The Aquarian Music and Art Festival
Bethel, N.Y., 1969
Charles M. Saunders
To say that I first met Jimmy in bizarre circumstance would be a serious understatement. This happened during a period in time which was either referred to as ‘the age of peace and love’ or ‘the descent into the drug culture’; it all depended on your individual perspective. It was the summer of ’69.
Jimmy was a fine musician and a sort of magician, though it was in an American kind of laid back way. He played acoustic guitar; a beautiful little Martin that he had named ‘Shadowfax’ after Gandalf’s horse from the Hobbit. Using his not inconsiderable good looks and charm he had conned a young lovely to purchase it, used, for him. At $300 it was not cheap, especially not in 1969 dollars.
But oh, the tone was so crystal clear, and the sound that he could produce using his long slim tapered fingers was almost magical. He played the penny whistle as well and at that time not many American kids had ever heard that unforgettably high pitched sound. Jimmy was a Pied Piper and Peter Pan sort of fellow, all rolled into one.
All that summer he stayed with his Mom, a divorced nurse and very calm and understanding woman. Jimmy was on parole. He’d been caught dealing that funny tobacco back in St Charles, Missouri and back then the politzei and the judges were not looking too kindly on that.
He wouldn’t discuss it but he’d done a little time and was now on release to his Mom.
I had gotten back from the Nam about a year earlier and was quite the lost little cadet; doing a bit of ‘exploration’ myself. In fact that’s how we met.
One night me and my boys met a guy who sold us some psilocybin, I did not even know what that meant, but it really worked and was powerfully hallucinogenic. It came in a pretty purple pill with a very distinctive indent line across the mid-section. We just called it the ‘purple crap’. It became legend with us because nothing we tried ever again came close to its potency and hallucinogenic properties.
Anyway we took it, found ourselves as high as lab rats, and started seeing through people, right clean down to their skeletons. Sounds weird I know and it probably had no basis in fact but it sure seemed that way to us.
About this time we found ourselves out in a field sitting around a roaring fire. There was an Army guy sitting there wearing his helmet and repeatedly sticking a bayonet into the dirt. That and the look on his face and what he was mumbling to himself proved too much. We started to ‘freak out’, bad and felt like we were ‘losing it’!
Just as things were starting to look really bad we heard music off in the distance. It was lovely and trancelike and seemed to be calling to us. The music pulled us right up off of our feet and drew us to its source and when we got there, there was this guy, just blowing gently on the penny whistle and sitting motionless.
He knew we were in trouble and used his ‘magic’ to drag us away from what might have become a bad scene. That’s how I met Jimmy and by the early dawn we’d become good friends.
That summer was just slipping by; not much that was notable occurred, life, as it was in those days was easy to live. We didn’t have or really want any money, just whatever part time work would fetch for some stash or a side trip to visit some friends in a neighboring state.
The way young people lived in the late sixties would be unrecognizable today. Young folks today appear to be motivated towards achieving security and success in their future lives. Everybody has their own money, or their parent’s, and nobody would ever think of hitchhiking.
It was way different back then. People shared whatever they had: some food, a place to sleep, their car, lots of stuff.
So you did not need much to live; and oh yeah, we were all sharing something else too we were looking for something; but nobody knew quite what.
About that time I drove with a buddy down to West Virginia, to see some folks and for a change of scene.
The old VW bus we had broke down on the way home and we left it on the side of the road.
When we got back to West Chester I ran into Jimmy, he was all pumped up about some kind of goings on that was going to happen up in New York State. He claimed that the word was out that everybody, and he emphasized everybody, was supposed to go there.
Being the ‘cheap date’ that I was I said, why not, I’ll go. My boy passed, saying he needed to go back and fetch that old crate we’d abandoned.
So Jimmy and I got ready. Now remember that you didn’t need or want much so even though we’d be gone for the weekend our idea of getting ready was to scout around town for some grass and something to trip on. Well we didn’t come up with much; just two hits of mescaline each and that was it.
We had no water, no food, no sleeping bags, no money; nothing.
We started hitching our way north in mid-afternoon on Friday. Of course we had no map and only a rough idea of where we were headed but so what?
Once we’d entered New York there started to be a buzz; people talking about roads jammed with cars and traffic backed up for over 25 miles away from the farm.
But that did not deter us, we didn’t have any car, so, on we went.
Our last ride pulled up at about the 25 mile out place we’d heard about, so on that late afternoon we stated to walk. We passed hundreds and hundreds of cars. Some had just pulled over and parked and set up little camps. Others were waiting patiently in line hoping to drive up closer.
Nobody was up tight; in fact the mood was totally upbeat and real chummy. Jimmy and I got offered slugs of wine and puffs of pot and slowly but jovially the miles went by.
Just after dark it started to rain and it got harder and harder but we kept walking, intent on finding out what the ‘Aquarian Fair’ was on about.
Now my goal was to hear the folk music; Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Doc Watson and all the other usual suspects and they were only scheduled for that night.
When we finally arrived all the music was over but not the rain. We holed up in front of an abandoned old shop with a covered porch and a yellow cab out front. That’s where we encountered our first people and I must say they were doozys.
There was a dad, the NYC cabbie, and his three sons. His cab was parked under an alcove which was connected to the old shop. The boys were 8, 12 and 17 years old. They did not say much.
The music was over, obviously I’d missed my beloved folk music which was the reason I thought that I’d come all that way, and Bethel was a sopping mess. So we just sipped a few beers and listened to him and the driving rain that beat steadily on the porch roof that kept us dry, as he related the story of their lives in the Bronx.
He started by telling us why he had drug his not too excited boys up from the City. The radio stations and even some of his fares were all full of gab about this hoedown on a farm upstate. He decided that there was something to it and that it would somehow prove historical so he strong armed the lads into coming with him. They looked pretty sullen and disinterested; of course there wasn’t much of interest in a dark, rainy night spent on someone else’s stoop with your dad.
He related how everyone’s big problem back home was a police group called, the ‘Tactical Police Force’, he called them ‘Tasmanian Pig Fuckers’. Hearing that was the only thing that brightened up the boys a bit.
The eldest recounted for us he and his friends’ encounters with the dreaded TPF; sounded like they pretty much treated everyone as if they were criminals and were pretty free with their slaps and punches and threats of jail time.
At any rate that’s how we spent our first night. When morning broke so did the sun and we said our goodbyes and headed back into the village and towards the fair site.
The few people we passed all looked like drowned rats and they were totally glum to boot. We did not exchange much with them but did chat a bit with the ubiquitous State Troopers who seemed to be everywhere. They were downright cheerful and friendly and talkative.
We asked them what they’d experienced so far. They just reported on a bunch of wet kids with backpacks and ponchos and a little beer and pot. I asked what they were doing about the pot smokers.
Their reply was mildly surprising and somehow sounded promising; “Nothing”, is what they said.
We were feeling fairly chipper round about then. We’d had no sleep but as we passed more and more of the drenched disheveled looking fair goers we felt kind of special at being dry and ready for the day.
It wasn’t difficult to locate the concert area. The way in was packed with cars and vans and numerous campsites set off to either side with people in various stages of AM wakeup outside of soggy tents.. Time wasn’t much of a factor by then but it was probably around 8 o’clock.
Once we reached the grounds the first signs of a major upheaval became apparent. Where the ticket sales and security entries had been were overturned money stalls and knocked down cyclone fences which had clearly been trampled. But nobody looked too excited about the mess, in fact some official looking types were standing there and under the eyes of the Staties were greeting folks and happily announcing that it was now a free concert. This was quite a pleasant surprise. Jimmy and I had not really developed any plan for how we would get in; of course we had no tickets or much of anything else.
As we climbed a little knoll leading up to some food stands a very peculiar sight met my eyes; none other than Janis Joplin was standing there, alone, arms akimbo and a bottle of Jim Beam in her hand. It was definitely her. Her eyes shone with a kind of demonic, beatific sort of stare. I thought it was a little strange in that she was not only alone but no one seemed to be paying any attention to her at all.
Like everyone else we just passed her by and made our way up and over and there we got our first look at the stage and the audience area.
The sun had been shining brightly for a few hours and pretty much had dried the grassy seating area which was full with a variety of people. There were the, by that time, traditional long hairs with their girls and colorful clothes and baskets and flowers and balloons and pot, you know the usual fare.
Then there were those who could only be described as on the fringe.
One extremely tall fellow dressed in saffron colored robes and sporting a knotted short pony tail was serenely walking up and down the aisles which had formed. He was carrying would could only be described as a ‘bouquet’ of long Peacock feathers. Occasionally he would stop and ceremoniously hand one to one of the crowd.
Another was a mustachioed chap carrying a sign reading, ‘Don’t worry, there’s no one to blame.’ ‘World Peace is on the Way.’
He was distributing pamphlets which described how BaBa Somebody or other had recently revealed the future and everything was going to be just fine. It offered other assurances and mentioned some type of prayer or mantra which was guaranteed to make things right, if repeated often enough.
There were some exotic looking loners who strode through the crowd looking like they were in command of something but it was hard to tell what. Most notable was one of the most beautiful long haired blonds imaginable. She was dressed in what appeared to be a home-made one piece mini-dress made entirely of buckskin. No one bothered her as she drifted around. There’ll be a bit more on her later.
Up on the stage with its complete retinue of monstrous speakers stacked high upon higher and its band kit and multi microphone and sound board set ups a band was playing. The playing was interspersed with tons of announcements by an announcer sounding type who was passing missing person announcement and other festival trivia along to all and sundry.
One message of interest was made concerning what was being termed ‘the bad stuff’. Apparently some Waco was selling or giving out bunko LSD and a few folks were freaking out.
The speaker said that anyone who had a friend in trouble could bring them either behind the stage to a huge green medical tent or take them to the white teepee at the Hog Farm.
At any rate Jimmy and I found an open patch and sat down and just looked around at all the accumulated wonders while listening to the warm-up bands on stage.
About that time a sensation was starting to creep up on me that made me a bit uncomfortable. I was having one of those: ‘Is this all there is… together with a smattering of, ‘Why did I come all this way?’ kind of moments. Glancing over at my boy to see what he felt I found him staring at me with a very baleful look.
“Did you hear that announcement?” he asked. All I could do at that moment was to stare back at him with a, yeah, and so what look. “Well didn’t you hear them ask for any Viet Nam vets with experience calling in med-evacs to report to the med-tent by the stage?” he queried. I said again, with another look, “yeah and so what?” “Didn’t you tell me you did a lot of that stuff in the war?” “Yes.”
He just tugged on my arm stood me upright and said, “Let’s go.”
He more or less dragged me down to the side of the stage where there stood a high, bolted chain link fence. There was a bearded chap wearing an old Army jungle shirt and looking fairly official. He asked if he could help us. Jimmy blurted out my credentials; at least such as he understood them to be and to my relief the medic responded that they already had a full complement of combat vet volunteers.
It might be helpful at this point to mention that I had nothing against helping people in need. That in fact is exactly what the Marine Corps ‘Semper Fi’ is all about and why we always use that as a greeting among fellow Jarheads. I just didn’t feel in the mood to be too gung-ho at this festival.
But Jimmy took care of that right away.
Not knowing him very well I wasn’t sure what he was all about but it seemed that he’d got some kind of volunteering bug in him. The guy behind the cyclone gate told us that he’d heard they might be in need of some help over at the ‘Hog Farm’. He pointed in the opposite direction from the concert area and told us to follow the signs.
I went along with Jimmy since going back and sitting on the grass didn’t seem very attractive. So we headed out. There were little wooden signs on short stakes with the words ‘Hog Farm’ scrawled on them. They led us over another small hillock and led onto a small parking area. It was clear that this side of the stage was much different than the front side; no crowds, very few cars with a few scattered camp sites mingled in, and not many people.
As we walked we approached two different people, one walking towards us, while the other was sitting outside a pup tent across the way. The guy walking towards us was wearing those white cotton string tie pants that Mr. Gandhi had worn. He was very handsome and I thought to myself that he had probably attended the school for the extremely good looking. He was sporting the longest thickest pony tail I’d ever seen. It hung below his waist and was woven from of a triple braid; the guy had hair! [Those who have viewed the film “Woodstock” might remember him as the fellow who was featured as he taught an informal session on yoga]
But as Jimmy focused his attention on him my eye caught the other person. She was topless. Now that was something brand new for me and to get a better look I went over to her and bummed a cigarette. Meanwhile I overheard Mr. Ponytail say something to Jimmy which stopped him in his tracks. His face went pale and he looked shaky. What I heard was something like, “OK brother, now that you got it, be sure to hold onto it.”
Whatever it was it really rocked Jimmy. I hadn’t known him for very long but I could see that some type of change was happening to him. His eyes were full of tears and he just kept shaking his head in disbelief.
That was that. He just looked at me and smiled and said, “Now we can go”, so we did.
We entered a small wooded area that was honeycombed with trails with hippie sounding names that I can’t recall. Little did I know that I would spend perhaps the most significant twelve hours of my life, up until then, in that forest, where I learned how I would spend the remainder of my life.
Along the trails, mainly at the junctions where two paths would meet, there were little rustic looking shops or stalls. Some sold what would later become known as ‘head shops’. They had lots of smoking paraphernalia, along with incense and Indian knickknacks and other stuff. Others had records and cartridge music tapes while others had only pamphlets. These were either religious or spiritual or on some aspect of commune life like organic farming or vegetarian diets. We didn’t tarry in the little forest then, but would become involved in numerous adventures there later.
As we exited the woods we started to bump into some rather peculiar looking people. Some appeared to be in costume, ranging from hippy-dippy outfits to really outrageous combos that defied description. These were the Hog Farm commune members, along with assorted wannabees.
They were scattered around a small cluster of campsites and those VW campers with the small canvas canopies, under which there were tables chock full of personal gear, food and water thermoses.
At the center of the camping area stood a very tall white leather skinned teepee. A bit behind it in the distance stood an enormous wooden poled frame; probably about thirty feet high. It looked like three telephone pole length timbers had been notched at the top and interlocked and lashed together for sturdiness.
Suspended from the frame and secured with trawler thickness ropes hung a very large mainly flat rock. From the look of it, it might have been granite. Sitting placidly on the rock was a young woman. She was clearly meditating or in some sort of trancelike state. Someone referred to it as the ‘meditation rock’, maybe a bit obvious a moniker but who knows. They went on to explain that it was intended for anyone’s use and that its purpose was to both concentrate and store energy in the hopes that that energy would prove a helpful force in securing peace throughout the duration of the festival.
We ambled back towards the teepee and got close enough to hear a quiet chant or prayer, interspersed with some loud moaning and muffled cries, which were drifting out through the opening.
Unbeknownst to me Jimmy’s new found resolve immediately propelled him right through the flaps and into the interior of the teepee. I could see him as he took a meditative sitting position and joined in with the prayers.
Still a bit gun-shy, I sat quietly outside attempting to appraise the situation and what the chanting and caterwauling was all about.
A very calm appearing young woman exited the tent and looked at me, so I took the opportunity to ask her what was happening.
In some detail she explained that all throughout the preceding days, rumors of dangerous drugs being given to unsuspecting people began circulating through the fair. From the stage the announcers were exhorting the crowd to beware of the ‘brown acid’ which was said to cause what were termed ‘bad trips’.
Those affected had begun turning up at the side of the stage where they were referred either to the adjacent medical tent or to the Hog farm and the white teepee. There were two distinctly different types of treatment being employed. At the medical tent the patients were treated with anti-psychotics; the worst cases were medi-vaced by helicopter to nearby hospitals.
Meanwhile those who found their way to the teepee, were treated with spiritual applications, hence the chants and prayers.
And so there I sat just listening and watching as strange moans and loud outbursts of anguish continued to pour from the teepee. This became ‘blended’ as it were with the rhythmic chant which I had been informed was a Buddhist mantra or prayer.
As I continued to sit and ponder my next move two young men sat down next to me. They were exchanging furtive glances and whispering together. I didn’t pay too much attention to them until one of them began to pose questions directed at me.
Tentatively he asked if I worked there and so I said, truthfully that, no I did not. After conferring with his partner he came back with another query. He asked if they could trust me and so my immediate reply was yes.
At that there began an emotional outpouring of grief and fear. Again in that whispering tone they took turns relating how they feared that they had dosed themselves with some bad LSD. They said that they were students at the University of Pennsylvania and that on a whim they had driven up here to Mr. Yasgur’s farm.
Along the way they had purchased some hashish which they were convinced had been tainted. We talked for a while and apparently because of my experience with a variety of types of ‘get high’ materials I was able to talk them down. After a half hour or so they became calmed and thanked me for the help. They went back to the music and I, with my newly discovered crisis counseling skills, immediately strode confidently into the teepee.
I was immediately intimidated by what met my eyes. Around the circumference sat a mix of men and women, all dressed in a variety of strange apparel. They crouched in ones and twos and were all quietly chanting the same prayer. In the middle of the space were the stricken and the helpers. The afflicted were clearly extremely distressed; some appeared almost inconsolable.
Some just sobbed almost silently while others were flailing about and wailing aloud. One chap had to be physically restrained at one moment and would then quickly go into a near catatonic state while lying immobile on the earthen floor.
The volunteers who were administering to these unfortunates were clearly a hardy lot. Their main feature was a calm which poured out from them like some sort of balm.
I wedged myself onto the outside circle and sat mesmerized by the strange scene.
Suddenly a little baby girl waddled in through the flaps. She must have been all of three years old and wore not even a stitch of clothing. She ambled up to the strange shirtless boy lying inert and motionless. Without any warning he bolted upright and jammed his fingers between her legs and physically violated her. Simultaneously the blond braided man, who was the baby’s father, suddenly appeared and serenely put his arms on the boy’s shoulders and said, “There is no place for violence here.”
He said and did nothing else. How he controlled himself and kept from throttling that fool, I’ll never know. Meanwhile the baby ran screaming from the teepee. Only when the boy was becalmed and quieted again did the father go out to check on his daughter.
My eyes and my mind were thrown into such a confused state that I could barely breathe. Looking back it must have been fate which permitted that father to reach the boy first. There’s no telling what myself and the other men would have done, but it would not have been good.
Once that traumatic event passed everyone settled into what now seemed a straightforward process of comfort and heal. I talked a few more distraught folks down but steered clear of the more dramatic cases. Those were left to the more spiritually adept people to handle.
After a few hours tiredness became an issue and to catch a break I wandered around the Hog farm campsite and work area. I came across a mini-stage that had been built specially for those workers who had no time to visit the main music area. The entertainers were taking turns, all voluntarily, to keep the worker bees’ spirits lifted.
Most notable for me was Joan Baez who performed for over an hour. It was quite an intimate little setting, just like the little coffee houses from the beat days.
For no real reason that I can recall Jimmy and I drifted back into the little forest where the long night’s adventure would soon begin. As we approached one of the pathway intersections we noticed a candle shop which had a most curious display front and center on the ground outside the shelter. The owners had located and managed to position a largish slab of concrete which featured a finished surface on its topside, with a rough poured bottom. It looked like a piece of side walk had found its way into this enchanted space.
It sat on quite an angle which allowed for the shopkeepers to line up a dozen or so tall candles. While they burned the hot wax trailed down in even rivulets and formed a beautiful pattern on the concrete surface. The owners, Max and Rose, had been alternating colors and replacing candles which had completely melted down for three days, and the result was a real show stopper.
For some reason I felt compelled to sit down on the grass across from the display. Max and I began to relate our histories and life experiences and soon bonded in a way that probably would not have occurred in normal circumstances. Just as the ticket takers had given up charging admission so had these retailers stopped trying to sell. They were not even trying to make a sale even though this little shop was their only livelihood.
Almost everyone who passed by stopped for a sit and a chat before moving off again. So before long we had garnered a lot of the ‘scoop’ on the events unfolding around the farm.
As the afternoon wore on we learned that a group of local farmers had heard about the thousands of kids with no food and they formed a volunteer co-op. A huge open kitchen was set up and a nice plate of fresh cooked veggies and rice was made available to everyone. That was certainly quite a generous gesture by the local people of Bethel. I ambled over and sat off to the side and crouched and watched as hundreds and hundreds of kids passed through the line.
My Marine Corps training forced me to check my own hunger until all the women and kids had eaten. It was nice though to grab a bite after all of those hours of not thinking about hunger.
It was late afternoon when I found my way back to the candle shop and my seat across from Max and Rose. They had a little baby, Isabella. She was probably about a year and a half old and very well behaved. It was about then that I noticed that both parents appeared to be a little drowsy. Something made me offer to watch the baby so that they could nap.
To my surprise they readily agreed. Rose spread a baby sized quilt out where I sat and little Isabella and I played games and chatted for a couple of hours. I say chatted, but she wasn’t speaking yet; not in the conventional way. But that didn’t stop us and we shared a truly great time just blabbering and chuckling up a storm.
When they awoke, refreshed and ready for more I noticed that they had begun to treat me a bit differently. I guess that they were grateful that their trust had been well placed.
By nightfall we began to notice the music drifting over to us from the stage which was just a quarter of a mile distant. At one point in the middle of the night I drifted over to the forest edge and watched and listened as the sounds of the Who’s rock opera Tommy poured over the teeming audience. Townsend had asked everyone to hold up a match or candle or flashlight and the cumulative effect of it all was breathtaking.
Back at the shop I resumed my post and since Max and I were alone I asked him if he wanted to share one of my two hits of mescaline. He agreed and once the effects had kicked in Max shared with me what he had learned about the spiritual nature of human beings and the love which was meant to be shared among us all. Whatever it was that he shared it pierced me to the quick and I have never been the same since that night. I had found my avocation and my path in life and to this day I try my best to stay on that path.
His message was that people are indeed the most elegant part of the Creation and a part of each of our lives should be dedicated to embracing and sharing that reality.
At one point that beautiful blond with the woodsy leather costume wafted her way through the forest. She stopped for a few moments and sat with us listening to the conversation and sharing glances with each of us. And then she was gone.
At dawn Jimmy turned up again. I’ve never learned how he spent the night and never wondered about it at all. At about that time he told me that he was actually on probation and was never to have crossed the Pennsylvania state line. He said that it was time for us to leave and so with a heavy heart I shared my good-bys with Max and Rose and Isabella.
The sun had just come up as we left the woods and passed around the edge of the audience. Jimmy Hendricks was onstage and he was rendering the strangest and most beautiful rendition of the National Anthem that I’ve ever heard.
We walked for miles along the car strewn country road that led to the highway. As we passed the vans and campsites I asked if anyone had any acid. I thought it would be nice to cap off our never to be forgotten weekend with a trip.
To my utter and complete surprise we found a man and a woman sitting in the back of a VW van, looking happy and sleepy all at once. The walls and ceiling of the van were lined with Persian looking rugs; quite attractive!
I repeated my request to him and he just pointed to two very large Igloo water thermoses perched on the back edge of the van. He said, “The lemonade has acid in it and the cranberry juice has mescaline, your choice buddy.”
He told me that a little two once cup would be enough and he was right. I selected the LSD and once it kicked in I spent a wonderfully whimsical few hours hitchhiking across New York and into Pa.
Our first ride was undoubtedly the best. A car full of hippies stopped and the driver told us to hop on. So without a thought or a care in the world Jimmy and I clambered up onto the hood of the car and sat with our backs pressed against the driver side windshield. We were traveling at a pretty steady clip by then, probably about 25 miles per hour. The NY State police who lined the way never said a word.
Of course the spirit of Woodstock only went so far and once we had cleared the immediate area things became normal again.
But not for me, that event was the signal element in my life. Once I got back to Philly I began to spread the word. I convinced 12 of my friends to establish a commune, which we did.
The bizarre thing about it was that we were city kids so our idea of a commune had nothing to do with farming.
We rented a three storey at 41st and Chester Avenue, just a stone’s throw from the University of Pennsylvania.
Word traveled quickly throughout the city and soon young people from every corner of Philly came to visit us at all hours. They’d heard about what came to be known as ‘the House’ and they wanted to see for themselves.
In case you’re wondering ‘the House’, did end as an abysmal failure, with friendships destroyed and heartbreak abound.
But the next time you switch on your solar panel fueled electricity or enjoy your organic whole grain breads and chemical free food products; or even as you gather up your Yoga mat on your way to class remember that all of that started with a bunch of kids who hungered to learn and to grow and to love on that long weekend at Max Yasgur’s Farm.
Charles M. Saunders
Lake Oswego, Oregon
Starry, Starry Night
[For Vincent Van Gogh]
By Charles M. Saunders
It started with an elegant star show.
In the predawn hours on this particular night in the DMZ between North and South Vietnam the stars and the comets put on a show for us and it was mind bogglingly beautiful. We were staging on a low lying gassy hillock waiting to head out on a sweep of an area where some NVA troops had been spotted.
But you would never have known that if you could have heard our ‘oohs’ and ‘aahhs’ as we reacting to the thrilling display that the wheel of stars and the flaming burnouts put on just for us.
We were Fox Company 2nd Battalion 1st Marine Division but on that early dark morning we sounded more like little kids watching the fireworks on the 4th of July.
The faint smell of marijuana mixed with the cigarette puffs as we sat mesmerized. Some of the boys liked to tuck a little pot in the tip of their butts to spice up the day. Don’t have any idea how they got it, because where we were in the middle of the McNamara Line that stretched from the South China Sea west to ‘Khe Sanh’, there were no villages or any civilians at all. In the Demilitarized Zone anybody out there was a target, not a pot salesman.
The post we’d just embarked from was called ‘Con Thien’; the Hill of the Angels’, although why it had that moniker none of us knew.
Never saw any angels there or any angelic goings-on.
At any rate we were told to saddle up and the potheads and the cig puffers extinguished the smoking lamp and headed out. Our destination was and old uninhabited Buddhist temple which was supposedly being used as an enemy base of some sort.
We trooped along in single file, each one of us left alone to the silent thoughts which each one of us carried along on patrols like this.
From out of nowhere I suddenly felt a very uncomfortable feeling in my gut. After trying to ignore it for a few miles I admitted to myself that I had to make an emergency bush stop.
Now this was never a great idea cause the column could not be alerted to one Marine’s nature call and they would not have stopped anyway.
Sometimes the Vietcong who were typically south of the DMZ would trail behind the troops. Their numbers were never enough for an attack, so they’d just wait and hope for a straggler behind the group that they could ‘pick off’.
This was certainly on my mind as I sat crouched and trying to quickly finish my business. But I couldn’t stop going to the bathroom.
The marine buddy who stayed behind with me to serve as lookout started to cough nervously to let me know that that we risked falling behind if I didn’t giddy-up. But I was in a jam.
After what seemed like an eternity I pulled up my jungle trousers and we caught up with the rest.
I just figured that that would be it for my little sidetrack and got back to my squad as the morning dawned and we approached what appeared to be a nicely manicured little hillock.
It was really quite pretty sitting all alone and eerily silent in the middle of nowhere.
The mound was layered, terraced really, with short hedges which rimmed the outside of its perimeter. The ledges were only about 10 feet wide and they reached up the hill in layers, like a cake.
When we reached the top the Captain called squad leaders up to plan our ‘look see’ of the pretty little temple that sat on the hillock’s crest.
It was abandoned but it was easy to see that a lot of care and craftsmanship had gone into its construction. Smaller than a village church back home but with room enough for probably 20 or 30 worshippers. Only now it was empty.
My squad [as usual] was picked to reconnoiter the place. The interior was quite elegant in a simple way. The walls, and floor were white washed. The ceiling was actually just the tiles and roof supports which showed underneath.
There was not a speck of anything anywhere inside. It wasn’t quite spotless but there was virtually no sign of human presence whatever, only a few scattered leaves.
About that time I had to go back to the bush again. This time I really couldn’t stop going. Eventually I just pulled up my pants which without my knowing it were covered in my stomach contents. But I was too exhausted to crouch anymore.
When I reported to the Captain he looked at me and told me to go over and lie down near the hedgerow.
I spent the rest of the morning in a kind of peaceful fevered state. No sense of time or place or anything else bothered my peaceful dreamtrance.
When they’d finish their mission they woke me up and we moved out.
At first I was able to walk OK but after a while my paced slowed and my rifle and pack and extra ammo began to feel heavy.
Little by little other marines had to take on my load as I just couldn’t cope. After a while even my cartridge belt was weighing me down and they relieved me of it.
Finally two marines had to more or less drag me back onto our hill. The Sarge took one look at me and told me to go and see the Corpsman. I dragged myself to a tent, which had not been there before, wearing no trousers or boots. Those were left in a messy heap outside my little pup tent.
The Doc took me into the tent wrapped me in a towel and told me to lie down on a cot that was alongside a bunch of other ones which I barely noticed.
Thus began one of the most bizarre days and nights of my life.
Unbeknownst to me the tent I was in was paired with a twin and both were packed with cots holding about 40 marines all who were sick and weakened by the same condition.
We were all naked except for the towels we wore and some didn’t even have that. The Docs were going from cot to cot offering encouragement, some salt tablets and some bottled pink stuff of unknown origin.
Meanwhile this macabre procession was going on. Each of us Jarheads in our turn were dragging ourselves up and plodding outside to the latrines. We all spent that time parading by one another barely aware of each other’s existence.
Sometimes we’d actually make it to the latrines, other times we would not. Some of the marines simply gave up trying and they just slumped down on the death march that went from the tents to the pits.
A number of guys died right where they slumped.
I barely remember but can vaguely recall that the docs, with help from other corpsmen from the battalion were lining the path and shouting at us to keep moving along. Inside the tent they were moving from cot to cot dispensing meds and hollering at us and shaking people to keep us from passing out, which meant certain death.
Next day I felt OK and was told I could go back to my outfit. On the way out of the tent I passed a Corpsman buddy of mine named Mike.
Still pretty woozy I remember him looking at me and shaking his head. All he said to me, and he kept saying it over and over; “Hour and half, Saunders, Hour and a half.”
I trudged back to my tent fetched my soiled trousers and boots and proceeded to the swamp where I washed them as best I could and hung them on the tent to dry.
Just then Sgt. Buck came by. He said, “Hey Saunders, wanna get some breakfast?” I said sure and off we went.
Mike told me later that what he meant by, ‘Hour and a half’ was that if I had come in an hour and a half later than I did, I would have died.
Later that day I learned that 43 marines had been struck with dysentery and 19 had died that night along the trail and in the tents. It was supposed to have been from bad water from one of the battalion water trailer tanks which we shared.
A Dandelion Bouquet in Khayelitsha
Cape Flats, Western Cape Province
September 14th, 2006
By Charles M. Saunders
Ina has been doing God’s work on the Cape Flats for over 30 years. She is a faculty member at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and has recently given up her field of choice, Social Work, to specialize in something that for her requires dire and immediate attention, Poverty eradication. Following President Bernstine’s lead when he had insisted during the SAPP team visit in 2005 that we must visit the Townships, we made arrangements to visit the Flats on the last day of our brief stay with the wonderful faculty and staff at UWC.
Nothing can prepare you for the traumatic experience of being amidst over one million people living in squalor and fear, beyond the fringe of any hope at all. That is except Ina and the other handful of dedicated folks who venture there. The danger there is very real and palpable. Violent crime statistics soar in the Flats with personal contact above all other categories. This means that assault, rape and armed robbery cases often involve people who know one another.
Recently Nobel Laureate, the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu, sadly commented that South Africa has “gained its freedom but lost its soul.” He went on to explain that the years of brutal and inhumane treatment under apartheid had entirely voided the people of their tribal ways of personal respect and honor for each other. He insists that until individual dignity is restored South Africa will never reach its enormous potential.
Perhaps the good Reverend might benefit from a visit to “Philani” an oasis of “Hope” in Khayelitsha, we certainly did. Ina explained that she and a number of women who have been trained as weavers are making a difference for the undernourished children there. Over 50% of the children in the townships are undernourished but Ina and the women are making a noticeable difference. The children are often AIDS orphans who find their way in a method that was not explained to the neatly walled compound.
Phalani is a compound consisting of a few sturdy block buildings surrounding a small grassy space with a sandy play area for the little ones off to one side. The largest building along with the clinic and classrooms are where a transformation takes place.
We entered the weaving area where a dozen or more looms were being used to create a delightful array of wall hangings, throws, place mats and other beautifully colored and well designed items for sale. So, of course, as good tourists we bought what we could carry. The entrepreneurial mind and skill sets of these women cannot be over stated. Recognizing that I had only a few Rand at hand I asked if they took American dollars. To my surprise and joy, they not only took them but also gave me a good rate!
As we prepared to leave we stopped by the playground to meet the children, robust happy little ones about 4-5 years old. Once their shyness abated they started high fiveing Ina and Kevin and myself (although when one is three feet tall it might better be termed low fiveing). At any rate one child started to play a game of his own invention with me and the others quickly joined in. One after another began to pick dandelions and ever so gently place them in my open palm. Soon my hand became a veritable dandelion bouquet. As we said our good-bys and entered the car park my heart filled with a mixture of sadness and pure joy never experienced before.
If there is any point to this story it is that thanks to the Leadership of Dan Bernstine and Gil Latz, PSU has received an open and heartfelt welcome and opportunity to come and help these wonderful people to “regain their souls” and to share in the bounty we enjoy in Portland.
Charles M. Saunders
The Zoo Stocker and Tattoo Artist from Borneo
By Charles M. Saunders
Harry would be hard to miss, even in a crowd, although you might never see him in one.
He loved the bush and only felt himself when he was deep in it.
Every time I caught up with him it was a surprise and it was almost always in a bar and very late at night at that. The first time it was in the City Bar in Zwedru, the capitol of Grand Gedeh County. He was sitting on a barstool, by himself, and just staring straight ahead as if mesmerized by some compelling happenstance.
I wandered in for a nightcap, pulled up at the bar, sat down, ordered a drink, and just sipped absentmindedly. I wasn’t particularly interested in striking up a conversation with anyone just then. I was pretty caught up in my own little world and things were not going exceedingly well for me at that point.
After about 15 minutes of silence he turned to me and said something like, “What your excuse for being alive?” or some other pithy remark.
Have to admit that that comment broke me out of my self-pity party and I took a better look at him.
Harry was unique looking to say the least. He was topped with a fairly unruly wiry mane of salt and pepper, not quite wild, but something. His piercing blue eyes gave him the distinct impression of a bird of prey; a long, hooked nose perched above a fulsome grey beard altered the effect a bit and made him appear more like an arctic owl.
But either way he was clearly one of God’s creations gone amuck.
I don’t recall now what I told him in response to his query, but when it was his turn he spoke of his history and present status and about a world in which few people inhabit, other than the rare birds like dear Harry.
He had started out as a wild game hunter and trapper in Borneo. After 25 years of hunting and stocking zoos world-wide his reputation had landed him an interview with the First Lady of Liberia.
She wanted to enhance her status by establishing the largest zoological garden in West Africa. Liberia wasn’t particularly well stocked with rarities but did possess the only pygmy hippos in the world.
Apparently after fits and starts the project fizzled. So Harry went back to safari work, although there was not much of a call for that in the depleted forests of West Africa. All the Safari action was centered in East and Southern Africa where the plains and sparsely forested land made killing your favorite trophy quite the piece of cake.
Recently Harry had talked his way into a job with a blood research outfit in New York. All their research was conducted on chimpanzees so Harry and his girlfriend (whose name I can’t recall), kept a steady supply of pilfered animals going their way. This is where the portable tattoo machine came into play, but more on that later.
We ended up talking and boozing it up til dawn which is when I stumbled out the door with him and helped him to his truck. Well, it wasn’t actually a truck, it was a Volkswagen van and boy was it a mess.
He’d opened the slider on the side to grab a fifth from a handy case of cheap scotch he kept there and I must tell you, the stench was nearly overwhelming. There were animal and wild bird feces everywhere, along with a small collection of traps, specimen bottles, hunting rifles and small arms, various boxes and crates and shelves lined with assorted bush gear and supplies. And one more addition was his pet parrot which hung suspended on his perch and eyeballed all of the goings on.
We sat and sipped for a couple more hours and told tall tales and then parted company a while after the burning sun had come up; all chummy and the best of friends.
Oddly enough, in a country the size of France with not that many white folk, I ran into Harry again and again and visited a few of his bush camps. He always appeared to have some scam or adventure in the works to supplement his booze and the woman’s gin guzzling habit. Her favorite was a type of medicinal gin which came in 24 bottle cough medicine size cases. They kept a stack of the full cardboard boxes stacked in one corner of the van, her ready supply.
She was quite the piece of work herself; tiny but feisty looking, but with a soft spot for the animals which they orphaned. She kept them in diapers and toted them around on her back wrapped in a lappa, African woman style.
Anyway the next time I met up with Harry was at the Swamp Bar in Ganta. He was quietly excited and wanted to show me something that was top secret. So we left the bar, this was in broad daylight, and he walked me to a side street where we climbed a few concrete steps and he pulled back a huge warehouse rolling door. It was dark inside and quite a large space.
What I saw there made me gasp and choke back a cry of amazement and shock. There they were, rack upon rack upon rack in multiple layers and nearly completely filling the entire warehouse: Leopard skins, hundreds, no a couple thousand of them.
Being a combat vet and not really a good boy, I’d seen what I had thought was quite a lot, but this was the topper! The kicker was that Harry didn’t own the skins; a Lebanese merchant did and obviously couldn’t care less who it was that saw them. Hum, police payola, you think?
There were times when Harry would put his best effort out there to appear to be just an ordinary guy. He and his gal pal invited me and some of the other PCV’s to a Thanksgiving. They shared a house, when they were not in the bush, on the Firestone rubber estate; nice place actually. Her two daughters were in for a visit from the States and when we showed up everything was set for a proper and quite a lovely Turkey day feast.
Virtually every item was ready and set to go: the bird, the stuffing, the yams, the gravy and mashies, the cranberries, everything was there, everything that is except Harry. He had popped up at dawn and cooked it all himself, but somewhere along the way he tipped a bit too much and had to go to bed. He never made an appearance.
That didn’t stop us. We ate until we were over full and then capped off the night with a nice skinny dip in the huge pond nearby.
The next time I saw the Man was absolutely the most memorable, in more ways than one. I was sent up from my Ministry base in Monrovia to build some new roads from outlying villages into Ziahtown, site of the Paramount Chief’s compound in Grand Gedeh.
Harry had told me to keep an eye out for the miniature antelopes which were often found in the forests near town. He said that were folks who would pay beaucoup big bucks for one.
One day a small boy brought one on a makeshift leash into the local store where I was enjoying my morning Guinness.
On my truck driver’s next run into Zwedru for supplies I asked him to get word to Harry, and he did, and one day not much later out of the blue on a bright sunny early morning who should show up but Harry with the Gal, in the van.
As Harry’s luck would have it, that morning a young boy brought one of the tiny antelopes into the store. They were lovely little creatures, perfectly shaped with all the features of their full sized cousins, including the antlers.
Harry paid the boy over $100 for the animal, which was kinda nice since most honkies would have given him a few bucks or maybe nothing at all. Once the transaction was completed old Harry yanked a case of Clubs [locally brewed beer], warm as toast, out of the van and we set to it; no matter that it was 7:30 in the morning. After all, this was West Africa and a man needed his morning bracer to start the day right.
Meanwhile my guys were off about a mile and a half on the outskirts of town clearing the bush for some road grids and small plots which would be divvied up among the village leaders. I had surveyed the area and staked out the plots so they didn’t need me for a few hours anyway.
So Harry and I and the dozen little kids who constantly shadowed us set up near the clinic on a couple of reed benches that had been built under some of the only shaded area in town. It typically would serve as a waiting area for the local clinic, but not today. We had commandeered the spot and settled in.
We sipped and chatted and the little Gal sipped her gin and the time just passed pleasantly by. I don’t remember quite why but at some point Harry led me over to the truck to show me his new favorite toy; a portable battery operated tattoo machine.
He explained that it was used to ID the chimps which they gathered and which would be shipped to New York to begin their arduous contribution to the furthering of medical scientific knowledge or whatever.
At any rate Harry was toying with his little treasure when suddenly his bird eyes brightened and he brought forth his latest brainstorm.
“Why don’t I give you a tattoo and then you give me one and then we’ll be like blood brothers?”
Sounded good to me, although there were a few murmurs of, “Are you sure this is a good idea?” from the audience. But Himself and I were too many sheets to the wind to listen or to even care.
Harry pulled out a little spiral notebook and requested that I draw a sketch of with what I wanted to adorn my body.
I fairly quickly decided on my favorite symbol [at the time], the Egyptian Ankh, or sign of eternal life.
As I began to sketch my choice it occurred to me that I had no ability to draw and no real clear memory of precisely what an Ankh looked like, but that did not deter us.
When Harry saw my drawing he said something like, “Well here we go then.” And he set to work.
I forgot to mention that along with the Ankh I wanted the word LIBERIA inked under the symbol.
At this point the children’s curiosity was entering a fevered pitch and they gathered in a knot around the two inebriated white men. To increase the dramatic effect of the moment I had the children hold my arm down as my Tattoo Artist etched my new artwork on my upper arm. I even acted like it hurt for additional drama.
As the machine whirred away at some point I glanced down at my arm and to my chagrin noted that what was developing there did not resemble an Ankh at all. What was a trifle more disconcerting was that the word Liberia was trailing down my arm at an obscene angle. It more resembled a dangle of squiggles than a word. I asked Harry what was up and he jerked up his head and appeared to have some sort of revelation. “I just remembered, I left my glasses back at the camp and I can’t really see much without them.”
“No matter, I heard myself respond bravely, its fine.” But it really was not. It in fact was quite the mess.
But me and my boy were too happy and too far gone to care. We even forgot to do his tattoo.
Once the work of art was completed I escorted the pair of them back to my place. It of course was not my place, but it was the nicest structure in the town. The house was set back off the main dirt road and was nicely built of cinder block. There were numerous guest rooms, a great room and even an indoor bathing area, a rarity in rural Liberia.
The house belonged to ‘Paramount Chief’ Charles Ziah. He was actually not a tribal chief at all but an ‘appointee’ ensconced by His Excellence the President of Liberia, William S. Tolbert. Charles had been summoned to the capitol to see the Prez off on one of his overseas jaunts.
Whenever His Lordship flew out of town all of the appointed officials countrywide were forced to come to Monrovia. The object was to make certain that they would not decide to form a coup or some other type of monkeyshines. This was fairly effective, that is until 6 years after I left in 1982 when Billy boy was over thrown and assassinated in his own castle.
Anyway, that is why I had my own house and got to spend a few days with my Chum and his sidekick.
And that in a nutshell is the tale of how I came to bear such a wonderful remembrance of my time in that banana republic. In case you are curious, the tattoo machine did not have the oomph or the indelible ink that proper tattooists dispense. The word Liberia eventually disappeared and all I’m left with now is a faint but decidedly ugly semblance of that ancient Egyptian emblem of longevity.
And so now my friend, what, you may ask yourself, might be the moral of this quasi-sleazy tropical tale?
Just solely and only this, that it may not be a good idea to slurp down a half case of warm Swedish inspired 12% alcohol liter bottles of beer and to split a fifth of cheap booze in the torrid African mid-morn with a mostly crazed bush dwelling maniac who is wielding a portable chimpanzee tattooing device; no matter how mild mannered he may seem.
You just might find yourself with an eminently forgettable, yet indelible memory of the whole event. Let this serve as a word to this wise.
Peter, the Nigerian Necromancer
by Charles M. Saunders
The sign was bold, audacious even, and decidedly garish. It stood on two posts. Its dimensions were roughly four feet square. It was painted with house paint; a pale green background with red lipstick colored printing, written line after line with nearly incomprehensible information.
The house on whose front yard it rested was set back off of U.N. Drive in Monrovia. It was markedly different than the other buildings which clustered nearby. They were mainly fairly typical looking African urban dweller shanties, with tin roofs and non-descript siding material.
This house was of a more substantial build, with two stories and a covered entryway. The door appeared to almost always be ajar. This was not strange for West African dwellings. Openness and hospitality are the hallmark of life there. My Liberian friends remarked on more than one occasion that they found it queer that white peoples’ houses were always closed up tight. They wondered why they always needed to ‘make an appointment’ to stop by for a casual visit. That was viewed as a very peculiar trait which the foreigners all seemed to share.
Anyway I first saw the place after a visit to see a sick friend who had been admitted to the hospital, just on the outskirts of the city. Its formal name was the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Medical Center, but the local people called it JFK or ‘Just for Killing’ Liberian people. It had a countrywide and well-deserved reputation for shabby treatment of the unfortunates who were brought there often as a last resort once traditional country medicine and the local clinic had failed to produce a remedy.
Many people who checked in never checked out.
In fairness to the staff the deck was stacked heavily against them. Inadequate training, understaffing, lack of Doctors, insufficient supplies of medicines and equipment were endemic.
The exasperated Administrative Manager ordered a guarded checkpoint at the end of the long driveway which exited the building. Searches were conducted of all taxis and vans and trucks which were exiting.
The list of confiscated items that were recovered at the gate was truly mind boggling. Along with medicines, bandaging and all manner of medical equipment there was also discovered a wide array of the buildings electrical, plumbing, facilities, sanitary and kitchen equipment.
Toilets, sinks, faucets, shower heads, piping, pots, pans, wiring, utensils, bed clothing, mattresses; you name it, they stole it.
Not that the extirpators were entirely to blame. Most of the people in ‘Molovia’ were desperately poor; and they were kept that way.
The ruling class or Americo-Liberians, the descendants of the former slaves who established the ‘Republic’ in the mid-nineteenth century, expropriated nearly every penny which entered the country; whether it was revenue from exports or loans from the cadres of NGOs and first world country agencies which heaped a portion of their largesse onto the less fortunate. They kept it all in their very tight circle of favored families.
All of this aside, there was this house and that sign. I don’t remember how many times I passed it and stared in fascination at the numerous lines of print which completely covered the sign. The words seemed to be drawing me to them, but as it was impossible to make out what was written there, why they held a fascination was not clear.
At some point when I couldn’t take it anymore, I had my driver stop just across the highway, near the entrance to the Richard M. Nixon cook shop [yes, that’s our Tricky Dick!] and I ran across the busy roadway effectively risking life and limb, so that I could finally read the words on the sign.
Essentially the sign was a sort of menu and a skills inventory for an accomplished magician. Specific types of spells, potions, castings, divinations, foretelling, remedies, poisons and many other specific practitioner activities were inventoried.
Both white magic and black were on offer and specific situations were enumerated along with the going price for the magician’s services.
The very top line listed the practitioner’s name, which was Peter ______.and his home country, Nigeria. That was followed by an extensive set of abbreviations which outlined his professional credentials along with a portfolio, so to speak, and his areas of expertise. Heading the list was the one that caught my eye and stopped me cold. It read: Necromancer or one who communicates with the departed.
All in all, the graphic depiction of the variety of curses and remedies available, for a price, was at the very least quite daunting and at best, downright intimidating.
Before we delve much further into the realm of West African magic and assorted mischief, now might be a good time to explain just how it is that you and I are together here in this beautiful and very troubled land in the equatorial clime on the Bight of Benin.
Curiously we have none other than the Honorable JFK himself to thank for this one. After all he was the inceptor in Chief of the United States Peace Corps, who in their wisdom invited me along to aid those who couldn’t quite help themselves to a better life.
It was 1972 during a slice in time when the Corps recognized that the college kids whom they were recruiting did not come packaged with many usable skill sets other than a gung-ho spirit and big hearts.
So they extended their recruiting efforts to include experienced trades people who could handle the construction project management while the grads taught English and science and whatever.
As for me I was blissfully awaiting my assignment to a rural village project; all self help stuff, very light lifting: small clinics, market stands, one-room school houses, stuff like that. The villagers were to form a committee, choose a project, hire a local carpenter and a mason and off we’d go.
Meanwhile some bright light State Department type spotted my credentials and thereby was alerted to my construction management experience. So he pulled me aside and proceeded to con me into working for a new ‘high level, top notch, direct action’ Liberian Ministry called ADP or Action for Development and Progress which was reporting directly to the Prez, old Billy Tolbert himself.
To my chagrin I learned too late that it was actually a front for building roads and farms on expropriating land for Tolbert and his cronies. The massive amount of trouble that this caused me will have to be recounted at some other time and space.
For now one more point which might help clarify our soon to occur meeting with Peter, the Nigerian Necromancer.
Besides helping people to elevate their living standards, I had some private goals for my sojourn in banana-republic land. For reasons I won’t go into here I wanted to learn all that I could about African music, magic, witchcraft and drumming. There you have it!
Now let’s return to Monrovia and our little macabre adventure.
Weeks, even months passed and every time I drove by the sign my anxiety began to blend in with anticipation and excitement about who might be waiting inside that intimidating threshold. And finally one late, late night of partying and heavy drinking along with the prompting from a group of curious friends carried me over the tipping point.
It was a typical Saturday night on Gurley street smack dab downtown in the nightclub cum street jive area of town. Hawkers and vendors shrieked out the wonders of their wares and that blended with the uproarious cacophony of drunken locals and expats and streetwalkers and pickpockets and hustlers, along with a smattering of somewhat inebriated police officers. A raucous din poured out into the street from the blaring disco dance music emanating from the clubs and bars.
It seemed like everyone was there and we were all as usual, getting very carried away. I sat late into the early morning drinking, chatting and intermittently dancing with a host of other volunteers and African friends.
At about 3 AM I had a brainstorm and I shared it with the other three people at my table. “Let’s hit the street, grab some pepper chicken, wolf it down and then go see this magician I’ve been telling you about.”
They were too inebriated to know any better and so the two gals and one guy and myself headed out.
We hailed a taxi and traveled the 2 or 3 miles out past Singhor to Peter’s place.
It was about 3:30 AM when we disembarked and stumbled our way up the steep concrete stairs where the aforementioned sign stood. There was enough light from the tall highway lights that illuminated U.N. Drive for my friends to read the menu.
Once well read they probably were not feeling that brave because they insisted that I lead the way and go in first.
Just inside the open doorway stood a stairway which lead to the second floor, which in itself was a rarity in that part of the capitol. At the head of the stairs there was an opening. Two somewhat shabby draperies were hung and parted slightly so that I could sense the space inside.
I called out a hello softly. It was after all past 3:30 in the morning.
As there was no immediate response I stuck my head into the upstairs, shyness was never quite a feature in my approach to life.
Someone said, “Enter” and so I did.
No one was visible in the room so I took the opportunity to make a quick scan.
The L-shaped room was small but in a strange way sort of comfy looking. A doorway on the adjacent wall lead to what must have been the adjoining spaces but I never saw those.
The room itself resembled what must have been what the monk’s cell from medieval times was like. Scant furnishings with a single day bed tucked against the smaller segment of the L-shaped space. The remaining area contained a long shelf-like desk. Atop it was an agglomeration of mostly unrecognizable items: a hand mirror circled with cowry shells, various amulets, containers, bottles and jars with curious colored powders and liquids, candles plus a number of lace-covered bric-a-bracs.
A shelf hung just above the table surface. It held what I could see to be a well-worn copy of the Holy Bible, the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead and a variety of other manuscripts which I could not make out.
Being so absorbed in my scan I barely noticed that a small slim quiet seeming man had silently entered the room.
He spoke softly, above a whisper, yet clear and very distinct. There was a hint of sadness behind his bespectacled eyes.
“How can I help you?” he intoned.
Taken aback I muttered, “I’m not sure.”
“Well”, he asked, “What is it you want?”
“Just to speak with you, I guess.”
He replied, “That is not possible, you must purchase something from me.”
He handed me a piece of cardboard. It was a menu of sorts. His one-time services and the price for each were neatly printed there.
Fortunes Told- $1.50, Horoscope-$1.50, both were listed as lasting one hour.
There were other choices but I don’t recall what they were.
Since those were the only two that were familiar to me I requested the horoscope.
“Did anyone come with you?”
“Yes, three friends.”
“Have them come up.”
They sheepishly tipped up the stairs and entered the room. Peter motioned to them to sit on the bed. They did so and sat there together, huddled quiet as church mice.
“Now, what have you selected?” We sat on two straight backed chairs facing one another.
“The horoscope; was my reply.”
“That will be $1.50.”
Before Peter could commence, I blurted out; “But before you begin may I ask you a few questions?”
“Yes” he said.
“Please, Tell me how you became a magician, if that is how you are addressed, and what is it that you perform for people?”
What follows is to my best recollection the gist of what he told us about himself, his life, and the magic services he provided.
Peter had been born in Nigeria. At the age when most boys enter secondary school he had decided to become a Catholic priest. To this end he was enrolled in a seminary and began his priestly studies. A year or so into his studies, his people, that is, a group of the elders of his tribe along with his parents, came to see him.
They brought news of the death of the oldest and most important country doctor or magician in his home area. Upon his deathbed as was customary he shared with the elders the name of the person who was to be selected to succeed him; it was Peter.
Now this is where the story begins to take on a weight that not many of us westerners can probably entertain.
The elders made it abundantly clear to Peter and his family that this was no random selection. Peter was now destined to abruptly and permanently alter his life and his connection with his parents and the rest of the world.
Over, above and beyond that he had no right to refuse his selection. In fact the price he would pay if he attempted to refuse would be with his life.
In many parts of Africa the local doctor is the only mediator between the people and the variegated host of afflictions, psychological disorders, evils and black magic that they faced daily in their lives. It took a very special and highly trained and skilled practitioner to care for their spiritual and physical needs.
At any rate Peter was forced to quit the seminary and undergo years of rigorous training deep in the forest; away from any prying eyes. He mentioned that he also was forced to agree to forgo any thought of having a family of his own. Beyond that he could never again take part in any type of sex act, whether with a female or a male. And right there he stopped.
“Satisfied”, he asked?
“Shall I continue with your horoscope?”
“Yes, go ahead.”
He turned his back to me and faced his working table. From a hook just above the surface he took down a stole, kissed it reverentially and placed it around his neck.
He turned back to face me. After crossing his legs he picked up that mirror with the cowries encircling it and placed it on his lap. He stared down into it, blessed himself with what looked like the sign of the crossed and very softly intoned some sort of prayer which I could not make out.
He then whisked his hand across the face of the mirror and said to me, “I now have your horoscope right here, what would you like to know?”
I quickly flashed across my mind any and all options which might have proved interesting; like when and how would I die or what dangers would I face as I continued my two year stay in Africa? (There had already occurred some noteworthy and intimidating events to date.)
But nothing really seemed too appealing and so I quite honestly replied, “I don’t really have any questions for you. What can you tell me?”
He looked at me silently for a moment and then began to speak; “You were in a war and during that time you learned two things about yourself, first that you were not afraid to die, and second, that you did not believe in any god.”
He paused and then continued, “You left a young woman at home who you promised to marry but realized when you returned that you did not want her or to be married. She continues to cry over this even up to today.”
Now I have to admit that I’d been studying and researching magic for a number of years and become pretty much convinced that most of what passed for magic was just parlor games and balderdash, but this was something different. Peter had been specific enough that I was not able to shrug off what he said. What he did say was almost verbatim what I had spoken to myself. It was clear to me that he had some type of ability to gather my past internal self-talk.
Now I was intrigued. He asked if he should continue and I said no.
He turned his attention to my friends who remained seated together on the bed. The white woman was completely quiet but it was easy to see that she was impressed and enthralled.
The Liberian woman was very drunk and just kept giggling and chortling to herself as if all of this was quite amusing to her. And as for the other white guy, who I didn’t know personally, he too was quite inebriated. He sat on the far end of the little bed with his head slumped over between his knees and seemed somehow to be lost in his drunkenness.
“Do any of your friends want anything from me?” There were mumbles of no and no thanks from them.
At that point he pulled himself bolt upright and angrily pointed at the African woman.
“You,” he intoned; “do not destroy what you cannot create!”
At that point she broke out of her drunkenness and began to moan and to weep uncontrollably. Her girlfriend tried to console her but she only continued the more blubbering and crying.
[Later I learned that she had just undergone an abortion two days previously and was grief stricken about it.]
Peter now pointed at the drunken man sitting with his head bowed and again in a forceful manner said, “You see that man, he was cast off and deeply wounded by a woman six months ago. He can’t even hear a single word I’m saying to him.”
Well it was clear that he heard something because he immediately awoke from his stupor and sat bolt upright, just staring in amazement in Peter’s direction.
[Amazingly enough, this fellow had been dumped by a woman he had been engaged to marry and had been lost since that time. It had been a half year, almost to the day.]
Suffice it to say that Peter’s psychic fusillades and the startled reactions of my two drinking companions brought my horoscope session to a screeching halt.
Peter then turned back to me and in a most composed and friendly manner asked if I had any more questions.
My chums obvious discomfort not withstanding I knew that an opportunity like this might never pass my way again. And so I asked;
“What sort of work are you involved in presently and for whom?”
“Presently,” he replied, “much of my work serves the needs of people overseas.” He went on to explain how a number of Nigerians who were desirous of taking up residence in the US were in need of his help.
For them he had concocted a powdery substance. The persons carrying this substance was instructed to keep it unobserved until the very moment that they were standing directly in front of the customs and immigration official who was about to examine their documentation. At that point they were instructed to place a small amount of the powder in the palm of their hand and to hold it up eyelevel with the agent. A soft blow onto the palm would then place enough of the powder into the official’s face and eyes, thus rendering them compliant with whatever was suggested to them next.
I struggled with my incredulity and Peter picked up on my reaction. He merely casually mentioned that the powder did no permanent damage and that the immigration official would have no memory of the event or that he had just conveyed some level of temporary residence status to an illegal alien.
Time was slipping away and I needed to collect my friends and to get them a safe distance away from the Necromancer. So, having no time as yet to process what I had just learned I threw out a last question;
“Peter, do I possess any of the skills which you have?”
He gazed at me silently for a moment and then softly replied, “No, you do not.”
At that point I breathed a sigh of relief. It was suddenly clear to me that Peter could only pick up on the peripherals in my life; the external baggage, so to speak; not on the deeper internal private world that belonged only to me.
We quickly departed at that point. Each of us went our own separate way. My companions never spoke of the night’s goings on ever again, perhaps for the better.
As for me I came away with the distinct impression that on that early morning on the outskirts of Monrovia that I had been face to face with a person who exhibited and displayed a type of life force and power which I could not comprehend.
During my sojourn in ‘the Republic’ I experienced many strange and mystifying things and met numerous one of a kind type people. But on that night at the Necromancer’s house I felt the magic and mystery that only the real thing can provide.
Think what you will my friends. We in the West are inclined to dismiss anything relating to magic or fortunetelling or horoscope projections as superstitious cant. So be it.
But there are human sciences of which we are not aware and I am certain that if ever I came across Peter again I would give him a very wide berth and would hope that he would think of me as being on his good side; if he even has one.