At precisely six o’clock in the afternoon on May 21, 2011, Walter "Walt" Barston Jr., fifty-two-years-old and of no fixed address, stood in the crowded parking lot of KQRZ 89.7 FM in Oakland, California, his arms aloft in the shape of a ‘V’, palms skyward, head tilted back, eyes closed.
He wore loose-fitting, pleated and cuffed blue jeans held up with a worn black leather belt. His white tee shirt was stretched tight over his distended belly and imprinted with large, block letters with the question, “Have You Heard the Awesome News?” On his feet were thick-soled Reeboks with orthopedic inserts to correct for his flat feet. Tucked into the back of his pants, the bulging shape concealed by the small of his back, was a 9-mm Model 986 Smith and Wesson snub-nosed revolver.
The day was hot and cloudless. The air was still. The smell of diesel fumes from the industrial Port of Oakland located only a quarter mile from where Walt stood wafted lazily in no particular direction. The late afternoon sun beat down on Walt’s red face, which was adorned with a walrussian mustache, but which was otherwise clean shaven. His auburn hair was neatly combed and parted. He was sweating heavily; large semi-circles of sweat darkened the underarm areas of the cotton shirt. He didn’t care about that, though. He had more important business to attend to: Walt was being raptured.
With him in the parking lot were four dozen or so other faithful, a motley collection of young and old, Black and white and Latino and Asian, single people and families, mothers carrying young babies, who had left everything behind, and, in some cases, as with Walt’s, driven across the country to be in this particular parking lot for this moment.
The assembled stood or sat in folding chairs in front of a makeshift stage at the northern end of the lot. On either side of the stage were large speakers, from which came the sounds of old fashioned hymnals that were a staple of KQRZ. In the center, behind a basic wooden podium stood the man they were there to see. His name was Harold Campers.
Harold’s face was familiar. His visage adorned countless billboards along the sides of highways and freeways and access roads across all fifty states and several Canadian provinces. At eighty-nine years old, deep crags ran vertically along each cheek starting just below his eyes and ending at the jawline. His ears were overly large with long, dangly lobes, and his thick white hair was combed straight back from his high forehead. His eyes were bright blue. He was thin and tall and held himself with a proud posture, chin tilted slightly forward, shoulders back. His navy blue pinstriped suit was crisp and well tailored. He was handsome and fit, especially for a man of his age.
It was Harold who had done the research, read the scriptures, analyzed the numerology. Every day, between the hours of seven a.m. and noon, Harold’s baritone voice could be heard on radios across the land warning that a great horn would usher in an earthquake the likes of which had never been seen, roiling the ground and opening great chasms that would swallow the damned. Those who were less fortunate would be consumed by fire, writhing in agony. Harold issued these warnings in a tone meant to convey sympathy and sadness, but which betrayed a certain pleasure. The believers, he preordained, would watch from above in the company of angels weeping tears of joy. Harold invoked his listeners to sell all their worldly possessions, go into the streets and spread the word. He implored them to send money to pay for billboards and time on community radio stations to rebroadcast Harold’s sermons.
And Walt had, if nothing else, been a willing and faithful servant, tuning in on his drive to work at the shipping and logistics hub in the southern exurbs of Memphis, Tennessee, where he sorted packages by size and weight; proselytizing his co-workers in the lunchroom until they reported him to management and Walt was given a formal reprimand and warned to keep his politics and religion to himself; selling his one-bedroom condo on the top floor of a duplex in the Bella Vista housing development, which Walt found perfectly acceptable, but which objectively was neither bella nor did it have much of a vista beyond the I-55 and Route 4 interchange.
At one second past six o’clock, Walt, arms still aloft, eyes still closed, heard a voice from the back of the crowd. “Hallelujah, we are saved.” An elderly woman standing immediately beside him fell to her knees and began speaking in tongues. Walt did not move. A bead of sweat dripped from his armpit and trickled down his side. He felt no tremors under his feet. Above the sound of the hymnals, he could hear the rapid clicking of camera shutters from the photojournalists on the other side of the chain link fence that surrounded the KQRZ parking lot. His heart was racing, and he realized he’d been holding his breath. He exhaled.
At three seconds past six o’clock, now confident that something was badly awry, Walt opened his eyes. The blueness of the sky came sharply into focus. A jumbo jet flew high above, leaving behind it a crisp contrail. A container ship at the port let forth a mighty one-note bellow.
A week after his reprimand at the shipping and logistics facility, Walt quit his job. He emptied his bank account of everything except what he figured he needed to buy food and gasoline for his '03 Saturn Ion until the end of the world arrived. The remainder he'd sent off to Harold's ministry. Walt had nothing left except the clothes on his back, the pistol in his waist band, and a few odds and ends in the trunk of his car. If the world was not ending, he was in real trouble, he now realized.
At four seconds past six o’clock another person, a middle-aged man who had positioned himself at the front of the small crowd, shouted at Harold, who by then had taken a step back from the podium and seemed to be consulting with someone stage left. “This is all a scam!” the middle-aged man shouted. “I want my money back!” Harold raised his hands and held them forward in front of his chest as if to say, “just hold on a second now.” What had started as a murmur of fear and confusion from the crowd was building into something louder and angrier.
Walt lowered his arms. He suddenly felt very self-conscious about his sweat stains, how they would look plastered across the front pages of newspapers under headlines that read, “The World Continues to Turn,” or, mockingly, “Doomsday Cultists Wonder What Comes Next.”
For nearly a full year, Walt had joined others like him in downtowns in Memphis and Nashville and St. Louis and Kansas City to preach the gospel. In return for his belief and loyalty, he had been mocked by passersby, told he was a gullible idiot and worse, shouted at, threatened. On a frigid morning in February, as Walt stood on the corner of West Markham and Ashley Streets in central Little Rock, a man had berated him, called him blasphemous, and warned Walt that he would return in one hour and that Walt better not still be standing there, “or else.” Walt purchased his Smith and Wesson that very day. He was a man of peace, he told himself, but he was nobody's fool and he was certainly not going to be pushed around. On top of that, there was no way he was going to miss out on eternal salvation, especially not this close to the prophesied date. After that, he carried the pistol with him everywhere he went.
At five seconds past six o’clock, a second man stood up and punched the middle-aged man who had just yelled at Harold Campers square in the jaw. A scuffle erupted. An onlooker behind the chain link holding a placard that read, “when the rapture comes, can I have your car?” began to laugh loudly.
At six seconds past six o’clock Harold stepped back to the microphone and issued a plea to the increasingly restless crowd. “Let’s all just try to be calm. I’m sure there’s an explanation.” His normally smooth, confident voice sounded shaky.
In his mind, Walt traveled back to the lunchroom in the sprawling complex of conveyor belts and tractor trailer loading docks on the outskirts of Memphis. He pictured the faces of his co-workers, who had at first been polite and nodded their heads and tried to change the subject, who had gradually started sitting elsewhere, leaving Walt to eat alone. He thought of the cross-country drive to Oakland. How he’d taken his time with it, stopping along the way to hand out literature. How he’d indulged in a detour to the Grand Canyon, which he had always wanted to see and had figured that it was then or never. How he’d stood on the edge of the precipice, open jawed at its beauty. How he’d given up everything to be in this parking lot.
At eight seconds past six o’clock, Walt stepped toward the stage, his legs moving quickly, arms and elbows efficiently herding people out of his way. He was surprised by his own agility. With his right hand, Walt reached behind him and drew the Smith and Wesson from the waistband of his pants. The distance between him and Harold was closing fast. He pointed the 9-mm pistol at Harold. The shutters of cameras grew louder and someone somewhere yelled “he has a gun!” There was a scream. Several people standing beside Harold dropped to the floor, causing the stage to shake violently. A piece of scaffolding that had been holding up one of the makeshift stage’s risers clattered loudly to the ground. Harold turned toward Walt, and in that instant their eyes met.
At exactly ten seconds past six o’clock, Walter Barston Jr. pulled the trigger. The gunpowder ignited in a flash of unbelievable heat and fire. Harold Campers put his hand to his chest. A contorted grimace of agony spread across his thin lips and clenched jaw. Harold took one step toward the front of the stage and then fell, turning as he did so that he landed on his back. There was nobody to catch him.
A small group formed around Walt and together they stood over Harold, looking down at their fallen prophet. It was quiet except for the sound of a child crying and the flutter of cameras. On the hot asphalt of the KQRZ parking lot Harold Campers lay, his arms and legs splayed, a puddle of crimson blood pooling around him, his blue eyes wide open, craggy face turned toward the receding heavens.