Saturday, August 22, 2009
Somewhere heading north from Central Texas—perhaps near Glen Rose—the news of Kool-Aid suicide in Jonestown enters the cab. Dusk. Cool dry air. Windows down, Dairy Queen recedes in the mirror behind us. My father drives, says something to my mother. I listen. November 18, 1978. We had been deep in the Texas Hill Country to hunt deer. I remember a brown down vest and a John Deere tractor cap I wore then. It was part of the ritual of my father’s life to go, each autumn, five hours south of Dallas to hunt on land owned by James and David Nefendorf. Their voices surprised me as a child with German accents that were difficult to follow. They had been born in Texas, but the German community of ranchers there retained the language of an extended family reaching back to the old world. James Nefendorf lived in the family home, a nineteenth-century German structure typical of the area. It stood well within the city limit of Fredericksburg and, being made of thick limestone, remained cool throughout summer, and retained warmth in winter. He once gave me an arrow point he had found on the land he ranched far outside of the city, where sheep, goats, and some cattle grazed the scrubby brush country of oak and juniper escarpment. I remember once he arrived with other men in old pickups, speaking little. There were flea collars latched to the ankles of their work boots to protect from chiggers and ticks. An open barn made of oak and juniper shaded their fleece shearing with a low, sheet-metal roof. A few yards away stood what in my family we referred too simply as “the old house,” a turn-of-the-century wooden cottage framed on stacked limestone. It had a wood stove, a linoleum floor in the kitchen, and rooms with ancient furniture now used as bunks for hunters who leased the land each fall. An Aermotor windmill, made in Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century, drew water into a raised cistern near the house. Pipes carried water to nearby stock tanks. A Chinaberry grew up next to the back door and out further on the rolling hills stood oaks and brush that filled out for miles beyond, a few disused stone fences disintegrating back into less rigid forms, while down the gravel road a mile or so there lay extensive barbed wire fences and cedar posts, a common sight from the small farm-to-market roads that wound back through the hill country for miles, where ranchers and hunters made their way, in polite isolation, and watchful civility. After a hamburger, perhaps at the Deluxe Café, I followed my parents back into the RV and we headed outside of town in a darkness that enveloped the edges of the road. Arriving late that autumn night my father balanced the wheels of the camper so that it was level. My mother prepared the bedding for her and my brothers. My father and I spread sleeping bags on two of the bunks in the front room. A chill gripped the house but I remember a bare kitchen bulb and a transistor radio with country music scratching through a tiny speaker. Outside, pissing on limestone and flint, and next to a shed, the milkyway spread out far in ways that were impossible to experience in Dallas. I buttoned my denim and breathed in the chill. Darkness like no other darkness. New moon. I zipped my down vest. I wonder about that moment, what I can recall of it, having just relieved myself on the stones and dry soil by a barbed wire fence. It was weird news that young person would encounter on the trip back. Jonestown. Mass suicide. What do these coordinates indicate? I asked my mother the obvious: why would so many people take their lives? I recall now the rush of the highway. She was so young. They were crazy, my father said. A cult. Leo Ryan dead at the airport in a country I had never heard before. The news brought this collective otherness—this drama—from far beyond my experience. And yet, the world was rigged for destruction. Any moment, a line could be crossed. The selvages of diplomacy—of family and friendship—perhaps the very fabric of social life hinged on sudden and instantaneous death. That night, driving through the darkness toward Dallas, away from the nostalgic country calm of the old house, I thought of the little packets of Kool Aid my mother made for us, adding sugar to the pitcher, those long summer days. I liked it.