“Remembrance of Larry Schacht” by Sherrie Tatum
(Author’s Note: This remembrance is an extract from a much longer work. It provides glimpses of Larry’s character within the context of a personal memoir. My original intended audience was my writing professor and perhaps a few fellow graduate students. The image of Larry that emerges is filtered through the perceptions of a very idealistic young girl.)
In late November 1978, the world began to learn of the horrific events that had taken place in Jonestown, Guyana. I was home with my young son on a week-day morning when I saw the shocking headlines of mass death in the jungle. According to the article, a young doctor from Houston had formulated the poisonous mixture. The name “Dr. Laurence Schacht” leaped out at me, but at first I thought it must be someone else. It took a moment for me to realize that “Laurence” was, of course, Larry, and to recall hearing that he had attended medical school. In another moment my blood turned cold as it all just hit me. “That’s Larry, that’s Larry,” I said out loud.
For many years after that, I suppressed my memories of Larry, not so much out of horror at what had happened, but out of a sense of modesty. I did not want to exploit my memories of this gentle soul for any kind of sensational purpose. I also did not want to exaggerate the importance of the relationship. That modest view sufficed to tamp down the memories for thirty years. However, when I watched the documentary about Peoples Temple on PBS a few months ago, the floodgates opened. I knew I had to write about Larry and the period in my life when we were friends. What resulted is as much my journey through the dangerous labyrinth of Houston in the 60s as it is a story about Larry. In the writing process, I found that Larry’s story could not be separated from the backdrop of a place and time whose violence and culture contributed to the make-up of his personality. I also found that his character could only be fully revealed through his interactions with the very vulnerable young girl that I was at the time. Larry and I were, for the most part, very peripheral to each other’s lives, but I cared for him deeply and he was always on my mind.
In the process of reliving the days when I first knew Larry, I have opened my heart and I would ask those who read this to do the same. A few names have been changed to protect the privacy of certain people. This is how I remember events as they unfolded.
“ . . . . And No One in this Town Burns Bright Enough”
I walked past Larry’s house in the old neighborhood a few weeks ago. It was a humid, still night and the house, on a quiet street near downtown was dark except for a dim glow coming from an inner room. The driveway leading to the garage apartment was also dark, with a faded black Camry parked at the end. No lights were on in the apartment. The atmosphere was devoid of the sense of awe and mystery that I felt the first time I walked down that long driveway more than 40 years ago.
In those days – during the mid 60s in Houston – the garage apartment behind Larry’s house was the hangout for an array of musicians, artists and political activists. These were mostly the friends of Larry’s older brother, Danny. Some of them were involved in the migrant farm workers movement in the Rio Grande Valley. This meant that they had access to substances from Mexico that were fairly unknown in Houston at that time. That walk down the long driveway was my initiation into a new world. This was my first date with Larry and my first time to try pot. It was 1965, and we were both sixteen.
I had met Larry a few weeks before at my high school Folk Singing Club. He didn’t go to our school, but just showed up one night with his guitar. He strode across the room, sat right on Miss Donovan’s desk and played two Dylan songs. With his dark wiry hair a bit longer than most high school boys and his intelligent eyes under arching brows, he was very attractive. He also had an air of confidence beyond his years. When he finished he looked up and, without smiling, said, “Does anyone have a cigarette?” Shocked by his boldness, I thought, who does this guy think he is?, while digging frantically in my bag for that pack of Camels. I knew I would be in big trouble with Miss Donovan, but didn’t care. I had to connect with this darkly intense and intriguing boy.
The next time I ran into Larry was at some kind of political meeting to plan a protest against the Vietnam War. This kind of activity could be dangerous in 1965 Houston. Larry’s father was at the meeting and his family had already paid a high price for their activism. The Ku Klux Klan had burned a cross on their front lawn, and on another occasion, had fired shots into their home. After the meeting ended, as I stood outside waiting for my ride, Larry came over and we talked for a bit. He casually mentioned that he had some pot. If I was interested he could pick me up on Saturday. He then handed me a cigarette and said he wanted to see how deeply I could inhale. His tone and manner were so arrogant that it sounded like less of an invitation than a challenge. Anyway, I guess I passed because there I was that Saturday night walking down his driveway …
Just barely aware of pot in 1965, I was a little scared to step over that boundary of consciousness. I know these days smoking pot is mostly thought of as just a means to get high. But Larry and many young people of the time were seeking a higher form of perception as a way out of the materialism and violence of our society. Even though I was scared, I wanted to try pot because it was romantic and decadent like the lives of the poets I admired, Byron, Shelley, Baudelaire and Rimbaud. When Larry appeared in my life with his bold confidence and dark brooding good looks, he fit my image of one of these literary heroes. I was thrilled that he had asked me to explore what I saw as a deeper level of consciousness with him.
My background was not that of a typical suburban teenager, although not quite as intense as Larry’s. Possessed of a naturally shy and gentle nature, I had been brought up by my English mother to be very polite, modest and passive. Still speaking with the English accent I had acquired from my mother as a child, I didn't quite fit in with many of my contemporaries in Houston. Underneath my modest demeanor however, was a rebellious spirit that was attracted to the dark poetic side of life. Sadly, my gentle nature did not serve me well in the world that I inhabited. Most boys that I dated saw my sweetness as a vulnerability to be exploited. Larry was different.
Despite Larry’s bold talk, our time together was surprisingly innocent. When he drove me home after that first night, he put his arms around me very tightly and kissed me rather roughly a couple of times. He then sat back as if not quite sure what to do next. Neither of us knew how to break through the feelings of shyness and awkwardness, but neither of us wanted to say good-night. We talked shyly for a while and he kissed me gently a few times. An element of intrigue was added when Larry glanced in the rear view mirror and asked if I had noticed a car parked on the other side of the street down the block. A lone man was sitting inside. Hmm, that did seem kind of odd on a quiet suburban street late at night. Larry laughed and said, “That’s my FBI agent who follows me everywhere.” I only half believed him, but stayed on the lookout after this. We must have kept him up late that night, because his ominous presence did not deter us from staying right where we were for quite a while. High romance it was not, but very sweet, and I was happy to spend time with Larry in this way.
I never fully lost that sense of shyness when I was with Larry. Although known among my friends and family for my strong opinions on civil rights and social justice, I was so in awe of Larry, that in his presence I always became very quiet. When we were with his male friends, I would oftentimes find myself in tears of distress if the conversation turned crude. Although very young, Larry seemed to sense my discomfort and would call on his friends to tone it down. There was a lot unspoken between us, but Larry was very intuitive and protective. At some level I felt that he saw through my shyness to my true nature. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my growing quietness and tearfulness was the sign of a deep depression which had been building since childhood.
Sometimes Larry would call late at night. He liked to talk about his artwork, or maybe tell me about things that had happened at school that day. I would sit in my family’s small kitchen and imagine him across town in his room as I listened. Larry’s voice was deep and strong. He always spoke in a tone of righteous conviction, even when he was being funny. He could also be quite blunt and sarcastic, especially when expressing his frustration with the narrow-minded materialism that he saw all around him. But underlying all that was an idealistic spirit. He hoped to change things through his art and music. I remember that he once said the act of sketching or painting was a communication between the object and the artist. That the artist is the only one who truly sees the object. I was always in awe of his creativity and the passionate way he expressed himself. In contrast to my dreaminess and insecurity, I found his self-confidence very reassuring.
During one of these late night conversations, Larry told me about an incident than had a profound effect on him as a child. In 1959, when he was 10 years old, his school, Poe Elementary, had been bombed. I was shocked because I remembered my own terror as a child when I heard of the bombing. Now here was someone I loved telling me that he had been there. I could only imagine the effect of this on such a sensitive child. The late 50’s was the height of the Cold War and school children were subjected to bomb drills on a regular basis. Our entire generation was instilled with the fear of nuclear annihilation at any moment. This event had shaken Larry to his core, and he still had a lot of anger and outrage about it.
My sense about Larry was that he had been acutely aware from earliest childhood not only of his surroundings, but the workings of the larger world. This awareness had probably at least in part been instilled by his Jewish heritage and the political involvement of his parents. But I think it went deeper and was just a part of his nature. He seemed to have an insight into the human heart beyond his years. There was a kind of solemn nobility about him even in the worst of times which were yet to come. On the other hand, he could hang out with the guys and joke around just like anyone else. He had a lot of charisma, and many people considered him a loyal friend.
Years later when I heard about Jonestown and the role that Larry had played in the whole tragedy, I thought again about the trauma of the school bombing and the terrorizing of his family by the KKK. I also recently found out that the FBI did have a file on Larry dating back to 1965 when he was involved in a peace vigil at the LBJ ranch. So that was an agent watching us as teenagers.
A few years after the last time I saw Larry, I heard that he was studying to become a doctor. He wanted to do medical missionary work in South America. Although surprised – because I had always thought of him as an artist – I also knew that he had the brilliance and caring to be a great doctor. Larry was a person who did not believe in killing. He opposed the Vietnam War and he marched for civil rights. Yet he was persecuted and harassed by his own government for these beliefs. Unfortunately the cumulative effects of the culture of fear in which he had come of age finally caught up with him on that final tragic night and destroyed his idealistic dreams. Isolated in the jungles of Guyana, harangued by the the rants of Jim Jones on countless White Nights, Larry believed that CIA mercenaries lurked in the darkness. His background had given him true cause to fear.
Sadly, as teenagers, even though I adored Larry, we eventually drifted apart. I had to content myself with occasionally running into him at a friend’s house or at parties. He was always delighted to see me and quite happy to have a friendly conversation. For a long time he didn’t seem to be dating anyone in particular, just hanging out with the same old crowd of male friends. I, on the other hand, would usually be with some new boyfriend or other and would feel kind of uncomfortable. I could tell he never approved of any of the guys I dated. I even remember one time he roughly pulled me aside and started yelling at me, “What are you doing with him? You need to be with someone sensitive!” Not knowing how to respond, I thought, Why can’t you be that person, if you care so much? It felt good to me that he cared, but I was too depressed by this time for that feeling to really sink in. When I look back at old photos, I can see that I was a lovely girl, but I felt invisible. When we were dating, I had never felt worthy of the attention of this amazing boy. Now it was torture to run into him. There is a song by The Duke Spirit that perfectly expresses the emptiness I felt without Larry in my life: “…this hard pavement feels, as though I’m moving to the end, am I moving to the end of your loving? … Now the jaws they slam down and no one in this town burns bright enough / … Now the walls they close down, and no one in this town is right enough.”
At the age of seventeen I left home and school and went to live with my two gay friends, Jack and Howard, in the Montrose area of Houston. From there I got a ride to San Francisco and hung out in Berkeley for a while. Returning to Houston several months later, it felt strange to me that all my friends were still in high school, including Larry. Shortly after I got back, I was at a friend’s house when he walked in with a stunningly beautiful girl. Her name was Denise. She was tall and shapely with long brown hair, quite different from most of the hippie girls that he would have known. She looked like a Miss America contestant who was experimenting with the no make-up look. I really felt invisible in her presence, but as always, Larry was glad to see me and friendly. He seemed happier than I had ever seen him. The next time I ran into Larry’s brother Danny, he told me that Denise and Larry were engaged. Engaged? They were still in high school! Danny seemed to be quite happy for them as he proudly showed me a large painting they had done together. I remember feeling resigned to my sadness after this and losing hope that I would ever find anyone that I cared about as much as I had about Larry.
Time passed, we got a little older, and the Houston drug scene got a lot darker. The innocent days of smoking a little pot and making out in the car were over. By the time I was eighteen, I noticed that there were a lot more people with long hair, but fewer earnest, poetic types. Newer, much more dangerous drugs appeared among us. Many of my friends who were used to experimenting with hallucinogens were unprepared for the addictive and destructive effects of substances such as crystal methamphetamine or speed.
I had a new boyfriend, Richard, who lived in the latest hang-out, a beautiful old house on Hawthorn Street, not far from Larry’s place. The house had a Gothic look, with tall windows running the length of its three stories. Inside, the plaster had been stripped away to bare wooden boards. This gave it a warm, mellow feel. We called it Hawthorn House. In the large attic room, we all used to lie around on two beds. With the only light coming from the apex of the Gothic windows and candles burning on a wooden spool table, it had the feel of a cathedral. As the scented smoke of incense filled the air and the Yardbirds chanted Still I’m Sad, it felt in some ways like a sacred space, but there were plenty of dark corners for hiding profane deeds.
One night at a party at Hawthorn House, I spotted Larry. The house was overflowing and he was outside in the middle of a group of very stoned people. He looked pretty out of it himself. He was standing up very straight as if trying to hold himself together. He held a beer in one hand, but I could tell he was under the influence of more than just alcohol. When he saw me, he looked down and just raised his eyebrows as if that were all the greeting he could muster at the moment. I wondered if Denise was with him, but didn’t see her. In fact I never knew what happened with them, or heard anything more about her. After that night I began to see Larry more often at Hawthorn House. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of him on the stairs, but he acted as if he didn’t want me to see him. With a sick feeling, I began to suspect that Larry was shooting up meth. Although many of my friends were doing the same, I felt protective of Larry and it made me physically ill to think of him doing this to his beautiful mind and body. I hoped that I was wrong. Oh bright young flowering of a generation.
Around this time, I moved into a little garage apartment on Greenbriar, within walking distance of St. Thomas University, where I was then a student. It was also just a few blocks from Larry’s house. Sometimes I would go for long periods without seeing him. I was not sure if he even still lived with his parents. When I hadn’t seen him for a while, one of my favorite things to do was walk over to his neighborhood. Just being on his street never failed to bring back the magical thrill of the first time I had walked down that long driveway. Of course, I would never have wanted Larry to see me doing this. I was still extremely shy in his presence and had never expressed my true feelings to him.
By this time in my life I had suffered a lot of heartbreak, including the failure of every romantic relationship and worst of all, the loss of a baby. I felt very isolated, carrying this burden of grief on my own. Although I didn’t recognize my symptoms, I was still deeply depressed, seeing my only worth in whether a man loved me or not. Shortly after starting at St. Thomas, I became involved with a fellow student named Jeff. He was a chemistry major. His extracurricular activities included producing LSD and crystal methamphetamine from a small lab in his apartment. Even with all of this around, I managed to avoid the harder stuff most of the time. To my shame, I do remember one occasion when Jeff brought Larry over to my place and we all took meth together. Jeff had some kind of agenda in mind, and knowing how much I liked Larry, had lured him over with the promise of getting high. Jeff suggested that Larry be the one to tie the rubber tubing around my upper arm and inject the speed into my vein. I could sense a reluctance on Larry’s part to perform this act on someone of whom he had once been so protective. Did he think of the wide-eyed girl before whom he had knelt as he handed her her first joint? Despite our reluctance, we were both under the power of the stronger personality, Jeff. I was scared in this moment, but after wanting Larry for so long, it was thrilling to experience the penetration of the needle into my vein. In contrast to our teenage shyness, it was a strangely intimate moment and he was quite expert at it. He then injected himself. While he was still high, he took my sketch pad and did a pen and ink drawing of me in my little blue robe. It was buttoned all the way to the top. I still have that sketch somewhere. It is not great but captures sort of the combination of innocence and depravity of that moment. I could tell that Larry was a bit wary of Jeff’s intentions, so he didn’t stick around for long after that. Even in that moment he managed to maintain a certain dignity and integrity.
It seems horrible to recount these events with the perspective of all these years, but many people saw taking drugs as just something to do. Oh bright young flowering of a generation. I know I didn’t feel that way. I was not happy. I believed that I should be doing something more purposeful with my life. I seldom saw Larry during this period of time, but would hear disturbing stories from friends that his addiction and paranoia were getting worse. I was very worried that he had irretrievably destroyed himself. The next time I saw Larry after the night with Jeff, I felt uncomfortable, and although he greeted me with warmth and friendship, I could see a look of shame and apology in his eyes. He seemed to be caught up in something that he could not see a way out of.
Needing to get out of Houston for a while, I spent the summer of 1969 in Austin with my friend Brenda. She had grown up with Larry and was a close friend. One evening as we talked late into the night, I revealed to her the depth of my feeling for him. I told her that even though I had dated lots of people since Larry, he was the only one I really loved. I said that I always regretted that I had never told him how I felt and that I wished that we had been lovers. At the end of the summer I returned to my little place in Houston. A few nights later Larry showed up at my door … Much went unspoken, but I had to believe that he had come to me for some kind of healing … Although I’m glad that Brenda’s words sent him to me that night, he was already too far gone. Nothing could bring him back from the edge of his addiction, or touch the depth of my grief. All was well between us but neither of us was capable of fully healing the other. We were both too broken …
Shortly after this I moved to Austin. The last time I ever saw Larry was the day after the Kent State shootings, in May of 1970. I was with a group of friends hurrying across the UT Co-op parking lot on our way to a big protest on campus. From behind I heard a voice call out, “Sherrie!” I turned and there was Larry. I ran over and we embraced. I was surprised to see him in Austin, but assumed that he had come to join the protest. But when I stepped back and really looked at him, he appeared removed from such earthly concerns. He gazed off in the distance as he answered in an almost mystical tone, “No, I’m on my way to California.” As we hugged good-bye, not knowing that it would be for the last time, the old sadness filled me: “The jaws they slam down and no one in the town burns bright enough / Now the walls they close down, and no one in this town is right enough.” Even though my new life in Austin was good, I knew that no matter where I went, no one would ever burn as bright as Larry.