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December 31, 2007
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December 31, 2007

Escape From Jonestown


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He ordered them to use knives, medicine or piano strings on themselves if they had no poison. Jim felt as if he were watching it all unfold from somewhere else. "There's got to be another way!" he heard himself saying. "Why? Why?"

The boys ran to the U.S. embassy. Maybe, somehow, they could get help and arrange a chartered flight to Port Kaituma. The Guyanese guards at the gate, who'd just received reports of the shootings at the airstrip, refused to let them in. The boys were helpless, with no way to reach Jonestown, where Father was summoning his flock to the pavilion over the P.A. and informing them that there was no escape, that the senior citizens and children would be tortured by U.S. soldiers, that their only choice was to drink from the vat and die in dignity, commit "revolutionary suicide" that would show the world the depth of their beliefs before paratroopers began raining from the sky. They were all so weary from months of his manic alerts. Armed men, members of Father's inner circle, fanned out around them, and their will to live began to wane.

One by one, except for the 85 who melted into the jungle, they drank and lay down. So many kids, so many earnest and passionate friends and loved ones with whom Jim had prayed, danced and sung, so many people who had invested everything in an idea and couldn't see a way out now that the dark sky had smothered it so suddenly....

Jim and his teammates returned to their lodging and found more horror. Four other temple members who'd been living there—a mother and her three children—were dead, their throats slit. Guyanese soldiers poured into the complex with M-16s and took up posts, two to a room. The Jones boys, crying one moment, staring into nothingness the next, weren't teenage basketball players anymore. They were orphans and suspects in an epic massacre, under house arrest.

They spent five days that way, being awakened at night and interrogated by soldiers, wondering if they were about to be thrown into a roach- and rapist-infested Guyanese prison. Stephan was, for three months, the police thinking at first that he had some hand in the four Georgetown deaths. Tim and Johnny Cobb were flown to Jonestown to help authorities identify the 910 bodies there, which included Jim's father—dead of a gunshot wound in his head—and 23 of Jim's other relatives....

But maybe they hadn't really died. Even now, on a sunny day 20 years later, Jim kept looking toward the trees, half-expecting them to walk out of the jungle now that the coast was clear.

SHARD BY shard, young Rob began piecing together his father's and grandfather's stories. Jim showed his sons the National Sports Hall in Georgetown, the site of his final game. He showed them the house where the floor had fallen out of his life. It began to hit Rob: the enormity of what his dad had lived through and lost. The stay of execution granted to his father, and the breath of life granted Rob, by basketball. He remembers feeling awe.

When they got home from Guyana, Jim set down his baggage but didn't empty it for a few days, putting off the trip's end just as he'd put off its beginning. At last he pulled out the shoes that he'd walked in at Jonestown and stared at their soles. Yes, he'd found the vat there, but no clarity, no answer, no why. The only thing he'd brought back, it struck him, was the dust in those soles ... the red dust of Jonestown.

That was the click that opened the lock. He buckled and wept. He finally knew it now, in his gut and gasping chest: There were plenty of whys for what had happened, but no why. No answer. No closure. Ever. What had happened couldn't be made rational. It could only be felt. Now that his heart understood that, it freed him to stop asking—and dodging—the question.

The tears and anger he'd clenched back for years kept flowing for weeks. The dreams returned and gnashed his sleep. His wife, who'd withstood so many storms as a neonatal nurse, didn't flinch. For six months Jim saw a counselor and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He stopped disappearing. He began to feel again. And he finally saw the lonely little boy—the son of a World War I vet who'd been mustard-gassed in Europe and returned an aloof alcoholic—inside the monster his dad became. He forgave his father. "I had to forgive him," Jim says, "to forgive myself."

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