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December 31, 2007
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December 31, 2007

Escape From Jonestown


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Jim tried to humanize that man with raven hair and sunglasses and the Chairman Mao cap. He told Rob about the gentle side of the Reverend Jim Jones, his hugs and kisses, his ability to make Jim Jr. feel unique, prized, chosen. Then one day Jim peeled an old family portrait from a scrapbook, framed it and placed it on the mantel. "See, Rob?" he said. "They called us the Rainbow Family. Seven of us eight kids were adopted, and we came from all over." He pointed to Agnes, an elder sister who was part Native American. Then to Suzanne and Lew, both adopted from Korea, and to Tim, a close family friend whom the Joneses ended up adopting as well. Then to Stephan, their one biological child. Then Jim told Rob about the two who weren't in the picture: Goldie, the eldest, who married and broke ties with the family before Jim was adopted, and Stephanie, another child adopted from Korea, who died in a car crash.

He told Rob about the adventures of the Rainbow Family, the years abroad in Brazil, Argentina and Hawaii, and the long caravan that formed in 1965 when Father—as everyone in the church called Jim Jones Sr.—led 70 Indiana families to the Peoples Temple's new home, a tiny hamlet in the vineyards of Northern California. About the orphanages his dad ran, the soup kitchens, free clinics and senior citizens' homes he opened, the theaters, restaurants and hospitals he desegregated. About his dream that their church would be the seed for a new world, one without barriers between rich and poor, races and sexes and ages.

Little Rob didn't need to hear the messy details. Not yet. Didn't need to know that it was Grandpa's raging paranoia that drove the Rainbow Family to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and then to Redwood Valley, Calif.—two sites listed in a 1962 Esquire article as among the likeliest to survive a nuclear holocaust. That it was his lust for greater power that sent the family and the temple to San Francisco in '72, and that it was published stories about his alleged abuse of church members that stampeded them to Guyana in '77.

The kid was way too young for that, and besides, Jim had learned something. When he spoke well of his father by day, his father stopped stalking his dreams at night.

ROB CAN feel it now. No one here can stop him. He whirls and powers through two defenders to score, giving Riordan a 30--19 halftime lead. But where's Jim?

That's him, slipping outside the gym and lighting a cigarette, sucking hard so he'll have time to light and suck a second one. Always dropping out of sight when he can't be the wonderful guy everyone knows. But no, it's nothing like it used to be, back when Rob was four, when Jim started heading out for work or an errand....

... and vanishing. He would drive for hours, tearing at himself. Dammit, he'd been on his father's security team, protected him from danger. Walkie-talkies, earphones, weapons, code words, the works. He would park his car at the beach and pour from a bottle into a plastic cup, hoping vodka worked as a solvent on the stain. He'd skulk back home, wrung out and ragged, a day or so later.

Waco had started the slide, then his eldest son's questions about Jonestown, then the thing that began to appear in the boy's hands, that round thing wrapped in dimpled leather, that ... basketball. "Dad," he'd ask, "can we play?"

Jim took the ball in his hands. All the old guilt and remorse began to seep from it. Selfish. So damned selfish to have been off playing basketball on his family's day of reckoning.... See, that was the problem: Jim's father had pounded that basketball shame into his sons even before Jonestown, and then, in the sickest possible way, proved himself right! He wouldn't forbid them to play. He was a master at knowing just how far he could push people, and he seemed to sense that basketball was the boys' outlet from the demands of temple life. He'd shame the boys instead, snort, "What a folly! What a waste of time when the world's in shambles and we need to be changing it." Didn't Jim, of all the boys in the Rainbow Family, see how exploitative the sport was, how it kept blacks from using their minds to smash the shackles of a repressive capitalist society?

The Jones boys' basketball guilt was laced, of course. Laced with liberation, a feeling that they were thrusting a middle finger at the holy hypocrite every time they shoveled snow or swept leaves off their concrete patio court and went at it. They'd come home from a two-hour practice at Ukiah Junior High, grab a ball and play again. Normality. That was the game's gift. A couple of hours to feel like regular kids instead of the cult loonies who'd invaded Redwood Valley.

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