One day my sister told a group of my friends that Ukiah was “God’s country.”
She still lives there, so I guess the warranty on her claim has yet to expire.
Many out-of-towners share her adoration for this Mendocino County community, perhaps to a lesser degree.
Visitors often find they’re captivated by the skinny stretch of Northern California valley tucked between the folds of two hillsides. With its hometown appeal and slower pace, Ukiah presents a welcome retreat from big city concrete and gridlock.
There’s also a sense when you arrive that the dense woods and unspoiled terrain surrounding you could swallow you up forever. For some, that’s a frightening concept; for others, it’s just what they’ve been seeking.
The infamous Jim Jones of the People’s Temple found a lot to like about Ukiah, located one hour north of Santa Rosa on Highway 101. He moved there in the ’70s, set up a church, and insinuated himself into the community at large by always providing a helping hand.
When institutions such as the school needed someone to stuff envelopes, no problem; Jones would send a team in to do an efficient and fast job.
But something didn’t quite seem right to the townsfolk.
Later, Jones robbed some in this city of their own. Ukiah doesn’t forget things like that.
Just take a stroll through old downtown and mention the name Jim Jones. You’re likely to garner a wary, let’s-check-you-out look. If you seem trustworthy enough, someone might divulge one of many stories about the man who orchestrated the deaths of more than 900 in 1978.
Jones left a stain in Ukiah that’s faded over time. And now a powerful play called “The People’s Temple” at Berkeley Rep revives those memories.
And rightly so. No one should ever forget.
The brilliant “People’s Temple” brought home memories long buried. Each was blanketed in sadness and a devastating loss.
My hometown is mentioned often in “The People’s Temple.” But it’s the names of the people that still haunt me.
I was a teenager in Ukiah when the massacre at Jonestown came down. Like most, I remember learning about that awful day from a “we interrupt this program” bulletin on TV.
Details were sketchy. There was only chaos.
A congressman had been gunned down. Others had been shot or killed.
Little did any of us know the horror had just begun.
We watched numbly as it played out on our TV sets.
It seemed surreal seeing those piles of bodies, some never claimed by loved ones.
Later came the piles of books written about the tragedy. I read nearly all, even watched the movies later made about Jones.
I wanted to understand why it happened.
Growing up in Ukiah, Jim Jones never seemed like much of a threat to me. That’s probably because I was too young and too white. Jones appealed to those who had been marginalized and beaten down by society. Due to the circumstances of my life, I was never treated that way growing up.
For others there, the ones who lost friends, relatives or themselves to this preacher man, Jones provided glimmers of a better tomorrow, filled with equality and justice … before he took everything away.
My most vivid memories are of the ones he left behind. Jim Jones became more real to me in his death than in his life, as I watched my hometown struggle to understand why, why this happened.
Later, the survivors or family members returned.
One day, a man came into the family-owned grocery store where I worked. He set off a mosquito buzz of whispers.
My friend Mike stocked the shelves there at the market, where the swinging doors always creaked and monthly tabs rung up for groceries. He filled me in on who this man was.
He was in Jonestown, he said.
Customers who were aware he had been there pretended to be more normal than they ever really were.
I positioned myself behind the meat counter, standing in a pile of sawdust that captured spare meat parts flung off of butcher blocks. I tried not to stare.
I told myself it wasn’t polite.
I, too, tried desperately to act normal.
Life in Ukiah, and all of Northern California, didn’t seem normal for a while.
In San Francisco, Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone also had been gunned down, killed by someone they knew.
A Twinkie figured into it.
Stockpile that on top of Guyana, and nothing much seemed to make sense anymore.
Even as Jonestown slipped from the headlines, its presence continued to be felt in Ukiah. About two years later, my history professor at the community college invited a father who had lost a child in Jonestown to tell of his ordeal.
It was harrowing story, full of desperation that led to tears.
We sat silently and listened. All we could do was watch this tragedy unfold again.
I’ll never forget that class.
In “God’s country,” things like that just shouldn’t happen.