That's what they
were doing, playing pickup ball at a temple picnic back in the early '70s, when
they heard that gunshot and froze, and saw Dad lying on the ground, clutching
his chest, his shirt soaked in blood, then waving frantic temple members away
once they'd carried him into his house ... so he could resurrect himself and
have the shirt framed as a temple relic.
If only Jim had
exposed the fraud when he started seeing it a few years later. But he'd bought
into his dad's vision of a just world, swallowed the ol'
end-justifies-the-means snake oil: the larger Father loomed, the farther the
word spread and the more converts—nearly 20,000 ultimately—rushed to the
ramparts. Hell, nobody in the temple would've listened to Jim anyway. Its
members had turned over everything to that man: their children, their life
savings, their homes. And no one owed him more than Jim did. That man had
rescued him from an orphanage, perhaps saved him from the life of drugs and
prison that would eventually befall two of Jim's three biological brothers ...
and then saved his life again. Laid his hands on six-year-old Jim's dead body
after a drunken driver hit the Joneses' station wagon, causing Jim to fly out
the backseat window, across the hood of the spinning car and back in through
the opposite window! That's what he'd grown up being told, anyway, that his
soul had left his body until Dad prayed over him, reviving him long enough for
doctors to mop up the job.
And so when Dad
took him to the theater one day when he was 12 to see a documentary about an
evangelist, Marjoe Gortner, who'd begun wowing tent-revival throngs at age
four, and told Jim that he had the charisma, rich voice and near-death anecdote
to pull that off, Jim said, well, O.K. He watched the movie a few times, got
the groove. When summer came, he and the Peoples Temple began piling into their
13 Greyhound buses to go soul-harvesting at tent revivals and churches across
the U.S. In a suit and tie, Jim would take the microphone, the stutter that
sometimes afflicted him suddenly gone, and warm up the people with a few
parables sprinkled with parallels between Jesus and Jim Jones Sr. Then he'd
downshift into his personal tale, the black boy twice saved by the white
father, and whip 'em—mostly African-American mothers and grandmothers—into an
"Amen! Go, little Jimmy!" tizzy, then into tears, then into tongues. An
offering plate would appear, followed by the white father himself, emerging to
conduct faith healings, often involving removals of tumors that were actually
raw chicken giblets.
How had he ever
let himself get swept up in ... "Dad! Hey, Dad, are you listening?" his
three sons would yammer, tugging at him on the couch when Erin was working
night shifts at the hospital two decades later. Yeah, yeah, he'd reply, but no,
he was gone, lost again in lonely guilt, flailing like a flipped turtle to find
his way back to sunny-side up.
Good ol' optimism:
Jim's favorite cleansing agent. Lasted longer than vodka, got him through 18
years in that dysfunctional family and 18 more in its ashes. That's it, keep
dwelling on the positive, keep smiling. Keep standing up at meetings with work
colleagues or school parents who might've heard of his lineage and telling
everyone, "I'm willing to offer any help I can, except providing the
punch." Ha-ha—beat 'em to the punch!
One problem. The
more happy he slapped on, the less he could feel at all. No pain had a price:
no joy. His arguments with his kids and his wife grew sharper. Full of
misgivings, he agreed to co-coach Rob's CYO basketball team, but jumped on his
son so hard that Erin begged him to back off.
It all came to a
head early in '98 when Jim vanished as Rob and brother Ryan, younger than Rob
by two years, were celebrating their January birthdays together at a
bowling-alley party, leaving Erin to chase their youngest son, three-year-old
Ross, and referee two dozen seven-, eight- and nine-year-old boys with bowling
balls. Then, on the eve of Rob's CYO championship game a few weeks later, just
before the team's final practice, he vanished again. "Where's Coach?"
Rob's teammates asked.
Off somewhere with
old basketball echoes pounding in his head, with his marriage and Rob's world
about to fall apart. That's what he might've replied. But Rob was in third
grade. He winced and shrugged in silence.
THERE'S JIM. Up on
the runway, above and behind the basket. It's perfect. He can look right down
over the hoop. There are no seats up there, no people. No conversations that
might become personal. ¶ He looks down and sees Rob bolt ahead of the pack,
pluck a long pass overhead without breaking stride, then dunk with such
violence as he's fouled that he has to hang on to the rim till the world stops
shaking. He lands and bounces, fist-pounds his heart and chest-bumps a teammate
halfway to the bench.
There it all is in
one five-second burst, why all those big football factories—Southern Cal, Notre
Dame, Oregon and Cal—keep calling and sending love letters. Keep craving Rob
for the job for which his height, bulk, speed, ferocity, hard head and soft
hands are all custom-crafted, the position at which he shattered school
records: tight end.