[Editor’s note: A German translation of this article appears here.]
The year 1972 was filled with many historical events. I still remember the terrorist attack on the Israeli wrestling team during the Olympic games in Munich. I had a hard time trying to process how victories and tragedies could occur in the same place. The United States celebrated when Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, and Israel wept when eleven athletes lost their lives.
1972 marked the beginning of one of the biggest political scandals in modern times with the break-in at the Watergate complex. Five White House operatives were arrested for burglarizing the offices of the Democratic National Committee and started the Watergate Scandal.
NASA officially launched its Space Shuttle Program in January 1972. On June 13, 1972, Hurricane Agnes swept on the east coast, killing 117 people. The world was shocked to learn that 16 people who survived a plane crash had practiced cannibalism in order to live. 1972 wowed us when HBO launched its satellite subscription cable service. So many, many other newsworthy events occurred that year.
One event that didn’t capture the world’s attention, though, was when Jim Jones led a fleet of overloaded buses on a crusade across the country. I hear a lot of stories from people who recount times “before things got bad” in Peoples Temple. Some of us want to know just exactly when that was. I guess it had to depend on which side of the coin you flipped. Certainly that bus trip didn’t qualify as a good time.
We had talked about going for months and spent a lot of time in preparation. The road trip would last for weeks, as the gospel according to Jim Jones blew like a hurricane from coast to coast. Because Mom was bringing ten kids with her, it was agreed that the oldest grandchild in the family would stay behind to take care of our 80-year-old great aunt, Willie. Mom bought us new clothes for the trip, prepared care packages for us, and instructed us on how to behave. It didn’t work out the way we planned, though, because my niece Curly had a bad seizure the week before we were supposed to leave, so Mom had to stay behind to take care of her.
That meant nine of us children got on the bus that summer, without an adult from our household to supervise us. My sister Darlene, my niece Tiny, and I got on bus 13. We thought we were going to have a carefree adventure, and I was looking forward to going to all the places on our itinerary – Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Georgia, Philadelphia, New York, and Canada among them – before returning to San Francisco.
What we hadn’t prepared for was the overcrowding on the bus. There should have been about 45 passengers, but with some seats having three instead of two passengers, the aisle, overhead racks, and luggage compartment filled with people, that was going to be another adventure. The toilet smelled, the air conditioner didn’t work well, and people complained.
Once I rode on the bus Jim Jones rode on. I couldn’t believe the difference. It wasn’t overcrowded, the air conditioner actually worked, and the toilet didn’t smell. I got a real dose of the haves and have nots that day, and started seeing things clearer. I used to be singled out to clean the buses when people disembarked. I can’t begin to tell you how much I hated it. I can actually smell those buses when I think about it. Almost 50 years ago and I still smell it!
Long before we got to our very first stopover in Texas, I wished that I had just stayed home. When we came to rest stops we had to stand in endless lines just to use the restroom. Jim Jones said we should leave a good impression anywhere we went. That meant if the restrooms were dirty when we arrived, they would be spotless when we left. If there was garbage on the ground, it would be swept clean before we left.
The meals along the way were nothing to look forward to. I got so sick of tuna sandwiches and would groan in my spirit when I saw the food crew opening those huge cans of tuna. I’m allergic to seafood, but I didn’t know it then. To this day, I wonder where they got those cans of tuna. I haven’t seen a can that big since I left Peoples Temple. I imagine they procured it through military surplus or something.
When we finally made it to Texas, we learned that we were going to sleep on the floor in a gymnasium. Nobody told us that when they were collecting our money to go. Yes, we were charged to ride the buses, even when we traveled from San Francisco to the services in Los Angeles. The free rides didn’t come until much later. That was part of the complaint I heard that summer, especially from the elderly. People were angry that we had to sleep on the floor with hundreds of people in a school gymnasium.
Some people were fortunate to be lodged in private homes of Peoples Temple sympathizers. I personally thank God for Violet Jones.
My sister Darlene, a number of my friends, and I had the task of taking names at the door of people attending the services. I think it was my best friend Toni James who talked me into doing that with her one day. I can be friendly when I need to, and I remember smiling at people and asking for their name, address, and phone number. I thought it was just going to be a one-time duty. Was I wrong!.
The next day I was hanging out with friends before a service started when Violet – who supervised the nametakers – approached me and asked why I wasn’t at the door taking names. I said I wasn’t a name taker, and I only did it the day before to keep Toni company. I got a rude awakening when I found out I was drafted for good. Apparently my penmanship and phony smile were exactly what they wanted at the door.
I really liked Violet. She put us on a short leash, but she was always good to us and looked out for us. She never did wrote us up for petty stuff. Violet’s sister Jackie Fountain and her niece Valerie Jones were friends of Darlene and me. I used to laugh a lot with Jackie. The church used to sing the song, “Jesus is a Fountain.” The lyrics were, “Jesus is a fountain that won’t run dry”, but Jim Jones changed the lyrics to “Father is a fountain that won’t run dry”. Jackie changed them again: “Father is a fountain and so am I.”
I mention Violet, Jackie and Valerie because they had family in Texas, and we stayed with them while we were there. I remember Texas being hot and humid. I had the misfortune of standing near an ant nest and was bitten really bad. When they say everything’s big in Texas, believe it. I can personally vouch for the ants. It was Violet who found something for my ant bites that helped decrease the swelling in my leg.
We had the best time in Texas, not because of the caravan, but because we did a lot away from it. We just showed up for the services and went with Violet afterwards. I was so grateful to take a shower in hot water, to wash my hair and clothes, to eat real food, and to use the bathroom in privacy. Their family treated us with genuine hospitality. We got a kick out of hearing Violet’s family calling her by her nickname, “Lotta B.” I was sad when the revival ended in Texas, and we had to sardine ourselves back on the road to eat tuna along the way.
Our reception in the South was what you’d expect it to be when buses loaded with people of different ethnicities rolled into local parks and rest areas. The hostility was thick and expressed unashamedly. One day we were at a park in Louisiana playing with some local white kids on the swings. Their mother came running over, grabbed one of her sons and yelled at the other one, “Billy Bob, you come away from them people! You know better than to be playing with them!” I can still see the confusion on Billy Bob’s face as she rushed them away. We were just kids playing and laughing, until his mother came and reminded him who he was and what we were.
The lowlight of the trip, though, had to be when we pulled into a wooded rest area one night in Mississippi. There was an actual noose hanging from a tree, displayed like a monument… or a warning. I stared at it wondering how many people actually swung from that noose. Someone from our bus cut it down. It was hot and humid in Mississippi, but looking at that noose gave me chills.
I can’t recall all the cities we stopped in to set up the circus, or in what order they were. Detroit was dirty, and full of broken glass. Chicago was a blur and so was Indiana. I do recall the buses going to Jim Jones’ boyhood home there getting a guided tour of the places he grew up in.
I also remember going to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. and goofing off around the Mall. A congressman came out to greet us. Darlene, Tiny, and I took pictures. Mom had bought us matching white skirts with red and white blouses. We thought we were cute! I don’t know what happened to our photos, but the Temple photographers made great use of the ones they took.
Philadelphia was memorable. That was where I witnessed a faked healing. I saw a woman put on her prop of a cast, only to be “miraculously healed” after Jim Jones touched her during the service. I had always thought the healings were fake, but now I saw for myself.
I wondered why we were there. I was 13 years old. Why couldn’t mom see through all of this charade?
We stayed in a church that looked like a seventeenth century cathedral. Instead of sleeping on the floor, Cardell Neal, Anthony Buckley, and I slept on the roof in our sleeping bags. It was so hot and cramped in that church that we didn’t even care if we were risking falling off that roof. It was quiet with a gentle breeze up there. We laid up there on our backs looking at the stars and laughing at each other’s jokes.
We went through New York and into Canada at the border at Niagara Falls. I was amazed by the Falls; it was breathtaking. We went through Canada, coming out in Montana, and breezed through Idaho. I started the final countdown for home when we got to Nevada. I couldn’t wait to get back. The smells permeated the bus, the lines to use the restroom were endless, and we still hadn’t run out of tuna!
By the time we crossed the border back into California I felt like walking home, and I wasn’t the only one. I was angry that I still wasn’t home with my family eating good food, having fun at the city pool and at summer parties, and talking on the phone. More than anything, I missed our bathtub.
* * * * *
That was a summer long ago. The majority of passengers in that caravan are no longer here. I grieve the summers lost to them, I mourn the absence of their laughter. Yes, they laughed that summer. They laughed in spite of the overcrowding. In fact, they laughed at it all.
Why were we so happy? How could we have been joyful when we were surrounded by chaos? For the last 42 years, I’ve asked myself how was that possible? Maybe it was unified hope, a hope that what we endured together would make the world a better place. It didn’t. Sometimes it seems as if the world went to hell in a handbasket after that tragic day 42 years ago.
I couldn’t wait for that trip to end. Sometimes I wish it never would. Yes, it was cramped, it was hot, it was smelly, there were fire ants, nooses swinging in the dark, and yes it was a sham. What makes me wish it never ended? Maybe it was a bunch of giggly girls taking names at the door. Could it be three kids on a roof lying on their backs reaching up toward the stars shining on a summer night? Perhaps it’s that awesome moment together as we watched and felt the spray from water plunging from Niagara Falls. I don’t know what it is, but I’d give anything to get it back again. Lord knows that I’d even eat another one of those awful tuna sandwiches, just to hug my sister again.
The love and laughter we shared, the hope we shared that things could be better. I’ve learned through the years that time can be cruel. The cruelty of memories fading away, the pain of forgetting, is unbearable at times. So I write. Every stroke of the pen embeds them into eternity. I write so that they are never forgotten. I write to herald a scroll like a baton. A baton to be passed to runners yet to come. I’m thankful for the other runners here with their scrolls. Each time I read your stories, they embed scrolls filled with eulogies.
Eulogy. The word means to speak well of someone. So don’t stop writing, don’t stop eulogizing the hopes and dreams of them that time is trying to erase from our memories.
Yes, write, lest we forget and allow the world to kill them all over again with their assumptions.
(Glenda Randolph Bates was the sister of Darlene Ramey, who died in Jonestown. Glenda’s numerous articles for this site appear here. She died on March 29, 2022 from pancreatic cancer.)