Unedited Student's Accounts

Student #1

As soon as I got on board (The Shelikof 1964) I could hear the buzzer calling-out my code/name to come to the pilot house.  After I was admonished for what I had done; given counsel on it (an even... light temper counseling I remember) I was then excused as I said earlier. That was the most that was ever exchanged at one time between the Dr. and myself. 

One morning while doing my laundry and ringing the clothes-out through the rubber rollers located on top of the electronic clothes washer (located on deck/stern) I was testing my ability to stick my fingers quickly in and out of the moving rollers without getting them stuck, then during the second time (thinking I had it figured-out) my fingers were grabbed between the rollers and my hand was grabbed and pulled-in.  The rollers were still grinding away. I managed to unplug the machine and remove my hand which was numb.  I don't think anything was broken, but  sure was bruised.  I didn't tell anybody about that. Thought I'd get punished somehow.

Occasionally I would make pancakes, guaranteeing a satisfied fill. That would be on Saturdays.  When I did something wrong I was either silenced or put on a Mango diet.  To this day I have an aversion to mangos although I love most fruits and vegetables.  There was the obsession with food (as they called it) explained by the fact that  I was starved half the time.  Really needed more calories I think.  Tortillas were always a favorite and on one day a woman came aboard and made hand made tortillas on a grill all morning for my birthday.  I didn't care how much I ate... I stuffed myself as much as I could.  Yes, a glutton for the day.  The breads were also a favorite when I went to town. I had my food places... usually street venders and would stop for something to eat. I remember Juan, our general helper.  I brought back a red and blue flannel shirt for him when I came back from Christmas Holiday.  He really liked that shirt and I believe he wore it every day.  Unfortunately Juan died sometime later from diabetes.   

One afternoon I had a ride in a piper-cub airplane which circled over La Paz and the Shelikof.  It was a skeleton  of a plane.  Fun ride.  I don't remember why that happened but it was a nice break.  Young man...good pilot.  I think we even buzzed Juan's house on the outskirts of town.  The pilot was a friend of the Burden's I presume.  I can see the caulking on the deck, the windows around the pilot house and from there seeing the boat lights at nite during our music time. There was Dr. Burden sitting on his bunk reading to us while one of the girl students rubbed his feet (lucky guy),  the tortoise who came out from under the freezer out of some kind of hibernation I guess,  (the animals had a special meaning/welcome because they seemed to be the only normal life form around.) 

I remember one time diving in and swimming along the bottom away from the Shelikof.  This was one particular underwater swim that seemed effortless and lasted an unusual length of time.... breezing at a good-even speed inches off the bottom.  I surfaced not because I ran out of air but because (of R_____near drowning incident)...  I remembered ____ passed-out and I didn't want to take that chance.   I actually reached shore and had more air to spare. 

Seeing the girls in the galley preparing meals from scratch on a diesel range (I remember cleaning wheat during my midnight to 04:00 watch when we were traveling southward from Ensenada to La Paz) in preparation for the ground flour that they would use. There were the metal and cork-brown serving trays which were made-up of divided food areas.   R____ soaking and then cleaning engine parts in a pan with a toothbrush.  As most of our time was spent on board we rarely saw  Dr. Burden and I often wondered where he was or what he was doing. 

Occasionally Virginia B. was on board staying in their stateroom.  Never saw her come out of the room except to go on shore.  There was an occasion when Mrs. Burden and the girls went to town to buy material for making some special dresses.  I remember their big excursion to town following the making of their dresses and rowing them to shore one cloudy afternoon all dressed-up in their blue/velvet attire. They were all sitting proper in the panga with Mrs. Burden at the  forefront and no one said a word that I can remember... kind of a regal air about it all...   I was not allowed to go in town with them.  They hailed me from the shore when they returned.  They took a taxi to some destination.  This remained a mystery where they went.  What the 'big deal' was.

The driving trips down from La Paz to the Cape were in  (the WWII vehicle.... sure it was named but can't remember it) and was driven by R____ with Dr. Burden riding 'shotgun'.  The rest of us rode in back where there were benches on each side and a canvas flap in the rear that could be pulled aside.  I remember especially the beautiful blue, clear water... pristine beaches and enriched/natural villages as San Jose del Cabo.  The orchards, people, livestock... it seemed also Peace Corps(ish).  One time (or two) we pulled anchor and I remember sitting on the stern and watching (I think on a return trip) seeing Cerralvo Island on my right and Baja California peninsula on my left... a channel maybe 5-6 miles wide... as we were returning to La Paz. In the area of San Jose del Cabo  the villages' drinking water I believe was artesian and I remember it having the sweetest,  freshest taste.  Not only that,  but the seacoast was incredibly clear and warm.  The beaches, water... everything was overwhelming in beauty.  

I remember hearing about the former schoolhouse that was used prior to the floating school. We also made some excursions to some island groups north in the larger La Paz bay... camping on the beach.  The drive down from La Paz to the Cape was only about 60 or so miles, but took most of the afternoon making our way along a windy, dirt road.  It was wonderful.  Curves, going along verdant valley floors and across streams,  looking upward from thickets to dry, rocky outcrops and steep slopes with all kinds of cacti.  Experiencing that wonderful climatic transition from arid  to subtropical. This beauty was unmatched.  Just a few fishing/orchard villages.... no electricity, or paved roads yet.  I've always enjoyed the ocean and arid places... and  also the cape of Baja incorporated a bit of fresh magic which contrasted a lackluster feel of further north.  I wish we could have had the security and financial resources have exploited this beauty more.  The first words of Spanish that I learned happened there.

Student #2

When I was sent to Shimber Beris in San Bartolo I was fourteen in 1962, an angry, a pre hippy bohemian rebel who questioned everything and was skeptical of adults, having had few in my life I felt I could trust.

Every morning the group gathered in the living room for a meditation or “orientation” period. This was often comprised of some silent meditation, but more often it involved Doctor reading from some spiritual material of his choice such as The Third Eye, by Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, an invented biography about the Dalai Lama, or Winged Pharaoh, by Joan Grant, a story that was supposedly about the authors previous life in ancient Egypt. Often, Dr. Burden sermonized on whatever he was in the mood to critique; his themes all revolved around his opinion that we were all the damaged products of a depraved society. The hidden agenda to be revealed was that our only hope for salvation available to us, poor wretched souls that we were was through Shimber Beris and that return to the US was at the peril of our souls.

Often I accompanied Dr. Burden on seemingly interminable treks to find some piece of equipment that was needed for our life in Baja California: second-hand dental equipment, a machine that generated ozone, a small grain mill, an arc welder, an archaic washing machine, an electrical generator, tarpaulins, a fifty-gallon drum to hold gasoline, and a military surplus trailer. We searched health food stores for organic produce, raw milk, raw nuts, whole grains and for an occassional treat, honey-sweetened ice cream flavored with carob.

At some romantically seedy trailer park near San Diego I was caught smoking a cigarette in the shower by Dr. Burden, who told me that his wife had had a psychic vision of what I was doing. I forget the punishment; no doubt it involved some form of spiritual penance of his design, but the idea of being caught smoking by a clairvoyant made me laugh.

The spiritual/metaphysical atmosphere unfolded around me day after day. I was amused to hear various references to the occult or metaphysical ideas usually including reincarnation I'd already heard from my mother in one form or another, so nothing much in his spiritual repetoire was new to me. The suburban children Dr. Burden picked up as students for his makeshift tough-love school of spiritual reintegration were often more confused, bewildered and submissive than I thought myself, and mostly very naïve about the whimsical ideals he proclaimed in the name of lofty spirituality. Many seemed to come from troubled homes with difficult parents.

My days unfolded in uneven pieces. On some days I felt normal and serene, and on others turbulent and rebellious. There were times when I felt sullen and resentful, and others where I submitted to being Dr. Burden's pet clown, but profound doubts about the purpose of my involvement constantly haunted me. I reminded myself that my only alternative was to return to the purgatory of the public school system, where I felt a complete outsider. I wasn’t sure where I really wanted to be unless it was at the High School of Music and Art I had heard about, located in New York City, and living with my dad.

After five months of driving around southern California in the Elephant, Shimber Beris was finally ready to cross the border into Mexico. Our first camp site was to be in the town of San Felipe, where a boat the school owned had supposedly been anchored.
We stopped only long enough in Tijuana to pick up two chauffeurs to drive our caravan down the Baja peninsula. Just past San Felipe we made camp in the desert, less than a mile from the beach. This turned into a two week stopover. It was discovered that we lacked some crucial automotive parts for the Studebaker, so D____ and R____, being the oldest, were sent to San Diego to get replacement parts. That detour lasted two weeks.

While we were camped waiting for D___ and R___ to return, I practiced baking bread in the gasoline-fired field oven and generally enjoyed the ocean breezes and springtime weather in the desert. The exotic wilderness together with the absurd circumstances of my existence appealed to my sense of irony.

One American tourist stopped with his camper to chat briefly, unaware of the nature of our group. “Hyuck-hyuck, we hadda catastrophe last night,” he chortled. “We run outta liquor.” Another American tourist drove past towing a boat called The Wet Dream....This was the America Dr. Burden loved to hate and he seldom wasted an opportunity to sneer at it and to remind us that we were all products of the depraved society north of the border. What I loved was watching his reaction to these tourists, which struck me as absurd as the vulgarity which offended him.

By March the full force of spring was on the desert— balmy weather, blue sky, jackrabbits, birds and exotic vegetation. We stopped in each village to stretch our legs and to buy lumps of the crude sugar sold in every general store, called panocha, which tasted remarkably different in every village. Sometimes it tasted like light molasses, sometimes more like unsweetened chocolate, and some batches reminded me of maple sugar. The general stores were reminiscent of sets from a western movie, with all the goods sold from behind one long counter that ran the length of the store.

We averaged a hundred miles a day and had at least one flat tire per day. At night we camped along the side of the road, built a fire and cooked our vegetarian meals on the Elephant’s one gas burner. Frequently, the meals consisted of atole, a corn meal mush eaten by the people native to the region. Postum, a roasted grain product from the U.S. which was supposed to resemble coffee, was the hot beverage of choice, sweetened with brown sugar. The native drivers always camped at a discreet distance from our group. I watched as they built a simple snare and later roasted a small animal over a camp fire kindled between three stones. I admired these unpretentious men, and part of me wanted to learn more about their customs and culture and not continue to live a life circumscribed by the unpredictable visionary culture dreamed up by Dr. Burden.

There were always new images to contemplate as day by day, we spluttered and lurched our way further down the Baja peninsula. Some of the most remarkable were the Viscaino desert and the waters of Scammons Lagoon where whales came to give birth. On the broad sands of the lagoon were scattered beautiful turtle shells; I didn't know it then, but the flesh of these turtles was the plunder of fishermen who themselves later became the target of environmentalists.

Somewhere along the road we stopped for a day or so, so that the older boys could change the Studebaker’s transmission. At another juncture we bided our time while the older boys replaced an axle on the Elephant, which, with all its durability and horsepower, had met its match in this terrain. One afternoon we came upon some Americans whose jeep lay in a ditch due to a cracked frame. They were more than surprised when we pulled over and offered to weld the break for them on the spot. It was fun to be a part of the group at these times.

At other times I stood staring at the beauty of the landscape and tuned out Dr. Burden’s philosophy and surreal contradictions, which even the other students parroted to me sometimes. D___ had quietly counseled me early on to “take what I needed and leave the rest.” His words helped, but since he tended to be internal and reserved, he was prone to be distant. In time, as my anger at new insanities blinded me to what value might lay in the experience, I would find it harder to “take what I needed.” Eventually I would have to confront the balance of what I thought was good in the experience and what was unacceptable. The latter eventually out weighed the former.

Our caravan drove south on the main road from La Paz toward Cabo San Lucas. The road was sandy and rutted in places, passing through shallow arroyos and rocky outcroppings covered with enormous wild fig trees. Cactus in numerous varieties along with a plethora of other desert vegetation grew everywhere. We passed through quiet villages, a memorable ghost town named San Antonio and the first vestiges of settlements that would later be developed into “resorts.” Eventually we drove into San Bartolo, an oasis village situated about halfway between La Paz and the cape.

At that time the inland village of San Bartolo got its water from an oasis spring which issued forth from a low cliff in the middle of the San Bartolo arroyo. In every way the inhabitants of this poor rural village appeared to me to possess a sweetness and dignity that was missing in average American city dwellers. The women had long black hair and wore long print dresses while the men wore denim pants, blue or white shirts, straw hats, and for the most part both wore either sandals made from rubber tires and inner tubes, flip flops or bare feet. Of course there was an absence of many of the niceties of the US such as sanitation or education but the feeling of innocence and community was palpable and delicious.

Dr. Burden had leased a piece of oasis property from a local school teacher known to us as Senor Castro, whom he had dealt with before. The land was about an acre in size and had one building on it. An irrigation ditch ran along the lower edge of the property and separated it from the arroyo on the other side where a lush orchard grew.

The main building we parked the Elephant next to was one Dr. Burden had built of stone two years before; it had one window and a sturdy door. From the south wall a broad thatched porch area or ramada slanted down to a point some distance from the stone building; the three remaining sides were open. The floor area under the roof was packed dirt.

Beside the east stone wall a traditional cooking fireplace had been built. This was an elevated hearth on top of which was a traditional cooking fireplace built of three trough-like fire-boxes made of mud bricks. A kettle placed over the cooking fire would rest on the edges of the two parallel rows of bricks that comprised the sides of the fireboxes. Most of our cooking was done here; the remainder was done on the four foot tall army surplus field stoves. For a while a woman from the village was hired to do laundry and some of the cooking. She could turn out tortillas by hand that were flawlessly thin, smooth and perfectly round. She moistened the laundry she was about to iron by spraying it with a mouthful of water between pursed lips.

The area under the south ramada roof was the main social meeting area for the group. A large rustic wooden dining table had been built there, right in the ground, and there were some unusual rules in place as well.

We were forbidden to speak under the roof at any time and signs were posted to that effect. We were also forbidden to speak about the past or to sing or whistle anywhere on the property under any circumstances.

The punishment for breaking any rules was to be forbidden to speak for an entire day. The punishment for violating one's punishment added a day to the sentence. It looked for a while as though some of us might never be allowed to speak again and there were penalties that lurched and trailed off towards infinity and laughter. And beyond laughter was the dire pushment of isolation for those who particularly displeased Dr. Burden.

Shimber Beris isolation drawing

Drawing by student ordered by Dr. Burden to spend three days (including his birthday) next to palm tree.

Student #3

I was in Guatemala for 1 year and 8 months starting from November 9th, 1976. I don't remember the exact date I came home.  As for writing about the place, if I could write about it I would have written a book about it already. I just don't have the mental where-with-all to stick with that.

As for leaving, I left after my mother came down to visit me. They wouldn't let her come up to the mountain. I had to go down to a hotel next to the lake. I wasn't allowed to see her by myself. I always had to have a staff member with me. I managed to sneak over to her room one night and told her the truth of what was going on at Shimber Beris. It still took 4 months and her cutting off funding before they let me go. Someone who I thought might be related to Dr. Burden escorted me down the mountain and to the airport in Guatemala City. I was only told I was going the day I left. As for telling the story, I WANT to tell the story. So ask me all the question you want. I can't thank you enough for doing this story!

When I say I don't remember Daphne, I mean the name doesn't ring a bell. I have always had a hard time with names. But I'd probably recognize her if I saw a picture of her from back then.

The kid in the in the front left of the first photograph you sent me would be Gary, I remember him being small. Cliff would be the back right. Neither of the other two I would recognize. The front right guy doesn't really look like Clay to me. But my memories are 30 years old. I remember Cliff having a longer face. But he was stoned on Amiril all the time so I probably remember the stoned face. Now that I think of it, there was a boy there that I don't remember the name of. Me and him had a fight on the first landing coming up from the river. He beat me fair and square, but Cliff (who was the only person there when the fight happened) told a staff, so the other boy got put in the calaboso for a few days.
We made up after he got out.

Btw, I should let you know, I was the kid everyone hated down there, and I did deserve it. I was an annoying little shit. So if you have some stories about some jerk kid, they are probably about me.

I don't recognize anyone in the second picture. Hell, I don't remember there being any ducks or geese. I remember the chickens, and the bloody messes they left in the school room. I also remember the cats. A quick story. I got in trouble because after night service, when we would walk back to boy's camp, my hut was right next to the cleared area they were going to make a soccer field out of. And I would stop and go out there and look at the stars before I would go to bed. Clay told me I was supposed to go straight to bed, and I gave him some lip, so they started locking me up in one of the girls huts at night. One night I was just starting to doze off when I heard some scurrying up near the top of the hut. My flashlight was almost dead, but when I shined it up to the roof, I could see a rat between the top post and the corrugated iron. I then turned off my light and pulled the blanket over my head and lay there listening to the rat running around. All of a sudden something fell on my chest hard. I threw up the blanket, which I guess launched the rat up into the air, and it came down right on my face and bit me on my lower lip. I screamed and yelled, but of course no one came. The next night I made sure to grab one of the cats on the way down from night service, and held onto it while I was locked in. As soon as I turned off my flashlight there was a bunch of noise, and when I turned on the flashlight the cat was going out under the door with a dead rat in its mouth. (Never had a problem after that.)

The more I look at that chess photo the more I think it was staged. Cliff did not play chess. They kept him too drugged up to play chess (meleril I think, not amiril). Half the time he just stumbled around in a daze. Also, that photo had to have been taken when I was there as Gary arrived after I did, and Cliff left before I did (his dad died). Also, remembered another name, Brian was another student there when I was there. There was also another boy, don't remember the name. He was best friends with a male staff member, who's name I also don't remember. The student and staff member used to go on camping trips with just the two of them. The student actually got to go home, and then came back of his one free will. But when he got back the male staff member wasn't on the mountain anymore. I vaguely remember that the male staff member was sent away specifically because they were spending too much time together and the student was getting preferential treatment because of this, so they sent the staff member to Guatemala City or someplace. Well, that didn't sit well with the student, especially as he had come back specifically to be hand in hand with his bud, so he started causing trouble. One day they had him in the same girl's hut that they used to lock me up at night (this was at a different period then that though). The rest of the students were at the schoolroom when a staff and a couple of Vigillantes went to the girl's hut. There was a bunch of yelling and screaming from the student, and I remember us boys standing there helpless, staring at each other. They then took the student to one of the calabosos out in the forest and locked him in (naked). That night he dug himself out and for a couple of days and ran around naked. He was still there when I left.

I remember Brian because of an incident at Rio Nuevo. You probably already know this, but just in case you don't, Nuevo was a creek that flowed into Rio Frio north of the main site. It had a lean-to dug into the side of a hill that was sometimes used as a stop for 3 day backpacking trips. I was always in a group with Cliff, and Brian, mostly because I mainly complained, and the other group wouldn't put up with me in their group. This one weekend we went there, happened that a boy left back at main camp ran away. Apparently they didn't want us back till they had found him, because they sent some vigillantes out with food for another 7 days. And then 3 days more. And then 7 days more. It was the longest we had ever spent out on a backpacking trip, and the best time I had while I was there. Except for one day. As you know, we swung on the vines down there. There was one at RN that had been cut short as it had been cut on a previous trip and was thought to be about to fall on its own. Well, this trip we found that it could still be swung on, however, to get to where you could swing on it took a bit of work. It was hanging over the hill, to the side of the lean-to, about 20 feet away. I had to get directly under it, and as I could just barely reach it with my fingertip I had to tap it, get it swinging, and then climb the hill tapping it till I could get a hand on it. Then climb the hill some more and then step up on a log, and I could reach up the vine, with the end coming down just to my waist.

Something I should mention before I go further, when I first got there I had the normal amount of pants and shirts. However, it took me a while to learn the duck waddle you had to know so as to not have your legs rub together and rub the mud from your rubber boots all the way up to your crotch. So each night I would take off my mud caked pants and wet shirt and throw them under my bed. Come to find out that I had to do my own washing and those clothes stayed under there a LONG time. By the time I pulled them out to wash them they were rotted. So by the time of my story above I was down to one pair of pants (rotted up to the top of my boots) and one t-shirt that was way too big for me (it went down to my knees).

On the day of my fun, it was around noon time. Everyone had gone back to their tents for a siesta except for Brian (who was tending the beans for supper) and me (who was not tired and bored). I decided I would swing on the vine. So I did all that you had to do to get in position to jump. The first step to jumping was to leap up the vine as far as you could so as to be able to wrap your legs around it. My hands and arms were not strong enough to swing leg free. However, this time, when I jumped, the end of the vine got caught in the t-shirt I was wearing and I wasn't able to get my legs around the vine. I had already leaped and was starting to accelerate down the hill. Thinking I could stop myself I started dragging my feet. That didn't work out so well when the ground dropped away as my legs swung out and my hands lost traction on the vine. Sliding down and then freefalling through the air towards the rocks in the creek all I could think of was, "I'm going to die, I'm going to die, I'm going to...)

And then I hit ground. I had flown about 40 feet, but instead of landing in the rocks I hit dirt along the edge. All the air was gone out of my lungs, so I grabbed the tree that was between my legs while I fought to breathe again. Just as I got my breath back Brian comes running down. He had seen me go by as a flash out of the corner of his eye. He asked me if I was ok. I said yes, as nothing seemed to be broken, but then I saw my hands. Sliding down that knobby vine had scraped all the skin off the palms and fingers of my hands. And as I was hugging a tree all the crud and goo was now all in my wounds. Brian told me that I needed to get the mud out of my hands quickly as they would get infected. I agreed and walked down and into the creek and then dunked both my hands in up to my elbows. Anyone who had broken a blister, and then gotten water on it knows the pain I felt. My screams could be heard up and down the creek. And everyone came running. One of the staff (who's tent was at the top of the hill) came down and asked me what the fuss was all about. I held up my hands and yelled "THIS!" He told me it didn't look that bad and I needed to quit whining. He then had one of the other boys get me a milk can of water. I got to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening cleaning the crap out from my hands bit by bit. After it was dark and I couldn't see any more dirt, he put Band-Aids on my hands, and I was sent to bed.

The next day we hiked up and over the east ridge to Rio Bonito, and tried to find the group of boys that were over there. Because of my Band-Aids I wasn't able to get past a gorge in the river and we ended up not finding them. Oh well. The following day we got to climb down Rio Frio to the waterfall. The fact that I couldn't use my hands didn't slow us down too much.

Gary Goodman's Letter to Virginia Burden

Garry's letter

Garry's letter side two

Virginia's reply

Virginia Burden reply to Gary Goodman letter

Virginas reply to Gary Goodman letter page 2

Gary Goodman attended the school from1974 until 1980. In 1985 he married Daphne Burden and they divorced 1995. He comited suicide in May 1996 by lying down on the rail road tracks in front of a moving train in Oxnard California.

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