The Ghosts of November: Prologue

“Shotgun,” shouted Suzy as my wife, Mai opened the passenger door of my black 1965 Peugeot 504.

“Your mom has shotgun,” I reminded my 7-year-old, the oldest of my three daughters, as she reluctantly climbed in the back seat.

There was nothing in the air that would make me feel Saturday, November 18, 1978 was anything but a typical autumn weekend day.

I spent the morning packing the little French car with beach balls, towels, blankets and all the other paraphernalia that were requisite for a fun day at the beach on the Pacific Coast. Mai put the finishing touches on a carrot cake she baked the night before.

“Don’t forget the chau ya,” I said, my mouth watering just thinking of my wife’s Vietnamese spring rolls. “How many did you make?”

“I make hunert fifty, like you say,” she replied in her pidgin English. A naturalized U.S. citizen seven years out of Vietnam, she still didn’t speak her second language very well.

Our bimonthly outings were for the express purpose of socializing and spending quality time with other families in which the spouses were Vietnamese married to American servicemen.

This not only gave our wives friends who have a common culture, but who could act as a support group during the frequent extended absences of their husbands.

Several hours after our picnic, I led the Brailey clan in song as my 13-year-old sedan carried us over the Thatcher Ferry Bridge back to our house in the Corozal Army Housing Area.

“B-I-N-G-O and Bingo was his name-oh,” were words even my youngest daughter, Debbie, age two could recite. As the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, and my kids sang at the top of their lungs, I was reminded how perfect our day at the beach had been.

An hour later, Mai tucked our two youngest daughters snugly into the bed they shared. I was on my way to pick up Tanisha, my first sergeant’s daughter, who had agreed to baby-sit that night. Suzy, who was a little older than Jennie and Debbie, was allowed to stay up an extra hour to play Chutes and Ladders with her 15-year-old sitter, whom she considered her dear friend.

Twice a month, on the first Saturday following our bimonthly payday, my wife and I hit the casinos of Panama City, Panama, where I was stationed as an Army nurse. Each of us, armed with $20, invaded a popular gambling house in one of the city’s hotels and played until the money ran out or we became too tired to play. We rarely retreated in fewer than three hours and sometimes left victorious, with quite a bit more cash than with which we arrived.

More 1,450 miles away in the jungles of Guyana, the Rev. Jim Jones, founder of The Peoples Temple, dealt with unwelcome visitors who were finishing a two-day stay at Jonestown, the agricultural collective named for him. A tense and extremely contentious exit briefing was conducted between the cult leader and Leo Ryan, a congressman representing the Oakland area of California. Ryan was in Jonestown on behalf of concerned family who complained that relatives who were members of the cult were prevented from leaving.

After the congressman left the commune, Jones gathered his flock at the town’s pavilion for yet another “White Night,” a reaction to the catastrophe the official visit had become. The day probably was the worst of Jones’ life. It certainly would be his last.

While my children were cared for and nurtured, Jones ordered the mothers of his Peoples Temple to kill their children. The systematic annihilation of more 900 people took place as my wife and I prepared to spend an evening out a local casino. My life never would be the same.

I sometimes still get a chill when I think about the parallels between my life and that of Jim Jones: where we were born and raised, our spiritual paths and our roles as leaders.

I was born and raised in the small village of Niantic near New London in southeastern Connecticut. Jones was born and raised in the rural town of Lynn near Richmond in the east central Indiana.

Religion was a strong influence during our childhoods. I attended a Christian College, Barrington in Rhode Island, with the intention of becoming a clergyman. Jones became an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ religion.

Each of us sought religious truth, particularly when we were younger. My journey took me from the Baptist Church to the Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Assemblies of God, back to the Baptists and even some non-Christian beliefs such as Buddhism and Ba’hai to Deism. Jones’ journey began in mainstream churches like the Church of God and Methodists and ended tragically after he formed his own alternative religion.

We each became leaders. I reached the rank of master sergeant in the Army, leading young men and women who chose to serve their country as medics in the US Army. Jones led his own church and his own brand of radical socialistic communism in which he was the god.

While I was in college, I volunteered in black drop-in centers in Providence, Rhode Island and Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. I now live in Indianapolis where Jones began his ministry, founding a church that was uniquely, for its time, multiracial. He was a champion of the poor and particularly of blacks.

Drugs played a significant role in both our lives and for about the same reason. I took Ritalin in Vietnam as a way to increase my alertness and stamina during the many times we had to work up to 30 consecutive hours during mass casualty situations. Jim Jones abused “uppers” so he could muster enough energy to conduct marathon sermons and hour upon hour verbal tirades against his flock.

Unlike Jones, my abuse of Ritalin lasted less than six months, and I didn’t consume sedatives to counteract the effects of the speed and allow me to sleep. Jones’ as proven by autopsy, took many pills that affected and changed his mental status and may have caused him some degree of paranoia. Enough Phenobarbital was found in his body to kill someone who was not addicted and accustomed to that amount of the drug in his system.

I was stationed in Panama from 1976 to 1980. My unit was the 601st Medical Company. It was actually a “clearing company,” the closest medical facility to the front lines in combat. We had the capability to perform surgery and the ability to house sick and wounded soldiers until they could be evacuated to a larger, more secure hospital or recovered and were sent back to duty.

The main mission of the 601st Medical Company in 1978 was to support the 193rd Infantry Brigade. This primarily involved setting up field treatment facilities during the jungle exercises in which the brigade’s three infantry battalions regularly participated. There also were other U.S. Army assets in Panama, including a Special Forces battalion and the Southern Command’s School of the Americas at Fort Gulick and the U.S. Army Jungle Operation Training Center at Fort Sherman for which the 601st frequently provided support. The medical company spent a great deal of time in the jungles of Panama.

A couple of times a year, soldiers from the 601st Medical Company were given the opportunity to help the civilian population. This frequently involved trips to the far reaches of Panama’s most sparsely populated regions like the San Blas Islands, home of the Kuna Indians, to bring medical and dental services to the indigenous population. The Panama Defense Force provided us with jungle survival training and accompanied us to the local villages.

This practically was a holiday to medics tired of the same routine day after day – physical training in the morning, followed either by maintenance of supplies and equipment or formal classes and training in common soldier tasks or topics on the specifics of their particular job.

The islands were in the pristine Caribbean Sea. Their beaches were white, tropical fruits like mangos, bananas and coconuts grew prolifically, and there were no PT or work formations. What more could a soldier want?

During the Vietnam War, these missions to civilian communities were called MEDCAPS (Medical Civic Action Program). The soldiers of the 601st enjoyed going on MEDCAPs. The missions gave them something to do out of the ordinary, to help and interact with the local population and to simply get away from the everyday routine of soldiering. They also made the medics feel worthwhile because they were doing what they were trained to do, instead of playing war games. MEDCAPs were useful and rewarding. They were for me until November 18, 1978.

That evening started out typically for most of the residents of Jonestown, Guyana. Jones shouted “White Night, White Night, White Night” into the microphone that carried his charismatic forceful voice throughout the enclave of freshly painted cottages the group of American expatriates built in the jungle of Guyana.[1] The residents responded to the call of their pseudo-messiah as they had dozens of times in the past.

The mentally imbalanced leader originally left the United States to avoid legal troubles caused by a group of dissident former members known as the Committee of Concerned Relatives and the United States government, which was investigating Jones and the People’s Temple on many fronts. Jones also perceived the media as his enemy. Their relentless pursuit of the preacher perhaps represented the immediate catalyst that caused Jones to attempt to escape scrutiny by fleeing to Guyana.[2]

The first White Night took place on September 9, 1977, about 14 months before the final one.[3] Jones shouted “White Night, White Night, White Night,” into the microphone that broadcast his ominous voice throughout the enclave. Workers in fields outside the range of the loudspeakers were alerted by three gunshots.[4]

The entire population of Jonestown made their way quickly to the pavilion whenever these mandatory emergency meetings were called. The members knew Jones would inform them of some new, potentially deadly plot or some impending assault against Jonestown and would tell them what to do.

Jones had time and again warned his flock that the day would come when the American CIA would invade the sanctuary they had fashioned far from their homeland. Sometimes several times a month, the residents of Jonestown responded to their leader’s call to practice a form of ritual mass suicide he seemed to promise would result in their reincarnation.[5] He also said when they returned, these martyrs would live in a better world. Jones’ devout followers obeyed outrageous dictates as if they were in a hypnotic trance.

Occasionally, when Jones’ followers partook of the fruity tasting brew intended to take their lives, they slept for a while but did not die. A sedative sometimes was used during the rehearsals in place of the deadly cyanide Jones had standing by for use in the real show.

But November 18, 1978 was not just another dress rehearsal. Instead, it represented the final act of Jones’ bizarre play. It was the sole performance, played out by many unwilling, but mostly cooperative, members of his huge cast. The play was destined to open and close this night, the lives of the actors ended by the ingestion of deadly poison rather than the benign sedative used during rehearsals. The play was to be remembered though, painfully by those who knew and loved the cast and would miss them. It was to be curiously remembered by those who became intrigued, puzzled and shocked when they learned of the tragedy. It was to be hauntingly remembered by those who cleaned up the theater after the actors were gone, following the final act. I was one of them.

Notes:

[1] Ethan Feinsod, Awake in a Nightmare: Jonestown the Only Eyewitness Account (New York: WW Norton & Co, 1981), 120; FOIA Federal Bureau of Investigation RYMUR (Jonestown), 364 pp., BQ 89-495, 191, 242, 290.

[2] John Peer Nugent, White Night: The untold story of what happened before and beyond Jonestown (New York: Rawson, Wade, Publishers, Inc. 1979), 44-45.

[3] FOIA Federal Bureau of Investigation RYMUR (Jonestown), 242.

[4] Feinsod.

[5] Mary McCormick Maaga, Hearing the Voices of Jonestown (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998) 8, 9, 51.

Originally posted on January 22nd, 2015.

Last modified on May 30th, 2020.
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