During the summer of 2007, I was driving down the winding, rough dirt road that led to my father’s small, palapa-roofed home on the beach in the southern tip of Baja Sur, in Mexico. We were about a half-hour drive from the nearest fishing villages, Los Bariles and La Ribera. While we were driving, my dad got a call. He answered the phone to hear Jack Stricklin’s voice. Jack had just gotten out of prison, having completed a two-decade sentence for drug smuggling, and was giving his life-long best friend a call. That was the first time I had ever heard about Jack.
Nearly 7 years passed, and I had had infrequent but pleasant encounters with Jack. During the winter of 2014, after leaving back to college my freshman year following winter break, Jack needed a place to stay in El Paso, and we had an extra room, so in moved Jack. A few months later, him and my mother (who was long-divorced from my father) were together. A little over a year later, in June of 2015, the two married in a humble, enjoyable wedding in our backyard; the setting sun reflecting off of the mountains in the background in a way I’ll never forget.
Jack, entering his 70s, soon began developing signs of Parkinson’s. But he, a proud, tall, former high school basketball player, was still sturdy, often frequenting the gym down the street. He and my mother had a loving, peaceful marriage. Jack was good to her, the two often going to dinner and spending time with close friends. Towards the end, they’d sit on the back porch, watching the sunset and talking. Of course, it crossed my mind often the strange nature of their relationship; Jack being one of my father’s best friends. But we developed a close relationship during the summers and vacations I’d be home. And, he treated my mother well, which was all that ever mattered to me.
A little less than two years after the wedding, I came home, just having graduated from Arizona State University in May of this year. I came home hoping to rest, and soon find a job and start my career. By that point, Jack had begun deteriorating from the Parkinson’s. He began having trouble walking, getting up from chairs, and getting along on his own. I didn’t know what was to come.
That summer, before I accepted a job and moved to Las Vegas in late August, was filled with frequent trips to the emergency room. Many nights, I would awake to yells from downstairs, Jack needing help up off the floor after falling, or help getting to bed from the restroom. His condition continued worsening. The doctor’s visits and hospital stays became routine; and with my mother doggedly working, most of the responsibility fell to me.
It was around this time that I was forced to start reckoning with my own mortality. Here I was, far from a physical specimen, but regularly hiking and playing pick-up basketball as a youthful 22-year-old. ‘Would this be me one day? Would I need help like this?’ It was something I wrestled with more and more as the summer progressed, as Jack slowly faded away. How does someone just looking to start their career, their adult life, come to grips with this fact being shoved in their face that it will all end one day, maybe someday sooner than one can ever expect?
I’d long been fascinated with Jack’s life and experiences. Some of his life’s tales, and the exploits of him and his friends have been chronicled in books like Dirty Dealing, and the soon-to-be-published Folly Cove. His group of friends, tough kids raised on the streets of old El Paso and the bars of Ciudad Juarez in the 1960s, eventually became prominent marijuana smugglers in the 1970s. I would hear and read the stories of them clearing fields in rural New Mexico for planes carrying thousands of pounds of weed to land in the dark of night; their unloading and distribution plans becoming perfected. They would wear suits worth thousands, fly in private jets with duffel bags full of money, and avoided any violence outside of the occasional bar fight.
These things happened; Jack in the late 1970s had a monthly over-head of tens of thousands of dollars. He was running the operation entirely based on the trust of the friends he was working with, and giving money monthly to families of those members who were arrested. Jack and much of his crew were eventually arrested, years after an elaborate job that saw them successfully smuggle 57,000 pounds of pot across the ocean, from Columbia to Boston. Two crew members, unknowns brought in to help for that job, were arrested years later for a separate crime in another state, and eventually testified against Jack and the crew.
Although he went on to spend much of his adult life locked up, I still liked to ask Jack about those harrowing stories whenever I could. He would tell me, and as his condition worsened, I realized that he lived a normal person’s life several times over, and gained and lost a lifetime’s fortune several times over. But he never lost his jovial, laid-back, respectful nature. Agree or disagree with the ethics of his chosen career path, he did his time, and that was that.
So, as I watched Jack fade away, I saw how many people stood by his side. Jack treated people right, and everyone else treated him the same way. I knew this would come eventually, I just couldn’t have known so soon.
One day this past summer, I was driving with Jack in his silver Toyota SUV, the air-conditioner blasting. I asked him if he had any regrets about his life, wondering if maybe he’d do it over, avoid the jail time, choose a different path. He quickly answered ‘no.’ He explained that he didn’t have regrets because he lived life honorably, and as fully as one ever could. A few weeks later, after I packed my life up and traveled to Las Vegas, that encounter left an imprint on me. I thought about what he’d said to me often.
So, today, 20 minutes after getting to work at the Review-Journal, I received a call from my mother. Jack passed away. I choked up, and took some time to make calls, collect my thoughts. I sat on a white bench in front of my office. I thought about how my mom was doing, about the life Jack lived, about how maybe he wasn’t in pain anymore. A bird was singing a lively tune as I collected myself as best I could. As I sat there, I realized that maybe, even if I one day needed help from some 22-year-old kid who didn’t know what the hell the rest of his life would look like, it would be OK. Maybe, if I fill my life with as many compelling experiences and as much happiness as I can, when my time comes, I won’t have regrets, either. Maybe, if I treat people right, they’ll be next to me until my time is up. ‘That’s the goal,’ I thought to myself. Maybe, when the time comes, it would be OK to go gentle into that good night, like Jack had. Maybe, if I do it all right, I wouldn’t need to rage against the dying of the light. I stood up from the bench, and walked into my office. The bird stopped singing.