Hey, have I ever told you guys about my brush with the Manson Family? Well, the hangers-on of the hangers-on of the Manson Family? Judging by the number of site hits, I thought not.
When I was in elementary school my best friend Michelle’s family had a cabin on a tributary of the Russian River outside of Guerneville, California. Back in the seventies Guerneville was a sleepy little community. Who knows what it’s like now, but back then it was mostly farmers, hippies, retirees, families, and a few scattered resorts that catered to San Franciscans who wanted to get away for a long weekend–like my friend’s family.
Oh, and the Manson Family. After Charlie took up residence in San Quentin, various Family members moved to Guerneville. Their presence eventually attracted all kinds of unsavory people and, inevitably, there was a corresponding upswing in the number of drug busts, assaults, and murders.
Every fall, Michelle’s family would go up to their cabin for the weekend. I tagged along a few years in a row. The adults would spend their days relaxing on the back deck among the redwoods. They could do this because they dropped us kids off at local apple orchards and berry farms first thing in the morning to help with the day’s harvest. We’d come home exhausted and ready for bed, a box or two of Gravensteins from the growers as payment for our services. It was a pretty sweet set-up.
One Friday night we arrived at the cabin as usual. My friend’s parents slid out of the car, unlocked the door and went inside. Michelle and I collected luggage and smaller children by the light of the cabin’s windows as the adults moved from room to room, turning all the lamps on as they went. Soon her mother came out and quietly asked us to get back into the car and lock the doors behind us.
She said the adults had to “take care of something” before we could go inside. We listened to the radio, ate snacks brought to us from the cabin’s kitchen, and watched as officers from the county sheriff’s department pulled up and began to search the building and surrounding woods. Three hours later, after everyone left, we were allowed to get out of the car. It was past our bedtime.
I clearly remember seeing the word “piggies” scrawled on the wall above the piano in the living room. Cupboards and drawers were open, their contents spilling out. Other words were written on other walls. Mirrors were broken. Blackened fingerprints were on nearly every surface. We were told only that “local kids” had broken into the cabin, and some jewelry was missing.
Despite the ugly vandalism, there was nothing to worry about. The cops would take care of it. Michelle’s mom made sure everything was normal; we put on our pajamas, brushed our teeth and washed our faces as usual, and she tucked us in for the night. The next morning she made us pancakes for breakfast and sent us outside to play in the small creek at the edge of their property because more “company” was coming to look at the cabin. The cops hadn’t been down there yet, but it was thought to be safe.
That late in the season the creek was largely a series of damp sandbars. Maybe this is just an adult’s memory of a kid’s overactive imagination, but I could swear the birds in the redwoods stopped singing and the forest grew darker the minute we walked around a bend in the creek and discovered sets of adult footprints in the sand coming and going from the cabin’s direction. The sheriff’s deputies and Michelle’s parents came running when we cried out in terror.
At that time, I had an inkling who Charles Manson was. (My father had a running joke that consisted of everyone in the car yelling “Hi Charlie!” out the windows every time our family drove by San Quentin on our way to and from Sausalito’s Sunday flea market.) But it wasn’t until some days after we returned home from that weekend that Michelle’s parents told us the truth.
Leftover members of Charlie’s “family” broke into their cabin and others in the area in search of money, drugs and other valuables. They vandalized the homes to terrorize the local populace into silence. None of the folks involved had anything to do with the Tate-La Bianca murders a decade before, obviously, but they payed homage to their incarcerated predecessors by writing the same words–death to pigs, war, rise–on the walls. Only instead of blood, this bunch used something slightly less impressive: her grandmother’s hot pink Avon lipstick.