A Jonestown Story

One day, about four and a half months after I moved to Jonestown, Jim Jones told Anthony Simon and me to go over to Matthews Ridge to pick up some new baby chicks that had been shipped to us. These shipments arrived every month, but this was my first time. Anthony had made this trip twice before, so he was going to show me the ropes.

Matthews Ridge was 32 miles away. We were to get there by train, stay overnight, and return to Jonestown the next afternoon. We had to be on the main road outside of the main gate of Jonestown by 2:30 pm at the latest, as it was a three-mile walk down to the railroad station and we could not miss the 3 pm train, since that was the one and only train for the day.

At about 2 pm, I started reminding Anthony that we needed to head out. We finally got to the front gate of Jonestown and started down the dirt road towards the train station. When we heard the eerie whistle of the train, we thought “Oh, my God, we have missed it.” It was leaving early. and without us. We ran, hollered and waved at the departing train, but to no avail. Of all days, no one was hanging out the windows or doors of the train. We were just plain out of luck. and out of breath.

I stopped and thought about what the punishment would be for not going to Matthews Ridge and bringing home the baby chicks. I decided that, come hell or high water, we were going to accomplish this mission (or, as I told Anthony, “I am not going back to tell Jim that we missed the train”). Anthony agreed, and we took the only other option we now had: to walk the 32 miles to Matthews Ridge.

We walked alongside the train tracks so we would not get lost. Around 6 pm it got dark, and it was the darkest dark I had ever seen. I could not even see my hand before me. We were walking through jungle, and there was heavy brush on either side. The only sound that we could hear was each other’s breath. I was pissed, but I was not about to say anything to Anthony. I had no idea what we could have walked into, and at this point I recalled every scary story I had ever heard. Tigers lived in this area, we’d been told, that so we might become tiger food that night. Several times, large bats came flying around our heads, and I was sure they wanted to suck our blood for a midnight treat. It was like a scene from a scary movie.

We walked past an orange grove, which Anthony said belonged to a Mrs. Culpepper. We were starving, so we decided to raid the trees. We came away with all the oranges we could carry. They were green in color, but they were the sweetest juiciest oranges I had ever tasted.

It must have been past midnight when the moon rose high in the sky and we had some light to go by. As we continued on, my legs started cramping and became hard, and my back hurt really badly. My lips were dry and I was extremely thirsty. We had had no water to drink since we left Jonestown, and we had not even seen a stream of water on the way. I was glad when we finally got to Matthews Ridge at 4:30 am., even if the streets were silent and there was no one in sight.

We found the hotel and knocked hard on the front door. It was a great while before an angry heavyset man came to the door to see what we wanted. After Anthony told the story of our long walk because we had missed the train, he told us that he didn’t have any more rooms, but that we could go up in the lobby and lie on the floor. We gratefully accepted his offer and walked towards the lobby past rooms with old-fashioned wooden doors with small gold numbers on them. In the lobby, we both lay down on the floor, breathing a great sigh of relief. I tried to roll my arms under my body to keep myself warm against the cool morning air, because of course we did not have any covers. This was not effective against the mosquitoes, however. I was bitten again and again, and I felt like my face was swelling as big as my head.

Then my adventure got even crazier. I got up to go to the bathroom and headed to the back of the building where the community restrooms were located. As I walked to the door, a young Guyanese woman came out of the bathroom. I spoke and walked past her to the bathroom to take care of my business. I don’t know what transpired in the interim, but when I came out of the bathroom, the same lady and a man who could have been her husband or boyfriend were out there still. He spoke to me – “Hello, comrade” – and I responded. Then I noticed that he had his right hand behind his back. When he turned a little, I saw that he had a gun. I don’t know what she must have told him, but I thought I’d better start explaining. I told him that I was dog-tired because a friend and I had missed the train at Port Kaituma and had to walk to Matthews Ridge, and that I was sleepy and going back to sleep on the floor. I did not know God like I know him now, but I began asking for some kind of spiritual help so that I would not be shot in the head. It must have worked. I made it back to the floor in one piece, and me and my mosquito friends slept till around 9 am.

We awoke, went to the town store and found our baby chicks. We hired the driver of a Land Rover to take us back to Jonestown. And Anthony and I made a pact that we would never tell anyone that we had missed that train.

(Hue Fortson was the Associate Pastor of Peoples Temple in Los Angeles at the time of the deaths in Guyana. His wife Rhonda and his son Hue Ishi died on November 18th. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at afather88@gmail.com.)