A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH CHARLIE MANSON
While my 12 year-old son and I were waiting for our flight from Miami to Los Angeles I was browsing a magazine rack and came across a article about Charlie Manson and his perennial parole problems. My mind immediately flew to that ominous afternoon I spent at his Topanga Canyon commune outside of Los Angeles. The picture, indelibly imprinted on my consciousness, of Manson jumping back into an attack mode crouch, his fists clenched, wanting to fight me.
This same man was convicted of the 1971 of seven counts of murder. This conviction and his death sentence (later changed to life in prison when California abolished the death penalty) were the result of his mind control over homeless and disenfranchised adolescents in committing the August 9, 1968 senseless and brutal Hollywood murders of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and her four friends. Two night later the Manson’s automatons, murdered an innocent older, the La Bianca’s couple, who happened to live next door to where the Manson “Family” partied and tripped on LSD. All the victims were unknown to their mindless, uncaring, puppet-like killers. Manson and his puppets were also implicated in another half dozen to three dozen killings. Many of these victims were somewhat associated with the “Family” as Manson and his friends referred to themselves. Not the kind of family you want to have dinner with.
Unbelievable! And the man wants parole.
Leaving the Los Angeles Airport later that day I was reminded again of Manson, as we passed a poster with his picture on it. The caption: “if society can provide housing for a man like this, can’t we do more for the homeless.” It was signed by the Coalition for the Homeless, with a New York phone number.
I hadn’t been in L.A. for 20 years, leaving in part because of the viciousness of those murders and how many people were freaked out over what had happened. And although, at the time, I didn’t know the man I encountered in Topango Canyon was Manson, the incident also made me question whether 10 years in L.A. was enough. Now, in coming back for a short visit, in one day, in two different cities on opposite sides of the continent, two reminders, of this misguided human being. I explained briefly to my son Jacob about the man in the poster, also telling him my story.
After telling Jacob my story, I had this other disturbing thought: What if I had been told when I met Charlie Manson what he would be doing in the future and some one gave me a gun telling me I could save the lives those others if I shot an killed him?
Having lived my life as a gentle soul, as peace maker, never even have shot a gun, I sit in this moment wondering still how I would have dealt with that imaginary moral proposal. I will always believe that we can touch people’s lives in way that can change them. Certainly not always and not everyone and not in ways we may think best for them, but there ways to reach people. Sometimes on their vibrational level, deep down, beyond the physical. My confrontation with Manson that afternoon resolved itself by me simply walking away from him and not wanting to buy into his violent energy. This was obviously not an option for many others who were seemingly as innocent as I was, but yet they were murdered by him or his proxies. For now, I’ll let this moral dilemma lie and come back to it at the end of my story.
While in L.A. I spent some time visiting with an old friend, Bert, and we reminisced about the old days I Hollywood. Naturally we talked about our good friend Phil. Again, I couldn’t think of Phil without remembering the menacing day in went to visit Phil at Charlie Manson’s Topanga Canyon commune.
I first heard of Charlie from Phil when he was stationed, well, not exactly stationed, but incarcerated in Terminal Island Prison near Long Beach, California. Phil wasn’t a real criminal, but was a real character. He had been arrested from trying to smuggle marijuana in this country, jumped bail and went to Europe where he was having a good old time till he was arrested for smuggling the same herbal remedy again and was sent back to the States to pay his dues.
Because I lived close to Long Beach in 1967, I visited Phil occasionally at his Terminal Island abode and he would talk about his friend Charlie the guitar player, song writer who he was spending time with in prison. Phil was a Hollywood kind of guy who worked in and around the industry and had a eye for talent, but obviously, not for character.
Phil was always looking for a good time and apparently Charlie, even in prison, offered that with his music, stories and charisma. Phil told me about songs Charlie had written which has some social significance. Yeah, right. When Charlie got out of jail he told Phil to look him up, that he’d be in the Hollywood area. Well, Phil was into promoting talent I suspect he thought there was someone who he could help make record and they could make money together.
When Phil was paroled he went to stay in Topanga Canyon where Charlie was living with his “family.” Phil would come down into Hollywood at times and tell his friends about what it was like living on this commune where Charlie and the head honcho and some of the woman were his concubine. He didn’t describe in too much detail about what was going on, except that there was sex, LSD, pot, rock and roll, and it was all free, including that Charlie shared his concubine with others.
I don’t think Phil was so much into the “family” aspect of the scene, but it was a cool place to hang out and since he was just out of jail, and it offered all the things a guy like him enjoyed. On one of Phil’s visits to Hollywood, he again invited me to come out there and even drew me a map, so I figured it was time to check out what commune life was like.
I was certainly into sex, had tried LSD, smoked pot, but still, there was something about the trip there that didn’t feel quite right. Maybe I was just uptight and thought it was time to liberate myself. It was 1968, I was going to be 30 soon, and even thought the young hippies said not to trust anyone over 30, I knew I was hip enough to visit a hippie commune and find out what was going on with that way of living. It was a important time for social change and learning; I was into liberal politics, felt an affinity to turn on, tune in and drop out, wanted to be trusted and be a part of what was happening. So, one day I finally decided to take a ride out there and see for myself what was going on. What could I loose?
At the time I was working as a community organizer with a Head Start Program I a small Chicano barrio, called Hawaiian Gardens, near Long Beach. My job was to organize a Welfare Rights Organization so the low income families of the Head Start children would have an advocate to help them get what they were entitled from the welfare department. WRO was also a good tool for empowering low income families. It felt good working with people who were having hard times and I could manifest my new but growing political and social values that came alive seeing the burning of Watts during the riots and the burning of Viet Nam villages on television. I knew that these values were shared by the hippie generation, so although a bit older, I felt a camaraderie. Having made my decision to visit that commune I thought I’d be sharing those values with kindred spirits. Little did I know.
It was a long ride on those endless Southern California freeways from Seal Beach, where I had a comfortable apartment two blocks from the beach, to Topanga Canyon. I was enjoying the ride, looking ahead to seeing what commune living was about, thinking I could share my ideas about the work I was doing. I was looking forward to seeing Phil and meeting his friend Charlie.
When I finally got to Topanga Canyon I couldn’t make out the directions Phil had give me, lost on those winding roads, I finally asked a couple walking on the road if they knew where Charlie place was. Stoned hippies, I swear, pointing in two different directions. I was on my own, but wasn’t going to turn back since I had come that far.
I finally arrived at what looked like a commune, with a dozen or so people hanging around, a school bus, males and females all with long hair, shoeless, shirtless, a couple of women with no tops on, all hanging around an old beat up house with a couple of cars parked near by. Seems like the place I mused to myself.
I got out of my van, and as cool as I could be approached a couple of young men who were walking directly to me. “Hi, I’m Bob how you doing. I’m looking for my friend Phil. Is he around?” Right off they appeared a bit irritated or angry that I was asking. Did I imagine their facial and body language?
Right off: “Oh, you’re another one.” And then the told me in a way that made me feel real uncomfortable being there, that, “we ran Phil off today for inviting too many people up here.”
Sure, here I was trying to be cool, but feeling uptight about coming there at all, and this is what I’m met with. Maybe that should have been my cue to leave, but I guess I was still curious about what was going on there. This was commune, here I was, maybe I could still make the most of it. I told the two guys that I used to visit Phil in prison and he had mentioned Charlie. “Is Charlie around, I’d like to meet him?”
I really thought, quickly, that mentioning I had heard about Charlie while visiting Phil in prison, would be an in. As if they gave a shit. I figured if they really wanted me to leave they could tell me to go.
“He’ll be back soon. I should wait.” I wondered what they meant, “I should wait,” not you can or could wait if you wanted. Simple paranoia, let go and relax.
After a bit Charlie showed up. It was sort of odd, I didn’t see a car pull up, or where he came from. Just sort of appeared.
“I hear you’re looking for me. I’m Charlie.”
Right off he had my attention. He looked wild, strange, different, not just his clothes, which were leather, buckskin or something. I never had seen anyone in leather. But it was his eyes, actually his whole countenance. I had the uncomfortable feeling he was looking right through me, seeing something like what I was feeling, or thinking. I figured it was a lot of LSD. Who knew?
As I told him my name, I extended my hand. He didn’t take it. What should I do, put them in pockets?
“You’re a friend of Phil’s, huh,” he said. I liked Phil in prison when I met him, but he couldn’t get his old way or his friends out of his life. We’re different here, we’re not like you guys in the city. I told him to stop inviting people like you up here, but you keep coming anyway. So he had to go.”
Should I apologize or what? My mind was thinking, I had to say something. “Well, man, I didn’t know. He said it was cool to come visit and see him. I used to visit him in Terminal Island and he told me about you. You want me to split. That’s cool. I’ll go.”
“No man, you’re here already, you can stay a while. We’ll see what you’re about.”
He sounded a little annoyed but not hostile or anything and he still wasn’t telling me to leave so I figured everything as okay. I wondered what he meant though, “we’ll see what you’re about.” In my mind I had come to see what he, or they were about. I wasn’t feeling real comfortable considering the circumstances. He didn’t shake my hand. I didn’t like that. He eyes: just too invasive into me, as if he was seeing more of me than I was seeing of him. It was a peculiar situation.
“Come on, we’ll go talk on the side of the cabin,” he said as he led to where we sat on a hillside. I thought I was going to learn something bout him. Maybe I did. He did talk about himself and how everything they had here, the cabin, their food, a bus, other vehicles, even money had been given to him. “No one works here,” he said. “There’s so much shit and money in the city people were just dying (famous last words) for folks to give it to. And her e\i am man, just waiting to take it from them. He laughed and gave me this stare that I felt right inside of me. People were being generous to him and his friends he said, because, “I’m different man, and that turns them on, because their afraid to be different. I have a message to bring to them, but I don’t want to be part of their society.”
It seemed like people were revering rebels, him, with or without a cause. Maybe he had one and I’d find out. I was still curious and wanted to know more.
As he talked I thought about what he said, how people gave him everything. I felt a bit secure knowing I didn’t have much he could get from me. I did look over to my van and was still where I parked it. Then he began to admire a wood bead necklace two high school girls had given me.
“That’s a groovy necklace you’re wearing. Can I see it?” Hey, that’s cool, he likes my necklace. I like it too. I reluctantly took it off and handed it to him. What’s he up to I wondered. He put it on, then asked, “can I have it?”
Maybe that’s how he got everything, just asked, and if people weren’t too attached, he got what he wanted. So I gave it to him, even though I was attached. I wondered why I gave it to him. I didn’t like being taken, but he asked, didn’t say he was just going to keep it. Maybe there was something special about this guy and it never hurt to be nice to some one else. Actually I was feeling a bit paranoid with the whole scene and didn’t want to cause any more bad vibes. I kept thinking of Phil and why they really “ran him off.”
After a while he said, “lets’ go inside and see what’s happening in there.” We went into the cabin, sat down and someone passed a joint.
There weren’t too many windows in the cabin so it was dark, feeling semi-woodsy, not really comfortable because it was noting I was used to. It made me feel a bit uneasy, but what the hell, this was the first back to nature hippy-commune living I had seen. We smoked a bit more, people were sort of quiet. I was sitting next to Charlie, with six or eight others, men and women around the room. It wasn’t a big room, but it was still hard to see any clearly in the dim light. I could hear their voices, although there was also whispering going on that I couldn’t hear. I wondered why they why whispering.
Young women with loose fitting skirts and blouses with babies on their hips walked in and out of the house. I wondered if they were his women, his kids, but didn’t ask.
It all felt odd; I was definitely out of my element, but something about it felt fright, like this is the way people should be living, sharing living together. (Little did I know that less than two years later I would be living similarly, but even more primitively.) After a while, Charlie began to play a bongo drum. We talked a little about the war in Viet Nam, his “Family,” and what it was like living with a group of people. I was trying to feel a part of what was going on, but felt I was missing apart.
Then the vibes took a definite change as Charlie began questioning me about my work. This is where I thought he would see I was okay, as I told him about working with poor, minority families, organizing and helping them get a little share of the pie. That I was doing my share, empowering, political education, for the social and political changes that had to occur.
“What the fuck you doing taking care of those niggers and spics for,” he said? I beg your pardon. Did I hear right? He shocked the shit out of me. He didn’t think I was doing good work?
“All that good fuckin money going to them and guys like you when I’m needing it for what I have to do.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Wasn’t this a peace and love scene?
I told him my feelings about the racist society and that the minorities had to have their share. I said, “they need people to advocate for them. The while know how to get what they want, look all you have here. Without even working. I’m doing good, work man. I like what I’m doing. I think it’s important that we involve ourselves in help where we can. At least that’s how I feel.” He didn’t want to hear any of my argument.
Then he said the scary thing, “you sound like a smart ass, rich, Jewish college boy.”
What the hell does this guy know, my dad worked in a brewery for 27 years. I worked all through college. What is he some kind of nazi? Phil where are you? He’s Jewish too.
“What college did you go to man?” I knew if didn’t matter. All of a sudden, what I had thought was a casual conversation was picking up momentum of more hostility. I felt on trial or something. I again defended my work, my working through college, the plight of the poor, wondering I was digging a deeper hole.
He let me have it telling me, “you don’t know shit man. I lived with those mother-fuckin niggers for years in jail. I know what they’re like.”
I felt foolish. It was obvious he wasn’t interested in my view on anything. Totally different frequency about all this. He had a perspective and I had mine. Listening to him get angry at me over what I thought was a none issue made me think the guy was crazy. I wondered why I was there and why Phil hadn’t prepared me for any of this.
Then I became scared when I man across the room, from a dark corner, in a unfriendly hostile voice said, “who invited him here anyway?” I was the only stranger.
I knew it was time for me to go. But how? It fleetingly crossed my mind if I would be able to go. Shit, what happened to Phil? With some anxiousness, I said, “I have to go.” What could I say, thanks for everything, I’ve enjoyed the visit? He had my necklace and I was insulted. These weren’t the regular pot smoking hippies I knew from the Griffith Park Love-Ins or from living in Hollywood the past 8 years. Racists, Nazis? Who the hell knew? Was I in trouble?
With slight uncertainty of getting out I stood up to leave and was surprised when everyone in the room followed me out the door. I was trying to ignore the dude, but Charlie was right behind me still arguing in my ear about the racial thing and “what the fuck do you know college boy?”
When I got outside the sun was bright, hurting my eyes after being in the dark cabin. I had a bit of a hard time focusing and getting my bearings being stoned. It seemed surreal, out of time and place of anything I was used to.
There was now a black school in the yard with about 20 people hanging around. As I began to walk across the yard to my van, Charlie was still right behind me, loud enough that his friends heard his voice, felt the tension and they call came together, encircling the two of us, blocking my way to my van. Shit, what’s going on here?
I stopped walking. I couldn’t go any further, my way was blocked. I felt his eyes boring into me. I turned to talk to him, still right behind me. I just wanted to clear things up. I wasn’t there to make enemies; weren’t we all part of the same revolution? When I turned he jumped back into a crouch and put his fits in an attack mode. I couldn’t believe what he was doing. Over what? He was ready to fight. I wasn’t a fighter, even if I was, there was nothing to fight over. If anything I was there to see what this free love Phil had talked about; not fight.
I didn’t think what to say or do, but instinctual self-preservation prevailed: “Hey man, I just came here for a peaceful visit. I don’t want to fight with you.” That’s all I said; what else was there? I turned and walked away hoping, praying, he wasn’t going to attack me from behind. His friends, thankfully, opened a gap in the circle. It was like the river parting; maybe being Jewish helped. In retrospect, over the years, it came to me that God was watching over me in those moments, parting the “Family” and leading me to my Volkswagen van. I got in, never looked back, and drove away.
The ride home was one of wonderment about what I had experienced; totally, unable to explain to myself what had gone on. Who was this man? What was going on there? For some reason I felt out of a picture that I still wanted to know more about, but also knew I didn’t belong in that frame. I wanted to know more about hippie-dom, but that certainly wasn’t what I was eventually guided to.
When I saw Phil sometime later and told him what had happened to me, he didn’t have much to say about it, except he was ready to leave when they told him to go and that they were prone to violence. Thanks for telling me pal.
It wasn’t till later that year when the murders happened and Charlie and his “Family” were all arrested for the killings in Hollywood. A year after that while I was living in New Mexico, Bert came to visit me and told me that the man I had met was none other than Charlie Manson. According to the book “Helter Skelter” Charlie or his friends had done some killing before my visit, either at that place, or else where. I got away with my life that afternoon. For some reason none of what happened, or could have happened, freaked me out. It wasn’t my time or my karma to go that way; living in Hollywood for 8 years, I think, prepared me for anything.
My connection with him though, didn’t entirely end there. While living in Santa Fe, I knew a hippie couple with five kids, from the Community School where I taught who were part of the “Family.” They were caring for one of Charlie’s toddlers whose name they kept changing so he wouldn’t get accustomed to one name. It was strange, this couple feeling so close to such a deranged man. The wife even went back to California to see Charlie in prison. I had to ask them how they could feel close to this man, and they said you really have to know him to understand what he was really about. Yeah, sure. I guess that’s what charisma is all about. What was even more odd, this I really liked this family, they were good folks, mother and father. I hope, 35 years later their lives and the lives of their kids went well.