WHY I LOVE LUCY – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I’ve got the end of summer blues. Maybe it’s the lingering memory of last year’s winter from hell. Walter Houston is talk-singing “September Song” in my head and he won’t go away. A phone call from a dear friend who has received some bad news from his doctor just deepens my melancholy. I need to get out of this funk.

LUCILLE-BALL

Melancholy. Melancholy Serenade. Serenade of the Bells. The Bells of St. Mary. A silly word link game I play to lighten things. It suddenly reminds me of another August more than three decades ago. Late August and Lucy.

The assignment? Cover Lucille Ball’s arrival in Boston. The nation’s favorite red-head was visiting her daughter, Lucy Arnaz, who was opening in a pre-Broadway show. It was pushing 9 pm, another long day. Yes, I had the end of summer blues.  Lucy finally arrived at Logan Airport, surrounded by an entourage and a gaggle of media.

I hung back, beckoning with my TV smile and waited for things to quiet down. I was looking down at my feet for a long moment when I heard the familiar voice. “What’s the matter, fella, long day?”, Lucille Ball inquired as I looked up, face to face with that very familiar face.

We smiled at each other. Real smiles. Not the phony ones. I didn’t realize it but Lucy had already cued my camera crew and things were rolling along. I’m not sure who was doing the interview.  Mostly we chatted about the “glamour” of TV, celebrity, long working days and Boston traffic.

I signalled the crew to shoot cut-aways, beating Lucy by a second and she winked. We shook hands and Lucy gave me an unexpected peck on the cheek..and another wink as she walked away with her entourage.

Lucy showFast forward to the next afternoon and the end of a formal news conference. Lucy seemed tired as she answered the last question about the enduring popularity of the “I Love Lucy” reruns. I was just staring and marvelling at her patience. She caught the look on my face and gave me a wry smile. As the room emptied out, Lucy beckoned me to stay. We waited until all the camera crews left. She offered me a scotch neat and thanked me for not asking any dumb questions during the news conference.

I asked if she’d gotten any sleep and she flashed that wry look again. Lucy gave me that “so what’s the problem?” look. I muttered something about being burned out and a little blue because summer was fleeting. She laughed. A big hearty laugh. Her face lit up as she pinched my cheeks.

Lucy showed me some PR stills from her “I Love Lucy” days and sighed. I showed her a couple of my PR postcards and she guffawed. Another round of scotches neat.

Lucy talked quietly about how proud she was of her daughter. I just listened. She smiled as she realized I was really listening.

A PR aide interrupted and Lucy looked annoyed. We stood up. I reached out to shake her hands but she hugged me. She pinched my cheeks again and gave me that wry smile again as she walked away.

POSTSCRIPT: THE JONESTOWN MASSACRE

There has been an upsurge of interest in this subject in the past few months, coinciding with the discovery of the remains of some previously unidentified victims at a funeral home in Delaware. So here’s a rerun of those weird, horrible events that took place almost 36 years ago, a piece of American history of which no one is proud.

It is rarely mentioned anymore. Everyone would like to forget it.

I think it would be better to not forget so quickly. Forgetting is an invitation for a recurrence. At a time when too many people are busy waving flags and stirring up hatred, the Jonestown Massacre is a stark and terrifying cautionary tale for our time.

It’s not just about free speech, you know. It really is life and death.


If you are my age or near it, you remember the Jonestown Massacre. Even if you are younger, if in 1978 you were old enough to watch TV news, you could hardly forget it. Now that fundamentalism is enjoying a rebirth with well-known political and religious leaders (who ought to know better) urging others to murder or mayhem, it’s probably a good time to remind everyone where this kind of thing can lead.

There is nothing remotely amusing about this story. It was horrible when it happened and time has not made it less awful.

The Road to Jonestown

The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” has become common parlance in American business and politics. Roughly translated, it means “to blindly follow.” It usually carries a negative connotation. The “Kool Aid” references go all the back to the 1950s when it was the typical drink for children on suburban summer afternoons. The origin of the saying is something else – darker, and different. It has become the kind of bland rhetoric about which we don’t give a thought, but its roots lie in horror.

Before we talk about Kool-Aid, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to that particularly awful episode of American history.

Jim Jones, cult leader and mass murderer, was a complex madman. A communist and occasional Methodist minister, he founded his pseudo-church in the late 1950s. He called it the “Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church,” known in short as the “Peoples Temple.”

The lack of a possessive apostrophe was intentional. The name was supposed to be a reference to “the people of the world.” While Jones called it a church, it was closer to a warped version of a Marxist commune. Initially, it combined a hodgepodge of Christian references that Jones used in his diatribes … supposedly sermons.

It was never a real church. The Peoples Temple was a straight-up cult. It required a level of commitment and financial support from members plus a degree of obedience that’s the defining quality of a cult.

Jones was the cult’s leader — and a homicidal maniac. But he had positive attributes. Jones and his wife Marceline were in favor of racial integration. They adopted a bunch of kids from varying backgrounds and were the first white family in Indiana to adopt an African-American boy. Other adopted children included three Korean Americans, a Native American, and a handful of white kids. They also had a child of their own.

Jones called his adopted kids the “Rainbow Family.” He made a name for himself desegregating institutions in Indiana. Before you get all dewy-eyed about this, note this story ultimately climaxes in the murder of all the Jones children by their parents.

The Peoples Temple continued to expand through the 1960s. Jones gradually abandoned his Marxism. His preaching began to increasingly focus on impending nuclear apocalypse. He even specified a date — July 15, 1967 — and suggested afterwards, a socialist paradise would exist on Earth. Where would the new Eden be?

Jones decided on Redwood Valley, California and before the expected apocalypse, he moved the Temple and its peoples there. When the end-of-the-world deadline passed without a holocaust, Jones quit pretending to be a Christian and revealed himself as an atheist who used religion to give his own opinions legitimacy. Jones announced that “Those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion must be brought to enlightenment — socialism.” Prophetic words since Jones was a drug addict who preferred literal to metaphorical opiates.

As media attention increased, Jones worried the Peoples Temple’s tax-exempt religious status was in danger. He was paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community — probably with justification.

jonestown massacre anniversary

Jim Jones, cult leader

In 1977, Jones moved the Temple and its people to a different site that Jones had been working on since 1974. It was located in Guyana and he modestly named it “Jonestown.” It was a bleak, inhospitable place. Built on 4000 acres with limited access to water, it was much too small and seriously overcrowded. Temple members had to work long hours just to keep from starving.

Nonetheless, Jones decided his people would farm the land of his utopia. He had put together several million dollars before getting to Jonestown (he confiscated all his followers’ money), but wealth was not distributed. He barely used any of the money for himself and lived in a tiny, bare-bones shared house.

All Hell Breaks Loose

U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown in November of 1978. Rumors of peculiar goings-on were leaking out of Jonestown. Ryan decided to investigate rumors of abuses in Jonestown. Ryan didn’t travel alone. He took a contingent of media people including NBC News correspondent Don Harris and other reporters, plus relatives of Jonestown residents. He assumed that this would protect him — a major miscalculation.

During his visit to Jonestown, Congressman Ryan talked to more than a dozen Temple members, all of whom said they wanted to leave. Several of them passed a note saying: “Please help us get out of Jonestown” to news anchor Harris.

If the number of defectors seems low considering the more than 900 residents of Jonestown, remember they had not been allowed to talk to most of the “fellowship.” The number of those who wanted to leave could have been much more. We’ll never know.

Ryan began processing the paperwork to repatriate Temple members. In the middle of this, Ryan was attacked with a knife by temple member Don Sly. This would-be assassin was stopped before Ryan was hurt. Eventually the Ryan party decided to leave. They and the Jonestown defectors drove to the airstrip and boarded planes.

Jim Jones had other plans. He sent armed Temple members — his “Red Brigade” — after the Congressional party. These creepy “soldiers of the Temple” opened fire on them, killing Ryan, a Temple defector,  three members of the media, and wounding eleven others. The survivors fled into the jungle.

jonestown massacre anniversary

When the murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones promptly started what he called a “White Night” meeting. He invited all Temple members. This wasn’t the first White Night. Jones had hosted previous White Night meetings in which he suggested U.S. intelligence agencies would soon attack Jonestown.

He had even staged fake attacks to add a realism, though it’s hard to believe anyone was fooled. Faced with this invasion scenario, Jones told Temple members they could stay and fight imaginary invaders. They could take off for the USSR or run into the jungles of Guyana. Or they could commit mass suicide.

On previous occasions Temple members had opted for suicide. Not satisfied, Jones had tested their commitment by giving them cups of liquid that supposedly contained poison. Which they drank (???). After a while, Jones told them the liquid wasn’t poison — but one day it would be.

Jim Jones had been stockpiling poisons — cyanide and other drugs — for years. On this final White Night, Jones was no longer testing his followers. It was time to kill them all.

Don’t Drink It!

After the airstrip murders outside Jonestown, Jim Jones ordered Temple members to create a fruity mix containing a cocktail of chemicals that included cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine (Phenergan — a sedative), chloral hydrate (a sedative/hypnotic sometimes called “knockout drops”), and Flavor Aid, a beverage similar to Kool-Aid.

Jones told his followers they should commit suicide to make a political point. What that point was supposed to be is still a matter of considerable debate. Temple member Christine Miller suggested flying members to the USSR.

Of course, Jones was never really interested in escape. There was only one answer that he would accept. Death and lots of it. He repeatedly pointed out to his followers that Congressman Ryan was dead (and whose fault was that?)  which would surely bring down the weight of American retribution. An audiotape of this meeting exists. It is just as creepy as you’d expect.

Then it was time for the detailed instructions which — still baffling to me at least — the followers did as they were told. I will never understand why. Probably that’s a positive sign indicating I’m not insane.

Jones insisted mothers squirt poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. As their children died, the mothers were allowed to drink poison from cups. Temple members wandered out onto the ground where eventually just over 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. Only a handful of survivors escaped — primarily those who happened to be away on errands or playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place.

Jones did not drink poison. He died from a gunshot to the head. It’s unclear if it was self-inflicted. Jones probably died last or nearly so and likely preferred the gun to cyanide. He had witnessed the horrendous effects of death by cyanide and preferred something quicker.

What’s With the Kool-Aid?

In the wake of the tragedy at Jonestown, the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” became a popular term for blind obedience, as Temple members had apparently accepted their cups of poison without objection. According to various accounts, the primary beverage used at Jonestown was actually Flavor Aid (sometimes “Flav-R-Aid”) — although both Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were used.

Kool-Aid was better known than Flavor Aid. Kool-Aid was introduced in 1927 in powdered form. When Americans thought about a powdered fruity drink mix (other than “Tang”), “Kool-Aid” came immediately to mind.

So, although Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were both present at Jonestown, the phrase “(don’t) drink the Kool-Aid” has become entrenched in popular lingo.

Personally, I never touch the stuff.


Within the past couple of days, more remains of massacre victims were found in Delaware. These were contracted out to local funeral homes after being flown back from Guyana, apparently marked as “unidentified” and unclaimed.

If you are interested in more of the aftermath of this nightmare, you can read:

Discovery of cremated remains brings closure for families of Jonestown Massacre victims

Memories stirred after 35 years after Jonestown Massacre when victims’ remains found at funeral home

Jonestown Massacre remains found in Del. funeral home

IT CAN’T BE THAT BAD, CAN IT?

Can’t Watch This – When was the last time you watched something too scary, cringe-worthy, or unbelievably tacky to continue?


Almost everyday, I am offended by appallingly cliche-ridden, derivative shows proffered as “the next new thing” for us, the obviously dim-witted audience. Not to mention the “reality shows” like “Marriage Boot Camp” which has offended me merely by its advertisements. No, I haven’t watched one of the shows. If I become that senile or desperate, please shoot me.

Form unimaginative scripts, to the failure of the writers to do even the most basic research about the subject matter, to the inevitable use of tired old lines we hear thousands of times — “Stay in the car!” “Be careful out there!” “You’re off the case and on desk duty!” — to which we all say a weary, “Yeah, right, sure,” because no one stays in the car or on desk duty. And wouldn’t you think being careful would not be something of which you needed to remind police officers who’ve been doing it for years?

However, standing out from the crowd of mediocrity is a movie we had never seen. Was it an instinctive knowledge it would be terrible? Presenting (drumroll) …

WUSA (1970) 115 min – Drama | Romance – 12 March 1971

From the IMDB, a plot summary:

Rheinhardt, a cynical drifter, gets a job as an announcer for right-wing radio station WUSA in New Orleans. Rheinhardt is content to parrot WUSA’s reactionary editorial stance on the air, even if he doesn’t agree with it. Rheinhardt finds his cynical detachment challenged by a lady friend, Geraldine, and by Rainey, a neighbor and troubled idealist who becomes aware of WUSA’s sinister, hidden purpose. And when events start spinning out of control, even Rheinhardt finds he must take a stand.

Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Writers: Robert Stone (screenplay), Robert Stone (novel)
Stars: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Perkins and more.

WUSA_(movie_poster)It looks good on paper, doesn’t it? I mean Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, right? How bad could it be?

Bad. Very bad. The script starts off slow, but degenerates with each passing minute until it is so stunningly awful, so over-the-top hysterical and preachy, you find yourself glued to the screen, mouth hanging open, bits of drool falling from your slack jaw.

If, by some bad juju, this movie is showing on a television near you, save yourself! Find an oldies station and watch an episode of Gilligan’s Island.

There are probably worse movies lurking in the vaults of Turner Classics. I just hope we have the good sense to not watch them.

THE GARNER FILES: A MEMOIR – JAMES GARNER AND JON WINOKUR (2012)

Marilyn Armstrong:

Jim, we already miss you!

Originally posted on SERENDIPITY:

By James Garner and Jon Winokur - Release date: October 23, 2012

garnerfiles

From the first time I saw James Garner on TV as Bret Maverick, I was ever so slightly in love. I watched the show faithfully whenever Garner starred in the episode. They tried adding more Mavericks, but for me, there was only one. Apparently that’s how most viewers felt — when Garner was gone, the show was gone.

When I saw him in “The Americanization of Emily,” our relationship was sealed. I was a fan  for life. Although I have not seen every movie he ever made, I’ve seen most of them. I’ve liked some, loved most. Whenever one of his movies shows up on cable, it goes on the DVR. Fortunately Garry is a fan too.

Now, about the book. If you had the impression that Jim Garner is a plain-spoken guy with strong…

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THE NANNY TRIAL – A TRUE STORY OF AMERICAN JUSTICE

For those of you who follow “big trials,” there was a huge one in 1997 in Boston. Garry was working and covered the trial, along with a zillion other reporters from all over the country.

We became as engrossed by the story as everyone else. Garry was in the courtroom every day. Each night over dinner, we talked about the day’s testimony. Garry gave me his opinion on who was telling the truth and what it might mean.

So what happened? A young British woman – Louise Woodward – was nanny for a baby who died of what was apparently shaken baby syndrome, a finding which has since been disputed. The jury convicted her of second degree murder that carried a sentenced of 15 to life.

Judge Zobel was unhappy with the verdict and reduced the conviction to involuntary manslaughter. He stated “the circumstances in which the defendant acted were characterized by confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice in the legal sense supporting a conviction for second-degree murder,” adding: “I am morally certain that allowing this defendant on this evidence to remain convicted of second-degree murder would be a miscarriage of justice.” His overturning of the jury verdict produced a storm of controversy.

I don’t think the Judge Zobel believed she was innocent, merely that justice would not be better served by sending her to jail. I doubt the baby’s parents agreed.

scales of justice

Our legal system is designed to be flexible, to allow human considerations to occasionally trump legal ones. Sometimes it means no one is entirely satisfied with a trial’s outcome. The wild cards are the judges who have enormous discretionary powers … which they mostly don’t use. Although judges can always set aside a jury verdict, it rarely happens in the real world. This is the only time I’ve seen it happen, other than in a movie or TV show. Zobel was an unusual judge.

Woodward’s sentence was reduced to time served (279 days) and she was freed. Assistant District Attorney Gerald Leone appealed the judge’s decision to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

Woodward’s lawyers also appealed, asking the court to throw out her manslaughter conviction. The court affirmed the guilty verdict by a 7-0 vote. However, in a 4-3 split decision, the higher court rejected the prosecution’s appeal against reduction of the conviction to involuntary manslaughter.

On 16 June 1998, Woodward was returned to the United Kingdom. She studied law, changed her mind and became a dance teacher. A story that leaves me saying “huh?”

Side Effects

The conviction had an unanticipated side effect by causing the defeat of pending legislation in Massachusetts which would have restored capital punishment. I was glad. Garry not so much. It’s one of the few areas of the law on which we disagree.

The death penalty is not a liberal vs. conservative issue. I’m against it because I think if killing is wrong, making it legal doesn’t make it right. Garry believes some people deserve it, a point of view that’s hard to argue with (but I do anyway). We have agreed to disagree on this specific issue. It’s a matter of conscience.

The U.S. has a unique system of justice. Mostly, our magic works, sometimes not. Law is a human institution. It’s imperfect, but all things considered, it’s pretty good. I don’t know where you would find a better one.

10 MOVIES OF WHICH I NEVER TIRE

These are my favorites. They aren’t all my favorites, but they represent a good chunk of the films I want to watch again. And again. The most obvious element they share are brilliant scripts.

For me, first and foremost, it’s always about the words. I give extra points for wit and humor, even more points for inside jokes, cleverness, and quotable dialogue. All of these movies have these qualities. I also give extra credit for a great score and amazing cinematography and all of these have those elements too.

I have watched each of these many times. I keep discovering new things to love about them. Of course, there are plenty of other movies I love and not enough space or time for me to write about them all.

I guarantee, you can’t go wrong with any of these ten great ones.


 

THE LION IN WINTER

The Lion in Winter (1968 film)

The Lion in Winter (1968 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Awesome performances by everyone, from Hepburn and O’Toole, to Anthony Hopkins in his first screen role. Wonderful script and matchless screen chemistry. It’s not accurate history … but the interaction of the members of the family is surprisingly close if you want to examine only the emotional content. In the end, it’s all about the performances.

From top to bottom, every performance is extraordinary. Hepburn got an Oscar, one of three wins for the film. Many more nominations plus three Golden Globes. All well-deserved.

THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY

Cover of "The Americanization of Emily"

Paddy Chayevsky‘s script is among the best movie scripts of all time. Add superb performances by James Garner and Julie Andrews in her first dramatic role. The whole movie would be worth it just for Garner’s monologue on war. But there’s so much more. It’s funny, sharp, downright brilliant.

The cast knew they’d never have a better job. All of them list this movie as the favorite or as one of the top one or two of their professional lives. Roles like this don’t come along often in any actor’s career. The actors showed their appreciation by working their hearts out. Everyone is at the top of his or her game.

TOMBSTONE

This is one of those movies that I like better each time I watch it … and I watch it often. We can recite dialogue with it. It’s got everything you want a western to have: passion, revenge, violence, humor and brilliant cinematography. It’s Val Kilmer’s best performance and arguably Kurt Russell’s shining moment.

This is my go to movie if I need a revenge and violence fix. It manages to have a satisfying body count without the gore. I like that in a movie.

A MIGHTY WIND

Maybe it isn’t one of the all time greatest films, but reminds me of some of the best of times in my life as well as music I dearly love.

It’s funny, often laugh-out-loud hilarious, a loving parody. It’s a warm-hearted and nostalgic look at a time many of us look back on with great affection. The music manages to be humorous and good — a difficult act to pull off.

CASABLANCA

Not the most original choice, but it’s so good and it has worn well despite the years. We saw it on the big screen not long ago. Wonderful. It’s pure mythology, but it’s the way we wish it had been. I need heroes.

Three Oscar wins — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay plus nominations for just about every member of the cast. Seeing it on the big screen was like seeing it for the first time and gave me an even better appreciation of the brilliant script.

BLAZING SADDLES

It’s hard to pick only one Mel Brooks movie, but if I have to choose, this is it.

It was a tough choice. “Young Frankenstein,” “High Anxiety,” and “History of the World, Part I” are right up there too. “Blazing Saddles” wins because it’s got some of the all-time great movie lines. That’s HEDLEY Lamar!

STARMAN

Science fiction movies usually disappoint me because they aren’t science fiction, but westerns in space using spacecraft for horses, featuring millions of dollars of special effects, but no script. This is all acting. A fine script, wonderful performances, romantic, touching and believable. A great performance by Jeff Bridges. And I almost forgot to mention the haunting score.

It’s the best kind of science fiction … concept and character based. Unforgettable. It’s by far the best movie John Carpenter ever made and ranks as one of the best science fiction movies ever made by anyone.

THE THREE AND FOUR MUSKETEERS (1973 – 1974)

I know they were issued as two movies, but they were filmed as one. The stars of the film(s) sued the studios since they had only been paid for one movie, and they won. Nonetheless, both movies play like a single film in two parts. You can’t watch one without the other. They keep remaking it, but none of the others come near this version. It’s fast, funny, and surprisingly true to the books.

Dumas would have been pleased. I love the sword fights. I used to fence in college, and this has some of the best choreographed fencing I’ve ever seen. It’s not the elegant fencing you usually see, but brawling — the way men really fought — not to get points for good form, but to win without getting sliced up.

THE SEVENTH SEAL

Ingmar-Bergman-The-Seventh-Seal-Criterion-Collection-Blu-Ray-Disc-1080p-Screencapture-1920x1080-001

Not everyone is quite as enthralled with the 14th century as I am. The Black Death, the split papacy, the brigands, the inflation, the complete depopulation of regions … and the crazed religious fervor that gripped the western world is not everyone’s idea of a fun movie.

And I’m not a big fan of Ingmar Bergman. I admire his work, but mostly find it too intense and depressing. This is the exception. Probably it’s the history buff in me, but better than any other movie I’ve ever seen (except for the obscure “A Walk With Love and Death”), it portrays the mood and feeling of this strange century that was the end of everything and the beginning of everything else.

The black and white photography is breathtaking, the performances (yes, the movie is in Swedish with subtitles — deal with it) are wonderful. The Knight is playing chess with death every night and as long as he keeps playing and doesn’t lose, his little band will survive.

If you haven’t seen it and aren’t completely allergic to foreign movies with subtitles … and especially if you have a taste for medieval history, you should see it.

It’s one of just a handful of movies about which Garry and I disagree. He doesn’t argue about its quality. It’s just too dark for his taste. Which considering some of the movies he loves, that seems a bit out of character. Every once in a while he will watch it with me. I keep hoping he’ll change his mind.

OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR

OH WHAT A LOVELY WARI saw “Oh! What a Lovely War” in the theater when it was released in 1969 and never forgot it. Based on the long-running British stage production, it’s World War I – in song, dance and irony. Its catchy score sticks in your brain. The songs are those sung by the troop during that long war. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British stage or screen during the 1960s. The credits are a who’s-who of English actors.

Says the movie at the beginning: “The principal statements made by the historical characters in this film are based on documentary evidence, and the words of the songs are those sung by the troops during the First World War.”

Did General Haig, when looking at the staggering loss of life on both sides, really say: “in the end, the Germans will have 5,000 men and we will have 10,000, so we will have won.”? Apparently he not only said it, he meant it.

The war is told with music and dancing. Songs are mixed with pithy comments by generals, kings, Kaisers and occasionally, soldiers. It’s a long movie — 144 minutes — and I can promise you that you will have a far better and more visceral understanding of World War I after watching it … even if you already know your history. It was the war to end all wars. Until the next war. And the one after that.

DON’T DRINK THE KOOL AID – THE JONESTOWN MASSACRE

There has been an inexplicable upsurge of interest in this subject. So here’s a piece of weird and rather horrible American history that is rarely mentioned anymore. Perhaps everyone would just as soon forget it … but maybe it’s better if we don’t lest it happen again …


If you are my age or near it, you remember the Jonestown Massacre. Even if you are younger, if in 1978 you were old enough to watch TV news, you could hardly forget it. Now that fundamentalism is enjoying a rebirth with well-known political and religious leaders (who ought to know better) urging others to murder or mayhem, it’s probably a good time to remind everyone where this kind of thing can lead.

There is nothing remotely amusing about this story. It was horrible when it happened and time hasn’t made it less so.

The Road to Jonestown

The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” has become common parlance in American business and politics. Roughly translated, it means “to blindly follow.” It usually carries a negative connotation. The “Kool Aid” references go all the back to the 1950s when it was the typical drink for children on suburban summer afternoons. The origin of the saying is something else – darker, and different. It has become the kind of bland rhetoric about which we don’t give a thought, but its roots lie in horror.

Before we talk about Kool-Aid, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to that particularly awful episode of American history.

Jim Jones, cult leader and mass murderer, was a complex madman. A communist and occasional Methodist minister, he founded his pseudo-church in the late 1950s. He called it the “Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church,” known in short as the “Peoples Temple.”

The lack of a possessive apostrophe was intentional. The name was supposed to be a reference to “the people of the world.” While Jones called it a church, it was closer to a warped version of a Marxist commune. Initially, it combined a hodgepodge of Christian references that Jones used in his diatribes … supposedly sermons.

It was never a real church. The Peoples Temple was a straight-up cult. It required a level of commitment and financial support from members plus a degree of obedience that’s the defining quality of a cult.

Jones was the cult’s leader — and a homicidal maniac. But he had positive attributes. Jones and his wife Marceline were in favor of racial integration. They adopted a bunch of kids from varying backgrounds and were the first white family in Indiana to adopt an African-American boy. Other adopted children included three Korean Americans, a Native American, and a handful of white kids. They also had a child of their own.

Jones called his adopted kids the “Rainbow Family.” He made a name for himself desegregating institutions in Indiana. Before you get all dewy-eyed about this, note this story ultimately climaxes in the murder of all the Jones children by their parents.

The Peoples Temple continued to expand through the 1960s. Jones gradually abandoned his Marxism. His preaching began to increasingly focus on impending nuclear apocalypse. He even specified a date — July 15, 1967 — and suggested afterwards, a socialist paradise would exist on Earth. Where would the new Eden be?

Jones decided on Redwood Valley, California and before the expected apocalypse, he moved the Temple and its peoples there. When the end-of-the-world deadline passed without a holocaust, Jones quit pretending to be a Christian and revealed himself as an atheist who used religion to give his own opinions legitimacy. Jones announced that “Those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion must be brought to enlightenment — socialism.” Prophetic words since Jones was a drug addict who preferred literal to metaphorical opiates.

As media attention increased, Jones worried the Peoples Temple’s tax-exempt religious status was in danger. He was paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community — probably with justification.

jonestown massacre anniversary

Jim Jones, cult leader

In 1977, Jones moved the Temple and its people to a different site that Jones had been working on since 1974. It was located in Guyana and he modestly named it “Jonestown.” It was a bleak, inhospitable place. Built on 4000 acres with limited access to water, it was much too small and seriously overcrowded. Temple members had to work long hours just to keep from starving.

Nonetheless, Jones decided his people would farm the land of his utopia. He had put together several million dollars before getting to Jonestown (he confiscated all his followers’ money), but wealth was not distributed. He barely used any of the money for himself and lived in a tiny, bare-bones shared house.

All Hell Breaks Loose

U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown in November of 1978. Rumors of peculiar goings-on were leaking out of Jonestown. Ryan decided to investigate rumors of abuses in Jonestown. Ryan didn’t travel alone. He took a contingent of media people including NBC News correspondent Don Harris and other reporters, plus relatives of Jonestown residents. He assumed that this would protect him — a major miscalculation.

During his visit to Jonestown, Congressman Ryan talked to more than a dozen Temple members, all of whom said they wanted to leave. Several of them passed a note saying: “Please help us get out of Jonestown” to news anchor Harris.

If the number of defectors seems low considering the more than 900 residents of Jonestown, remember they had not been allowed to talk to most of the “fellowship.” The number of those who wanted to leave could have been much more. We’ll never know.

Ryan began processing the paperwork to repatriate Temple members. In the middle of this, Ryan was attacked with a knife by temple member Don Sly. This would-be assassin was stopped before Ryan was hurt. Eventually the Ryan party decided to leave. They and the Jonestown defectors drove to the airstrip and boarded planes.

Jim Jones had other plans. He sent armed Temple members — his “Red Brigade” — after the Congressional party. These creepy “soldiers of the Temple” opened fire on them, killing Ryan, a Temple defector,  three members of the media, and wounding eleven others. The survivors fled into the jungle.

jonestown massacre anniversary

When the murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones promptly started what he called a “White Night” meeting. He invited all Temple members. This wasn’t the first White Night. Jones had hosted previous White Night meetings in which he suggested U.S. intelligence agencies would soon attack Jonestown.

He had even staged fake attacks to add a realism, though it’s hard to believe anyone was fooled. Faced with this invasion scenario, Jones told Temple members they could stay and fight imaginary invaders. They could take off for the USSR or run into the jungles of Guyana. Or they could commit mass suicide.

On previous occasions Temple members had opted for suicide. Not satisfied, Jones had tested their commitment by giving them cups of liquid that supposedly contained poison. Which they drank (???). After a while, Jones told them the liquid wasn’t poison — but one day it would be.

Jim Jones had been stockpiling poisons — cyanide and other drugs — for years. On this final White Night, Jones was no longer testing his followers. It was time to kill them all.

Don’t Drink It!

After the airstrip murders outside Jonestown, Jim Jones ordered Temple members to create a fruity mix containing a cocktail of chemicals that included cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine (Phenergan — a sedative), chloral hydrate (a sedative/hypnotic sometimes called “knockout drops”), and Flavor Aid, a beverage similar to Kool-Aid.

Jones told his followers they should commit suicide to make a political point. What that point was supposed to be is still a matter of considerable debate. Temple member Christine Miller suggested flying members to the USSR.

Of course, Jones was never really interested in escape. There was only one answer that he would accept. Death and lots of it. He repeatedly pointed out to his followers that Congressman Ryan was dead (and whose fault was that?)  which would surely bring down the weight of American retribution. An audiotape of this meeting exists. It is just as creepy as you’d expect.

Then it was time for the detailed instructions which — still baffling to me at least — the followers did as they were told. I will never understand why. Probably that’s a positive sign indicating I’m not insane.

Jones insisted mothers squirt poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. As their children died, the mothers were allowed to drink poison from cups. Temple members wandered out onto the ground where eventually just over 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. Only a handful of survivors escaped — primarily those who happened to be away on errands or playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place.

Jones did not drink poison. He died from a gunshot to the head. It’s unclear if it was self-inflicted. Jones probably died last or nearly so and likely preferred the gun to cyanide. He had witnessed the horrendous effects of death by cyanide and preferred something quicker.

What’s With the Kool-Aid?

In the wake of the tragedy at Jonestown, the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” became a popular term for blind obedience, as Temple members had apparently accepted their cups of poison without objection. According to various accounts, the primary beverage used at Jonestown was actually Flavor Aid (sometimes “Flav-R-Aid”) — although both Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were used.

Kool-Aid was better known than Flavor Aid. Kool-Aid was introduced in 1927 in powdered form. When Americans thought about a powdered fruity drink mix (other than “Tang”), “Kool-Aid” came immediately to mind.

So, although Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were both present at Jonestown, the phrase “(don’t) drink the Kool-Aid” has become entrenched in popular lingo.

Personally, I never touch the stuff.