There was a fellow named the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a guru of some standing who built a swanky commune in rural Oregon and, after a while, encountered serious legal problems that led to him being jailed while trying to flee the country.
It’s an elaborate story of chicanery, internal strife and perhaps worse. Those with a taste for rascals in flowing robes may want to check the excellent 2018 Netflix documentary on the Bhagwan, "Wild Wild Country."
Before his hasty departure, the Bhagwan often made headlines, and I twice went to Oregon for Newsday to cover one ding-dong development or another as his followers — the rajneeshees, decked out in colors of sunset — imposed themselves, often without much of the enlightenment they claimed, on the tiny town of Antelope.
This was way back in the ’80s and comes to mind now because of a certain milestone event recently observed and, accordingly, a Bhagwani brain-twister that seems suddenly and alarmingly relevant.
In my room at the commune’s guest lodge, I unpacked and turned on the television. What’s this? No networks? No HBO? Available only was the approved house channel — very North Korea — on which one could enjoy expansive lectures by, of course, the Bhagwan.
Settled into a thronelike easy chair, the guru sermonized on inner peace, metaphysical oneness, cosmic harmony and other matters that have buffaloed human beings since we started walking upright.
It was either during the lecture, or perhaps in an introductory pamphlet available to visitors, that a penetrating question was directed at the unsuspecting new arrival.
Who are you?
As we might have said in Brooklyn: Oh, yeah, who’s asking?
Nevertheless, I made a note.
The next day, I was booked to interview the Bhagwan, one-on-one.
One-on-one if you don’t count the 100 or so disciples — sannyasins, as they called themselves — invited to watch the master at work.
Just for fun, and to get things started, I mentioned the question I had come across after arriving.
"Who are you?"
The Bhagwan, no dope, ducked like I’d thrown one under his chin.
"Ah," he said, voice of velour. "Ah."
Mischievously, the Bhagwan said something inscrutable about my wife — how did she get into this? — and the sannyasins chuckled appreciatively.
The conversation went on for some time and might have lasted longer had the venue — a large meeting room — not been kept in the 50-degree range, according to the Bhagwan’s demands. He might have hailed from India, but the fellow had peculiar arctic inclinations.
Teeth chattering and notebooks filled, I said thank you, exited the hall and went somewhere quick for a cup of what surely would have been hibiscus tea.
There was a whole lot of hocus-pocus at the commune, but that question — Who are you? — is one I haven’t forgotten.
Spooky stuff aside, it’s a heavy-duty deliberation at this time of life.
You know the moments where you think "Did I just say that?" Or maybe you are walking around the house aimlessly — again — and it feels like you left yourself in the TV room still watching reruns of "The Office?" Random memories arrive. That was me? I did that? Me?
I know what’s going on. It’s the birthday just passed.
Let’s see if I can say this out loud:
I’m, heh-heh, I’m, well, you know, I’m, um, gosh — 80!
"Just a number, Dad," says my son. "Don’t worry about it."
Right, I think. Wait until it’s your turn.
A lovely — though much younger — person emailed to say: "My, Fred will be 80 … such a bright mind."
I was speaking to a college-bound kid. She mentioned her grandfather.
"How’s he doing?"
"Well, you know," the girl said. "He’s 81."
Self-knowledge in old age is a good thing, I suppose, but what are you going to do with it, really?
You can’t trade yourself in. No swapping for a later model. This is it — same for a big-name Bhagwan or anonymous Brooklyn guy.
What happened to the wayward guru? He pleaded guilty to immigration charges, left jail and returned to India where, in 1990, he died at 58 of heart disease.
Who was he?
Who am I?
Yo, who’s asking?