Charlie? Who the Hell is Charlie?
I found myself anticipating the trip to Mendocino—a chance to get out on the open road, away from
By the end of the week the bus was ready. So was I.
We set out about 4:00 p.m. from Spahn’s on a Sunday; eleven of us: Stephanie, Brenda, Mary, Clem, Kim, Sadie, Katie, Gypsy, Ella, and T.J. (Thomas Walleman), who, along with Clem, had live with the original hippies in the back ranch house before joining the Family. I was driving. We took Topanga all the way to the coast highway and headed north; we were all in good spirits. Kim and Clem lounged in the back with the girls while T.J. and I sat up front bullshitting and munching zuzus.
“Damn thing’s got some power,” T.J. mused as we barreled out of Malibu, heading toward Oxnard. “Runs better than the last bus Charlie had.”
T.J. was about five-ten, a chubby 170 pounds—an unlikely member of the Manson Family in some respects, since he was older than Charlie and going bald. He looked like the heavy in some B-grade western. He wore upper false teeth and was forever popping them in and out of his mouth, a habit that seemed to delight him. Though the girls were never particularly impressed by T.J., he had managed to cultivate their affectionate tolerance. He was useful to the Family (to Charlie), and they knew it. He was earthy and stubborn., and walked with an air of hubris which belied his insecurities. He never pulled much weight in the Family and was used primarily to score dope and was used primarily to score dope and vehicles. Later, when we got heavily into the revolutionary programming (Helter-Skelter), T.J. used his connections to score motorcycles and dune buggies. He could be obsequious at times, but for the most part I got along well with him.
We spent the night in Oxnard, then drove straight through the following day to Grapata Canyon. The next morning, near Big Sur, we stopped along the road and hiked down to the beach. I sat on a rock beside Brenda and took off my shoes. She pointed to the gulls overhead and smiled. The sky was clear, the sea dazzling. It was a rush being on the coast again. We strolled down the beach about a mile, wading in the surf and picking up driftwood and shells; then we walked back toward the car. We didn’t talk about it; but it was there, his presence. Charlie was right; we were free; there were no leaders, no controls. By noon we were headed up 101 toward San Jose.
Just north of Monterey, we stopped for gas. T.J. was at the wheel. I sat beside him. Directly behind us, Mary and Sadie discussed the effects of motherhood on the body. Mary was showing Sadie the marks on her breasts, telling her to use lots of oil on the skin. Pooh Bear and Zezos had been left at Spahn’s. Charlie insisted that children born to the Family be the responsibility of all the women so that strong dependency between mother and child be avoided. T.J. shouted to the attendant to check the oil. Sadie was the first to spot Bobby Beausoleil’s Dodge camper pull in and stop.
“Hey, it’s Bobby!”
“Where the hell has he been?” T.J. muttered, glancing at me.
“Hi, Cupid,” Gypsy hailed him out the window.
Bobby got out of the camper and trotted over to the bus. “Hey, Gypsy, what’s happening?” He flashed a smile. I rolled down my window. “Hi, Paul.” We hadn’t seen him since the second week at Spahn’s—the day he brought Gypsy to the Family.
Bobby wore bell-bottoms and a long-sleeved white shirt under a buckskin vest; he was always spiffy in his hip Hollywood style and was known as Cupid by many of his Topanga Canyon cronies. At five-eleven he was slender and rather loose-jointed, with large droopy blue eyes and soft, rounded features, handsome in a boyish, almost angelic way. I liked Bobby but always felt he was too superficial and arrogant to make it in the Family on a permanent basis. He had gotten behind Charlie’s scene on occasion but could never stick it out; he was too frenetic, too greedy—always giving orders and trying to usurp power he never really had. Yet he always came back. Before long, a pattern developed; each time he returned he gave Charlie something as a means of buying his way back—a car, a truck, a girl. Then, in the summer of 1969, when he came for the last time, his welcome was worn out. He told Charlie he’d do anything for the Family; that’s when Charlie told him: “Then you know what to do with Gary Hinman.” Hinman had been an acquaintance of Charlie’s, a musician who had apparently owed Charlie money and had refused to pay it back. Two weeks later, Gary Hinman was dead.
The day we met Bobby in Monterey he was on his way to L.A. with his wife, Gail, and a girl he’d met in Berkeley named Leslie. When I suggested we rendezvous at a campsite down the road and smoke a joint, he agreed. We gassed the bus, bought three quarts of oil, then drove south one mile to the campsite overlooking the sea. It was spectacular, lush with cypress trees and wild poppies. Bobby pulled his truck in beside the bus and joined us inside. We smoked some grass and jammed a little, then cooked up a pot of baked beans and made a salad. It was the first time I’d seen Leslie Van Houten.
Leslie was nineteen, soft-spoken, and initially shy. When I attempted to engage her in conversation during dinner, she answered my questions with little elaboration. I did learn that several months before she had left her home in Monrovia, California, to travel north and had wound up in Berkeley, where she met Bobby and Gail. When they asked her to join them, she agreed. I sat beside her on the cliff, drinking coffee. Her movements were fluid. An abundance of dark brown shoulder-length hair, hazel eyes, and rosy dimpled cheeks gave her a country-girl air. Yet, there was s softness, a reservation about her that seemed classically feminine and refined, even coquettish. I was attracted to her at once, and after talking to Bobby, it was agreed that he and I exchange sleeping quarters.
That night I made love with both Gail and Leslie in the camper while Bobby got it on with friends in the bus. After Gail went to sleep, I talked to Leslie for hours. She described her youth in southern California, growing up in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. She’d been a good student and a cheerleader; her folks, it seemed, though divorced, were pillars of respectability. Leslie’s dissatisfaction, her wanderlust, grew out of a deeper need for love and a sense of purpose—something I thought I’d found in the Family. I told her about Charlie and suggested she come to Spahn’s and meet him. She said she would. I later regretted ever having made that suggestion.
The next morning they left for L.A. and we continued north toward Mendocino. The good weather held out—plenty of sun and fresh air and not much traffic. T.J. drove while I sat back with the others. Clem dozed beside T.J. in the front seat. Stephanie, Katie, and Ella were embroidering designs into the collars and pockets of Charlie’s shirts. That’s when we heard the clanking of metal and the bus jolted to a stop.
“Son of a bitch,” T.J. groaned. “Sounds like a fuckin’ rod!”
T.J. got out and opened up the hood. The others piled out behind him, while I searched the back of the bus for tools, only to find that we’d forgotten the toolbox. We held a roadside powwow, deciding to stand beside the bus in a group looking forlorn—the old wait-for-someone-to-rescue-you routine. And sure enough, within minutes a real live hero (a middle-aged custodian) emerged from the Grange Hall down the road and offered to drive me to a garage in San Jose. There I borrowed tools and purchased a rod cap and bearing. We brought them back to the bus and set to work, only to discover that the crankshaft had been dented. The cap fit, but not the bearing. So we stuffed a hunk of leather into the hole, buttoned it up, and jubilantly proceeded down the road. We got as far as the outskirts of San Jose before hearing a horrendous bang as the rod gave up the ghost once and for all.
From there we sent a contingent of girls into town to hustle some assistance. “Try and find someone who knows something about these friggin’ buses,” T.J. barked as the girls crossed the road and extended their thumbs at the first passing car. In less than an hour Sadie Katie, Brenda, and Ella had hitchhiked into San Jose and returned with a young hippie mechanic named Daryl who proceeded to tear down the engine. After he’d dismantled much of it and had it laid out of the highway, he adjourned to the back of the bus with Sadie for a “breather.” Sadie must have taken it out of him, because afterward he got in his truck and split.
We sent the girls out again. By late afternoon they returned in a new four-wheel drive Willys jeep with a dapper-looking Mexican rancher named Diaz. Diaz was a gracious old man, obviously intrigued and charmed by the girls. When he offered to have us towed out to his ranch (some twenty miles east of San Jose) where we could work on the bus at our leisure, we were more than grateful.
By the time we pulled off a narrow, gutted country road onto Diaz’s property, it was nearly dark. But the moon provided sufficient light to see the sprawling plum orchards which spread for miles in all directions. We parked behind his ranch house in a clearing in the midst of the orchard. When we invited the old man to eat with us, he politely declined. He told us he’d send a mechanic in the morning to check out the bus. We offered to pay for the towing charge, but he shook his head. He was a genuine caballero—one of the most distinguished-looking gentlemen I’d ever seen. With a full, walrus-style mustache and thick steel-gray hair, he looked like an elderly, gentlemanly version of Emiliano Zapata. I found myself wishing that Juan was there to speak Spanish to him. Diaz mentioned that he had twelve men in his employ and that if we needed anything to ask them.
For the next two days we worked on the engine. Diaz’s mechanic, a jovial yet fiery Mexican named Gerardo, had trouble finding parts. And when he did, they were invariably the wrong ones. On the third day, I called Charlie and he said to stay with it. “Just get the mother-fucker running and get on back…make sure the girls get to court.”
Twwo days later, Katie, Ella, Mary, Stephanie, and Sadie returned from Mendocino. The case had been dismissed. By then, the engine had been twice torn down and rebuilt; it had been a marathon of hard work, but to no avail; it wouldn’t turn over, much less move. We were all getting antsy, and so were the ranch hands. We deliberately kept the girls close to the bus at night so as to avoid situations that might jeopardize our good graces with Diaz—at least until we had the bus running.
The night the girls returned from town, we ate an early dinner of peanut butter sandwiches, beans, brown rice, and ice cream. Afterwards we gathered inside the bus around a wood-burning stove. We were tired and on edge. There wasn’t one of us who didn’t need a bath. Sadie and Katie were describing their scene in court. Clem had just gone outside to take a leak. There was a full moon blazing in the heavens, and I opened a window to look out across the valley. I could hear the muted voices of the ranch hands coming from behind the bunkhouse; they were singing and the smoke and sparks from their fire were visible beyond the trees.
Clem clomped into the bus. “Those dudes are getting pretty cranked up.” He slumped into the pillow beside Brenda, who was wiping her face with a wet Kleenex. “Drinkin’ tequila like it’s goin’ out of style,” Clem drawled. “Asked me to send a couple of girls down to keep them company. Half of ‘em are already shithoused.”
“Where’s old man Diaz?”
“Didn’t see ‘im…car ain’t there…no one’s in the house, far as I can tell.”
T.J. lit a joint and took a hit. “Shit!” He winced, inhaling as he handed me the joint. “I say we leave this pig here and hitch back to Spahn’s. We’ll get Tex’s ass up here with some tools and fix the son of a bitch, or buy a new engine!”
“I’ll give Charlie a call.”
I left the bus and trotted along the furrowed path between the plum trees, toward the ranch house. I felt good to tun, to breather cold air. The valley was shrouded in a canopy of soft, brilliant moonlight. Diaz had left the porch light on as he said he would.
As I approached the building, the singing of the ranch hands grew louder—funky ranchero songs, slurred, yet spicy with yeehoos and high-pitched ayeees. I opened the screen door and went inside. The phone sat on a table next to a huge meat freezer, by the door. Charlie answered on the second ring.
“It’s me, Paul.”
“What’s happening up there brother?”
“Still hassling this fucking bus…put it together again, but no dice. I think it needs a new block, new pistons…the whole nine yards.”
“Did the girls make their gig?”
“Got back today…no sweat. Judge dismissed it.”
“Dig it, just leave the bus and hitchhike back here…is it cool to leave it there?”
“If it isn’t, we can tow it someplace else.”
“What’s happening on your end?”
“Things are a little uptight. George is worked up about paying his taxes…claims he’s going broke. I think Shorty’s been filling his head with bullshit…but it’s under control. But, hey, ya remember that chick from Topanga named Cappy…Cathy? She’s here, says her grandma owns a place out in Death Valley, say we can stay up there if we want. Might be a real trip to go out there, you know. Nice and quiet, good vibes…get our scene together without all this crap.”
“Yeah, we’ll see what happens. How is everyone?”
Far-out. Look, you just head on back…”
By the time I hung up and started back through the orchard, several cowboys were mounted and riding around a small bonfire. I could see them through the trees. I decided to take a closer look and cut back behind the ranch house, coming up beside the bunkhouse. I watched from the corner of the building.
There were eight or nine of them, four on horseback, the others standing close to the fire, swilling booze out of bottles. Two of the riders wore holstered guns. I watched for a while, then crawled along the side of the bunkhouse, before sprinting across the yard and ducking into the plum groves.
By the time I got back to the bus, T.J. was searching frantically through the back cabinet for a weapon.
“Those dudes are getting pretty wild,” I panted.
“We know.” Sadie sat down beside me. “They just rode up to invite us to their party.”
“They’re packing hardware too,” Kim intoned, fastening his bowie knife to his waist. Kim was about five-six and built like the proverbial brick shithouse. Born and raised in Mailbu, he’d developed his body through years of surfing. He seemed to be enjoying the scene that night.
“Let’s not get carried away,” I cautioned.
“Bullshit,” T.J. growled. “We’re out here in the middle of no fucking where…anything could happen…no one around to hear a damn thing…I thought we had a twelve-gauge stashed back here…I found the shells…but…”
“Charlie took it out.”
“Here they come!” Clem pulled the door shut.
Five riders galloped through the trees, yipping and shouting in Spanish. We jacked up the windows and gathered in front of the bus to watch them. T.J. had a tire iron in one had. Clem was toting a ball-peen hammer.
The riders raced around the bus a couple of times, then reined up outside the door. “You want to come and make a fiesta with us?”
I opened the door slightly and leaned out. “Hey, man, no tonight…really. We just got back from town…maybe tomorrow we can have a party.” The guy I addressed looked like one of Pancho Villa’s mestizo guerrillas—stocky with a round, ruddy face and a luxuriant black mustache. I’d met him before while watching them crate plums, but he was too drunk to recognize me. He was called Juancho and was pretty much the head ranch hand.
“Maybe you girls want to come to the party,” he shouted.
“Not tonight,” I repeated.
“Tomorrow night,” Brenda shouted from inside.
“Shut up!” Mary Brunner’s voice rang out.
“Really, man,” I said, “let’s just call it a night.”
Juancho gave me a long appraising look without speaking, his eyes steady, his left hand holding down the tossing head of a big chestnut mare; the other four riders, meanwhile, trotted around the bus trying to look in the windows.
“Sure,” he said at last. “Tomorrow, maybe…okay.” Then he whirled his mount around, shouted to the others, and they galloped into the trees again, firing off a volley of shots into the air.
None of us slept. We barricaded the front of the bus and took turns on watch. But nothing happened. The ranch hands stayed drunk, hooted and hollered and fired their gunss, but never really made a move on us. Only once, just before dawn, two of them staggered over on foot to request the company of “dos chamacas” to put them to bed. Neither of them had guns, and both were stinking drunk. Each carried a half-pint bottle of Jose Cuervo. They were so comical we were tempted to let them in; but we didn’t.
The next morning after leaving Diaz a note to thank him, we had the bus towed to a huge parking lot in San Jose; then we split up into groups to hitchhike back to Spahn’s.
I went alone. After weeks of confinement on the bus, I felt the need to be by myself. It was around eleven a.m. when I left the others and walked back through San Jose to the first southbound off-ramp. I had no luggage and felt energized standing in the sunlight flinging rocks at a telephone pole. I found myself anxious to see Charlie and the others. The ranch was my “home.” I felt it. I recalled too what Charlie had said about going to Death Valley. As a kid I’d gone there with my father to camp and collect rocks. I remembered the awesome expanse of sand, mountains, and sky. I remembered hiking across the salt flats and taking a bath in the hot springs. The more I thought about it, the better it sounded. I hadn’t been waiting fifteen minutes when a brand-new brown-and-white camper with a girl at the wheel skidded to a stop.
I trotted up to the window. “Where ya headed?”
“Mexico…where you headed?”
I opened the door and climbed in. “L.A.” She pulled out into the highway.
“My name’s Juanita,” she said, still gauging traffic through her outside rearview mirror. She turned and smiled. “Juanita Wildebush.”
“You’re kidding.” I beamed. “I’m Paul…Paul Watkins.”
Juanita was a big, corpulent, rawboned blonde, with thick hair, thick lips, and generous well-tanned haunches. She wore an embroidered Mexican blouse, a tight pair of white shorts, and sandals. Her teeth looked like chunks of quartz crystal when she grinned, telling me she had just returned from Mexico City but was headed right back. “This culture sucks,” she quipped. “After being down there for a year, everything up here seems dead.” She said she spoke fluent Spanish and that after stopping in L.A. she’d be driving straight through to Oaxaca.
“We could have used you last night.” I described briefly what had transpired with the rancheros. She seemed delighted with the story but felt that we should have gone to the party and had a good time. “It would have been a gas. Latin men are the greatest, let me tell ya.” She went on to recount, quite graphically, several romantic episodes that she had enjoyed south of the border. “Those guys don’t just ball; they get down!” So imbued was she with anything that smacked of Latin culture, I felt it futile to do anything but nod in agreement.
“Whereabouts you goin’ in L.A.?” she said at last.
“I live in the Santa Susana Hills at a place called Spahn’s ranch.”
“Never heard of it.”
We chatted amiably while her tape deck boomed out the Beatles and Three Dog Night. The inside of the van was completely customized, with a full leather tuck-in roll, a canopied bed, a propane stove, refrigerator, and a yellow life raft which sat perched on top of the mattress alongside some scuba diving gear. I got the distinct impression Juanita wasn’t hurting for money. And that she was horny. I told her a little about the Family and Charlie and that our lifestyle was pretty much divorced from the rat race Anglo culture she so abhorred. When she mentioned that she had recently come into a small inheritance, I suggested, circuitously, that she stop by at the ranch and meet Charlie. She said she’d like that.
When we pulled up and parked in front of the ranch house that night, Charlie was sitting outside on the porch whittling on a piece of wood.
“Made good time, Paul,” he said. “Only one back so far. Who’s your friend?” Charlie stood as we approached the porch.
“This is Juanita, Charlie…Juanita Wildebush.”
“No shit! That’s your name?…Jesus! That’s real poetic!” He laughed. “Come on in.”
We followed Charlie into the house. While I poured a cold glass of water, he proceeded to introduce Juanita to Snake, Squeaky, Sandy, Ouisch, and the new girl Catherine Gilles, who were seated around the fire. Juan Flynn was lounging around the couch playing with Pooh Bear. Brooks was in the shower, singing. Juanita and Juan exchanged amenities in Spanish and Juanita seemed pleased at this.
Later, Charlie took her aside to smoke a dube while I parked her van down by the corral. I didn’t hurry, so as to give him plenty of time to lay out his rap. I’d told him Juanita had money and that she might be willing to part with some of it. At the time, I wasn’t averse to hustling money for the Family. It was like a game. I could think of no better cause than our own communal existence. And, like everyone else in the Family in those days, I wanted to please Charlie. By the time I got back, Charlie had the full scoop. Juanita’s inheritance was no mere pittance—some fifteen thousand dollars, to be exact; what she needed most, he said, was to have her “wildbush” sucked, good and proper.
“She’s partial to you, man.” He beamed. “So just take her back to her van and ring her bell.”
I hadn’t figured on that. Generally, Charlie was first with any new girl. Had Juanita been physically attractive, he would have been. The fact is, I’d been thinking about Snake all the way home. But I didn’t have much choice.
Juanita and I spent a long and active night in the van. And some of the next morning. She was eager, she said, to move in with the Family. That afternoon she made arrangements to give us some of her money. A week later George Spahn’s four-thousand-dollar tax bill was paid in full.COPYRIGHT PAUL WATKINS AND GUILLERMO SOLEDAD