David Johnson

author of Climbing a Burning Rope: memoir of an abandoned child

Thanks to some young people who have spoken out about their experiences in Synanon we know that it was not the idyllic experience those of us who put our children in the Synanon school believed it to be.

Despite having some horrible experiences as a child both in and out of Synanon, David has a few fond memories of Synanon. He has generously shared one of the chapters of his book here.

“What an incredible story … and a very gifted writer. David and I grew up in Synanon together for a while there. He was such a sweet kid in my eyes. His experience was far more different than mine as I was one of the 1st kids there and was pretty much protected for this reason. My heart goes out to you David. What an excellent writer you are! A must-read!!!”

Nora Lago

Chuck Dederich (the “Old Man”) and his wife Betty lived in Tomales. They held court in the shed like a king and queen in regular everyday clothes. Chuck was THE MAN, the founder of Synanon whose every whim became everyone’s command. His wife Betty was an austere black woman with a kindly face and tender demeanor — quite the opposite of Chuck. They were a mixed couple in America during the height of racial tension. The Black Panthers were in Oakland an hour south. Angela Davis was connected to the kidnapping of a federal judge by Jonathan Jackson at the Marin County Courthouse a half-hour away. But from my perspective as a kid, there was an emphasis placed on not tolerating racism in Synanon. People of all colors lived together in what appeared to me to be a colorblind society that placed a high value on equality. This was one of the most redeeming values of Synanon that was demonstrated by their marriage. I am sure there were some racists there, but I never encountered or realized it in my experiences with other kids and demonstrators.

One day, Chuck came into the school in the middle of a game and sat in. Of course, the game was on me at the time. Nicky was laughing at me for having a crush on a big breasted Demonstrator named Bonnie.

“Come on, David, admit it! Everyone knows you have a crush on Bonnie.” Bonnie was in the game sitting right next to me because I had sat next to her when the game started. She smelled like honeysuckle that always intoxicated me. I was confused by her — she was sexy, but she was also a mother figure, and I didn’t know how to deal with that juxtaposition. I was so embarrassed that my cheeks felt hot and I’m sure I was beet red. Sexual things were often brought up in games much to my chagrin. Bonnie just sat there with a smile on her face as her breasts were as openly discussed in front of a bunch of kids as the weather.

“Yeah, you’re always looking at her boobs!” said Blake who was eager to impress his grandfather Chuck.

“No, I’m not, Blake!” I lied. Chuck cleared his throat. Everyone stopped and looked at him expectantly. He was a gruff old guy sitting there in his coveralls and plaid shirt. He had salt and pepper hair and one eye that drooped half shut. He was deaf in one ear, so his voice tended to boom out. He was very intimidating, and I was nervous as hell. He peered at me over steepled fingers as he said in his low gravelly voice,

“Boobs! Boobs! Boobs!”

Everybody started laughing and I wanted to crawl under the rug as I sank down in my chair in utter shame.

“What in the hell is wrong with boobs, David? Boobs are one of God’s greatest inventions!”

The kids were howling as each time he said boobs in an exaggerated cartoon voice —“boooooobs”.

“If it wasn’t for boobs, babies wouldn’t have anything to suck on. Don’t you like boobs, David?”

He was toying with me and the kids were laughing, and Bonnie knew my secret, and I felt like crying but just couldn’t.

“Well son, do you like boobs or not?”

“Yes, I do,” I said meekly.

“Well say it like you mean it then. Whaddya want? A sandwich or something?” More howls and derisive snorts filled the air.

“I. Like. Boobs.”

“You and every other red-blooded male, son. I like boobs, too. There’s nothing wrong with that — it’s perfectly natural. Betty’s got great boobs — not as big as Bonnie’s, but real nice you know? Did you ever look at Betty’s boobs?”

“Umm, Well I, er — “

“Of course, you have!” He yelled and started laughing at my complete embarrassment. And then mercifully he said, “What about you, Blake? Do you like boobs?”

“Yes, Grandpa!”

“What about the rest of you boys? Alex? Nicky?” And all the boys were nodding as the girls giggled and I realized why people were so willing to follow this amazing man. He made everyone feel equal and important. He had taken my embarrassment and shame and turned it into common ground for everyone else.

“Well Bonnie, whaddya think of that?”

“Boys like boobs Chuck.” She said in her sweet voice with no embarrassment whatsoever as she placed her hand over mine that gripped my chair so tightly the knuckles were white.

“Quite right! Boys. Like. Boobs. And girls, don’t forget it. Boobs are one of the most powerful things you have going for you. Boobs have built empires and brought down kings.”

After that the guys would snicker at me and say “Boobs. Boobs. Boobs.” Just to watch me squirm. And if anything, Bonnie became closer to me. Not in a funny way – just a way that made me feel a little less alone.

I gravitated to the kitchen and cooking there. It brought back fond memories of being with grandma licking spoons and feeling loved. I hung out so much they finally gave me rolled-up houndstooth pants with a cook’s shirt that fit like a sail-cloth. I wore a chevron-like paper hat that soda jerks wore in sundae shops. I opened cans or peeled 500 hundred hard-boiled eggs or balanced on my gut over the pot sink and washed pots and pans. I was the kitchen mascot. I liked it enough that I asked to be enrolled in Synanon’s Food Service Training Program but was told I was too young. Not to be daunted I asked Bonnie for help. We wrote a proposal for a kid’s training program and I personally gave it to Chuck when he was eating in the dining hall.

“What’s this?” He said when I handed him the envelope.

“A proposal sir.”

“For what?”

“You’re going to have to read it to find out sir.” He laughed and snatched it from my hand. As he opened it, he looked sideways at me through his droopy eye and said

“Looked at any boobs lately?”

“Chuck!” Betty exclaimed and he winked at me with a sly twisted grin.

“Yes sir!”

“Atta boy!” He said mock punching me on the shoulder.

He ordered that a special week-long program be set up for kids which culminated in us cooking a special dinner for him and Betty. A girl named Michelle also signed up. We got out of regular school activities all week and made quite the spectacle traipsing around in the big open industrial kitchen. Grown-ups loved seeing us dressed up like little culinarians working in the kitchen. For that week we were the talk of Tomales. I felt proud and special for a change. The day came to serve Chuck and Betty dinner and we were nervous.

“Whadda we have here David?” Said Chuck.

“Beef Bourguignonne over egg noodles.”

“And buttered peas!” Michelle chipped in.

“Mmmmm. Delicious.” Betty said smiling at us.

“Well, I’ll be!” Chuck smacked his lips. “Maybe we’ll have to replace the chef with you guys.”

David at Work in the Kitchen

Michelle and I beamed. I hadn’t felt so good since being under the blanket at the Hat Club.

Bonnie liked art and therefore so did I. She taught me about Abstract, Cubist, and Impressionist art. I especially liked the Impressionists and Picasso. I even wrote a paper on his Blue Period. I understood Blue periods.

Follow David at http://www.climbingaburningrope.com

9 responses to “David Johnson”

  1. Beautifully told David! As they say, I was there. You just sold a book/

    1. David Johnson Avatar

      Thank you for the kind word – I am always happy when people find some pleasure in my missives. 🙂

  2. Gary L Williams Avatar
    Gary L Williams

    Great read David. I really enjoyed it.

    1. David Johnson Avatar

      Thank you Gary. I am most appreciative of your kudos. Take care!

  3. Love this story David. What a great memory. We need the good with the rest, yes? Xo

    1. TYVM Ellen. Yes, I am retooling my cerebellum to incorporate more good along with some juicy jolts of serotonin. 🙂

  4. Shirley Keller Avatar

    Loved your story David. Look forward to reading your book.

  5. Bruce Wetter, then known as Bruce Borenstein Avatar
    Bruce Wetter, then known as Bruce Borenstein

    I just ran across this page. I worked in the Synanon School (Oakland, San Diego and Santa Monica) from 1970 through ’72, with the 2-4 year olds. I remember these children vividly, they were a wonderful part of my life–I still have the photos Bill Crawford gave me when I left– and would love to know where they are and what they’re doing. Names? I remember Rebecca (Bill’s daughter), Woody Graham (who someone told me had died), Scotty, Christopher, Nicole, Jessica, Sean, Rachael, Tamarra, James, Brian… and others whose names I might have wrong. I’m not very tech-knowledgeable, so any help would be appreciated. Thanks… Bruce

    1. Barbara Finkelstein Avatar
      Barbara Finkelstein

      Dear Bruce, I have wonderful memories of the children, too. Yes, Graham Woody (Roger Woody’s and my son) died in
      late December 1998 from head injuries following a glider accident at Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. In the next year or so
      I hope to get more of his story on this website. I appreciate your caring. Barbara Finkelstein

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