The author, Ken Kuhlken, 1972
Charles Manson killed what was left of my idealism. He did murder in the name of love and visited my dreams. Over and again, in duels, fistfights, mind games, and gun battles, I had to face the man and overcome him or die. Meanwhile, in daily life, I was approaching a showdown with somebody worse than Manson.
I was a lousy musician. Finally, early in 1973, I gave up our band in favor of telling stories. I wrote a novel and landed a hotshot agent who made glittery promises. Laura and I hocked everything, flew to Europe, worked at an American school and on a U.S. Navy base while awaiting the big advance — until my agent concluded that my story wasn’t a moneymaker.
Since Laura was still in college, I got to be provider. The teaching positions I applied for fell to those who appeared more worthy. I struggled with another novel, supporting my habit with substitute teaching until my tolerance wasted away. When I bought a poster that showed two vultures on a saguaro, one of whom says, “Patience my ass, I’m going to kill something,” Laura suggested I hunt for a job with less aggravation and more reward
Camp X needed a teacher and principal. The camp belonged to a giant named J.B. who had played offensive tackle at a major university. An entrepreneur who could demand, cajole, and bargain, he owned two urban foster placements for juveniles on probation and recently had bought Camp X from an L.A. baseball team. It was 70 miles east of San Diego, on a hundred acres of oak glens and chaparral hills with a pond large enough for rowing, two baseball diamonds, a community room, an office building, and six cabins. The neighboring properties were ranches and a small Indian reservation. The nearest village was three miles up a dirt road.
J.B. appreciated that I had worked with poor people as a VISTA volunteer. He praised my social consciousness and my writing skills and pronounced that we could make an invincible team. While showing me around, he dreamed aloud of the projected industrial arts building, the to-be-renovated ball fields, the field trip bus he would soon provide, the swimming pool that only needed cleaning and resurfacing. He promised that in six months the camp would be a showplace, where boys could discover their value and learn skills upon which they might build decent lives.
The boys were wards of the Los Angeles County juvenile court system, released into foster placement from juvenile hall, where they had landed for truancy, shoplifting, burglary, grand theft, homicide, manslaughter. J.B. prided himself on taking in the hardest cases, boys who would otherwise go to the California Youth Authority maximum security facility.
The friendliest boy was Willy, a 17-year-old Puerto Rican burglar. He talked with his hands, often about his passion for older women, which had inspired his burglary career. To win them, he reasoned, “You got to drive a big car, man, bring diamonds and champagne. You got to pay their babysitters and take the ladies to Beverly Hills. You been down there, Professor. Fifty dollars, you don’t be getting nothing but a dinner roll. Say, how I’m supposed to score that kind of change except I steal it?”
The school was at the far end of the dining hall, opposite the kitchen. One room, two long tables, surrounded by folding chairs. No books. Laura’s mother donated a crate of children’s and young adult stories. Another friend retrieved a set of fifth grade spellers on their way to the dumpster. Used bookstores donated throwaways, and the local school district provided a test, which determined that only a few of the boys could read above second grade level.
I enrolled in SDSU evening courses, searching for methods to teach what the instructors called developmental reading. Not much that they taught seemed appropriate to a class of 25 boys aged 13 to 17 whose intelligence ranged from lame to powerful.
Donald was 13, with frizzy hair and a voice so gruff it sounded permanently hoarse. His father was dead, his mother somewhere. He had slept in vacant buildings around East L.A., survived by handouts from his big brother, in exchange for running errands that eventually delivered him to juvenile hall. Donald loved Charlie Brown. At first, he would catch me alone and ask me to read him one of the Peanuts books. By October he was puzzling through them on his own, asking for help with the two- and three-syllable words.
Q, a big 16-year-old, heckled Donald mercilessly. After one of my weekly reports to J.B. stressing that Q was the only boy who’d refused to open a book, Q sent me a message through Little J (rumor had it he was the younger brother of a founder of the Crips). Little J offered me an apologetic shrug and cryptic smile. “Q say, ‘Tell the chump — You snitch again, you goin’ down.’ ”
As J strutted off, Donald motioned me to follow. We walked down the hill, crossed the ball field, and sat on a bench beside the pond. Donald croaked, “You look out. Q be bad. Last placement he stay at — they take all kind of boys. Blind boys. Retards. Q, he grinds out his cigarette in a little deaf boy's eye.”
“Why’d he do that?”
Donald squinted, as if trying to peer into my skull to ascertain what sort of brain damage would cause me to presume a logical reason for everything. “He be bad. That’s all.”
I didn’t believe in bad. People were surely misguided, frustrated, angry. Given the insight, time, and concern, I expected we could reach any of the boys. My daydreams featured the camp a year from now, with Pill the car thief rebuilding engines in the auto shop; Willy the burglar studying college catalogs offering hotel management programs; Donald reading Mark Twain, Eldridge Cleaver, and James Baldwin. The daydreams fortified me against the bitter disenchantment of too many boys, and the fret that J.B. decided not to pay me.
He maintained that California school districts were obliged to educate all the children living within their boundaries, so the Mountain Empire District would have to support us or take the boys into their junior and senior high schools. At a school board meeting, a teacher said, “Hey, we might as well throw bingo games and invite the Mafia to run them as allow those delinquents in our schools.”
It was a poor district. The superintendent and I collaborated to secure and expedite funding from L.A. Unified; after all, the district would be stuck with the boys had J.B. not trucked them south. Many letters and phone calls and finally a trip to L.A. won us the funding—and delivered to me a stack of forms on which I had to detail each student’s comings and goings, his attendance, absences, excuses.
My hours at the camp were filled by class time, tutoring, and listening to the woes of frightened boys. Two evenings each week were spent at the college and two more on homework, besides driving an hour each way to the camp. Saturday afternoons I gave to collecting donations for the school, and since I required sleep, I processed the forms on Saturday mornings, hours previously given to my wife and our seven roommates. At first Laura sympathized, except on Sundays when I ran to a room in my mother’s house and labored 12 hours over my second novel.
In early October, I hired Jane, a poet and painter with degrees in English and art. We agreed to share the reading and writing classes; she would offer arts and crafts in the quonset J.B. promised us. Jane was African American, a Seventh-day Adventist. J.B. declared we had all the staff we needed to make the place work. Besides himself, Jane, and I, there was Bill, a halftime math and science teacher who agreed to spend three nights a week at the camp so J.B. could be with his family and business in L.A. Bill slept in a rusting 16-foot travel trailer. And there were Walt and Esther, the retired couple who served as cook and handyman, whose property bordered the camp. They could rush over in case of emergency.
During a Santa Ana the week before Halloween, a few fires ignited in the fallen leaves. Q might have sparked them. He’d chosen to boycott my class and Jane’s, contending he already knew how to read and write, and we didn’t show him adequate respect. With J.B.’s blessing, he spent the days roaming the hills or snoozing on the couch in Bill’s math class or in the office waiting room, where he could play the radio. Jeff the hippie began ditching school to join him. It was probably the two of them who discovered the hallucinogenic morning glories, which they harvested and sold for money or favors to all the boys except Donald.
The day the boys chewed the seeds, I adjourned school after an hour, let them stalk the trails and wander through the brush, gawking at the chicken hawks and sunspots on the pond, at their terrors and visions, while I drove Donald and Jane to the store for ice cream. On the way, I asked Donald what kept him from the morning glories.
“I don’t need no kind of dope,” he croaked. “I be dopey enough like I am.”
“Dopey?” I said.
Jane offered, “Only if dopey means humble, sensitive, and kind.”
On our drive down the mountain that evening, I was thinking how Donald possessed the same powerful gentleness as my best friend Eric had before he died, when Jane asked, “Do you think Donald’s too good for the world?”
“He’s strong,” I said.
“Sure he is, but he’s on his own, he doesn’t know God, and I think the devil’s stronger.” The next day, J.B. called a meeting. His college degree was in psychology, so the meetings were supposed to stimulate confession and trust. He ordered us to confront each other, expelling our demons in a safe and nurturing environment. To demonstrate, J.B. led off with a litany of gripes about the performance of the staff during his absences. Two weeks in a row, Bill had failed to lead a crew hacking a firebreak through the tall weeds. The pickup was still broken down, he complained to Walt the handyman. Consequently, work hadn’t yet begun on digging trash out of the derelict swimming pool, so they could repair the cracks before next summer.
After unloading upon us adults, he reprimanded the boys for the morning glory binge and punished them by withholding a week’s money from their checks awarded by Neighborhood Youth Corp (a federal program) for their labors around the camp. While the boys grumbled, J.B. leveled his scowl at us. At me.
“Professor, who’s in charge here when I’m gone? Who runs the school?”
I sat as tall as I could manage and lifted my eyebrows.
Squaring off, he said, “First thing I come back, you hit me with — Little J’s been sleeping late. Rat doesn’t ever keep his mouth shut, so you have to chase him out of class, then he goes and busts a window, you say. And you say Q gives....What’s your name?” He wheeled on a new boy.
Q mimicked the name in a sissy manner. J.B. glared at Q, turned back on me, and growled, “You say Q’s punching Alan, but you don’t tell me why this shit only goes down when I’m not here. Why do you think that could be, Professor?”
If I crossed J.B., he might belittle me, encourage the boys to laugh and jeer. “Here’s why,” I said. “I don’t have any authority. Nobody does except you. All I can do is chase somebody out of the classroom. A dozen times you’ve told me, anybody gets out of line, report him to me. So I do like you say, and what happens? Nothing, except the boy comes back grinning at me. I mean, if somebody crosses you, you fine him or send him to juvenile hall, but when did you ever back me up?”
J.B. folded his arms. Smiling menacingly, he let his gaze sweep the room. “What the professor’s telling me is he thinks you show me respect only because I’m the one who can send you back to the hall. How about it. Is that so?”
Most of them shouted, “Hell no!” or “No way!” or shook their heads.
Donald sat still. Only Pill defied him. Pill was the oldest boy, a few months short of 18, when the court would release him from wardship. He already had a wife and baby. In my class, Pill was learning to read a science textbook and a car repair manual, and we had grown friendly enough to make me his confessor. He admitted that as a car thief, he’d been arrested and gone free 20 times before his first conviction, though guilty in every case except one. He’d dropped out of Compton High School because, he claimed, half the boys and a third of the girls carried guns. He felt lucky to have fathered a son before he got killed.
To J.B., he said, “You damn right that’s why. Ain’t no other reason to jump when you say so, except you the one can kick us out of here. Why else we going to jump for you? J.B., you forever saying a man going to show up here and teach us to repair air conditioners. He ain’t coming. You be talking shit, that’s all.”
Little J added, “Yeah, J.B. Where that bus you be promising? The one going to carry us to Tijuana and to the San Diego Zoo and that roller coaster by the ocean?”
“And you was going to open a camp for girls, remember?” Willy said. “You said we could go over to parties at the girls’ place. You said we could dance, man.”
Alan, the new boy, was also the littlest. Freckled and blond, he stood boldly and demanded the food J.B. had promised. “Some of us are still growing. How we going to grow on nothing but corn flakes and peanut butter?”
J.B. had folded his hands beneath his chin and sat glowering darkly. “I’m hearing...a few of you don’t trust me.” He cast his arms out wide and held them there, palms up. “I say we’re going to have a bus, that means we are going to have a bus. I say we are going to get an Industrial Arts building, we are going to get one damn soon. Now, anybody don’t trust me, he ought to say so. Let it out. He ought to come clean.”
“What happens do he say so?” Pill queried.
J.B. lowered his hands and sat still, panting slowly through his nose. Donald leaned closer to me and whispered, “Boy come clean, he go back to the hall. That’s what.”
After instructing the staff to gather in his office when school let out, J.B. adjourned the meeting. I tried to hold class, but not a single boy would read, write, ask questions, or suffer a quiz on vocabulary. Even Donald scowled at me. I followed him outside, invited him to talk. While we squatted on the dirt underneath the big oak, I asked Donald what he thought of J.B.’s meetings.
“He just be messing with us, you know. Don’t matter what we say, he don’t be doing any different. J.B. just a big ol’ balloon.”
We crowded into the office. Myself. Bright-eyed, intense Jane. Lanky Bill, the Wild West’s version of a science nerd. Esther the cook, who wore her gray hair long and proudly. Her husband Walt, the handyman, a burly retired sergeant.
J.B. asked, “Problems? Comments? Say, about this issue the professor has — why the boys don’t respect him.”
Walt said, “Me and Esther, well, the boys mind us just fine, but we’ll surely appreciate when you give us back the money you borrowed.”
Rubbing his chin, J.B. mimed thinking out loud. “The boys mind you just fine, but they don’t mind the professor. Why do you suppose that is?”
Bill raised his hand. “Some of us have charisma, some just don’t.”
“Ah. Which are you?”
“I’ve got no charisma whatsoever. Most of the boys won’t mind anything I say unless they happen to want to.”
“How is it you don’t always come running to me about it, like the professor does?”
“Because I go running to him.”
Jane shook a finger at J.B. “Bill doesn’t tell you because when we do, you act like we’re whining, like we’re pests.”
J.B. closed his eyes and sighed “Esther...why do you suppose the boys respect you, Walt, and me, but not the teachers?”
She pondered a minute. “Well, they mind me because they wish I was their grandma, and they mind Walt because he was a Marine. They know he won’t abide any back talk. But I see the way they treat their teachers, and I don’t like it a bit. I don’t think you should stand for it, J.B.”
We stared at him. Coolly, he said, “Esther, I don’t believe you’re being honest. I think you’ve got complaints of your own.”
“And what might they be?”
“You mean to say you’re not frustrated about the shortage of food or angry with me because you haven’t gotten all your pay?” Before she could reply, he sat tall and bellowed, “I know what’s got into all of you. Money. If the paychecks weren’t in arrears, I wouldn’t be hearing a peep. I’m tempted to think that’s all you’re up here for, and you don’t care a damn about the boys. It’s only a job for you people. Well, that's not what I’m doing here. I haven’t taken a dime salary in the 13 months since I opened the camp. How do you think my wife and my girls like that? How do you think they like my spending most of my life down here?” Pressing on his temples with thumb and forefinger, he used the other hand to wave us away, as if our attitudes had so grieved him, he needed time alone to mourn.
That week, because J.B. charged Pill with hot-wiring the camp’s old Pinto station wagon and joyriding, a probation officer arrived and carried Pill away. All I could do was take the P.O. aside and assure him that this time, at least, Pill was innocent. Little J had hot-wired the Pinto. A carload of boys had gone for the ride, while Pill sat in the cabin with Donald, scribbling a note to his wife.
Little J was from South Central L.A., where during a feud between the Crips and the Brims, he had accidentally killed an old lady, using a shotgun. Having served a few months’ hard time, he was an expert manipulator. He could act innocent, heartless, or any variation that suited his schemes. One week he tagged around with Donald and me. The next he became Q’s soul brother. Then Q strode grinning into my classroom, stood before my desk, and announced, “I know where you live, with all them fool hippies. That mean, Professor, you talk shit about me to J.B., I come burn your house down.”
He knew where I lived because J had spent a few Sunday nights at our place, on his way back to the camp from weekend passes.
By Thanksgiving, the boys were attending and leaving class at will. If a boy wanted to learn, I was there. If not, so be it.
Each week, J.B. spent at least three nights in L.A., leaving Bill in charge after school hours. One such evening, Bill discovered J.B.’s ledger in the office desk. Written in abbreviations and accounting lingo, which Bill deciphered, it explained how J.B. could boast that he never drew a salary and why the camp operated on nothing while the state provided over $400 monthly for each boy. Bill showed me the page that noted thousands of dollars paid out to furnish J.B’s home in Beverly Hills. He showed me the column that listed the mortgage payments on Camp X for a five-year note on a half-million-dollar property owned not by the corporation but by J.B. The payment was $6500 per month. In five years he would own the property clear.
When Bill asked my advice about how we should respond, I shook my head and left the office, walked out the gate and up the road past the reservation. Indian boys were bicycle-motocross racing, flying over humps and gullies. I trudged halfway to the paved road and back, listening to the argument between my heart and my mind. My heart despaired of losing another dream — of the camp as a place where hopeless boys got cured, where new lives began. So many of my dreams had fallen. The band in which I had invested six years had folded. My marriage was a standoff between Laura’s cravings for more of my time and affection and my conviction that however much I gave her wouldn’t prove enough. My first novel, after big promises from my hot-shot agent, was back on the shelf. The new novel was languishing in a drawer. I had failed to land a regular teaching job. Our home, which some people tagged a commune, often achieved the atmosphere of a sanitarium. And worst, it seemed I was running out of gas and only coasted through each day.
Back at the office, too forlorn to decide, I suggested to Bill that we hold our peace for a couple weeks, until after Christmas break. I didn’t tell Jane. As an obedient Christian who believed in doing right and leaving the outcome to God, she wouldn’t have abided any procrastination.
J.B. had contended that the key to our reaching the boys was the meetings. A boy might weep or confess and J.B. announce a breakthrough, yet nothing changed except the boys grew more skeptical of his promises.
Monday of the week before Christmas, while my Datsun pickup strained up Viejas grade, Jane said, “How do we run a school when one boy gets away with murder and another can’t spit without going back to the hall? And how do we ever get the supplies and facilities we need, while J.B. goes on swindling the money? Lord, we ought to just turn around and go home. Except, you know...Donald, Miguel, Willy?”
We arrived at the camp to find a huge black pig chained to the oak tree in the clearing between the dining hall and the office building. Donald was feeding it grain out of the palm of his hand. He called the pig Lucy and told us that Walt had brought it, a gift from the old man who owned the ranch beyond the second ball field. That day and the next, whenever class dismissed, Donald would hustle out and tend his pig.
Wednesday morning, Jane and I had to stop in El Cajon to pick up a book donation. We arrived at the camp after nine. J.B.’s Ford wagon was missing, so we figured he’d gone to L.A., probably chauffeuring the boys allowed passes home for Christmas, a dozen of them jammed into his wagon to save on bus fare. When I stopped to swing open the wood-framed gate, I spotted Donald beside the oak tree. Jane saw him too. She jumped out of my pickup and stood beside me, gaping at Donald and the black heap on the dirt beside him.
Donald’s legs were spread and bent, his arms outstretched downward, as though preparing to lift the pig and carry her to sanctuary. Most of the blood was already dry and blackening around Lucy’s mouth and where an ear used to be. With an eyelid missing, she appeared to gaze at us. Though she was still, I muttered, “Dead?”
“She dead,” Donald croaked. His face had transformed from brown to gray as if he’d rolled in ashes. His cheeks were muddy. His chin trembled. Invisible tears poured.
“What...who?” Jane whispered.
Donald snapped to attention, threw his head back. His gravelly voice roared as though announcing to all the countryside, “That boy Jeff. Him and Q. I’m bound to kill them. They just be pounding on Lucy and they don’t stop. How I supposed to make them quit? They just fling me off. Don’t nobody help Lucy. All them laughing, say, ‘Go on, homeboy, hit that ol’ pig.’ Lucy be squealing, like she try to tell us all something. Damn boys don’t care. They all thinks it funny, her squealing. Q got his board with the nails. He slamming and slamming till she die.” Donald wheeled on the tree and socked it hard. “You watch and see don’t I kill him.”
When Jane touched his shoulder, I hoped he would collapse into her arms, but he thrashed away and bolted, ran around the dining hall, past the dry swimming pool, and into the oaks.
All the boys had run off. The camp was deserted, silent except for laughing that echoed off the hill past the ball field. Jane said, “That’s Jeff and Q. Thank God Donald went the other way. Should we go after him?”
I asked her to phone J.B., and I went looking for Donald but found only Alan, hiding in the trees on his way to the highway, where he would hitch a ride out of here. I let him go.
Walt the handyman brought a friend and a truck with a winch. They carted Lucy off. The boys returned singly or in pairs, all except Q and Jeff.
I found Donald in the classroom off the dining hall. He wouldn’t talk. Sitting rigidly on the floor, his hack stiff against the wall, he refused a baggie of Wheat Thins I offered and would only read his Charlie Brown books, one after the other. I sat at the table attempting to finish last week’s attendance report the L.A. school district required and waited for Donald to give a clue in word or gesture that he would survive another day.
At lunchtime a few boys sheepishly appeared in the dining hall for the sandwiches and milk Esther was serving. Though Donald hadn’t turned a page in minutes, he wouldn’t get up or let go of his Charlie Brown book.
“Donald,” I said, “here’s a plan—you could spend Christmas at my place...”
His shoulders twitched. His lips drew into a tight gash and he shook his head. I walked outside and squatted in the shade of the oak, beside a bloody spot that looked like a giant scab. I stared across the ball field, at mountainous piles of orange and chalky rocks that lay beyond Jacumba, and shuddered from a glimpse of the truth — this place and most of its boys were doomed. And so was I, it seemed. A rush of prophecies assaulted me. My marriage was dead. If I ever became a notable writer, it would be after many treacherous years. But worse than all that, far deeper, was the recognition of what caused all this misery. All at once I knew the devil was real.
Some ethereal creature or a force that dwelt like a parasite in everything, he sabotaged harmony with chaos. He poisoned love with fear. He poured fuel on every spark, stirred the embers of grief. And I didn’t possess enough faith in myself or in God to fight the monster.