Neo-American Church

Chapter 22


The pilgrims were human beings.

It was almost unheard of at Millbrook in those days for anything of consequence to happen in a routine and predictable way. When visitors asked what was “happening,” a question we got pretty tired of hearing, the standard reply was, “I haven’t the slightest idea. If you ever find out, please let me know.”

This was a somewhat evasive response to a question for which there never was a simple answer. Anyone who had been there for a while could have gone on for hours about what he thought was happening. One could have gone on indefinitely, telling only the truth as one saw it, with the general picture probably seeming more and more obscure, if not totally crazy, to the listener as fact was added to fact.

Describing observable behavior would not have been all that difficult. But what were we all thinking about and why? What were we trying to do? What was the point of it all? What were our motives? Why this and why that and why the other thing? In these terms, a coherent overview was very hard to come by.

At any particular time, a reasonably accurate psychological, social and political atlas of the place would have shown lots of hidden corners, culs-de-sac, secret passages, trapdoors, brave highways leading nowhere, evanescent establishments, established evanescences, sanctified misunderstandings, whims of iron and resolutions of sand, as well as the usual stuff, and plenty of it.

There were ironic kickers to almost everything, which Psychedelian life tends to promote. The stylistic aspects of the Neo-American Church that are the most incomprehensible to outsiders derive partly from this. It’s an acquired taste, to be sure, and lousy politics, at least in the short run.

But, however irregular or just plain twisted, everyday life in the Big House in those days was, in general, a continuous source of instruction and amusement. I’ve lived in standard ways and in peculiar ways, and I think life in Psychedelian communities is best, if there is no great anxiety about money for basics, no great fear of the mind police, and room enough so factions can maintain a reasonable distance from one another. Three big ifs.

Routine housework, for one thing, had some fun in it most of the time. Kitchen duty was shared on a rotating schedule. Swabbing up after a dinner for thirty people, which was about average, is no pleasure in itself, and every night two of us had to spend about four hours washing up and mopping the floor. But we were usually well-entertained while doing so, since the spacious kitchen, complete with a walk-in refrigerator and an enormous table, was the forum of the community, and it was there that the issue of the day was often defined, although rarely resolved.

There was always an “issue of the day,” besides all the ordinary gossip and routine quarrels. Should people be permitted to have private stashes? Should so and so, a visitor, be allowed to move in? Should we switch to vegetarianism? Although Art Kleps was certainly a prince among men and a handsome devil besides, did he have the right to close off the music room so he and Wendy Williams and Michael Green could work on his book, wonderful beyond description though it was? Was Meher Baba full of shit? And so forth.

It was an oral group. People smoked one or two substances, drank three or four beverages, and cried, laughed, complained, bragged and told funny stories from morning to night. It was a rare night when, even at 3 a.m., one could not find an intense conversation going on somewhere in the house.

Although depressed during my first weeks in the Big House during the winter of the Haines interregnum, I was never bored, and I frequently found myself, to my astonishment, laughing out loud, such was the quality of the comedy. Much time was spent telling each other about our trips. One of the most popular was Howie Klein’s account of his latest big trip that winter, which I asked him to retell, and recorded, as he was going up on some STP in Arizona:

Howie: This is good music. Well let’s see. I don’t know, don’t know if I can do this. OK, when I was on this trip, let’s see I was, well I wanted to walk in the woods to see if I was afraid and I knew I was going to be. So I started walking and all the trees looked really weird ungngngngngnggggggggg all the branches were just out!

Kleps: You wanted to know why you were afraid?

Howie: No, I just wanted to see how I’d do it. How I’d get into these things. So I started walking, I said this is very weird, very weird, very weird. (Chuckle) I said go out a little further: you can always turn back. So I kept walking and I said why don’t you walk in the other direction and you’ll still be walking home! (Laughter) So I started walking and I said, don’t get into a thing where you’ll never get back to the house, you’ll fall in the snow here and you’ll be laying in the snow here, and all that. So I started to run and I got about fifty steps and I said SHSHSHSHSHSH look, you did it! So I was still pretty screwed up: so I thought I’d go and see Zen at the Bowling Alley; and I’d sit down; and he was getting high. He didn’t know I was on a trip, so I sat down and, Oh, I don’t know, Ahhhhh, I don’t know. I always get into this thing! (Laughter)

Then I got pissed off: you know, “What do I do this for?” So he says, he said, something that really turned me on, you know, “It’s all God, or something like that.” So I said, yah, I was reading this book that said when you ride on the train you carry all these suitcases and you really don’t carry them cause the train will carry them. (Chuckle) So that sounded good, you know, so I said, yah, I don’t have to carry them, give them all up. So then I felt good. So I felt I made a discovery, so I went to the Big House and told Victor, and I said, I came to the conclusion that everything is God.

So Victor said that God wasn’t found in a conclusion. (Laughter) So I didn’t really get too screwed up, but I started to think about it, so I went up to see Charlie, who was in the bathroom in Bill’s room, and I said, Victor said God isn’t found in a conclusion but since everything is God it has to be a conclusion too. So we drew a conclusion and it came like two cones coming together and it continued. And so from then I discovered it continued. So then I saw Lou cleaning the bathroom and I said, I discovered God, I found God. So he says now that you’ve found him don’t let him out of your sight. (Laughter)

Despite Bill’s extremely Buddhist orientation, “finding God, or something like that” was considered synonymous with “finding Enlightenment” for most of the kids in the Ashram and Howie was definitely a “kid.” It is difficult to extirpate the term if one has been brought up with it, no matter how abstract, or even meaningless, it becomes, as my own history shows.

If the reader had been present as an invisible man in a variety of these scenes, and heard A telling B something, he would have heard B respond with laughter, perhaps 7.6 times out of 10.

The transparent reader might not have laughed at any given story and perhaps not at any of them. Tastes differ, as does how much trust or distrust one has for one’s inherited terminology and the received wisdom, which is often the crux of the comedy. Stoned people often say things with great solemnity and then laugh at what they have just said, along with everyone else present. Lisa Bieberman, had she been forced by some cruel twist of fate to live among us in our “human zoo,” would definitely have been in the 2.4 minority, as would almost all of those who found life at Millbrook so dissonant with their ideas about the way things ought to be that they could not enjoy it the way it was.

Almost all who remained, however much they differed in opinion, had the same general outlook on things. As Goethe put it, “Men are divided by their opinions but unified by their outlooks.” Nor, although it looked pretty heavenly to me, was Millbrook to everyone’s taste in architecture and landscaping. The scale and style of things did not suggest heavenly realms to everyone but, to many, only illustrations and backgrounds from Tales of Terror comic books and Dracula movies. There were oddities all around: cavernous root cellars under the road between the Big House and the Bungalow; an abandoned kennel which seemed to stretch on forever; beautiful and ingeniously constructed wooden round barns scattered through the woods; the remnant foliage of ruined gardens creeping up and over the walls that had once contained them; and the great stone barns elsewhere described.

Although, in general, everyone who stayed fell in love with the place, Tim and Bill disparaged the architecture whenever the subject arose and so did most of the troops. Only Otto, Billy and I seemed satisfied with Old Man Dieterich’s contribution to the Andrew Jackson Downing Hudson River School of Picturesque Architecture, broadly defined. Variety is the spice of life. Most people professed to more rarefied tastes, or something.

Perhaps one reason Tim would rusticate the League in the hills in the summer of ’67 was the grotesque and grandiose character of the Big House and its surroundings. The image was inconsistent with his public relations objectives. It didn’t fit in with the ascetic simplicity then fashionable. It wasn’t egalitarian, it wasn’t primitive and it wasn’t “nice” (harmless seeming).

After the League moved out to the woods, Otto stayed in the basement of the Big House, which he loved, although he spent most of his waking time at the Ashram.

“I wasn’t brought up to live in the woods like a bunny rabbit,” he said.

Me neither.

Although Wendy and I sometimes visited what came to be called “League Country,” which comprised about 2,000 acres of fields and woodland on the northern half of the estate, I never felt any urge to camp out. If a lake had been among the attractions, with shack, it might have been a case of one hermit coming up.

There were two major hills. Lunacy had a magnificent sweeping view of the Hudson Valley and most of the League clustered there in their tents. Ecstasy was further back by a mile or two. In good weather, Tim and Rosemary lived there in a tent with a view of a sequestered bosky dell full of tall grass and wildflowers.

Almost any place where one has good trips becomes sanctified and glorified thereby, I would say. I recall the surprise I felt when, on my visit to Cambridge and IFIF, Lisa showed me her tiny, ordinary upstairs den in a frame building on Boylston Street and asked me if it wasn’t the most beautiful room I had ever seen. For her, I now know, it seemed full of the presence of her ghostly Lord. I forget what I replied but, whatever it was, it probably made Lisa wonder if I was a dullard, as her question made me wonder if she was mad.

There was a tendency among true Millbrook lovers to assume that everyone saw the place as we did, that is, as an almost miraculously perfect enclave in which to lead a stoned life, free of the daily grind, parking meters, etc. Haines, in particular, at first assumed that everyone who visited automatically conceived a secret passion to move in and, it seemed to me, was overly defensive because of this frequently mistaken view.

However, when I brought up the subject one day, maintaining that as many people were frightened, repelled, or just plain bored by the place as were attracted to it, he thought it over, agreed with me and even called a meeting of the Ashram to discuss the matter.

Powerful psychological forces kept many people attached to their cities and suburbs, and the imprints caused by death/rebirth trips taken in such familiar surroundings reinforced those forces. Our peculiar, semi-rural, neo-medieval enclosure appeared to many as an irrelevant and “counter-revolutionary” oddity in which no normal person would want to live any more than he would want to be locked up in the Egyptian Rooms of the Metropolitan Museum.

On the other hand, whether one wanted to move in or not, it didn’t take long before the invocation of the name “Millbrook,” which had previously sounded no more exciting than “Maple Street” or “Riverdale,” began to ring in the ears of seriously stoned people as “Mecca” or “Jerusalem” or “Lhassa” did in the ears of followers of the religions associated with those places. When those of us who lived there happened to be somewhere else, I noticed a flicker of reverence frequently accompanied the pronunciation of the two syllables. A kind of ideal image had been invoked.

The obvious associations are appropriate and attractive; the effortless flow of the river does the work of the world, the jolly miller cannot be faulted in any way for the work he does or the way he does it, and the pond behind his mossy dam is a nice place to fish and swim. Art and industry, nature and civilization, all combine nicely in this pretty Fazzm picture.

In some ways, it does seem incredible that the William and Thomas Mellon Hitchcock Center for the Distribution of Illegal Drugs at Millbrook, N.Y., wasn’t swamped with customers right from the beginning. Its existence was known to acid heads all over the world and it wasn’t hard to get in, get some, and get out, if one put one’s mind to it.

Our official policy was always no admittance without an invitation. Later, as Keeper of the Gate, I would tell almost everyone who showed up without an invitation that the place was not open to the public but, unless they were obviously uncouth, I would give them the Big House pay phone number and the Ashram number and tell them they could call if they liked and try to get an invitation.

Many, however, would simply climb over the wall or go around through a side gate rather than engage in any such disagreeable concessions to the standard canons of polite conduct. They would appear in the midst of a League or Ashram scene without saying anything at all to anyone about who they were, what they wanted or where they came from.

Things would then go something like this: Envision the Ashram going about its business. Pots are being made by potters. Two or three people are working in the press room. Two or three are preparing lunch in the kitchen. Sarasvati is mopping floors. A favored few are sitting out front on the patio shooting the shit with Haines. A pair of bearded, long-haired characters with glowing eyes appear on the outskirts of the group and sit down on rocks bordering the flower garden. They say nothing, except possibly “Hi,” to whomever is nearest them. If asked, they give their first names. “I’m Jerry, this is Flash.”

Consider the disagreeable task confronting Haines under these circumstances. Asking them what they wanted wouldn’t get him anywhere. Almost invariably, they would reply with, “Oh, just looking around,” or something equally meaningless, and volunteer no information whatever.

Haines usually reacted in one of two ways. If stoned, he would patiently ask questions until he was satisfied that the visitors were harmless, and then tell them they could stay for dinner but not overnight.

If he wasn’t stoned, he would say, with rising emphasis and amplification, “Oh, just looking around, huh? Well, this isn’t a zoo! You are on private property, and unless you have been invited here by someone who lives here, I’m afraid you will have to leave!”

They would leave, but then they would go to the Big House, where someone would direct them to the woods, where the same scene would be repeated, except the signals would be more scrambled and susceptible to misinterpretation.

Some would try to ignore all of this and hang around until they realized that they would not be accepted because of their sublime vibrations. Then, with one or two outstanding exceptions, they would go. In the final months, when Tim, in effect, declared the place to be a public park, all of this changed. Even the chicken coops filled up.

Many of these uninvited guests, who crept in like lizards, were anti-Psychedelian activists. They were Jesus Freaks, Scientologists, Meher Babaists, Macrobioticoids, Transcendental Meditators, Hare Krishnas and so forth, who intended to show us the True Path. One would suddenly awaken to the knowledge that, over there in the corner of the room was a weirdo who just didn’t fit in and who was staring fixedly at someone; most likely Tim, Bill or me. That stare seemed to be a universal weapon of choice for all of these fantasts. Stare the victim in the eye, and he will recognize the flame within, or something.

When Bill realized what was going on, he would ask, “Who let this fruitcake in here, anyway? Didn’t your mother teach you it was impolite to stare at people, young man? What group of con artists do you represent, anyway?” and other queries of the same type, few of which were answered.

No Millbrookian was ever converted, as far as I know.

These groups were and are competing for a slice of a potential market of born hypnotic subjects which comprises about 20 percent of the human race, minus those members of this core group who have been successfully inoculated against any shift in allegiance by massive and repeated indoctrinations during childhood in a standard-brand form of supernaturalism, and mindless reverence for the priesthood thereof, with plenty of booster shots thereafter. (Even such as these will sometimes crack, if your timing happens to be right, because gullibility is a hard thing to control.)

To gather together a core crew of zombies of this kind, all one needs is a forceful manner, balls of brass, and the conscience of a worm, which may help explain why this trade has always been so popular in India and the United States. Being somewhat crazy helps, if it is the right type of craziness; namely, a “well-guarded” form of grandiose paranoia. Out of a captive audience of 100, if you have mastered the right line of patter, twenty people will see whatever they are told to see and feel whatever they are told to feel. How long it will stick is another question.

All professional magician-hypnotists know this. There are simple tests which will identify the good subjects before the show starts. The more public the proceedings, the brighter the lights and the louder the voices, the easier it is.

Once you have a cadre, all you have to do is teach them, or some of them, how to do the same thing to others, and encourage everyone to believe every example of synchronicity they encounter is a demonstration of the power of Swami Igapoo or whomever, always floating overhead, pulling strings.

It also helps to create guilt by making impossible demands, such as always having “pure thoughts,” in order to prevent rebellion in the ranks.

Nothing to it, if you don’t mind being surrounded at all times by a bunch of zombies. I recommend this racket to anyone who feels he is cut out for it, since both the public in general and the victims in general are in the least danger when there is the most competition. When one horde manages to overcome all the others, the results, as all history attests, are usually unfortunate in the extreme. The Neo-American Church is not in this market at all. How could we be? It is a market composed of people afraid to get stoned, and afraid to have anyone around them get stoned, because getting stoned is anti-hypnotic.

Those visitors who approached us in an honest and polite way were treated in an honest and polite way. At the least, they got a free meal and a chance to talk to people experienced in psychedelic drug use.

Thanks in large part to the underground press, a rigid moral doctrine based on egalitarian assumptions had swept over the kid culture, but even the “Third World” and “Group Image” communists (“Tepee Town” back in the woods and the round barn near the duck pond), according to Tord, eventually rejected most of the people who wandered into their scenes expecting a free place to flop, although those already entrenched became embarrassed and upset over the necessity for doing so.

Life at Millbrook didn’t have much to do with social ideals, good, bad or indifferent. Psychedelic experience was the point of it all, and that was it. Everything else, one might say, was logistics. If one accepted Millbrook for what it was, a great place to get stoned, it produced instructive stories, fantastic scenes, good screws and beautiful images in abundance.

If one did not accept this obvious fact, well …

As an example of the kind of pressure Millbrook put on outsiders’ preconceptions, I particularly liked one of Tim’s “hasty retreat” stories (he had several) about an uninvited visitor who screamed in terror and fled the grounds when he laid eyes on Tim and Rosemary. This seems highly unlikely until one considers the known and probable facts.

The kid almost certainly took LSD shortly before or after he crawled over the wall, and it may well have been his first trip. It was a glorious spring morning in Pan’s garden. (Too many birds and flowers can be as unnerving for some people as too many commuters with briefcases can be to others.) He came upon the posh Bungalow bathed in the rays of the rising sun, and walked right in through the front door, probably thinking he was entering a museum or a temple, or something.

Tim and Rosemary, just back after an all-night drive from a lecture date, were still wearing their “ecstatic clothes.” About to put their slides and film back in order, they were posed in unfamiliar attitudes there in the sun-shot living room, rewinding a Hitchcock family home movie at the time the kid stepped in, so the tennis players, dancers and swimmers depicted were moving backwards on the screen.

Even so, a scream seems excessive, although hasty retreats were not unusual for novice trippers in strange places then, nor are they now.

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