When I was a kid, I often found myself grocery shopping with my mother and grandmother. I was made to hold onto the cart if I didn’t behave. I remember holding onto the cart quite a few times.
There was always one part of the visit to the grocery store that scared me. I might even say that one part of the visit haunted me. I had to come face-to-face with my tormentor at the end of our shopping excursion, whenever my mother directed the cart toward the checkout register. While waiting in line, I invariably confronted this demon – the Weekly World News.
The Weekly World News scared me. I didn’t yet know the difference between reality and entertainment as far as periodicals were concerned. When the Weekly World News announced in 1993 that the world would end in 1995, I panicked. My seven-year-old mind gasped, “I only have two years to live!”
When I read on the cover of one issue about a superstorm that was brewing in the Atlantic and tracking toward the major cities of the Northeast, I was petrified. I watched The Weather Channel for an entire week. I thought maybe there was a cover-up – was The Weather Channel not allowed to talk about the superstorm? Would coverage of this meteorological nightmare spread hysteria in the streets of Baltimore and Philadelphia?
When the Weekly World News told me that a meteor was charging through space toward the Earth, I was mortified. I asked my father if we might be able to deflect or block such a meteor. He said, “I don’t think so.”
For me, the worst editions featured extraterrestrials. These aliens were invariably coming to Earth to destroy mankind. When confronted with a cover story concerning aliens, I would often reflect that the previous issues didn’t seem so bad after all. So, the world will end in 1999 due to some weird solar phenomenon? Well, that doesn’t involve aliens – so bring it on! There was just something about aliens that really bothered me. The aliens usually liked Bill Clinton though, at least according to the Weekly World News.
When I was about seven-years-old, I developed this tendency to stare at the night sky anytime I was riding in a car.
“What’s that light?” I would ask my mother. I usually tried to point to the part of the sky where the mysterious light could be observed.
“A star,” my mother would flatly reply. She knew exactly where this was going.
“No, I mean that one!”
“That’s an airplane.”
These conversations would go on and on. I was certain that I was picking out unidentified flying objects. I was observing the blatant lights of alien spacecraft. I knew that I was watching the aliens just as they were watching me speed along Bitner Road in the back of my mother’s car.
One day, my grandfather was riding with us.
“What are those three lights over there?” I had spotted an especially unusual light formation that was almost definitely a large jet aircraft.
My mother didn’t have a chance to answer before my grandfather.
“That? Well, that’s probably a U.F.O.!”
My suspicions had been confirmed. My mother was likely part of the cover-up.
During the summer of 1994, Shoemaker-Levy, a comet discovered about a year earlier, plowed into Jupiter. This was a very real event, but, of course, the Weekly World News had to present a spin on the subject.
“Distress call received from Jupiter hours before impact!”
I’m sure that my first thoughts were ones of relief. Thankfully, Shoemaker-Levy was not about to hit the Earth. Thankfully, Shoemaker-Levy blasted whatever malicious aliens were living in Jupiter’s atmosphere. That was one less comet to hit Earth and one less alien species to torment me. Two birds had been killed with one stone – or collision.
Not too long after that, I started really thinking about that headline. What if Earth did receive a distress call from Jupiter just before Shoemaker-Levy started to rip through the latter’s southern hemisphere? There probably wouldn’t be enough time for the agencies of Earth to muster any help. But what if this distress call had come years before? What if Earth had received this call in the 1970s, when scientists believe Shoemaker-Levy’s collision course with Jupiter became set? Would we do anything? Could we do anything? My mind kicked these ideas around.
The image of Shoemaker-Levy smashing Jupiter on the front of the Weekly World News was wildly exaggerated – but I didn’t know that at the time. Surely, nothing could survive such a collision. What if Earth truly came to believe that nearby intelligent extraterrestrial life was in serious peril? That eradication of this newfound life was eminent? The opportunities to exchange knowledge would be lost forever. Should Earth at least try to intervene?
I think that in some ways, my mind never stopped pondering those questions. Once I got tired of rehashing the Shoemaker-Levy collision over and over, I started seeking out new situations and scenarios.
The Sci-Fi Channel was still fairly new in 1994, and I had been reluctant to watch any of the programs on that channel for fear that I would have nightmares or learn something that I shouldn’t know. Feeling bolder and more comfortable with the content after the Shoemaker-Levy collision, I often found myself tuning in on a regular basis.
I also started to watch science fiction movies – the ones I had been too afraid to watch before. I would go on to watch these films, both the classics and the B movies, repeatedly. I watched Alien and Aliens. I watched The Thing and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In hindsight, I feel really bad if Shoemaker-Levy destroyed any extraterrestrial civilizations on Jupiter. But, at the same time, it did get me to stop making myself carsick while trying to spot alien spaceships at night.
So, that brings me back to my earlier question: if we received a distress call from Jupiter tomorrow explaining that a massive comet was going to strike that planet in twenty years, could or would we do anything?