyond imperialism, beyond borders. The Cold War had ended, the euro had been introduced, America was experiencing the longest economic boom in its history, and the Internet and the mobile phone were turning the world into a neighborhood with few secrets.
The political philosopher Francis Fukuyama captured the spirit of the time best in his 1989 essay “The End of History.” “What we are witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such,” he wrote. “That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
We are a plot-oriented species, in perpetual need of satisfying conclusions to our stories. Even the Bible skips ahead to offer the Book of Revelations as closure to Genesis. And so, one couldn’t help but wonder, if we truly were at the end of history, then what was going to happen next in the story of our civilization, our species, our planet? How would we end?
As Y2K drew closer, I began to get obsessed with those questions. When I talked to friends, all I could discuss was the millennium and what was going to occur. In my heart I knew everything would be fine, but in my head I imagined the worst. All the extremists I’d talked to were getting to me.
I didn’t know it at the time, but these were the first tremors of an earthquake that would eventually awaken the survivalist lying dormant in me—as well as in some of the most successful businessmen in the country, who would become unlikely allies in my obsessive quest. Perhaps we make fun of those we’re most scared of becoming.
Soon, it became impossible for me to think beyond December 31, to make any sort of plan after then, or even to write anything due after that date. I wanted to wait it out, skate with the survivalists, and hold my breath until the calendar year changed. Then I could exhale.
But then something unexpected happened: I received an invitation to the White House.