Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Wordcraft -- The need to belong: drinking the Kool-Aid

Warning—this is the writing post that’s not about writing. But the story Dr. Vance Dell brought to this month’s meeting of the Dallas branch of Mystery Writers of America was so shocking, even years after the events he described, that I have to share it. Use it as an opening for a mystery, thriller, military fiction, even a space opera, or just to bring a critical eye to the groups you and your kids belong to. And never to forget the Kool-Aid.

One late night in November 1978, Dell, then the 28-year-old Chief of Aeromedical Services at the Air Force base in Charleston, South Carolina, got a phone call to report “ASAP, wearing either a flight suit or fatigues.” Why? Nobody would tell him or any of the men waiting at the hangar to get pre-mission medical and other checkups.

Jonestown aftermath
Medical checkups? No problem. Dell was a doctor. He’d been stationed in East Asia. Could there possibly be any immunization he hadn’t already had? “It really hit more that this was not a drill when they gave me a shot I had never had in my life,” he said. “I’m not sure whether it was yellow fever or what, but I was pretty sure then that we weren’t going to Omaha.”

The mystery of their mission deepened when he was handed a weapon. Given a handgun and holster, he tried to beg off, saying, “I’m a doctor. I don’t need this.”

Even surrounded by Pararescuemen (P.J.’s), the Air Force’s elite combat rescue personnel, “all armed to the teeth,” their pre-flight briefing only told the group that “a large number of American citizens are at an encampment and they’re being poisoned.” Unknown to the medical personnel on board, they were going to an encampment known as Jonestown in the South American country of Guyana to rescue members of the Peoples Temple, the religious group whose charismatic leader, Jim Jones, had ordered them to commit mass suicide.

The P.J.’s exited the plane once it touched down in the South American jungle, leaving the flight crew and medical personnel to wait. “It did not pass our minds that there were no P.J.’s around, only a bunch of doctors with guns,” Dell said, “and that this aircraft could become Fort Apache.”

At the time, none of the group realized that the only survivors would be the very few who managed to resist Jones’ brain washing and escape the armed guards assigned to kill anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t comply with his crazed demands. Or that the massive doses of antidote their plane carried would be useless against Jones’ poison of choice, soft drinks (both Kool-Aid and another brand, Flavor-Aid) laced with industrial grade cyanide. The nearly 1,000 people at Jonestown who ingested the potion died within at most a couple of minutes.

Rescue personnel would return bearing only four plywood coffins with the bodies of California Congressman Leo Ryan and his companions, whose investigative mission to the Peoples Temple site triggered the final act of madness. And left Dell to wonder what could provoke such a tragedy.

"Psychologists say that the two strongest human drives are to belong and to matter. As I grow older, I’m reminded of what’s happening today, in the Islamic State, and even with street gangs,” as young people search for a group to belong to a a purpose in life. Is there, he asked, any stronger way for people to demonstrate that they belong and that they matter than to die with a group, and for a cause?

For more information about the Dallas branch of Mystery Writers of America and its meetings, see http://dallasmysterywriters.com/. The photo illustrating this post is from The Jonestown Institute, a survivors’ clearinghouse for information about the tragedy.


If you want to be part of the Big D Reads program this month (which I’m pretty sure doesn’t involve ingesting dangerous substances), check out the program tomorrow, April 8, at the Lakewood branch of the Dallas Public Library, 6121 Worth Street in Dallas. Local reviewer Rosemary Rumbley will discuss the 2015 Big D Reads selection, True Grit, and its film incarnations. The program starts at 2 p.m., but arrive early, because the house is always packed for Rumbley’s performances. 

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