Tent Life

We’d hung out again with the couple I’m calling Lester and Joanna. Whatever discomfort had come from our dalliance with four marriage seemed to have faded over the two years that had passed. All of us had gone through many changes since our time on the road in the buses and there was some renewed incentive for couples who wertente still living alone in buses or small tents to become more communal – to form more multi-family households.

Stephen had mentioned this on several occasions at services – that if we were going to really live the teachings, we had to put ourselves into situations that pushed us a little harder to drop our egos. Sharing a household was one of those situations, and Lester – being the Farm’s “scammer” – was bringing home more of the Army surplus squad tents that could accommodate two small families.

We’d been living in buses for over two years and moving into a 16 x 32-foot tent sounded almost luxurious, even if it was with another couple. Anita was pregnant with our fourth kid and I had begun to work as a nailbanger with our neighbor Michael, who came to the Farm with some construction experience. I’d smashed a few fingers in the learning process, but I was beginning to feel competent at swinging a heavy framing hammer, driving soaped-up 20-penny nails into rough-cut green oak timbers. I could put together the deck upon which we’d mount our tent.

We found a nice spot on a gentle slope at the end of what was being called Oak Ridge. This ridge ran off of Third Road and paralleled Second Road. It was a pretty remote spot compared to what we’d become used to, living at the Head of the Roads. No more easy walk to fill the propane tank or pick up the rationed groceries. No more of the convenience or being close to the main traffic where we could hitch rides to other destinations or to the House or the Gate. We’d be at the end of the line, down a rough logging road that was quickly beginning to erode.

We secured some posts – 6-inch in diameter tree trunk sections provided by the chain saw crew – and dug post holes to hold them. I’d learned the basics of laying out square, plumb and level construction and got the crude foundation and floor framing together. Lester delivered us some salvaged tongue and groove flooring he’d gotten through the wrecking crew. Over the course of a few days we had ourselves a tent platform. With help from a few of the neighbors on the ridge we erected the tent and tied it down.

The tents had small, translucent plastic windows with tie-down canvas covers. Their doors were canvas curtains sliding on steel cables. At the eves they were about 5-feet tall and at the peaks about 10. There was a heat-resistant grommet in the roof through which you could pass a stovepipe. We moved in as soon as the tent was up and we arranged with the Housing Lady to bequeath our bus – the former Santa Rosa bus, with attached bread van – to another family.

Lester brought home more salvaged lumber and a few old window sashes. We built simple frames for the tent walls and mounted the window sashes in them to provide more light and ventilation. We build bed platforms for ourselves and the kids. We got ourselves an upright coal-burning stove in which we’d burn wood. The advantage of these coal burners was that they were lined with bricks that would hold the heat longer during cold nights.

We’d moved in during the spring and living the tent through the summer was not so bad. It was cooler down on the lower end of the ridge than it was up near the open space at the Head of the Roads. Not much breeze, but complete shade. We’d keep the windows and doors opened, but still it was cave-like inside with the dark green canvas absorbing whatever cheerfulness the light might bring. Lester scammed some rugs to lay on the splintery floors, and even managed to score some old chairs for us to sit in.

We were fortunate that Lester – being the scammer – got use of a banged up pickup truck that allowed us to haul laundry, propane tanks and water containers (our water system had not yet reached the end of Oak Ridge), and provide us and our kids transportation to the store, the school the rest of the Farm.

There was a narrow trail that led down through the holler and up again onto Second Road. We took that trail to Sunday morning services and to the store when the truck wasn’t available. We walked a lot, covering several miles in an average day. We hauled loads by hand, carried kids, food, tools…if it was portable, we carried it.

I’d brought back my old 26-inch bike from a visit to my parents and that would come in handy for quick trips involving one person with nothing to carry. When I had Gate duty, I’d walk the bike up the steep end of Oak Ridge Road and then pedal the 2-plus miles to the Gatehouse. That bike did not last very long; the Farm wore it out quickly.

Tim, being over a year old, was walking but could not be expected to keep up on such long distance treks, so he spent a lot of time on my shoulders. And as Anita got further along in her pregnancy, she, too required more help getting around. We found out soon after moving in that Joanna was also pregnant. We’d be having two birthings in the tent as we headed into winter.

I knew from visiting some of the earlier tent families during the previous winter that the canvas shelters were almost impossible to heat. How we’d make it through – with firewood needs, two newborns and three other kids, a remote location and the rain, ice and snow that we’d experienced those first two winters – I had no idea. But we felt strong and indomitable. We didn’t spend time worrying; we just expected that we’d figure it out.

We did get into a pretty intense sort-out at about the third month of our cohabitation with Lester and Joanna. Somehow, as these thing seemed to develop, Joanna’s number was up and her problems got all the attention. It had to do with stodginess or – as we would frame it – an unwillingness to drop her thing. She was a nice lady but Lester had begun to feel that her being reserved and less outgoing than him was somehow preventing us all from getting as high as we could have been. And, as usually happened in such cases, the more attention was put on Joanna to change, the more into her shell she retreated. Which would lead to yet more attention being focused on her and the situation continued a downward spiral.

Anita and I joined in, piling on Joanna to the point that we both began to feel ripped off by her refusal to cop. In frustration, we contacted the somewhat priestly four-marriage that lived across the holler on Creekview and asked if we could bring our problem to them for counsel. They invited us and we accompanied Joanna – like a condemned prisoner – to the encounter group.

I’d been living in the Farm’s developing culture for over two years, but I still felt like a neophyte when it came to matters of personality change and social intervention. I was willing to follow Lester’s lead, but when he couldn’t even get his own wife to change, I wondered where the boundaries might lie – what was fair or unfair?

The members of the four-marriage could see the energy dynamics and it was a relief to see other adults take over the process for an hour. By the time we left, the three of us felt vindicated, but poor Joanna was still lost in the ruins of her upbringing, unable to see the path to resolution.

Some time later, Joanna moved in to Stephen’s household for a week. She returned a changed woman, or at least with more of a clue as to how to behave to avoid further scrutiny. And sometime after that – but before the due dates of our two babies – Stephen went to Europe. He had a court date for sentencing coming up and he felt he had work today across the Atlantic. Autumn rolled in. The leaves turned and began to fall. We battened down the tent and started stockpiling firewood.

It was like camping out, and yet it wasn’t.