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.

The Bath House

There was a certain amount of urgency in our installing a water system. We’d just gotten the system delivering water on the Martin farm when it was time to move to the Swan. There were two water towers on the abandoned boy’s camp property where we’d appropriated the original tower, and we now had a use for both of them. One would go on the high point of the new property, near The House, where the deep well was located. The other would go in the lower residential neighborhood, drawing its supply from a robust spring down in the hollow between Second Road and an as yet unnamed ridge.

We’d sent a crew to the camp to fetch the taller of the two towers, with our one degreed mechanical engineer designing a system for lowering the tower into the bed of the Big Pickup – our converted International Harvester school bus. The tower was hinged at the bottom of two of its legs and the plan was to use a tripod of telephone poles to support the tower as it leaned over and gradually lowered into the truck bed.

There was apparently some miscalculation in the stresses and forces of the tripod, for one of its legs snapped and the tower dropped from a considerable height into the truck bed, doing damage to both the Big Pickup and the tower itself. Repairs were made and the tower was successfully brought home. At the Farm, we decided to rent a crane to raise the tower into its place on the hill. Then came some prolonged ditch digging. I got pretty good at swinging a pick axe and busting the hard chert soil. Slowly, we fed the black plastic tubing into the trench on its long run to the Sorghum Mill and the habitats beyond.

Work had begun, meanwhile, on a communal bath house at the lower end of Second Road, near the meditation field. We couldn’t wait until the water line from the well supply reached that far end of the settlement. The tower from the Martin farm was replaced to a location along Second Road and our idea for pumping water up from the spring was to use a gas-powered engine to drive the pump. Paul and I were still working together and Jose – our chief mechanic and welder at the motor pool – presented us with the motor he’d removed from a VW bug to use as our power source.

“Here. But you gotta rebuild it.” He smiled. Nice gesture. “I got a book you can use.” He handed me a grease-stained copy of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot.

“There’s some wrenches over there. Lemme know if you need any help.”

I looked at Paul. “Well, I’ll let you know when I’m done.”

It took me two weeks to tear the engine down, get the new parts and put the motor back together. It took another week, working with Jose, to get it running. After an additional week, we had a frame welded together with a belt drive to turn the impeller pump. Supposedly, that pump – driven at the rpm we calculated – would push the water up the 150 feet we needed to reach the top of the tower reservoir. A fresh tank of gas would have to be delivered down the treacherous gully every few days, given our estimates of water usage in the bath house.

Of course, we also had to excavate the spring and build a cement block enclosure with a wooden spring house above it. That took another two weeks. Then we installed the pumping gear with a fuel tank located some 50 feet up the hollow for safety sake.

Amazingly enough, after some fiddling around with the contraption, it worked. The little air-cooled engine could pretty much idle and fill the 5,000 gallon tank over the course of about 8 hours. We could never quite relax, though, knowing that a motor was running down in the hollow without anyone keeping an eye on it. So I spent a lot of time sitting alone in the hollow watching the motor run. If it had been quiet, it would have been a nice meditation. But it wasn’t.

Once the bath house was finished and the water line run down the road, our days of skinny dipping in the creek or pouring buckets of water over one another in the woods seemed to be over. Now we had a place to soak in a tub or shower under propane-heated water. Yippee! Sure, it was a long walk from most places, but it seemed like an efficient idea. Locating it at a low spot meant that we’d have plenty of water pressure.

The bath house had a dressing (and undressing) area and a bank of shower heads, much like my old high school gym’s. The only difference being that it was co-ed. At first that didn’t seem like much of a hassle, but it soon became a big problem. Actually there were several problems.

Problem One. Some of the ladies began to notice that some men would park themselves in the dressing area for what seemed like an unnecessarily long time. Couldn’t they just dress and move on?

Problem Two. The Farm had – after a period of time when we didn’t invite visitors to stay – re-opened the Gate to allow visitors to stay for varying amounts of time. This involved working with us, getting dirty, needing a shower, and making use of the co-ed bath house. Was seeing us naked part of the deal?

Problem Three. We’d already had some bad experiences with spreading infections. Unless we had a fulltime bath house cleaning service, the risk of spreading even more infections seemed to have increased.

This all got brought up at Sunday services – which was quite a bringdown after getting high at meditation. Just the thought of men gawking at women under the showers was a bit nauseating. Was there no decency? Was that the best we could do as spiritual students?

Almost immediately the bath house underwent renovation to divide the men’s and ladies’ halves of the building. That seemed to eliminate the first two concerns, but when the hot weather returned in the summer, we knew the sanitary risks would rise.

At least, though, we now had water spigots located along the roads into the residential areas. We no longer needed to rely on the draft horses to deliver our water. We could begin piping water into our buses, our tents and our few houses. We’d risen above the standard of living of most people in the world.