“GARNER TED ARMSTRONG IN PERSON!” announces the poorly mounted sign outside a glittery suburban hotel ballroom with fancy plastic chandeliers. Ted, shown in profile with a microphone in hand, is proclaiming the end-time gospel with planet Earth spinning out of control behind his hoary head. This affirmation that something really, really important is about to happen in a city that prides itself as a regional entertainment capital goes largely unnoticed in the empty hotel lobby. For on this hot August Sabbath day, the majority of the modern Romans are next door on carnal rides for the masses at Six Flags amusement park instead of attending this spiritual amusement ride for the elect.
In anticipation of the chosen, three-hundred neatly arranged chairs await those ready to board Ted’s The End Of The World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI) Train Ride: a familiar doomsday message that once filled huge auditoriums in the 1970s…when both Ted and the economy were off the track. This ride can be pretty scary for the borderline blue-collar militia movement audience and terrifying for children. But in today’s four-percent unemployment, half the chairs on this ride would become seeds cast among the rocks. The other half will fill with folks right out of a Deliverance movie set eager to hear mind-boggling plain truths.
Beyond the sign to titillate riders, men in polyester suits mingle in the back while women in ’80s style dresses clutch Bibles and kids looking for seats. Near the door, a particularly large brown polyester redneck suit with white stitching sports a plastic name tag and an eye for newcomers. The suit is sizing up the spiritual babes and trying to act friendly…but not too friendly. As he mingles with those who look like they are first timers, he is probably careful not to give out ideas like triple tithing or de-leavening because one never gives strong meat to spiritual infants. It is safer to give something like refreshments to the spiritually immature. Ice tea is therefore provided gratis near the back wall; presumably the Kool-Aid is kept in reserve for the baptized members. But there’s more! Carefully designed booklets and tapes are also freely given at no cost or obligation! Cheaply printed tracts like Invasion from Space! and Buried Sins and Spiritual Grave Robbers are designed to entice but may instead make visitors wonder if they have found a kitchy B-movie festival by mistake. The suit will quickly dispel any such notions if asked.
Time to board. The local minister gives an opening prayer without asking anyone to rise (a mistake that will cost him ten cities in the kingdom!). He quickly compensates with a build up of Ted’s accomplishments that stopped twenty-three years ago because the mention of the last organization to toss one out is not usually considered resume material. Feeble applause breaks out as our diminutive Conductor Ted, in a neatly tailored blue blazer, negotiates the large stage risers and begins our ride. With age, he looks more and more like either a clone of his father, Herbert Dubyah, or perhaps a thin William Frawley (Fred on I Love Lucy) with hair. Ted begins to use his imitation Paul Harvey voice to first frighten the audience and then assure them there was a way of escape from the beastly European union destined to enslave us all. We have left the station.
Before getting to the nitty gritty of prophetic understanding, Ted first lays the groundwork by ridiculing mainstream Protestant preachers’ “give your heart to the Lord” approach with some standup comedy. Making fun of mainstream Christianity is such a hoot! Why Garner Ted Armstrong was not a regular on Hee Haw is one of the mysteries of the ages. For an even safer laugh, toss in some gay bashing and puzzle over why super station WGN booted the program off the air for 21/2 years for his casual mention that AIDS is what homosexuals had coming to them. PERSECUTION!!! Satan apparently has temporary control of the park and despite repeated attempts to derail Garner Ted Armstrong, he is still proclaiming God’s truth unto all nations over the airwaves, through monochrome photocopy publishing and poor quality audiotapes.
Wetting his lips every few minutes in his trademark reptilian style; Conductor Garner Ted Armstrong informs the guests that he knows a lot about world events and how to correctly pronounce foreign-sounding terms, especially Middle East ones. HES-BO-LLLLL-AAAAHHHH. ARRRR-A-PHAT. KENN-ESSS-SET. Garner Ted Armstrong did not speak until he was almost three and now he has become an apostle of exacting enunciation. In fact, his God-ordained pronunciation of BIL-L-L-L-IONS rivals that of the late apostate Carl Sagan. Words continue to flow off the tongue of the seasoned announcer, lifting himself on the balls of his feet in an attempt to either project his voice or see over the podium. Ted sure knows how to speak.
The ride speeds up. America and Britain will pay for assaulting the world with pop culture, but first that Middle East powder keg is going to make the Pope Catholic and then the great whore will take over. Garner Ted Armstrong knows about whoring in the end times because he knows the secret keys to the Bible that all the other prophecy preachers miss. False prophets like Hal Linsey (one can somehow mention his book but not his name from the pulpit) fingered Russia as the beastly bad boy, and Ted truthfully told everybody for decades it’s China and the European Union to worry about. Dogs and cats living together. NU-CLE-AR WARRR. Just wait and see. Garner Ted Armstrong sure knows his Bible.
Intermixed with all the prophetic understanding are references to the good old days when he and his dad, Herbert Dubyah, ran the ride by themselves. Reminding the 150 odd (some were very odd) listeners that he used to speak to over 15,000 at a time, Garner Ted Armstrong mistakenly calls his prophecy booklet by its old, old Worldwide Church of God name: The U.S. and Britain in Prophecy. Days of faded glory. Even though the scale of “the Work” is miniscule compared to the heady days of his own private stewardess to attend to his every need, the conductor’s cap was passed directly to Ted from Dubyah, at least as far as Ted’s concerned. Presumably based on the Right of Kings, power is handed down father to son but Garner Ted Armstrong never really explains why he is the chosen one instead of those other splinter groups who are “off the track.”
Dubyah liked keeping it in the family, and apparently so does Garner Ted Armstrong. The studio team, consisting of sons Matthew and Mark, are there to capture the event for the camera and perhaps master the trick of digitally producing crowds from empty chairs. Helpmeet Shirley is there too, sitting near the back. Perhaps she is there to make sure Ted’s ride isn’t too wild or that he doesn’t rub someone the wrong way.
The TEOTWAWKI train is reaching full prophetic speed now. Birthright…sea gates… Middle East…Stone of Scone…China…ten nations…peace accords…chemical and biological weapons…nuclear war! It is scary and so imminent, although Garner Ted Armstrong is reluctant to say exactly when, but SOONER THAN WE THINK. Sounds complex but the bible lays it out very plain, although everyone but Dubyah and Ted missed the boat because God is not working with them at this time.
Things are going to get rough. Very rough. Basil Wolverton’s cartoons will seem tame compared to what is in store for the carnal U.S. and Britain. The modern Romans at Six Flags next door will be surprised when it all comes crashing down and the Germans make them into rides. Even the elect could be swinging from meat hooks for not eating pork or made to watch movies on the Sabbath if we do not WATCH world events via Ted’s TEOTWAWKI Train. Above all, STAY ON THE TRAIN if you want to save your hide.
As a child it was all so scary, yet somehow titillating at the same time. Imagining catastrophic events taking place to others while we were safe due to avoiding white sugar and keeping short hair on men was comforting. Also, your school would most likely be destroyed in the tribulation, hence the titillation. However, separation anxiety ran rampant in children told that in TEOTWAWKI, the nasty Germans may tear parents in half because they did not remain faithful to God, or because they did. It was a very wild ride.
But riding TEOTWAWKI again after twenty-five years is like revisiting a childhood home after a long time. The rooms are familiar, albeit smaller and not as nearly impressive. In fact, they have become downright dinky. Speech patterns and phrases that lie dormant in the recesses of the mind are summoned up to be heard again only this time in a context that makes it silly rather than profound and disturbing. To hear the prophecy blah-blah-blah quickly becomes tiresome and the prospect of being sized up by the polyester suits afterward sounds less and less interesting. Perhaps staying would yield fascinating tidbits like Garner Ted Armstrong reminding everyone of his knowledge of jet aircraft or stories of hunting in Colorado. But the payoff just isn’t there anymore. It is no longer fun to ride because the ride is no longer scary. I am bored and want off.
Unrealized until now is that I no longer have to sit here and take it. Jumping off the train between stations is an option not previously available as a child. Maybe this is why I came in the first place. Having reached this emotional catharsis, I arise out of my self-imposed stupor in the middle of Ted’s TEOTWAWKI Train Ride. Walking to the exit while GTA chugs on about the Middle East…TRIB-BU-LAT-SHUN…I pass the redneck suit guardian, the crooked poster and stroll out the door into the sunlit uplands of the hotel lobby to join my fellow Romans at Six Flags next door. I’m betting the ride there is scarier and a lot more fun.