I transferred to Indiana University after my freshman year at Valparaiso University, where my mother was a Phd. professor of Nursing. I wanted to study television production, and Valpo, being a small, liberal arts school, did not offer such a curriculum. So off I went to Bloomington and its highly esteemed journalism and communications department.
However, the only dorm the university had room to accommodate me was in a foreign student’s facility, known as Ashton Quad. It was a singles dorm, where each room housed a sole occupant. So blessedly, I had no roommate. But I knew no one, and the few people I did manage to interact with were from far away countries, distant cultures and barely spoke English. It was a strange first few weeks.
As if being incarcerated in Ashton Quad with exchange students wasn’t bizarre enough, I soon learned that my new residence had another unwelcome distinction—it had been home to none other than the Reverend Jim Jones, while he had attended Indiana University. I didn’t believe it at first, but a quick check in the microfiche room the library confirmed it. “People’s Temple Leader Was I.U. Undergrad,” the article said, as I scrolled through editions of the Indianapolis Herald-Tribune from the early Eighties. Funny, I didn’t remember that being in the I.U. brochure, or Jim’s 8 x 10 color glossy head shot on the wall at the Office of Admissions, alongside the pantheon of other famed Indiana grads, such as Hoagy Carmichael, Ernie Pyle, Dick Enberg, Jane Pauley, Kevin Kline, Isaiah Thomas, Marc “The Beastmaster” Singer, and Lee Majors.
Knowing that one of the world’s all-time greatest psychopaths had also called Ashton Quad his home did not surprise me. There was a creepy atmosphere hanging over the place, a sinister aloofness. Scarred forever with this infamous distinction, the housing department had obviously turned Ashton into a receptacle for undesirables, oddballs, and of course, lowly transfer students like me.
I’d imagined a new, carefree beginning here, a fresh start where I’d embark on a more enlightened path; instead my mind was haunted with images of bloated bodies festering with jungle rot and giant metal vats of cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. I soon began to imagine what the Reverend Jim Jones had been like when he’d lived in Ashton Quad. Perhaps Jim had been normal and well-adjusted, an eager, enthusiastic youth who had innocent goals and sincere hopes, dreams of success that were squashed by whatever dark satanic spirit pervaded the gray walls of this accursed structure. I imagined the young Jim Jones strolling along, humming a carefree melody, traipsing through the same hallways that I now walked. I pictured him brushing his teeth in the same bathroom I brushed my teeth in, flossing with regularity to stay the advance of gingivitis-causing plaque, showering in the same stalls I showered in, maybe even sleeping in the same bed I slept in.
I imagined the Reverend Jim Jones sharing pizza with his dorm mates, perhaps even devouring the crusts his pals did not care to finish, playing Frisbee or Hacky Sack out on the lawn, or sliding his tray along in the cafeteria, opting for the Salisbury steak and an ice cold glass of chocolate milk, then politely uttering “Is this seat taken?” before finding a place at a table beside his peers. I imagined the Reverend Jim Jones, for a brief idyllic period, enjoying his time at Indiana University, behaving like any other wide-eyed undergrad, following the nationally-ranked basketball team, attending autumnal bonfires, threading carnations into homecoming floats . . . until one night, when the cold, dark Mephistophelean hand of Ashton Quad reached out from the bowels of Hell and shook him awake, filling his head with impure thoughts and murderous directives. Perhaps the Reverend Jim Jones hatched his whole demented plan for Jonestown right here in my dorm.
Perhaps even here, in room 1402 . . .