Fun permeated our whole world in Hawaii’s Volcano Circus. At an early potluck dinner in our rustic kitchen, a young hippy girl introduced herself to one of our members saying “Hi, I’m Rainbow Starchild and this is my sister, Dolphin Crystal. Who are you?” He didn’t miss a beat and replied, “I’m Chainsaw. Good meeting you.” “Isn’t that a bit of a violent name?” asked the startled peacenik. “Oh no,” he responded, “we all have hippy names here at Bellyacres. That’s Vice Grip, he’s Monkey Wrench, and over there are Weed Whacker and Bulldozer.” From that day on, we all had our own unique non-hippy toolbox nicknames including Tool Belt, Grater, Landscraper, Juicer, Ice Pick, Eggbeater, Wheel Barrow, Vibrator, Snow Shoe, Volt Meter, Blow Torch, Screw Driver, Sledge Hammer, Vacuum Cleaner, Dessert Man, Skill Saw, Air Brush, Saw Dust, Cess Pool, Garlic Press, Editing Board, Chisel, Whisk Broom, Come Along, Metal Rake, Wedge Tray, Type Writer, Feather Duster, and Fuse Box.
I was Bulldozer and in 1987 I had bought just over ten acres of raw jungle in Puna, on the Big Island of Hawai’i, with the vision to create a subtropical rainforest home base with a gaggle of globe-trotting busking jugglers that I had befriended. Two years earlier I had initiated a gathering of international jugglers and after our second festival one of my roving troubadour friends flippantly said “we should buy a piece of land together.” It felt like I’d been struck by lightening and so began an adventure that changed my life and the lives of countless others sucked into our spontaneous experiment in community building. Our disparate worlds soon became forever intertwined and Chainsaw was one of the original pioneers, living on the land, as we cleared trails into our untamed tropical rainforest home and started to learn how to survive there and build solid structures. Many evenings were spent around a campfire listening to him playing music.
My new tribe of eccentric entertainers were clearly rebel individualists with strong desires to remain as free as possible from the controls of rules and regulations. We mischievously described ourselves as anarchists and initially had zero guidelines or restrictions on drugs, sex, loud music, or anything that might limit our ability to party! In the absence of any membership requirements or a community charter we faced considerable confusion about our collective expectations. On the upside, our uniquely creative characters instigated a multitude of amazingly wonderful activities and events that remain some of my most fun memories. With our ‘anything goes’ policy we experienced the ‘yin and yang’ of life – it was mostly really fun…but not always as we learned with Chainsaw.
The biggest membership challenge that Bellyacres confronted in our early days was deciding how to respond to the life changes that affected our dear friend Chainsaw. He was a giant of a man—both physically and spiritually and, in the years that followed, he overcame incredibly dispiriting health issues. For this he will always be a hero to me.
He was a very accomplished juggler and also sang and played an assortment of musical instruments. I remember when he would drop into any restaurant or cafe in Hilo and play them a song or two and get hired immediately to play for their guests. On the ground at Bellyacres, he was our most accomplished member wrenching a car repair or swinging a hammer and building structures. Somewhere, somehow he had acquired a broad range of knowledge and valuable skills. He designed and supervised construction of our workshop, bathrooms, and sauna, and he assisted with building several other early structures. He was always upbeat and fun so we loved him and valued his contributions enormously, both on stage and on the land. Apart from these amazing skills he also contributed tools and rows of comedy and vaudeville history books that blessed our workshop and library, and many remain as a tribute to his presence.
Tragically, over a four year period, Chainsaw suffered a series of debilitating mental breakdowns that forced us to get very real and face the fact that life was not always full of fun and frivolity. It was 1990 and there was only me and one other member living permanently at Bellyacres sharing the kitchen and daily life with Chainsaw. We spent a lot of time together eating meals, drinking beer, smoking ganga, playing cards, and figuring out our projects. Slowly, we noticed changes occurring in our friend. We didn’t know how to talk about it at first, but something triggered him that winter and he started acting really, really weird. Eccentric and out-of-the-box behavior was something we vaudevillians lived with on a daily basis…but this was weird on a whole other scale.
Chainsaw began to persistently preach about world peace and his god given duty to save us all from total annihilation. He stopped eating with us and stayed up late at night writing long rambling epiphanies. We then discovered he was wandering around the neighborhood annoying and sometimes scaring people with sunrise visits. His conversations became muddled and incoherent monologues that lasted until we made some excuse and checked out. He created little altars of ‘holy’ items — like a kitchen pot, a screwdriver and a clown nose – which he set up in the middle of cross streets on our subdivision, while he sat, naked or mostly naked, mumbling for hours in strange tongues.
When neighbours and friends tried to reason with him he wandered into Pahoa town where his bizarre behaviour brought him to the attention of the police who arrested him repeatedly for causing a public disturbance or vagrancy.
When first called to bail him out, after a night in a cell, I explained to the cops that he was a really good man but mentally unstable. After a few more times—when they finally realised this was true—they took him directly to the psychiatric hospital, instead of jail, and he was admitted for the maximum three-day stay. Eventually, after he was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar syndrome, he was asked by doctors to voluntarily stay for another week until the lithium treatment started working………but he constantly refused.
When Chainsaw was on a euphoric manic high he totally denied that he was ill in any way and it was impossible to reason with him. He loved his supercharged energy times even though they led to severe crashes. He was committed to hospital at least six times. Every time I picked him up and talked with his doctors and together we tried to convince him to take his daily medications. He insisted he wasn’t sick and consistently refused or lied.
Struggling to know what to do……… I called his parents in North Carolina. They agreed he would get better treatment at their home so I bought him a ticket. It was a disastrous flight for him in his manic state. Instead of changing planes in New York, he decided to head into the city and visit his ex-girlfriend. We exchanged some frantic phone calls and eventually she got him back on the flight to Greensboro, but he never made it.
He created such a ruckus—and was so threatening to other passengers—that his plane made an unscheduled landing in Richmond, Virginia, where police removed him. He was immediately committed by a local judge for treatment. It lasted nineteen days and restored him to a more sane and sociable state. His parents took him home and he was stable for many months street performing in Vermont and living in another fledgling community. Several of our members connected with him and gave fair reports about his health.
Thinking that he had it all under control, he returned to Hawai’i for our festival and was doing really well—until he decided to fully join the party with beers and a few magic mushrooms. At that point, we all discovered lithium and party drugs do not go well together…and wham! Chainsaw was triggered, he fell heavily off the wagon, and the same old pattern returned. We begged, asked, and then ordered our friend to take his lithium again…but he wouldn’t. He caused more disturbances in the neighborhood and we pleaded with him to voluntarily go to hospital. It worked a few times, but mostly it was the police who took him there after receiving repeated complaints about his weird behavior.
On one occasion, while rampaging in our kitchen, he ended up shouting and getting so verbally aggressive that we took the unthinkable step of calling the police. This was a first for Bellyacres. Our gang of renegades always stayed as far from the law as possible and we definitely didn’t want them in our home. But desperate times called for desperate measures.The police cornered Chainsaw in the shower, handcuffed him, and carted him off for another futile three days in hospital. Similar police interventions occurred in other locations. We tried imposing some boundaries and I wrote up an agreement where he had to take lithium—and all other medications prescribed by his mainland doctor—pay his food kitty on time, do some work on the land to make up for months of no work, and maintain appropriate behavior. We also strongly discouraged him from drinking any booze, smoking marijuana, or doing any other narcotics. But, we couldn’t follow him around all day, he was an adult and his anarchist spirit was not about to be controlled.
By the Spring of 1992, things deteriorated and we all were very concerned again about his disturbing behaviour. Our friends and neighbours were getting more paranoid and he was getting verbally angry and physically scary— especially to women—even though he never ever hurt anyone. I talked with his new doctor and we decided to appeal to the Family Court to commit him to a period of time in a hospital so that he could get stabilized again on his medications. Bellyacres members, his parents, and his sister all wrote letters recommending that he be committed, while the doctor and I testified in person before the judge. We were so desperate that, for his sake, I made up a story saying that he had hit me and was therefore a physical threat to people, which were grounds to commit him for thirty days. Sadly, although the judge wanted to help, he couldn’t because Chainsaw’s public defender insisted that if I didn’t have a witness and couldn’t show bruises or cuts, then my claim was not acceptable as evidence. Tragically, they let him go.
The very next day, in downtown Pahoa, he got arrested by the police who claimed he sexually assaulted a teenage boy. Chainsaw was in no way a pedophile but he got locked up for a month in jail and was forced to take his meds which stabilised him again. On my frequent visits I found it terribly depressing to see my amazingly talented friend subjected to humiliating prison punishment, when all he really needed was good medical treatment.
After his release, most people in our community knew he was bipolar and certified insane, but some judged him as a child molester. Several times, he was threatened and we grew concerned for his safety and his health. His parents flew over to Hawai’i and he went home with them to rehabilitate in Greensboro, before later, heading back to Vermont.
In January of 1993, he wrote to Bellyacres members, saying he was “once again in a very stable condition, without a hint of mania.” Some of our female members and friends expressed feeling really threatened by him so we discussed whether to allow him to attend the festival that year. It was a scorchingly hot debate, with members and friends arguing vehemently. I said, “I want to give him a chance to come to the festivals and play with us but not to live here permanently. I’ve had to deal with the fallout from his episodes—I’m exhausted and don’t believe that Hawai’i is the best place for him to live permanently and to heal.”
Our community was deeply divided. Another friend wrote, “Chainsaw is fine and doing really good. I speak as a woman who lives here and sees him on a daily basis. I experience no threat from him, I feel no fear, we have normal conversations. I feel as comfortable with him as I do with any of the renegades at Bellyacres. Examine your counter culture choices in terms of appearance, housing, profession, language, and relaxation techniques. Because Chainsaw experienced several episodes of mental disease, is he outside of our broad boundaries of acceptance? Who determines these standards? Whatever he has done in the past, I hope you choose to leave it there. Come to the festival and re-introduce yourself to a brother who is working to put his once scattered pieces back together. Come with an open heart and mind.”
We decided to let Chainsaw come back again. He was good about keeping on his meds and staying away from booze and other detrimental drugs, but most people felt very uncomfortable around him. A few of our members chose to stay away altogether, saying they would not attend any future festivals if he was there. Some were adamant that we should take away his Bellyacres membership. But we never reached a conclusion and the debate continued with letters circulating between our empathetically, philosophically and geographically divided membership.
Weed Whacker wrote, “I wish I had an easy answer for this issue, but I don’t. It is probably one of the most difficult that we have had to deal with. Chainsaw has the most valuable work skills of any member. If there is something that needed to be fixed, built, etc., he was the man with the knowledge to do it. He can recover with proper care, but needs professional help that is not available on the Big Island. It takes years, not months. He will most likely be taking medication daily for the rest of his life. He wants to get off, but he cannot without suffering a manic episode. For me, I do not see that the place where he has had the most of his attacks is the best place for him to recover and heal. I do not consider most of us who only have half of our lives together to be good role models for Chainsaw”.
Ice Pick, who had been a great friend to Chainsaw and a construction partner, wrote, “He saved my house and half the jungle from burning down after I fucked up with the propane. We are his friends, we are his family—I would never take away his membership.”
Chisel added, “As situations go, they don’t get more difficult than this. I witnessed him being taken away by the police and felt the full range of emotions—I was angered, confounded, and confused. I was deeply saddened to see him cuffed and escorted away, and felt helpless. Any of us could find ourselves unable to deal with life’s intensity—mentally and emotionally, not to mention spiritually and physically. Are we okay as a group only when things are nice, or can we be okay when things go wrong and recognise fully that we are a fringe group of on the edge people? I feel that we should give Chainsaw another chance, knowing well how he can change. We need to stretch even further, being the anarchists that we are. A conditional third opportunity isn’t so remote a possibility—if he fails, then he’s out. Our compassion— putting ourselves in his shoes—is extremely important. Let’s imagine ourselves in his situation.”
At least four others believed that Chainsaw needed to learn to take responsibility for his life again. They described Hawai’i as “an intense and unstable place and Bellyacres as a perfect hiding place to avoid responsibility with friends to take care of you when you’re sick, broke, hungry, or in deep shit due to your illness. It enables you to go manic, get away with it, and stretch the revolving door scenario to new and more dramatic horrors.” They wanted Chainsaw to stay away and were not willing to risk another manic episode.
After our meeting in 1994, we wrote to Chainsaw saying, “Some of us felt that your membership should be terminated, some that your probation should be dropped and full membership reinstated. We agreed to a compromise. You can come back three weeks before the 1995 festival, clean up your campsite, and remove your house van.” He replied to me saying, “Hi Graham I’m still on the meds, l think of you often, thank you once again for all your support and concern. Time has given me a better perspective , your efforts were beyond the call and l would like you to know my appreciation has grown. Come visit if you can.”
Sadly, I was never able to visit him but Chainsaw did come to the festival and most people found it very difficult to be around him, some avoided him totally. At the A.G.M., members were still very divided. However, the pressure of several members threatening to not return to Bellyacres if he was on the land brought about a tough consensus decision to remove his membership. It was really hard and brutally painful for many of us.
Chainsaw moved back to North Carolina, found a really good woman, became a solid family man and managed to maintain his mental health from then on. He lived a wonderful, productive and creative life playing music, juggling, and building community until cancer finally overwhelmed him. Chainsaw taught a lot of life lessons and was dearly loved by all who knew him.
Thanks to social media Chainsaw retained a firm friendship with many Bellyacres members over the years. In 2012 he decided to visit us in Hawaii, with his wonderful girlfriend, to celebrate our 25th anniversary celebration. We were all very happy to have him join us again playing music, juggling and relating stories about the ‘good old times’ we had all shared. We needed that opportunity to bring good healing for us all. R.I.P. Chainsaw.
In the words of Roger Waters, ‘shine on you crazy diamond’ – my renegade friend.
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