I had the good fortune to interview Frederick and Melanie Branchflower in February at their beautiful Poulsbo, Washington home. Chatting for an hour, they talked about their life as Subud members and I am presenting the audio and text here today. I have proofed the text of the first half of the interview, but will post all the audio here and what text has been reviewed. I am grateful to Elisha Gullixson, Bhakti Watts and Hadiyah Carlyle for their financial assistance with the transcription and of course the Branchflowers for their time, hospitality and dedication to our Subud community. The first half of the transcribed interview first appeared in the Subud USA newsletter.
A Life in Subud: The Branchflowers
I had the good fortune of spending some time with Frederick and Melanie Branchflower, longtime Subud members and pillars of the small, but serious Olympic Neighborhood Subud community, near the Olympic Mountains in the Northwest corner of the most Northwest state in the U.S. We talked for nearly an hour at their home in Poulsbo, Washington, and what follows is the audio of their life in Subud, how Subud has helped them as a couple, what it is like to be “isolated” Subud members and how the Latihan and the Subud community helped them deal with the grief of losing their son when he was only 19.
PN: First of all, thank you for the amazing hospitality and we’re very grateful for everything and dinner last night and the beautiful breakfast. Can you each tell me your — you’re both from Seattle. We’re looking at Seattle natives. Holy cow.
FB: Yeah, Melanie is.
FB: Yeah, I’ve known Melanie for about 77 years, close to it. I was visiting with my parents when – after she was born. She was still in the hospital and my parents knew her parents, and I visited…
PN: You pick them out early.
FB: And we ran together as kind of a gang when we were in high school, and then I was back at Princeton and she went to Goucher and that’s when —
MB: We started dating.
FB: — we started dating and so we were married right after I graduated.
PN: And you grew up in the Mount Baker neighborhood of Seattle?
FB: Yeah, but we also had a place on Bainbridge Island up in the Manzanita Bay and so we knew each other real well during the – and there was probably twelve people in our group and there was nobody dating in the group but interestingly enough, out of that, I think there were three or four marriages. So that —
MB: We always called it a gang but I guess it has a different context nowadays.
PN: You weren’t doing as much drive-by shooting back then?
MB: That was very limited. We didn’t know about those things.
PN: But yet, you grew up —
MB: We knew about liquor. (Laughter).
PN: And who doesn’t!?! And you grew up on Capitol Hill.
MB: Until I was about nine, eight or nine.
PN: Then moved to this side of the water.
MB: Yeah. So we were only two blocks from Volunteer Park and I had a lot of freedom in those days and young kids, I could go down to the drugstore on Broadway or to the candy store. They had a candy store nearby and play up at Volunteer Park and all the alleys in between. You know, it was really pretty neat to be so free.
FB: And I also grew up —
MB: To roam about so.
FB: — I would take the Number 10 bus from where we lived to the YMCA down on Fourth and Madison and, you know, I was six years old but I was taught to swim by Helene Madison, who was an Olympic swimmer from the Seattle area and so that was pretty neat.
PN: Tell us how you found Subud. What was the occasion?
FB: Probably we – I should do that one.
FB: I was going through – I was in the Navy and I had a Master’s Degree in Operations Research Systems Analysis and I was working for the Submarine Tactical Development Group in New London, Connecticut, and I had an office not much bigger than this rug and in the office was a facing desk and two chairs and that was it. During that time, I was really going through a spiritual crisis. I read the Bible from cover to cover. I read about Hindu, Shintoism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, everything I could get my hands on and but the guy that was the civilian that was working for me, it was a guy by the name of Livingston Dodson and he was the founder, one of the founders of Skymont and they had just left Skymont and he and Vida Dodson, and Vida was the National Helper at the time. And I happened to borrow a math book from Livingston. It was a tatty old book. I was looking for an algorithm and in the cover of the book, it said “John Dodson.” I thought it might have belonged to his father or something. I asked and he said no, it’s mine. I said well, this says John Dodson and your name is Livingston Dodson. Well, after three days of questioning, I finally found out a little bit about Subud and he handed me a book by —
MB: Livingston just reeled him in.
PN: He reeled him in. That’s right. He was playing hard to get.
FB: Well, it was and I was very persistent and he gave me a book called A Reporter in Subud by Varinda Vittachi and I read that book and I knew right then and there that this is what I’d been looking for. And I also knew at that time that this was something I did – I could not sell to Melanie. She had to discover this for herself. So I started getting these books and leaving them around the house, reading them but leaving them around the house and I also started doing something which I’d never done before and that is go out in the evenings to listen to Livingston. And we were in that – this was at the end of ’72 and oh, around November or something, so we had this free month probation. I had decided that this was what I wanted and meanwhile, Melanie picked up on it and so she got a hold of Vida and —
MB: Well, I already knew because of some wives luncheons and I tried to sell her soap. We were into some pyramid scheme or we were selling soap.
PN: Amway? Was it Amway?
MB: No, it was Bestline but same – same idea. God, Vida was really nice about it.
PN: This is Vida Dodson?
PN: So she’s – so you’re finding the books laying around the house and then —
MB: Yeah, I don’t think I read the books. I think I have this sort of vague memory of his sitting on the couch and he read me something one night, and all I remember is that something inside me sat up and said whoa, here’s something, you know. Pay attention to this or whatever and so I started going over to talk to Vida and we ended up getting opened at the same time.
FB: Same day. In fact, there was a group of Skymonters that were coming north for a concert up in Boston or something, and they came through and that was the day —
MB: Well, she invited people from around. There were some people from Hartford, from New York who came up and a lot of people we know today, Elisha Gullixson and his wife, Dalton or —
PN: Elisha’s late wife.
MB: Late wife, yes. Ruth and Melinda Pleshet, Melinda Wallis and her then husband. Who else was it? Dalton? Dalton Allen —
FB: I think it was Dalton.
MB: — and his sister, his sister, Heather, or daughter or something.
FB: Who just recently died. She was – died and —
MB: So a lot of the people that she introduced us to then, we ended up meeting in Seattle.
FB: Years later.
MB: Which is kind of funny. Subud I guess had been kind of a small world after a while.
PN: And it’s interesting because many people in Subud today don’t want to be publicly identified as Subud members so there’s the feeling that it’s obscure or that some people think it’s a cult and yet, we’re talking 1972 and you’re a Navy guy and, you know, the Navy doesn’t always have the most liberal people in it and yet, you were open enough to be interested in something like Subud. Can you speak to how —
FB: Oh, yeah.
PN: — what was it about you that made something like Subud be able to speak to you?
FB: I don’t know. But I do know that a couple months later, we went to our first Subud Congress. I think it was a U.S. Congress at the George Washington Hotel in New York City and I walked in. Now, I was a very conservative Naval Officer. I had a degree from Princeton, a very straight type of person, okay? And I walked in there and I thought I had joined a hippie cult and I could not believe it, you know? And a guy by the name of Francis —
MB: Von Kahler?
FB: Francis von Kahler saw me and recognized what was going on and he grabbed me and we went into a room and he talked to me for about four or five hours and I came out of there and said to myself if I can become more human like that person is, I’m willing to give this organization thirty years, and I made a pledge to myself at that time that I was going to stay with it. There was just something about Francis that was unbelievable. I’d never seen that in another human being and that was my first time that I just totally dismissed what was going on around me and got out of the judgment mode and said there’s something here that’s really important to me.
PN: What was it about, what qualities do you remember that he had?
FB: I don’t know. I can’t put my finger and list boom, boom, boom, but he was one shoot —
MB: I think in the Navy, there wasn’t a lot of genuine – genuineness in people. You know, out there [were] a lot of shows, and officers, they had to act like they knew what they were doing, you know, it was somewhat judgmental. I don’t think anybody was really – women were more so less of a problem but the men, I don’t think you ever genuinely got to —
MB: — how are you, you know, inside.
FB: And we went through – I grew up in the Presbyterian Church. Although, my mother was Catholic and my father didn’t attend church but there was a Presbyterian Church at the end of the block, and then when I got older, I went and studied under a Catholic and what have you. And I left the Catholic Church one day in Bainbridge that I’d gone to. The priest was up there lambasting this nudist colony that was on the island and said that nobody should associate with these people. I thought that was a little bit strange.
MB: Or their children?
FB: But then, he said and they’re children. Don’t have your children associate with these guys and I thought about that for about a half a second and I stood and gave them the reserve salute, turned right and that was the last time.
PN: What’s the reserve salute?
FB: Well, in other words, shove it. (Laughter).
PN: See ya.
FB: And so we eventually got married in the Episcopal Church and but we were not active church-goers. That doesn’t mean that I – I didn’t have these principles but I couldn’t connect with what was going on church-wise. But then when we got into Subud, I was connecting.
PN: You were connecting to spirituality or —
FB: Something was changing within me. I was starting to – I don’t know – discover myself much more.
FB: And we had some experiences but I don’t think that the two of us would have survived as a couple when we lost our son in 1979 if it hadn’t have been for Subud. We were at a Congress in Toronto, a World Congress, and our son was out here on Bainbridge Island working for a I guess you’d call a lumber company or… and my parents lived on Bainbridge Island and that weekend, she would come and visit them and one Saturday morning, in August, he and my father decided they were going to bake some bread and they didn’t have the flour so he jumped in the car and went to get the flour and was T-boned with a truck and lost his life. But I don’t know. I’m not sure that Subud didn’t save our marriage so that was a very tough time for us and we left. By then, I’d retired from the Navy and we left, we were back in New London, Connecticut and we just decided to pack our goods and come to Seattle. We weren’t going to spend any more time in areas that we really didn’t love. So that had a profound effect on us and the Subud community really supported us in a really good way, spiritually and provided a comfort.
PN: Melanie, can you speak to how the community rallied in that instance?
MB: Well, we were at the Congress when we heard the news that he died and so we immediately – people came to do laithan with us and then we flew out to Seattle the next day. Our other children were all over the country. We had to gather them in, and because both our family was – lived on Bainbridge, we thought it was best to come out here so we did but the Dodsons who were still good friends of ours and lived near us, I guess we’d driven to the Congress with them, took us to the airport, got us signed up, you know, got us organized saw that we got our plane, and then a lot of really – really wonderful things happened. We ran into our daughter in the middle of O’Hare as we were going to our plane. She was coming from Connecticut and suddenly, I looked and there she was with her arms around Frederick, you know, and I got on the plane and I could – I had this experience of seeing our son. Darn it – he was happy. I saw his inner eye. He was sort of bouncing on the clouds. He was happy, you know, I couldn’t ask for more than that and then I remember sitting at the airport later in Seattle. I guess we were meeting one of our other kids and sitting there and I felt like I was at the Congress with Bapak in the front because he was at the Congress, I think. So there was a lot there that helped us. I think it was something that was supposed to happen. All my years growing up on Bainbridge, if I would – whenever I went over to Frederick’s family’s house and I would drive home, there were two streets and two roads and the second one was the one I was supposed to take but often I would think I got – where am I? I should be taking this one. Well, this first road was the one Bruce took and I think he thought he was going on the second one so he missed a stop sign that he should have seen but, you know, maybe he wasn’t paying attention either but little things like that had sort of told me, and I had some visions too before that didn’t mean anything to me but, you know, I’d see something in latihan like where he had been working. There was a lake and mountains around. It was a near an index and I saw that lake in my latihan which may or may not have meant anything but when we went up there later to see where he had been because we hadn’t been there before, it was this place that I’d seen in my vision. So I don’t know. I think that’s what – it was God’s will, whatever. I accept it as such.
PN: You were married for so long and you were in Subud for so long that how has Subud helped sustain that?
MB: Well, I don’t know. I guess there’s just guidance. It’s something that you really put behind you after a while and he says it was hard on our marriage. You know, I don’t pretend we didn’t grieve and it was very hard to be there for each other because we were both really hurting, so we had a pretty awful year and we had three other children too and Isabel was a total wreck and it took her a long time to get over this, get past it. You don’t get over it. You get past it. She was very close to Bruce and they were almost a year apart.
FB: They were only eleven – fifty-one weeks apart.
MB: You know, and she really hated that she never got to say goodbye and
all that stuff but I don’t know, just being able to do latihan. Time, you know, time helps and I remember some, maybe a year later, finally coming to a point where I said, okay, I’m either going to go off the deep end and stay there, or it’s time to just put it aside and move forward, and kind of that’s what we did, I think. But it kind of was a defining moment, just I knew that. And how I – how did I get through that year? I took courses at college. I took calculus and —
MB: — I took a writing course, you know, it just took my mind off of me. I remember watching soap operas which I never did and stuff like that, and Vida. She was the only Subud member where we were living that first year and for some – somehow or other, she managed to convince me that her freezer didn’t work and could she borrow some space in ours because I have a big one in the garage, which of course, I said sure, you know. And she would turn up just at the right moment. I don’t know she did it but I’d be feeling awful or I remember one day, going through one of the drawers, it had been our son’s or something and that shattered me, and so she’d just show up and be this quiet presence and keep me.
PN: And there she is again. (Laughter.)
MB: Oh, yeah. Good for her.
PN: Maybe she has ice cream again.
FB: I’ve always felt throughout my life that I’m really not totally in control of the – of what’s happening. Things happened. For instance, when I was in college, I was a pre-med and discovered between my junior and senior year that I passed out at the sight of blood so this was really not the profession. I felt that I was becoming a doctor because my father was a doctor and it really wasn’t me and so I got into marine biology and we were married right after college and I went back to Woods Hole and we were semi-working and we went to a friend of mine’s graduation at OCS and got very drunk and he told me all about it and I thought well, the draft board is probably pretty close to me. So, I, the next morning drove up to Boston with a hangover and I enlisted. And two days later, I reported to Newport News and two days after that, I got my draft notice to the Army and I did well enough at OCS that we got a choice of duty stations so I picked submarine base Pearl Harbor and that was wonderful. But unfortunately, while we were over there – fortunately, I was – I loved my Navy career but I got taken out on a submarine and just had a hell of a good time and I loved it and I didn’t have any job to go to when I got out of the Navy. So Melanie and I discussed whether we should try to go for it and they just changed the requirements. I didn’t need to be a qualified officer in order to apply for a sub school and I got into sub school and because I had recommendations from all these World War II submarine people over there. And one thing led to another and I got into submarines and really found it extremely interesting. It’s a camaraderie. Submarine is not like most Navy which is based upon rank and what have you. In submarines, it’s based upon qualifications and if you’re not qualified in submarines, you’re nothing. I don’t care whether you’re a commander or what, and there’s a teamwork involved, how good a job that submarine does is based upon how everybody on that submarine works together, and I really liked that, that aspect of it. But it wasn’t something I’d planned. I mean this was boom, boom, boom, you know, accidentally went from boom to boom.
MB: Except that you would always try to do a good job, whatever you did.
FB: Well, that might be, but for instance, I got into Operations Research because I happened to be taking a cab one time in New York and I asked the cab driver what he was up to and he told me about Operations Research and when I had a chance in the Navy to apply for graduate school, I thought this would be a great area to get into so that got me into a whole different mindset. And then, when we got out of the Navy, I started into computers and I did some research back in Connecticut and then we moved out here and eventually started my own firm with software development and consulting and what have you and this went on for 22 years and then I got involved with Hanafi Fraval but it has not been a plan, you know, boom, boom, boom. It’s been a circus, yeah.
PN: Led by grace.
FB: Yeah, and I’ve kind of learned to just go with it and it’s been very interesting and I have a lot of different names. My legal name is Norman Branchflower and my Subud name is Frederick and I’ve been a nickname of Bud. I’ve been a nickname of Twig Blossom.
PN: Say that again.
FB: Twig Blossom.
PN: Twig Blossom.
FB: Yeah, that has been a nickname.
PN: And can you elaborate on —
FB: Well, if you look at Branchflower.
MB: In high school, you know, in high school, that was sort of – I think I used to call you Branch.
MB: We got that a lot.
PN: I get it, your last name, sure.
FB: So I have been in an office working on a particular job and the secretary got five or six calls for me, each one under a different (name) – but the advantage is if somebody’s calling me Norman, I pretty much know he’s an insurance agent trying — (laughter)
PN: Or someone ringing the doorbell there in the middle of your interview.
FB: And somebody said Bud, I’d know that they’re from my early childhood.
FB: And I could kind of just by the name.
PN: Victor Margolin says he has instead of time zones for his wife’s different names, he has name zones. That’s so he knows when to call her Shoshanah and when to call her Sylvia.
FB: Is that right? And it’s great in that respect. And I don’t get hung up over names at all.
PN: You never took a Subud name?
FB: Oh, yeah. Melanie is her Subud…
MB: Yeah, Melanie is my Subud…
PN: Oh, Melanie is a Subud name.
PN: Do you want to talk about how you decided to take the name and —
MB: Well, it was fairly early, maybe four or five years, I forget when I changed it. I don’t know. I think it was not that I had an urgent need to change it but I was kind of curious to see because in those days, we would write to Bapak and ask for a name, and I think Bapak gave – well, he would send letters. He’d say – and I’m not sure if it was Bapak or Ibu Rahayu, I can’t remember now, but they would send a letter and say your name should begin with M and then you’d fill out five possibilities that you might like. I was kind of surprised about Melanie – and essentially it means grace, I think. But I much prefer it to Nancy, which is my legal name but I’ve never changed it.
FB: I chose when I could start to call her Nancy and I really – I cannot.
MB: Well, it’s also hard because his brother’s wife’s name is Nancy, you know, but his brother will not call me Melanie.
FB: But the interesting thing is my mother could not buy into that at all and yet, she grew up in a Catholic Church and every time they get promoted, they change their damn name and I told her, you know, my name is Frederick because when I – somebody calls me Frederick, it puts me into a different space but she never could understand that.
PN: You know, you —
MB: Well, my dad didn’t understand that either.
PN: You could have suggested, you know, there are worse possibilities in Subud than Frederick and Melanie.
MB: And make one up.
PN: And I mean worse from a perspective of Anglo culture.
PN: And say oh, you have a Muslim name, what kind of crazy thing is this?
MB: Susilawati might have thrown them off.
PN: Susilawati Branchflower, that would be a tough blossom to swallow.
In part 8 the couple discussed the Subud community in the Olympic Neighborhood, how it got started, how pot roast and dessert is usually involved and how he and Melanie are the youngest members at age 77 and 79. Frederick explained why he is not concerned about the future of Subud. They also spoke about the experience, in their earlier years, of being isolated Subud members and doing latihan in the stateroom of a ship on which he (Frederick) was stationed while a member of the U.S. Navy. They also discussed an older pair of twin Subud members, sisters, who were active in Subud, Mary and Elmira Ingersoll. 10:10
In segment 9 they discussed death, their fear of the physical and mental incapacitation that might precede it, how they read and do exercises to keep sharp and Frederick mentioned about how Subud members whom he disliked became best friends by the time they were nearing death. 4:00
In segment ten they discussed their children’s involvement in Subud, where three of four have been opened. 2:57
In the last segment, they responded to the question of how to do outreach to create awareness of Subud, suggesting that Subud people should exemplify truly human attributes to be the best kind of outreach. They also discussed failed Subud enterprises such as a worm ranch and organic vegetables, a french fry factory and other initiatives. 6:55