"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 16, 2012

Growing Up With Billy Bubbles, The Most Gullible Boy In The World

Billy Bubbles was gullible, perhaps the most gullible person I know.  He took everything as is, never questioned it or wondered if there could be another truth.  When he was six, an older boy sold him a piece of scrap metal painted with red nail polish and told him it was giant’s blood.  His brothers told him that the world was filled with sea monsters and undead pterodactyls.  They told him that the scary wraiths moving on his wall at night by the light of the moon were not simply the shadows of trees but actually spirits that dwelled in them and came out at night.  After reading The Time Machine, his brothers told Billy that the dark shapes moving in the basement of the factories on Arch Street were morlocks, deformed gnomes that worked in chains during the day and retreated into the deep underground by night.

As a result, Billy Bubbles lived in a world of demi-fear.  He also believed that there was a beneficent God who lived on an airy throne just behind the giant cumulus clouds that built up like mountains in the summer heat over the plains; that He had a celestial palace full of angels who could come down from the heavens and with a sprinkle of gold dust remove the tree spirits and morlocks from the earth.  Knowing that God was high up on top of the clouds surrounded by his army of avenging angels didn’t take away the fear, just balanced it with goodness.

As he got older, Billy learned that each of the fantasies spun by his brothers were just that – imagined tales by older siblings to tease and torture.  One by one he left them behind; but because he was so gullible – born gullible we all thought – he took on new fables in which he believed as much as the goblins and fanged, fire-breathing dragons of his childhood.  He was helped along by his father, Bobby Bubbles who was just as gullible as Billy but in a more pernicious, twisted, and totally demented way.  He was a conspiracy theorist long before the term became popular, and before the world got big and complex enough to spawn the hundreds of cockamamie and contrived threats with which we are familiar today.

In the early Fifties before Salk and Sabin had developed their vaccines, polio was a common and dreaded disease.  Our mothers kept us shut in during the high transmission summer season – no swimming pools or movie theatres, no playing with other kids toys, etc.  Bobby Bubbles added a new twist.  Not only was polio epidemic in the United States, it was caused and spread by the Russians.  They had developed a virulent mutation of the already potent virus, and had developed a technology to deliver it effectively.  They used high-altitude spy-type planes to spray an infected aerosol over our territory.  They infiltrated crop-duster cooperatives in the Midwest and Russian spies sprayed polio over peaceful, innocent towns of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas; and secret operatives poured vials of lethal polio toxins into the reservoirs of all our major cities.  Once we had become a nation of palsied, crooked people, surviving in wheelchairs or in vast caravans of iron lungs, the Russians would take over.

During the polio scare, Bobby Bubbles transformed his house into a hermetically-sealed fortress.  Windows and doors were double-and triple-paned, soldered and fire-sealed.  The one air vent in the house had been fitted with five filtration systems, each specially treated with anti-viral chemicals.  Tutors for the boys had to be polio survivors – that is, no longer infected – and even so, they had to pass through three airlocks of decontaminants to enter.  All food that was delivered by Brown’s Market had also to pass through the decontaminating airlocks.  All meat was cooked until as tough as leather to burn any telltale contaminating juices from it.  The carrots were baked so long that they looked like scrawny, black fingers.  The peas clinked like buckshot when dropped onto the serving plate, and the mashed potatoes were a gluey, half-solid mess.

The polio scare ended, Salk and Sabin worked their wonders, and Bobby Bubbles took down his ramparts and battlements and life returned more or less to normal.  Then came Sputnik – the worst of all Bubbles’ fears.  The Russians could now enter our brains! Sputnik was the only satellite that we had discovered in orbit, but there were certainly hundreds of others up there.  Bubbles’ sources flooded his mailbox soon after the horrifying news.  He was on every conspiracy list in the United States, and crates of mail were delivered to his home each week.  The Russians had developed a death ray that could zap down from space and incinerate us.  They were altering the geo-magnetic field, depolarizing our cells so that we would collapse into flabby, rubbery, empty skin-suits and all of our telephones would stop working.  The worst scenario was that the Russians had figured out a way to penetrate our brains, infect our thought processes and turn us all into Communists.  The radio was the prime source of invasion.

The giant Zenith 12-band shortwave radio had been Billy’s companion during the isolation years of the polio scare.  He used to tune into it every night, pulling in transmissions from countries he had never even heard of.  His father listened in to Radio Moscow, and along with hundreds of co-conspiracy theorists, took notes and compared them, trying to decipher the hidden code communicating to Russian agents throughout the US where they should infiltrate and introduce their poisons.  The wall above the radio was a crazy puzzle of tacked-up notes, graphs, dynamic swirls of arrows and missile thrusts, all meaning something, but what?  It was like a schizophrenic’s nightmare. 

However when Sputnik went up, the Zenith went out.  Billy’s father was convinced that the Russians were using radio waves as a means of infiltrating our minds, and any direct link with Radio Moscow would be inviting brain invasion.  Even if he didn’t tune in to broadcasts from the Soviet Union, Sputnik was the intermediary for all earthly radio waves and they could be hijacked and used in the Communist cause.  So, in a huge bonfire in the backyard of the modest Bubbles home on Burritt Street in New Brighton, the Zenith went up in smoke; but not before the tubes blew, the plastic twisted and melted in acrid fumes, and the once-beloved screen, with all its numbered and calibrated short wave bands in precisely measured black and red segments, shriveled, crumpled, and disappeared.

Billy, although gullible, was not stupid; and despite the years of home-schooling and tutoring, managed to get into college – a small, conservative Midwestern school – and majored in Biology.  Despite his father’s ultra-Right Wing beliefs and his visceral and schizophrenic hatred of Communism and the Soviet Union, Billy Bubbles fell in with radical Left Wingers, perhaps not so surprisingly, since conspiracy cabals of both left and right existed throughout the United States.  These students believed that Communism was the savior of mankind – that the principles of Marx and Lenin were far more egalitarian than our own.  The French Revolution and English Enlightenment were nothing compared to the Great People’s Liberation of 1917, the establishment of a truly collaborative, cooperative union, and the necessary purifications of the Stalin era.  It was the American government which was the enemy of the people, which sought to subjugate the population.  Capitalism was slavery without masters and whips, but no different in its desire to rule, manipulate, degrade, and destroy.

This all was standard, pro-forma leftist screed; but what attracted Billy Bubbles was the same awareness of subterranean, complex, and insidious forces that were organizing to defeat the armies of progressive social change that his father had realized.  It was now ‘The Government’ that was reaching out its electronic tentacles, deploying its duplicitous spies and informants to destroy hope.  Billy’s indirect training from his wacko father now came in handy.  He was able to wake up his fellow conspirators to the dangers of radio waves and the mind-altering elements found in vaccinations and fluoridation.  Was there any doubt that two universal and mandatory programs had been co-opted by the CIA and FBI on behalf of the Fascist State of America?  Billy recruited techie geeks from Engineering to set up anti-surveillance systems that could detect wire-tapping.  He had them reroute the electrical connections to all radios and televisions.  He insisted that all his friends wore special double-polarized lenses when they watched TV to detect micro-camera waves and optical scanners. 

The assassination of John F. Kennedy was the Sputnik of Billy’s day.  There was no doubt that the CIA, FBI, the Mafia, and the Cubans were in cahoots.  One lone gunman? Give me a break, said Billy and his friends and tens of thousands of conspirators who had been languishing in cold garages and damp basements for years without a cause.  Billy believed all the theories: Castro was pissed at Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs and wanted him out of the way.  The Mafia was in league with Batista’s gambling interests and killed Kennedy and were about to kill Castro in an attempt to restore a stable autocracy, favorable to business interests on the island.  The White Supremacists of the South wanted Kennedy and his little brother dead because of their stance on civil rights.  Ultra-right wing Protestants wanted the Catholic Kennedy dead and gone from the clutches of the Vatican.  The International Jewish Brotherhood wanted him dead because of his dangerous position on banking. 

Any one of these conspiracy theories could be true, thought Billy, and probably many of them were true at the same time.  Now, you could not possibly know whom to trust – there was a dynamic and confluent complex of perfidious political, financial, and social movements out to destroy the United States.  Jews were suspect as were Italians.  The new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, had been born in Mexico, and out of allegiance to the country of his birth and a desire for an easy retirement, helped the country develop its emerging drug trade.  He had enlisted the CIA to work with their Mexican counterparts to assure porous borders unimpeded by law.  Then came the war in Vietnam during which thousands of Manchurian Candidates had been brainwashed in Hanoi’s prisoner-of-war camps, deployed to the United States to search and destroy pro-war politicians.

Around 1980, Billy Bubbles’ mind crashed.  It had been swirling and increasingly confused by agents of tangled webs.  Radio waves had, despite all his efforts, penetrated his brain.  He surely had drunk fluoride-contaminated water, been zapped through the eyeballs by hidden emissions from his TV, gotten Communist-incubated viruses through sexual intercourse.  He felt violated, invaded, polluted, and wild with anxiety.  They were out there; but who were they? And when would they perform the coup de grace?

Billy was saved by Cassandra Learner, the charismatic high priestess of the Church Glorious and Resplendent, a kooky California cult that left Santa Barbara when Learner saw in a dream that the coast would be hived off from the rest of the continent in a ravaging earthquake that would split the state from bunghole to gullet in twenty minutes and send everything from the beaches to Pasadena drifting off towards Hawaii.  Learner moved the community to a valley in northern Idaho to be safe from disaster and to be far from the inspecting and prying eyes of non-believers.  The cult was based on Learner’s prophecy that the world would end in a fiery nuclear Armageddon within our lifetime, and that Church members had to build a warren of bomb shelters under the valley for when that day would come.  It never did, of course, and Learner explained the salvation by saying, “God has listened to our prayers”.  Meanwhile she got rich through hundreds of kickbacks from the construction companies, purveyors of water and canned food, sanitation engineering companies, etc.  Her congregation believed her when she said that their prayers and good living saved the day, and the Church never lacked for members.

Billy had been approached by one of Cassandra Learner’s evangelists who were on the lookout for lost and troubled souls.  Learner was a canny businesswoman who understood her market, and knew that the places to look were in the dens of conspiracy.  Those who believed that the world was not as it seemed, were her prey.  She took in everyone and offered them a home – one, easy, simple conspiracy theory according to which they were organized into a loving, caring, but determined community: The Soviet Union would start a nuclear war, and everyone except the members of The Church Glorious and Resplendent would be destroyed.  Church members, who would be housed a half-mile underground with enough provisions to last ten years, would emerge and repopulate a world without enemies and conspirators.

Of course there had to be the usual religious mumbo-jumbo, icons and references to Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Padre Pio and every other spiritual character who had surfaced in three millennia, but it was all window dressing and ritual designed to consolidate the one true belief of the Church – they were the Chosen Few. 

Billy Bubbles was very happy there, but when 1989 came and the Iron Curtain came down, and there was no longer a Soviet Union to start a nuclear holocaust, Cassandra Learner disappeared into thin air, and despite reported sightings in Belize and the Cote d’Azur, she, and all the treasures of the Church, were gone.

Billy wandered in a kind of grey, featureless limbo for the next twenty years.  He had gotten accreditation as a Montessori teacher while in Idaho, and it was not difficult for him to find reasonable employment in Dubuque, St. Paul, and Athol Massachusetts.  Then Barack Obama was elected and he felt reborn.  The grey pall that had surrounded him for so long disappeared.  He once again had a cause.  Barack Obama was an illegitimately-elected President who was not an American citizen, was a Muslim, radical Black Nationalist, and fulminating Communist who had to be stopped at all costs. America had been under assault before, but not like this.  Re-electing this man would be like inviting God to hurl his thunder and lightning down on us all.  Billy returned to his roots, and became just like his father.  Just as Bobby Bubbles’ had received tons of heavy packets of brochures, books, pamphlets, and unevenly-scrawled treatises on mind-invasion from the Post Office, Billy’s email Inbox was equally crammed full.  ‘You have 1000 new messages’ was not an unfamiliar message from Gmail; nor was the warning, ‘You have reached your Inbox storage limit.  Please delete unnecessary files’.

The Internet was magical fount of information.  Emails poured in from every state in the union, some rabid and virulent, spewing hate and bile about Obama; others cloaked in garments of rationality, but barely concealing the fearful warnings about Socialist Armageddon and the destruction of our society.  This godless heathen, bound to create an American Caliphate, they said, would stop at nothing.

Billy was happier than he had ever been in his life.  In one fell swoop he was reunited with his father (dead for many years, but reunited in spirit), rejoined with the spiritual forces of truth which had always motivated him, and found a long-lost community in a social network of like-minded patriots.   Approaching 70, he still worked long and tireless hours, sending, resending, and circulating everything that came through his computer relevant to the Obama menace.  He joined local Ultra-Right Wing political associations, and lit up like a Broadway billboard with the fire and incendiary rhetoric.  He wrote letters to the editor to hundreds of liberal newspapers, blogs, and websites.  He was indefatigable.

Obama, however, was re-elected by an overwhelming majority.  Billy and his fellow conspiracists were crestfallen.  How could Americans not have seen through the charade of the man?  How could they have elected such an insidious threat?  Most importantly, now, with his lifeblood leaking way, his beloved community straying and dissolving, what was Billy going to do with his life?  He was suddenly tired, and felt his age.  He had saved little money, and had few friends and they were scattered or dead.

All I knew was that Billy, like Cassandra Learner, had disappeared.  Suddenly the daily deluge of crackpot emails went dry.  Nothing.  Not a peep.  No pop-ups on Facebook, no White Pages or Yellow Pages or Google searches could locate him. 

I remembered well our days together in New Brighton.  I was one of the first to see the piece of metal with the red nail polish.  I walked home from Vance School with him before his father had shuttered him in against the plague, and we hacked around, throwing rocks at birds, messing with the neighbors’ flowerbeds.  He was a nice kid.  I knew he took a lot of shit from his brothers who threw all kinds of impossible stories at him; and he was indeed the most gullible boy I had ever met.  After his disappearance into the ether, I often reflected on his particular failing, that unfairly twisted strand of DNA that made both him and his father go far around the bend.  I even read about the pathology of conspiracy theorists and psychological, sociological factors; and yes, genetic predisposition to erratic belief.  Whatever ailed Billy Bubbles, however, ails a lot of people in this great country; and most of them, aside from the convolutions of their theories, are really nice people – gardeners, coaches, cooks, raconteurs.  Thank goodness for that.

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