Dan White’s Twinkie Defense spurred my decision to move to California.
I'd vacationed in Berkeley and had headed home to Iowa. I boarded at SFO while the jury was still in deliberation over White’s future. After the usual long layover in Denver, haggard fliers disembarked in Des Moines to television news flashes that gays were rioting in San Francisco. Oddly, the traveling Pope decided to visit Iowa, sharing the news of the day with Dan White’s Twinkie Defense of a verdict. Later, watching the unbelievable juxtaposed on my living room TV: The Pope blessing people at Living History Farms near Winterset, Iowa as police cars burned in San Francisco, ‘I gotta move to California now”, I thought.
I flipped channels: to the Pope… then to the riots in SF… back to the Pope… back to the riots. In Iowa, perhaps out of some strange respect for the dead, broadcasters weren’t mentioning, in death, the very important fact that Harvey Milk was openly gay. Thus, the gay riots in retaliation for Dan White’s verdict provided no context to those listening to local newscasters the day the Pope blessed folks at Living History Farms outside West Des Moines.
I metronomed between channels, mostly watching the riots from my living room, talking to my TV, encouraging the Des Moines newscasters to mention Harvey Milk was a famous gay activist in San Francisco long before he was a City Councilman.
Almost as if the newscasters skipped Harvey’s gayness because the Pope was in town, I kept the TV tuned to the SF “riots” and called U-Haul. Renting a big 21’ truck, I moved to California two short weeks after returning from vacation there. If I could drive a Ford 8000 tractor with wagon, I could handle a 21’ U-Haul, towing, my Ford Fiesta. I hopped on I-80 in Des Moines and headed West 1800 miles to Berkeley.
One of the first Californians I grew to know was an attendant named Michael working behind the counter at a Wallbanger’s racquetball club. He never shared his past, only to say he was adopted and had no idea of his bio-heritage. He had deep dark skin, sun-bleached blonde curls, black eyebrows and intense eyes. A young blonde, fit, slim Anthony Perkins. He presented himself to be no one. You don’t run into that much in California, where trends bend toward folks reinventing themselves, into whatever they want to be, each and every day, in a new way, all over again.
Michael never shared personal tidbits, but I could see he wasn’t talking about his past. Jumpy, he talked in whispers. You never know what fractures another’s experience. He seemed anxious, ready to fly to solitude if need be. He rode only a high tech bicycle for transportation. He lived in “the here and now”. Alone. Practiced. Took his time, like he’d suffered a big wake-up call, now heeded.
Michael was with our group of friends skiing the Sisters near Bend, Oregon when Mount St. Helen’s blew. Ash slopes. We shared a few strange experiences like that. Michael enjoyed the weirdness with us.
Taking seriously his roll at the club, he enforced the rules. He held one decisive body posture which I remember about him. He’d cross his arms across his chest, look rivetingly at whomever caused whatever trouble at hand, rocking back and forth from heel to toe, saying nothing. He called it “the stink eye”. He was very effective without saying a word.
The last time we talked was a freak meeting in 1983 at UCSF when attending a symposium by Luis Alvarez and his son, Walter, who lectured on “Mass Extinctions and Their Cosmic Causes”. They shared proof that a meteor, comet or asteroid hit earth, ending the era of dinosaurs. Luis spoke of the theory that ash covered the earth after the collisions and no sun could get through the atmosphere, which was vastly changed by the impact, to include the change to the tilt of the earth’s axis, magnetism and oxygenation. I looked across the packed conical lecture hall, and there was Michael, searching for history, like me. Hadn’t seen him in ages, but he was just the same, traveling from Pinole to San Francisco in his high tech bicycling gear. Looking like no one else in the audience, he sat quietly listening, with his helmet and backpack on his lap. And, that was the last time I saw him in person.
In 2012 while researching an article about Mendocino County’s Ten Mile Court, my attention was drawn to the Mendocino County DA’s office adjacent to Ten Mile Court in Fort Bragg. Was I familiar with Tim Stoen of our DA’s office, who worked respectively for Humboldt and Mendocino Counties over these many years after serving as People’s Temple Lawyer in San Francisco in the days before Guyana? Having missed all that, so it was that for the first time, I happened upon the Jonestown Death Tapes in their entirety on YouTube.
I listened and watched the Jonestown documentary interviewing survivors Jackie Spear, Grace Stoen and others. Tim Stoen absent.
All this brought to mind the years when the holy roller minister rented the place across the road from us in the 1960’s. I used to love how the church goers would gyrate and sing at revivals. I would beg my Mom to let me go with our holy roller neighbors, and when she’d finally consent, I’d already have one leg out the door as I’d hear her yell after me, “If I hear you went up and got saved in that church, I’ll kill you!” We were not holy rollers. Our church was no fun. All I knew was that she didn’t want me saved in the fun church. It was from those first-hand experiences as a child attending revivalist churches that I knew I was made out of different stuff than to become a “true believer”.
Jonestown was more than I could fathom when I began updating myself on the documents and YouTube videos of People’s Temple members. Looking at Jonathan Stoen, head-to-head with Jim Jones – I have to say he was a spitting image of Jim Jones. And, I do believe he was Jones’ biological son, which might just make Jonestown the biggest mass suicide due to a botched child custody battle in the history of the world, even. Not to mention the reason Leo Ryan was murdered.
If Tim Stoen is one fringe at the bottom of Ten Mile’s skirt of so-called “Justice,” what are the rest like, historically speaking?
This is where my old friend Michael re-enters. While looking for one thing on YouTube, I found quite another: Right there on one of the Jonestown Massacre tapes, Jim Jones officiating, is Michael, arms crossed on his chest, bouncing on the balls of his feet to and fro to his heels, rocking – looking decisively at the stage, giving the stink eye to Jones. The body language said it all. Somehow he survived Jonestown.
It’s a long shot clip only four seconds only of him – a glimpse of his posture which says it all. And, that right there is a really good reason not to talk about your past, just like he never did, in all the time we went up ski lifts together, swept ashes off our cars in Bend, went to A’s games, or listened to lectures at UCSF about mass extinctions on earth. Amid all that, Jonestown never became a topic of conversation.