Dad decided things abruptly and we just did whatever we were told. He had been attending meetings about vegan living and decided to make a change in our lives. All the meat was thrown out and we were to become vegetarians starting that day. No discussion, no family opinion, just one day everything changed.
Shortly after I turned seven, he came home from his job at the gas station and announced, “We are moving to California!” He decided we needed to live in a vegan commune. In the early sixties an entire family joining a commune was unusual enough to make the local paper. The New York Daily News article summed up my parents’ intentions:
What we are seeking to do is to return to the simple life, a life not at variance with nature, where we may develop ourselves to the maximum-physically, spiritually and mentally…
Life should be quite simple for the pioneers, as they will eat only fruits, vegetables and nuts. They will drink no milk and eat no meat or fish.
I had to say goodbye to my best friend Esther. We both believed my father when he said we were never coming back. She gave me one of her stuffed animals, which I cherished because I had so few toys of my own. Our family would be moving to Escondido, California. The only exception was my fifteen year old sister Janice, who chose to stay permanently with our grandparents. Janice had always been so motherly to me. I heard she was the one who always changed my diaper and brought me my bottle when I was a baby. Leaving her broke my heart. Even today, I still cry uncontrollably whenever I see people saying goodbye.
The cross-country drive in the 1955 Cadillac, a frankfurter truck and an old green ambulance turned out to be a brutally hot, two-week nightmare. Mirages of water wavered off the endless black asphalt on Route 66. Paula, from the other family sharing our quest, quit cigarettes and coffee the day we left and her irritable withdrawal was driving everyone crazy. All the kids were fighting and everyone was getting on each other’s nerves.
Along the way we stopped in Pennsylvania to visit a fellow veganite who invited us for a swim at a huge water hole. Everyone there, young and old, was naked. Overweight bellies and penises and giant boobs flopped around as their owners jumped up and down to hit a volleyball. My first shocking glimpse of cellulite was also my entire family’s first exposure to a nudist colony. While my mother and sister seemed paralyzed in shock, Dad stripped off his clothes and joined the crowd. At home Dad often walked between rooms wearing no clothes, something that seemed natural to me, and I often did the same. At the pool, though, I joined my Mom and sister and kept my bathing suit on, rebelling in a Nudist Colony.
We finally made it to Escondido and the place of our soon-to-be established Vegan community. Upon approaching the ramshackle two-story structure that was to be our new communal home, I pushed the doorbell while entering the house. I jumped back horrified as hundreds of cockroaches scurried in all directions out of the bell box. Every drawer inside the empty house sheltered layers of roaches. In order to start our new healthy living, we had to have the house fumigated. After that we shoveled endless piles of bug corpses out the door.
Communal living meant all fifteen of us shared in the responsibilities of day to day operations. My mother contributed by working at a fasting health sanitarium, where people who were very ill or wanted to detoxify their body went to take long supervised fasts. She prepared fresh carrot and watermelon juices for patients breaking their fasts. This was only the second job she’d had in her whole life. The commune owned a small Texaco Gas Station and my father was the mechanic. I enjoyed working alongside Dad, standing on an old milk crate, helping wipe the car windows — until someone’s complaint that a child was working at the station ended my short-lived career.
Speakers on alternative health came to our commune from around the world. On Sundays we had a non-religious church service where the sermons included yoga, meditation, flying saucers, and how to live a longer and healthier life. Outside people joined the Sunday church services, such as a man who published his book about spaceships and extra-terrestrials, and another gentle soul, The Garlic Man. He lived in the woods and drove around on a Rabbit Scooter with his dog secured on the back, while his long wispy white hair and beard flowed in the wind. The stench of raw garlic radiated from him and his dog. Their collective breath was overpowering. From that time on, the sight of Dad biting into a bulb of raw smelly garlic made me gag.
Jay Dinshaw, president of the American Vegan Society, was the head guy. His wife Freya prepared all of the meals and took care of the kids. Living with Freya was like having the sweetest most wonderful mother I could want. She was a Mary Poppins, complete with English accent. In contrast, her husband Jay was a small, short-tempered man with a hairless bump coming out of the back of his head. He was the president of the Vegan Society of America, our leader, and somewhat of an old Scrooge tyrant. Once he accused me of stealing his postage stamps. (I didn’t.)
The vegan diet was rigid and closely monitored. We couldn’t even eat an apple anywhere except in the kitchen. Improper food combining was not allowed. I was very active, skinny, and hungry all the time. I never had the feeling of fullness from fruits and vegetables. I craved bread and pasta. My longing for the forbidden sugary ice cream on a hot day has turned that into my most favorite dessert today.
Swami Avetananda Seraswati was one of the characters who lived at the commune. He was the first Hindu monk I had ever met, a man in his 20’s or 30’s with a shaved head and a brown robe and brown wooden beads. He was also a political activist. I remember a newspaper article with a photo of Swami in complete lotus position — in full meditation — as he protested the building of nuclear submarines. In the commune, all the adults had different jobs to keep the place running. Except Swami, who didn’t seem capable of much, so he was appointed as our babysitter. Because he was interested in telepathy, he would practice his skills by playing cards with me. He could tell exactly what cards I had in my hand without seeing them. Then he’d say, “Your turn.” After a few misses, I kept practicing and learned to read the cards. This was not all that Swami showed me. When we were alone he would put me into yoga holds and then rub his body against mine, refusing to release me. At seven, I didn’t know yet about erections. I just knew I was scared and it didn’t feel good. I hung on to Dad, saying, “Don’t leave me alone with Swami.” But Dad didn’t know why I was saying this so nothing changed until we left the commune. Maybe Swami is one of the reasons I always hated yoga until recently.
One afternoon while I was playing outside, I heard Jay call my name.
I was scared as I ran up towards the house, expecting to be yelled at for having done something wrong. Instead I was shocked to see My Dad, bandaged from head to toe, was being carried into the house on a stretcher from the ambulance we drove cross country in. Dad had been assigned the job of teaching Swami how to drive. Instead, they had a terrible car accident. Dad was floating in and out of consciousness at the hospital. The doctor wanted to sedate him but in spite of numerous skeletal injuries, he refused any medical treatment and demanded to be taken home. The doctors said my Dad needed 6 months of medical attention so he could walk again. Jay and Dad had the same regard for western medicine and he stepped in for Dad, authorizing the hospital to release him against medical advise.
Swami, having my father as a human cushion, had only suffered a broken clavicle and temporary amnesia. He wandered around dazed and confused for days after, wrapped in his brown robes, with sandalwood beads and shaven head. I remember saying to him, “What do you mean, ‘who are you?’ You’re Swami, and you’re here on the commune.” When the fog lifted, he said to Dad, “Jerry, Jerry, I am so sorry. I couldn’t help it. Yogananda was calling me and I had to go to him.” He explained that he heard the voice of Yogananda his guru calling him in his head, so he let go of the steering wheel and the car skidded sideways across highway 395, until they were hit broadside by a Ford. The Fiat flipped through the air, the doors flew off and the car landed on my dad’s side, looking like a crumpled piece of paper.
I remember Dad lying in a dark room in excruciating pain while I did my seven-year-old best to nurse and comfort him. To heal himself, Dad fasted on water for weeks and used a light-based color therapy machine. When a red sheet of glass was placed in the machine, he said it soothed his pain. Later I learned that though it was allowed in Europe, the FDA had declared color therapy illegal in this country. Jay’s father had built this machine and eventually was sentenced to five years in Atlanta penitentiary for selling this equipment for healing. In six weeks Dad was walking and able to work as a mechanic again. This was my first experience seeing alternative healing in action.
After seven months everyone knew communal living was not working. Everybody had their own ideas about how a commune should be run — the same reason most communes break up. The California chapter of my childhood turned out to be a very difficult time in my life. So much for the idea that we would be “developing ourselves to the maximum potential — physically, spiritually, and mentally.”
This is a peek at a larger memoir. The other stories already on Medium can be found here. If you enjoy what you’ve read, clap generously! Feel free to contact me at ghayssen at sonic.net.