This is a story I've recently begun working on. It's proving an interesting way to "use" my knowledge and interest in cults. I know people who've been in cults, and that naturally makes you curious, angry, and many other things. This story isn't based on their experience or their beliefs, but the one informs the other.
Chapter 1 : Church of Contemporal Consciousness
My father was a peculiar man, and next month marks the tenth anniversary of his final unbeing. Cults like making up words, or if the word already is, making up new definitions. It can be a little confusing for the new members, for the prospective members, and for those of us who were encouraged by genetic circumstance to love the speakers of these foreign tongues. I loved my father, more or less. I loved that thin slice of original him the cult couldn't quite eradicate. He was in his cult from the week before my eleventh birthday until at five minutes before the end of his beginning.
In their universe of is, unbeing is both the time before you are born and the time after you die. The cult's resident artist, without whom they would have surely lost their early way, was an Argentine ex-patriot named Fausto Cabrillo. When I was about fifteen and forced to attend one of the cult's semi-annual retreats, another child I met told me that Cabrillo had been a famous soccer player in Argentina, but that during a critical play of a critical game Cabrillo made an error which allowed an own goal. An already tense crowd broke into riot. A dozen people died during the stampede onto the field; one of those people was Cabrillo's younger sister, who hadhad been seated by the player's bench. Fausto never played soccer again, and left Argentina soon after, never to return.
But from another boy that summer I also heard a story a story in which Cabrillo fled Argentina to avoid the stigma of a father freshly arrested for war crimes decades earlier in Germany. The elder Cabrillo was a former SS officer who was alleged to have run an unsavory research program attached to one of the concentration camps. Having escaped to Argentina in the last days of World War II, he'd taken a new name, a new wife, and begun a new family. Oddly enough it was his old family and not Nazi hunters which caught him up. His son from his first marriage had apparently traced him half way around the world through archived ship manifests and while the reunion was initially joyous, it quickly devolved into disgust when the father learned his eldest son had married a Jew. The father revealed his previously hidden anti-Semitic streak, and revealed enough about his activities in World Ward II that the long distant son felt himself morally compelled (aided by decades of separation and fresh insult) to notify the relevant authorities. Extradition procedures quickly began, and the father fled, allegedly into remote towns in the Patagonia mountains. Fausto left Argentina, horrified at the father he had lived with all his life, yet never knew.
Whether both stories are lies or mixtures of truth I have no idea. They both ended the same way. Fausto fled to relatives in America. It was there, in California, hungry for a new identity, hungry for answers to life's mysteries, he fell for a girl named Sofochka, a Ukrainian, a foreigner like himself, who would lead him to John Sebastian, and the Church of the Contemporal Consciousness.
The CCC community was small, so I came to know Cabrillo, though only slightly. I knew him just enough to simultaneously believe and disbelieve anything one might tell me about him; everything seemed plausible. Whatever limits normal men have, he lacked; but not callously so. And he lacked ambition, which probably saved us all a more wayward influence. He didn't have the energy to be Stalin or Hitler or Gandhi or Mother Teresa. He was satisfied simply painting pictures, letting us capture glimpses of our world reshaped by his hand and the CCC's will. The members had no doubt about who ran the CCC, it was John Sebastian. But there was some doubt about who ran John Sebastian. Many suspected it was Fausto Cabrillo; the influence was subtle yet profound, and almost certainly wholly lost on John Sebastian, for he was led by a chorus of voices and ideas from beyond, nattering in his astral ear. What was one more?
Cabrillo's works almost made me believe the cult's madness, for how could something so beautiful be untrue?
I remember one time when I was about eleven flipping through my father's spiral bound notebook of its rules, rituals, rites, and rubric and seeing a photocopy of a painting Cabrillo had done. It was titled “The (un)broken cycle of (un)being.” It wasn't until a few years later that I saw a large color version of the same. Even in the crude black and white it was a powerful, evocative, if mysterious, work. The subject of the painting was a giant silver ring being held aloft by two fingers, presumably those of the painter. The ring dominated the painting, just barely inscribing the frame. Beyond the ring was a pleasing landscape of a grass clearing with a small pond in the distance and a forest lining either side of the clearing. At the top of the painting was the brilliant sun, too bright to be distinct, but clear enough to be the sun, with its center and its rays piercing through a tiny sliver cut through the ring's band. This gap in the ring was meant to represent being, and the ring unbeing. It was too small to see in miniature, but when I did ultimately see a full size copy of the painting I noticed details I would never have expected. In the landscape, centered by the ring, was the sleeping form of a medium sized tan dog. The portion of the artist's fingers seen holding the ring allowed a small gap of landscape to peek through, and centered in that region was what appeared to be a dropped pocket watch, with its chain curling away almost in the shape of a question mark. In the top left, between the corner of the painting and the edge of the ring a dark bird resembling a buzzard flew toward the ring's center. In the top left, between the corner of the painting and the edge of the ring a white bird resembling a dove flew towards the ring's center. The sun was somehow almost blindingly bright, somehow achieved by his mix of yellows going towards the center into bright white. Cabrillo loved hiding messages in his works, and there were two in this painting that I learned about. The first my only real friend at the annual retreats, Jason Stigler, showed me. If you stared at the sun in the painting for ninety seconds, then quickly looked away at a white surface, you would see the faint outline of the iconic all seeing eye temporarily burned into your retina. The other item I discovered myself. In the sky, almost invisible, a very thin wisp of cloud stretched across, with slight variations that hinted at handwritten text. It took several pages of scribbled possibilities, and frequent consultation with a crossword puzzle dictionary, but I did eventually figure out the Latin phrase subtly inscribed.
Before my father joined the CCC, long before he became active in its leadership elite, long, long before he unbecame, he was searching for meaning, for community, for a parallel universe his atoms told him existed always just beyond this mundane plane of work and kids and purposeless hobbies, just beyond the grasp of his gradually decaying flesh. He sampled many a system of belief, and not all of them religious. He was looking for salvation, or at least satiation. He flirted with various Christian sects, Eastern sects, new age sects, motivational/life coaching sects, and even a few dodgy businesses of the multi-level marketing variety. None seemed to consume enough of him for him to permanently commit body and soul. He would spend a few months religiously engrossed in each, and then when his doubts were greater than his convictions he would leave.
It was the week before my seventh birthday when he met John Sebastian. We were in New York City. We were on the last stop of a whirlwind working tour of New England. My dad was stopping by the houses of friends, and friends of friends, in an effort to sell them something most never realized was a purchasable commodity: a bunk in a bona fide nuclear fallout shelter. And this was no hide-under-your-desk and clasp-your-hands-behind-your-neck sort of pretend shelter that was intended to save your dignity though not your life. This shelter was deeply cut into the side of a formidable hill, could hold 500 people and their souls comfortably, could sustain them all for nine months easily, 18 months with some sacrifices. It couldn't sustain a direct hit, of course, this wasn't the Cheyenne Mountain complex, but everyone agreed the Soviets thought enough of their nuclear missile investment to hurl them at worthier targets. The shelter wasn't built, of course. It might have been a legitimate business if it was.
My dad believed the dream he was sold, and he was trying to sell it to others. As soon as they got 100 investors they'd break ground. As soon as they got 200 investors they could all move in, but only if and when the bombs started falling. Dad had gotten 29 investors in just over a month. He was the only salesman. A man named Doc Muir was the brains behind the shelter, he had met my dad at a Bob's Big Boy one Sunday morning. Muir was a former Sea Bee. He was one of the men who led the charge to put a landing strip where a mountain used to be in the Korean conflict. He still had that can-do-anything attitude. A nuclear fallout shelter was peanuts compared to the insanity of that Cubi Point earth moving. My dad believed his energy; my dad believed a lot of people's energy. “Feeling is all we really have. It is the arbiter of reason; and it is sacred.” I came to learn that in my dad's philosophy, in his view of the world, every bad thing that ever was came from reason, from rational men with rational minds. From Eve eating the apple, to Einstein blazing the trail to the bomb, thought was the enemy and had they only listened to their feelings, our present and future wouldn't be so precarious. And that's ultimately why I think my dad put so much faith in Doc Muir. Muir had reason, reason enough to build impossible things, to serve our nation in the prosecution of a police action. But he was a weepy sort of warrior. He'd gotten the “Doc” title after Cubi Point, when his group had moved closer to combat, when they'd been instructed to build the foundation for an artillery battery. Doc Muir refused. He knew the land, he'd been there a few years before the war. He'd been an adventurer after WW II; he'd been in that war as well, ending his service in the Philippines, running Marine logistics. He spent the end of that decade roaming about Asia, first for pleasure, then for god. He'd converted 2,300 people to Christ, by his count. But God only knows how many more were converted by the seeds he sewed. Ideas are infectious. Religious is infectious. Doc knew this area of Korea well, he had helped start and fund a half dozen or so one room schools in the area these guns would now make targets. And so he refused to participate. Pacifism wasn't popular back then, and Muir lost a lot of friends. He lost his position, his status, and nearly his life. After plenty of verbal abuse, numerous threats, and a little training, he became a medic and was sent to the front lines. He served in that capacity until the end of the war. It was the military's little joke on the pacifists; they couldn't make you kill for your country, but they sure could make you die for it. Doc didn't die, but only just barely.
And so Muir who was merely making conversation on a Sunday morning, lamenting the perennial danger we all faced in our Cold War world, and just how he'd protect the ones he loved if only he had the money, accidentally lit the fire under my father. My dad wanted to protect his family, too. He didn't like or trust the commies any more than anyone else. As crazy as it sounded, as crazy as it was, and as crazy as some of the people looked at him when dad made his pitch, my dad was doing remarkably well at selling bunks. He'd signed up 17 out of 55 households he'd visited, for a total of 29 shelter spaces reserved. Each space in the shelter cost $10,000. They created terms which were meant to make the sales easier to make. The survivalist paid nothing now, just signed a document promising to pay 50% of the fee for their space(s) once they got the first 100 spaces sold and construction began. The remaining balance would be due when the shelter was completed. One somewhat humorously vicious aspect of the contract, since most families were reluctant to buy multiple $10k spaces they may never need if peace prevailed, they were given the option of committing to buy just one space, and should the end come they would be allowed to bring in the remaining family members, space permitting, for an “at the door” inflated fee of $100k per bunk. The contract did stipulate quite reasonably that what with the end of civilization as we knew it actually having transpired, the additional payment would need to be in gold or silver.
We were at the home of one of Dad's former college roommates, who had since made it big on Wall Street, trading these pieces of paper for those. He had a nice family and dad couldn't help but think what a pity it would be if they were all vaporized in a flash of blinding light. I'd be sad, too, I rather liked Bert, their boy, about my age. His sister, Mati seemed fit for vaporization, though. But the world would need good folk like the Martins when it came time for repopulating the world, and even Mati might have a place in that. What a small investment this purchase would be for ensuring everyone's future. Rick Martins wasn't so easily sold, though. It was a battle of ideologies. My dad's faith said the big one was coming and god helps those who help themselves, and Mr. Martin's faith said if god wants you dead, you'll die no matter what steps you take to protect yourself. Faith never budges. Mr. Martin didn't buy his family any spaces in the shelter. That made Bert cry. Both fathers shared the same peculiar belief that the end of the world was something you shouldn't hide from your boys if you wanted them to grow up and become men. I tried to comfort Bert. When he left the room, I followed. Bert didn't want to be vaporized, and neither did I. But I told him that I'd met a lot of the people who'd be going underground, and I sort of envied Bert his vaporization.
In the fulness of time it would be shown that Rick Martins saved himself at least $25,000. The shelter would never be built, but those deposits sure did all get collected and cashed. Though to be fair, Mr. Martin made other decisions which would cost him far more. His I-can-help-my-family-more-with-my-money-than-my-time attitude likely made Mati ripe for the heroin addiction she'd struggle with through several attempts at rehab, two arrests, and a failed suicide. So in the end, perhaps an Armageddon would have been just the family togetherness they all needed, and given the fees he spent to keep her out of jail, cheaper, too.
My dad was stung by the failure at Mr. Martins'. He had been so sure he'd get a big sale, an easy sale. They had been closer once, more of one mind. We climbed back into dad's yellow Chevette parked at the curb. He'd been silent ever since we'd left the apartment upstairs. His silence was broken by an outburst of, “Shit!” as he pulled away from the curb. He had made only a token glance over his shoulder and pulled straight into the path of a cyclist. The cyclist's bike wedged itself against the driver side door and the driver side mirror. The cyclist for his part rolled across the hood and onto the roadway just in front of our bumper. I caught his face mid-roll, just as his body slid to the end of the hood and disappeared. We locked eyes for a profounding tenth of a second, his expression bore deep surprise, and also a little plea for help. I hope he caught my return expression, which contained an apology for being unable.
It was in this way we met John Sebastian.
My dad is a kind man. Injuring people, even cyclists, was not something he took pride in. He leapt from the car, full of curses and apologies; the former were directed at fate, the latter at the cyclist. The cyclist was not unsurprisingly a bit stunned, but did his best to get up, adopt a relaxed noblesse oblige and offer his own apologies, that he too had been somewhat distracted, should have seen my dad's car was about to merge, should have anticipated the accident. His bicycle could offer no apologies, nor any curses though it surely would have liked to. The front forks were bent, the front wheel a mess of broke spokes and warped rim, and the frame was at the very least seriously tweaked. My dad and the cyclist staggered through introductions and a cursory medical examination. My dad had no greater medical skills than a year of life guarding at the YMCA provided, but the absence of copious amounts of blood, the lack protruding or obviously distorted bones, and the lack of complaints about the same, suggested the cyclist had escaped serious injury. They eventually mutually resolved that we would drive Mr. Sebastian to his home and there consider a fair resolution to the night.
Mr. Sebastian's house was about 10 minutes drive away, and it turned out to be less a house and more a humble, home grown alternative press office. It had once been a small house, but now every liveable space was occupied with the paraphernalia of propaganda, paper, and printing. The only thing that still resembled a home was the stubborn refusal of the kitchen to adopt a more business-like atmosphere, and Mr. Sebastian's humble bed, specifically a cot placed against one wall in what was formerly a bedroom, and now yet another store room filled with reams of paper and previous and unwanted editions of his tracts.
We waited at the counter in the kitchen while Mr. Sebastian cleaned himself up a bit and tended to his scrapes. My dad and he shouted a few conversational exchanges along the hallway. It was then that Dad first mentioned his reason for being in NYC, first mentioned his position as Muir Fabrication's northeastern regional nuclear fallout shelter salesman. It was then that Mr. Sebastian first mentioned his disbelief in the inevitability of nuclear conflict, his conviction that our destiny was not entirely our own.
It was late in the evening by this point, and before long I had fallen asleep, first with my head on the counter, then moved to the pillow on Mr. Sebastian's cot. In this way I missed the moment of conversion, the moment when a man accepts that his reality has been a lie, and that a new, bright, and shiny replacement truth has arrived to replace it.
I awoke very early in the morning, Mr. Sebastian and my father had stayed awake all night talking. I was given Cheerios, honey, almond milk, and a couple pats on the head. Soon after we departed.
Somewhere during the night, somewhere within their conversations, my dad had sold Mr. Sebastian the the remaining 71 of the first 100 spots in the nuclear fall out shelter. It was not immediately clear to me why Mr. Sebastian needed so many spaces, especially when he seemed to doubt that nuclear war was near.
My dad called called Doc Muir a few hours later to tell him the good news. Doc Muir was shocked, but not the least undelighted. He said he would begin to make final preparation for construction and would see that the crew broke ground within six to eight weeks. My dad elected to suspend actively selling more spaces until ground was broken, he felt the selling would be so easy once the work had begun that there was little sense to spend the time on it now. And Mr. Sebastian needed him, immediately.
The next day my dad went back to Mr. Sebastian's house, the house that I learned had a name, Alpha. It was Sunday, and we went for Sunday services. The basement resembled nothing of the rest of the house, though neither did it resemble any holy spaces I had been familiar with. Aside from a bathroom, laundry room, and storage room, there was only one room worth speaking about, a long rectangular room, perhaps 30 feet long and 15 feet wide. By this point I had been dragged to at least ten different churches in the last six months, so I had no reason to believe this was any different. Of necessity I had grown tolerant. I knew I would hear words which bored me silly, I knew I would hear ideas which seemed to contradict the ideas I had just been told to believe the previous week by some other equally authoritative figure who seemed equally sure he was right. I would soon realize this was different, though I'd continue to believe it was no more true.
We came in through from the back of the room, down stairs just off the kitchen. There were already at least twenty five people in the room, most of them seated on brightly colored and richly decorated pillows like the ones I'd seen at an Indian restaurant my father had taken me to earlier in our sales trip. John Sebastian was in the front of the room, seated on a pillow in the lotus position, legs folded onto themselves. He was chatting lightly with people in the front row, the formal services had not yet begun. The first thing I noticed beyond the people, was a large sculpture located in the front, just beyond John Sebastian. It looked to be the familiar double helix of a strand of DNA. The base pair steps wound their way up four feet or so from a thin black base about 18” square. The sculpture was dark, almost black, and clearly metallic, appearing to be made out of small segments of coat hanger wire. On the walls were six bright and inviting paintings, the works of Fausto Cabrillo, three on each side wall. And at the back of the room was a large clock, about twice the size of a normal wall mounted analog clock. Its hands were missing. I'd later learn it was pulled from the scrapheap of a local high school gymnasium remodeling, by one of the CCC members who was a biology teacher there. A stack of pillows was in the other corner in the back. My dad got one and passed one to me, and we sat down two-thirds of the way from the front. The indoctrination began.