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.

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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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