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The Buck Stops Here

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.


-from the Bhagavad Gita as quoted by Robert Oppenheimer who turned 

to Hinduism after the first detonation of an atomic bomb at Los Alamos on July 16, 1945. He regretted ever after not walking away from the "experiment."


I had a conversation this week with John and Johnnie as they were emptying the  refuse dumpster into their massive truck.  All through the summer they'd been leaving a mess and I'd spotted a rat more than once rummaging in the odiferous scraps. Johnnie—spelled with an ie he told me—was the boss, a handsome Black guy with a white goatee and an outgoing persona; John was his slim, quiet much younger white sidekick. They pulled out the dumpster as I stood and watched. There was plenty of garbage underneath left from the last pick-up. "Any way you can clean up that mess?" I asked.


"We got you that new dumpster," Johnnie said, defensively, trying to save face maybe?


"Right, the animals were getting into the old one. The lid was bent. Thanks for replacing it. BTW I'm just a tenant here."


"But you reside here," emphasis on the reside, a preacher's intonation, trying to impress or just a bit flirtatious, fine with me at my age. But we both knew that my residency had nothing to do with the garbage John and Johnnie had been leaving behind. Slim John looked at me sweetly and pulled out a shovel. In two minutes the underside of the dumpster was spotless.


"Glad you've got a shovel on board. Much appreciate it, John," I said.


That's when I noticed the gold or gold plated medallion hanging on Johnnie's orange sweatshirt. I could see what it was but asked anyway.


"That's Jesus," Johnnie said. "You believe in Jesus?  You pray to Jesus? He's going to watch as the world ends and then maybe save us, if we believe, if we pray," he said.


"Or maybe it is for us to save ourselves, be good to each other, do the right thing, like you are doing today," I said.


But my conversation with Johnnie was not over. He was a performer,  par excellence. Slowly, he pulled his hands over his face and added narration: "Skin and bone melting, contorted bodies collapsing into the desert dust. Sound familiar?"


"The nuclear apocalypse," I said.


"Exactly," he said. "All predicted in the 'Book of Revelations.' God watches as we destroy ourselves."


"We do it to ourselves. I couldn't agree more," I said, relieved that we'd had what I'd read the diplomats call "a meeting of hearts and minds," however fleeting and imperfect. Then he invited me to his church to sing and pray—John  is a member too, he said.


"I'm a non-believer," I told him. "I don't believe that prayer will help stop war though I accept all blessings. Did you bless me?"


"Not yet," Johnnie said, "but I was planning to."


There wasn't any time to ask these guys if they were registered to vote, which is what I usually do with strangers I encounter, young people especially. Maybe Johnnie was old enough to make up his own mind and it was none of my business if he voted or not.  Or, maybe I dreaded the answer, so I just ended the conversation with, "A pleasure talking. Thanks for your hard work. Have a good rest of the day."


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