“I want to go with you but they won’t let me”: Memories of My Friend Brian Davis

Photo courtesy of the
California Historical Society.

Brian Davis and I were very close, as close as two brothers could be without being related by birth. For all the times I have talked to reporters and helped others with their own writings, I can honestly say this is the one story I have never told before. It is also the hardest one emotionally to tell. I will never forget the look on Brian’s face as I was leaving Jonestown: it was the look of someone saying, “I want to go with you, but they won’t let me.” Brian was my best friend, and I will always miss him.

I begin my recollections of my relationship with Brian with a couple of caveats: the stories are all true, but the ages of the people may be off by a year or two; and the order in which events occurred are as I remember them, not necessarily in the order of occurrence. After all, this was 34 years ago.

Brian and I met in San Francisco. He was already staying within the church on Geary Street. I had been moved there because I kept running away, and at the young age of 13, I already hated the church. The church elders decided I needed a more controlled environment. I was shown to my new accommodations, which was a small upstairs room in the back of the church. I was introduced to this red-headed kid about the same age as myself. I was told he was to be my roommate. His name was Brian Davis.

We hit it off right from the beginning. We both enjoyed the TV series Night Gallery and Twilight Zone (our favorites), and we both played musical instruments. We were both to start the ninth grade in the fall at Presidio High.

Since we lived out of district for Presidio, we had to be dropped off at this old lady’s house across the street from the school – we learned to make lye soap there – and we were told, if anyone asked, to say that this was where we lived.

Behind the school was a steep hill. After school, while we waited for our ride to show up, we would ride our skateboards down this hill. Could Brian ride a skateboard! His skateboard was a Bonzai, top of the line board, and he showed no fear! A lot of the tricks you see today, he was doing back then. Eventually our ride would show up and back to the church we went.

It didn’t take long for us both to discover how much disdain we had for the church and its rules. He often spoke of how much he wanted to go back home to his mother’s, but his dad wouldn’t let him. That saddened him greatly.

During the year Brian and I lived at the church, we formed a very strong bond. For a place to try and get two people to conform to their mentality, they could not have put two more strong-minded, non-conformist people together than the two of us.

Before long, we were sneaking out of the church through a side door and a hole in the fence we found by sneaking out. Avoiding security became a new game for us. The freedom we felt once outside the fence was exhilarating. We just enjoyed it like nothing else. We would explore all over San Francisco, ride the buses by sneaking in the back exit door, rarely would a bus driver spot us. We spent a lot of time down at the beach called The China Bath Houses exploring a cave. All that was left of the bath houses was cement foundations.

After several hours we would have to face the fact we had to go back to the church, and this was the tricky part. We would have to sneak back in, go find an out-of-the-way spot to hide in – but not so hidden that we couldn’t be found – and wait. Sooner or later someone would find us, all pissed, off asking where had we been? “Right here,” we would tell them, “we didn’t know anyone was looking for us!” This was a lot of fun for us. We fooled the adults and we were free for awhile.

One time while we were out we tried smoking weed for the first time. We didn’t like the effect it had, and wouldn’t you know it, we were caught sneaking back in!! For our discipline we had to do exercises for an hour and then we had to pick lint and whatever little pieces of whatever you find in carpet for the rest of the night until morning and then go to school. Another time we were caught smoking cigarettes. For this we had to chip up ancient linoleum from a floor on our hands and knees all night. It made us miss the carpet. We had pimples on our knees by morning from the glue and dirt forced into our skin through our pants. It took a couple of weeks to heal. Still we were not deterred from our ways. On the contrary, all it did was strengthen our resolve in our feeling for the church. We started planning to run away, Brian to his mother’s and me… well, I didn’t know where to go! To my uncle and aunt’s house, I guess. I would have to check with them.

School was out, and – now 14 years of age – we had more spare time to plan our escape. Brian needed money for a bus ticket to his mother’s, but we had none. On Saturdays we had to go out and beg for money for the church, and that gave us our idea. Each Saturday when we went out, we would take two dollars each from the can and hide it for Brian’s ticket. It took months. Finally the day came that we had enough money! The following week we decided to make a run for it. The plan was, I would go with Brian to get his bus ticket, then we would go to my uncle’s house to talk to them, and then Brian would go catch Greyhound. The plan was flawless – for two 14 year olds. If it didn’t work, we decided we would just run away somewhere, didn’t care where, just gone.

The day came for the big escape! We slipped out the side door of the church, went for the hole in the fence – but what? They had fixed the hole! This should have been our first warning that things weren’t going to go well. Brian came up with a distraction for the guard at the back gate – he was good at coming up with distractions, he was just damn smart! – and told me to go hide next to a car by the gate. I did. Then I heard this bang and a blood-curdling scream coming from Brian. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, what happened to him?” The guard goes running in that direction, I am about to do the same, when Brian comes running around the corner of the car I am hiding behind. “Go, let’s go!” We peel out through the gate and around the corner! When we slow down, we start laughing with excitement. We made it, never to return!

We walked from Geary Street to the Greyhound Bus station on Mission Street, bought Brian his ticket and then headed to my uncle’s house at 22nd and Folsom Street. We told my uncle and aunt everything which had occurred to us. They were shocked and more than willing to help! I couldn’t believe my ears when they said I could live with them! All they had to do was contact my mother and work out the details – my father had been shipped off to Jonestown two years earlier for trying to leave the church – and they would drop Brian off at the bus station. Great! We really are getting out and away from the church!

They called my mother on the phone, telling her what had happened and what they were willing to do. My mother asked me if this is what I wanted. I couldn’t believe my ears. I had a choice? I told her yes, it’s what I wanted. She told me she would get my clothes and bring them over. She spoke to my aunt in confirmation and hung up. I remember I almost cried, I was so happy. Our plan was working! Brian and I were both very excited. We were on our way.

About an hour later my mother shows up, followed by two of the church goons. My gut clenches, Brian runs out the back of my uncle’s house as we both knew what this meant.

It was the last time I saw Brian until he showed up in Jonestown about a year later. Me, I was held isolated in the church for about two weeks and then sent to Jonestown, escorted by Jim Jones himself.

Brian arrived somewhere between a year to 18 months after I was sent to Jonestown. He went through the typical new arrival procedure, directed to the big tent to give up all but a few belongings and received his assignment for housing and job placement. He was assigned to the kitchen and school. I was already working in the massive garden area and recently assigned to school.

After we greeted each other, I immediately told him all the things to watch out for. It had been awhile since we had last seen each other, and I was surprised at his arrival. However within an hour, it was as though we had never been separated. I showed Brian around the compound and took him into the jungle to explore. Brian took to the jungle like I did. He learned a lot about what plants you could eat, what to stay away from, and what vines you could cut to get a fresh cold drink of water. Over time the jungle became a safe haven for us. People didn’t pay much attention to us being gone during breaks. They had forgotten the trouble and headache we had caused them back in the States. We didn’t know at the time that this would later work to our benefit.

School became a challenge for us. Different kids of different ages and different levels were in the same class and basically learning the same material. How boring could it be for the older kids like us? So Brian started this game “Outsmart the Teacher.” I don’t know if his family ever realized just how smart he really was. The game went like this: whatever the subject was, we would go study to learn more than the teacher knew, then challenge him with our advanced knowledge, putting him at a disadvantage. But the teacher caught on to us pretty quick! He advanced past us, and the fun was over. Did this deter Brian? No, he was not to be had. He came up with a new game: “Advanced Vocabulary.” We took a dictionary and started learning all the big words (you know, the ones few people know the meanings to) and wreaked havoc with them. What’s more, we actually learned how to use them.

At first the teacher was impressed, even amused, but when we surpassed up his vocabulary, he became frustrated. We had him! We became so proficient in their use, every sentence contained them and included very little use of small verbiage. Finally the day came, he popped his cork! You, you, you don’t even know what those words mean!! So we defined them, complete with proper use in a sentence. The other kids found this quite humorous and so did we. Oh yes we were smart, very smart, so smart in fact, that was our last day of class. We were now assigned to work full time 12 hours a day like everyone else. For some reason we didn’t feel so smart anymore. And to top it off, just to provide us with some additional needed intelligence, they shaved our heads. The teacher smiled! We didn’t.

After a short while of little to entertain us beyond work, sleep, waking up to the bang, bang and the yell of “6 o’clock, 6 o’clock,” meaning time to get up. Rushing down to the fantastic breakfast of Rice and Gravy. You might think of rice and gravy as something not necessarily distasteful, and I would even tend to agree with you! However, when this is what you eat three times a day, day in and day out, allow for some bugs as protein (for the most part the main protein you got), well, I think you get the picture. And once again, the topic of running away became our driving force.

We hated it there and – yes – we dreamed of succulent Big Macs. We started analyzing the direction of the United States and California in particular. We figured it was about 3,000 miles. We could travel through the jungle, surviving from our knowledge of what we had learned from the local Indians. Basically, we would walk back! We didn’t care how long it would take, we just wanted out!

White Night, White Night!” The call came over the loudspeaker system. Shit! Another one? “We are under attack, everyone to the pavilion!” Jim Jones was having another one of his paranoid moments, and we all had to meet in the pavilion to stave off the imaginary attackers.

We stayed for hours listening to his babble. This time something was different: we were all going to have to die!! We were all going to have to drink the cyanide-laced fruit drink. People were scared, trying to talk Jones out of it. Not this time, we were going to drink it and die! Brian and I were sitting on the ground off to the side of the podium, watching people freaking out but unable to run because of the guards. One by one people lined up.

That’s when Brian and I started snickering, because of what we knew. Jones turned to us. Uh oh! What do you think is so funny about this? Answer me! Ah, ah Father we are just so happy to be able to lay down our lives, I replied. Jones looked at us. “You are so brave. Look at these boys who understand the importance of what we are doing. Come up here and drink!”

And we did without hesitation! We knew it was all BS, as Brian worked in the kitchen and helped to make the drink and carry it up! He had already told me nothing was in it. It was a loyalty test. But it was also a signal of what was to come and we knew it. We just didn’t know when!

Our plans to run intensified. We figured out it was too far to walk to the USA, so we had to come up with another plan. Brian came up with Brazil, we could cut through the jungle to Brazil. I had local Indian contacts who would help us out of the area. We started sneaking out supplies little by little from the kitchen, including – yes – rice! Ugh! But it would be a long trek. Brian planned that once we arrived in Brazil we could go to the embassy and get help. We were scared of getting caught and the consequences if we did, but that didn’t stop us!

I got caught sneaking into the warehouse, a big no-no! I was brought before everyone, they shaved my head again (this happened so much to me, it didn’t bother me anymore, and I might as well have kept it shaved). Then it was decided to put me to work in the kitchen with Brian being my supervisor! They never noticed the connection we had with each other! We thought it was funny as all hell!!

Into the kitchen I go with my new supervisor Brian. For the first few days we did menial tasks, preparing food, cleaning chickens for our once-in-a-while great meal, washing pots, pans and collecting fire wood for the stoves.

Just because we were working together didn’t diminish our feelings of Jonestown, though. Once again we were back to planning our escape, but something was different this time. We came up with a plan which might actually be possible. So simple, so easy, it was almost scary we hadn’t come up with it before! We would take off into the jungle, hike about 30 miles to Matthews Ridge, where there was supposed to be a small military base, go to them, tell our story, get help to get to Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, contact the American Embassy and get home to California! It wouldn’t take but a couple days hike to the first stop, and then we’d be home free.

But how do we get to the jungle without getting caught? We decided we would put our stuff into two of the gunny sacks we use to get wood for the kitchen, then he’d run behind me yelling to hurry up! People would just think we’re doing our job, and we’d make it to the jungle. Brian liked the plan, and yes we were both scared as hell to do it, but we did.

We took off across the field, people smiling, some laughing at how Brian was making me run, me sweating and running as fast as I could. Nobody noticed the gunny sacks weren’t empty, I guess they were too amused to give it much thought. We made it, we made it! Off into the jungle we went, split up our bags and pulled out our cutlasses – a three-foot knife, much like a machete but thinner and longer – and started heading towards Matthews Ridge.

After a couple of hours of hiking, it started getting dark. We had to come out to the road, because once it gets dark in the jungle, you cannot see your hand in front of your face – literally! Meanwhile, back in Jonestown, someone noticed we were missing. I was told they were looking all over the place for us, reflecting on when we were last seen – heading to the jungle! Then someone remembered me and Brian back in San Francisco. Oh #*¥% they have run away! I truly wish I could have seen their faces then, after putting all the pieces together. I bet they weren’t smiling and laughing then! Brian and I were gone, what’s more they knew, that I knew the jungle! At best they would be lucky to find us and they knew it! They asked my father which way I would go? How the hell should I know, he said. He practically lives in that place. Search parties were sent out in all directions.

We came out onto the road, we could see the road clear enough by the light of the stars, talking about all the things we would do when we made it back, how he would see his mom, how I would see my aunt and uncle. It was going to be great! Hey, do you hear that? A tractor’s coming! We ducked behind a small hill to hide and waited. Sure enough, it was from Jonestown!!! They’re looking for us! They drove by, they didn’t see us! We stayed hidden, waiting. We should have run back into the jungle. Sure as hell, after about ten minutes the guards from Jonestown came walking up on us. We were trapped, we pulled out our cutlasses prepared to fight our way through, we would not go back and would die trying to get away. When one of the guards pointed out that Stephan Jones was behind us with a gun prepared to shoot us, we dropped our cutlasses. Back to Jonestown we went.

When we got back, people are all gathered in the pavilion, and they’re pissed off. I don’t know if they were more pissed off at us or at having to listen to Jones’ rhetoric because of us. I feel it’s the latter.

Brian and I are brought before everyone, and everyone’s yelling, how could we do this to Father, couldn’t we see how much we hurt him, how we caused him deep concern, how, how, how it was all BS and expected. About this point, one of the guards slugs Brian on the side of the head for betraying Father’s trust in assigning me to him. Then a dog pile ensues, with all the guards trying to beat us down. Luckily there were so many of them at one time, I don’t remember ever getting hit once we were on the ground. Jones calls them off of us, you’re not even touching them! Get up, get up! We all did.

Then the discussion of what to do with us began. People were sick minded. Tie them to trees, put them in the pit, kill them, shoot them, shoot them in the stomachs with wet card board, we can say they did it to each other, you get the picture. Then someone came up with the idea to chain and shackle us together, and make us work 16 hours a day. If we like each other so much, they said, after awhile we will hate each other! Like chaining two dogs together, after awhile they’ll start fighting. Jones took a liking to this! Do it!

We were taken to the machine shop. They welded some bands onto the ends of a chain, then welded one end onto each of our ankles, chaining us together, burning blisters into our ankles as they couldn’t cool it down fast enough. I still have that scar today. It’s a keepsake and a reminder. Not that I have much choice.

After the shackles were put on, we were brought back for Jones’ approval. He thought it was great, burns and all. Off to bed we went. At 4 am, we were awakened by a guard who told us to get moving. He was armed with a shotgun, so we did. We were marched to the shop and each given an axe. Oh yeah, baby, just wait for the chance! I guess the guard sensed our thought and kept a respectful distance. We’re marched through the compound, out to the backside of a field. There was a huge tree lying on the ground, about 80 feet long and about three feet in diameter. We were told to cut it into two-foot lengths. I recognized it as one of the hardwoods, a little tougher than oak. Didn’t matter!

About four days into chopping up this tree, the guard starts screwing around with his shotgun. Bang! Luckily it was pointed up, but that answered that question: it was loaded! Guards came running out wondering who shot who? He was replaced.

I think people in the kitchen felt sorry for us, but we actually found serenity out there. There were no people, no other rules, and we ate better than everyone else, being on a high protein diet which included eggs and some meat. The guard didn’t complain, as he was eating the same. Our day basically went, up at 4 am, work until 8 pm, shower and to bed. We discovered something that you can’t take your pants off with shackles on, so you and your pants were washed at the same time.

After about two weeks we finally had that tree chopped up, but our ankles were infected and big sores were forming. We had to split the logs in two and carry them about an eighth of a mile to the kitchen. If we dropped them along the way, we were slugged in the head, but it didn’t matter, as it didn’t hurt anymore. We were always getting hit for something – not moving fast enough, talking, taking too long to sharpen the axes – it didn’t matter why, and we were at the point we didn’t care, we just kept moving.

After we hauled all the logs to the kitchen, we had to start splitting them into smaller pieces. After about three days of this, Brian says he can’t take it anymore and has to have a break, I told him you can’t, they’ll just hit you again. By now they’re using large sticks. Brian says, just hit my hand with the sledgehammer, and we’ll have to go to the infirmary. No, I tell him, it’ll break your hand. Then just hit my thumb. No! Just do it. I have to have a break! Brian put his thumb over the splitting wedge, I lifted up the five-pound sledgehammer, as controlled as I could I brought it down. Brian cried out, “My thumb, my thumb!” Off to the infirmary we went. Luckily, all I did was break the skin! While the nurse was fixing his thumb, she noticed our ankles and how infected they had become, actual holes forming. She told the guard to leave us there, and then she took off. A short while later she returned with Marceline Jones, showed her our ankles and the condition we were in. Marceline told us all to wait while she went off! After awhile, she came back and told the guard to take us to the shop and have the shackles removed – by order of Father so off to the shop we went. They burned us again using a grinder to remove them.

We were told to go shower and clean up good. We peeled our socks from the wounds, showered and were taken back to the infirmary for treatment. Our ankles took about a month to start healing.

The next day we were put on The Learning Crew, the special work detail for people who had disciplinary problems and needed correction. There were approximately 15 people on this crew. You worked 12 hours a day, were not allowed to speak to each other, ran everywhere you went from the time you woke till the time you went to bed, assigned the more difficult tasks, and ate rice and gravy, the same as every one else. You were guarded the entire time by Sebastian, a black belt martial artist who carried a six-foot pole with hard rubber around the ends (so it wouldn’t leave much of a mark) and a large Bowie knife, which he liked throwing in your general direction for practice. He was sadistic!

It was actually a step up for Brian and me, though, considering what we had recently experienced. But for some of the others, it was a nightmare! They were not used to running everywhere! They would stop in exhaustion, whack! – “Get moving!” – whack! they got moving. Side kick to the stomach, sweep kick to the ground, that will teach you not to pay attention! Didn’t matter if they were paying attention or not, they got it.

Sebastian addressed Brian and me one day. You know why I don’t pick on you two? No. Because you two work real hard and never slow down, a real example to the others. Thanks, we said, we’ve learned our lesson and only want to be good socialists working for Father, Brian said. “Good,” Sebastian replied.

After about three more weeks we were released from the Learning Crew and reassigned, with explicit instructions not to be seen with each other and not to talk to each other, ever! That lasted about a week! We were already sneaking to each other, meeting in the bathroom or under cottages, but never in the open.

I was walking by the warehouse one evening, when I saw a box lying on the ground, as though it had been dropped while being moved. Inside I found two hooded capes, dark green in color and a thin red strip going down either side. I put them back in the box and hid it while I looked around to see if anyone was nearby.

I was standing on the warehouse dock when Stephan Jones came up and for no reason put me in a chokehold until I passed out. I awoke some time later disoriented for awhile. Then I remember that box with the Cloaks of Darkness! I grabbed them and ran! I gave one to Brian, now we could sneak around at night without being seen, and we did!

Okay, cloaks of darkness sounds a little hokey, but we were 16 years old and having what fun we could! When we draped ourselves with these cloaks, we pretty much felt we were invisible, and to a major degree we were. After all, around us was a deep green. We would sneak on people talking at night, getting within about 10 feet of them, and they never knew we were there. Then we became more daring, sneaking into the kitchen area to get coffee and whatever food we could find. We would sneak out into the edge of the jungle, build a small fire and make coffee in a can, laughing at our good fortune. Those cloaks paid off.

I don’t know why, but I was reassigned to the piggery where my father worked. At first he would just tell me that he understood my natural tendency to rebel but that I needed to stay out of trouble. Then he told me of the plan that he and my sister Teena had to escape! I never knew they felt the same as I! Here is the irony: their plans were almost the same as Brian’s and mine! The only difference was he had a contact who owned a boat! Dad told me if I got into more trouble, it might blow the plans. When the time was right I could go get Brian, but I was to tell him nothing until then!

For once I listened. I wasn’t going to blow this. The way my father knew the jungle – he was there long before me, one of the first settlers – his plan wouldn’t go wrong. I just had to wait!

A month went by. I had never stayed out of trouble that long. The time was getting close. We planned to leave in two weeks.

White night! White night! came the bellow from Jones! We all gathered at the Pavilion. Were we going to die again? Who knows. After we had gathered, Jones announced traitors had brought trouble to our door and brought a congressman with them from California! The rest is history.

The last time I saw Brian was as I was leaving Jonestown. I was walking down the exit path, and saw him looking at me. I told him to come on and go with me. He stared back with almost a blank look in his face, and said “I can’t.” I’ll never forget that look on his face or his last words to me. I will always love him like a brother I lost!

(Thom Bogue is a City Councilman in Dixon, California, and an automotive repair and smog shop owner. His other article in this edition of the jonestown report is The Gift Thrust Upon Us. He can be reached at firstchoicesouth@sbcglobal.net.)