42 – THE STORY OF A LEGEND. THE STORY OF AMERICA – Marilyn & Garry Armstrong

42

We meant to see this one in the theatre, but time slipped away and by the time we were ready to go, it was gone. But that turned out to be fine, because we have a wide-screen television and surround. I bought the movie and we got a private screening. Time for baseball and history. Not only baseball. Not only history.

The integration of sports is taken so much for granted today, younger generations can’t imagine when it was any other way. This is the movie that shows how it happened. It’s a movie about many things.

It’s the story of how and why Jackie Robinson became the first non-white player in Major League Baseball. How this began the integration of all professional sports. It was the beginning of modern baseball as well as the first significant move toward real integration.

That it was our original home town team, the Brooklyn Dodgers makes the story more personal for us. Branch Rickey, owner of the Dodgers, decided it was time to make a difference. Because he could, he changed the world. Harrison Ford as Mr. Rickey mumbles. He’s also real, touching, human. He actually made me cry. Harrison Ford is not known for nuanced performances, but he gives one in this movie.

JrobinsonI commented that Harrison used to be President, not to mention Indiana Jones. Garry pointed out that owning the Dodgers was far more important. I agreed. Because Garry and I agree: there’s nothing more important than baseball. Especially right now.

Chadwick Boseman bears a strong physical resemblance to Jackie Robinson. He doesn’t sound like him, but that’s quibbling. Nicole Beharie is a pretty good likeness of Rachel Isum Robinson. Who, as Garry pointed out, is even today, old as she is, one fine-looking woman. It was no accident Rickey chose a good-looking couple. He knew what they would be up against and it would be hard enough. Any small advantage they could gain by just being attractive … well, they were going to need it.

It’s hard for people brought up after the Civil Rights Amendment to understand the intensity of the hatred, anger and rage bringing a Black man into baseball caused.

It was 1947, the year I was born. The big war in Europe was over and returning Black soldiers were appalled and enraged that the service to their nation had done nothing to alleviate the oppression of Jim Crow laws. Segregation was not merely as bad as it had been. It was worse. Returning Black soldiers made racists all over America nervous that their position of supremacy was being threatened.

It would take 20 years to make get a civil rights amendment to the Constitution. Twenty more to make it real and twenty-five years more to get a non-white President into office. It will probably take another twenty before people stop noticing race … if indeed they ever do. Race and the judgments we make based on skin color are so ingrained, so automatic, so very American.

More than apple pie or the flag, we the people love to hate. It’s the most universal of all human behaviors. Not our ability to love but our willingness to hate.

Chadwick Boseman not only looks like Jackie Robinson. He has his swing. I assume they taught him the swing, but they did it very well and really got that gritty baseball “feel” into the movie. Everyone plays their part with authenticity, as those of us old enough to remember the real guys can attest. Maybe that’s the problem with many of the critics: they never saw the real guys, met them, cheered for them. Lived and died with them through the long season of baseball. They don’t remember, but we do.

The cinematography is great, moving smoothly and naturally between wide and close shots to give you the feeling of the game and more. Nice, tight segues. What is even better captured is the intensity of the abuse Robinson was forced to put up with, to swallow without complaint while simultaneously playing at the top of his game. I’d like to see any modern player survive this.

In many ways, Robinson didn’t survive it. He lived through it, but it killed him from the inside. He blasted open the door of the future and it cost him dearly.

Why did Rickey do it? There was a strong moral component. Rickey believed it was the right thing to do and the right thing to do for baseball. But above all, it was a sound business decision. There was a huge pool of talent out there and the Dodgers needed all the help they could get. By bringing in first Jackie Robinson while simultaneously planning to bring up more Black players, Rickey figured he was going to do some serious winning. He was right.

Leo Derocher
Leo Derocher

Christopher Meloni, ex of Law and Order: SVU, nails Leo Durocher, the crazy, quirky Brooklyn Dodger’s manager. He actually looks like Durocher.

If you love baseball, see it. Even if you don’t love baseball, see it anyway. See it for the history, to remember how hard the battle for equal rights was, is and will continue to be. How much baseball, the American pastime, has always been at the center of the American experience.

And finally see it because it’s the story of a genuine red-blooded American hero. In every sense of the word.

From Garry Armstrong:

I have to admit I was tearing up in places even though there’s no cryin’ in baseball. Critics aside, this was no pleasant Hollywood fable but a fairly authentic account of Jackie Robinson, the man and the player and the times that swirled around him.

Much of this is first-hand recall for me. I was 5 years old and already a budding baseball fan in Brooklyn in 1947 when the young player wearing number 42 became a household name. I remember all the excitement in my neighborhood. Some of it I understood. Some of it I didn’t. The newspapers and radio were full of the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson and how what they were doing would perhaps cause problems all across the country.

I remember angry things shouted by White people we encountered. I recall some very nice comments offered by White people who frequently said Jackie Robinson was “a credit to your people.”

I followed the Dodgers very closely over the years. I knew their lineup by heart, could emulate their swings and could recite from memory details of their personal lives along with the baseball stuff. In later years, I’d have the good fortune to meet many of the Boys of Summer including Peewee, Campy, Big Newk, Ralphie Branca, Gil Hodges, The Duke (My hero) and Jackie Robinson.

Later, as a reporter, they gave me their own first hand accounts of what it was like – that memorable year of 1947. I would also hear from Red Barber, the legendary sportscaster who called almost all of the games during the ’47 season for the Dodgers. One poignant memory involves a conversation with Campy (Roy Campanella) and Jackie Robinson. I was now a young reporter and a familiar face to many of the aging Dodgers. Campy was always “the diplomat”, pleasant and smiling.

Jackie always seemed angry. I thought he was mad at me sometimes until Campy said he was just “Jackie being Jackie”. The conversation was about how young Black people conduct themselves. Jackie thought many were irresponsible. Campy said they were just kids doing what kids do. Jackie glared at Campy and then smiled at me saying. “You get it, don’t you?”. I just nodded.

Sorry I strayed from the movie but it evoked so many, many memories. And, thanks Harrison Ford, for a splendid portrayal of Branch Rickey!

NAMES HURT


“Sticks and stones can break my bones,
but names can never hurt me.”


It’s an old childhood chant, a miserably inadequate defense against bullies and bigots when one is small and powerless. It was oft-repeated, not only by we, the little victims, but by parents, teachers and other wise counselors. It was supposed to comfort us.

It didn’t because we all knew for a certainty it was untrue.

Names can and do hurt. The hurt caused by a cruel name goes deeper than any mere cut or bruise to the body. Psyches heal but slowly. Sometimes they never heal.

Horrible words. Can you still tell me — with a straight face — that names can’t hurt? Will you give me all your arguments that “political correctness” is stupid? That anything which makes it illegal or socially unacceptable to spew hate is too restrictive of free speech? Really? Your free speech? It’s not my free speech. I don’t talk that way and I don’t hang around anyone who does.

Do you actually believe it? Or did you read it as part of some rant on Facebook?

Of course names hurt. They’re intended to hurt. They have no other purpose on earth but to cause pain. These words carry with them the ugliness of generations of haters. It has been argued by otherwise respected bloggers that if a member of a minority (in your opinion) does you wrong, you have every right to strike back any way you can.

I disagree. Racial and ethnic name-calling epithets are never justified. By anything. Is it the word or its intent that hurts so much? I think both. Words have power.


“The pen is mightier than the sword.”


But wait a minute. I thought words could never hurt me? Yes, they can.

Words bring with them the weight of history. A hate word carries the ugliness of everyone who has spoken it. Each time these words fly into the air, their potency is renewed and reinforced.

It’s time to stop forgiving bigots, stop letting them off the hook. Those hate-filled monologues by drugged and drunken celebrities were no mere slips of the tongue. They were not caused by drugs or drink. You could fill me with all the drugs and booze in the world and you’d never hear that from me. Because it’s not in me.

People who talk hate never do so by accident. It isn’t because of their environment, upbringing, or environment. It’s a choice they made. They know exactly what they are saying and why. It isn’t a joke. It isn’t funny. It isn’t okay.

Excuses are not repentance. Don’t give bigots a second chance. Be politically correct. It’s not merely political correctness. It’s also the moral, righteous, decent, civil, and humane way to behave.

“AMERICA FIRST” DREDGES UP RACISM FROM THE PAST

This post is primarily quotes from Huffpost and others. Because “America First” has a rather long and ugly history … and it started long before Donald Trump.

Dr. Seuss Cartoon from 1941 on antisemitism. The old story, just updated with a red hat.

Trump Was Not First To Use The “America First” Slogan
The phrase has a long history.

01/25/2017 11:11 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2017

In his Inaugural Address, President Donald Trump repeated a theme from his Presidential Campaign, telling the world: “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.” Many Trump critics point to the fact that this was a watchword for those who opposed U.S. intervention in WWll before the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor. Actually, the phrase has a longer history.

President Woodrow Wilson, a hardened internationalist, ironically coined the term today associated with Nationalism. In 1916, Wilson was running for re-election by promising to remain neutral in WWl. His campaign slogan was: “He kept us out of War, America First.” Once Wilson was safely re-elected, he ordered troops into what was, at the time, called “The Great War.”

Once the U.S. was enveloped in the war, newspaper Publisher William Randolph Hearst, a vociferous critic of Wilson, used the slogan against the President. Hearst was sympathetic to Germany, and warned the U.S. not to aid the allies in the fight against Germany. Hearst exclaimed: “Keep every dollar and every man and every weapon and all our supplies and stores at home, for the defense of our own land, our own people, our own freedom, until that defense has been made absolutely secure. After that, we can think of other nations’ troubles. But until then, America first!”

This slogan soon became an imprimatur for non-interventionists in both major political parties. Once WWl ended, the Americans became weary of foreign intervention. Wilson had failed in his effort to garner the requisite two-thirds majority needed in the U.S. Senator to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which included allowing the U.S. to join a collective security alliance called “The League of Nations.” Some Senators would have supported the agreement if the President agreed to certain reservations. However, the bi-partisan group that steadfastly opposed the treaty came to be known as “the irreconcilables.”

Complete post: TRUMP WAS NOT THE FIRST TO USE AMERICA FIRST” – Huffpost 


If anyone thinks what Trump is doing is new, it isn’t. This is classic Fascism on the rise. So far, he’s still working at it, but it isn’t hard to slip over that line and suddenly discover that “free” means “people who agree with The Leader.” We are damned close to that already.

Democracy is a slippery slope. Our slope is covered in ice.

THE PERSONAL TRAGEDY OF INTOLERANCE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Intolerance seems to be rearing its ugly head more now that Donald Trump is President. Intolerant people seem emboldened by Trump’s tolerance — even embrace — of intolerance. I grew up hearing a family story that illustrates an early twentieth-century version of prejudice and rigidity. The price the family paid for it was huge.

A young cousin named Adele was married off to an older man who had a decent job and could take care of her financially. He was considered ‘a good catch’ but Adele hated him. He was mean to her and often brutal. He raped her regularly.

Family members from my grandmother’s side of the family, early 1900’s

She had a child with him, but he continued to abuse her. Adele went to many family members and asked them if they would please take her in if she left her brute of a husband. The family was shocked. Divorce was not considered acceptable under any circumstances. It would bring shame and dishonor on the entire family. So the family sent Adele back home.

After the second child, Adele got more desperate. This time she cried and pleaded with everyone who would listen to her in the family. She begged to be taken in so she could get away from her hellish life.

Some of the men on my grandfather’s side of the family, around 1915

No one in the family would risk the scandal a divorce would cause. Everyone told her to just make the best of it like many other unhappily married couples did.

Adele had a third child. This baby was my cousin, Eunice, who was my mom’s age. One day, Adele took Eunice to the park in her baby carriage. She parked the carriage on a bridge over a river. She removed her wedding ring and placed it in the carriage next to the baby. Then she jumped into the river and drowned herself.

Large group of Mom’s family, from both sides, in 1945

If only the people around Adele could have looked at her individual situation with common sense and humanity. People stuck in horrible marriages, before divorce became socially unacceptable, just like people stuck in the closet, burdened with unwanted children, or having the wrong genitalia.

It is never fair or compassionate to apply rigid rules to people’s lives. There’s enough pain in the world we can’t avoid. We shouldn’t create additional categories of angst by refusing to accept people as they are.

Acknowledging everyone’s unique needs will make the world a better place for everyone.

RIGID MINDS DON’T MAKE GREAT DISCUSSIONS

For a few days, I hooked up with a Boston Globe group. Its purpose was supposedly to address racism in Boston. Though we don’t live there anymore, we did live there a long time and we lived in Roxbury, the darkest part of the dark part of Boston. We lived there for ten years and they were ten of our best years. If that condo had anything other than electric heat — electric heat in New England is not really heat; it’s just burning money to take the chill off — and there was a way to get from the ground floor to third floor bedroom, and they hadn’t decided to redesign every road in Boston, AND we had somewhere to exercise our dogs, we’d have stayed. But I could see the future and a 3-story walk-up condo didn’t look like a good choice for us. Especially not for me.

Red lights in Roxbury

I found this house online. It was the right price. It had land and two fireplaces. The house needed work, but seemed structurally sound otherwise. It was in the whitest place I’d ever seen, so we found ourselves moving from the darkest area of Boston to the whitest area in central Massachusetts.

Having lived as a mixed couple in Boston, I thought we might have some interesting feedback to offer the group.

It turned out, this group was exactly like talking to a bunch of Republicans, but from another part of the spectrum. These were people who made pronouncements like “Black men have a lifespan in Boston of just 21 years and everyone hides their children.”

Roxbury

We lived on Circuit Street which is right in the middle of Roxbury. Garry was a lot more than 21 and so were all our neighbors — none of whom hid their children. It was a safe place to live because everyone watched out for everyone else. The crazed drive-by shooters never drove by our place. Probably half the men in the complex were police officers, sheriffs and a reporter, so it was probably just as well. I never felt unsafe walking the streets, though I have always preferred to avoid gangs of teenage boys. I have a firm belief that gangs of teenage boys are inherently dangerous, no matter what their class, color, or ethnicity. They are hormonal and quite probably, insane. They will not become sane until their mid twenties when the hormones slack off a bit and their brains clear.

Otherwise, I walked downtown and to the post office. I liked my neighbors and I think they like me. We had block parties with great food, music and laughter. It was a jolly place to live. I miss it.

So when whoever it was said “Men are doomed to die before age 21 and everyone hides their children,” I took umbrage. It was just like Trump telling Black people that they might as well vote for him because “what did they have to lose?” In fact this guy who was supposedly “fighting” racism was essentially going out of his way to prove all the crap people like Trump say, is right. Sometimes, you have to step back and consider what you are really saying to the world.

Making racism the whole story is stupid and not true. Most people in “the hood” live normal lives. Those reputed heavily armed tanks full of crazed shooters don’t roam the streets. In the ten years we lived there, NO ONE shot at me, near me, or threatened me. I wasn’t raped, assaulted, or propositioned. Men were polite and helpful. Women were charming and funny. No one tried to break into our house. No one stole our cars, which  is more than I can say for living on Beacon Hill where both of our cars were stolen.

There’s racism in Boston as there is everywhere. In my humble and apparently insignificant opinion, the serious racists don’t live in Boston.  They live in the white, wealthy suburbs. Those liberal places where everyone tells everyone tells everyone else how they many wonderful Black Friends they have, but you never see any of those friend around. They don’t visit — or get visited. Scratch that thin, brittle liberal surface and you’ve got a butt-load of racism underneath.


In fact, every state in the continental United States with the exception of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont has had lynching casualties. 


Boston is a real city. Black neighborhoods, many mixed neighborhoods. In fact, most neighborhoods are mixed. Some a lot, some just a bit. There’s a lot of intermarriage. Kids go to school together and it stopped being a big deal a long time. If Boston isn’t the most diverse city in the U.S., it is also very far from the most racist.

Boston is a complicated city. People in Boston are often surprisingly casual about race. People work together, walk together, shop together. And — Boston has never had a lynching.

So I was in that group and just a few days later, I resigned from it. I can’t talk to people whose minds are rigidly made up. If there’s no chance of anyone changing his or her opinion, there’s no point in talking.

At some point in time, everyone will have to stop and hear what other people are saying. Otherwise, there will never be any problems solved in this land of ours

BASEBALL AND A LOSS OF INNOCENCE – GARRY ARMSTRONG

A friend took me to a Red Sox Game at Fenway Park. It was the middle of April, so there was a chill in the wind. I layered up and topped it off with my retro Brooklyn Dodgers tee-shirt. It was Jackie Robinson day. Everyone was wearing the fabled #42.

red sox 42 jackie robinson day
April 15, 2016 – Fenway Park

April is the beginning of the new baseball season, when hope springs eternal. Anything could happen. The haves and have-nots are equally in the race. For me, it’s also when I open the cookie jar of memories, mentally racing around the bases to those days when I listened to our boys of summer on the radio.

Vin Scully was a 20-something rookie broadcaster, calling his first season of Brooklyn Dodgers games.

The Korean “conflict” dominated the radio news, which preceded the important stuff, baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers were “America’s Team” in 1950. Vin Scully was a new breed of sports broadcaster. He mixed in stories about President Truman’s desegregation of our Armed Forces and “discontent” about the integrated Dodgers’ team.

Scully used phrases like “Goodnight, sweet Prince”,  after Jackie Robinson turned in another memorable game amid jeers from rabble-rousers. It was curious to this young fan who dreamed of becoming a team-mate of Jackie Robinson, Peewee Reese, and Duke Snider. I’d wear Dodger Blue with pride, I promised myself.

I thought it would be wonderful if they played baseball all year round and the stories would always be about the Bums and the dreaded New York Yankees. Heck, it would be terrific to listen to Vin Scully and not those other people talking about grown up stuff. Scully even mentioned things we were studying in school and made them sound exciting. I’ll never forget his referring to April as “the cruelest month.” I’d steal that line a zillion times.

A couple of decades later, opportunity opened the door to meetings with Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and other fabled Boys of Summer. Campy was friendly and outgoing, eager to share stories with a newbie reporter. He would say, “Life is good, young fella. You gotta appreciate it.”

Jackie Robinson would glare at Campy as he wove the stories of good times with the Dodgers. Sometimes, he would interrupt Campanella with a sharp, “Enough, Roy. Enough of that fiction.”

72-Jackie-Robinson-Baseball-HOF_038

Robinson would turn to me, his eyes blazing, seemingly angry. “Life isn’t a ball game, young man,” he once said.  Then, he gently patted me on the shoulder, noting that I was a good conversationalist and listener.  It was a bit confusing. It happened that way several times.

People like Campy, Peewee Reese and even a reluctant Duke Snider would share that Jackie Robinson was a very complicated man on a mission.

PBS is again running Ken Burns’ two part portrait of Jackie Robinson. It goes beyond myth and legend to examine Robinson, the man. The man from Cairo, Georgia was so much more than the athlete who broke baseball’s racial barrier. The inner turmoil, anger, frustration, and multiple health issues took Robinson from us way too early, at age 53.

1950. So long ago. A time of innocence for many young boys like me.


Another year has rolled to its finale. It’s the middle of December. In a few weeks, it will be 2018.

Vin Scully retired. Though the world is not running short of baseball commentators, no one can match his style, his class, his understanding of the game, or the poetry he added to his commentary.

In baseball, the winter meetings are in progress. Are we going to make a deal? We need a slugger. We picked up someone, but he’s the kind of slugger who is no kind of fielder and misses the ball a lot. I suppose as a DH, maybe. I guess we’ll see. Before I look around, spring training will begin. Maybe the world will seem all fresh and new in the spring.

Roy Moore lost in Alabama. For the first time in 25 years. A Democrat for the Senate. I guess they decided to not elect a pedophile after all. Even in Alabama, there are limits and a glimmer of decency. Doug Jones — one more vote against the horrors of Trumpism.

Baseball has been a saving grace for me during this otherwise disgraceful year of political ugliness and international ill-will. I wonder if a World Series win would fix it? Somehow, I doubt it. We need more than a ballpark win this year.

DON’T DRINK THE KOOL AID – THE JONESTOWN MASSACRE

“He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon.” — Old English proverb, dating to the 14th century.

Mass suicide at Jonestown – Nov 18, 1978

There has been an upsurge of interest in Jonestown over the past few years. This post went by with little notice when I wrote it — about 4 years ago. Since then, it has developed a life of its own. Not surprising given the current state of disunion in this country and elsewhere. Jim Jones and Donald Trump share many traits. More importantly, so do their followers.

This is a cautionary tale, an urgent warning. Talk is not harmless. Lies matter. Corruption kills. To those of you who blindly follow, I hope you’re keeping the long spoon handy. I have a gut feeling you will eventually need it.

Tomorrow is the 39th anniversary of the massacre. A good time to remember.


From Nothing, Something Terrible Comes – Remembering Jonestown

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 or read a newspaper, you could hardly forget it. With fundamentalism enjoying a rebirth among our politicians and so-called religious leaders it’s a good time to remind everyone where this kind of thing has led in the past and where it could easily lead in the future.

There is nothing remotely amusing about this story. It was horrible when it happened; time has not 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 way 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.

The “Rainbow Family”

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 – Leader and death’s-head of Jonestown

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. Therefore, 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.