I didn’t notice at first. I was trying to get my ear buds to work with my iPod, because I wanted to listen to some Monkees. I’ll admit it, The Monkees are the ones I turn to cheer or calm me, depending upon my mood. Some have Gregorian chants, some have hymns, and I have Monkees.
However, I did look up. I saw that I was on Geary Street, then I saw the iconic Fillmore street sign. And I saw a big post office, but it wasn’t just any other post office. This post office was at 1859 Geary Street, built on the site of the earthquake-ravaged-then-demolished Peoples Temple, the place that had its red-and-white sign that said Jim Jones, pastor. I took a deep breath, let it out.
I was on the 38 bus, off to see my father. He had back surgery last year, and has slowly been recuperating. He had come down with pneumonia, and was admitted to the VA hospital near Fort Miley. For over a year, I’ve been going to his apartment every week to make sure he’s okay. Mostly we talk, eat lunch, and bicker. I get laundry, groceries. I am his only child. I’m not alone. My mother has been wonderful. So is his sister, my aunt, but she lives in Michigan. I don’t mind helping him. He’s my father and I love him. Yet sometimes it does wear me down. Friends have offered to help, but this time I knew I was on my own – I didn’t want anyone to be exposed to pneumonia.
I arrived at Fort Miley and headed to Dad’s room. I had to wash my hands and put a mask on before going in.
“Where you been?” he asked.
“Bus, Dad. it’s not really speedy.” I squeezed his foot.
“How was the bus?”
“Not too bad. You never believe what I passed by,” I said, sitting on his bed.
“God knows what on the bus.”
“The old Peoples Temple site.”
“What the hell? I thought it was torn down.”
“It was. It’s a post office now.”
He sipped his chocolate milk. “Didn’t you go to that memorial service a couple of years ago?”
“Why did they bring the bodies back? Why didn’t they leave them in Guyana?”
“Dad, almost all of them were US citizens. Besides, their families needed a place to visit them.”
“I don’t understand it. How could they not see that he was a fraud?” He – the only “he” you talk about Peoples Temple in the singular – is Jim Jones.
I changed the subject. He knows I’ve been working on a novel about Jonestown – well, off and on – but doesn’t ask about it. Just as well. I’ve had a couple of false starts, and I’ve tried to keep going with it. But sometimes the subject is too heavy for me. Sometimes when I see the footage on November 20th with the bodies on the field, I have to tell myself everyone is taking a community nap. Sometimes it’s too much for me to comprehend.
My father is an atheist, yet he sent me to Catholic school. I was there for five years. I have had a hard time with my religion, but it gave me the spiritual foundation I have today. I call my higher power God. I pray, I meditate, I try to figure out what the heck He – or She – wants for me. However one of the things my father did teach me was question authority. Just because someone says it so doesn’t mean it’s true. In 2003 he marched in a Veteran’s Day parade, but he had no problems telling a reporter that President Bush was the worst president we ever had because of the Iraq war.
After an hour and a half, I told Dad good-bye. After talking with his nurse, I got back on the bus. As we neared 1859 Geary again, I had a vision – a girl whose hair is swept up in a red scarf. She gets off the bus and walks down Geary, holding her purse close to her. She sees someone she knows, smiles and waves. They stop to talk, and then walk into Peoples Temple. I knew the girl was me. For I could’ve joined the Temple. Its commitment to social values I know I would’ve loved. Having a faith in something bigger than me was something I could support. And to be part of a community of like minded individuals, I would’ve loved it.
When I read Debbie Layton’s book Seductive Poison, I clenched up when her mother Lisa was diagnosed with lung cancer. My grandmother died of lung cancer; my father smoked too, which contributed to his current health problems. So when Lisa and Deborah stole away from SF to go to Guyana I wanted to rewrite history, to call to them across the years to stay in California, where they would be safe.
Now I get it. They really thought Jim Jones could heal her. And if someone told me hey, we’ll take care of your father, don’t worry about it, he can get better, Jim can heal him. I would’ve said great, tell me what to do next. Because then they could take care of him. I got it. I just got it.
The bus stopped at 1859 Geary. I saw people checking their boxes, buying stamps. I leaned my head back on the window and remembered the lyrics to one of my favorite Monkees song: There’s not a trace of doubt in my mind. I’m in love, I’m a believer, I’m a believer, I couldn’t leave her if I tried.
(Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other articles in this edition are The World Needs Your Novel and I Only Want To Be With You, Charlie Brown. Her previous articles appear here. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)