David Hatcher Childress knows doom is a marketable product. On the evening of May 5, as the moon and five planets align, the Illinois bookstore owner intends to hold a conference to discuss the potential cataclysmic effects of this astronomical event. If the earth survives, the conference schedule calls for a cocktail party the next night.
Soothsayers have long prophesied that the planetary conjunction next month will usher in the Apocalypse, but it's business as usual at the Adventures Unlimited bookstore and cafe in the small town of Kempton, about 200 miles northeast of St. Louis. Childress, the author of Extraterrestrial Archaeology and other self-published tomes, offers a wide selection of conspiracy and UFO titles in his catalog. Last week, he was so busy putting together an order he barely had time to talk about the end of the world.
"I always thought there would be a lot more preliminary activity beforehand, and there really hasn't been that much," he says. "But it's starting to pick up." In this case, Childress is talking about seismic activity, not book sales. He points to last fall's earthquake in Turkey and the recent volcanic eruption in Japan as possible precursors of what he believes is to come. According to the predictions -- which have all been refuted by reputable scientists -- the conjunction of the moon and the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn on May 5 could cause a solar flare that would affect the earth's magnetic field and cause a series of devastating natural disasters.
The doomsday conference will also delve into such topics as reincarnation, the lost city of Atlantis and the Mayan calendar. "We own a restaurant in town. We know it's a big deal, so we want to make some money off it," says Childress. In nearby Stelle, Ill., citizens are less glib about the approaching date. A spokeswoman for residents of this planned community declined to be interviewed for this story. "We prefer not to have such publicity, especially since we are not focused on a planetary alignment at this time," says Carolyn Jacobson.
Stelle, the German word for "place," was founded in 1973 by author Richard Kieninger, who wrote under the pen name of Eklal Kueshana. Members of the Stelle Group, who helped build the community, believed in the prophecies set forth in Kieninger's 1963 book The Ultimate Frontier. Among other things, Kieninger claimed he was the reincarnation of King David and Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaton. In The Ultimate Frontier, a boy named Richard is contacted by a mysterious character named Dr. White, who recruits him into a multitiered secret society of perfect human beings, called the Brotherhoods, which allegedly originated 25,000 years ago.
According to Kieninger's prophecies, the battle of Armageddon would culminate in November 1999. Kieninger foresaw that survivors of that war would later be put out of their misery by the catastrophic events of this spring.
"On May 5 of the year 2000 A.D.," wrote Kieninger, "the planets of the solar system will be arrayed in practically a straight line across space, and our planet will be subjected to enough gravitational distortion to tip the delicate balance. Although one cannot normally expect mere planetary configurations to have such a spectacular effect on us, many factors within our earth are conjoining to produce great surface instability around the turn of the century." Kieninger described in detail the earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes that will occur after the conjunction, citing the biblical book of Revelation as a corroborative reference. He further forecast that the tumult will cause existing land-masses to sink into the ocean. He and his followers, however, planned to escape the havoc in high-tech dirigibles of their own design. Kieninger envisioned that the Stelle Group would ultimately colonize the Kingdom of God on the lost continent of Mu, which would resurface from the Pacific Ocean near Easter Island.
The Stelle Group's Web site indicates that the organization has given up on the idea of constructing airships. Originally, members of the group, who hailed mainly from the Chicago area, were required to donate their assets to the cause. By the late 1970s, some believers had begun to waver and filed lawsuits to regain their lost savings. In 1980, the remaining Stelle Group members ousted the autocratic Kieninger, who promptly moved to Texas and established another town. In 1998, a federal jury convicted Kieninger, by then 70 years old, for his role in a secessionist movement that passed millions of dollars in fake checks backed by the nonexistent Republic of Texas. The failed scheme was apparently part of Kieninger's vision as well. In The Ultimate Frontier, Dr. White tells young Richard that he will create a city and, later, a nation.
About 100 residents live in Stelle today, and one-third still belong to the Stelle Group. The curved drive and suburban-style homes give no hint of the town's unusual history. But there are signs that this is no ordinary place. For instance, the village runs its own telephone company. Solar and wind power provide most of the community's energy needs. The Group also owns and operates a successful picture-frame plant on its 240-acre domain.
Although they accept reincarnation as a precept, it seems that most of the people of Stelle loathe reliving the past. There is a stigma attached to the early days of the community from which they would prefer to disassociate themselves. But the work of another prognosticator has helped keep Kieninger's ideas alive.
Kieninger wrote the preface to Richard W. Noone's bestseller 5/5/2000 Ice: The Ultimate Disaster, first published in 1982 and reissued by Random House in 1997. In the book, Noone theorizes that the upcoming planetary alignment may trigger a solar flare, which could induce a polar shift, the reversal of the earth's magnetic field. If this were to occur, it could dislodge trillions of tons of ice from the South Pole, according to Noone, and consequently unleash geologic disasters across the face of the earth.
Noone, who lives near Ellijay, Ga., claims that a polar shift caused the last ice age. "We know it's happened before. We know it will happen again. It's just a question of when," he says. Scientists cannot speak with authority on the subject, says Noone, because they have never observed such a phenomenon. Noone, nevertheless, has no doubt that a civilization predating ancient Egypt built the Great Pyramid to warn the world of the now-impending May 5 calamity. His book also includes a hodgepodge of information on everything from Stonehenge to the CIA. Noone says his findings are based on the work of experts, including the late Charles H. Hapgood, whose early studies of the earth's crust were lauded by Albert Einstein. Later in his career, however, Hapgood wrote a controversial book postulating that dinosaurs and human beings inhabited the planet at the same time.
Martin H. Israel, a professor of physics at Washington University, denounces Noone's claims as irresponsible. "I'm not sure whether Noone is talking about the effects on the sun or the earth, but in either case the tidal forces are really tiny," Israel says. Perhaps even more germane to the argument, he says, is evidence presented by the historical record. A similar planetary alignment came and went on Feb. 5, 1962, without any dire consequences, save the birth of actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Then, as now, seers gave the astronomical convergence portentous significance. Indian mystics reacted by praying for deliverance; in the West, the event was heralded by some as the coming of the Antichrist.
However unfounded the fears may be, Israel admits there is an increased probability of solar activity next month -- but says it has nothing to do with the positions of the planets. Instead, he says, the sun will be reacting to its own internal cycle, which peaks, on average, every 11 years. In the past, solar activity has been known to interrupt radio signals and spur power surges that have caused electrical blackouts. The National Academy of Science is looking into ways of mitigating the effects of solar flares on human activity.
In that sense, the residents of Stelle may be ahead of the curve. The community's off-the-grid, solar-powered telephone and electric systems should continue humming during such solar outbursts.
Nowadays, the Stelle Group's own activities are more widely accepted; the group's views have been tempered by time. Their admonition regarding May 5, which is posted at the group's Web site (www.stelle.net/~stellegroup/), offers little in the way of clairvoyance but provides this bit of sage advice: "One thing is certain -- some kind of change seems inevitable."