I Visited A Cult

Oh, yes, I did.

I visited the international training center of a cult, and on the surface, everything looked great.

But I’m going to try to refer to it as a “community” instead of a “cult.” I won’t say which “community” it was, but my 21-year-old nephew came into town with a friend over the weekend, and on Friday night, he announced to me that they wanted to visit a cult (he used the word “cult”) on Saturday…and he wanted me to go with them. I had questions, of course. “You don’t want to join the cult, right?” “Why do you want to go?” “How far away is it?” “Is it scary?”

He showed me the group’s website. It looked pretty benign, And it said they welcome visitors, so I agreed to go, and we made plans to leave the next day. I should mention my husband thinks we are all nuts.

Early Saturday afternoon, we got into the SUV and drove over an hour to the address listed on the website. We were excited to see what we would find! Upon arrival, we drove into the parking lot at the front of the group of houses and got out. We walked around looking for people, but all we saw were sheep out front eating hay. One of the sheep had a penchant for magnolia leaves, so we watched them for a while and discussed what we should do.

Ultimately, we decided to go to another road and approach from the back. When we drove into a back parking lot, we saw a woman stick her head around a fence. I asked my nephew’s friend to put down her passenger-side window, and in my best sweet southern voice, I said, “Hey! We read on your website that y’all welcome visitors! We’re just curious and would like to find out what y’all are all about!” Once she decided we were friendly, she offered to show us around. She explained we weren’t seeing many people because Saturday is the Sabbath, and most people were resting.

We followed her into the dining hall/meeting room, which was lovely…clean and nicely decorated. We ran into a couple more friendly people inside who readily introduced themselves. From there, she showed us the barn area, where they had goats and cows. And after that, we walked over to one of the community’s houses, where members of the “community” had gathered outside for music. We were offered tea, and we all took a cup. I thought it was delicious, and my nephew did too, but I noticed his friend was holding hers…not drinking it. I knew she was thinking about Jonestown, so I took the tea off her hands and drank it myself.

We were welcomed with open arms by everyone gathered outside, and we asked any questions we could think of. Are people free to come and go as they please? Yes. If someone leaves the community, are they shunned? No. Do y’all drink alcohol? No. What are your beliefs? How do you support yourselves? I wanted my nephew to ask if they used cannabis, but none of us had the nerve to ask that. I thought I smelled it wafting out of a house at one point, but I couldn’t be sure. And this group believes everyone should work together for the greater good of the community. Every person contributes by working…like bees in a hive. Children are educated onsite. We weren’t bashful…we asked questions. We didn’t ask in a threatening way…we asked in a curious way, which is exactly what we were…curious.

We left after a couple of hours thinking, “This isn’t a cult at all! They’re just a religious commune!” Everyone was so friendly. They were very reserved, but they were friendly. We had no reason to believe they were anything but good folks.

And then, after we got home, we googled the name of their “community,” and that’s when things got weird!

Unbeknownst to us, just last week, the FBI had released from their vault information from a 2013 investigation into this particular group. At the top of the report, it says, “Open investigation based on allegations that children are being sexually exploited.” And somehow, we decided to visit right after the report was released from the vault? We had no idea! In the report, there is testimony from former members of the community with allegations of child labor, sexual abuse, sexual orgies, and drug use. That led us to look at other websites, where we found allegations of community members being held against their will…and more. And honestly, it frightened us. Is any of the “testimony” true? I don’t know, but it was enough to make my hair stand on end.

And it made me a little sad. I thought of the sweet people we had met. Most of them were friendly, but some of them were looking at us wide-eyed, and one of them appeared a little unstable, but we chalked it up to dementia. But after reading everything, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the wide-eyed ones were desperate to leave. Were they unhappy? Were they being abused? Did they want us to take them with us? Did they want to pass us notes asking us to send help? Of course, that’s all my imagination. No one, at any time, indicated they were unhappy. In fact, most of them appeared very happy.

In hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t google the community before we went, because we never would have gone. I believe there are some good people in that group. Are there bad folks? I don’t know. But I’m guessing that will be my only visit to their commune. We went unannounced, but didn’t see anything suspicious. Of course, my nephew’s friend pointed out that we were really only shown the animals and the interior of one building, which was almost unoccupied at the time, so there wasn’t much opportunity for us to see anything nefarious.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they seemed like nice people. Of course, someone else pointed out to me that “of course they were nice! They wanted y’all to join!” Yeah…they probably didn’t want me. I’m way beyond child-bearing years, and I’m sure they could take one look at me and tell I’m way too high maintenance. My nephew, on the other hand, is low maintenance, strong, hardworking, good-looking, musically talented, and artistic. Any cult would love to have him. His friend is pretty and outgoing…they’d love to have a young lady join up, I’m sure. But I would have been a total drain on their system.

And in their defense, the FBI closed the 2013 investigation. Since I never read anything about any arrests, and they didn’t invade the place like they did with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, I’m guessing they didn’t uncover enough evidence to support the allegations.

Either way, we got out unscathed. If anyone ever tries to hold me at a commune, they will run me off as soon as they figure out I don’t even know how to mop very well!

On our way home, I thought of how happy my parents would be that my nephew was hanging out with me in North Carolina. And I wished I could call them to tell them about the experience…they would have loved hearing about it.

 

Advertisements

Where Are The Killer Bees?!?

In the 1970s, the fear was real.

If you were alive then, you know it’s true. You likely had some fear of killer bees, quicksand, and UFOs. Thanks to movies and TV, we heard about them all the time.

UFOs are featured on an episode of The Brady Bunch…Peter and Bobby think they see a UFO, only to find out it’s a hoax carried out by oldest brother, Greg. See a clip here from the episode titled Out of This World. We saw quicksand on Gilligan’s Island and lots of other shows. See a clip from a quicksand episode of Gilligan’s Island called Man With a Net  here. And killer bees? Movies about killer bees were rampant in the 1970s…The Savage Bees, The Swarm...we were scared.

When I was seven, I attended a high school bonfire with a neighborhood friend and her family. She had older siblings, so she got to go to all the cool stuff. I remember the excitement around it. I thought the bonfire was amazing…right up until panic set in. It seemed like everyone got scared, but it might have just been the little kids. Somehow, we thought a UFO was in the area. I think someone saw a helicopter and thought it was an alien spaceship. Kids started running in all directions. We ran to my friend’s mother’s car…and we talked about it at school for weeks. I don’t know how likely it was that an alien spaceship wanted to investigate kids and teenagers in Brewton, Alabama, but my 7-year-old self was convinced they wanted me. Our fears were fed by movies like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Escape to Witch Mountain (which starred a young Kim Richards of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills). Call me crazy, but I still think aliens from far away lands might be watching us. I’m always watching for flying saucers in the sky. If there is ever a UFO in my area…and if I’m awake…I’m going to be the one who sees it.

Alien_Flying_Saucer_-_panoramio-2

I spent my entire childhood worrying about quicksand. Like I said, it was featured in cartoons and television shows. I remember seeing it on Gilligan’s Island; Johnny Quest; Scooby Doo; Batman; Fantasy Island; The Six Million Dollar Man; Tarzan; The Dukes of Hazard; and more. It was everywhere on television, and we watched a lot of television as kids. That was our screen time. We saw quicksand so often on television that we thought it must be everywhere. In Alabama, back then, we still had woods where we could roam. I didn’t roam as much as my brother did, but when I did, if I found myself stepping into thick mud, I was immediately convinced it was quicksand. My friend, Mary Ann, says she used to poke the ground with a big stick in front of her to make sure it wasn’t quicksand. It seemed that any time quicksand was featured on TV, the victim sank completely, drowning in it or they sank up to his/her neck…except for one dead arm sticking out. For years, I thought that anyone who died in quicksand left one arm sticking up out of it. Yet, I’ve never seen quicksand. I’ve seen a warning sign for it near the Battleship USS Alabama, in Mobile, but I don’t know if it’s still there. So where did all the quicksand go?!?! Why don’t we hear about it anymore?

As for killer bees…well, that fear was absolutely real. They were on every kid’s mind in the south. Heck, we already had fire ants before everyone else, and those were scary enough. But killer bees?!?!? Those were like flying fire ants! I remember watching a made-for-TV movie called The Savage Bees in 1976. It was about a ship that arrived in New Orleans with a dead crew….killer bees. That television movie just made it more real for me. New Orleans was just a couple of hours way from where I lived in Spanish Fort, Alabama! What if killer bees came in on a ship from another country? It was almost enough to make a kid afraid to go outside, because if killer bees were in the area, there was no escaping them, according to the TV movie. If they wanted you, they would get you…through cracks under doors and vents to get into your house. I don’t remember all the details, but I know a lady drove an “airtight” VW Beetle into the Superdome with a swarm of bees all over it. She drove onto the field, and when the temperature reached a certain point (49 degrees?), the bees died…saving the city of New Orleans and the rest of the US from the savage bees.

Movies and TV loved trying to scare us in the 1970s. Maybe you remember Skylab falling. Remember Jaws? Weren’t we all afraid to go into the water? Heck…I’m still afraid! Or who remembers Squirm? It was released in 1976. It was a movie about worms attacking people. I was in fourth grade when it was released. I didn’t get to see it, because it was rated R, but my friend, Greg Wilson, got to see it. I remember when he came to school talking about it, and we all gathered around to hear about it. He’s fearless now, and I guess his parents knew he was fearless then.

Anytime I mention quicksand, UFOs, or killer bees to a friend or family member who was alive in the 1970s, we laugh…it becomes a funny conversation. And then, we always talk about how we never hear about those things anymore.

Maybe I should be reminding folks to be careful…watch for quicksand under your feet; watch for UFOs in the sky; and drive an airtight VW Beetle to avoid the killer bees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunflowers

Sunflowers look like happy faces. The young ones all face the same direction…toward the sun (to read why, click here). It’s not sunflower season, but pictures of them can sure brighten a dreary, winter day. They were my daddy’s favorite flower and by default, they became my mother’s favorite too. Bees love them too. Big fields of them cause people to stop on the sides of highways for photos. Because they were my parents’ favorite, they became my favorite too.

FullSizeRender[8]
This month is my parents’ 57th wedding anniversary (February 18), but they aren’t here to celebrate. That’s why sunflowers are featured in the Facebook cover photo. I took that picture last summer when my friend, Meg, and I drove up to Flat Rock to see our friend, Linda, perform the role of Ursula in The Little Mermaid. We stopped right on the side of the highway and took a bunch of photos.IMG_8684

Mother died December 30. It wasn’t really expected, but not entirely unexpected either. She had been in failing health for some time, but I didn’t see it coming. We talked every day, and even before Thanksgiving, she started saying, “Always remember I love you.” I thought she was just being sentimental, but in reality, she knew she was dying. Denial was strong for me. Looking back, I should have known, but I didn’t.  She mothered me for 50 years, and she was “Mama” to anyone who needed her. Fortunately, I was with her when she passed. There was no doubt she knew I loved her, and I knew she loved me. That’s all that matters.

FullSizeRender-27When my daddy died in October 2006, we had time to prepare and time to have those long, meaningful conversations. He had been diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in February of that year, so we knew. We spent lots of time reminiscing with him and making jokes, because if we didn’t laugh, we would cry. He helped us get out of jams our whole lives, but we couldn’t get him out of this jam. Since our daughter was not quite three, she wasn’t enrolled in real school yet, so our little family moved down to our little condo on the bay near my parents’ house in Alabama for the last couple months of his life. We are grateful for that time together.

My husband and I got married in August of 2000, and the next spring, I planted sunflowers all over our backyard, half expecting them to survive. Surprisingly, those sunflowers grew to be the biggest I’ve ever seen! The blooms were way bigger than my head, and I have a big head. Some of the stalks were thicker than my arm, and lots of them grew to be ten feet tall…or more! When it was time, I stood on a step stool and still had trouble reaching some of the blooms to cut them.

Mother and Daddy were proud. Sunflowers are pretty easy to grow, but I had worked hard fertilizing them, staking them, and watering them. Unfortunately, we didn’t have cell phone cameras then. I did take some pictures, and they’re in the house somewhere, but I have no idea where. After that year, I never planted sunflowers again; I developed a fear that I would stick my hands in the soil and pull out a snake.

This spring, however, I plan to honor my parents by planting OUR favorites, sunflowers, in my backyard again. I’m going to overcome my fear of snakes and plant those flowers so Mother and Daddy can look down and smile.

If you want to grow your own, they’re pretty hardy flowers. You can order seeds here. There are probably more varieties than you know. The year I had all my sunflowers, I planted the seeds in trays and transferred them when they were a few inches tall, but I’ve heard people say it’s just as easy to grow them straight from the soil.

FullSizeRender[9]

I think the sunflowers Meg and I ran across were just west of Shelby on the south side of Highway 74. Another friend, Carolyn, tells me there is a big field of sunflowers on Hallsboro Road near Hallsboro, NC.

***Read about other sunflower fields at the bottom of the page.***

So this summer, when you see a field of sunflowers on the side of the road, I hope you’ll stop and take pictures. I’ll stop at every sunflower field I see, and I’ll be thinking of Mother and Daddy.

If you know of any sunflower fields anywhere in the US, please share the location in the comments. And please remember to invite your friends to follow Kelly Mattei’s Favorite Things on Facebook.

In the meantime, keep facing the sun…

 

FullSizeRender[4]

Sunflower field locations 

ALABAMA

*According to Country Living’s website, there has been a sunflower field in Autauga County, Alabama, in 2016, at the intersection of Highway 14 and Highway 33. Click here to go to their website and see an aerial video (by Alabama Aerial Photography) of the field. It’s incredible! I’m hoping it’s an annual planting.

*In Summerdale, Alabama, Alligator Alley has had a field in years past. This is located in Baldwin County, about 30 miles north of Gulf Shores, AL. It’s a small field, but easily accessible to visitors of Alligator Alley. Learn more about Alligator Alley here.

*I’ve seen photos of a sunflower field at Cornfield County Farms, just north of Montgomery, Alabama, in Elmore County. See more about that here.

GEORGIA

*The Anderson’s Sunflowers are located on Shiloh Road, in Cumming, Georgia, just north of Atlanta. You can see their Facebook page here.

NORTH CAROLINA:

*The previously mentioned flowers on Highway 74, west of Shelby; and the field in Hallsboro.

*Visit The Biltmore in Asheville between July and September, and you can see their sunflowers by the road to Antler Hill Village. See more about that here.

PENNSYLVANIA

*According to Heraldmailmedia.com, there has been an annual field in Marion, Pennsylvania, at Lesher’s Poultry Farm. Read more about that here.

SOUTH CAROLINA

*The Draper Wildlife Management area in Western York County, SC. Click here for more info. I visited this one with my friend, Jenn, and our girls a few years ago. When we went, they were smaller sunflowers, but beautiful, nonetheless.

VIRGINIA

*Burnside Farms in Haymarket, Virginia, hosts the Summer of Sunflowers. You can find out more about that here.

SUNFLOWER FESTIVALS

*There are sunflower festivals all over the world! Maybe my friend, Mary Ann, will road trip with me to a Sunflower Festival this summer. To find more info about those, click here. 

FullSizeRender[8]