My house has an attic, a basement, a garage, and a crawlspace over the garage; and each of those spaces is filled to the brim with boxes of memories of fifty years of packing and moving about every two years or so. Some of those boxes haven’t been unpacked for more than thirty years. But, they have been touched, and in return have, on occasion, done some touching of their own.
Now and then, my wife nags me sufficiently that I’ll pick a venue and start rummaging through boxes, looking for stuff that she can put on the curb for garbage pickup. We do this exercise about twice a year, and so far the garbage man hasn’t had much to do. You see, every time I open a box, I’m hit with a memory of some past event that has lingered just out of reach in that part of my brain that stores those old memories, waiting for a trigger to trot them out as fresh as the day they happened.
Once I opened a box and found a bunch of old yellowing black and white photos of me at a younger age in my hometown in rural East Texas (was I ever that skinny?), my younger siblings who followed me around like a bunch of ducklings, and my grandmother, a tiny half-black, half-Native American woman dressed in gingham and holding a .44 pistol with a barrel as long as her tiny forearm.
But, one day I opened a box that stunned me, and left me sitting in a pile of documents and pictures with tears streaming down my face. This particular box was from the 1970s when I was the assistant public affairs officer for the 18th Airborne Corps in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Many of the events of that period are a part of American history. There was the clipping of an article I wrote for the Ohio National Guard magazine (“We Never Stopped to Count the Miles”) about the blizzard in northern Ohio in 1978, or maybe it was 1977, when four northern counties were buried in snow so deep we had to fly into the airport with C-130s equipped for ice landing and dig our way out. Paper clipped to the article was a photo I took that was published in Newsweek, of a solitary figure in uniform walking toward a small helicopter that is barely visible in the haze and snow. That one had me smiling. I remembered cleaning the wallets of a number of Ohio guardsmen in the nightly poker games as we sat around and recounted the events of the day, digging people out of houses that were almost buried to the eaves in snow.
Then, near the bottom of the box, I found a bundle of newspaper clippings that brought tears to my eyes. The top clipping was a black and white drawing that ran on the front page of the Fort Bragg newspaper, The Paraglide. It was mostly black, with white rectangles and little white spots here and there. The background was of lush jungle. I focused on those little white spots and the memories came flooding back.
A self-styled prophet from California had gone to Guyana with a group of his followers. The Peoples’ Temple was a cult that caused much concern, especially among the relatives of those who had followed Jim Jones to his isolated collection of huts. A U.S. Congressman had taken a delegation to Guyana to investigate reports of abuse. His group was attacked by a group of gunmen as they were leaving, and then reports began to come in that others at the site had been killed.
Aerial reconnaissance of the site showed what looked to be bodies lying on the jungle floor, and units at Fort Bragg were called in to try and retrieve the bodies. I was assigned as public affairs officer for the task force. When the first helicopters from our task force approached the site, it was confirmed that there was indeed a number of apparent corpses scattered about the temple, but when the first GIs hit the ground, the picture changed dramatically. We’d been told to expect about 200 dead, but as my guys began removing bodies, the body count rose every minute until a final count of around 900 was reached. Among the dead were many children, some beneath the bodies of their parents. At first, we assumed that everyone had followed Jones’ orders and drank the poison-laced KoolAde, after giving it to their children, but after a number of bodies had been examined by the pathologists, we learned that some had died of gunshot wounds.
The Jonestown massacre, and in my mind that is what it was, a case of mass murder, stands out as one of the most gut-wrenching military operations I’ve ever participated in. I imagine that many of the others who were there have also suppressed the memory, and I hope they’re more successful than I’ve been in keeping it suppressed. Not that we should ever forget it. Every politician who tries to create a cult of personality and con people into following his madness should be required to look at the pictures of bloated, rotting corpses of mothers and children who had lain in the dark wet earth of that Guyanese jungle for three days to learn the folly of blindly following people whose dreams are really little but nightmares.
Causes Charles Ray Supports
The Nature Conservancy
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial