Monday, April 09, 2007

Kool-Aid fast lane

Watching the story of the bizarre poison Kool-Aid deaths in Jonesville on a PBS American Experience program tonight reminded me of where and when I first heard the mind-boggling news of that tragedy.

It was past midnight in the wee hours of Nov. 19, 1978. I was driving my yellow Volvo wagon south on Interstate 95. My wife and daughter had both fallen asleep. We were somewhere between Woodbridge and Fredericksburg and up ahead on the road I saw headlights approaching in the distance. The lights seemed to be on my side of the highway but I figured it was an illusion.

It wasn’t.

The car coming at me must have been doing 100 miles-an-hour down the center of the highway. The only other cars in sight were in my rear view mirror. With no time to muddle over the problem I picked a side and steered right. The car passed in a blur. In the mirror I saw the mystery car heading toward the headlights behind me. There were no collisions, then it was over like nothing had happened.

Except for the radio the whole crisis happened without a sound. My passengers didn’t stir. Seconds later I heard a wire service report coming in -- it was the first news about Jonestown. To say it was an unbelievable story doesn‘t do the moment justice. Hundreds of people from San Francisco had committed suicide in a religious community in the tropics?

Could that be true?

It was all way too spooky to go on driving without waking up the sleeping girls, who probably would rather have stayed unaware of it all. The sense of absurdity in the Volvo was palpable.

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