It is always so much easier to deal with numbers. They don't die and rot so you have to wear gauze over your face and peel skin off fingers to get the prints to tell who they are.
It is comfortable to think about people as numbers when you don't really want to think about them. In World War I they spoke of "wastage." During World War II, for 6 million Jews, it was the Final Solution.
You can say "6 million" and not feel a thing. You can say "911" and study the photographs of the bodies piled up at Jonestown, and it is a horror, all right, but an abstract horror.
How do you find a human scale for the Jonestown tragedy?
The story of these varied and scattered lives and how they ended in that steamy compound at Jonestown compels many of us to seek out parallels, references, some anchor that will make it seem more real to us. Some people speak of the bridge of San Luis Rey. Some start talking about an appointment in Samarra. It doesn't help. We are still left with all those converging fates, those lives so neatly wound up at the same time and place. The impossible mystery of why things happen anyway.
Leon Perry, 61, never went in for frills. He loved his family, his church and his machines. Around the Protestant church he had supported for many years and around his low-income San Francisco neighborhood he was known as Brother Perry. And that's what his family called him, with firm admiration for a man who never drank, gambled, cussed or danced. That's what they called him at the Peoples Temple.
"No one is saying he was a saint because he did move up to Ukiah with a woman when he got involved with Jim Jones," said the oldest of Perry's two daughters, Veronica, 30. "But he was a good man, a man with his own means. He wasn't a lazy person who hid behind welfare."
It seems Brother Perry did work his own way. When World War II broke out, Perry left his childhood home of Beaumont, Tex., joined the Army and settled in San Francisco. An eighth-grade graduate, he drove a bus for the city, worked as a mechanic for the city and 12 years ago bought two Peter-Built trucks and did independent long-distance hauling.
When he wasn't working on his trucks, he doted on his two daughters and his wife, Ruby, a cosmetologist. When Ruby, a practicing Roman Catholic, went to a dance, Perry stayed at home, waited for her call and then picked her up. Once he gave his daughters a red table, two red chairs and a pile of transfers from the bus company. They played bus.
Seven years ago, right after a mild heart attack, Perry seemed to change. "I think it was because no one from his church ever came by with any food or good wishes," said Veronica Perry. Sitting in a soul-food luncheonette in San Francisco's Fillmore district, she angrilly pushed aside a plate of fried chicken, and flipped through a family photo album. Brother Perry was a well-built man, appearing taller than his 5 feet 9 inches, with close-cropped hair, a thumbnail mustache and bright, friendly eyes. "There's not much that's negative about him. He did have a temper and once stopped the bus he was driving and yelled at some people fooling around in the back."
His daughter said this quickly, even though she does admit their differences, over her alliance with black nationalist organizations in the 1960s and over Jim Jones' purposes. He told her "all white people aren't bad," she said, laughing a laugh of distress and bitterness. "Now what can I say? He had a strong belief in brotherhood."
In 1972 Perry moved to Ukiah, shared a house with a woman and operated his trucks for the Peoples Temple. "The trucks kept his name on them, but I am sure he gave Jones the money," said his daughter. "But he would be happy anywhere as long as he thought he would be doing something with his trucks."
In the summer of 1977, he came by his former home to tell his family he was going to Guyana. By this time his wife had divorced him. His daughters overheard him say he was going to haul dirt and lumber so Jim Jones could build a village in the jungle. Three months after his departure, his former wife had a massive stroke and remained in a coma for two months. Veronica Perry's $8 telegram went unanswered and, she said, her request to use the ham radio at the Peoples Temple headquarters was denied. Once she was told by Temple members, she recalled emotionally, "What do you want with him?" When her father finally wrote, all he said was, "How is everything?" and spoke of how the climate was helping his hypertension and his weight control.
The last time Veronica saw him, Leon Perry seemed to get extreme pleasure from the cup of tea he was drinking at her mother's kitchen table. "And all it was was Lipton's, but I have been thinking about how he really enjoyed it."