The Dangers of Charisma: Mel Lyman and Fort Hill
from "The Lyman Family's Holy Siege of America" by Devid Felton,
Rolling Stone, no. 98 (December 23, 1971), pp 43, 44-45, 50-51, and 54,
with omissions. © 1971 by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc.
in: Communes: Creating and Managing the Collective Life.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter. New York, Harper & Row.
Chap. 17, pp. 209-221. ISBN: 0-06-043476-7. 1973.

"At one point I needed a banjo player in the band. So this friend of mine said he knew this guy who was playing banjo out at Brandeis University. He brought him in, and it was Mel. And that was the beginning of..." Jim Kweskin giggled at the thought of it all. "... the beginning of the change of my entire life."

Kweskin's dark moustache is shorter than it used to be, trimmed almost to Hitlerian proportions, but otherwise Kweskin during a recent interview looked about the same as he always has – gaunt and handsome with curly black hair and intense eyes of still, deep water. His manner was polite but cold, almost antiseptic.

"I knew immediately that he was a whole different kind of person than I had ever met," he continued, "the things he said and the things he did and the way he played. And his timing. Things would happen to him that could never happen to anybody else. I began to realize he never made a telephone call when the line was busy, he never called anybody and they weren't home. Or he would wake up in the morning and talk about somebody he hadn't seen in two years, and he'd walk out down the street and run into them. Things like that happening, you know? And you'd say it was a coincidence – maybe once or twice – but it happened every day. It was like some kind of miracle every day.

"Finally I realized that without Mel the band didn't mean a damn thing to me. I'll tell you how it happened. I did a TV show with the Jug Band, the Jonathan Winters Show; this was in '68. And it was really corny. We put on costumes, we were trying to make it commercial, trying to make it big in the music business. I saw that show, and I mean we really stunk. It was everything that I ever didn't want to be.

"And very close to that time – a few weeks later – I saw a little show on Channel 2, the educational channel in Boston, called What's Happening Mr. Silver?, the David Silver show. And all it was was an interview with Mel. The technique was poor, the camera work wasn't good, nothing was. And this little show moved me so deeply, just Mel's presence on TV was so strong and so alive, that I realized everything I was doing was a waste of time. What I really ought to be doing was helping to get Mel more opportunities to be on TV and to have his writing and his music and whatever he created out to the public.

"I'd been fighting with him inside of myself for almost a year, but it was that show that was the turning point. All of a sudden I knew that nothing else was important except that the whole world had to see Mel Lyman."

To join the service of Mel, said Jim, he had to give up his career, his possessions and his music. "I had to start right down at the very basis and bottom of hard work. I had no authority. I had no position. I wasn't anything except one of the guys who worked on the construction."

"And now, just about six months ago, I decided to go out in the world again and build up a new career as a solo entertainer. I was born to go out into the public. I knew that before I met Mel Lyman, I just didn't know why. And it was living with and having Mel inside me that showed me why."

"Inside you?"

"Yeah, the music that comes from me now comes from much deeper, deeper inside me. And therefore it affects people in a much deeper way. The things that happen in the room, you know? If it gets to the point where I want it to get to, the whole room comes together. I mean, the audience and myself and everybody is doing the same thing at the same time, and you can just feel the spirit in the room. And that's something that I could never do if I didn't have Mel Lyman inside me."

I asked Jim what his new act was like. Did he sermonize or what?

"We don't sermonize, I don't know, we don't preach," he said, barely smiling. "But we don't always do what they think they want. I mean, we demand that the audience get personally involved in what's happening, and a lot of times they just don't want to. Sometimes it's a simple thing like having them sing along. Or other times it's having some sort of personal input, get them to talk a bit, or say something or do something."

"And if they don't?"

"Well, we demand it."

"Do you quit playing, or ..."

"Sometimes. We've been known to sit up on stage for hours and not do a thing. And maybe we'd get everybody to hate us," Kweskin started to laugh, as if specific incidents were in mind. "It's awful. But out of that thing sometimes very great music comes. Sometimes you have to create an embarrassing or painful or angry situation just so that everybody's in the same place at the same time."

Wasn't this the sort of intimidation that people often associated with various Jesus Freak sects, I asked him? Maybe he didn't understand the question. "Peace and love!" he said scornfully. "It's just so limiting it's ridiculous. It's denying 75 percent of human nature. I mean, I walk down the street and I talk to some of the Jesus freaks or some of the peace and love people, you know? And they're dead. They're sound asleep. They feel absolutely nothing. All they do is spout out words. I mean, it's obvious we're not spouting out a bunch of words that somebody taught us how to say."

Kweskin started to shout in fervent, rhythmic patterns, as if he had a running jump and was sliding in with each phrase. "That's what we're on this planet for, to make people realize that it isn't all the same. That's why we make films and make music, to educate these people. Of course, there are millions of nonbelievers, there are millions of uneducated people, there's millions of people who don't know the difference. And our whole purpose in life is to show them the difference, to make them feel the difference.

"Here, just listen to this." Kweskin withdrew a manuscript from his briefcase and, with a slight missionary tremble to his voice, started reading it word for word. It was Mel Lyman's "Plea for Courage," an essay the community apparently feels is one of his most important.

Jim took a breath when he had finished reading the text, and replaced the manuscript. "That's why we moved to the West Coast," he said, "the need to expand, the fact that Los Angeles in one sense is the film and communications capital. We want to, slowly, as much as we can, get involved with the media.

"There's a whole community of, well, what used to be called hippies – I don't know what they are now – but there's thousands of them out here who are, you know, just waiting for Mel Lyman. He's like the rock that's dropped into the pond, he's going to have more communities. He's going to have hundreds of communities. Before you know it, the whole world's going to be his community."

How does a poor, simple American boy with a police record and a distaste for steady work come to acquire, in five years, more than a dozen elegant homes in four major cities, a fleet of cars and trucks to service them, recording and film equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars, and retreat houses on Martha's Vineyard and estates in Provence, France, near the Riviera?

That, on the surface at least, is the history of United Illuminating Inc., the Lyman Family's corporate front. Today United Illuminating owns eight multistoried old homes at Fort Hill in Boston, owns a five-story brownstone and leases a loft in New York City, leases a posh hillside duplex in the Buena Vista area overlooking San Francisco, and owns two houses in Los Angeles, one of them the Hollywood Hills mansion of late industrialist George Eastman which they purchased "at a steal" for $160,000.

To pay the mortgage and rent, plus ample bills for food, utilities and maintenance, many of the community's 100-odd members hold regular jobs in the outside world – anything from waiting on tables to building construction and contracting – turning over all pay "except carfare" to United Illuminating. Then there are the superstar incomes, the bread from Jim Kweskin and from Mark Frechette, the hero of Zabriskie Point who everyone is hoping will soon be discovered again for another acting assignment. Further, a surprising number of members come from wealthy and prominent families, for whatever that's worth.

Nowadays the Lyman people can afford to purchase their elegance more or less pre-packaged, as they did in their recent West Coast acquisitions. But in the past that elegance came hand-made, by their own, disciplined hands. When Mel Lyman and his small band of friends moved to Fort Hill in 1966, they moved into squalor. Fort Avenue Terrace, which skirted the base of the historic watchtower, was like a ghost street. The rotting structures there were without heat, light, plumbing or paint; they were uninhabitable, according to any but the most desperate hippie standards, and in fact had not been lived in for years.

Bought as shells for small sums, each today would bring $40 grand upward but for their ghetto location. They are models of warmth, taste, innovation and craftsmanship. In keeping with Mel's master bootcamp building and training plan, they have been stripped to the studs and rafters and entirely rebuilt, in some cases stripped and rebuilt again after Mel discovered a "mistake."

The Fort Hill Community in those early days was a rough life, and one wonders why Mel Lyman chose it. There is little indication he envisioned at that time the size and purpose of the community to come. True, he had already experienced several intimations of his own immortality. At the Newport Folk Festival of 1965, his last appearance with Jim Kweskin's Jug Band, Mel got a special request from God for a solo harp version of "Rock of Ages." At first Mel tried to resist the vision but finally gave in (" ... like what Christ had to do before mounting the cross, he said not my will but thine be done and then there was no cross, no death ...") and played the hymn for a soulful, trembling ten minutes. It followed the festival's final act, and most of the fans had already left for their cars.

Soon afterward Mel wrote his first book, a rambling, abstract, 80-page riddle called Autobiography of a World Savior, based loosely on the Superman-Krypton plot ("Long long ago in another dimension on another planet I volunteered for an assignment the nature of which I knew little ..."). Some people, including rock writer Paul Williams, have made their Decision for Mel based on that book alone, even though Mel later described it as a private, tongue-in-cheek joke written for some scientologist friends of his.

 
Among the very first members of the Fort Hill Community were three couples: Mel Lyman and Jessie Benton, former wife of David Gude; Mel's artist friend Eben Given and Sophie Lucero, former wife of Mel Lyman; and David Gude and Faith Franckenstein, daughter of novelist Kay Boyle. (These three marriages have also long since dissolved.) Also Faith's brother, Ian, other friends, some children and one grandmother – Kay Boyle.

"It was when my ex-son-in-law David Gude left Vanguard Records that I first. heard of Mel Lyman," Kay recalled as she sat in the living room of the stately San Francisco home she has owned for so many years. "And then when I went up there in '66 I met him for the first time. He was, I felt, very insignificant looking and very weak looking. He never at any time tried to talk with me; I was completely ignored by him.

"My daughter and David said they had a room for me, they wanted me to come and live there, you know? Their idea was that I would make my life there and eventually sell this house. Then there was not the idea of spreading out as they have now."

A radiant, gray-haired woman of amazing graciousness, Kay Boyle spoke in a calm manner that intimated little of her five-year battle with Mel Lyman over possession of Faith and Ian. That battle, at least in Faith's case she has probably lost for all time.

"I took a job with the University of Massachusetts in Amherst for a year, and drove over from the commune. And even before certain confrontations came up with some people at Fort Hill, life became impossible. For instance, underneath my room David would record all night with Mel, right underneath, you see. And I thought, "Well, I'll get used to it, it doesn't really matter." One of the little grandchildren had his crib in my room. I thought, "We'll get used to it."

"But then David would say to me in the morning, "I hope we kept you awake last night. That was the intention, we didn't have to do that."

"Why did he do that?"

"To make me realize what reality was or something, I don't know.

"I think there were not more than 30 people living there then, and there was a great turnover. At the beginning, I believe, it was considered a place where people could go and get drugs. I would come down sometimes in the morning and there would be about 20 people rolled up in blankets asleep on the floor.

And I'd pick my way over to the kitchen to help Faith get breakfast, and I'd say, "Who are they?" and she'd say, "I have no idea." The door was open and they'd just come in.

"I think Mel, as time wore on, got much more strict about things, and discipline. I suppose he had not developed his pitch to the point that he has now...."

 
Shortly before the summer of 1971 disturbing reports began trickling in about the Lyman Family's attempts to infiltrate the underground media. Nearly all of them involved violence of one sort or another. After young Paul Mills wrote a relatively mild article about Mel Lyman in the April 16th issue of Fusion Magazine, a window in his car was smashed and Jim Kweskin allegedly phoned Paul's mother and posed as an old friend to find out his address. That same day Fusion editor Robert Somma was essentially kidnapped; Lyman people refused to leave his office until he would accompany them to Fort Hill, which he did. He was unharmed.

"I will forewarn you," Somma said later, "they really don't joke around. They're as malicious and malevolent as any group I've met." He said three other writers had quit the story out of fear before Mills finally completed it.

There was the story that Raeanne Rubenstein, current editor of Crawdaddy, had been slapped around by Fort Hill recruit Paul Williams when she wouldn't give more space to an essay he'd written about Mel. She refused to discuss the matter on the phone, but Paul later admitted it. "It was stupid," he said, "I don't know why I did it, exactly, but I had been living with the New York community and was very impressed, you know, at the way they stand up for what they have to have."

And similar, if less harsh, accounts of intimidation were coming in, involving The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Free Press. And several people had reported that frightening incident at KPFK, the first encounter with the Lyman Family where police had to be called. In this case too, those involved refused to talk on the phone. "It's not going to be discussed by me or any member of this staff," barked Elsa Knight Thompson, acting station manager. "I don't have to explain why. And if you don't like it, call back after the 10th of this month and talk to the new manager."

When the incident was mentioned to Jim Kweskin, he suddenly turned cold and suspicious.

"What do you know about it?" he asked.

"Just ... rumors, really."

"Tell me about them. Tell me about the rumors."

"Well, mainly that you retaliated after one of your people, Owen deLong, was fired as program director. That's about it."

Kweskin's voice was deliberate and somewhat righteous. "What you heard is true. But it didn't happen because Owen deLong was fired. It happened because Richard Herbruck – who is a very important person in the community, the Producer, produces all sorts of things – produced a bunch of radio shows that were completely destroyed by the engineers at KPFK. The volume kept changing all the time; at one point the sound went off completely during one of Richard Herbruck's introductions.

"And we sent our own engineer down to help them and they locked our engineer out. We sent people down to help, and all we met was hate. And resistance. And pride. And ego. Until finally we got so angry that we had to do something to make those people feel how angry we were. Something had to be done to make the people at KPFK feel, feel that something, feel as bad as we did, feel what a destructive job they were doing."

But wasn't it this sort of incident that was giving the Lyman Family the reputation of Manson's?

Kweskin dismissed the idea scornfully. "The Manson Family preached peace and love and went around killing people. We don't preach peace and love. And," he added, smiling, "we haven't killed anybody – yet."

I climbed the crumbling stone steps to 27 Fort Avenue, Roxbury, the front office and nerve center of Fort Hill. A square-jawed young man named Jeff and a dark-haired storybook princess named Anna answered the door hugging and giggling, took me inside to the office and immediately asked me my sign and, when I confessed ignorance, my date of birth. It was the first of perhaps 40 times I waste be asked that sort of question. Fort Hill considers astrology to be a second language, a tongue in which I was about to receive a kind of crash course.

Everything has a sign, to them, not just people but animals, plants, events, cities, countries, everything that has a beginning or a place. "Mel knew the signs of everybody in the National League," recalled a downhill scoffer. "You know, he'd say, "Baltimore's got a great Aquarian pitcher ... too many Capricorns in the outfield." Generally they use the language not so much for forecasting as Monday-morning quarterbacking. Which tends to reinforce their belief that the universe, at least Mel Lyman's universe, is "unfolding as it should."

What's particularly disturbing to a non-believer is the way, once you tell them your sign, they raise their eyebrows, chuckle affirmatively and say nothing, as if with one utterance you had lost the chance to marry their daughters.

Anna had some book open and was researching my birthdate. Finally she looked up and said brightly to the others in the room, "He's a Gemini-Sagi." "Wow," responded the others, "a Gemini-Sagi." I expected applause but the matter was immediately dropped.

There was a monster switchboard-intercom system on the main desk, and Anna hit one of the buttons. "Send Paul over," she instructed. Paul Williams would take me over to the studio where the men were working, she said. In the meantime I did a quick check of the office. They had the usual office stufffiles, supplies, mimeo and photo duplicating equipment. A stack of Avatars lay on one table, next to a copy of the Rolling Stone issue on Charles Manson ("Year of the Fork, Night of the Hunter") marked "office copy – please save."

As one might expect, the office was blessed from one wall by a framed photograph of Mel, as was nearly every room in all the houses. On a shelf above the intercom was a small reference library, and I started jotting down the titles: Illustrated Yoga, Webster's Dictionary, Linda Goodman's Sun Signs, Astrology for the Millions....

"What are you writing that stuff down for?" interrupted a chubby, unpleasant-looking girl named Dvora, who had just entered. "Do you think that's where your story is? It's not." The room grew chilly.

I continued: Information Please Almanac, I Ching – Office Copy.

"Look, he just keeps on writing," she said to the others, then turned to me. "Can I see your notes?"

I said no and her eyes narrowed. "What's your sign?" she asked hostilely.

"Gemini-Sagi."

"Oh," she snickered.

Two other books, I later discovered, were especially important on the Hill and had been read by everyone: The Godfather, because, as one girl put it, "We're just like the Mafia up here." And Instant Replay, because Mel digs football, really digs it, particularly professional football. During the season all four communities devote their weekends to it (and now Monday nights, thanks to the ABC network), usually watching two games at once on side-by-side color TVs. It all has to do with a team of people working as one unit at the direction of one man or something.

Just then the office phone rang, and Jeff, the giggling, square-jawed fellow, answered. As he listened his face turned mean and bitter, his brow lowered, his square jaw jutted forth. It was more news about that damned housing project the city wants to build next to Fort Hill. Finally he started shouting. "As far as I'm concerned they're all a bunch of racists and faggots! The only thing I'd do is ... is straight assassination. I mean, how are people gonna change except through violence?"

Jeff's tirade persisted as Paul Williams appeared at the doorway, introduced himself and escorted me from the office, up Fort Avenue half a block and right on Fort Avenue Terrace, the long gravel alley on which five of the Community's eight structures stand. It was about three in the afternoon and the men had another hour to work before lunch.

As Paul explained it, the men generally started work at nine in the morning, broke for breakfast at 11, broke again for lunch at four and finished work and cleaned up just before dinner at nine in the evening. It was the schedule Mel had worked out for maximum health, appetite control and work output. Times and amounts of coffee intake were similarly dictated.

The studio where the men were working was upstairs in the last building, an old, two-story duplex known as Five and Six. Actually they were working to the rear of the studio, building a new two-story addition, the top floor of which could be entered from the studio. Where there were now beams and studs there would soon be a roof and walls.

Paul introduced some of the workmen, most of them Fort Hill veterans, including David Gude and Richie Guerin, the Community's brilliant young architect who bore an unnerving resemblance to pictures I'd seen of Mel. I asked Paul why there was so much building and remodeling going on.

"I think they're getting ready to rent them or sell them," he said, "some of them, at least, and so they ..."

"Paul," Gude cut in sharply looking up from the board he was sizing, his thin mouth straight and grim. "Don't talk about the future."

"Right, uh ..." Paul caught his breath. "... We really don't know what's going to happen."

It suddenly became apparent that Paul Williams was a recruit, a pledge, a "dummie" or "turd" as such people are referred to on the Hill. I had naively assumed that a writer with a book and some reputation would automatically start at a higher level, but no. He was at the bottom and David and Richie were – well, only one person is at the top, of course – but they certainly had more authority than Paul Williams.

Perhaps it was this kind of humiliation that, several weeks later, became more than Paul could endure.

 
"We believe that woman serves God through man," said Lou, an attractive former nun now in her first stage of pregnancy. "I was sort of into women's lib before I came up here, you know, 'cause so many men are such piss-ants, such faggots. But when I came up here and started serving them breakfast, I really began looking up to them." She shoved a spoonful of strained vegetables into the squirming infant on her lap.

"The men here on the Hill are real men; the men out there are faggots, with their long hair and everything. If they weren't, they wouldn't let their women get away with the things they do."

Lou learned about the true role of women from something Mel wrote in the Avatar. "If a woman is really a woman, and not just an old girl," wrote Mel, "then everything she does is for her man and her only satisfaction is in making her man a greater man. She is his quiet conscience, she is his home, she is his inspiration and she is his living proof that his life, his labors, are worthwhile.

"A woman who seeks to satisfy herself is the loneliest being in God's creation. A woman who seeks to surpass her man is only leaving herself behind. A man can only look ahead, he must have somewhere to look from. A woman can only look at her man ... I have stated the Law purely and simply. Don't break it."

Not that anyone does. Most of the Hill women, if they're not holding down outside "female" jobs as waitresses or secretaries, spend their time cooking, sewing, cleaning house, tending the children and serving the men. They seem to do so with great relish, developing an almost worshipful attitude toward the men.

"I mean, couldn't you feel it in those men at lunch," asked Lou, "how strong they were? How simple? Life here is so simple. Of course, the more simple life is, the harder it is. Let me tell you, there's a lot of hate and frustration up here. And pain.

"When I first came up here I was a bitch." Lou sneered at herself. "A bitch, hah, that's putting it mildly. I was a viper. I hated Mel Lyman, I hated everyone here. I resisted like hell. And the thing that shocked me was how much they still cared about me. I mean, with me my hatred was personal, 'cause I hated on such a low level. But they taught me how to hate on a higher level."

Why did she first hate Mel? I asked.

"Because he was stronger than me. I guess I wanted to be God too. But finally I had to break down; he was so much stronger than me, I finally had to accept it."

"Do you believe he's God?"

"Yeah, in the sense that Jesus Christ came down on earth. But he's dead, so Mel's the son of God now." As she said these last words, Lou raised her eyes in adoration toward a photograph of Mel on the opposite wall, the one on the cover of the Christ issue.

"When I first met Mel," she continued, "it was really weird, 'cause he was the most down-to-earth easygoing guy I'd ever met. Until he looked at you, and then, oh God, his force just filled the room.

"Now I love him intensely, I'm his forever. I want to conquer the world for Mel. I get so mad at that world out there I want to kill, I want to shove Mel in their hearts. He's the only one who knows how to deal with feeling, the feelings you have at the time, whether they're love or hate or fear."

She said Mel was a great leader, like Abraham Lincoln. "We believe very much in Abraham Lincoln and other great leaders of the past – even Hitler. Anyone who causes change in society is an agent of God."

I asked Lou how she thought Hitler had changed society. She looked puzzled, finally exasperated. "I don't know. I don't know," she said, a bit irritated. "My problem was I thought too much. I betrayed my heart. That's what you are, you know, when you think instead of feel – a traitor."

By this time Lou had finished feeding the baby that was on her lap. She wiped its mouth, kissed it, then turned to me and said sweetly, "That's all Mel wants, you know. He just wants to put a great big heart in that world out there, and get us away from the mind."

Lou is the woman hired a year ago to teach all the Fort Hill children.

It was time, I figured, to go see about my sleeping accommodations for the night. Jim Kweskin had suggested I stay at Fort Hill for several days if I ever wanted to get the "real story," and, he hinted, if I – ever wanted to see the real Mel.

I told Lou I'd see her later, that I had much to learn, and she leaned forward and confided cheerfully, "I'll warn you. They're not gonna leave you untouched."

 
Indoors, in every Lyman home in every Lyman community, the Family moves on stocking feet, first depositing its shoes in an entrance hall, or in the case of the Fort Hill mess hall, an enclosed front porch. Keeps things cleaner, was the only reason I was ever given.

It was just after nine and the mess hall porch had been filling up steadily with boots, shoes, slippers and sandals, male and female, until there were maybe 40 or 50 pairs, nearly covering it wall to wall. Some of them had been worn in work around the Hill that day, but most had been worn on private jobs throughout the city.

The banquet table – three regulation-sized ping pong tables covered with white linen – was almost surrounded by cordial, chattering young people, their plates steaming with some kind of casserole and vegetables served buffet style. I took a modest portion, partly because again it looked quite starchy and partly because Harry Bikes had told me of a dinner he'd attended where a Lyman veteran approached him menacingly and said, "You took two pieces of chicken!"

Apparently one could sit anywhere, and I chose a spot next to Kurt Franck and across from Richie Guerin. On the wall behind Richie hung another photo of Melvin, and it was amazing how much Richie looked like his master. Many of the young men resemble Mel's picture but not as much as Richie, who could easily double for him if he were maybe eight or ten years older.

Most of the men and women at Fort Hill are in their 20s and extremely handsome, their faces fresh and glowing, their eyes – well, they're not weird or anything; it's just that you always notice their eyes. Maybe because they always notice you.

The men wear their hair shorter than many of their contemporaries, not cop short, but about the length of maybe a Hollywood bank teller's. Most of their ears are visible. The women nearly always wear dresses; I can't recall any exceptions.

Anna, one of the Hill's prettiest, sat down next to a bashful, red-haired fellow named Paul, and they immediately became the butt of the evening's joke. Jeff started it. "What's goin' on down there?" he inquired in a teasing, Protestant campfire manner. "You guys having a little personal relationship?"

The two giggled and blushed. Everyone joined in, laughing, the men fabricating implications in their ripest falsettos. It was a joke. Get it? Because Paul and Anna couldn't possibly be having a personal relationship; if they were, the matter would have been treated much differently. Such couplings are harshly discouraged on the Hill.

"Every once in a while, you know, you can tell when somebody's got a little trip going," Richie said later, "and two people go off and have their little room somewhere. And they eat alone and try to pull one of those separatist kind of numbers, and have this little family scene away from the Family. It's like ridiculous. And sometimes that has to be dealt with.

"There's no secrets here, absolutely not. Everybody knows everybody clean through, clean through. I mean like, nobody can get away with anything, you know, and that's what makes it so real."

In the meantime a few last Fort Hill diners had straggled in and somehow found a place at the table. Richie surveyed the room, then asked, "Where's David Plaine?"

There was silence. "Maybe he knows turds aren't welcome here," someone said contemptuously, and the conversation resumed. Kurt, a former math whiz at M.I.T., asked me what my sign was and I asked him why astrology was so important on the Hill. He shrugged and said, "It's just a real quick way to talk about people."

With nearly 50 people participating in the banquet, scraping their plates, chewing, chatting with those next to them, the din was considerable, yet cheerful and certainly not unusual or unpleasant. But suddenly Dvora threw down her fork and shouted, "What is this, a cocktail party?"

As if they had been rehearsed, the entire body of people shut up at once. You could still hear the scraping and chewing, but nobody said a word, or even managed a sheepish grin. After a few minutes I asked Kurt why no one was talking.

"Last night the trivia got pretty heavy," he whispered, "so we decided not to talk at dinner unless there was something important to say." I wondered what he meant by heavy trivia.

More minutes passed, and finally the scraping and chewing stopped too, leaving an occasional chair squeak as people shifted into good staring positions. Then there was a new sound. Not everyone caught it at first – footsteps approaching from outside, boots trudging up the front steps, the front door opening and closing, bootsteps changing into sock steps, slowly stalking down the rug-covered hallway floor toward the dining room.

It was David Plaine. Someone started singing and the others followed, "For he's a jolly good fellow, for he's a jolly good fellow. . . ."

A sensitive-looking young man with glasses and a painful face, David Plaine meekly stood at the dining room entrance and took his medicine. He was crying.

"... which nobody can deny." Richie made a loud fart noise with his mouth, and the crowd broke up laughing and jeering. Lou jammed a kitchen towel in David's face and said, mocking him, "Here, dry your tears, baby." Angrily he snapped his head back, which produced a chorus of boos.

When no one asked him to sit down at the table, he walked out to the kitchen where Lou began lecturing him in whispers. She must have hit a nerve because a short while later he turned around, ran down the hall and out the door, Lou calling after him, "Go ahead, that's right! Leave! Run away!"

At the table, Richie motioned to two of the larger men, and the three immediately bolted up and ran after him.


From "The Lyman Family's Holy Siege of America" by David Felton, Rolling Stone, no. 98 (December 23, 1971), pp. 43, 44-45, 50-51, and 54, with omissions. Copyright 1971 by Straight Arrow Publishers Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.


Mel Lyman