Thursday, May 22, 2008

Chapter Six: Back to Flag

Willemstadt, Curacao, 1975. The Apollo is in the background

"Dissem Bureau crew – we’re to report to the Research Room right away for a conference with the Commodore?"

It was the voice of Jim Vannier, the Flag Dissem Aide and my new senior. I stood up from my tiny desk, jammed up against the bulkhead. A conference with the Commodore? Was this what life aboard the Apollo was to be like? Regular meetings with the Old Man himself?

I joined the rest of the Dissem Bureau staff – about ten of us – as we rapidly made our way along the Tweendecks area towards the stairway. Jim sent someone running down to the get the guys who were working at the small printing machine in the hold. We ran up the stairs and congregated on A deck at the foot of the stairs leading up to the Commodore’s inner sanctum.

"Is everyone here?" one of the Commodore’s Messengers yelled down from the top of the stairs. Like all of the Messengers, she was a blonde teenager, provocatively dressed in white stack heels, white shorts, and a white shirt tied in front – exposing an expanse of midriff. Wherever they went, male eyes followed them – but they were strictly off-limits.
"We’re just waiting for the printers," Jim replied. Just then the door to A deck burst open, and the came tumbling in. One was my friend Steve Boyd, whom I’d worked with at Pubs. The other was a young kid, who brought with him the strong, rank stench of body odor. With the ship docked in Curacao – right on the equator – and no air conditioning, the lower holds were like ovens. We all looked at each other in a panic – he couldn’t go into the Research Room smelling like that! But it was too late. The Messenger was impatiently motioning us to get up the stairs now.

We entered the Research Room. The Commodore was behind his desk, situated to the right as you came in. Between the desk and the door a dozen chairs had been hastily set up. The room was rich with a sort of maritime opulence – polished brass and varnished wood. At the left was a carved wood fireplace with a mirror mounted above it. On the mantel was a detailed replica of the Cutty Sark.

Given his famous sensitivity to smells, he was gracious about the odor that had just entered his space.

Leave the door open," he instructed a Messenger.
We all sat down, and I got my first closeup look at L. Ron Hubbard, Founder of Scientology and Commodore of the Sea Organization. He seemed heavier than he had when I’d last seen him, in 1971. His reddish hair was starting to grey, and was thinning on top. My attention was riveted on a large fatty tumor on the top of his head, only partially obscured by the thinning hairs combed over it. What is that? I found myself thinking. I found myself wondering, absurdly, if that was some manifestation of his "OT powers." There had recently been a series of Advance magazines – the magazine of the Advanced Organizations – that had talked about a new Hubbard book, Hymn of Asia, where he claimed to be Metteya, the reincarnation of Gautama Buddha. The articles had created a sensation in Denmark. The luridly colored pictures on the cover showed "LRH as Buddha," dressed in Indian robes, with a curious knot of red hair on the top of his head. The pictures of Buddha in the same issue showed him with the same sort of knot. Was this curious tumescence a part of the whole Metteya thing, I wondered?

Hubbard looked down at the papers scattered about his desk. He was wearing an open-necked white shirt with a light blue ascot. When we were settled, he looked up and surveyed the motley crew seated in front of him.

"I didn’t want you to think I was mad at you," he began, flashing us one of his trademark fleshy grins. "I know things have been a bit rough, but I thought it was time I gave you a bit of a briefing, to let you know where we’re headed."

He was, he informed us, no stranger to the graphic arts. He entertained us with a long story about his college days at George Washington University, and how he used to get the student newspaper together, back in the days of hot metal type, galley proofs and letterpress. No question about it, the man knew how to tell a story, and how to hold an audience. He relayed his experiences with the printing world, producing books at Manneys, a printer in Kansas, his introduction to photolitho printing and so on. We listened with rapt attention, convinced by the time he was halfway through his talk, that we were talking to a man well-versed in the world of promotion and printing.

We were already familiar with his many writings on the subject of art. As a pulp writer in the 1930s and 40s, an amateur photographer, a sometime poet, and a philosopher, he considered himself qualified to pronounce upon the true nature of art. In 1960, he had grandly issued his definition of art: "the quality of communication." He had followed this with a series of writings on what made art good or bad. He had also been issuing us a series of instructions on the exact steps to get a piece of promotion from the "idea" stage through to a printed product – what he called the "Assembly Line" for promotion. That was what we were supposed to operate on - to the letter.

He also had another project going. He had established a Photo Shoot Org, a group of staff who would help him shoot a series of photographs for Scientology promotion. They would go out and find a location on whatever island we happened to be visiting, and set up hastily assembled backdrops and props, according to "photo shoot scripts" they had been issued by Hubbard. Every day, Hubbard would show up, dressed in his khaki safari outfit – he loved costumes – and direct a series of photographs. These, he explained, were to be converted to photo brochures, which got across the entire message with photographs and brief captions.

"The world is becoming more and more illiterate in this TV age," he told us. Drugs and modern education – all part of the "psych" plan to destroy the world – had made people unable to read. These brochures would bypass that, with pictures. And we would design them.

"What I am trying to do," he summarized, "is, through the quality of communication alone, expand Scientology by ten, twenty, thirty times. That’s why you’re here."
We had our marching orders.

I had arrived in Curacao six weeks earlier, in June. Looking at the activity onboard from dockside, I had been struck by the difference between the Apollo as it had been in 1971 and the way it was now. Then it had seemed snap and pop, with the crew uniformed and serious. Now it looked like a bohemian colony. The forward well deck was stacked with theatrical sets and props. On the aft well deck, a group of colorfully costumed dancers was practicing a routine, while thumping rock music emanated from a group of musicians. The crew were long-haired and casually dressed – I could see men in Bermuda shorts and T-shirts, women in bikini tops and shorts. I suddenly felt over-dressed and over-serious.

I was assigned berthing in the aft men’s dormitory, which was crowded with bunks and insufferably hot. Many of the crew, I discovered, simply slept on deck where they could at least have a bit of a breeze. I eventually got used to the place – even routinely pulling back the covers before retiring and sweeping the cockroaches off the bed. We had our meals in the aft dining room, colorfully named the "Doggie Diner."

On arrival, I had been assigned to a new unit called the "Literature Unit," which consisted of me and Ken Delderfield. Our task was to create literature for Scientology, like brochures and fliers. That assignment lasted about a week, then we were both reassigned to the newly forming Dissemination Bureau, under Dissem Aide Jim Vannier.

David Ziff was already part of the unit. He was the Editor of Advance Magazine – the "OT" magazine of Scientology which contained articles about "Man's Spiritual History" as well as "OT Phenomenon" success stories, where OTs wrote about having "remote vision" and other "OT Powers." David’s new wife Mary, a wiry, spunky little Aussie, did the typesetting. Carol Titus did the "Rough Layout," which meant planning out the layouts. Annie McGinley did the layouts, and Deld was assigned as Printer Liaison. And there were two "LRH Artists" who did the paintings and illustrations – a Frenchman, Andre Clavel, and LRH’s son, Arthur Hubbard. Steve Boyd, whom I’d known from Pubs, handled the internal printing.

We never had another conference with Hubbard, but his Commodore’s Messengers were frequent visitors. They either relayed his instructions verbally, or presented large colored cards upon which the Old Man had written his orders or comments in his unmistakable handwriting. As I was doing the designing, I would sometimes get five or six message runs a day as the details of a piece were hammered out. And I even had message runs at night. The Messengers were instructed to wake a person by gently putting a hand on their chest, so they wouldn’t suddenly sit up and bang their head on the bunk above. I would feel this little hand stealing over my chest, then a voice in my ear:

"The Commodore wants to know…"

You had to come out of a dead sleep and up to speed in a matter of seconds.

Once I got to go on a photo shoot, when we were in Jamaica. The crew had staked out an area of land and had set up about ten or twelve "scenes" with crude backdrops and improvised furniture and props. Here was one meant to represent a doctors office, and, next to it, someone’s home. Of course they looked nothing like what they were supposed to – when you had just a few hours to create and set up ten scenes, it was pretty slap-dash.

The costumes were equally make-do. They had racks of old clothes, and it was a matter of finding something that was appropriate for the character and that more or less fit. I was cast as a radio announcer, so was put in a slightly oversized suit. It was agonizingly hot, and I began to sweat profusely. We all took our places in front of the set walls, and then the Commodore arrived with his entourage of Messengers. The Messengers would set up the camera for the first shot, he would look through the viewfinder, fiddle with the aperture and focus, and then start barking out orders to the actors as to where to stand and what to do. He moved rapidly from one set to the next, photographing them all in a few hours. Then he was back to the ship.

Of course, the resulting photos were awful. The shoddy sets, strange costumes and corny poses all combined to make photos that were truly cringe-worthy. Yet while everyone knew it, it was never stated aloud. Anything the Commodore did was brilliant and creative and perfect, and one kept any other opinion strictly to oneself. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, no one wanted to be the first to admit that they didn’t see the Commodore’s genius in every shot.

And the photographs themselves were treated like precious gems. One never touched a transparency, they had to be handled only with cotton gloves. They were put in plastic sleeves and between board covers. I had to handle the photograph frequently as I was using them to design, and my hands were always shaking. Once I got so rattled that I dropped a transparency on the floor – hastily stooping to grab it and checking to make sure no one had seen.

The messages I received were generally constructive and encouraging, and the Messengers were unfailingly polite to me. Sometimes if I missed something they would take on a chiding tone or send me to "Cramming" – a crash study of something you’d missed. One day a Messenger handed me a card and it said "Cram on Comm Formula." The Communication Formula was Hubbard’s basic rules for human communication, something you learn on your first Scientology course. I was chagrinned. Why would he want me to restudy something so basic. The Messenger pointed to the back of the promotion piece. I had omitted an address for the person to reply to.
I designed brochure after brochure, with Hubbard checking every detail. One of them was a brochure for the local synagogue in Curacao – the oldest in the Western Hemisphere – consisting of photos that Hubbard had taken. It was being done for "port public relations."
The Synagogue Guidebook - photos by LRH

Another project I got involved with was an "Industrial Brochure" for the Port of Curacao. The ship had earlier done a "Tourist Brochure" for Curacao, featuring shots by Hubbard and promoting tourism for the island. That some of the same photos were also used for a "Come to Flag" brochure for Scientologists was beside the point. I studied up on the port – which is the largest deep-water port in the Western Hemisphere – and wrote the copy, and then took meetings with the local Curacao Chamber of Commerce. I didn’t own a suit, so I borrowed one from the guy who had the bunk above me – an Australian kid named Mike Rinder.

Mike was the Communicator for the Commanding Officer of the Flag Bureaux, Kerry Gleeson. Tall and sandy-haired, Kerry was one of those "anything-to-get-the-stats-up" executives whose major form of persuasion was screaming at staff, with a liberal use of profanity. I tried to steer clear of him as much as possible. His wife, Jill, was the Staff Captain, over all of the Commodore’s Staff Aides. There was one for each of the seven divisions of a Scientology Organization. CS2, over all Dissemination Divisions, was my old senior from Pubs, Robin Roos. CS6, over all the Public Divisions (in charge of getting new people into Scientology) was Hubbard’s daughter, Diana.

While I never heard the Old Man yelling or screaming – at least not when I was within earshot – the ship seemed to be in a constant state of quasi-panic. Tensions and tempers were tightly strung as seniors put the screws on juniors to get their targets done on time and get their stats up. Even in the somewhat more laid back world of Dissem, there was no leeway for a missed deadline or a botched job. And while the Commodore’s rejects were mild in tone, my handlings at the hand of seniors was not. Once, after a reject, I stayed up all night cramming on the color wheel, to get a submission up the next day.

Sometimes on dinner breaks, I’d walk down the dock a ways and look back at the ship. It was soothing to just sit there for a moment, away from the madness.

One day, I perceived a shift in the ship’s tone, a subtle change of gear. I could see executives rushing around and rushing into meetings, but people were silent about what was going on. When pressed, it was "confidential," the standard answer for any knowledge above your pay grade. But something was afoot.

Preparations were made to sail. Our destination was announced as South America – down the coast to Brazil. But that didn’t add up. We completed our "readiness for sea" preparations, getting everything lashed down, and soon we were underway.

Only after we had cleared the port was our real destination announced. We were going to the Bahamas. From there, a major evolution would be launched to move the entire ship to a land base. The final location was a secret – but it was in the United States.

After seven years, I was going home.

5 comments:

chuckbeatty77 said...

Jeff,

Great story you have going!

When done, you should stick it on Lulu and sell it for #10.00 or whatever the going rate is.

Excellent insider description of things.

I particularly liked how you thought his lump on his head was a positive thing, when of course it was just his neglect of his own health.

Sad, I think longer range, his obsessions with NOT using good doctors, led to his premature death in his mid 70s.

I think had he not been so paranoid of doctors, he'd have gotten better care and lived longer.

thanks for all your truly historical writings so far!

Carol Titus was my superior in later years.

The whole "Dissem" gang of people were all pretty talented.

I remember later, in 1984, Carol Titus was being "head-hunted" by the largest business forms company that we were using to print the computerized routing forms in 1984.

My summary views in hindsight, are that Hubbard's operation would have sunk long ago if not for the competence of the people who propped up his fantasy system.

Chuck Beatty
ex Sea Org (1975-2003)

Dagny said...

The plot thickens! I'm still utterly riveted.

Jonathan said...

Can't wait to hear more. And yes, you should write a book.

Slayde said...

Wow - this is riveting. I can't wait to read more.

Ora said...

Jeff you are an exceptional writer.
Your story is captivating.
I think you should seek a publisher and get your book out.
It is factual and creditable because it is not a soap box for emotional release, but rather an accounting.
You are exposing the insides of a very diseased body, and doing so in such a classy and gifted way.
What an opportunity you have to turn so many gruesome years of experience into a positive outcome for yourself. You've certainly earned it.
Thank you
Ora