November 18, 1998, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Survivors Try To Put Jonestown Behind Them; Parks Family Tried to Leave with Rep. Ryan, by Steve Hart, Staff Writer,
Twenty years after Jonestown, Gerald Parks and his three children still are trying to piece their lives together.
"We did the best we could to put it behind us and move on with our lives," said Parks, 66, who returned to his job in a Ukiah supermarket a few months after the Guyana massacre.
But it hasn't been easy. "I look back and I still carry guilt for taking my family down there," he said.
Parks' family was trying to escape Jonestown on Nov. 18, 1978, when Peoples Temple gunmen attacked a nearby jungle airstrip, killing Parks' wife, Patricia, Rep. Leo Ryan and three U.S. newsmen.
A few hours later, the Rev. Jim Jones and more than 900 followers were dead inside the Temple's Guyana compound, victims of suicide and murder.
Parks and his family were longtime Temple members. Gerald's mother, Edith Parks, met Jones in Cincinnati in the 1950s and followed when he moved the Temple to Ukiah in 1965.
Edith Parks said Jones cured her cancer after doctors gave up hope. As the years went by, however, she began having misgivings about Jones, who dominated and mistreated his followers.
Still, she accepted Jones' invitation to move to Jonestown in 1978 after the preacher told her the Temple's Guyana farm colony would be good for her health. A number of Parks' family members, including son Gerald, daughter-in-law Patricia, 42, and grandchildren Brenda, 18, Tracy, 11, and Dale, 24, already were there.
Edith Parks, then 64, quickly discovered the reality of Jonestown. The jungle heat was stifling and Temple colonists were tormented by insects and strange diseases.
They worked long hours in the fields while Jones delivered endless harangues over the camp's loudspeakers. The Temple's rank-and-file members ate rice and melon for breakfast, while Jones and his inner circle enjoyed meat and coffee.
The atmosphere in Jonestown was tense. Temple leaders separated family members and administered harsh punishment to anyone who spoke out or threatened to leave. "I tried that the second day I was there and they beat the hell out of me," recalled Gerald Parks.
Parks and his son Dale tried to warn Edith Parks not to come to Jonestown, but Temple enforcers monitored their phone calls and letters.
The colonists heard gunfire at night, and Jones said armed mercenaries were roaming the jungle, waiting to attack the camp. Gerald Parks said Jones staged the shooting to frighten them. "I knew it was fake," he said.
Now addicted to drugs, Jones "became a different person," said Gerald Parks. Jones was talking about suicide and becoming less coherent by fall 1978. He made his followers rehearse mass suicide in "White Night" drills.
"He was crazy. He believed the government wanted to kill him," Parks said. The family saw their chance to get out when Ryan made his fact-finding visit to Jonestown in November.
As Ryan prepared to leave, Edith Parks approached Ryan's group and said her family wanted out. Jones tried to intervene, but she insisted, and Ryan agreed to take the Parks family with him.
A handful of other colonists joined them on the short trip to the Port Kaituma airstrip outside Jonestown. One of them, Larry Layton, 32, was a Jones loyalist who secretly carried a gun and had orders to kill anyone trying to leave.
Layton started shooting inside one of the airplanes as Jones' security men arrived on the runway and opened fire on Ryan's group. Patricia Parks was struck in the head and killed instantly as her family watched in horror.
The survivors, many of them wounded, fled into the jungle. Brenda and Tracy Parks endured two harrowing nights in the jungle before they reached a native settlement.
Edith, Gerald and Dale spent the night with other survivors barricaded in a rum house near the airport, waiting for attackers to return. They were rescued by Guyanese troops the next day.
Gerald Parks and his family later returned to Ukiah, where his brother lived, and Parks went back to work at a Ukiah supermarket.
He said friends and co-workers were supportive, taking up a collection to help the shattered family. "I was surprised by people," he said. Still, "there are always those who are going to look down at you."
Edith Parks died a few years later. Dale works at the veterans hospital in San Francisco, Tracy is married and Brenda is trying to start a business. Gerald Parks is now retired.
"For what they went through, they're doing all right," said Gerald's brother, Dennis.
Gerald Parks said he doesn't have much contact with former Temple members, even though he considers them friends. "There were a lot of good people, lovely people, in there," he said.
But he said Jonestown taught him the dangers of believing in an all-powerful leader. "No human being can tell if you will live or die. Our lives are not in another human being's hands," he said.
Parks said he has since watched other messianic figures lead people to their deaths, including David Koresh. "When this thing happened in Waco I knew how it was going to end," he said. "I don't think they've learned a thing."
He believes few of Jones' followers committed suicide. "There were a lot of them that didn't want to die and a lot who didn't know what was going on. They had no choice."
Parks said he has a hard time talking about Jonestown because it brings back such terrible memories. After 20 years, he still wonders if the killing could have been avoided.
"I still ask myself why," he said. "There's no explanation for it."