I Saw Dead People

Like the concentric circles from the shockwave of a tsunami, the horrific events of Jonestown, Guyana radiated far from the epicenter of so many shattered lives, and in some ways continue on to this day and into the future.

It was a long list of tragic events that had led me to the point of staring at the assignment posting board that cold day in late November 1978. I had been stationed at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas, where I completed my technical training as a Medical Corpsman. What got me there and the circumstances along the way is, as they say, material for another story on another day.

I was therefore somewhat happy and excited to see on that board that I had been assigned to Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio as an Immunization Specialist, along with three of my classmates, and that I was leaving in three days. Things were finally looking up!

Monday came, and I was called into the office and informed that my assignment had changed. An event called Jonestown would necessitate my reassignment to Dover AFB to assist military personnel there. I was the odd man out, the only one of my class to be reassigned. I’m sure my short stay in the brig for fighting had been the last straw, even though I had prevented – or at least interrupted – a sexual assault in progress. Or was it a misunderstanding? All I know is, she was saying no at the time.

Anyway, looking back, it’s hard to describe the level of non-connectedness with which I lived my life. I did not read, nor did I watch TV or go to movies. I liken it now to a state of shell shock, just short of PTSD. I was moving through life, without interest, without direction, without question. I went where the path of least resistance took me.

As such, I had no knowledge of what happened on November 18th in Jonestown, nor any knowledge of who Jim Jones was. Nor did I have knowledge of what Dover was, or even Wright Pat for that matter, beyond where they were on a map. I would soon learn what it meant when they said, that the Heroes go to Andrews, and the Dead go to Dover.

Dover Air Force Base Hospital, February 1979

I’ve tried hard to piece together when I arrived in Dover and what my earliest memories were, but the timeline makes no sense. It seems to begin in January after a furlough for Christmas. Whenever it was, my first memory was in the common room of my barracks where our group of like four to six guys would gather to watch the evening news, if only to see whom we could recognize among us in the day’s coverage of the aftermath of Jonestown. This definitely happened – and on more than one occasion – but if it was indeed already January 1979, it’s hard to fathom why any of the three broadcast networks would still be covering it.

That is the extent of what I truly remember about my experience at Dover regarding Jonestown.

But then there is my imagination. I vividly remember riding in the truck out to the gigantic hanger at the far end of the runway on the isolated part of the base where the attempt to identify the bodies by dental record comparisons was taking place. I think I remember standing in line – Is it a memory? Imagination? Conjecture? – to walk up the ramp and grab the handles of metal caskets of varying weights and carrying them inside and placing them on the floor next to gurneys before returning to repeat the process. I have a memory of the enormous size of the hanger. I can see the caskets themselves, but not carrying them. I recall the gurneys themselves, but not the larger scene within the hanger.

Here’s where it gets particularly tenuous.

One of my most distinct “memories” is the smell. I describe it as being “sweet and sour.” To this day, when I pass an animal in a state of decay – or sometimes, even things unrelated – I recall this smell. Using such a description, that the word “sweet” could ever be used, to those familiar with rot, I get looks of shock and uncertainty. But consider this: there was the smell of the cyanide, which is like almonds. In addition, having been exposed to the elements for so long before recovery, the bodies of those recovered had been sprayed with peppermint in an effort to dampen the stench. Voila! If you can imagine the smells of putrid death mingled with almonds and peppermint, you have what I smell to this day, even though I wasn’t there to handle the bodies.

Then there is my visual phantasm. In my mind’s eye, I see an arm fall from a body bag as the body is lifted to the gurney. Far more like jelly than muscle and tendon, it lands with a splat. It is black in color, but a hideous black, a black mixed with green. It is pock-marked with indentations of larval indentation. I ask myself, how can I have such a memory of something I did not see? Where did I get such graphic detail? Someplace else? A movie, perhaps, like Night of the Living Dead? I don’t know, but it’s there. I guess it is all my mind’s attempt to make sense of that which has no explanation.

I was sent to Dover for the express purpose of assisting, but this assistance was surely in providing support within the small 20-bed hospital. After all, I was no longer an Immunization Specialist, I was a full-fledged corpsman, working on a grave shift in the middle of nowhere, charged with wiping the ass of an incontinent invalid or holding another man’s penis while I inserted a catheter. I literally have no memory of ever visiting downtown Dover. Creating a vivid impression then that I was part of a world-changing event, even something as tragic and terrifying as Jonestown, is better than the reality.

In an ironic twist, somewhere around a year after Jonestown, I was sexually assaulted – attempted anyway, depending on the definition – while sleeping in my room during the late afternoon (while working graveyard) by someone I had never met and did not live in my barracks. Unlike the event in tech school, there was no investigation, but I was granted my request for reassignment to Bergstrom AFB, where I served out the remaining two-and-a-half years of my four-year enlistment.

Which all leads to the closing. The lasting legacy of Jonestown is the euphemism that has entered the world’s lexicon and which I often repeat and have assiduously followed, often with reckless abandon: “Never drink the Kool-Aid,” even if the truth continues to escape you.

(Mark Massar is a USAF Sergeant, a Fortune 500 Company’s Employee of the Year, and the owner of a failed Laundromat in Las Vegas. During the time described in this article, he was a frequenter of the bars and beaches all down the Delaware coast, of the women’s barracks and of the parties they hosted. He can be reached at thetexadan@yahoo.com.)