On the second day of classes in the fall of 1967 Jim Jones integrated Anderson Valley High School. Walking down the hall to our first period senior government class, a group of us were startled to see a black girl, Ava Cobb, talking to a teacher in room one.
Imagine our surprise when we got to room five and found another, Anita Ljames, sitting quietly at a desk waiting for class to begin. For us to put our money where our mouths were, those of us who professed a lofty world brotherhood colorblindness in racial matters had a big challenge. Those who professed one degree of bigotry or another had a bigger one.
Jones had been around the local schools for about three years when he brought Anderson Valley into the melting-pot mainstream. He had worked part-time at the elementary school and subbed at the high school. As I recall we had him fairly often one year in Spanish class. It took a while for us to realize he couldn't speak Spanish -- Portuguese was his foreign language -- but that class was our first real exposure to his charismatic personality. I remember quite vividly one girl who came from a family of meager means being just enthralled when he told the class that he had a "ranch" in Redwood Valley. Of course, we didn't know at the time that his crop was old people's Social Security checks and property deeds. This girl just sat there practically swooning at the sauve and handsome Reverend Jones who owned a ranch in Redwood Valley. Anybody who knew the harsh truths of trying to scratch a living really ranching in Mendocino County in the 1960s (the advent of the pot plantations) had a slightly different reaction. When he subbed at the high school it was always, "Oh, we're having Jim Jones today -- you know, Jim Jones." (Or maybe, "that nut.") His reputation and persona magnified daily but not all of us were favorably impressed. The unsubstantiated story has always been that Jones provided a dozen students from the Temple, and the ADA money they brought, in exchange for a full-time teaching position at the elementary school.
That second day of class in 1967 was the beginning of a strange experience at Anderson Valley High. All of a sudden local students were confronted with a dozen or so "different" kids, some with a skin color we had all heard about and seen in pictures but never really rubbed up against, from some offbeat church called "People's Temple." We had heard of it but knew very little about it. Supposedly it was some sort of Protestant sect, but those of us with strong Protestant faiths were a little skeptical when we talked to them and heard some of their beliefs and found out that admission to their church service was by invitation only and protected by armed guards. None of it sounded very biblical to us -- and we got the distinct idea they were actually worshiping Jim Jones, not the Lord. Indeed, as the year wore on I became increasingly convinced, and correctly so history says, that all of Jones’s parson’s garb Bible pounding was just a prop, a hook to snare in weak-willed believers. (That was also confirmed in the spring of 1968 in incident witnessed by one of our local classmates which I will describe later.)
The kids themselves were an interesting bunch -- polite, short hair, clean-cut and for the most part studious. They were not standoffish but there was definitely a "difference." Later we found out they were sort of "outcasts" at Ukiah, perhaps another motivation for Jones to produce them one morning in Boonville. Socially reserved, the ones in my classes were outspoken and took an active part in class discussion whether it was science, English or particularly government or history.
Even then the People's Temple seemed to have a fascination with the Soviet Union and a couple of fellows would go on and on about what a paradise Brezhnev’s repressive regime was. Some of us would ride them mercilessly about their obvious folly and they had very little to say when the Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush out the last little tiny bit of freedom that flickered in that occupied country.
We tried hard to make them feel welcome and they appreciated it. While it seemed in a way that the kids wanted to really be part of the gang, there was this very apparent if invisible wall between them and us. It was also interesting to watch the changing attitudes of some of the local kids going from writing papers advocating the shipping back of all blacks to Africa "where they belong" to actually accepting people of another race as equals. I became very close friends with Ava Cobb and with the Joneses’ adopted Korean daughter, Sue. But only at school. There was nothing socially at all -- the wall was up. Anita Ljames, a black girl whose father served as one of the temple's assistant pastors, had a singing voice that would just knock your socks off. I play guitar along with Dave Knight in a half-baked rock band, but when Anita showed up with her Motown vocal cords, the band quickly became the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Aretha, the Supremes, that sort of thing, and her performance of "Midnight Hour" in one of the school variety shows brought down the house. She and I spent hours working out arrangements on the piano and talking about this and that but there was always this wall. My conservatism always kind of confounded her.
Others experienced the same thing. Except for the two variety shows that they organizes, Jones’s students took part in practically no extracurricular activities. At 3:30 they were gone, headed back over the hill to the sanctuary of "Father" in one of the cars provided by the school. About the only other exception was when we elected Faith Worely, who later defected from the movement, home coming queen.
I think it was Tom Rawles who planted a big smooch on her at the halftime ceremonies and Jones was furious. Afterwards, Jones denounced her in front of the congregation for her "loose morals and disgraceful public display." A year or so later he had forced her to be his mistress, apparently less concerned for "morals" than he had been at homecoming.
Jones and his kids seemed to be struggling with their relationship with him. There was an obvious but unstated adoration of "Father" but at the same time there was a subtle fear that they displayed and a distaste for the circumstances. Dale Parks, who would later watch his mother get murdered at the airstrip in Guyana when they tried to escape with Congressman Leo Ryan, would sometimes just sort of sigh when the topic would come up (always indirectly -- it was never discussed in the open). It was almost like he knew what he was going home to every evening and dreaded it.
Other times they would be fiercely defensive of Jones and the Church expressing great admiration and loyalty for the man who was revolutionizing social action in Mendocino County. If we had a class report to do in government you could count on Judy Stahl to make a presentation on the social welfare system in this country and Anita to expound on racism and now the Temple was working to eliminate all class barriers. Judy and I each took a turn at interpreting ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ of all things, and James Joyce in English literature and the differences in our analysis were startling, to say the least.
I always hear people remark that they can't understand how so many people would fall for Jones’s line, how they would just turn over everything they had to him and literally follow him to their deaths. I can. I don't understand all of it, but I was around him enough to recognize the terrific, terrible charisma he possessed. He was cool and calm and handsome and polite and could pull you right into the palm of his hand. In class he had a magnetic presence that came close to snaring a few local students. At a Thanksgiving assembly one year he gave the main inspirational message and Jim Bakker or some other charlatan could have taken lessons from him. I can remember vividly sitting there listening to him speak and thinking, "This guy is amazing -- and scary." His message was obviously a fake, but the power was certainly there. Nobody should ever fool themselves into thinking "it could never happen to me. I'm too smart for that." A lot of the 912 people at Jonestown were "smart" too, and I doubt that any of them ever had any idea what they were getting themselves into.
In the spring one of our local classmates visited the Temple. He and Judy Stahl had been a steady item at school but Jones had forced her to break it off. Dan went to Redwood Valley to try to negotiate some sort of arrangement with Jones, and left after being scared nearly completely out of his wits. Jones confronted him with a gun outside the Temple, ordered him off the grounds and to never associate with Judy again. Dan hung around, snuck back in, and observed an evening church service through the window. What he saw included a fake cancer healing, a beating, and Jones throwing his Bible to the floor and stomping it to pieces screaming, "I am your God!" over and over at the top of his lungs while the congregation roared its approval.
The next day, school authorities just pooh-poohed the story, telling Dan that he had an overactive imagination and to please not slander the good Reverend Jones anymore. Right. Of course, none of us could have predicted the carnage that was to follow, and nobody's boasting, but some of us, including a number of parents whose children were in Jones’s classes, had that guy figured out well in advance — but a fat lot of good it did anybody.
And so it went. Mike Bloomfield put a wrap on "Super Session," Anita sang "Up, Up and away," at our senior graduation, Robert Kennedy was tragically shot a couple of hours later, and we all went off to somewhere else. Jones pulled up stakes in Anderson Valley and his brood went back to Ukiah, the great ADA experiment was over. A couple of us would see Anita or Judy or Faith or Jim Cobb on the campus at Santa Rosa Junior College once in a while, but they were clearly in a different world. We might bump into them in a hallway or on the lawn, but there was never any going over to anybody’s apartment or anything, just hello, how are you, as we passed one another. And no, none of them showed up at our ten year class reunion just five months before the slaughter.
Jonestown and People’s Temple had been in the paper a little bit more and more by then and I kept looking for names. I started seeing them and it wasn't until then that we realize the depth of what was happening. We had no idea what our old friends had been into. It was amazing stuff, almost out of a movie, not real life. The last time I saw a Ava Cobb, one of the best friends I had in school, at least for a year, was in the parking lot in front of the Ukiah Purity store that summer after graduation. She didn't look too happy. She shouldn't have been. She was going to spend the next 10 years along with her brother Jim and sister Teresa trying to get the rest of her family -- parents, brothers, sisters -- out of the Temple and out of Jonestown. They didn't make it and the next time I saw her it was on television being interviewed the day after the massacre.
They had started a sort of halfway house rescue program that had been one impetus of Congressman Leo Ryan's trip to Jonestown. Judy and Anita and a whole bunch more of our classmates were dead. There wasn't much to say at that point except Holy Toledo, or I told you so, and there is no solace in that. We mostly just sat shaking our heads.
A few months later Dale Parks walked over to my desk at Crocker Bank and was amazed that I remembered him "from school." Like a dummy, I asked him how he was doing and he said fine. I had no way to respond to someone who could say "fine" after what he had been through and so for once I just shut up.
To this day, particularly after having lost a son of our own, whenever I think about this devil, this madman, this murderer, I want to either hold my own two boys as close as I can or go get the sledgehammer out of the shed and smash Jones's coffin to smithereens. The only satisfaction I get, and it is meager, is listening to Willie Brown or some other fool fumble around trying to explain their former undying support for that lunatic, but it's tempered by the fact that so many people tried for so long to get the government or the media to help them rescue their families from the horror of People’s Temple and got nothing but a deaf ear and a pile of corpses. It's a little late. People's Temple indeed.
Jim Jones integrated Anderson Valley high school. Eleven years later he proved to be the ultimate "integrator," leading hundreds of people of all races to their deaths. Death discriminates against no one and Jim Jones was Death.