Rookie Reefer Bandidos

If I’m looking for excuses for some of my more outlandish behavior, which I never really was until I started writing this down, I’ve worked up a few good ones I think. And I need ’em. I mean how could a good farm boy turn into a drug smuggler?

I could just leave out these chapters of my life and not tell people I broke the law, broke it big time, but that would leave out some darn good stories, adventures in stupidland that turned out more or less okay.

My defense is based on a battle with the superego, at least what I understand about superego from the only psychology course I ever took — it’s what your parents and grandparents and your aunts and uncles and preachers and teachers and other welcome and unwelcome authority figures try to instill in you about how to behave yourself in the game of life.

If you follow the guidelines of the superego, you usually don’t get in trouble. But maybe you won’t have all that much fun, maybe yes, maybe no, but it’s easier to experience pleasure if you ignore the superego at crucial moments when the id comes calling. It’s the id, that unruly god Bacchus rocking and rolling through moments of passion and pleasure, that might get you into trouble, but sometimes just makes it impossible to wipe the smile off your face.

Adolescent rebellion almost always pushes a new generation to question the previous one, but that relationship was stretched to the breaking point in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. The older generation was willing to send the younger one off to die in the most callous and useless way in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and its credibility was in the drink, totally.

The song at Woodstock by Country Joe and the Fish tells it as well as anybody has before or since,

“Now it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam!
And it’s five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates,
Ain’t no time to wonder why, whoopee we’re all gonna die.
Now come on mothers throughout the land, pack your sons off to Vietnam,
Come on fathers don’t hesitate, send your sons off before it’s too late.
Be the first one on your block, to have your boy come home in a box!
And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for…”

So me and millions of baby boomers like me temporarily (a long temporariness it was) absolutely rejected the values and teaching of our parents and their cohorts, the careful indoctrination of years. Maybe they weren’t sending us to Vietnam directly, but their passive acceptance of the war in Southeast Asia had the same effect when any young man without a deferment could get a draft notice in the mail.

Since the older generation was so wrong on that issue, maybe they were wrong about everything else, too. And throwing the baby out with the bath water, we decided we could do anything we wanted. For some, there was an explosion of creativity in music and art. For others it was a time to experiment, to create their own value system, or just give Bacchus free rein in their lives. Young people tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. New forms of communal living were going to be the way of the future. And through it all ran an undercurrent of hedonistic pleasure. Peace and love, yes, but also sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.

They called us hippies.

— — — — — —

So I guess my excuse boils down to I got swept away by the current, at least that’s one way of looking at it. Or maybe I was just an enterprising young businessman who saw an opportunity and went for it. Either way, six months or so after smoking pot for the first time, my best friend in college and I decided we could make a quick trip over spring break from Massachusetts to Arizona and bring back a load of pot that would keep us and our friends happy all spring while putting a few thousand bucks in our pockets. And it got exciting.

Not having the capital to finance the venture, I somehow convinced my straight-laced roommate to front me three thousand dollars with a promise of four thousand back a month later. Bob Babcock, from suburban Boston, didn’t like smoking that wacky tobacky, but he loved the thought of a thousand dollar profit in one month’s time. And like many a successful investor, he didn’t let his personal distaste for the enterprise interfere with his desire for an unusually high rate of return, otherwise known as greed.

So it was that on the Friday before the start of spring break 1970, we two 18-year old college freshmen put our hare-brained scheme into action. I took a flight to St. Louis, and my friend and partner in crime, Drew, boarded a plane to Phoenix where he was from. I would stop in Missouri and buy a used car that would be the transport vehicle for the venture.

A friend of my dad’s who used to live on the neighboring farm taught the auto mechanics class at the local high school, so I asked him if he knew of anybody with a reasonably-priced used car. Turned out a student of his had a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air that he’d part with for $125. I jumped at the offer, closing the Sunday after arrival and getting on the road after taking care of the title, registration, and license plate on Monday morning. After all, I only had one week to get to Arizona, do the deal, then make it back to Massachusetts with the load. I didn’t want to skip too many classes.

I made my first fuel stop just outside of Kansas City. When I checked the oil, the dipstick was dry. Shit, almost no oil! Turns out that old Chevy leaked, burned, and drank oil like a plow horse drinks creek water. Too far to turn back, I bought a case of 24 quarts of cheap 30 weight, non-detergent motor oil outside Emporia, Kansas, and headed down to Oklahoma City, where I picked up Route 66. The trip took about 28 hours and the beater swallowed all 24 quarts along the way. Basically, it was fill up the oil and check the gas instead of the other way around, but the Chevy kept on trucking.

After a night’s sleep in Phoenix, Drew and l decided to clean up our appearance a bit and get a haircut before heading down to the twin border towns of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico. The Phoenix Barber College had a good deal: $1.25 for intermediate students and 75 cents for beginners. Saving that 50 cents wasn’t such a great idea. The instructor had to come in and finish up the job with a total buzz cut after the students left major divots in our heads. Well what the hell. We figured it was a good idea that we looked more like we’d just been inducted into the Marine Corps than like two errant hippies looking to do a drug deal.

Drew’s brother had a friend named Marty who Drew said would be a help doing the deal at the border. Marty was just a skinny high school junior, but Drew was right. The guy had a way about him, he acted like he knew what was going on when he didn’t. That helped inspire foolish confidence in us more mature college freshmen who might otherwise have been getting a bit concerned about what we were about to do, head into Mexico to buy fifty kilos of pot without knowing a soul or speaking a word of Spanish.

The two hundred miles south from Phoenix past Tucson to Nogales were no problem, though we burned about six quarts of oil out of the next 24-quart case I had in the trunk. Crossing into Mexico for the first time, I saw a whole ‘nother world, so different than anything I’d ever seen before. The people didn’t speak a word of English to start with.

Drew and Marty had been to Mexico before and Marty somehow got us to a really poor looking neighborhood where we cautiously parked our luxurymobile and set out on foot. People were staring at us like Martians from little hole in the wall stores that sold everything from crackers to used suits, and there were little kids with big brown eyes running around everywhere. A rainbow of color and chaos on everything from Coca-Cola and Fanta signs to graffiti and posters on the walls that lined the streets introduced me to the so-called Third World, alive and boiling with life, liberty, and pursuit.

On Marty’s advice, we’d all picked screwdrivers out of my toolbox and kept our hands on them in our pockets. These were going to be our fighting weapons if we got in a scrape. Great.

Somehow we hooked up with a Señor who could do the deal. Drew was right, Marty had a way with these things. The Señor could get us the pot and deliver it on the US side of the border, just what we were looking for. Only problem was, the delivery had to be on the border in Douglas, Arizona, over a hundred miles away.

So somehow in some language we agreed to meet at an all-night diner in Douglas, and the three of us headed back across the border to Arizona. At Customs there in Nogales, we were interrogated in depth about what we were doing in a ’55 Chevy all the way from Missouri. Maybe our stories weren’t so good, or maybe it was just that nobody our age anywhere at that time had haircuts that looked like they’d just entered the Marine Corps unless they’d just entered the Marine Corps. For whatever reason, they pulled our Chevy over for additional inspection and, man, was it thorough, pulling off door panels, checking the undercarriage with mirrors on little carts that they ran underneath the vehicle, the whole nine yards. They kept going back and forth to the car and consulting with each other before finally letting us go about an hour later, around dusk. Those guys could make innocent people, which we still were at that point, feel guilty as hell. Wow, it was a good thing we hadn’t scored in Mexico and relied on our great disguises to get us across the border with the pot.

When we got through with the border inspection, it was pitch dark and we headed toward Douglas. About half way there, we got stopped at a temporary checkpoint put up by the Border Patrol.

I was nervous and in the driver’s seat. The agent asked me if we were heading to the local football game, and I was about to say no, when Marty blurted out “Yes, Sir,” and they waved us through. I don’t know if they saw the Missouri plates when we pulled away, but we were gone and didn’t get stopped again. I guess our disguises worked this time; maybe there really were some young guys with buzz cuts somewhere in America. I guess they were going to football games in Arizona rather than to Mexico for mischief.

When we finally got to the all-night diner in Douglas and were seated at a booth eating burgers, we realized that didn’t have a penny more than the three thousand dollars we’d agreed to pay the Señor for the fifty kilos. No problem for Marty, he’d handle the money exchange. He would craftily stack the wad of bills to double over a few twenties so he could count them twice for the Señor. I was a bit uneasy about trying to fool this guy, but Marty was confident about his manual dexterity, and confidence is a good quality, so that’s what we decided to do. We’d hold back sixty dollars to cover the check at the diner plus gas and any unforeseen problems on the way back to Phoenix — superb contingency planning, right?

It was probably only about an hour, but it seemed like an eternity before the Señor showed up at the diner. In the meantime, a local police car had deposited a couple of donut crunchers in one booth and a pair of Arizona Highway Patrolmen had come and gone. I was getting a bit shaky.

Then our Señor suddenly appeared at the diner. Making no pretense of sitting down to get something to eat, he just told us hurriedly to follow him, in whatever language we were communicating. We paid our check and slipped out of the diner, feeling about as discreet as three pigs in a poultry barn. But those worries were short-lived as I raced to keep up with the speeding Señor as he careened off into the night through unlit streets, then dirt road that led we didn’t know where.

By the time he pulled over alongside a big drainage ditch, we weren’t sure if we were in Mexico or Arizona. My heart was racing as we pulled up behind him and got out of the car, and he started shouting instructions in Spanish into the darkness. I hadn’t seen a street light for a while, but we had a flashlight which Drew was shining around the rear of the Chevy trying to see what was back there while Marty carried the wad of cash securely in his left hand. The Señor came around and patted on the trunk lid, as in “Dumb kids, where you gonna put the pot?” and the next thing we knew boxes were flying up out of the ditch. Pretty soon, I was loading the boxes in the trunk, Drew was looking to see what was in them, and Marty was on the side of the car with the Señor counting twenties in the wad. Then all of a sudden, the Señor grabbed the wad and said “Listo!” meaning Ready, Done, We Outta Here! As we stood there dumbfounded, he jumped in his car and sped away, and we heard nothing more from the guys in the ditch as they slipped away into the darkness.

What to do? Well I wasn’t sure of the way out of there, and he had our money anyway, so we just threw the last box in the trunk, closed it up and left as fast as we could. The adrenalin was really pumping now. I was intent on not losing Señor’s tail lights until we hit pavement. Which thank God we did in less than a mile. Fortunately, I had a vague notion which way was north, so I kind of zigzagged through what was a residential area built pretty darn close to the border until I hit something big enough to have a highway number on it. That was good enough to get me oriented and I headed out of Douglas as fast as my now law-abiding ass would let me.

No speeding now. I may have temporarily rejected my superego but that didn’t mean I couldn’t sense danger, and the last fifteen minutes had pretty much convinced me that we were in a slightly precarious situation, in a ’55 Chevy Bel Air with Missouri plates with a load of pot in the trunk and nothing else if they’d ask to open it, and we were heading right through prime wetback trafficking territory. Fortunately, Border Patrol guys have to rest sometimes, too, and we didn’t see a single one on our two hundred fifty mile ride north to Phoenix.

Somewhere along the way, exhausted from the evening’s adventures, I crashed out in the back seat, only to wake up in a cold sweat as Drew rolled over to the edge of the highway with the sun coming up and the Chevy’s engine not responding. Now at this point in my life I knew next to nothing about automobile mechanics but that was more than Drew or Marty, so I opened the hood and peered in at the straight six 235 engine that Chevrolet built for years and was the same one as in our hay truck back home. Up near the firewall I saw a wire dangling loose from a connector and, incredibly, the car started right up when I re-connected it. Someone was smiling on us.

Back in Phoenix, we headed over to Marty’s house, as his dad was rich and he had a big, kind of private room alongside the main part of his house. We finally got a chance to unbox the load and get a look at what we’d purchased for three grand, two hundred fifty miles away. Fortunately we hadn’t bought hay, as has happened more than once along the border, but the fifty kilos were only 43 after all, and, worst yet, a kilo brick in the Señor’s store came in at about 1.4 out of the 2.2 pounds they were supposed to weigh. So we’d shorted him about sixty dollars and he’d shorted us seven kilos plus almost a third of the weight on the ones we’d gotten. Marty was livid at first, saying we were all a bunch of first class chumps, himself included, that we’d been had and should head back down and find that bastard Señor in his neighborhood in Nogales, Mexico.

Ultimately cooler heads prevailed. Border town drug dealers don’t really have the old Sears logo, “Satisfaction guaranteed, or your money back,” on a banner over the entrance to their barrio. So the two more mature ones amongst us, the college freshmen, assessed the deal and calculated that we could return Bob Babcock from Boston’s four grand and still turn a decent profit in Massachusetts. We crashed there at Marty’s, and I for one was very happy not to be in custody somewhere in southern Arizona.

Then a knocking at the door. Drew’s mom had called and said my dad called from Missouri and needed to talk to me. It turned out that my grandfather in St. Louis had died the previous evening while we were cavorting along the Mexican border. I had to go back for the funeral, and that was going to be a problem. We didn’t think the Chevy would make it all the way back to Massachusetts, and Drew and the pot couldn’t come to Missouri with me. It certainly didn’t make sense for Drew to come to my grandfather’s funeral, and my mom and dad were a lot nosier than Marty’s parents, that’s for sure.

So we’d fly back and transport it as luggage, only problem being that I could only take a little as I’d be at home for a few days and didn’t want to risk my mom finding it in my suitcase. No problem, Drew said, he’d just get a couple of trunks and pack the pot with coffee grounds and orange peels to throw off the scent. Drew had a good dose of confidence, too, though not as much as foolhardy Marty, so it seemed like an okay idea.

After leaving Marty two kilos for his troubles and me taking three on my trip back through Missouri, Drew was now transporting 38 bricks, or about 53 pounds of Mexican marijuana, on a commercial flight to Hartford, Connecticut, with a connection in Dallas. I think Drew could write a book about what went through his mind on that journey. He’d had a lady sitting next to him from Phoenix to Dallas telling him how they’d caught these drug smugglers at the airport in Dallas with TWENTY pounds of marijuana the week before, what was the world coming to? He was a nervous wreck when I picked him up at the airport. He’d already made his plans for learning how to box while in prison.

We were wary when the two trunks came around the baggage carousel, scanning the area for anybody who looked like they’d grab us when we picked them up, but we’d come this far so there was no turning back. We grabbed those trunks and hustled out of the baggage area to the parking lot as quickly as we could, and I think only after we were about ten miles up the road with nobody following us did Drew realize he wasn’t going to federal prison that day, he was heading back to his college dorm room in Massachusetts.

Well to make a long story short, Drew never did go to prison, he became a college professor. Bob Babcock from Boston got his fine return on investment, though he’ll never know how many times his principal was hanging in the wind, and I turned out okay I guess, didn’t go to prison either. Marty did. Tragically, I think he’s spent about half his adult life in Arizona corrections facilities. He got into heroin and that’s a slippery slope, although my opinion is that drugs don’t warrant prison under any circumstances, kind of a libertarian on that issue.

Drew and I made a chunk of change each after paying off Bob Babcock from Boston with his thousand dollar profit. It was the spring of 1970, Nixon had invaded Cambodia, and students were gunned down and murdered by National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State University. All hell broke loose on campuses across the country. Our student body went out on strike, which was a good thing for me because my grades were kinda suffering after going to Mardi Gras in February and Arizona in March. More importantly for our enterprise, it was a great market for pot, nobody studying, a bunch of kids hanging around philosophizing on what’s wrong with the world, marching en masse to try to force the powers-to-be to stop sending us to war and stop killing other people needlessly.

We learned something in that haze of marijuana smoke that spring, that you weren’t going to change things without raising hell. But it seems you’ve got to overthrow the superego to get to that point, and somehow it takes a direct threat to really push a whole generation over the edge, like drafting them to die for somebody else’s interests. They’re not making that draft mistake any more.

My hiatus from legality and responsibility ended over time. I quit selling drugs a long time ago and kinda made peace with my superego, picked out the good, which was substantial, and jettisoned what I still couldn’t buy into. Somehow it seems like that process will continue for a while. It’s not like I’ve got it all figured out yet.

I’m just happy that I made it through that night in Douglas, Arizona.