Army surplus for pacifists

There was deliberate irony in anti-war demonstrators wearing clothing made for fighting wars. I’m not sure what the message was besides the fact that the clothing was well made and really cheap to purchase. I had a jacket and a parka that I wore through most of 1968 through 1970, in class and at demonstrations alike. I loved shopping at the surplus stores. My father – having served as a landing craft boatswain during invasions in World War II – had brought home a cache of war surplus gear, including American, Japanese and German helmets and a Japanese carbine. These had been fascinating objects to my brother and I growing up. I’d also been spellbound watching an endless selection of newsreels from the war on TV, and I’d fantasized their heroics for years, playing “guns” with my friends.

So opposing the war in Viet Nam was not a rejection of the troops for me. It was a reaction to being lied to my the government that was supposed to be serving us. And though I was committed to staying out of the war in Nam, I still felt some envy for those who got to wear the cool uniforms, use the cool gear and learn the cool skills of combat. Maybe that’s why I was so comfortable in a fatigue jacket.

As I’ve said, Stephen was a combat veteran and he had no problems with the military as a producer of tools and a model of organization. He taught pacifism, but we never felt opposition to the citizens who joined the military; it was the philosophical stance that killing would bring peace that we rejected. As it turned out, we were perfectly happy to make use of the gear that the military no longer needed. That gear, we discovered, was auctioned off regularly at a military depot in Memphis. We needed some stuff, so we sent our scammer with the Big Pickup and a pocketful of cash to see what he could score.

Our needs were many, but most critically, we needed weatherproof shelter and some way of improving our communications around the Farm. Sending couriers would simply not do for all the connections we needed to maintain. And so, on return from our first foray to Memphis, the bus-turned-into-flatbed brought heavy canvas tents and an Army Signal Corps phone system with plenty of handsets and transmission line.

The tents were of two sizes – the small General Purpose six-sided tent that was 17 and a half feet in diameter, and the medium general purpose tent that was 16-by-32 feet rectangular shaped. The tents had been well gpsmall2-660x416used; many of them had patches and unpatched tears. They featured small plastic windows and guylines. They smelled like paraffin and mildew, but they would keep out the rain and wind while providing enough room inside for bed platforms and kitchens. Each tent also had a special insert through which a metal stovepipe could fit, allowing us to use wood-burning heaters.

The phone system required only that we string the sheathed two-conductor copper cable through the trees and connect enough power to it so that the ringers would function. The handsets were like the simple home phones of the time, but instead of dials, they had a single button that, when pressed, sent a beep to all of the phones on the system. It was one big party line. We decided to identify each household with a Morse Code pattern that was distributed on a printed list as our “phone book.” As if we’d dropped back into the early years of the century, we were thrilled by this technological revolution.

“Hey, give me a call when you know when we’re going to meet. I’m long-short-short-long-long.”

“Cool. And if you wanna tell me when you know, I’m short-long-short-long. Or is it short-long-long-short?”

Your home phone would be constantly beeping and you were often unsure if the pattern that just beeped was yours or one similar to yours. Not everyone’s timing for sending the codes was the same. Some beeped stacatto, some in more lazy patterns that slurred shorts with longs. And anytime you picked up the phone, you could expect to be barging into a conversation in progress.

“How long you guys gonna be? Can I have the line in, say, 5 minutes?”

And since few of us wore watches or had time pieces in our dwellings, even those intervals became meaningless.

So interrupting calls served as just another excuse for checking in with people you might not run into in person.

After the first winter, when several of our Army tents were pitched on the cold, bare ground, the convention became to build flat, level wooden platforms of the dimension of the tent, and then including some simple framing to support the tent walls. Salvaged windows could be fit into these frames, providing more light and ventilation during hot months. Some tried installing skylights in the canvas roofs, but I don’t know of any that didn’t eventually leak in our downpours.

Soon, we were destined to have the tent-living experience. After over a year of living in buses, we were ready for a change.

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Here we very well are

Melvyn had called himself Mordecai in San Francisco. He had to leave that nom de Haight behind and paint the roof of his van white to stay with the Caravan and live on the Farm. On Sunday mornings in the pre-dawn darkness he would walk down the main road and blow his conch shell, signaling that it was time to get up and walk to the meditation field.

Not long after we had settled the land, Stephen invented what would become our communal call. Just as the whippoorwills and crows had their own distinctive calls, we needed one to announce our presence across the ridges and between households scattered through the woods. The “yark” was delivered loudly, with an inflection somewhere between a yodel and a distress holler.

YeeeeAaaaaaaaark! As he did with the Om after mediation, Stephen at first initiated it, and then it was picked up responded to by everyone within earshot. It was an eerie sound, coursing across the meadows and through the trees, finally fading into the last few voices out there, somewhere. Like coyotes or wolves but sillier. If you weren’t one of us and somehow got close enough to hear the generation of a yark, it would probably make your hair stand on end.

“We are here,” said the yark. We are all fuckin’ here.

* * * * *

There was one phone at first, up at the House. Soon, a few more were installed for special purposes, again only at the House. If you wanted to make a call, you’d have to clear it with the Bank Lady and whoever was in charge of the phones. Sometimes the guys doing the Gate became couriers, driving or running down the roads to deliver messages. And when urgent news needed to be delivered, individuals would go on foot, door-to-door to alert everyone.

It was one cold morning when I remember Melvyn coming to our bus door to tell us that one of our members had died the previous night. She had come to the Farm at the invitation of her brother, a long time Monday Night Classer. She had some psychological problems, but we believed ourselves to be compassionate enough to accommodate and even heal people with her manic-depressive condition. She was a resident of one of the buses and – on a night when it was too cold to spend much time outdoors – she’d gone way into her manic phase and the efforts of one of her busmates to quiet her down somehow caused here to go into a seizure and die.

This was a hard dose of reality. We’d lost someone already; it seemed like we’d just arrived there. The sheriff was called in. Then the coroner. There was an investigation. The news got out. There were no charges pressed; it was judged to have been an accident. But as a community, we needed a solid spiritual intermediary like never before. Stephen provided just the right perspective. There was no blame. We looked again at the true meaning of karma – that it’s not about deserving. Dying was part of the deal. We’re all born; we all die.

This lady, Judith, was known to everyone because it was her nature to be conspicuous and usually friendly or even hilarious. We all knew her downside, too. But she – like many other challenged individuals who were to follow her as Farm residents – was embraced by the Farm and welcomed as part of our idealistic and inclusive approach to building a new and inclusive lifestyle.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, as we’d lost one of us for the first time, we began producing new ones of us at a fast-accelerating pace. Just after the new year, Anita announced that our baby would be born that day. This would be her third labor and she was sure of the signals.

I ran to ask one neighbor to go and  alert Ina May and to ask another household to care for the girls. Then, as I helped make a comfortable nest on the bed in the back of our bus, a pickup truck pulled up with three women. Ina May had arrived with two of her trainees.

She’d been checking on Anita – and the now dozens of pregnant women – for months and everything looked normal. She looked around the interior of the bus and noticed a stock portrait of Jesus hanging on the side of the bunk bed facing us.

“This has gotta go,” she said, peeling it off the two-by-four framing. “I want you looking at us, here with you, not this phony picture of Jesus.”

Frankly, I was relieved. It was that sappy, puppy-eyed depiction of the white Anglo Saxon Jesus. You’ve no doubt seen it somewhere.

Ina May left, promising to be back for the birthing, but we had one, two or three trainees and helpers there at all times prepare the scene and to keep an eye on Anita.

Part of the Farm midwives’ approach to home birth was to loosen up the mother to allow for the easiest possible passage of the baby. This meant, in part, changing the perception of the process from one of dreading the pain to one of accepting that a natural forces were at work.

Rather than call them “contractions,” we called them “rushes” – like you got when coming on to a psychedelic. You had to ride them out, not resist them. The other important technique for loosening up the mother was to get her turned on. The father was strongly encouraged to put the make on his wife during the rushes as a way of relaxing those bottom chakras.

I’d heard about this, but there had been no training classes for expectant fathers. Once the rushes began in ernest, Ina May returned and I became fascinated by the way she – backed up by her assistants – steered the energy. I was so fascinated, in fact, that I became a spectator rather than an active participant.

“Clifford, we could use a lot more involvement by you if you want to stay in here.”

And with that, I made myself an instrument of her midwifery technique. Late that evening, I was privileged to witness the true miracle of birth, where a living creature that was not here with us one moment, was here with us the next – conscious, breathing, crying, feeling the air in the bus along with the rest of us. It became a joyous party, but with meticulous inspection of our new arrival going on in the narrow aisle of the Shades of Blue.

We had no name waiting for this boy baby. We had a warm spot between us under the layers of quilts. And once the midwife crew left, we moved a kerosene lamp close to the bed and gazed at the little critter we’d made. It was bitter cold outside, the stillness broken only by the pitiful little squawks of a newborn child.

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