Jan and the Helicopter

The following is an excerpt from a work in progress, more or less a people’s history of SoHum.

Jan Iris, in the 80s.

On a day more cloudy than not, I found myself running down a dirt road after a large hairy man who was more or less my boss, more or less a colleague and certainly a dear friend. It had started out a routine day at Briceland Community High School, the alternative school at which we both taught and, as we ran, I noticed that my running was calm and methodical. So was his. There was something almost uncanny about it, something dreamlike. He was not aware of me or anything except the helicopter flying over the dirt road down which we we ran. We could not now see the helicopter but the heart-thumping sound of it was all around us, bouncing off the canyons, coming from every direction at once. We had not entered the Twilight Zone—it was only the first day of CAMP.

California Against Marijuana Planting was a drug eradication program initiated in 1983 by former California Attorney General Van de Kamp, and named as a cute little play on his name. It spent a lot of California taxpayer money, about three million dollars a year, in the nearly 30 years of its existence, transporting members of various  agencies by helicopter to rural areas in California to harvest the marijuana crop early and sometimes to arrest those living in the nearest house, whether they were the cultivators are not. In the first years, it looked very much like a military invasion, flying so low over houses and homesteads that fruit trees and chicken coops were blown apart by the downwash. Livestock were spooked and owners sometimes injured trying to calm them down and prevent them from running into fences or over cliffs. Children were buzzed as they walked from the school bus. The resemblance to Vietnam at the height of the war was more than coincidental. Many of the pilots had, or so it was widely rumored, been helicopter pilots in Vietnam.

Now I ran behind this big man, two strides to his one, trying to keep him in my sight, compelled by some urgency I could not at the time have explained. Trees met over our heads, but I knew that the apparently thick brush at the side of the road only went a few feet horizontally, then dropped off sharply down the side of the Elk Ridge. I was supposed to have stayed with the truckload of high school students we had brought on this impromptu field trip to see our law enforcement officials in action. But somehow, when Jan pulled the truck to the side of the road at the top of the ridge, jumped out and started running down a branch road, I knew he should not go alone. I told the kids to stay in the two vehicles no matter what, short of an emergency, and took off after him.

We ran quietly, introspectively, through the green tunnel of tan oak and madrone trees. Suddenly, the road widened a bit, there was a break in the green tunnel overhead, a wide patch of blue sky. There was a change in the heart-stopping sound around us and the helicopter popped up from behind trees on the downslope side. I found myself watching one of the gentlest giants I have ever met, a man who named himself “Iris,” after the most delicate of wildflowers, a man I had seen display the most incredible calm in the most frustrating of situations—I saw this man begin to scream crazily at the helicopter as it first hovered, then buzzed him repeatedly.

It was trees, not marijuana plants, but it looked a lot like this.

I caught up to him as he ran at some trees behind which the chopper had just dropped. There was no name for the kind of rage electrifying the air around him. I knew it was a rage that went far deeper than marijuana issues or Humboldt County issues or bureaucracies or attacks on the Constitution. I knew that Jan’s rage had taken us back to Vietnam. There was no reaching him, no cooling him out, no talking him down. My assignment was to witness and to validate his rage.

I don’t know how long it lasted. A minute? Five minutes? The helicopter, most likely piloted by another Vietnam vet, hovered, buzzed, dropped, hid, teased, whipping the trees dangerously over our heads. The man on the ground shook his fists at it, yelling, “You bastards, you sons-of -bitches,” over and over. The woman on the ground witnessed, standing silent and awestruck. Finally the helicopter went away. Jan stood there in the middle of the road, staring at the sky, fists still clenched. I watched as, muscle by muscle, he relaxed. Then, he turned slowly and saw me for the first time. There was no need for either of us to say anything. I never told a soul. He never mentioned it. I only tell it now because Jan is dead, it no longer can affect him, and I know that he would understand why the story is important.

Me, at the time I was a teacher at Bri Hi.

As we walked in silence back to the children, the rain finally started. We hurried back into the truck and my car, drove back to the three-room schoolhouse and built a big fire to dry the kids out. What he said to them that day about the constitutional right to privacy or the sole right of Congress to declare war, I’ll never know as I had other classes to teach, but I know the image of Jan screaming at the helicopter will never leave me. It lives in the same mental file as my own memories of the helicopters of war—the ones that flew over Vietnam, which I only saw in footage, the ones that flew over Berkeley, the one that sprayed nausea gas on me and the entire campus of the University of California in 1968—on old people, sick people, children and other innocents. The rage I felt then brought me to SoHum. The rage Jan had just shown me brought him there, too. I know because he told me.

The first time I saw Jan was in court. It was my second Fall in the Land of Shum, long before the advent of either the bigtime marijuana industry or CAMP. The county sheriffs were busting small growers with their Marijuana Eradication Team. We heard that there had been a raid on one of the roads near Briceland. The sheriffs were going from house to house without warrants or probable cause, looking for marijuana, arresting men, women and children living on any land where it was found growing. Following instincts honed during my years in Berkeley, I wanted to drive down the road they were busting and see who needed help.

My new boyfriend agreed, so we piled our respective children into the old VW bus and took off. We passed several sheriff’s cars, waved at them cheerily and continued down the road. No one stopped us. About two miles in, we saw some children hiding in the brush. They interpreted our hippie van correctly as the arrival of help and ran out to us. The little ones were crying. The big one told us his mother had been arrested. She had put him in charge of his younger siblings at first sight of the sheriffs and told them to hide in the woods. He told us that their neighbors, the entire Hoka Hey Commune, recently arrived in the area, had been arrested—mothers, babies and all.

We brought the children out to the county road where they spotted friends in the anxious group of people gathered there. Thinking again of Berkeley, I remembered how glad I was when I was released from the Santa Rita Jail after being busted in the Free Speech Movement, to see, at 3 a.m. at the gates, a long line of cars driven by faculty members, waiting to take us home. I thought, do the new people have anyone to pick them up when they are released? No one knew. My friend, Sandy, and I called the court and learned that the Hoka Hey people would be arraigned the next day. The children would stay overnight in foster homes.

Next day, we drove to Eureka to get them. At the arraignment, they filed in, men bearded and long-haired, women in long skirts. They filled up the jury box where they had been told to stand to enter a plea. One stood out because of his height and bearing. Your eye I went immediately to Jan. He spoke to the judge without waiting to be spoken to, asking politely to address the court. The judge, perhaps expecting a group of acid casualties with burnt-out synapses in the language in areas of their brains, appeared surprised by the assurance of such an obvious misfit. Startled, he gave permission.

“The most important question to be settled here,” said Jan, “is the separation of mothers and children.” He went on. There were children who had been separated from their mothers with no explanation whatsoever and held in strange homes for 24 hours. The children had never been away from their mothers and were surely traumatized and frightened by the experience. Even an unweaned toddler had been separated from her mother, who was now in agony with overfilled breasts. Could those mothers be excused immediately to pick up their children? The judge was pissed, but not at the audacity of the hippie spokesperson. He was pissed at the cops for arresting the mothers and children with so little evidence and callously putting them through such an experience unnecessarily. He asked the mothers to step forward. As it turned out, there was only one, the mother of Jan’s child. She entered her “not guilty” plea on the spot and was released to collect her two-year-old daughter. I was entranced. Such self-possession on the part of someone who looked so completely out of it was an impressive sight to me.

They entered their pleas and were released. Sandy and I drove them back to SoHum, her pick-up truck filled to capacity. I rode in the back and debriefed one of the bearded men, getting the story of the commune, their arrival in SoHum and the bust. It was my first experience of marijuana busts in my community but there would be many more to come, equally unjustified and at least as traumatic, inspiring in years to come the concerted effort of the community to legally restrain the authorities from such unwarranted behavior in the future. The Hoka Hey commune went on to become the center of the drama world in SoHum, through the drama group, Pure Shmint, and Jan became a pillar of the community, the mover and shaker who founded Wild Iris Forestry, the Institute for Sustainable Forestry and his other brain child, Briceland Community High School. 

The all school cast of Briceland Community High School’s production of West Side Story. Although the high school only lasted 3 years, it was a monument to Jan’s tenacity, a loving experiment in education and, I believe, a memorable experience for most of its graduates.

My best memory of him, aside from the time he nearly broke my foot overturning a heavy burl table on it at an emotional parent-teacher meeting, was when we all went to Orr Hot Springs on a retreat to organize and plan the high school curriculum. After a session in the hot tub, my colleagues had all plunged into the ice-cold swimming pool, but I squatted meekly on the edge, unable to take the plunge. Jan walked by and casually tipped me in with a finger to the shoulder. As I came up sputtering, he smiled sweetly and said, “You looked like you needed some help.” It was love him or attack him. That was Jan.

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