Cults

Yes, I realize it’s been 10 days since my last post. I was just seeing if you were paying attention. We’ll go with that lie. Sure.

Imagine confirming that what the prophet decreed was God laying down exactly how the world would end and abandoning everyone and everything you ever knew to help fulfill the prophecy, but then you discover the prophecy was wrong. My grandfather, along with a few hundred people, gave up their lives, thinking they were specially chosen to survive, but then the Soviet Union never pushed the button.

At that point, they had two choices. Either:

A) Admit they were wrong and leave the church. Maybe try to restore some of those relationships they severed.

B) Double down on the incorrect prophecy with an additional prophecy explaining how the first was correct and would still happen. God just chose to test their faithfulness, which they passed with flying colors. Well, most of them. Some were disillusioned and left the church.

My grandfather opted for option B. The thing is, like any lie, in order to cover it up, you have to lie again, so things make sense. Thing is, this wasn’t an isolated incident. It begat 50 years of whoppers that some still believe to this day.

Wal-Paul abandoned his family and started a new life based on a lie, which became a twisted perspective on reality.

But he was happy. What harm could it do?

Oh, let me tell you.

I never wanted to hug Wal-Paul. Note how I refer to him. It’s either by his official title of “my grandfather,” which denotes how we were related genetically, or I call him Wal-Paul, a name concocted by smashing two other names together, one being the identity he used when visiting, and the other being the mantle he picked up to show how important he was. Whenever I saw him, I never knew which personage he’d put on parade.

Both Wal and Paul were gregarious and eager to be the focal point for the evening. Wal was stationed near the front door and would pull whomever stood within arm’s length in for a bearhug, exclaiming, “Come give your grandpa a hug! I’m so glad you came to see me.”

Paul would sit either at my uncle’s kitchen table or in a metal folding chair near the family room’s fireplace. Here’s where it got tricky. Whenever he got comfortable, you never knew if it was Wal or Paul who sat there. They both looked exactly the same. They were both flanked not only by the second woman they married after leaving my grandmother but also by the Full Gospel Assembly’s resident prophet as well as his wife.

The only way to tell the difference is if nonsense started coming out of my grandfather’s mouth.

My family kept Grandpa in a shoebox on the top shelf of the closet. We knew he was tucked up there in the corner, and we discussed why he sat out of reach. My uncles told funny stories about him and his friends living out in Arizona. We saw him at family gatherings when they’d travel through town towing Airstreams on their way somewhere else, but we kept our distance, never disturbing the layers of dust covering what we might discover about him.

Even now, almost five years after his death, I’m not sure how to refer to him. My uncles called him dad, Mom referred to him as “my father,” and as children, my sister and I called him “Grandpa Wal-Paul” in his absence and avoided being in his presence.

How does one relate to a man who abandoned his wife and five kids, the youngest of which (your mother) was only eight at the time, and who came to town once a year around Father’s Day?

What do you do with a guy called Wally who changed his name to Paul for Biblical significance?

What do you make of a salesman from Ohio who, believing a prophecy foretelling nuclear war, joined others in the Arizona desert to build a community of houses complete with fully-stocked bomb shelters?

How do you trust someone who became the leader of the group known nationally as the Undergrounders because they retreated into their bomb shelters and only came out after three months because local police went in to save a man’s wife and children reported as missing?

How do you carry on a conversation with a man who spent the remainder of his days convinced the world would burn, and the only place of safety was the one he and his friends built?

The shoebox containing my family’s collective memories of Grandpa could reveal stories and truths about him I never knew existed, which is a loaded gun mixed in with the mementos. Searching through the box, I might find stories of how he taught my mother and aunt how to ride their bikes or my uncles to drive, but it’s just as likely I’ll exhume tales such as the time the group took my paternal great-grandfather down into a bomb shelter called “The Holy of Holies” where they talked to him for three days without food or water until he confessed belief in their mission.

I want to know how Grandpa’s leaving affected my family, but at the same time, I may find out how his leaving afflicted my family among others. This incident wasn’t isolated, and the community in Benson, Arizona carries on today, more than a half century later.

My raising questions to my aunts and uncles has raised questions in at least one of my cousins, and I’m scheduled to interview him next week. Though we may choke on the dust together, we’re going to sort through some pictures and in the process begin unloading the gun.