I met Dick Tropp when we were both students at the University of Rochester. Our friendship continued in Italy and when both of us ended up in Berkeley. Dick went to work for my brother who had a California jade operation in Ukiah, not far from Redwood Valley and Jim Jones. For years I blamed myself for their meeting. Eventually I realized that Dick would have found Jones without my help – it just might have taken a little longer. I moved to Canada around the time Dick joined Peoples Temple. I never heard from him again. At the time of the thirtieth anniversary of the deaths, I began thinking and writing about our friendship – a memoir in poetry, my attempt to understand what drew Dick and what kept him. I’m currently looking for a publisher for this work. Any suggestions would be most appreciated. As always, many thanks to Kathy Barbour for her help with this project.
Some of my Dick Tropp poems follow:
I saw you for the last time
1970, eight years
before you died.
You’d come for dinner
to the big Berkeley house
on Piedmont I shared
with a bunch of radical lefties.
You were down from Mendocino
to buy jute for your wife’s
macrame. The shop owner told you
how talented she was.
I was jealous. I was doing
“serious” work, an MA in Design,
weaving. You never looked
at my work. By then you’d
hooked up with Jim Jones.
I was getting ready to move
north to Canada to join the man
I loved. He’d fled the violence
that was America.
I was worried he wouldn’t wait for me.
You said, If he really loves you
I was angry. I knew
you were right.
And I was right.
Jonestown’s Thirtieth Anniversary, November 18, 2008
Days before the thirtieth anniversary, I turn on the CBC, half listen to the morning news, quarter an orange, pour cereal into a bowl, then stop, riveted, a piece about a stash of letters in an old attaché case forgotten in a Pasadena garage, letters from a young couple and their kids sent from Guyana to parents in California, how the couple, Jews, red diaper babies, had joined Jim Jones, become his closest aides. How the marriage broke down, the husband, fed up with Jones’ control and paranoia, left Jonestown, then returned for his kids. But Jones had his food drugged, left him in semi-stupor. His wife was one of those who prepared the final poison.
In one breath I’m shanghai-ed
into the story, yours, Dick, as well as theirs,
hostage to you and Jim Jones. In this darker world
I raven, against sense and better judgement,
read everything I can find – on the web, in books,
grow used to a sickness in my gut.
The question like bile rising in my throat, the one
I’d asked myself years before when first I knew
you were there:
How could you, Dick, how could you be
I make a Dick puppet out of
newspaper and masking tape –
large head, high forehead, glasses,
body tilted forward, arms
behind its back, string bean legs.
Mouth doesn’t open. Fingers can’t
hold a pen, hit typewriter keys.
Still it feels like you.
The teacher has us ask our puppets
What do you like?
The Dick puppet answers, voice
reedy as a bamboo flute:
Sleeping beside the open cabin window
watching toucans cross the sky
What don’t you like?
The puppet leans backs a bit
not liking to criticize:
All these beans
endless stickiness on my skin
how fast the sun sinks
behind the trees, no long summer evenings
the fear that it’s not going to work
What do you want?
Deep breath, then:
Dick’s Wife Kathy Speaks #3
I ask your wife the questions that gnaw.
We’re eating cheeseburgers in a funky cafe
where grease and gluten reign:
“Sure, we were infamous. A cult.
A bunch of lunatics and losers.
But that’s just half the story.
The other half was the joy
when work set us free.
We were high-octane, fuelled by
utopian vision and our belief
in our own strength. For years
I worked all day in the press room
putting out the Peoples Forum, 7am
to midnight, then sleeping on the floor
between the presses, all of us
stacked like cord wood, rising
the next morning to start again,
proud of our tired bodies –
you think I’m exaggerating but
that’s how it was – drunk on each other,
talking deep into the night, all of us
misfits, ugly ducklings who’d finally
found our pond – all these people
who spoke our language. Even
Jim’s paranoia helped
bind us. We knew we were up against
evil forces that hated our purity
of purpose, turning
the brutality of the US of A
on its head. This was revolution
and we would be the ones to make it happen.
Like Moses when he climbed the mountain
and looked across to the promised land
spread below. To know we were the cogs
that would turn the wheel, the ones
to teach lions to lie with lambs,
white and black building together.”
Listening to Jones
I listen to an early tape, 1972, Jim Jones
in Redwood Valley, two years after you
joined. He’s high-brow, smooth, speedy, talking
he’s tough, ungrammatical, how things will be
blowed up, a nuclear holocaust, seven years from now,
only seven. He’s a lowly preacher, he says,
but all his prophecies so far have come to pass.
Slight southern drawl in his sarcasm, cutting everyone else
down to size. He’s relevant, on target, talking
socialism and justice, before he wanders
into lala-land as if he’s lost interest
in his sermon. Tells his audience,
Don’t clap, takes up the time you need
to hear the truth. His truth, voice dipping
then rising, cadence he’s learned from itinerant
preachers when he was a kid. He’s experienced
the extra-terrestrial, knows the very date
the world will end, though he hopes
he’s proven wrong. Before this, I’d only heard
the late tapes, Jones addled and slow. I’d wondered why
your Jonestown writings were so pretentious,
freighted with too much meaning and
Now I hear your model, sense how much
you longed to sing with the choir.
What I’ve cobbled together:
That you, like most of the people we hung with, were Jewish
but we never spoke of it and we didn’t
do anything Jewish because we just were Jewish –
That you traded your cello for a sarod – though I never saw it,
never heard you play.
That you got yourself kicked out of Berkeley
dismissed from Fisk
married a non-Jewish woman you didn’t want your family
to meet – meeting her again, I understand
why you fell for her.
That Jones described you (falsely) as the son
of Holocaust survivors, presumably to up the pathos.
That you were a loner, before the Temple and during.
That you followed Jones’ orders though
you’d never followed orders before.
I saw your aloneness but never the lost person
you say you were. With me
you were unadulterated energy, bursting with plans.
Never at a loss for anything.
Except maybe that night at Half Moon Bay
hot-poker sun sinking
the rest of us involved with the fire, the hamburger patties,
putting out ketchup, onions, you
separate, far down the beach, playing
long sticky strands of
seaweed shofars, kelp’s wild song of
lostness and search.
WELCOME TO JONESTOWN
Peoples Temple Agricultural Project
The sign over the entrance.
Another world not far from the Kaituma River
ringed by dense rainforest, hot as hell,
two wet seasons, always humid.
Young people digging and building, standing
for group shots, kids in school, babies in the nursery
women slicing vegetables in the kitchen
working in the laundry, guys driving tractors
clearing land, people in the pavilion listening to the choir
you, sideburns sometimes trim, sometimes flamboyant.
I imagine the sounds:
bird song, sweet or raucous
rasp of saws, percussion of hammers
the warps and bleeps of short wave radio
Jones’ voice over the loudspeakers reading the news
ranting politics early morning to late at night
and the smells:
the spice of flowering shrubs
the sulphurous stink of rotting vegetation
the everyday rice beans greens
if a bigwig was visiting, eggs
some meat sauce
the rancid stench of sweat and hard work
the odour of crowding
too many people in makeshift barracks
people down with fever
and gut aches
the hungry sound of weeds encroaching
nibbling determined at the edges of the fields
you cleared by hand.
What did you read in Jonestown?
What food filled your fantasies as you tossed
What did you miss?
a door with a lock
revving the engine on a ‘58 convertible
or a VW van with psychedelic rainbows
seasons: autumn winter spring
your mother’s laugh
the cocker spaniel who never stopped chewing
being free unwatched unmonitored uncensored
What did you dream?
a day on the beach at Point Reyes
a toilet full of shit and you can’t flush it down
a classroom of black ghetto kids and you’re up front
the hippest thing around
cutting your finger clean off and the blood flows
and flows and flows
What did you want to remember?
What were you there to forget?
And you, Dick, Jonestown’s Blind Tiresias
on your self-made treadmill sitting
with the old black ladies head bent
taping their stories the Studs Terkel
of Jonestown you and Studs poets
of the vernacular running down home
voices onto a reel-to-reel tape machine
you with your over-sized earphones
to block the static around you
out of love for those voices the joy
of sitting with people you would
never have touched if it hadn’t been
for Jones and the privilege of knowing
the women who worked their butts off
so their kids might have a chance
the old black men who started
in the South but refused
to stay you Dick there at that table you
whose father plugged away so
you could stand in front of
a university classroom spouting
literary theory to wide-eyed or
maybe bored kids you whose mother
just wanted a chance at those seats and
instead you sit typing stories of poverty
and persecution teaching the children
to read write think by then
Jones was disruptive irrelevant
a mouthy thorn only the old folks
and the kids held onto you now become
Tiresias blinded by what you’d seen
Tiresias who was man then woman
then man old too soon though you were
only 36 wanting so much it was a pain
in your chest wanting liberty and justice
for all like the words of the poisoned
realm you’d all left behind.
(Dorothy Field lives in Victoria, Canada. She can be contacted at email@example.com.)