And Then They Were Gone: The Children of Peoples Temple, San Francisco to Jonestown

by Judy Bebelaar and Ron Cabral

About the Book

“The Holocaust became real to so many people when they got to know one teenager, Anne Frank,” Marcia Perlstein said. She was speaking of the young people, members of Peoples Temple, who came to Opportunity II High School in San Francisco, then left abruptly nine months later, for Guyana. And like Anne Frank a generation before, most of those teenagers never returned.

Marcia is a colleague of ours who envisioned and brought to reality the small public alternative school in San Francisco where Ron and I taught more than three decades ago. Today, many who were alive when the news about the deaths in Jonestown reached the United States have forgotten, or have dismissed as mindless followers of a cult leader, Peoples Temple members who went to Guyana. Many who have been born since then have simply never heard of Jonestown and what happened there in 1978.

Jonestown should not be forgotten, as the Holocaust must not. Although the scope of each is vastly different, a hauntingly similar quality of meaningless evil pervades both stories.

Perhaps the teenagers we knew – some of those who died and the few who lived – can add to the efforts of many to make Jonestown more than a story of people who perished in a faraway jungle. Perhaps these young people, their hopes, their poetry, their efforts to help make a better world, can help bring the human part of the story to light.

With that idea in mind, we have written the book, And Then They Were Gone, more in the style of a novel than as a journalistic report, that is, as creative non-fiction. We were inspired to write the book after seeing Leigh Fondadowski’s moving play, The People’s Temple. The Alternative Considerations of Jonestown website, as well as research at the California Historical Society, which houses the Temple archives, taught us more about life in Jonestown and especially, what it must have been like for teenagers. We are grateful to Denice Stephenson, former Temple curator at CHS and Fielding M. McGehee III of the Jonestown Institute, for their support. Eugene Smith and Stephan Jones, both survivors of Jonestown, were kind enough to help us get the story right as well.

Most of the names in the book are real. There are a few fictional characters we added to help round out the story. All of the baseball statistics are true, and all of the poems included were written by our students. Most of the events are true, though sometimes we have changed the time sequence to accommodate the story. There are no school records of those years, and thirty years is a long time. Both Ron and I have each come to know more than 5,000 students in our years of teaching. The book’s dialogue is an amalgam of memory and imagination.

We hope our story helps others come to know the students as Ron and I did. We hope their story will help people remember Jonestown in a new way.

San Francisco in the 70’s and Opportunity II

The San Francisco Bay Area was a darker place in the 1970’s. The Vietnam War had ended with the ceasefire in January of 1973 and the dramatic withdrawal of the forces March 29. The protests against the war, which had been largely peaceful, ended with broken windows, tear gas in the streets, and the occupation of Berkeley by the National Guard. Shocking stories about the Symbionese Liberation Army began to appear in the news – the murder, with a cyanide-tipped bullet, of Dr. Marcus Foster, beloved school superintendent in Oakland; the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and her participation in a bank robbery. The scene in the Haight-Ashbury was becoming more violent too, with fewer flower children, more lost souls and heavy drug users and the attendant pushers, some of whom had guns. The atmosphere in the city changed to a highly-charged climate of rapidly-developing radical politics.

Problems at home began to overshadow those an ocean away. Students at Opportunity High who had written, before 1969, about their fear of being drafted to fight in a war they for the most part opposed now began to write about problems in San Francisco, on the streets, in their homes. Only one thing had remained the same for students and teachers at our small (120 to 300 students) public alternative school. For every year of teaching, since 1967, we had lost at least one young person we knew well, in car accidents or by drug overdose. But this sad experience did not prepare us for what happened in 1978.

An Excerpt

What follows is part of chapter one of the book, “Peoples Temple Comes to Opportunity II: September 1976.”

They came so suddenly, left so soon. Most of the Opportunity High teachers didn’t know much about Peoples Temple, a new church in San Francisco, out on Geary near Fillmore, right next to the original site of Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium, the rock-and-roll palace. At first, when students from the Temple arrived in the fall of 1976, they seemed out of place, like a visitation from the fifties. The girls wore neat and modest dresses or skirts and blouses, the boys slacks and dress shirts, some with sport coats. Not one of the boys had long hair. No Afros, no pressed or styled hair. All could have just come from church.

The regular students of the small alternative school, housed in a block-shaped cement office building on South Van Ness, were children of their times, the optimistic sixties unfolding into the more cynical seventies. They usually gathered at break and lunchtime in small groups in the open area on the first floor. In one corner Latino and Chicano girls from the Mission District clustered in their long black leather coats with hooded sweatshirts underneath, big hoop earrings, dark lipstick, eyeliner, and platform shoes; the boys in bell-bottoms, wide-lapelled polyester shirts, hair worn long or slicked back.

Black kids from the Fillmore, Potrero Hill, Visitation Valley, and Hunters Point lounged against the windows in teased-out ‘fros or beauty parlor do’s, some in wide-brimmed hats with fancy bands, porkpies, or knit watch caps, the girls in jeans or fishnet stockings and miniskirts.

Our rock ‘n’ rollers, both boys and girls, had the post-Haight-Ashbury look. They were young old-hippies, and bell-bottoms were giving way to boot-cut jeans, long hair, and sometimes beads and headbands, T-shirts emblazoned with Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Blue Öyster Cult, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rush, The Sex Pistols or The Ramones. Favored shoes were worn sneakers, Keds, or Converse All-Stars and workmen’s suede or steel-toed boots.

The few Asian kids wore either long hair and denim jackets and joined the rock ‘n’ roll crowd or identified with black kids. Everyone was cool and casual with an urban edge. They were, for the most part, friendly, open-minded teenagers, glad to be at Opportunity for its progressive policies, the freedom they found there, but they made a loose-knit student body, many hanging out during free time with their own ethnic groups, others acting as free agents, treasuring their independence.

The first thing the other Opportunity students noticed about the newcomers from Peoples Temple was that they kept to themselves. Mostly black with a smattering of white faces, the group was a consolidated family. Their closeness made a physical statement about their lack of racism and was what the teachers first admired about these very likable kids, that and how attentive they were, how they always raised their hands to speak, remembered to say “please” and “thank you.”  This probably had something to do with the Temple counselor who often visited, Tim Carter, who had served in the Marines in Vietnam. Tim had come to feel the war was wrong, and saw the Temple as a way to make a positive contribution to society. Tim, like the kids, had his brown hair cut short, and wore a sport coat with his jeans. Sometimes we saw him at Opportunity taking roll, sometimes talking, always seriously, with one or another of the Temple children. Those assigned by the Temple to work with the kids must have been a little worried about these model young people, polite and punctual and hardworking, and the effect Opportunity’s wilder bunch, most of whom knew well the ways of the streets, might have on those in their charge.

And it may be that the original students, who had come to think of this as their school, were a little jealous of the Temple newcomers, as well as a little distrustful of their “straightness.” But many of the rock ‘n’ roller crowd, the majority of whom were the kids who had chosen Opportunity as a place to get a real education, had at least one thing in common with the Temple kids. They were not here because of trouble somewhere else. This was particularly true of the kids who identified with the hippies who had come before them (which included many of the staff members). These kids came to Opportunity looking for a different kind of education, for the kind of teachers student Hugh Dineen saw when he was given a tour of the school before his interview. “Here’s a group of teachers who have had their chains taken off. They’re free to teach!”

Like these students, the faculty saw Opportunity as a kind of ideal. For the teachers, the school was the working out of a dream. Many had decided in the Sixties to forgo a more lucrative career for one that might help make a better world. Indeed, Opportunity II was a second attempt at getting it right.

(The story continues with Stephan Jones entering the school in a first large group, then others from the Temple: Jim Jones, Jr., Tim Jones, Johnny Cobb, Teddy McMurray, Joyce Maria Polk, Dorothy Buckley, Amondo Griffith, and Willie Thomas. Some were in Judy’s Creative Writing class and wrote poetry; some helped Ron start Opportunity’s first baseball team, which came to include the first female player on an official school district team. What follows is another excerpt about the formation of the team.)

Meantime, John Liu-Klein, the school’s head counselor, had been taking his group of kids around, dropping a few interested in a class here, a few there. Stephan and his brother Tim, tall, broad-shouldered, muscular, with curly blond hair cut so it looked like an Afro; and Johnny Cobb, another athletic looking kid from the Temple, were talking with John. Tim said,

“Yeah. I was a good friend of Stephan’s, way back when we were kids, and Mom and Dad — most people in the church call them that — adopted me. They treat me just like I was really one of their own. Sometimes I even forget I’m not.”

Johnny chimed in, as if he were used to talking in tandem with Tim,

“You know sometimes Dad, Reverend Jones, he preaches against sports and how it’s all about competition and making money off the players and bashing in people’s heads and stuff, kind of like that teacher Covey does, but Stephan and me and a couple other kids, like Mondo [Amondo Griffith] here, we just love sports anyway. Can’t seem to help it. Mom, now, she doesn’t mind. She comes to our games, football or basketball or track or whatever, and she roots for us, good and loud, so we’ll hear.”

Tim added, nodding his head,

“She is a good lady, my mom.”

“So you guys want to check out Ron Cabral, see what’s going on with that baseball team. To tell you the truth, I don’t hold out much hope for it. Too many kids here say they want to play, then they never show up for practice.”

“You don’t have to worry about us. We’ll show up, and keep up a B average, do whatever we have to do. Maybe we can get some more guys to sign up. Where’s his room?” said Tim.

Stephan said, “It’s this one. Ms. Bebelaar told me.”

“Well, he’s in there. That’s him talking on the CB radio. You guys go in and give it a try. Good luck.”

They knocked and entered. On the wall were psychedelic posters for shows at the Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms, a huge photo of the Beatles, one of Jerry Garcia, pictures of spaceships and a Country Joe and the Fish poster, signed by the entire band. And indeed, over by the window, Ron sat at the radio, apparently talking to a trucker on the nearby freeway overpass. He was an unlikely looking coach, with long black hair, sideburns and a Fu-Manchu beard. A boy sat next to him.

“OK, good buddy, over and out.” Ron handed the mike to the kid. “You want to try, Joe? Here’s the switch.”

By mid-1974 Ron had a good list of interested prospective players who wanted to play ball. Then in 1975 interest had started to fade. He was about to give up on a baseball team when Tim and Stephan knocked on the door.

Stephan took the lead. “Hello, Mr. Cabral. We’ve heard you’re trying to start a baseball team.”

“Hello, guys, welcome. Yes I am. And I’ve noticed that you boys talk sports – saw you downstairs earlier. Is that a ‘Sporting Green’ you’ve got there, Tim?”

“I try to keep up, sir.”

“You know, I just put out another sign up sheet for the baseball team, but I only have seven names so far.

Tim said, “I think I can pitch.”

Somebody came in the open door. It was Jim Jr., another adopted son, a dark-skinned black boy, tall like his brothers, whom Jim and Marceline had adopted from an orphanage as a baby.

“This is my brother Jim Junior,” said Stephan.

“And I can play outfield.”

Ron was surrounded, and amazed, looking up at four tall, strong, athletic, responsible-sounding potential baseball players.

Johnny Cobb summed it up for all of them: “Let’s do it!”

Soon others from the Temple signed up, like six foot three, 240 pound Billy Oliver who had played catcher on a church team. Mark Sly wanted to play outfield and Amondo Griffith had just come over from Mission High where he had been a standout infielder on the JV team there.

It was beginning to look like little Opportunity, the school the district saw as a place for misfits, might field a team to play against the big schools.

We are still working on revising the book, and would be grateful for any feedback and further information or stories about what life was like for teenagers in Jonestown. A synopsis of the book appears here. An article about the book from The Monthly East Bay Life appears here. Judy Bebelaar may be reached at judy@judybebelaar.com. Ron Cabral is at larbac67@astound.net.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on February 25th, 2014.
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