“Wanna order a pizza?” Jeff asks. “I don’t know if we’ll have time to eat it, but we might as well get it.”
It is 4:48 p.m. on May 21, and earthquakes have not yet riven the Earth. “When the sky goes dark and you feel a rumbling, I’m going to ask you and the kids to step outside very quickly,” Jeff told me when I first arrived at his small ranch house in Hicksville, Long Island. “God willing, we’ll all be taken up in a whirlwind to Heaven. I know it might sound strange, but that’s my understanding of how it’s going to go.” His 6-year-old son was in the living room, playing a Star Wars game on the Wii. His 4-year-old daughter, wearing a Spider-Man bike helmet from a recent tricycle trip around the backyard, tapped me on the shoulder to show me a crayon drawing of a rainbow.
Jeff orders a large Sicilian pie for delivery. “And please put a rush on it,” he tells the person taking his order. “We’re — we’re in a rush here.”
Jeff is visibly nervous now, taking deep breaths. “And listen,” he says into the phone, “if you have a radio, put on 94.7. They’re talking about Judgment Day and telling everyone to ask God for mercy. It’s important.” WFME 94.7 is the New York outlet for Family Radio, the station Jeff was listening to three years ago when he heard Harold Camping prophesying the End of Days. That’s when Jeff left the Catholic Church and begin studying Biblical numerology. Thousands of Camping’s followers fervently believe that the Rapture will occur on May 21, 2011; millions more know of the prophecy thanks to Family Radio billboards and newspaper ads.
Jeff, 44, is a muscular firefighter from Flushing with a square jawline. When the pizza arrives, Jeff calls his friend Ron, “One of the only true believers I know who will talk to me about this stuff,” and they reassure each other by speakerphone, parsing choice psalms and proverbs.
“So, from the Biblical evidence you’re finding,” Jeff asks Ron, “at what hour do we now think this earthquake is going to happen?” According to Harold Camping, the earthquakes were to start at 6 p.m. at the International Date Line — 2 a.m. Eastern Time — and spread eastward around the world. When Jeff woke up on Saturday and everything was still calm, he decided this was a potentially ominous sign: “This morning the sky was crystal clear, just like 9/11. I was a firefighter then, and I couldn’t believe that on such a beautiful day, such destruction could come.” With the Rapture seemingly running behind schedule, Jeff hypothesized then predicted the earthquakes would come between 3 and 5 p.m. ET, and would wreak destruction over all the world simultaneously. After three, his prediction changed again: “Six now looks more likely, but really it might be any time before midnight.” Ron, over the phone, refuses to predict the hour. “In all this time, I’ve always been blown away by the evidence pointing to the day, but never the exact hour.”
Rosana, Jeff’s wife, who had been out at a friend’s birthday party, comes home a little after six. “What, nothing happened?” she asks with no small amount of contempt.
Jeff buries his head in his Bible. He and Ron debate the virtues of King Solomon for another hour, while Rosana loudly opens and closes cabinets. Jeff warms up another slice of pizza and pours Pepsi into a Miller Lite pint glass. Finally, he hangs up the phone. Rosana turns to face him.
“Jeff, starting at midnight tonight, I don’t want to hear any more of this crap, okay?”
“Look,” he says, “I told you I knew the day, but I never claimed to know the hour—“
“I don’t want to hear it, Jeff. I’m telling you, I can’t take it.”
Rosana gives me a helpless look, and she and I go into another room to chat. “I don’t know what happened to him,” she whispers to me. “He used to be normal. Now all he can talk about is the Bible and this May 21 stuff. He took all his vacation days in a row, so all he’s doing the last four weeks is sitting around reading the Bible and driving me nuts. Thank God he didn’t quit his job like some of them did.”
Meanwhile, Jeff is checking his text messages. “There are a bunch of friends here who are mocking me,” he says. “And that’s all right! I just put on my spiritual shield and endure.”
Ron calls again, and he and Jeff come up with a new interpretation: May 21 will not end, technically, until midnight in Hawaii. “There will be a lot of people mocking me after midnight tonight if nothing does happen,” Jeff says, breathing quickly again, “but what they don’t realize is that May 21 hasn’t been completed everywhere in the world yet. So we really can’t tell anything until six in the morning here. That’s when the truth will really be tested.”