The Free-Fall Chronicles
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
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 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 curiousity
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, tireleslly. 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 lunactic fringe in the eyes of many, however
upon meeting Ron and Marsha and knowing them for any length of
time, even hardened bureacrats 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 inspiring.
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 offerring
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 conciousness. 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
roomate, John DeTata had a particularly bad day. He had just
failed out of San Francisco State and broken up with his
girl-friend. 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 thedrive, speculating about what miracle the day might
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 consignment."
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 anit-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 power.
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 lonliness 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 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
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
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 fashion.
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 momentuum 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 lines.
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 bureacrat'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 hygenic 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 committment. 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 privatisation
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,
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
In the last year he was diagnosed with liver cancer. Because
of cirrhosis, due to his drinking, a past case of Hepatitus, 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 concious 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 medecine. He died on March 19, 1996, on the eve of the
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 party.
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
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
Date of last modification: May 10, 1996
The Free-Fall Chronicles is a "loose" memoir of the
'60's by Peter Coyote, actor and one of the earliest members of
the Diggers. It is a "loose" memoir because every third
or fourth chapter is about another member of the community. The
book traces the experiences, the lessons and the costs of the
pursuit of absolute freedom, and ponders the utility of limits.
This chapter covers Ron Thelin and his family's home at the Red