Fifth Week of Book Excerpts… and a Brisket!

From a year ago…

Five weeks in from my start writing this book I’m about a third of the way through it and the stories are pouring out of me at a rate of 2000 words a day. It’s a real joy writing and because of my lurid past in the business of importing fine green Stones from South America, the Caribbean and Mexico (well, that’s what was on my business card, not marijuana smuggler and dealer), I’m lucky to have a cohort from my past doing legal research for me in Atlanta. Christine Clay was a hot redhead veering in and out of my life who a few decades later, is now a legal secretary in a major law firm. She has the skills to look up court cases, police files and put together the missing links in my history. She volunteered for this so kindly and been responsible for inspiring me to dig deep. So come take a ride through three excerpts, remembering that they are first draft and unedited.

But hey, since I’m not on Facebook any longer, I’ll share the 9 kilo Black Onyx 3X Wagyu Texas Brisket that I smoked for 15 hours low an slow overnight with six wake up calls every 90 minutes to re-wood and adjust airflow. It was the best piece of meat I have ever cooked and there was a hushed silence as my eight guests tucked into it with Creole Cole Slaw on a perfectly sunny Coffs balcony. Thanks to Pitmaster Anton Hughes who delivered it to me last week sharing the house for a few days.  Now here is the chapter…

In small single engine and occasional dual engine Cessnas, pilots would take off from inner Mexico and remain low in altitude crossing the border through North/South mountainous passes and over desert where dodging electrical lines was the chief hazard after Customs and Air Force scrambled planes.   The trick is to stay low enough crossing the border to not appear on the increasingly sophisticated radar—“right on the deck” as it’s called–without running lights and with the plane’s transponder turned off, popping up into radar view far enough into the US as to appear to be a local flight that has just taken off. Then it’s matter of setting down on a remote landing strip, a ranch or a road lit up by portable lights along the sides.

With only 7 persons per square mile average and over 300 abandoned, seldom used or unattended airfields, New Mexico was ideal for the 70s aerial pot contrabandista and Manuel explained how easy it was, inviting me to fly down to Culiacan and coming back with a load. Just the two of us and he’d drop a discount for bringing it in since I’d be on board. His plane that he planned to use was no decrepit hulk and he said we’d have a lot of fun down in Sinaloa since his bosses controlled all the local police. Intrigued, I agreed and since we were just going down, refueling and loading, then turning back around, there was no need to pack a bag.

As we were taking off from a small ranch landing strip, I noticed a pack of 10 rolls of toilet paper in the back of the small cabin and asked if it was in case he got the shits while flying or if he took it down in preference to Mexican loo paper which was more like 00 sandpaper. He chuckled and replied that no, these were for landing and occasionally negotiating cross winds in mountain passes. To determine wind direction and speed, the passenger would drop a partially unfurled roll and note its progress relaying this to the pilot. That’s when I got my first attack of nerves as we flew over the border on our way to Culiacan.

As we put down on a private airstrip with a series of sheds along it, a crew of about eight Mexicans ran out to us and immediately started the refuel process with six loading burlap bags of tightly packed bricks into every cubic foot of possible space. A tequila bottle appeared and shots were downed as Manuel directed me to a car that we took into town a few miles away. He told me not to worry, the show for the locals was about to begin with the local police. No sooner had he said that, a barrage of swirling blue lights and sirens galore erupted from police vehicles that started chasing us as Manuel gunned the car, speeding through town with the police in hot pursuit. Then shots were fired though none hit our vehicle as we did a set of turns around two small streets and then sped back into town. Sirens, spinning lights, screeching tires, profanities yelled and more shots as we left the town center, slowed and ended up back at the little airstrip.

There, the police jumped out of their cars and ran over to the crew, slapping backs, hugging and taking copious amounts of tequila from various bottles. It was like a police party and we were in the thick of it. Most of the pot had been loaded but a couple of cops who weren’t getting soused helped the crew with a few more bags. Manuel gave a short speech in Mexican to much laughter and hooting, we jumped in the cockpit, started the engine and were wheels up in a minute, back on our way low and fast for the border. We crossed at treetop level and sped across the desert strip into a series of mountains where Manuel showed his superb skills with rapid turns and navigating the ups and downs of the terrain with ease. There was no interdiction that night as we landed back at the ranch airstrip where two cars were waiting to be loaded—mine and a guy from Indiana—and no sooner had we packed our vehicles than Manuel bid us farewell to head back to below Juarez this time to deliver the money.

This excerpt is part of how I transitioned to the live music industry after quiting smuggling pot, bootlegging Coors beer and settling down. Through a friend, Ron Worsley, I filled in for an injured sound roadie on the Bill Hanley Audio truck working our of Atlanta.

One of the road crew had broken his arm via a falling horn array and was unable to do the Tony Orlando and Dawn show at nearby Six Flags Over Georgia the following weekend nor the next night’s show which keyboardist Rod Argent (formerly of The Zombies) playing a Kentucky college prom in the deep hills and valleys near Louisville. It would be a rough, winding ride from Atlanta through Appalachian Mountains but a lucrative three-day payday as my entry into the music business.

I really knew nothing about audio outside the confines of my living room, barely understanding the tonal knobs on the pre-amp’s face and how to take the dust off records and the needle. But Ron said I’d pick up the technical details as I followed the more experienced roadie and Sam, the Slavedriver Engineer. His main concern was having me learn the logistics of load in and memorising the packing order for load out with a squeaky-tight lashing of all speaker cabinets, audio electronic equipment and the extremely sensitive tube amps. He was counting on my skills packing large bales of Colombian cheeba and Jamaican buds into the holds of ships and speedboats, leaving no spaces, as well as my speed in assembling the final load. He knew I was a safe and diligent long distance driver so I fit the job description to a T.

At noon, we simply backed up to the Six Flags stage smoothly. Unloading the truck was easy though dusty work as it hadn’t been cleaned in months. I decided as an improvement to get some bowling alley wax for the wooden surface to loosen the friction, making the push of cabinets and arrays smooth without the need of handcarts inside. We could forklift them or trolley them to the back or the truck and simply slide them in, lash them tight against walls and save time.

The most confusing part was the cabling. There was a box for power distribution coming off the main backstage breakers of the venue and then there were the ‘snakes’ of multicore cable for the microphones onstage as well as into the power amplifiers which drove the three stage low, mid and high frequency speakers. In addition there were a separate set of cables for the stage sound mix for musicians and singers to hear themselves from side fill monitors and wedge speakers along the front. Add to that two mixing consoles-one for the house with compressors, limiters, filters, EQ and audio effects as well as a raw, unembellished series of feeds for each musician coming off a smaller console on stage.

By 3pm, we had all the gear assembled and ready for sound check, Sam having arrived two hours prior for wiring and testing. I kept my eye on him and asked a hundred questions on how to control the sound output, what this fader did, how that knob influenced the sound and how to achieve an overall mix. One lesson I had learned earlier in the day was that the guy who carried the clipboard and mixed the sound didn’t have to do any heavy lifting and this is what I should aspire to. But he warned that it would probably be a year before I’d get my chance to do a house mix.

Tony Orlando, then at the height of his fame with “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree”, “Candida”, “Knock three Times and “Say Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose?” hit the stage with his two female accompanists, Dawn, and checked his levels, tone and balance. Watching Sam twiddle knobs and slide faders up and down was a revelation. I could see the precise instant effect of his manipulation of the console. It was a short lesson. Within 15 minutes, Tony was off stage and heading in the limo back to his hotel to return at 7pm for the show, no warmup act.

By this time, Sam had been ogling the passing pretty young girls—his weakness—hitting the cognac bottle early and rolling up some of our finest bud. Within an hour he was near comatose and became obnoxious with a massive case of the munchies. He tried to play the suave Frenchman but was being constantly rebuffed by the underage babes he pursued. As we got close to showtime, his desperation to score a teeny lover made him even more blatant than I could stomach as I watched him trying to latch onto this hefty but young babe.

In a moment it was over as she reared back and punched him full in the face and followed with a left hook to the jaw. He fell over backwards, spinning into the ground with a mighty thud. Sam was out cold due to the punches and the substances only ten feet from the mixing console. Paul was on stage doing monitors, missing the fracas as the MC came out and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen… Tony Orlando and Dawn!!” I quickly powered down the background music and since all the channels were still set the way they were at sound check, I decided to ride the wave of mixing my first concert. My fear of feedback or pushing the wrong button levelled quickly as I realised if I didn’t do anything major other than turning up the vocals for solos and back down to original position, I’d be safe.

It was a terrifying hour of my life, kind of like the first time you drive a car—being careful not to accelerate too fast or hit the brakes too hard, not oversteer or understeer and certainly not to crash. I was far from cocky but not fully confident. All it took from time to time was just a look at Sam crumpled unconscious behind me to realise this was my big opportunity to swim of sink. He hadn’t stirred and I couldn’t tear myself away from the board to check on him, but he seemed to be passed out and motionless. The girl who had slugged him was long gone and no one else around him seemed concerned. Before I knew it, Tony hit the last note, ended the show and then came out for an encore.

Completely oblivious to what had happened in the previous hour with all his concentration directed onstage and not being able to see me running the board in the darkened audience, Paul had gathered all the microphones and came back to the console to discover Sam, still knocked out. With a tight schedule to pack up and get on the road, we left him there as we loaded out so as not to have to put up with his altered state. In the end though, we had the motor running on the truck sidestage as we tipped an ice chest over him, awakening him with a start and a yell. We took only a moment to explain what happened to him, let him know we’d meet him in Kentucky the next day when he flew in and he staggered off into the distance.

My two partners in smuggling hashish from Europe and driving loads of smuggled pot back to Atlanta from Mexican border states were Dermott and Wayne. Wayne went to the dark side and became a major coke dealer who Dermott and I had fortunately split from before he got caught. Dermott was the dumb one though and I decided at the same time to split with him and pursue something else which was a straight job at Baskin Robbins Ice Cream as a training manager, having used forged background paper and references. Here’s part of the tale Dermott’s Downfall from a big chapter.

So Dermott got me at a time when my life was placid and his was shit in jail, I was starting a career while he was looking at a sentence, possibly a long stretch at Leavenworth Federal Prison and his only hope was a plan that his lawyer Bobby ***** had proposed. The premise was that instead of being sentenced to 20 years hard time in maximum security, a bribe of $50,000 could secure him as little as 18 months in a minimum security facility, almost a walk in the park. I was hesitant due to the danger of being caught passing money under the table to a Federal Court Judge which Bobby assured me was the best way to make this happen. He doubled down by saying that he would handle the transaction himself as he had in many previous instances and even gave examples that I could check out of cases that had been reduced. Dermott would have to plead guilty but would not have to rat anyone out. The charges he’d plead to would be reduced from his current harsh Federal ones and he would bypass state court and not have to serve time in a notorious Texas jail.

Bobby did have a reputation as a fixer as well as being well connected and sure enough, his ‘references’ checked out. I would have to fly out with the cash immediately putting off my job start by a couple of days which my new employers grudgingly gave me. I’d take a cab from the airport, drop the cash into Bobby’s hands and fly back without even getting to visit my ex-partner in jail which was a good idea since I was always under the radar and a visit would be recorded. It went off without a hitch, though my impression in person of Bobby was that he was a sleaze and there were some pretty shiftless characters sharing the chairs in his foyer. I was back in Atlanta the next day, donned my paper BR cap and started learning the disciplines from scoop to nuts, cones to cashflow and portion control to profit margins that I’d have to pass on to the moms and pops who had invested their life savings into a runny, sticky franchise.

The deal with Bobby worked out seamlessly. As if by magic the charges were downgraded and subsequent sentence were reduced to two years. Dermott ended up in La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution in Anthony Texas, only 30 miles from El Paso and it was more a caged country club compared to the max prisons. Called “The Most Beautiful Prison in the US” it has an exquisitely ornate front with tiles and a pueblo feel and the insides were immaculate, clean and fresh. I know. I took that trip in December, driving from Atlanta to visit him halfway through his sentence. After two days of visitation, I headed back when the transmission of my car clunked out and I was stuck in El Paso as repairs took longer than planned. Driving day and night I made it back to the store Christmas evening to find it closed. My staff had not turned up Christmas Eve nor Christmas day due to a scheduling boo-boo. So I got a horrible present when I was terminated on the spot the next day by my corporate bosses.

I was lucky though compared to Bobby ***** whose past, clientele and cash connections came to an end late one night in his office a few months later. He was shot to death in his chair, the safe was open and empty and he was discovered by his secretary coming into work the next morning. I was relieved in a way because there was now no connection between me and Dermott’s arrangement, whether through a corrupt prosecutor or even the sentencing Federal Judge as Bobby had claimed. All that remained was for Dermott to serve his time in Club Fed without getting into fights or trouble which he did. After only 18 months with good behaviour and because of his previous time served in jail awaiting trial, he was released and I got to employ him as a stagehand later on. He drifted away quietly into a hermit like existence fixing VW busses, tinkering with wood structures and died in the 90s of cancer. He never realised his life’s dream of sailing a boat into the Pacific seas and harvesting copra.

My investment in strategic metals, gold and silver evaporated in 1981 when Kennesaw Mint closed suddenly just after I moved to Australia and just before I was going to transfer the redeemed assets. They went bankrupt and my rare earths became invisible.

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