Society of the Just, Chapter 1: "Taylor and Mary Rose," by Meredy Amyx






Lydia Frazota
     Somehow it happened that my father the philosopher and dreamer was the realist in the family; my mother, hard-headed and practical, was also insane.
     It took the two of them, and their two wildly different yet strangely complementary natures, to found a little secret nation of their own, of which he could be the king. And she, my mother, Mary Rose—she would be the queen, and her birthday would become a holiday. Nothing less would have sufficed for Mary Rose.
     The rest of us, the politans, existed to satisfy those outrageous desires.
     At first it must have seemed so benignindeed, so rational, so wise. How else would one man have got twenty-three other peoplewhole families with children, grandparents, even single young adultsto follow him and his vision, disappear from society, and give birth to a hidden community that could survive, grow, and thrive undetected in the mountains of California for eighty-nine years?
     At its peak the population of our nation-village never exceeded seventy-five. That number may seem small to you on the outside, but to us it was many. To us who had lived decades and never seen but three strangers in all that time, and only two of them alive, seventy-five was as large as a crowd could be.
     My father, Taylor Giles Frazota, is credited with being the founder and first Philosopher-King of Synusia Dikaion. And it's true, he was the first Philosopher-King. But the real founder was my mother, Mary Rose.
     The year was 1918. President Wilson had done his utmost to hold the United States aloof from the bloody war in Europe, even after the Zimmermann telegram of January 1917 had revealed the threat to bring the enemy across the Mexican border and take possession of three southwestern states. Ignoring American neutrality, German U-boats were sinking American vessels in international waters, and they were stealing closer to our shores. There were even murmured threats of an invasion of the West Coast by Japan. Finally, in April of 1917, the United States had entered the war.
     Even the quiet little academic community of Monte Sereno College, sequestered in the shelter of the Santa Cruz mountains, felt the impact of the war, as all the single young men in the student body except the theology students had been required to register for the draft in 1917. One of my father's best students, one of those who had formed the core of his following, had been called up for active duty in the fall of 1917. The loss of one of his disciples affected Taylor nearly as strongly as the loss of a relative.
     In fact my father had already been deeply touched by the war. Taylor was the second of three brothers. His elder brother Joseph, born before his parents moved from British Columbia to Washington state, had retained his Canadian citizenship. When the war came in 1914 he enlisted in Britain's Royal Flying Corps and trained as a pilot. His plane was shot down over Germany in 1915. His death had a profound effect on Taylor and his attitudes about war.
     But it was not the pacifist convictions of Taylor Frazota that tipped the balance for the small and devoted band of colleagues and their families. It was the terrors of Mary Rose.
     She was twenty-two years old. She was five and a half months pregnant with her first child. And she had a morbid fear of germs.
     Mary Rose Foster was always a force to be reckoned with. She was hard-headed, single-minded, and tough. Even as a young woman she had a fierce, intense look about her. She was like a pile of logs set on a steep slope. When someone pulled the retaining stake, you would not want to be a toad on the downhill path.
     Here is a picture of the two of them on their wedding day, St. Valentine's Day, 1914. This portrait in its gilt frame is one of the few personal things they brought with them from their old home outside the polis. He was 31, and she was just 18. With his bushy Teddy Roosevelt mustache and his stylish black coat, he looks very dapper and self-possessed. That high intellectual brow and those piercing dark eyes belong to a man of great strength and personal power. And she seems very fragile, holding a nosegay of pale rosebuds and sitting in that huge old mahogany chair in her high-necked Edwardian gown of ivory lace, with her tiny waist and her delicate wrist, and her light-brown hair done up in a pompadour. Standing behind her with his hand resting on her shoulder, my father looks protective and proprietary in that classic masculine way.
     But look at her eyes. Is that a docile expression? Do those look like the eyes of someone who regards her husband as her lord and master? Or can you see right there in the eighteen-year-old Mary Rose the face of a woman who was born to rule? The story of how she met and married my father is evidence enough, but I'll save that one for another time.
     Mother had that imperious gaze right up until the day she died at the age of ninety-eight. I was there beside her, and in some part of my mind I think I expected that look to outlast her final breath, just like the grin of the Kashire Cat in a fanciful story my Aunt Prudence used to tell us about a girl who went down a rabbit hole.
     The set square jaw that was so distinctive in Mother's mature years is not so prominent in this picture, but if you look, you can see it. The line of that dainty mouth is very firm.
     Other people yielded to the charismatic influence of Taylor Frazota. But Taylor Frazota yielded to the will of Mary Rose.
     The letter from Illinois that set the chain of events in motion reached my mother on March 18, 1918, an occurrence recorded in my father's journal together with the letter itself. Here it is, brittle and faded but still legible enough—a few simple words that turned lives upside down. I'll tell you a secret: I'm not supposed to be able to read these words because they're not written in Politan, but I can. I could always do a lot of things my father never knew about.
March 12, 1918      
Dearest Mary Rose,

     It grieves my heart to send you this sad news but the influenza has reached us here in Elgin. The people are ill on all sides and many has died. Of our own it was first our brother Thomas late last week, whom mother nursed faithfully and could not save him. Oh how we wept and cried. And then both Hannah and Judith succumbed, our dear young sisters. Finally mother this morning taken to the Lord. I pray the Almighty to give them rest in heaven. Now only I am left together with my beloved Will, and I fear the fever may come to us next. Our little Sarah got taken early. There is no one left to run the farm. Oh my dear, our family is eaten up and my heart is broke. I am comforted only knowing you are safe so far away and pray that this dread plague will never reach you. Think of me kindly my dear, for I fear this is farewell.

Ever your loving sister      
     I was not a witness to her reaction when she read this message from her younger sister. My birth was still four years in the future. But I have seen Mary Rose in a frenzy. And so if I close my eyes I can describe her as confidently as if I had been beside her in the parlor of my parents' modest dwelling in Los Gatos, California.
     Staggering from the shock of the first words, she holds the letter in one trembling hand while the other gropes for support and finds the back of a chair. Her faces goes pale, her eyes bulge in horror, and a cry in her throat begins as a whimper and mounts to a piercing shriek of anguish as she reaches the end of the message. A howl of pain roars from her chest and she crumples to the floor, the fateful letter clutched in her grasp. Someone rushes to her sideTaylor, no doubt, white with fright and even more alarmed at the sight of herand tries to help her rise, but she is all grief and cannot stand. Now she is uttering a great cry with every breath ahhh ahhhh aahhand tears are raining down. She presses her hands to her chest as though only by force can she keep the flesh from ripping open on the shards of her broken heart.
     She seems to dissolve, her body existing only as a vessel for her agony. She is nothing but a weeping voice and has no other substance. The sound of her pain fills her the way steam fills a whistling kettle. And it goes on, it goes on, enough to drive you mad, until at last it fades and fades into a weak, lost, desperate sigh.
     A dreadful silence follows.
     And then, when you think she is utterly exhausted and spent and you may even fear she will die of the emptinessthen Mary Rose rises up. She rises up in a fury of energy, a whirlwind of motion. She is like a whirlwind on fire. Something must be done, and whatever it is, Mary Rose will see to it. Woe to any who bars her way or simply, haplessly stumbles across her path.
     This ferocious display of will is even more terrifying than her absolute grief. She is a dynamo, spinning freely, converting emotion into power. And now something will happen indeed.
     I saw her like this when the telegram came bringing word of the death of my brother Julius. Beside herself in an ecstasy of sorrow, she first collapsed and then, recovering suddenly, flung herself into motion and began commanding explosions of vigorous activity on all sides as if sheer exertion could numb the pain.
     But that day was twenty-six years off, and Julius was even then in her womb. Mary Rose Frazota, née Foster, daughter of a dairy farmer and a schoolteacher from Elgin, Illinois, and the eldest of six children, was about to seize her destiny by the throat and bring it to submission.
     The means had already been supplied to her by my father, though that was never his intent. Taylor Frazota was a philosopher and classical scholar who taught Greek and Latin, philosophy, and ancient history at Monte Sereno College in Los Gatos. To him ideas were playthings, to be tossed and caught and batted about as liberally as if they were balls on a court, and part of the pleasure in the exercise was to treat each one with seriousness. Seriousness to Taylor was a form of entertainment. He gave every notion its due gravity: conviction was the hallmark of his performance. There was nothing insincere about it. It was just what he did, in the same way that a storyteller's voice quakes or roars or whispers or sings with the drama that she is animating in her person. Caught up in delivery of a story, she lives it, and so makes it live for others; yet a moment after it ends, she is back to herself and can talk and laugh conversationally like everyone else. This way of Taylor's is part of what made him a stirring teacher, and not only a teacher but a master, with disciples who came to sit at his feet.
     For years Taylor had been talking about Plato's Republic, about what it would mean to build a society based on the principles and structures in the book. His philosophy students would get excited about the idea, not all of them but some of them, and also some of his classical languages students. Sometimes a group of students would gather at my parents' home in the evening and stay late into the night arguing about things like whether they would have to follow Plato literally or whether it would be all right to improvise and interpret according to more modern thinking. Henry Loveworth was one of those, a slightly older student, and very zealous.
     My mother used to tell me about those evenings, and she described Henry as one of the most vigorous defenders of a strict interpretation of Plato. He was always tangling with Daniel Herman, a former student of my father's who had joined the mathematics faculty at Monte Sereno and still liked to come to those evening sessions. They were about the same age, Henry and Daniel. Daniel was an intellectual and a true believer, really devoted to my father's teachings, but he was convinced that one ought to apply Plato's system of thought a bit more liberally in light of the time and place, twentieth-century California, and in view of our collective historical experience in the centuries since Plato. He said it should not be practiced like a religion, and he called Henry an ideologue. Henry said that once you began to bargain and compromise the original principles and precepts, you were on your way to corrupting them; you crossed that line from pure practice and you were no longer true to the ideas. Soon enough you'd evolve just the type of society that the Republic was meant to cure.
     A third party to the unremitting Loveworth-Herman debates was John Marshall Goodwin, a promising scholar of classical languages, who took a middle position and often served as arbiter between the two intellectual rivals. His view was that the principles of the Platonic societyprinciples of excellence and the good, of knowledge and above all of justicecould be extracted and made the foundation of a perfect society without taking the Republic itself as a prescription for how to implement them; that one could be altogether faithful to the principles and yet not seriously consider banishing defective children or treating wives as community property. When Goodwin was called up for active duty and shipped off to Europe in the fall of 1917, at the beginning of his senior year, my father lost not only one of his best students but also the principal peacekeeper of those evenings of verbal combat, which thereafter became more boisterous and sometimes bitterly heated.
     When you think about it, it is amazing that both Henry Loveworth and Daniel Herman agreed to leave their former lives behind and become founding members of the polis. You would not expect the two of them to want to be trapped together for the rest of their lives behind the gates of a closed community, but their conviction was greater than their differences. So they did come, with their young wives and their babies. Both couples had an infant, and those two married when they grew up, Albert Loveworth and Alice Herman. Alice is the oldest politan and the only surviving member of the original community. She's 91 now, and she was two when her parents signed the Synusia Compact on April 1, 1918.
     By then the Great War had been raging in Europe for nearly four years. In 1915, the same year his older brother Joseph was killed, Taylor concluded negotiations with the Nepomucene Abbey, which was a real monastery at the time, to occupy in secret the uncharted land behind the walls of their retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The only access to the land was by way of the abbey, through their compound and across a drawbridge over a deep, impassable ravine. Taylor promised the monks the labors of his community to support the life of the monastery in exchange for the abbey's safeguarding of their privacy. The abbey was small and underfunded, having fallen on hard times because of some theological differences with the Church. The abbotthis was the old abbot, Father Novaksaw that it was to their advantage to let a harmless band of independent thinkers occupy their unused mountainside and supply the abbey with agricultural produce and various man-made goods for their use and for sale. All the abbey had to do in addition to furnishing some supplies to the community was to serve as gatekeepers who promised to conceal and deny their existence.
     The likelihood that any authorities would take an interest in what went on behind the monastery wall, never mind on the secluded mountainside behind its compound, was so remote that no one even thought about it.
     Taylor began leading small, select groups of trusted students and colleagues on two- and three-day expeditions to the land in order to clear it for agriculture, construct housing, and extend the system of caves tunneled in the sheer cliff that bounded one side. The original caves were man-made enhancements of ancient natural tunnels in the rock, but no one knew who had made them or when. Taylor's colleague Stanley Abernathy, a professor of history at Monte Sereno, thought they were prehistoric.
     Taylor believed that it was only a matter of time before the European war reached American shores. He doubted the resiliency of the American government to withstand the wrenching effects of war on a political system that created kings without crowning them, and he mistrusted the ability of our military powers to stave off invasion by the enemy forces. The might and determination of the Germans seemed unstoppable. His father's involvement in state government in Olympia, Washington, had given him a perspective on the workings of democracy that failed to inspire his confidence. He also feared that the involvement of Japan as an ally of Germany would bring the conflict perilously close to the West Coast of the U.S. just as Germany was coaxing Mexico to host an invasion of the U.S. and regain possession of the states that bordered California to the south. So by 1918, a year after the formal entry of the U.S. into the war, Taylor was strongly motivated to seek refuge with his closest family and his like-minded followers. And the heartbreaking loss of his student John Goodwin, who had fallen in combat less than a month after his deployment, heightened his resolve.
     What's more, he was determined to disappear without a trace so that neither he nor his children nor his children's children could ever be conscripted to serve and die in a foreign land.
     But most of all he relished the prospect of putting his ideas to the test by creating a miniature Republic on American soil and fulfilling the Platonic ideal as its Philosopher-King. He saw that the war could serve as the motivator necessary to gather a large enough number that his cherished social experiment stood a chance of succeeding.
     In his vision, he saw a strong, united community based on a shared ideology taking root in fertile ground, growing through care and nurturance, and bearing the fruits of harmony, safety, and self-sufficiency for himself and his posterity.
     Yet there were great unknowns. Had a community like this ever succeeded before? Would not the influence of the outside world seep in and tear away at its fabric? Would the loyalty of the community to the polis, to one another, and to himself as their leader be strong enough to see them through the inevitable difficult times? Could he teach them all they must know and do to succeed? Even as he equivocated, weighing the costs, wondering whether a bunch of teachers and theorizers could actually survive on the land by their own labors, and considering the strength of the bond that would be needed among his followers to offset the pull of homes, extended families, professions, and the relative comfort and convenience of modern civilization in the early 1900s, my mother supplied the deciding push.
     In March of 1918, news of an outbreak of virulent influenza alarmed the nation. A deadly virus was spreading rapidly in several areas of the United States, affecting humans and swine alike. Once infected, people quickly succumbed. When Mary Rose received the letter from her sister Cora back home in Illinois, she was already in a state of near panic at the looming threat of war on American soil. Her lifelong horror of contagion went beyond all natural limits and sent her out of control. Determined as she was to protect her own and save her unborn child, no force on earth could have compelled her to sit still and wait for the plague to sweep over her.
     Taylor's plans had been ready for some time, and implementation waited only upon his word. The deal with the abbey had been made, the residential compound had been built, the structure of their new society had been defined, and the prospective members of the community had all agreed to sign a compact. Until then, in his innermost heart, he had never dared to give himself utterly to the idea, although he had persuaded his followers to do so. Even 66-year-old Stanley Abernathy was so deeply committed that he and his wife Grace and all five of their grown children, two of them with families of their own, had signed on for the venture.
     When Mary Rose, hysterical with terror, began her relentless, driving demand that they flee at once before the pestilence came any closer, it was inevitable that Taylor would yield to her will. Knowing that he was prepared to shut out the world and secure themselves against its horrors, she would not rest until it was done, and there would be no peace for Taylor. It took only three days from the arrival of the letter for him to experience a mighty surge of inner conviction and send out the long-awaited call.
     If in his heart Taylor ever doubted that a stronghold could be built to withstand the world's corruption, he never gave it voice. Instead he radiated the serene confidence of a higher calling, the certainty of a sacred mission. And that alone, in those turbulent times, was enough to attract and hold the allegiance of men and women. A rational grasp of the world's realities is cold comfort indeed when madness reigns. The security of following a leader whose conviction is unshakeable, regardless of where he leadsthat is what gives emotional comfort. That is what a man can wrap around his family and gather close to his heart. Not reason and doubt but faith. Not intellect and principle but a captain of vulnerable flesh and hot blood who has as much to lose as you and still raises his sword to cry "Press on!"
     They followed my father across the drawbridge, the twenty-three, and never looked back. The vow he made to them, of safety from all external threats for themselves, their children, and their children's children: he kept that vow. He kept it.

Copyright © 2008 Meredy Amyx.
x x Chapter 2

Background photo of "Synusia" by Dick Amyx