Neo-American Church

Chapter 23


They had pack-mules along, and had brought everything I needed—tools, pump, lead pipe, Greek fire, sheaves of big rockets, Roman candles, colored-fire sprays, electric apparatus, and a lot of sundries—everything necessary for the stateliest kind of a miracle.

My first community service project that winter was to pen up Bob Ross’s goats.

In the I Ching, these beasts represent hardness without and weakness within. They spent most of their time on the front porch, which had in consequence become slippery with shit. Ross, it seemed, thought these animals gave the place the proper rustic atmosphere. Not only did I sharply disagree with this concept in general, I was infuriated to note that the goats were picking on a sheep which had been placed among them, and had ripped several patches of wool and skin from it, leaving bleeding wounds, an outrage which Ross, who looked like a goat himself, seemed to regard with callous indifference.

After hearing Haines complain about the situation for the second or third time, I went out, took another look at the unhappy sheep, and returned to announce that, given materials and tools, I would personally build a pen and beat off Ross with a pole, if necessary, to protect it. Ross had already announced his opposition to any confinement of his favorite animals. Since the Ashram was non-violent in principle, they were at a collective disadvantage in such disagreements with other members of the community. Otto, who was sitting in the common room when I made this announcement, lit up with a big grin immediately and volunteered to help.

“It’s about time someone showed that miserable swine where to get off,” Otto growled through clenched teeth, sounding like Peter Lorre announcing an intention to kidnap Shirley Temple. “I’ll go down to the wine cellar and get my banana knife.” He left the room, followed by his faithful Winnie.

“What the fuck?” I asked. “Is he serious?”

“You just made a friend for life, Kleps,” Haines said.

“Ross can’t stand Otto,” Ted Druck volunteered. “Well, who can, but the rest of us like Otto anyway. Ross really hates him.”

That didn’t make much sense. I asked more questions and everyone told Otto stories, all of them incredible. A coherent picture did not emerge.

Otto looked like the degenerate offspring of a long line of degenerates. He was of medium height and build. Oily, dark hair hung down in disorderly ringlets over a perpetually creased forehead. His face twitched most of the time, and was usually twisted into a sneer, a leer or a snarl. He was always dressed in dirty, black clothes, and wore black boots with black tassels on them. “Love beads” provided the only touch of color. Often, his favorite “banana knife” hung at his side. Just the kind of person who would cut your throat in a dark alley?

Wrong. That was what was so incredible about Otto. In appearance, conversation and preoccupations, he seemed to be a dangerous paranoid character, but in spirit he was as gentle, trusting, and helpless as a child. A lamb in wolf’s clothing. Yet there was nothing fraudulent or contrived about his persona, either. When Otto called someone a “miserable swine” he was expressing emotions sincerely felt; but they were weightless. Nothing about Otto had any gravity, yet everything about him had all the outward characteristics of solid lead. The whole production was therefore somehow miraculous and unbelievable and left people who didn’t know him dazed and uneasy after their first exposure.

It took me a while to get used to Otto. While we worked together building the pen, I wondered how I could detach myself from him without hurting his feelings, and I also tried to figure out, without much success, exactly what it was about Otto that made me so reluctant to hurt his feelings.

The custom at Millbrook in those days was to have someone in the tennis house, or Meditation House, as it had been renamed early in the game, at all times. One went there in the evening and either dropped at once or slept and dropped in the morning.

Every evening a big bell on the Big House porch was rung at the changing of the guard. A list of “meditators” for the week ahead was kept on the wall inside the front door. One could sign up any time for any night that was free. After so many weeks of unstoned woe, I was looking forward to breaking my set, which no longer suited my setting. I decided on a day trip. Feeling sociable, I had mentioned that I wouldn’t mind if two or three people joined me at sunrise to share the wealth. Otto wanted to be one of them. Over my dead body, I thought to myself. I put off setting a date until I could figure out a way of keeping Otto out of it.

The Meditation House was a charming, one-room building made of stone and carved beams, with paneled walls and diamond-paned, Gothic windows. No matter how wintery the weather outside, it could be kept comfortable with only a small fire in the fireplace. There was a covered mattress on the floor and a low, cushioned, closet bench extended along the wall under the windows facing the front lawn and the fountain. The Big House could not be seen from inside because fir trees were clustered so deeply around. From the covered entrance a steep, stone staircase conveniently descended to the sunken gardens. Crossed, wrought-iron tennis rackets adorned the peak of the Meditation House roof, a healthy, happy symbol which I would like to see on the klep of every Neo-American structure used for a similar purpose.

(There was almost no yoga exercise or “Buddhist” meditation at Millbrook, as typically understood. These terms, and others like them, were used as covers for getting stoned. They really meant “let’s sell decadency” or “let’s start degeneration,” to us hedonistic, chinless, homosexual midgets with our pugnacious noses and marked gratification complexes.)

Turn off the stupid chatter of your everyday mind, says the average, dime-a-dozen, street-corner “meditator.” Good advice, if all you have is stupid chatter. If, on the other hand, you enjoy a grand and breezy procession of thoughts of infinite variety, the formation of which is both an art and a sport, you might be satisfied to take a nap every now and then. To start such a parade of happy ideas, all that is often necessary is a puff of pot. To add golden elephants, giant balloons, exotic dancing girls, and the higher nobility in golden carriages, add a little acid.

What the hell, add a lot.

Bill Haines and I had visited Tim early one frosty morning in the Meditation House, after I had introduced them in 1966, and before I left with J.D. for my trip to Steve Newell’s place. I think it may have been the only time in the history of Millbrook the three of us got together privately. It was a pleasant meeting, unmarred by squabbles. Tim, who had just come down from a big one, said his vision of the eventual destiny of the place was a loose confederation of various spiritual communities devoted to different “paths.”

Since that was all Haines wanted and all I wanted, we left the meeting pleased with Tim and ourselves. Only later did we discover the wisdom of Lao-tzu’s cynical observation, “It is useless to confer with those of a different way,” as it applied to us.

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