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Josh (David) May, 1975

Photo by Michael Emrys


photos by Neil

Josh (David) - Murph's Son {| class="captionBox" | class="captionedImage" | josh_rio_(2).JPG |- | class="imageCaption" | photo by Ann Mason |}

Rio with Josh=

The Land
First I remember the woods and the rain. Our clearing was small on a slope leading down to thicker trees. It rained and there was soft mist and a strong sweet forest smell. Our tipi was warm and pleasant but cramped for the three of us. I played with sticks and pretended to make furniture with them.
Later the cabin was built, not done but good enough for now. Clear plastic covered the windows. People had come to help and my father was pleased with it. I do not remember what my mother thought, she may have already been sick. There are gaps. Others lived on the land, some in tents some in houses like ours and others in a big old house by the road. We, meaning all of us who lived on the land, had a long hall, a large building not built by us. It had a payphone and a soft couch.
I belonged to this place, everyone knew who I was. I wandered the paths and explored. Some people I was told to stay away from, a man in the forest in a dirty orange tent, his garbage on the ground and behind the trees, he was eating macaroni and cheese which interested me, my father said “he’s an asshole stay away from him”. We had parties, I remember them being called boogies, in the long hall. It was warm, the big room filled with people dancing, a swirling belly dancer would pick me up and swing me around, sweet smelling soft and warm, I still smile whenever I see a belly dancers though I guess my reasons have changed since I was three. I would fall asleep behind the couch and usually wake up at home in my own bed. A couple of times I woke up in the morning alone in that big room. I would make my way down to our house in the morning cold.
A big old barn with a metal peeked roof was on the land and I sometimes poked around in there. I had a recurring dream until I was eight or ten that I was walking up a steep grassy hill and fell into a hole, after my initial panic I would find myself falling from the rafters of that barn. I would reach out for an umbrella hanging on a hook or resting on a ledge and with great relief open the umbrella and know that I would land safely. Sometimes I would fly around the barn or fly outside and peer down at the corrugated metal roof and see the anise growing besides the building. The initial shock of falling and the fear of not being able to find the umbrella always caught me off guard.
My father told me that I was about one when we moved to the land and I am guessing I was five or so when we left. I was born in seventy one. The tipi in the rain is my earliest memory and like all my memories of the land it has a quality that is both sharp and soft. The emotions come back as clear as the images. Mental snapshots of events I have glanced at so many times they have had their edges removed and their order shuffled. All my memories of the land are those of a child
I have kept them frozen and tried not to let them grow up. As an adult I have made assumptions and guesses about how it was and how it felt to other people but I have been protective of the memories themselves.
Leaving The Land and moving to the city I felt alien. Not just from another place or used to a different lifestyle but literally from another planet. The world I found away from the land was so opposite, so grey and cold, hard and smoking and angry. The soft mists and the smooth folds of grass in my memories became my secret heart. The shell I built was around this soft forest.

I have hard memories too. My oasis was never completely isolated. My Mother’s schizophrenia took her away before I really new her. My first memory of her is on a grassy slope near the top of the trail. I was hot and grumpy I must have been hungry, which is probably why we were hiking up the hill. She had carried me up all the way to the top; she was not a large woman, I know now she was small and thin. She put me down on the hot ground and it burned my feet. Black ants were all over the ground and I began to cry and complain. She was incoherent she blubbered and cried along with me, she tried to pick me up and I kicked at her shocking myself and burning the memory into me, I screamed that I hated her. She couldn’t speak she just cried and mumbled.

Time passed and my father told me she was sick. He said she heard things that were not there, that she thought the algae in our water pipes spoke to her. I remember him chasing her around an oval knotted rug in our cabin around a Franklin stove. She couldn’t seem to speak only mumble.

I had a special lace blanket. I would wrap it around myself show it off. We had a big tomcat that came by two springs in a row. It snowed one year and icicles appeared on the eves of the cabin. I played in the forest and crept through the grass never knowing what I would find over the next fold of land, slugs, beehives, rushing creeks, lizards, and mysterious swimming snakes in the swamp. I would wander over unfamiliar ground never knowing exactly where I was but knowing I was still on the land. I made up words for things I didn’t have words for. I had friends on the land but they were grown ups. I played with other children sometimes but I think none were really near my age. I remember a little girl I played with sometimes until we got into some ones pot field and I tried out a hand scythe I found. The next morning I awoke up being held upside down by my ankle by an angry neighbor, my father looked on sternly.
I remember a man who it seemed had been working on his motorcycle for years. One day I happened by and it was done. The pile of parts I had inspected so many times was assembled into real motorcycle. We were very excited. He had been telling me for a long time that when it was done I would get to have a ride.
I climbed on behind him and we took off around the barn and across the swamp over wooden planks. I was so short my feet did not reach the pegs and when we had crossed the swamp I realized something was wrong. My big tow on the right foot was a bloody mess. It had gotten clipped by the back wheels spokes. I don’t remember his name but I remember how sorry and upset he was. He ran for help and my father came. We sped down the hill in the back of a VW bus at top speed and I remember gashing my head as we made a sharp turn. The doctor clipped his forceps to the end of my tow bone and seemed pleased when I indicated it really hurt.
My best friend on the land was Rio, now called Deb. She played with me in a white wooden shed; she took me across country in winter to visit family. I never really got to know the relatives she took me so far to meet but she was more to me than they have ever become.
I remember going to court when we were being forced off. This must have been after my trip with Rio as I was made to ware the big puffy snow shoes I had gotten back east. I remember TV cameras and hiding in the trees when the sheriff came. There is more and I wish I could describe the feel of it more clearly. What I have put down are the things I can remember, there are many memories that are just fragments. Sometimes when I am trying to sleep I still see our cabin, the grass, the grasshoppers, little skittering lizards, dark trails at night lit with coffee can lanterns.

I recently went back for the first time as an adult. The land is very special. All of my memories of the landscape were close to the ground. I never realized it was all in such a beautiful valley. Having the land a park is comforting and sad at the same time. It’s so beautiful there. I felt like I had been robbed, but also glad it wouldn’t be filled up with vineyards and mc’mansions. It was never as isolated as I thought it was. Having to hike and hitch to get to town made it seem far away. I finished out my childhood in Oakland ten thousand miles away and never knew it was only an hour by car. Now the city laps up against the hills and almost spills into that valley. It is still an oasis but no longer anyone’s secret.


The Lone Ranger

Photo by Michael Emrys
(Michael says) After I snapped this picture, I asked Josh who he was. He hesitated a second and replied, "The Lone Ranger." That's Rio playing on the piano in the room behind Josh.

A Luminous 5-Year-Old on the Land -- Josh in Fall '76
by Rio

Talking to Josh at age 5 was like opening a treasure chest. He had that luminous quality certain kids have, and a sunny, funny disposition. He was the first little kid I ever got to know, and love, as an adult, and his friendship enriched my life.

We became buddies in the fall of 1976 after my sister-in-law Rain and I arrived back at the Land, flat-broke and exhilarated after 9 months in South America. The 3-day notice went up in the Barn in October and started a tense, intense, but very focused and engaged period on the Land. No one knew whether we’d be there a week or 6 months – and of course we had no idea we’d ultimately stay an entire year (thanks to certain people's hard work).

We were looking into a void. Some people left, but most stayed to fight for their homes and lifestyle – and it was a great time, because the community felt so strong, part kibbutz and part pajama party. We had meetings, study groups, boogies, Mark's breakfasts, big dinners, work projects. That winter we argued whether we should plant a garden, since we might not be there to harvest it – and the great thing is, we DID plant it, and we DID harvest it.

Josh was living with Murph, who was pretty much of a hermit, and occasionally Melinda. At first I thought Murph was remote and preoccupied but over time I realized he was mindful of and committed to his son, and steady as a rock, in his way. That fall Melinda came and went, appeared and disappeared, vibrant and engaging or vague as mist. Brilliant, beautiful, with blazing insights, she was behaving more and more erratically – singing, mumbling, then saying something incredibly astute, then hitchhiking to the ocean and taking her clothes off and forgetting where she’d left them.

The adults at the Land watched over Josh to a certain extent, played with him, but also worried about him and certainly about Melinda. At my first Land meeting that fall Marcia Fentress asked everyone to share parenting tasks as part of living in the community. People expressed concern about Josh because he stuttered, or because he didn’t always make it back home at night, but the thing was, he was a remarkably healthy kid -- curious, kind, funny, articulate, mischievous, loving, and lovable. He played with Dunny (Marcia’s son) and a boy named Jeremy (son of a woman named Madelyn, I think), he was always welcome in anyone's house or lap, and he knew every inch of the Land.

More urgent was what would happen to him when the Land ended, and he'd be of school age, and whether either of his parents would or could take care of him. It was more and more obvious that he would not be with a sound and sane Melinda.

I started to hang out with him because of Sorca O’Connor, who lived with my brother Stewart in Palo Alto and was co-director of Thacher, a private progressive preschool. Sorca told me Josh had some kind of scholarship at Thacher, but he hardly ever showed up because he couldn’t get down the hill and back. Since I was working in the flatlands that fall (as a bartender at Shakey’s Pizza!) I volunteered to drive him home every day. This simple offer became a wonderful experience for me.

We had a ton of laughs and many adventures. We went all over the place, to the beach, playgrounds, museums, up to Half Moon Bay one time, and usually after I picked him up at Thacher we’d stop at Taco Bell. A couple of times Mark brought Josh over to Shakey’s and the two of them hung out eating pizza and watching TV until I finished my shift.

Things “happened” around Josh, who was the most innocent of rascals. Even an ordinary experience became memorable. Going to the supermarket, for instance: he once curiously pulled the bottom can out of a carefully stacked pyramid and all hell broke loose. Another time we stopped at a little fair by a school over in Woodside somewhere, and he went to the bathroom inside while I waited outside. Next thing I knew the fire alarm was going off and Josh was tearing out the door. He had wondered, of course, what would happen if he pulled the little handle. We peeled out of there so fast, the alarm still shrieking!

Our most epic adventure was when we drove back east in December ‘76. I was driving to Massachusetts for Christmas to see my mother and somehow the idea emerged to take him to see his Murphy grandparents in Buffalo. Murph gave his OK, I brought it up in a meeting, and I wrote Melinda’s mother in Long Beach and she said it was fine.

When we crossed the Nevada line I gave Josh some nickels to play the slots. Well, he turned out to be very lucky, and coins came cascading out. The owner of the flea-ridden casino appeared and kicked us out, saying Josh was too young. He was definitely a young gambler at 5, but the guy would have contentedly looked the other way if Josh had been losing.

Our journey turned out to be grueling, and my lemon of a Fiat became the villain of the story. It broke down 9 times and cost just about all my money to fix along the way. But miracles happened and all kinds of people befriended us on the road. I wrote Rain that to my amazement people were as kind in the US as they were in South America. Josh and I were really happy.

On Dec. 23 the car broke down again and we were adopted by the citizens of the tiny prairie town of Sheffield, Illinois. I think we became a town project. I had used the pay phone in the only motel to call my aunt in Michigan and tell her of our troubles. The motel owner summoned me into his office, like a school principal. Turned out he had overheard our story. He gave us a room and wouldn’t accept payment for it, treated us to dinner and breakfast, and the town gave us a Christmas fruit basket and took up a collection to give us $20. And the local mechanic wouldn’t accept money for the fuel pump he had to order from Chicago! It was all thanks to Josh’s quality of lovableness.

He clearly thrived from having one person all to himself. He completely stopped stuttering on the trip. He didn’t seem to know what complaining was -- once, our third day out, when we were still in endless Nevada, he said he was sick of driving but that was the only time. He was demanding but never held a grudge if he didn't get what he wanted. He loved looking at Christmas trees and charmed everyone we met.

But he really liked to curse, and his favorite time was when we were sitting at a restaurant table and he was supposed to order . He thought it was especially hilarious to say “pussy” when the waitress came up – and I had to talk sternly to him about this when the motel owners were about to give us breakfast for free.

We eventually made it back east despite a myriad of mishaps, culminating in Josh's grandmother not being home in Buffalo Christmas night when we arrived there in a snowstorm. Josh was a bubbly boy, though, and we revised our plan. I took him on to Mass., but first we visited Niagara Falls in all its snow and icy majesty.

Eventually he visited his relatives for 2 weeks, returning in the snowmobile suit and winter boots they bought him for ice fishing etc. (He remembers wearing the boots to court when we went to trial that spring – they must have been the best footwear he had.) After a month or so back east we abandoned my Fiat in Mass. and drove back across the country with a friend in his brand-new truck, a much smoother trip!

Fast forward to the next fall, ‘77. When the Land broke up, Murph and Josh moved to Oakland, and I don’t know what happened to Melinda. Several years later Tom McHugh and I moved in together in Oakland, and we saw quite a bit of Josh over the next few years. As he adapted from the meadows, woods, creeks, and freedom of the Land to school, sidewalks, and city noise and smells, I realized what an amazing survivor he was.

Most of all, he somehow remained an open, kind, big-hearted boy as he became David instead of Josh. That's pretty wonderful, almost miraculous. My friendship with him gave me great sureness when I became a mother myself, and I thank him for that huge gift.

And now the circle goes on: David is a husband and dad himself and that's the best news of all.

photo by Neil

photos from Woodstock Bob


Josh with Zem Zem, Jim Forsell, and Murph

Josh with his broken leg being read to by father Murph


Photo by David Chapple