Ex-Hoonah commune member tells all

Posted: Thursday, February 28, 2008

Tom Botts felt bad about killing a planeload of people, but life was getting frustrating with the outhouses and all.

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Courtesy Of Tom Botts
Courtesy Of Tom Botts

He came to Game Creek, a few miles south of Hoonah, to live at an enigmatic religious commune, largely because he wanted to do some fishing. He began souring on the experience as soon as he arrived and discovered it was a farm of much squalor and little independent thought. He stuck it out for years because of the widespread fear a surefire ticket to hell awaited anyone daring to leave. But eventually the misery was too great.

He wanted out; he wanted a vacation. So Botts booked his seat on the flight of the eternally damned, bound for Columbus, Ohio.

"I just figured I was going to be the cause of the death of everybody on this plane," he said. "I was going to hell, but life wasn't worth living now. So sorry about everybody else, but this is what I'm gong to do."

God, it seems, spared Botts and his fellow passengers. He and his wife, Jan, left the commune, one of many in a Christian group started in the 1960s known as The Move, after a decade without incurring supreme wrath. Now, more than 20 years later, it's an experience he narrates humorously in "Wilderness Blues," a self-published book describing the strangeness of life on the "end-time farm" during the 1970s.

"When I finally decided to write, I was still harboring some anger," said Botts, who still lives in the Hoonah area. "We were asked to leave. It was in the elders' meeting, and I said 'Jan and I feel it's time to go.' The elders said 'You're a blemish on this farm.' It was like a slap in the face. As I wrote, it was just like talking to a psychologist or something. The anger just melted away."

Botts will sign copies of his book from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 1, at Hearthside Books in the Nugget Mall. The first chapter can be read free of charge at Amazon.com, where it ranks 1,060,067 in sales and is "temporarily out of stock."

The Move, founded by ex-Baptist preacher Sam Fife in Florida, taught salvation was possible only through sinless perfection. Authoritarian leaders imposed strict lifestyle rules such as conservative dress codes and a ban on news media, and demanded members give half of any earnings to the church. Many former members also accuse the group of various forms of abuse, including nearly smothering children to death to keep them quiet during lengthy services.

Botts, who grew up in Ohio, encountered an elder with the group when he was stationed with the U.S. Navy in Charleston, S.C., during the early 1970s.

"They were talking about how the end of the world is coming, money's going to be no good - I think there was a lot of that in the '70s," he said. "We kind of bought into that more or less ... It's hard to believe that someone could be that stupid, I guess, but they could be pretty convincing."

He and dozens of others in the region followed members to communal farms being established in small communities such as Hoonah, Haines and Delta Junction.

"The religious aspect didn't appeal to me as much as the fishing and hunting," Botts said. "That sounded real good."

Reality came upon discovering his family would be living in a small, aging camper, the farm lacked electricity and plumbing, and the bathrooms were unisex two-seat outhouses. His wife was initially more accepting of the situation, but as their family grew (they have seven children) and the miseries lingered, they abandoned the cause.

Botts said The Move's doctrine has become less stringent over time (it is still harshly condemned on Internet discussion boards of current and former members). Instead of being isolated, the Game Creek farm now hosts an annual community Thanksgiving dinner. He said he's even been welcomed at it and some members have made complimentary remarks about his book.

He decided to write his book about 10 years ago, but struggled initially because he didn't want to sound merely like someone with an ax to grind. Also, he didn't own a computer, so nearly all of it was done when he could access one at the public library. Eventually, reliving his memories with an air of absurdity instead of anger came easily.

"It's funny now, but it sure wasn't then," he said.

Excerpt from 'Wilderness Blues'

Toilet paper. Let me say a few words about toilet paper - or the lack thereof. Let's face the facts. I would venture to say that most of the world gets by just fine without it. It's a luxury that we Americans enjoy; however, on the farm, unless you could afford to buy your own, you had to use what was provided. The Juneau Empire, the local newspaper, proved to be sufficient as TP. It had the added advantage of giving you something to read while you were occupied. There was no TV on the farm and only a few radios, so news from the outside was hard to come by. One way to get caught up on world events was to run to the potty. Unfortunately the news could be days or even weeks old, depending on when the newspapers were picked up from town. Another problem was the "toilet paper" was cut into four-inch squares, so you might be reading an interesting article about the Cold War or a drought somewhere, when the narrative would stop in mid-sentence. Sometimes by piecing together enough squares you could get the full report, of course that all took time. In most cases the rest of the story was in the bottom of the potty barrel.

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