For the first time ever, a survivor of the Waco massacre tells the inside story of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh, and what really happened at Mount Carmel. of photos.
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A Galaxy Far Away
The journey that brought me to Waco began twenty-four years earlier, in a galaxy far away. The psychological and emotional voyage between my life in Maine and my life on Planet Koresh would baffle any astronaut's navigational skills. As my mother later told an interviewer, "I can't imagine the Davey I know and love finding the answers to his questions in quotes from the Bible."
Born in o, I grew up during an unsettled time in which everything was up for question, even in quiet, backwoods Bangor. My mother, Balenda Ganem, was sixteen and pregnant when she married my father, David, only nineteen himself. It was, as she said, "the famous Summer of Love." My mother wanted to name me Aaron, but a few days after I was born my father, who was in the Navy at the time, shipped out for active duty and, feeling sentimental, she named me after him.
Theirs was truly an attraction of opposites. Balenda's father's family came from Lebanon, and her ebullient, emotional nature, always spilling over the edge, contrasted vividly with my dad's French-Canadian-New Englander reserve. However, they shared a tremendous sense of humor, and my mom says my dad first took notice of her when she was the only one to laugh at his jokes at a high-school party.
Balenda had another talent: She was a singer. When she was young she sang in cabarets, and her warm, strong voice charmed many audiences. My very first memory is of lying in my crib scared of the dark, until she came and sang me a lullaby about lambs. The melody was sobeautiful it overwhelmed my fears and I began to cry, no longer with fright but with joy.
The emotional pattern of my childhood was laid down early: my mom, a deeply comforting presence, the bedrock of my security, yet as vulnerable and nervous as I was; my dad, quiet, funny, brainy, introverted, and remote. He shared my mom's love of music, though, and especially loved Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie," encouraging me to dance around the living room while it played on our stereo. He never took me to play ball or go fishing; he wasn't that kind of dad. Instead, he was happiest reading, spending whole weekends with his nose in a book.
My mom raised me on her hip, carrying me to protest marches and music and theater festivals even before I could walk. She brought me up to be very open, to discuss anything I might want to ask her about: politics, sex, society. Her mantra was, "Question authority." She took me to folk festivals with political themes and to demonstrations against Maine Yankee, the nuclear power plant. When I was eight or nine we went to a Holly Near concert in Portland to hear her sing about suffering people in Chile and Nicaragua.
We lived in a small apartment in Bangor's east side, we were poor, and tensions were relentless. My father had a quick tongue, was always quick with the quip or a funny story; but all too often he used his sarcastic wit to keep people at a distance, including my mom and me. And he drank a lot. Their spats were scary, and even at four years old I felt that this was not how people ought to be with one another, especially two people I loved. Balenda and David separated when I was four, got together again six months later for a year, then, mercifully, divorced. Lots of kids I knew came from divorced families, so it was no big deal. My mom was involved with the experimental Shoestring Theatre in Portland, and those people were fun to be around because they were all passionate about lifevery creative. It was a great environment to grow up in, very tolerant of personal lifestyles.
When I was with my dad, in the various places his uneasy spirit led him, my scene was much narrower. In his curt Mainer's way, he was impatient with what he perceived to be "weakness" or "self-indulgence." For instance, one day after a real bad hazing at school, I moaned to him that kids were evil and mean. "Wait till you grow up into the world of men," he curtly replied.
After my parents split up Balenda and I moved into the home of my maternal grandmother, Gloria, in a middle-class neighborhood. For the first time I was in a calm place, and my dad receded into the middle distance. He went through yet another divorce before settling down with his present wife in Isleboro, an island off the coast of Maine. My mother's brother, Bob, was the only male figure in my childhood who did fatherly things with me, like fishing and camping. I guess the lack of a real father figure, a supportive male role model, skewed my view of things.
I loved Gloria and admired her. She worked three jobs to keep her family going after she divorced her husband. The Scottish strain in her inheritance inhibited her from being demonstrative, but she was always offering food, her way of showing affection. Maybe that's why I could never say no to a snack. We watched old movies together, the roly-poly kid and the quiet old woman, alone in the house while my mom was working.
My father's family was Catholic, but he was never a churchgoer; on the contrary, he despised religion. Under the urging of Mim, my paternal grandmother, I attended Sunday school and midnight mass at Easter, but organized religion and the holy rollers on TV disgusted me with their hypocrisies. Mim insisted that I mumble my prayers before bed. Grandma Gloria never went to church, but she was the most Christian person, in the true sense, I've ever met. From Gloria I learned strong notions of right and wrong, and though she never spanked me, her quiet rebukes cut me to pieces. Both women were a vivid contrast to my mother, a typical, easygoing parent of the sixtiesthe fierce rebel against old moralities.
Although I had little formal religion in my life, I often felt as if I had an angel looking out for me. When I really needed something it always seemed to be there. I didn't see myself going out in search of God, whoever or whatever he, she, or it was. If there was something momentous out there, I had to learn it through music.
I can hardly remember a time when drumming wasn't the focus of my dreams. I had always loved music, ever since I was very young. I'd dance around the house, a rocker from the get go.
My cousin, Marty, was my mentor. I was up in Marty's room one day when he was packing to move out. I picked up his drumsticks and started to play, "I Want You to Want Me," by the Midwest foursome Cheap Trick. It was the first song I ever learned, and it was the beginning of a long, enduring love affair.
When I was twelve, Marty got a new drum set and handed down his old one, a five-piece, red-glitter kit. I played every day, imitating Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Doors, Rush, Iron Maiden, and my two favorite drummers, Englishman John Bonham (whose rhythms helped Led Zep invent the genre of heavy metal) and Neil Peart (whose technical wizardry supplied the backbone of Canada's Rush), crazily mimicking fills and licks. I was into every stylefolk, cabaret, classical, heavy metal, big band, and Motownbut the driving rhythms of rock energized me most, especially from metal icons like Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Rush, and Judas Priest. I read all the rock magazines like Circus, Metal Edge, and Rolling Stone, fantasizing about leaving for Hollywood to create my own future. I was going to be a world-class drummer and no one was going to stop me!
From then on, I lived in my imagination, dreaming of stage performances I'd have, of drums coming out of the floor on risers, of money and fame. When I was flashing the sticks, it didn't matter that I was a fat boy (reaching 250 pounds in high school) the other kids razzed. I was going to be a rock-and-roll drummer! In ninth grade, when my mother moved to South Portland's Willard Beach in search of a better job, I bounced around between her place, my dad's homes in Bangor and Maryland, and my grandmothers' houses. During those nomadic years drums became my true country. I spent many hours learning from albums, playing and memorizing lyrics, feeling the musicians' passion. The fire in it drove me wild, and when I shut my eyes I could visualize the audience right out there, a-rockin' and a-rollin'.
Since my mom worked two jobs to support us, much of the time I was a latchkey kid, left alone to follow my own obsessions. I was usually allowed to do whatever I wanted. Balenda did try to make time for me on weekends, to take in a movie and have dinner, and I appreciated that, knowing how hard she worked. But for me, coming home from school to an empty house meant I could grab a snack from the fridge and immediately get into the drums.
School was a bust. Though I could drum away for hours, concentrating intently on the rhythms, during class my hyperactive mind skipped around like a cricket on a hotplate. My penmanship was horrible, my math was in the crapper, and my mind was absent. I lacked discipline in my life, and no one was consistently there to get on me to study. In the end I graduated high school as a solid "C" student, with a "B" here and there.
The role that suited me best during school was class clown. In the school band, I was the chief cutup, cracking wise, telling jokes, upsetting the bandleader. I was the big fool, the fat kid who got the giggles going. But under the clownishness I was really a goodygoody. At the time I didn't drink or do dope. I just wanted to play the skins and make people laugh, and despite my impatience to get out of high school, grow up, take charge of my life, I felt I never wanted to lose touch with being a kid. I had an instinct that if I ever became too wise to the world I might lose the belief that special things would happen to me.
My Bangor High senior yearbook entry says it all. The photo showed a neat, overweight boy with a soft mouth and yearning eyes wearing a jacket and tie. However, the quote I chose, from Blackie Lawless, leader of the band WASP, gave the game away:
I want shiny cars, dirty money, and lots of rock and roll.
I will live in fame and die in flames; I'm never getting old.
* * *
After my high-school graduation in the summer of 1987, I applied for the one-year drumming course at the Musicians Institute of Technology in Hollywood, a school I read about in rock magazines favored by hard rock bands. I sent the school a tape and they accepted ita boost to my ego, even though I sensed they probably took in anyone who could pay the tuition. My mom was now living in Greece, and no one in my family had the cash to help me out, so I found a job at a German car company in Bangor, working on the paint line and deburring metal shavings from gearing rods under a microscope. It was monotonous work, but the pay was better than delivering pizzas.
Freed from the tight world of the classroom, I could take a deeper breath and ask myself some basic questions.
What were my talents? Dreaming and drumming. What were my prospects? Vague to nonexistent. What were my hopesapart from shiny cars, dirty money, and lots of rock and roll? Infinite.
Concerned for my future, my grandmothers and Uncle Bob urged me to think about going to college to get the education I'd so skillfully managed to avoid in school. But I had an instinct against it, a feeling I'd never learn what I needed to know about life from books. Or rather, that books would never give me those vital clues to myself I so obviously lacked.
I'd learned that the purely emotional life had its costs; I saw that in my mother's bafflement, her displaced angers aimed at "authority," and I feared I might be caught in the same mesh of frustrations. I loved her a lot, but I didn't want to share her anxious, unanchored kind of life. Drumming was a power in me, but I knew my gifts as an artist were still untried. Was my talent strong enough to carry all my hopes? Would it really tell me who I was? And if it failed me, what was left, apart from a terrifying emptiness?
Drifting through that interval between school and Hollywood, I hung out at bars, played a gig or two with some friends in clubs, pounding out riffs against a crowd of shouting, half-drunk patrons grooving more on sheer noise than any rhythms I might conjure up. I was friends with a couple of girls, trying to find out how to be with women. My personality always seemed to work out with people if they got to know me, but my initial awkwardness, covered by fake charm, was often unappealing. Finally, I accumulated enough funds to leave Bangor. The next semester's class schedule at the Musicians Institute began in February 1989, and I registered. It was the depths of the New England winter and I itched for California sunshine and everything it promised.
My mother came home for Christmas, as she usually did, and we had a conversation about my future. Or rather, she revealed, consciously and unconsciously, how terribly worried she was about my vulnerabilities and how much she feared for my safety in a world she clearly felt would likely prove too much for me. She knew my tendency toward emotional overspill all too well; it was so much like her own.
A few days before I left Bangor behind, Uncle Bob took me to ride snowmobiles out on Pushaw Lake. We raced over frozen snowdrifts at sixty miles per hour, slicing through the bitter cold, shouting with sheer exhilaration as our eyeballs froze. It was my last, pure moment as a Mainer, made all the more poignant by the knowledge that I'd soon be baking in the golden Los Angeles sun.
* * *
It had been raining the morning I landed at Los Angeles Airport, and by the time I arrived the skieswider than any I'd ever seen in Mainewere brilliant. I was picked up at the airport by Joe, a Los Angeles musician my mom had met on the plane coming back from Greece; she'd asked him to protect her boy in his first encounter with Hollywood, and I was glad she had. The sheer size of Los Angeles knocked me out. How would I make my mark in all that geography and humanity?
But the rainwashed palm trees along Hollywood Boulevard glistening in the sunshine lifted my heart. This, I quickly concluded, was a magical place, despite the grunge I saw on the sidewalks, the desperate, dirty kids panhandling tourists outside Mann's Chinese, the obvious air of decay in the street facades. But that was big-city life in all its glorya limitless, wide-open landscape that jibed with my own desire to live on the edge. All the same, I was well aware that I was a real rube, a pigeon for the plucking. As Joe dropped me and my one battered suitcase outside the music school on McCadden Place, just off the boulevard of dreams, my feathers shivered at the presence of hidden predators.
The Musicians Institute was bursting with a cacophony of wild drumming, electronic guitar plucking, pounding pianos. I toured the three stories of sleek classrooms and recording studios, production rooms, computer and study labs, and a five-hundred-seat performance space with large-screen video projectors. Everything, from the colored linoleum tiles to the glass-walled practice rooms, told me I was in a place where music was a profession, not just an amateur fantasy. I felt I was home, plunged into a pure universe of music. I was in. Hollywood had opened her arms and embraced me, little Dave Thibodeau from Bangor.
Suddenly, it struck meWhere was I going to live? I'd made no plans, and I guess my mom hoped Joe would help me out, but he'd vanished. Bewildered, I looked around to ask someone how I might go about finding a room, but everybody was rushing somewhere, late for class or too busy to stop and talk. Then I caught sight of a noticeboard filled with cards. One card advertised for a roommate to share an apartment with three musicians named Artie, John, and T-bone. I phoned, and John said come on up, giving me directions to a stretch of Yucca and Whitley that he cheerfully dubbed "Crack Alley." The guys offered me a room doubling up with T-bone, whose real name was Tommy, for $200 a month. The place was part of a big apartment complex, including a swimming pool and a whirlpool. There was a sauna on the roof with a panoramic view of the fabled Hollywood sign. I was in heaven. My real life was finally beginning.
Those first few months in L.A. were heady. At school, I reveled in the percussion classes, soaking up every nuance of the instructors' teachings. I learned the history of jazz, from Dixieland to bebop, picking up the ride patterns and brush techniques, studying song soloing and cymbal turnarounds. I shared a cubbyhole with another student and could practice anytime I liked, night and day. Since I'm a night bird by temperament, I was quite happy hitting the skins at three or four in the morning, when the place was empty.
The classes were amazing: Latin drum class, odd meter class, big band drumming class, how to read swing charts. Most of the students were from out of town, young guys from all over the States and some from Europe, all looking to make it big. Many of them were, like me, kids fresh out of home. Ten to fifteen of us stickmen jammed together in performers' sessions accompanied by a bass player, and every Wednesday was Rock Performance, a stage show where we'd form small bands, rehearse one song, and play it on stage in front of the others. Night and day I was doing what I loved most, even in the rudimentary classes where we sat at tables with pads, five drummers to a row, knocking out sixteen-note paradidles, flams, triple ratamacues, double drag taps, and four-stroke ruffs. For a few hours once a week I worked one-on-one with Donne Perry, the drummer for Jethro Tull.
It wasn't until I had to look out for myself that I began to realize how spoiled I'd been at home, with my mother or grandmother taking care of the laundry, shopping, cooking. I had to learn how to be self-reliant, to do the chores needed to get by, even in our postadolescent mess.
To supplement my savings, I got a job in a telemarketing "boiler room" off Sunset, doing telephone surveys about movies. It was boring as hell, but it paid seven bucks an hour. Since I was still under twenty-one, I grew a mustache to look older, to get into clubs like the Frolic Room. My whole focus was drumming, perfecting my technique, trying to get a sense of how I measured up with the best. Virtually every waking hour was for practicing, even in the street, where I walked along, whacking a little pad I strapped to my thigh. At times I was homesick, but my one visit back to Bangor made me realize I could never return to my old life. After Hollywood, the place seemed the size of a pinhead; I couldn't wait to leave.
Back in California, I all but kissed the soiled sidewalk. If any place in the world was home for me, this was it. I walked the streets late at night, breathing in air charged with fame and failure. I hung out on the Sunset Strip, dipping into dives like the Rainbow and the Whisky, lost in the crowd, grabbing flyers from bands trying to make it. After the clubs closed, we rockers gravitated to the "rock and roll" Denny's, on Sunset between Fairfax and La Brea, or cruised the shelves of the Ralphs supermarket a few blocks down, where all the weirdos congregated, sipping orange juice and snacking on groceries they never paid for. The strippers from the local clubs joined us, their faces tired and gray under streaks of the gaudy makeup they were too pooped to remove.
After school, I'd often drift down to the Guitar Center on Sunset. In the glassed-in soundproof electronic drum room, I pounded beats on incredible kits only rich musicians could afford. Famous rockers frequented the place, and often I caught glimpses of faces I'd only seen on album covers, magically translated into flesh.
By now I was working for Roadway Package Service, loading trucks four nights a week, ten to two in the morning. One night I met a guy named Scott who was looking for someone to play drums for his band. When he heard I was a drummer, he invited me to come to a studio to make a demo tape of a band they were forming. We chose some weird names for the band, like Joyride and Powerhouse, and we got a few gigs around town, playing the Gaslight and the Whisky. Trouble was, these guys got high on pot all the time and fooled around too much. I wanted to get serious, begin to build a career, but they were into the rock life for its kicks rather than its ambitions.
As the year went on, I began to have problems with one of my instructors at the Institute. My instinct that I must stick with playing passionately rather than technically was getting stronger the more the school thrust me toward the discipline of the metronome. I was hyper, my foot forever tapping out its own rhythms. I felt that if I played with feeling I could fuck the timing. One time I played a Zeppelin piece, "In My Time of Dying," one of Bonham's greatest rhythm tracks, and demonstrated that it was all over the place. "This doesn't follow a metronome," I pointed out. "It switches and changes, the key is pure heart. If there's a groove, you can fluctuate." My instructor was unimpressed, but I was more determined than ever to go my own sweet way.
All the same, I feared I might be screwing up yet again, heading toward the kind of failure that had dogged my heels in Bangor. It seemed I couldn't carry things through, that maybe I had some kind of fatal flaw. All I knew was, when I was behind a drum set, I was happy.
All too soon, my year at the Institute was over. Those months had taught me what I could and couldn't learn about musicindeed, what I should and shouldn't learn. Most of the students knew they'd end up in cover bands, making a steady living playing other people's songs. That was the sensible view of the average rock musician's prospects in a fiercely competitive market. But I wasn't yet ready to be sensible; there was something in me that ached for a deeper level of satisfaction than a lifetime just knocking out the riffs. I was twenty-one years old. Playtime was over.
To mark the change, I moved to Franklin and Orange, behind the Hollywood Holiday Inn. I made new friends, like Bam Bam, a drummer from Connecticut, a sweet, Harley-Davidson kind of guy. We lived off the Holiday Inn happy-hour buffet, gorging on chicken wings and Swedish meatballs, pigging out for three bucks. I met a singer named Ryan, a warm, mischievous person who liked to party. We hung out a lot at Denny's, joking and giggling. Ryan claimed I had a weird light around me, something he couldn't quite describe. "Nothing that could happen to you would ever surprise me," he said.
By the spring of 1990, not much in my life was going right. The other guys in the band were still more concerned with getting high than getting serious. At the lowest point, later on that summer, I was working in the gift shop at Mann's Chinese, selling junk souvenirs to gullible tourists, wearing a uniform, looking like an organ grinder's monkey in my short, brass-buttoned, scarlet jacket. I was totally at a loss.
One Saturday, during a lull, I gazed up at the sky and addressed a God I'd seldom given thought to. What are you saving me for? I demanded. Can I please meet the people I'm supposed to meet! Come on! Deliver me from this, show me the way. Although I hoped no one was around to hear my pleas, I was too desperate to feel foolish. Come on! I repeated passionately.
A couple of nights later, while driving with the band to rehearsal, I insisted we drop by the Guitar Center on Sunset so I could pick up a pair of Promark drumsticks. Ryan and Scott protested that we were late, that I could get by with my old sticks, but I ignored them.
After I bought the sticks, I had to try them out in the soundproof drum room. There were two men in the room, examining a brand-new kit called D-Drums, electronic drums that use real drumheads; you hit them, and you get an electronic trigger-sound that shivers your spine. Seeing the sticks in my hand, one of the strangers said, "Are you a drummer?" When I replied that I was, he asked me to hit a few fast licks.
While I was playing, showing off a little, I stole glances at the pair. The one who'd spoken to me was blond, athletic, probably in his late thirties. A serious type with a neat beard, he wore a business suit, unusual for that informal scene. The other man wore jeans and a T-shirt and had long, wavy hair and a dimpled chin covered by a two-day beard. His liquid-brown eyes were hidden behind gold-rimmed, aviator-style shades, but I could feel them following me intently, even though he was silent.
"Are you playing in a band right now?" Suit asked. I told him I was on my way to a rehearsal, that my friends were waiting out on Sunset. "I'm in a band but still I'm looking around," I said.
Suit introduced himself as Steve Schneider. "This," he said, indicating his companion, "is David Koresh."
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