FREE-FALL CHRONICLES by Peter Coyote
Ron Thelin and the Red House
There were as many varieties of Digger life as there were Diggers, and similarly each
collective house had its own distinctive characteristics. The first of these extra-city
"spores" was the Red House, in Forest Knolls, California, owned by Ron Thelin,
his wife Marsha, and his brother Jay.
Ron Thelin is a San Francisco native son. His father was the manager of the
Haight-Ashbury Woolworth's, directly across the street from the site of his sons'
Psychedelic Shop, founded to disseminate information on the growing interest in
psychedelic drugs and expanded consciousness.
In his senior year of high school, the family moved to Yuba City and Ron met Marsha
Allread, a perky, optimistic all-American Freshman with a mad sense of humor. They have
been together ever since and grown to be zany grandparents together.
Even after extraordinary exposure to psychedelics and passionate dedication to the
counter-culture, Ron is the type of archetypical American Norman Rockwell might have
drawn, with a square handsome face that regards the world with humorous inquisitiveness,
as if the scene unfolding before his curiosity will have comedic potential if he's
patient. He and Marsha believe, quite literally in Santa Claus (the spirit of giving).
They love baseball, (but then again, so does George Will), picnics, family events, and
community service and pursue them all, tirelesslly. Ron and Jay won Bibles for exemplary
attendance at church. They are white-bread, all-American boys in all but one critical
degree, which is they that don't care fuck-all about material wealth. This aberration of
personality, their dedication to living according to spiritual precepts, and their archaic
beliefs in personal responsibility and honor, would be enough to consign them to the
lunatic fringe in the eyes of many, however upon meeting Ron and Marsha and knowing them
for any length of time, even hardened bureaucrats and representatives of the State
inevitably respond to their candor and warmth. The difficulty with dismissing any of the
Thelins is that, unlike so many of my more politically correct, rational, scientific,
wholistically bio-degradable, aura-reading, primal-screaming, high-colonic friends, the
Thelins are happy!. Really happy. Ron gets drunk occasionally and plays the piano as if he
were wrestling a large Russian bear, and Marsha screams at his infractions, but his
drinking generates only higher good humor and somehow their fights never leave residues of
bitterness, but appear and disappear as suddenly as a clap of thunder. They are an
exuberant couple and meet the world heart-first and fearlessly. Their example is
Ron took his first acid trip in 1965, swallowing one of Owsley's sugar cubes that Allen
Cohen, editor of The Oracle, the Haight Ashbury's counter-cultural newspaper,
had given him. Ron's frame of reference for the event was spiritual, because the
literature of Richard Alpert, Tim Leary and Aldous Huxley had already framed psychedelic
drugs in such a context, and most early voyagers undertook these journey with the highest
of intentions. His experience was transformative, blissful, unifying, and instructive and
Ron wanted to spread the word.
In January of 1966, he and his brother Jay took their $500 savings and leased a
storefront at 1535 Haight Street. They covered the walls with burlap, assembled a book
list from Allen Cohen and crafts from local artisans and were soon offering books and
reprints of articles by Richard Alpert, Tim Leary, Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, The
Wassons and anyone else who had written about experiments with consciousness. They were in
the right place at the right time.
In the summer of 1966 Ron and Marsha, and friends Bob Valdez, and Roger Hillyard were
living on Clayton St. when their fourth roommate, John DeTata had a particularly bad day.
He had just failed out of San Francisco State and broken up with his girlfriend. His body
had erupted all with a virulent case of poison-oak and he had a broken arm set in a
sweaty, and moldering cast. It was definitely not a day for him to take LSD, but he did
and became the 300th man to leap to his death from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Marsha was frightened by John's death, and wanted to leave the city. Ron begin
exploring for a new home and discovered the sleepy, West Marin town of Forest Knolls. They
found a large shambling red House on Resaca Street, the dream home a retired ship
captain's, with numerous outbuildings and lots of rock work. They bought it for $24,500
and Ron, Jay, Marsha and her brothers Gary and Artie Allread and Marsha's sisters Susie
and Charlene and Charlene's daughter Holly, moved in.
It took forty-five minutes to drive from Forest Knolls into the store on Haight Street.
Ron would fire up a joint, get high, and enjoy the drive, speculating about what miracle
the day might hold.
It was in these early days that Ron and I met. Walking on Haight Street one day I
discovered the Psychedelic Shop and walked in. The walls were dotted with photos, the
shelves stacked with interesting books on subjects I was interested in, and Ron seemed
like a nice chap. A few days later I returned to see if he might be interested in
superlative candles made by a friend from Kansas City named Duane Benton (no relation to
Jessie). We chatted for awhile, and somehow our friendship began.
Ron met Peter Berg about the same time. Constantly seeking social forms to foster new
social relationships, Berg challenged Thelin about the Psychedelic Shop. "Does this
store express the [psychedelic] experience?", he demanded. This judgement had been
framed as a question but Berg possessed the power to stimulate people see things in anew
and Ron had an epiphany and understood instantly that "storeness" was not
On October 6, 1966, the day laws against LSD went into effect, a big Love Pageant Rally
criticizing the law was held at the Panhandle in Golden Gate Park. Janis Joplin and Big
Brother and the Holding Company performed and people brought bells, beads and bongs and
plenty of acid to signify the event. That night, Ron kept the store open all night and
gave away every single thing in it. A Vietnam Vet traded his lucky Saints medal for a
record. "Everything went" says Ron, laughing heartily, "even the stuff on
Two weeks after closing the shop, Ron cashed in his life insurance, bought a white
panel truck he christened the Free News and took off with a gallon of wine and two
friends, to join the national anti-war rally in Washington, D.C. known as The Exorcism of
the Pentagon; the event which produced the indelible images of young women placing flowers
in the muzzles of weapons held by young soldiers, regarding them with uncertain faces,
perhaps even wondering what threat these laughing playful people posed to the citadels of
When Ron returned from Washington things at home had changed. Marsha had grown tired of
his drinking and philandering and moved to a commune in Placidas, New Mexico. Ron stayed
behind, consoling himself with the affections of Lynn Ferrer, an Oracle staffer. They
created a baby, later named, Deva Star, but according to Ron, "Everything had
changed. It wasn't there. It was over." It, to Ron, was the promise of the Haight-
Ashbury and its dominance as an influence in his life.
Ron was living in the Red House, as the home on Resaca was known, along with the
members of The Sons of Champlin rock band, who had moved in after Marsha fled. Marsha
returned one day, with a new boyfriend, Richard Farner. She had come, she said, to sell
the house and refused to leave. Leaving Ron standing there flabbergasted, she moved into a
room with Richard. Ron stayed in his room, drinking red wine all day and playing the piano
for hours at a time. When the atmosphere in the house became too intense, Marsha returned
to San Francisco for awhile. Ron shuffled over to visit her one hang-dog night and
something about his loneliness and dislocation must have touched her, because it turned
out to be the night their son, Jasper, was conceived. They moved back to the Red House
together, and poor Richard moved on. Jasper was the glue that cemented their relationship,
but it wasn't an easy ride for Marsha, because Ron's stubborn and quixotic sense of
personal freedom was deeply ingrained in his character and hardly had they returned to
Forest Knolls then he had become fascinated by the Diggers.
Diggers came by at all hours, to talk or play music, or crash in one of the many rooms
or vacant couches. Meals might be for four or thirty and there was no way to be prepared
for which it might be in advance. Even after the Sons of Champlin moved out to tour, the
Red House was still jammed to the rafters and totally chaotic. No one knew what
"free" actually meant, and the Red House became transformed into an early
laboratory seeking the answer. "You couldn't go backwards, and forward was
where?", says Ron. "We had to learn how to do this."
David Simpson and Jane Lapiner- Mime Troupers/Diggers moved in to an outbuilding called
Star Mt. which resembled the prow of a ship. Kent and Nina and their daughter Angeline
lived in the Red House proper. Chuck and Destiny Gould converted an old barbecue shed into
a one-room apartment. Tom Sawyer, a quiet reader managed to hang like a bat in a little
cranny somewhere, somehow. Gary and Sidney Allread, Marsha's brother and sister-in-law
built a loft in the Sunshine Room. Roselee, the NRA sharpshooter moved in from the Willard
Street house in the City. Digger, our eccentric and brilliant shade-tree mechanic joined
the entourage with his step-van and tools and John Albion and his wife Helga migrated down
from Black Bear Ranch, while Balew lived with Marsha's other sister Charlene. Mary Gannon,
the pianist from the Ace of Cups, a fine all women's band, joined the party with Joe
Allegra, her dewy eyed lover and father-to-be of their baby. Judy Quick, ex of Barton
Heyman and the Mime-Troupe staked a claim on a room with her paramour, a pure Haight
Street denizen named Samurai Bob. Bob was a taciturn and bitter ex-Marine incarnated into
a shamanic drummer who smoked dope continuously and dedicated his days to plotting the
overthrow of all private property. I mention these people by name, because most appear in
this narrative again, surfacing haphazardly as the weft in the tapestry of this extended
family grew more and more complex. Babies were born in this house: Kira and Jasper Thelin;
Mary Gannon's daughter, Thelina and Danny Rifkin's daughter, Marina. The architecture of
the house as well as the high number of blood relations in Marsha's family, promoted the
social cohesion which was the hallmark of that particular camp.
It became obvious that the Digger credo of "do your own thing" did not work
in an overloaded household. There were too many people and conflicting impulses and
intentions in too little space, creating havoc. Ron and Marsha did not want to claim
ownership of the property as the criteria for authority, but neither did they want their
lives continually disrupted. Various experimental solutions were tried on and discarded
and what seemed to work most effectively and least oppressively was the recognition that
in any situation, one person in the group was best suited for the leadership of that
particular task. Group intelligence was the ability to recognize and use that skill
appropriately. A corollary of that insight was that one could not be attached to
leadership without creating further problems. Consequently there were 25 rotating leaders
at the Red House.
There was one toilet for all these people; a double problem. Aside from the
inconvenience to household members, the neighbors eventually balked at the septic overload
seeping down the street, and to escape the law and its consequences, the Red House was
forced to begin one of their numerous and gargantuan public works projects.
In Marin county the soil is primarily non- absorbent clay and septic tanks don't leach
very well. The offal of thirty people had drenched the impermeable earth around the house
with enough unpleasantness that, in response to complaints, the County placed a lien on
the house until the problem was corrected. This was accomplished in typical Red House
A sympathetic neighbors, with a job, donated $500 so that the Thelins could buy a 25
foot strip of land on the South side of their property to make room for additional leach
lines. The Red House crew, digging by hand over many long, beer-swigging, pot-toking
afternoons, created a six foot by six foot by ten foot deep grey-water sump beside the
house. It was eventually crammed with enough discarded kitchen appliances, crank shafts,
engine blocks and domestic flotsam to fill it. The grey water from the dishwashing, baths,
and laundry collected here, and was siphoned down a 35' drop to gain enough momentum so
that three different RAM pumps (nifty gadgets powered only by the fall of water) could
transport the effluent 200 feet away to the leachfield created in the newly purchased 25
foot strip. The construction of the leach field itself was the excuse for another extended
party, and on that day, the Olema Family people joined the Red House and hand dug 140 feet
(forty feet per legal bedroom) of 3 foot deep, 16 inch wide ditches to bury the leach
Jim Jurick was the County Health inspector, a kind patient fellow who is still friends
with the Thelins. He dutifully inspected each stage of construction and if he ever
wondered why 20 or more people were always available to work on the project, he never
asked anyone, which allowed Ron et al to continue the fiction that they were simply a
single family repairing a single family house single family...with a lot of friends.
The economy of the Red House was sustained by three welfare checks that arrived for the
children of "The Big Moppers", Marsha, Joanna (Bronson) Rinaldi and Nina. While
this was a minimal amount of money, to support 30 people, good bureaucratic practice
demanded periodic inspections by the Welfare Department to insure that none of the
people's tax-dollars was being fraudulently expended. Had these same fervent inspectors
applied equal diligence to fraudulent and wasteful military expenditures or white collar
crime, we would never have had a national budget deficit.
Their visits prompted energetic responses. One family's bedroom would become the Yoga
Room for the day, others would become the music room, the Workshop or the Barbecue. People
extraneous to the legal definition of single-family, would disappear for the day and the
Welfare people would always discover and dutifully scrutinize the three indigent women,
living a life chock full of rustic, but imaginative amenities. As soon as the bureaucrat's
car-pool specials had disappeared down the hill, inhabitants of the dwelling spaces
reappeared to reclaim their homes and reorganize their possessions.
The overriding concerns of these family houses were: to learn how to live communally;
to expand and deepen the sense of community; and to diminish our per-capita consumption of
natural resources and energy. It was no easy task. American individualism made unanimity
and collective concentration difficult. The challenge to create systems where one could
maintain one's personal authenticity and still participate as a social unit, required
constant discussion, checking and re- checking.
The Red House did this more effectively than the more anarchic, end-of-the-world-mob
which assembled at the ranch in Olema. Perhaps because there were so many siblings under
the same roof, or perhaps because Ron and Marsha are such generous people, things at the
Red House always seemed easier and less choleric than at Olema; chaotic, certainly and
Dionysian at times, but without the grudging resentments, and flares of ill- temper that
seemed endemic at Olema. However, even the best collective life could wear thin.
Some people would use anyone's toothbrushes, and one's exception to this on hygienic
grounds might be regarded as ineradicable traces of bourgeois acculturation. Vinnie
unilaterally removed the bathroom door one day because he felt that the "fear of
being observed" was a neurotic vanity to be banished.
Who will empty the garbage, clean the toilets, and do the dishes are mundane but vital
questions. Ron caught Sam washing only the tops of the dishes and setting the dirty
bottoms on the clean tops below them because she "didn't want to be bothered."
Personal aesthetics was another source of friction. If I prefer waking and washing my face
in a clean sink and someone else doesn't, it is a difficult issue to argue from an
ideological position, and hours were often wasted in the vain attempt. Being
"bothered" is what the responsibility of living together is all about whether in
a family, a commune, or a village. Extending the standards one holds for oneself to others
requires a lot of energy and commitment. It involves increasing rather than diminishing
one's sense of responsibility. The leap from single family homes to intense communal
living was an extreme shift and we often discussed the idea of establishing a small
village site, where each family had their own household and could control their personal
environments to their liking.
The struggle with these issues, enervating and irritating as it sometimes was, felt
like necessary work. We new that if we were to build a new culture from within the old, it
would require time, patience, and practice to resolve obstacles and create habitual
responses that were based on community well-being rather than personal preference. We were
on uncharted territory and for better or worse, the people with you were your tribe and
there did not seem to be any better place to be than with them at the edge of the world.
By 1971 most of our family members had left San Francisco. Olema had been closed down
by cowboys who had leased the land for cattle. I was in the East attending to family
matters after my father's death. The Gypsy truckers had split and the only people
remaining at the Red House were those with nowhere else to go. The place was degenerating
into chaos and Ron and Marsha abandoned it and moved back into the city for six months to
take up residence with the community now clustered around their teacher, a charismatic,
white-bearded Indian guru named Ciranjiva, who loved smoking cigarettes, taking acid,
laughing, and roaring proclamations about their living 25,000 years each.
When they moved back to Forest Knolls, Ron and Marsha decisively claimed the Red House
as their own. No longer in contradiction about ownership and freedom, they filled a
fifteen ton debris box with flotsam from the house; jettisoned everyone and everyone
thing, and assumed personal responsibility for their home. The failure of collective
discipline allowed privatization to invade the heart of the counter-culture. "I had
always been off the hook before," Ron says. "It wasn't my house so I never had
to be responsible for it. [As it degenerated], I suddenly understood something about
Freedom leading to responsibility."
They cleaned, washed, and scrubbed the house, creating in it a model of the luminous,
orderly Universe they preferred to live in. "I had learned a lot from communal
living", Ron admits. " A twenty-five mile an hour speed limit is a cooperative
agreement", he says. "It is a tool designed to do certain work. You can't exceed
the nature of the tool and call that Freedom. "Do your own thing" made authority
impossible, even legitimate authority, " he continues. "We [the counter-culture]
reacted to false authority" which demeans true authority. True authority is skill,
insight, and knowledge."
For the rest of his life, Ron's activities centered around the San Geronimo Valley. He
maintained a subsistence wage as a cab-driver and kept up the unending repairs and
renovations on the Red House while his daughter, Kira, presented him with a grandchild,
and one son and then another attended College. He remained a central figure in
environmental work in the valley, and his letters to public officials are models of
probing policy discussions organized around protecting the common good and the public
In the last year he was diagnosed with liver cancer. Because of cirrhosis, due to his
drinking, a past case of Hepatitis, he was not able to be considered as a recipient of a
new liver. Doctor's tried injecting pure alcohol into the venal little mass in his liver,
but to no avail. He grew thinner and weaker, but never once did he snivel, or complain.
His house was a festive center, as people dropped by, partied, discussed politics and the
future as Ron awaited what he called, "my passage".
A week before he died I had come to visit, and he turned to me and told me that the
past week had been the best of his life. "I've been so surrounded by love and
care", he said. "I've had such unbelievable good fortune." He was thin and
yellow as a pencil except for the swelling in his stomach where the tumor gave him the
appearance of a malnourished child.
A week later, he was rushed to the hospital, hemmorhaging in his esophagus. His last
conscious act, was to rip out the tubes and wires connecting himself to the machinery
which would have prolonged his life and dedicated it to being a research subject for
modern medicine. He died on March 19, 1996, on the eve of the Vernal Equinox.
A month later there was a celebration in his honor in the Redwood Grove in Forest
Knolls. Three to four hundred people showed up: politicians, family, friends, the great
and the near great, to sing songs and eulogize this man that every single one of them
considered great. I saw people that I had not seen in twenty years, and the day was lovely
and leisurely, redolent with pot smoke, and the sound of popping beers, laughing kids,
speeches no one attended, good music and the embrace of a community, honoring itself by
honoring one of its stalwarts. There was no other way to honor Ron Thelin than with a
My contribution to the event was a song in his honor. It was called, "I'll be back
as the rain":
My friend and companion went out to go walking.
He didn't bring his shoes, he didn't carry a cane.
He passed through the gate on the day the plums
Said, "Don't you wait up, I'll be back as the
The tobacco smoke's cleared and the wine glass is
The ashes are cold where there once was a flame.
Outside in the green hills a wild bird is calling,
Singing, "Don't you wait up I'll be back as the
So dust off the keys of the upright piano
Slap tambourines while the saxophone blows.
The blossoms don't mourn in the ices of winter.
We don't mourn for a man who lived life as he
There's a new glass in the roof and the light
comes in streaming
You can lie in the bed and see star-shot domains.
In the dreams of the wife, he's there fair and
And his children are singing, "He'll come back as
Fog is the breath of the mountains at morning.
We're passengers all on a runaway train.
The buck in new velvet and the baby a'bornin'
We're all standing in line to come back as the