Laughing At Armageddon

On the power of seeing differently, from Whitney Metz

For as long as I can remember, I have always loved a good adrenaline rush, the thrill of danger, that little jolt of fear. There have been a few times though that an adrenaline rush has left me with more than just a momentary thrill. One incident in particular left me with a memory that has imprinted itself on my mind, and has cast its reflection on everything that has happened since.

I’m still to this day not entirely sure how this experienced changed me, or why it felt (and still feels) so significant. All I know is that, after all these years, I still think about it and, when I do, I can still feel everything I felt that night. I know that in some undefinable way, my life has never been the same.

It was during my first stint in college. I had a group of people that I spent the majority of my time with; some of them were always the same, others came and went. On this day there were some of each but, as usual, I was the only girl. We had just come out of a restaurant, and we noticed that the sky had begun to darken with thick gray clouds. We thought it best to head back toward the dorms before we got caught in the storm that was obviously on its way.

Our school had an automated tram system (the PRT) and the nearest station was at the top of a steep hill across the street from where we were. We rushed up the hill as quickly as possible, certain that we were going to get drenched in the impending downpour, but when we reached the top there was still no sign of any actual rain. The sky, however, had taken on an appearance that I, for one, had never seen in my life (based on their reactions, I’m guessing none of the others had either).

We all stood mesmerized by a ring of pitch black clouds, encircling what was left of the clear sky and rapidly spreading toward the center, which was directly above us. There was a palpable energy in the air, it seemed to be making the others increasingly nervous, but I just felt alive. Something big, something dangerous, was coming but I wasn’t afraid, I wanted it to happen. My mind and my body were overflowing with anticipation for whatever this was going to be. It felt like the end of the world and it made me want to dance. It made me want to lie down in the grass and roll down to the bottom of the hill like my sister and I used to when we were kids.

I wanted to share my excitement with my friends, but one look at their faces made it clear that they were not feeling the same thing I was. Their expressions were those of people staring at a terrible car crash, transfixed not by a sense of wonder but by anxiety and morbid curiosity. So instead I just stood there with them, watching as the sky above us contracted to a tiny dot of gray amidst the impenetrable blackness.

We were probably only there for a few minutes but, in my mind, those minutes stretched out into an eternity. Lightning began to shoot across the sky and the surrounding hills caused the thunder to echo back to us at an impossible volume. I could feel the sounds resonating through every cell of my body. The closer the storm came to its crescendo, the more I could feel my whole being growing invigorated by its power.

Suddenly, a huge and blindingly bright bolt of lightning exploded from the clouds and struck a tree on the opposite hillside. We let out a collective gasp as the tree ignited and was quickly enveloped in flames. Then, all at once, the rain finally came, suddenly and violently. It burst from the clouds and broke the spell cast by the burning tree. My friends ran for the cover of the PRT station, but I didn’t. I wanted (needed) to stand just a moment longer admiring the juxtaposition of the glowing red flames against the oppressive black clouds. Besides, I’ve never minded the rain anyway.

The others were already reaching the station by the time I managed to pull myself away, so I sprinted for the stairs in hopes of catching up with them. I reached the landing just in time to see a car pull up to the platform. My friends were well ahead of me, but still far enough from the platform that it looked like there was a good chance the car would leave without us, and it was getting late so we had no idea how long it would be before another one arrived. The first of my friends reached the turnstile, swiped his student ID card and lunged for the door of the car, grabbing it just before it could close.

One by one, the others all made it inside, but I was still behind. The doors kept shoving against my friend’s hand, trying over and over to shut, as they all shouted for me to hurry. I finally reached the turnstile, and swiped my card…once….twice…three times….nothing. It wasn’t working. They were all still yelling “Hurry” “Hurry” so I leaped over the bar and slipped through the doors that were still fighting against my friend’s hand. Then he let it close, and we were all safe inside the car protected from the chaos outside.

The PRT began to move and we all laughed with relief. We felt like we had narrowly escaped a natural disaster, like we had crawled through the eye of a tornado and come out unharmed on the other side. We hadn’t though. We were still inside, we just didn’t know it yet. Now that we were on our way back, we relaxed enough to talk about what we had seen and felt. The more we did, the more it all started to seem a bit ridiculous. It was just a thunderstorm, after all. We continued our journey toward the dorms and the storm continued to rage outside, but now it had lost some of its power over us. The roar of the wind, and the rain, and the thunder reverberated through the walls. The outside world alternated between thick, tar black and blinding gold. But it didn’t matter; we knew we were safe. And then we didn’t.

The car began to slow, then shake, then jerk, then it stopped altogether. The look of relief on my friends’ faces vanished in an instant, along with the idea that we had been overreacting. Suddenly, the PRT car had gone from being our shelter from the storm to a cage that was holding us captive, right at its epicenter. We waited patiently, trying to remain calm, for a few minutes, telling each other (and ourselves) that we would start moving again any second, but we didn’t. Finally, when we all felt like we couldn’t stand it anymore, one of my friends noticed that there was a call button on the wall. He pressed it and tried to disguise his desperation as he told the voice at the other end what was happening. We were told simply to wait and that they would get the car moving again soon. Again the reassurance of “any second now” passed from one of us to the next, and again that second never came. He pressed the button again, and tried to sound nonchalant as he asked if they had any idea how long it was going to be. The voice replied, now with much less confidence than before, that they weren’t sure; they were working on it.

At that point, we all started to wonder if anyone was really going to help us at all. The people responsible for handling this sort of thing didn’t seem to know what was wrong, or when they would be able to get us out, so perhaps we should try to deal with the problem ourselves. Of course, none of us had any possibility of fixing the car, so the only option open to us would be to try to escape from it. This would mean finding a way to force the doors open, which would likely be quite a challenge in and of itself. Then we would be right back out in the storm, which was still raging at full force. Only now we would be even more exposed than we had been before, since we were now half way between one campus and the next, and there was nothing in sight that would offer any kind of protection from the elements. Still, we all considered this a viable option, given the circumstances. Then someone pointed out what seemed like the most serious issue with this plan. Since the PRT is an electric tran system, the track was electrified and none of us had any idea which parts of it would be safe to walk on. We all agreed that was more of a risk than we were willing to take.

Realizing now that we were completely at the mercy of some disembodied voice on the other side of a call button, our situation started to feel much more severe. The car was suddenly much too small, and the air inside felt stiflingly thick. As anxiety continued to strengthen its hold on the others, I gazed out the window at the storm. The thought of the electrified track that prevented us from leaving the car had also spurred another idea. What would happen if one of the innumerable bolts of lightning streaking by outside were to strike the track? How much protection did the car really offer us? Several of my friends were now, at least partly, convinced that the PRT was not only a cage, but a death trap. Somehow, rather than the paranoia it had created in my friends, this new perspective on our predicament had reignited in me the excitement I had felt at the storm’s onset. Logically, I knew that we were not going to die, but somehow the tangible feeling of fear in that closed space made me believe that we might. And, again, I had never felt more alive.

As the others grew more and more distressed, I did my best to be both sympathetic and reassuring but, the truth is, I was practically giddy. One of my friends decided to call his family, not to tell them what was happening, just because he wanted to talk to them. Several of the others chose to follow suit. As they were having what they truly believed might be their final conversations with their loved ones, it was all I could do not to laugh out loud; not because I thought they were being dramatic (though, honestly, I suppose we all were) simply because I felt that good.

After they had all finished talking to their families, and everyone felt a bit calmer, we decided to try the call button one more time. This time the voice on the other end said “If you look out the window, you’ll see a Jeep sitting on the other track.” Apparently, our savior had arrived, and then realized that it was, in his words “too dangerous” to actually save us. He was just going to wait there on the other track until he believed it was safe to come help us. That was when the utter absurdity of our situation really struck us, and we all began to laugh hysterically. “He can’t come save us, it’s too dangerous!” It was just too much, and my friends’ fear was washed away by the ridiculous irony of it all.

After that, we all just sat, and talked, and laughed, until the storm finally started to abate. Then our rescuer finally came, opened the doors, plugged a device into the panel box, and manually drove us to our station. Our ordeal was over in a matter of minutes. Once we were safely back on solid ground, we met up with some other acquaintances and my friends spent the remainder of the evening recapping our daring adventure, while I listened and wondered what exactly it was that made the whole experience feel so different to me than it did to anyone else.

I think, to everyone else who was there that night, the memory of it faded until it was nothing more than a funny story to tell from time to time. I certainly won’t deny the humor of it, but to me it was (and still is, all these years later) much more than that. I thought many times about trying to talk to the others about it, to see if any of them had felt anything like what I had, but I knew they hadn’t. To them it was a frightening experience made amusing by the fact that it all worked out alright in the end, and that it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as it seemed at the time. To me it was a fleeting glimpse at the incredible power of nature and an affirmation of the fact that my perception of the world is not like other people’s. Many of the details of that night have faded over time, but the feeling that it gave me has not, and I know that it never will.

Whitney Metz

I am a pagan, veganarchist living in West Virginia with my two rescued pigs, Riley and Petunia.

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