There's Always a Full Moon When Bill and Fran Go Riding

updated 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

California's golden summer is turning to blazing autumn, and Bill and Fran Flesher are showing off their fall collection. The Fleshers are emphasizing skin tones and a weather-beaten look, with love handles, veins, a bulge here and there, a sag where appropriate and whatever else nature gave them. For the Fleshers, California's middle-aged gurus of nudism, clothes do not make the man or woman, and fashion is strictly a tangenital issue.

There are times, just a few, when the aptly named Fleshers have to put aside their inhibitions about putting on clothes, for instance when they're tossing a backyard bash at their Tree-house Fun Ranch. It usually isn't much of a fashion statement—an old terry-cloth sweatsuit for Fran, shorts for Bill—but it doesn't thrill them. "The only reason I've got these on is that I keep running in and out of the bar, and the law says I gotta be dressed back there," laments Bill, 51. "Otherwise, I'm nude pretty much of the time."

The Fleshers weren't always naked. Of course, they were born that way, just like the rest of us, but it wasn't until 1963 that they became interested in nudism. They had been invited over to another couple's house for a swim one summer afternoon in the San Fernando Valley. When the Fleshers arrived, their friends announced that they were nudists and asked Fran and Bill if they minded swimming without suits. "I thought to myself, 'Well, I guess that's okay,' " says Bill. "All the kids, boy, they just popped right in. My wife and I were a little uncomfortable at first, but, God, it was great."

Enjoying their liberation from clothing, the Fleshers accompanied their friends to a nudist resort near San Diego, leaving their five children behind. When they got there and met a couple who had brought their five children, they turned right around, made the three-hour trip back to their Canoga Park home and returned with the kids.

After the excursion, the Fleshers warned their children not to say anything about it in school. The next day, however, their youngest daughter, Vickie, rushed home from kindergarten saying, "Mommy! Daddy! I didn't say anything, but the little boy at my school—he's one of us!"

From then on the Fleshers, parents and children, adopted the clothes-free life-style wholeheartedly. "Fran and I were never that affluent," says Bill. "We sometimes had a house that had only one bathroom. It was natural for the kids not to wear clothing."

John Flesher, now a fireman in San Bernadino, Calif., recalls that when he was going through the trauma of puberty, his parents gave him the option of wearing clothes. "I was 11 or 12 at the time, and my parents said if I didn't want to be a nudist, I didn't have to. I said, 'Okay,' and it lasted about 30 minutes."

Now John and his siblings are raising their children in the family tradition. And why not? Bill and Fran Flesher are, with the one exception of their rather meager wardrobe requirements, very mainstream. They have been married for 33 years. They are both hardworking, churchgoing folks who voted for Ronald Reagan twice and believe in God, the family and the American way. "Most nudists," says Bill, "are just real good people."

It was their belief in traditional values that prompted the Fleshers to leave their home in suburban Canoga Park in 1972 to move to Devore, just north of San Bernadino on the highway to Las Vegas. At the time long hair and drugs were becoming popular in the high schools of the San Fernando Valley, and the Fleshers wanted out. "I didn't want my kids getting involved in that," says Bill. So they took over the Treehouse, which had been a nudist camp for decades.

Although the property was run-down, the Fleshers saw potential. "I told Fran that we could just build a home, remodel the pool and make a tennis court," says Bill. "Then I got here, and I thought, 'Well, I'll just put in a new water system and this and that.' " There turned out to be a lot more construction than they had bargained for. "It was quite a trying time," says Bill, "but six months later we opened it up as a family nudist camp again, and we had 500 people on the grounds that day."

Since then the Fleshers have continued to build business through a variety of sales gimmicks. They host the Mr. Nude-International-USA and Ms. Nude-International-USA every year, as well as such annual extravaganzas as a nude chili cook-off and a nude spaghetti sauce contest. "People think it's a big orgy type of thing here," says Bill. "Men think they'll have an erection; women think they'll be uncomfortable. The biggest shock here is the utter lack of shock."

Both Bill and Fran think there just aren't enough people going the nude route. "The nudist movement hasn't grown as fast as it should have," says Fran, 49. "It's 55 years old now, and there are so many potential nudists on the beaches."

At last count, about 150 people, including 30 or so children, made their year-round residence in the Tree-house's mobile homes, living their dream of a better life through fewer clothes. But if the Treehouse is Utopian, it isn't democratic. "Democracy stops at the front gate," says Bill Flesher. "Inside it's a benevolent dictatorship with just one dictator—me." What a pity he didn't say he was an emperor. Then we could have said—without a hint of irony—that the emperor, in this case, has no clothes.

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