How did I end up in Peoples Temple? Why did I join? Reasonable questions, and surprisingly easy to answer. I ended up there by a choice which I don’t regret. I believe I was fortunate to have been part of the Temple. I don’t believe in regret, in that it does nothing for you. I completely despise the horror of November 18; I would certainly change that. But I am part of a family that is the best community I have ever found. I am proud of what we set about to do.
I have to admit that Jim brought us together. For that I am grateful to him. As to how it ended, I despise the choices he made and the power I gave him to make them.
What brought me to Peoples Temple?
Each of us came to Peoples Temple for different reasons – based upon our backgrounds, our worldview, our aspirations, our needs – and I am no different. To say I joined to build a better world sounds good but more truthfully, I wanted to find a safe place, a haven, where I could be taken care of and protected. To me, that’s what the metaphysical was all about. The ideals of building a better world was a secondary reason. Peoples Temple offered safety and a place to grow as a person and build/be a part of a community of like-minded people. From this umbrella of protection, we could work together, learning as we went, to build a bold, idealistic socialist community and hopefully more.
When I came into Peoples Temple I was looking for such a place, such a group working to help themselves and others. I wanted to learn more about myself and others. I didn’t like the alternatives I had seen before. Peoples Temple offered something more real to me than I had found elsewhere.
Who was I?
My dad was from farming country in Missouri and my mom from San Antonio, Texas. He met her while in the Air Corps, and they married when he joined PanAm. I wouldn’t say we were wealthy, but I was always well cared and provided for. I grew up sheltered from knowing about poverty or cultures other than white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. As an only child I was used to getting my own way. I was not political, because that was not part of my upbringing. I went to college because I was supposed to, and I even managed to survive and graduate from MIT.
Raised as a Methodist, I thought I was religious and even considered becoming a minister. In college I was briefly in Campus Crusade for Christ, memorizing verses and witnessing to others. My interest in religion waned when I realized denominations were rather like car companies, each one claiming to be the only true and best one. They couldn’t all be the only one. I finally decided that all religions were like spokes of a wheel, pointing to God at the center, who was each and all at the same time. That was when I put religion aside.
Just before graduating, I had figured out I was gay, the classic “best little boy in the world,” trying to please everyone else, trying to fit in. I had done everything I was supposed to, but I didn’t have a clue as to why or where I was going. I didn’t want to go to Vietnam, so I enrolled at Berkeley for a college deferment.
Knowing that I wasn’t the only gay man alive, I came out with a vengeance, making up for lost time in 1965 San Francisco-flower children, free speech, and pre-AIDS. It was all too wild, too easy, too much all at once. Surely there was more to life.
Then I met a man who was both a mentor and lover to me. He me read a description of a neurotic person… and there I was, written up in a book. He showed me I could understand myself, a slow process, but another clue of what life was about. In my later experiences with Peoples Temple, I came to learn a lot more about myself and others. We aired and shared our problems, openly, in a catharsis format. Talk problems through to understanding. It was a more real environment than I had ever known.
I decided I wanted to see the world – but not in a military uniform – and to get away from the too easy lifestyle of San Francisco. So I joined the Peace Crops. Bolivia at 16,000 feet altitude was certainly secluded. I taught English as a second language to three classes every day and organized various community projects. It changed my life. I never knew what the world was like until I got to see more of it. I found that people who had almost nothing materially were happier and more content in life that I had ever seen before. Like most volunteers, I got far more from my Peace Corps experience than I was ever able to give. I came back more aware and critical of the US, but loving it more at the same time.
The only politics I encountered was that Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia while I was there. Though the people didn’t understand his politics, they mourned him for he had lived for what he believed in. I also became aware of how much the US manipulated other countries. However, I still did not know much of domestic issues in the States, such as the civil rights movement.
I first met Jim Jones just before I went into the Peace Corps. I went to say goodbye to someone I had dated in college. She lived in Ukiah, and I drove up on a Sunday and spent the afternoon with her at her church. Peoples Temple. It was March of 1967 and they were using the facilities of the Church of the Golden Rule in Willits. I was impressed with the easygoing and friendly manner of the people. Communion was sharing a potluck meal – an ample and useful turn of a ritual. The children were all swimming and playing in the pool.
It was nice, but I wasn’t looking for a church, and they weren’t trying to convert me. On the contrary, I was mostly ignored. Somehow, I ended up staying for a short meeting. At one point, Jim said someone who didn’t believe in the spirit needed to keep his skepticism down or leave. I think that was aimed at me. Still, I wasn’t asked to leave. Several people were “called out.” This meant Jim had some message for them or an answer to a situation. We all held hands and sent love to protect the person. Seemed nice but a bit weird. I spoke to Jim only in passing and went on my way, off to Peace Corps training in Seattle.
We trained at a camp facility in a suburb, a wooded area. A pleasant place. Midway through training, I was sure they would find out I was gay and ask me to leave. I remember taking a walk in the woods and sitting on a log next to a stream, mulling it over. I don’t remember exactly why, but almost as a challenge, I thought, well, Jim Jones, if you can tell the future, tell me: will I make it through training? I didn’t speak it or write it down. Only thought it. Three days later a letter came from my friend telling me I had been called out in a meeting. Jim said that I was sitting on a log next to a stream and was worried. He told her to tell me that there wouldn’t be a problem. That letter really knocked me over. No one could have known about my thoughts. But he obviously did. And I got through training and two years service. I couldn’t explain it, but it was real.
My friend and I exchanged several letters after I was first arrived in Bolivia. I told her not to let Jim tell her what to do (she wanted to get married and Jim advised her not to). I didn’t hear from her again until after Peace Corps. In September 1969, I was back at Berkeley in City Planning, thinking I could combine architecture and “working with people” service. The classes asked what were the three most important things in people’s lives. My answer was, food, clothing and shelter. But I was supposed to say, “How people felt about crossing large, open urban spaces,” and so on. Complete drivel, I thought. I was disappointed in graduate study.
With school not what I expected, I was becoming lost in an arena of free sex and the lure of drugs. I was dating a guy who had cooked a casserole laced with pot, something he revealed to me later. Pot was the only drug I ever had before, perhaps five or six times in two years. It had always been silly and happy. This time I fell down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, crying and feeling totally lost. Where was everyone? Where was god and religion when you needed them? Then I wondered about Jim Jones.
Three days letter, my friend I’d visited before Peace Corps showed up in Berkeley. She’d been to see her parents, heard I had returned and stopped in to say hi on her way back to Ukiah. I told her I was gay, and she said (something like), “Oh, I thought as much. So what else is new?” We talked. And talked. And I went to church the next weekend.
The church in Redwood Valley was built by then. An indoor heated swimming pool – the kids could use it year round -took up half. The other half was a large open area with folding chairs and tables-for meetings, dining, socializing, etc. As before, it was the children who impressed me most. I sat with several and we looked through magazines. Children of six and ten spoke with such candor and openness. War was wrong, they said, people shouldn’t be prejudiced, everyone should be fed, and so on. I remember helping to put away chairs and mop after the “communion” potluck.
Here were all these people – maybe 80 or so, most from the Midwest – with quiet, homespun strength and common sense wisdom. A welcome relief after Berkeley. When I was introduced to the congregation, I said I was gay. Nobody batted an eye. Someone said they had other gay members. When I spoke about being in Peace Corps they actually listened and asked questions. Elsewhere, people had wanted it all in 25 words or less. I remember that Jim spoke, but I don’t remember anything he said. I felt like I was home, where people cared about each other and worked together. I remember feeling safe.
So, I dropped out of graduate school and moved up to Ukiah. Nothing had felt so certain as to what I was doing. Finally, a group of people who were working for all that I had learned was right. Hands and feet on prayers. It made sense, more than I had ever found. I ended up marrying my friend so we could take in children. I was gay, but that was not my central being. I wasn’t hiding; rather, I was choosing how I wanted to behave and I felt more like a whole person.
We married in February. On weekends we had kids visiting. One child I remember well was William Klingman, one of the kids I had first talked with. He was a good strategist at trying to push situations to get his own way. I was supposed to be a father figure for him. One night, when we were almost ready for dinner, I asked him to wash his hands. He said he didn’t want to, that he was bored and wanted to go home. He even got his suitcase and headed for the door. My partner knew more about kids than I did, and she just wished him well. We really wanted him to stay for dinner and the night, she said, and if he left, he would miss having ice cream for dessert. But if he needed to go home, well, that was ok. Goodbye. I walked with her into the other room, totally baffled. William turned the doorknob noisily, rattling the door, repeating that he was leaving. So I repeated what she had said. He was quiet for a time, then put his suitcase away. He said he would try it for awhile, and went to wash his hands. My introduction to working with kids! And his brothers Clarence and Todd were as much a handful as he was.
I worked in the Temple children’s program. We had Wednesday school instead of Sunday school. Children came in for tutoring with schoolwork in the evening and then Don Sly – who was a life guard – taught swimming. I wished I’d had Wednesday school!
My reputation working with kids grew, and before I knew it, I was Director of the Junior Choir. I can’t sing very well, but I can organize kids, follow a tune, and move my hands like a maestro. And keep kids on task. I worked with Loretta Cordell who found the songs and played for us. At first we had about 20 kids from Redwood Valley, but when we went to San Francisco and Los Angeles, we had 60-70 kids standing up together to sing. I kind of enjoyed it, and the choir was impressive. It wasn’t really that much work. It doesn’t get much better than that. Sometimes I see an old video clip of me in a blue shirt directing the children in Los Angeles and I look like I knew what I was doing. Somewhat of a façade, I have to admit.
After about three months, the Temple bought the house to one side of the church, and the Cartmells moved in. We moved into their old house in Ukiah, a few miles away. Almost from the moment we moved in, we had three children: John Gardener (Ruby Carroll’s son); Tyrone Duncan from San Francisco; and Jackie Fountain from Houston, Texas, niece of the San Francisco secretary. Tyrone stayed with us only a few months, and then Mark Sly moved in. He particularly liked science and we did a bunch of hands-on science. I loved having kids. My partner worked shift work and was often gone at critical times, and whoever was home made sure it all ran well. Since that was oftentimes me, I had to figure out how to cope with a family, as a family. We had a weekly house meeting, setting up chores for the week. So, three months of marriage and three children. My parents never really appreciated the rainbow nature of the church or our family, but they did contribute several rooms of furniture and appliances.
Although I was prepared to go to work at Masonite Corporation – as many other Temple members did – I fell into a job at the school district, first setting up and then teaching in a bilingual educational program. My teaching experience in the Peace Corps had qualified me for a California teaching credential, and I became a kindergarten teacher. Two of those years, I taught in Redwood Valley; all the rest were in Ukiah.
There were, of course, kindergarteners from the Temple in my class. I can remember Martin Amos in my class. He had a hard time not calling me just “Don.” He came up with calling me “Mr. Don Beck” with the Don held slightly longer than necessary. Worked for me. Jimmy Moore liked to walk around but we worked out a deal to stay seated. Chris Buckley walked the tables, but only once. (I actually thought it was funny but I certainly couldn’t let him know it.) Darren Werner (Swinney) was in third grade at my school and a real problem in class. He had to report to me how he’d done after school and that brought his behavior right into line. His teacher was amazed. I never used corporal punishment, but I always wondered what the teacher thought after all the stories later on.
It was through the Mertles, who had a foster child from Alameda country that we ended up taking in a foster child from there in 1971. His name was Danny, and he was five years old. I remember when he came to us, I picked him up and he just clung to me. You couldn’t have pried him off, and I would not have let you. After a month or two, we applied for adoption, a process that took about two years. Danny settled in quickly though, seemed happy and content, a bit of a handful at times, just a normal child. He was also quiet, and he had some speech problems which came from a hearing loss in one ear of 70% and 20% in the other (from physical abuse when he was two). It was not reparable. We made plans to try out hearing aids.
Every summer, Jim took the kids of the church away for a trip somewhere, and that year, they spent a week at Emily Leonard’s ranch in Oregon and a week on the beach in Mexico. It was always good for them to have fun and a time for Jim to get away as well. When Danny got off the bus at the end of the trip, I noticed he was talking more clearly – and talking a lot – not at all what he was like only two weeks before. You could understand most of what he said. Jim looked at me, then at Danny, then back at me, smiled and said, “He’ll be fine.” He was. We had his ears tested again. The 20% loss was now normal and the 70% loss was now only 20%. His hearing was never a problem again.
Like most families, we had new people stay with us all the time. Some stayed in the Temple and others left. At one time we had six kids. Mike Rozynko and Jimbo Jones, Agnes’ youngest son, were with us for several months.
We all helped each other. I remember how Bob Davis put in our carpet for us. I borrowed the Beams’ lawn mower to cut our yard. Others came over to help us paint. And we did for other folk too. If anyone moved, there were folks to help out. Working together got a lot done in no time at all. Almost always there was a bake sale on weekends. Wherever it was held, people came by to get our “famous” cherry, pumpkin or apple pies or cakes. We wrote lots of letters to elected officials expressing out views on different issues. We may have posted cards and letters from various places, but we always included the writer’s proper name or initials or maiden name. It was a good feeling to be involved in things. Something more than random.
The Temple was part of the Disciples of Christ, and we tried to meet and associate with others churches in the denomination. I remember going in an old bus to Sacramento to meet with another church. They were to provide lunch for us, but when we got there, there were about five of them with one tuna and potato chips casserole for lunch… and there were about 45 of us. We got some Kentucky Fried and socialized up a storm. We didn’t do much more of that.
Churches didn’t know what to do with us. We were too nice, too fervent, too mixed, too many. I think that is why we had our own services; we didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. Which made us feel even more special. And Jim never held back when he spoke. He spoke in whatever terms he needed to, but he was clear and challenging and articulate. He stretched you.
More and more people came up regularly from San Francisco, and we began having meetings there, eventually buying the building on Geary. I never was keen on traveling to other cities to have meetings. I had to work on the door, and I hated that part too. I worked most of the time with the kids, which I liked. I worked in the kitchen in Redwood Valley. Eva Pugh’s domain. She made the best chili, with spaghetti in it.
The Planning Commission, or PC as it was called, appeared sometime around 1973, I think. It grew out of counseling, which had been formed out of the board of elders, including Jack Beam and Archie Ijames, among others. One issue was who should be on PC; then we have to consider who was in a huff because they felt left out. At first it seemed like an honor to be on PC, but that wore off as quickly as you found out, it only meant more meetings to attend. We were, however, being asked to more responsibility in decisions. I remember thinking I didn’t want the responsibility, didn’t feel I knew what to do. PC in Redwood Valley started at 9 or 10 pm and went till all the work business was handled, usually 12 or 1, sometimes later. I don’t remember all PC meetings as all-night meetings, as some later maintained.
With weekend bus trips and then PC, it seemed there was less and less time to do anything else than to meet and go to or from meetings. When these became filled with confrontations and “white night” practices and signing confessions, it all “seemed” necessary but made a part of me pull back some. But I don’t think all physical punishments were as extreme as later portrayed. I believe we ended up in a situation where some left and some stayed because they felt they had to, to be true to their own convictions. We ended up with “sides” being drawn and both sides posturing to impress and scare each other. I didn’t believe all of what was said about those who left. And I hope those who left closely question all they said of the those of us in the Temple. Paranoia runs deep in ALL directions.
My years in Peoples Temple are a blur of activity. I know we were always busy, but I don’t remember details connecting season to season or year to year. I know I went on a cross country trip on the team that went ahead to leaflet for Jim’s meetings.
I remember leafleting in Houston with Alice Ingram and Gene Chaikin in the heat and humidity. I remember the sheer presence of the police in Philadelphia. You never had more than a second or two without seeing a police black-and-white on your block. As soon as one turned the corner out of sight, another appeared at another corner. The perception – the reality – was of an oppressive police presence rather than protection.
And I remember the woman we stayed with in Chicago. She had her own backyard garden. She gave us a large pot and told us to cut some greens. So we did. When we finished, she just laughed at us and marched us back outside and cut about ten times more than we had gathered, because of how much it cooked down. I can still see her smile and hear her laugh, and I’ve never forgotten how many greens are needed for cooking. Best I ever had. The way people opened their hearts and homes always touched me and reminded me of people I’d met in Peace Corps, people who had little but gave more of themselves, and had more heart and peace than I’d ever found before.
Out of Country
In December of 1973 I went with Jim and a group of about eight – including Carolyn Layton, Karen Layton, Jack Beam, Archie Ijames, Gene Chaikin, and one or two more but I don’t remember who – to Guyana to see about finding a place to set up a mission. We were there about a week, met various Guyanese officials, and flew out to Matthews Ridge to look at the area nearby. That’s where the Jonestown leasehold was eventually located. Archie and Gene stayed there to get things underway. Paula Adams was sent down when we got back to help set things up.
That spring the purchase of the Temple boat called the Cudjoe was arranged. Tim Swinney was to be captain with Mike Touchette and Anthony Simon his helpers. They went to Guyana in April 1974, then to Miami in June to arrange for the shipmen of supplies for the first pioneers. I came in July to help set up in Matthews Ridge. When I got there, Chris Lewis, Pop Jackson and wife Luvenia, Gene Chaikin, Lester Matheson and Greg Frost were there as well. Paula was in Georgetown.
Work on Jonestown was underway. Before the Cudjoe arrived, we had an engineer locate, survey and clear the first 20 acres for us. The clearing was situated in the center of the leasehold, with a river nearby and an initial road “tunneled” in through the trees and jungle growth to it. Only enough trees were felled to make a road wide enough for the tractor and trailer, with most of the trees remaining to support each other. We understood the trees’ leaves and branches grew in an umbrella canopy, and that these canopies actually help support each other, as the root systems are quite shallow. That means when you clear an open road, you must clear on each side of the road back far enough to allow for any trees that might fall, and otherwise block the road. In the tunneled first road, the dense tree canopy let in only filtered light. Even in the subdued light the jungle was very beautiful.
I spent much time with several of the Amerindians that worked with us. They knew the jungle and how to live in it and from it. You learned to walk at a certain pace-slow enough so as not to surprise animals to let them have a chance to disappear, and fast enough to let them know you were on your way elsewhere not after them. It wasn’t just the animals we had to learn about. We had to learn how to work with the plants, how to farm them. It was a science of its own that the people there knew much about. I had always been interested in planting and growing things – I had felt a special connection to farming, to working the land to grow your food – and it all seemed like getting back to where I’d come from.
And I learned: when to plant, how to plant, where to plant. As you cleared land, the trees, stumps and branches were piled down the center of where you cleared, called the windrow. At some point you burned the windrow, and the ashes gave potash for growing bananas.
Greg was fascinated with growing mangoes. He read about techniques to jumpstart their growth. People saved seeds from any citrus or papaya we ate, to start seedlings. Greg had jars and bottles of them growing.
After the Cudjoe came in, Jim came in to check on our progress and stayed several days. I flew out to Georgetown with him and then back to the states. He stayed in Georgetown for a few more days with Paula and Gene.
Work in Jonestown continued through 1975, especially in clearing and construction of buildings. Other people were going down, some (including people on the PC) to visit, some (like Becky and Ronnie Beikman, Jan Wilsey, and Tom Kice) to stay and work.
In the summer of 1976, Tom Grubbs and I went to Guyana to set up schooling for the minors there. At that time, there were about 35 people in Jonestown and of that, about 10 children to be schooled. I was also supposed to perform a survey of the land and draw up a map of what we had cleared, the road, etc. I was impressed by all the changes in the intervening months since my last visit.
The setting was beautiful, the weather amazing. In the clearing you could see a light haze in the distance, maybe feel a slight breeze. The “haze” was rain moving towards you, a light shower that passed over in a few minutes, cooling somewhat, in the high humidity. Still, it was refreshing. Sometimes it rained heavily. Roads could easily become quagmires unless you had banked the dirt surface carefully so they could drain. One section of our road became so muddy, it never dried out and kept wearing deeper and deeper into the ground. The caterpillar D-6 tractor would disappear from view till it came up the other side. We fixed the section by filling it with rocks, I believe.
Jonestown was built several miles off the road connecting Matthews Ridge, where manganese was mined, and Port Kaituma, where it was shipped. This road was paved with manganese tailings, a fine gravel. We had been promised some, but I’m not sure we ever got them. There was also a railroad running parallel to the road, and the river at Kaituma had been dredged to transport the ore. The mine had long since closed, but the road was still serviceable, as was the port and the railroad ran once daily.
We were raising cassava, a crop that did well there and was not difficult to grow and harvest. It grew four- to six-feet tall, like poles, with tubers underground that were starchy, like dahlia tubers. When you harvested the tubers, you cut the “sticks” into 18-inch pieces and simply stuck them in the ground to root and grow again. Tapioca comes from cassava. Many chemical reactions in industry require starch, most of which comes from cassava. Many types of cassava can be food for people as well as livestock. We were still learning to grow and explore its uses. Today in Guyana, cassava is one of the major crops produced and used in many ways.
We were also growing enough bananas to sell to Guyanese troops in Matthews Ridge. We had started to raise chickens. Anthony Simon, who was in charge of the chickens, had several college texts on the subject. If you asked him a question, not only could he answer you, he could even tell you what book and page the information was on. It was amazing to see what motivation was in the work to be done there. People seemed more sure of themselves and caught up in their work. Most of the children there had been problems in the States, but they seemed to settle into learning about a new place and eager to be doing useful work.
We grew okra, eggplant and greens. Beans as well, yard-long. And more. The soil was highly acidic, needed lime to be improved for crops. Close by off shore were deposits of broken shells. We obtained several boatloads and mixed them into the soil. There was so much to learn, but everyone pitched in and did their part. We worked together.
I worked with the children. There are pictures of me doing so. But I don’t remember any of it. In one picture of me teaching, my eyes are shut. I must have been sleeping. Maybe I slept through the whole thing, which is why I remember so few of the details.
But I remember the camaraderie was real. With fewer people it was probably easier to get along together. There were none of the distracters of urban living most of the pioneers had come from, none of the pressures from the size of the community that Jonestown would eventually become.
At that point with fewer people and less paranoia, the Mission project was almost a paradise. Peaceful, beautiful, a place of equality and mutual respect and support. Building to provide what we defined as necessary. And no meetings with outsiders – so no need to put on performances. Just working for yourself and community. A good feeling. Safe. Safer in the tropical jungle than the urban jungle.
Fifteen pounds lighter – I had been put on a diet, but I had also worked – I went back to the US with a Guyanese style shirt. It was like a dashiki, but not as full and of plain material. I also had a bottle of hot sauce. It was so hot! I didn’t find out till later that it was supposed to be diluted 3 to 1. No wonder it was hot.
As pressures mounted on the Temple and on Jim in the States – and the press coverage turned against us – the exodus to Guyana began. The bulk of people went to Guyana from April through August. I drove vans several times that summer taking people to airports, mainly to San Francisco, but once to Sacramento and once to Los Angeles. The San Francisco Temple was busy packing crates for large shipments as well as wooden crates, foot locker size, to go with people.
Jim left in June. Marceline and others held services in San Francisco and Los Angeles, but there were no more busloads of people traveling back and forth. Services became smaller – and stopped altogether in Redwood Valley – as more people left for Guyana. I remember it felt strange, but I didn’t really miss the trips and meetings. There were no more PC meetings either. We were in a sort of holding pattern. Everyone was preparing things to be sent down.
By January 1978 there were about 250 members still left in the US who were scheduled to go to Jonestown. The ranch was about all that was left in Ukiah of church ventures, and we were pretty isolated. Richard Janaro had gone down to Guyana, so we helped Claire run the place. I helped with instructional activities in the evenings, teaching the guys independent living skills – shopping, cooking, managing monies.
Though all of us wrote to our children and friends in Jonestown, we didn’t get many letters back. We were all just hoping to work through all the mounting problems so we could go down and join them. We had heard various stories of people harassing Jonestown, but we never really knew much of what was going on. We knew Mark Lane and Charles Garry had gone down to be there when Leo Ryan arrived. It was a waiting game to hear what was happening.
I know I should probably remember exactly when and how I heard of all that the killings and suicides, but I don’t. I just remember a blur of activities. I also remember feeling stunned and numb. It seems like we heard on Sunday – that would have been the 19th – that Ryan had been shot, and that there were bodies in Jonestown. No one knew what had happened exactly. Someone called the ranch to tell us to sit tight.
I was glad I had my job – going to work was something to do while we waited to hear more – but I don’t remember teaching at all. I do remember two teachers said something supportive to me. When I returned home, the guys at the ranch had been taken away. It was a time of confusion and fear and desperation. No one knew what was happening.
We all went to San Francisco that evening. Joyce Parks was there. She had been in Caracas at a training and flew back to San Francisco instead of Guyana. We were told it looked like the worst had happened. But no one knew who or how many had died. With all the rumors and stories around, we were supposed to keep working and stay visible.
We were told that a TV reporter had come to the back of the San Francisco Temple, waving a bunch of papers, a list – she said – of names of those who had died in Guyana. She would let people read them if she could photograph them as they read. People told her no. She said she was going to give it to the Concerned Relatives instead, and left. I was very angry at the reporter and angry at the Concerned Relatives group. I didn’t find out until this year that the reporter had made the same pitch to the Concerned Relatives, and they had refused as well. It made me feel better that even they had told the reporter off. I have found it is important for us all to talk again to find out the “rest of some stories.” But ever since all that I have very little trust or respect for the press.
I worked two more days, and then it was Thanksgiving. No work till Monday. And then the next week – Moscone killed, Milk killed, reports of death squads – very little that I remember. Except being interviewed by Secret Service in San Francisco.
I saw a parent of one of my students at Safeway. She came up to me and said she was glad her son was in my class and asked if I was ok. I just about broke down. She was so kind and we were all hurting so. I remember the teacher I teamed with was supportive, and my principal stood up for me. He had adopted a child as well. It’s a hard way to find out who your friends are. Most teachers seemed so aloof and distant. Whenever I went into the teachers’ room, it got very quiet, and people left. I have always wondered if it was that no one really knew what to say or if people just didn’t like the Temple. But even I hated the Temple at the time.
And then we realized all of a sudden, we were on our own. Most of our family was gone, our community torn apart. I was numb and dazed, just going through daily rituals to get through. So many were dead. Jim was dead. Our children were dead. That couldn’t be suicide. I felt abandoned by the one who had promised safety and protection. We had to provide for ourselves. Though we still held on to each other, it wasn’t as tight or as fully. We were on our own and – as we quickly learned – it’s much harder on your own.
We were allowed to stay at the ranch until the following spring, when Robert Fabian, the court-appointed receiver, was ready to sell it. Almost everyone from the ranch had gone on to San Francisco by that time. My partner went back to college.
Charles Garry had said he would act for us at no charge if we needed anything – he was a man of much integrity – and I needed his advice in the spring, after I received a letter from the US government informing me that I owed them some six million dollars for the removal and airlifting of bodies back to the states. I didn’t know quite what to do. As I told Garry on the phone, I just didn’t have enough money in my account to cover it. He laughed and explained that since I had been on the board of directors, it was only a legal formality to notify the corporation of their charge. I felt better but still a bit knocked over.
I got an apartment in Ukiah and continued teaching until June 1980. I spent a number of weekends in San Francisco, back in old haunts. I finished up a bilingual credential, using my classroom in 1979-80.
When Tom Grubbs and I had spent the summer of 1976 in Guyana, I wanted to stay and he wanted to come back, to continue in classes in Special Education, to work with children with learning problems. He was made to stay and I was made to come back. I always felt angry and guilty about that. My way out of Ukiah was to go back to school and get a credential in Special Education. Not only did it make me more employable, but I also did it in part for him.
In February 1982, I moved to San Diego to teach students with learning problems in Spanish. The only Temple people I kept in touch with were Claire and Richard and my ex-wife. She and I talked almost daily for four years until she remarried. Richard – who managed an apartment complex in Los Angeles – gave me some furniture for San Diego as I drove a U-Haul through Los Angeles. And Claire has kept me up to date all these years on all the people she had heard about. I lived in San Diego and retired in June 2002.
Until this year, I have had almost no connection to others in Peoples Temple, except for discussions with Claire and visiting the Alternative Considerations website. This year Claire cajoled me into seeing The People’s Temple play. I’m grateful that she did. Seeing the play and talking again to the Temple community have brought closure to me for loss of family so long ago now.
What I realize now is that the community we had, though lost, still exists. It always will exist, because we experienced it, and we know that “community” is possible. Most people have never felt what community can be. As we talk more and more to each other, I would hope we can recapture the closeness and goodness that originally brought us together. There was a large part that that is still good. That is the good that is in each of us still, and what I would like to still celebrate.
Our legacy, then, is to cherish the people and remember the goodness that brought us together. That comes through in our sharing on the Jonestown site, that’s what the jonestown report is cemented together with. That was and always will be the good in the folks the Temple brought together.
(Don Beck was a member of Peoples Temple for ten years. He directed the Peoples Temple children’s choir during its Redwood Valley years and made several trips to Guyana during its pioneer days. Beginning about 20 years after the tragedy, shortly after this site went online, he became one of its most dedicated researchers, transcribing Edith Roller journals, reviewing and analyzing Jonestown records released through the Freedom of Information Act, and compiling them for the first section of documents on the Jonestown Research page. He also contributed numerous articles and remembrances. Most of those writings may be found here.)
(Don died on July 9, 2021, following a lengthy illness. He was 78.)