Sunk

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Sunk

How a Chinese billionaire’s dream of making an underwater fantasy blockbuster turned into a legendary movie fiasco.

By Mitch Moxley

The Atavist Magazine, No. 58


Mitch Moxley has written for publications including GQThe Atlantic, and Playboy, and he is an editor at the online magazine Roads & Kingdoms. He’s the author of Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China, about the six years he lived in Beijing.

Editor:Katia Bachko
Designers: Thomas Rhiel and Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Animation: Nadia Popovich

Published in May 2016. Design updated in 2021.

FADE IN:

EXT. A ROCKY STRETCH OF BEACH, QINYU, FUJIAN PROVINCE, CHINA – DAY

Under a foreboding gray sky, a RAGTAG GROUP OF MOVIE EXTRAS dressed in ill-fitting rubber costumes sprint across the sand. They play an army of bipedal GIANT FISH TROOPS armed with swords and spears running for their lives from an invading battalion of DEMON SOLDIERS.

JONATHAN LAWRENCE, the director, mid-forties, wearing a leather jacket and fedora, like Indiana Jones, surveys the scene. He doesn’t like what he sees…

One

The script called for an epic battle. In the movie’s third act, the forces of the Eight Faery Kingdoms defend their aquatic empires from annihilation by the evil Demon Mage and his spectral legions. Five hundred extras would play the opposing armies.

But in January 2010, when Jonathan Lawrence, the director of Empires of the Deep, showed up for the shoot, in Qinyu, a resort town in coastal China, he saw only about 20 extras, mostly ornery Russians complaining that they hadn’t been paid in weeks. How would he turn 20 people into 500? On top of that, their costumes—swamp green rubber suits decorated with scales, octopus suckers, and shells—looked like poorly made Halloween getups. Some of them had fins glued to their heads.

Lawrence was in most ways a strange choice to be running a massive film set in China. A 40-something director from Los Angeles with just one feature-film credit, he made his living directing shorts, commercials, and music videos. But then again, ever since he saw Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark as a teenager in 1981, he had waited for this chance.

The offer to direct a fantastical adventure movie was a dream come true. Empires of the Deep would be China’s Avatar—a reportedly $100 million production featuring mermaid sirens, Greek warriors, pirates, and sea monsters, complete with cutting-edge special effects and an international cast. The film’s producers hoped that it would break through the cultural barrier that had frustrated producers on both sides of the Pacific for years: a Hollywood-style blockbuster made in China that would captivate audiences around the world.

But the offer came with strings attached. Massive strings. The film’s producer was Jon Jiang, a billionaire real estate mogul and film fanatic who had written Empires and put up much of the funding himself. On set he gave actors preposterous and contradictory directions. But mostly he deployed his assistants to watch Lawrence’s every move and report back to him.

The beach location, which would stand in for Mermaid Island, home of an ancient race of mer-folk, had much of what Lawrence required—a long stretch of coast, endless ocean beyond it—but a few weeks earlier, when he inspected the location, he couldn’t help but notice the row of luxury resort buildings at the edge of the sand. A bit modern for Mermaid Island, he thought.

Lawrence joked to the assistant director that they’d have to build a wall to hide the resort from view.

CUT TO:

CLOSE UP: LAWRENCE’s face, wearing an expression of utter disbelief as he looks up and sees a GIANT WALL. It is 15 feet high and stretches the entire football-field length of the beach.

LAWRENCE sighs. 

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A resort interfered with a beach shot, so the crew built a wall to hide it from view. (Photo: Courtesy of Maxx Maulion)

Lawrence had already seen a lot of bizarre things on set. But the crew building a 15-foot wall based on an offhand joke was perhaps the strangest. The whole point of filming at the beach was to make the fight look realistic; now they’d have to supply the background with special effects. It would have been easier and cheaper to dump a bunch of sand in a studio parking lot and surround it with green screens.

It was Lawrence’s third month in China, and nothing about shooting Empires had been easy. But Jiang called the shots, and his message to Lawrence was simple: Make it work.


In 2007, as China’s economy was on the ascent, I moved to Beijing to cover the new era. When I first read about Empires of the Deep, it seemed like a project that captured China perfectly—the money and ambition, the chaos and audacity—with its Chinese billionaire, mermaids, and hope for global domination.

China had become the Promised Land for American filmmakers, who were increasingly looking to overseas markets to help bolster flatlining profits at home. In China, ticket sales had ballooned to nearly a billion dollars a year and grew by more than 30 percent every year. Due to strict censorship, homegrown Chinese films tended to be bland historical and patriotic epics. The government imposed an import quota, and only around 20 foreign films, mostly Hollywood superhero movies, were allowed to screen in Chinese cinemas each year.

A growing number of American studios and producers came to believe that the solution was coproductions. Filmmakers on both sides of the Pacific would combine forces and use Hollywood and Chinese talent to make movies in China that would capitalize on the mainland’s booming box office while circumventing the quota. But cultural differences plagued the sets, and filmmakers struggled to find a formula that appealed to both audiences while also appeasing the censors. There was Shanghai, with John Cusack; a remake of The Karate Kid starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan; and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, with Hugh Jackman. Coproductions tended to have wooden scripts, flat plots, and shoehorned celebrations of Chinese culture. Few achieved commercial or critical success.

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Jonathan Lawrence fell in love with movies as a teenager; Steven Spielberg was his idol. (Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Lawrence)

Empires of the Deep was supposed to be different. And yet, as of 2016—after nearly a decade and a reported $140 million—it still hadn’t seen the light of day. I wanted to find out why. Last fall, I met Jonathan Lawrence at a Starbucks in Burbank, California, and he offered to introduce me to some of the movie’s stars in L.A.

On a patio over coffee, Lawrence showed me photos from the shoot on his laptop, his signature fedora casting a shadow onto his stubble. Lawrence has deep-set, stone gray eyes, animated hands, and a kindly demeanor. “Everything I’d done in my career I felt was leading to this,” he told me. He still seemed forlorn about Empires after all this time, adding, “We wanted to make a great movie.”

It didn’t exactly work out that way.

INT. CHINESE RESTAURANT, HOLLYWOOD – DAY

Three men gather at a noisy restaurant. LAWRENCE sits across from JON JIANG, about 40 years old. JIANG is thin and rangy like a high school basketball player. He is dressed in a tracksuit with an ascot around his neck. PETER HU, a friendly man in his thirties, is JIANG’s assistant and translator. The table is piled with food, but the atmosphere is tense.

Two

In November 2007, Jonathan Lawrence’s longtime friend Mark Byers told him about a potential project in China. Byers, who was working as Empires’ “Hollywood guy,” wrangling American talent, had arranged a meeting between Lawrence and the movie’s producer at a Chinese restaurant in Hollywood during the annual American Film Market, a major industry gathering.

Byers gave Lawrence a brief summary of the project and its sponsor. Jiang Hongyu, a.k.a. Jon Jiang, had made a fortune in real estate when he was in his thirties by creating suburban developments for China’s new middle class.

Jiang loved the movies: He admired George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Jackson, and believed it was his life’s mission to make big-budget Hollywood blockbusters in China. He wrote television and film scripts just for fun—sci-fi and fantasy, mostly—and he claimed to have watched some 4,000 movies. Now, after several years of writing, he had completed the script for his first feature, which he originally called Mermaid Island. He envisioned a trilogy, with video games and theme parks in short order.

Lawrence might have thought he’d found a kindred spirit. Spielberg was the reason he fell in love with movies; he even attended California State University at Long Beach, Spielberg’s alma mater. But after two decades in Hollywood, his only feature film, an independent sci-fi thriller called Dream Parlor, had never found an audience. His most recent gig was unpaid—three months in Europe filming an Indiana Jones fan film, which he’d accepted out of love for the franchise. Back in L.A., he was looking forward to spending more time with his daughter. When Byers called about Empires, Lawrence was intrigued.

But at dinner, Jiang was distant; he wouldn’t make eye contact with Lawrence and spoke in short bursts of Chinese, which Hu translated into patchy English. Jiang’s tone and body language conveyed a very specific message, Lawrence thought: You’re here for me. I’m not here for you.

Through Hu, Jiang described a fantastical undersea epic with world-class special effects and a poignant love story at the core. The plot would revolve around a Greek hero’s quest to rescue his father, who is abducted by soldiers from a mysterious mer-kingdom, imperiled by the rise of a demon warlord. A tale of good and evil, Empires would be a mix of Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lord of the Rings, and Transformers—which had come out earlier that year and was enormously popular in China—with a dash of Shakespeare. Lawrence was skeptical but allowed himself a flicker of hope: This could be big.

Jiang, for his part, was unconvinced of Lawrence’s bona fides. “Why would I want you if you haven’t done anything of note?” Lawrence remembers Jiang telling him. “If you can go out and make a scene that’s as big as Transformers, I’ll consider you.”

Lawrence left the meeting thinking it was a wash; he had no intention of making a Transformers-like teaser on his own dime. But out of respect for Byers, he agreed to take a look at the script. He made it through the first act but found it bizarre and messy. Lawrence handed it off to his assistant to make a few notes, and they sent the feedback to Jiang.

CUT TO:

Two years later, LAWRENCE boards a plane to BEIJING.

Lawrence never heard back from Jiang. The job had gone to someone else. Then, in September 2009, Byers called: Empires of the Deep needed a new director. Lawrence signed a five-month contract.

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During the flight, Lawrence began revising the script. As Jiang imagined it, Empires of the Deep would tell the story of Atlas, the son of the sea god Poseidon. Atlas is depicted as a pure-hearted young man who is restless and unsure of his own destiny. He has an alter ego, the swashbuckling Silver Eye (think Batman vis à vis Bruce Wayne), who appears during moments of peril. During a celebration in Atlas’s village in ancient Greece, an invading army of mermen knights riding on the backs of giant crabs captures Atlas’s adoptive father, General Damos. A 90-foot-tall lobster absconds with a holy temple—the Temple of Poseidon—in its claws.

Atlas and his drunken, lusty sidekick, Trajin, then embark on a quest across the sea to find Damos and retrieve the temple. On the way they stumble onto Crab Island, where in a mysterious palace they encounter bewitching women, including the beautiful princess Aka, who lure men into bed and kill them after making love. From the script:

Atlas kicks open a door. One of his men lay in bed – cold and dead in a woman’s arms. Blood flows from the punctured neck.

AKA (O.C.) (CONT’D)

…let it be known that your quest is in vain, for the temple is not yours to possess…

Atlas kicks open another door – and another. Inside each room, there is a similar scene… a beauty over blood and death.

AKA

And we are not women, as you suppose, but rather faeries from the sea…

Suddenly, the ground beneath their feet crumbles and the palace fills with water. As they thrash about, they see for first time that the palace is actually built atop a 450-foot-long fish. Just then mermen haul Atlas and Trajin into a “spiral-shelled vehicle” with windows made of transparent jellyfish skin. The vessel is pulled by harnessed sea monsters. The women turn into mermaids.

The duo arrive on Mermaid Island, where the Eight Faery Kingdoms have gathered in preparation for an epic battle against the Demon Mage, who has risen after 1,000 years of banishment, spelling death and destruction for the mer-folk. The stolen temple, it turns out, holds magic powers that are needed to combat the “dark evil” that is about to emerge. The script describes Atlas and Trajin arriving at the kingdom:

MERMAID ISLAND – a strange and otherworldly place… the city continues above and below the water. It is an “archipelago” of rocky outcropping….

TRAJIN

What is this place?

ATLAS

A myth, my friend. The legends of the ages are true – an entire kingdom of mer-people.

TRAJIN

Hell of a place to die.

In the movie’s bloody third act, as the Faery Kingdoms fight for survival against the demon army, it is revealed that—gasp!—the Demon Mage has actually been Atlas, the hero, all along.

After reading the script multiple times, I still don’t understand how one character simultaneously travels across the ocean to Mermaid Island as Atlas, fights gallantly as Silver Eye, and ushers in the apocalypse as the Demon Mage. But despite its many flaws, Lawrence told me that he was taken in by its childlike delight in its own fantasy world. Just maybe, he thought, Empires of the Deep could capture some of the magic that had excited him so much as a teenager watching Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lawrence could tell that the script had gone through a number of revisions. In fact, Empires of the Deep already had a long and tangled backstory that Lawrence was only partially aware of.


CUT TO:

RANDALL FRAKES, mid-fifties, with shoulder-length hair and a thick brown beard, looks out a penthouse office window. The sun is low on the horizon, and there is a spectacular view of Beijing’s smog-shrouded skyline. Beijing is a city bursting at the seams; on nearly every block, a skyscraper is going up.

It all started with the Wolf Witch. In the spring of 2007, the actress Cassandra Gava, who is best known for playing the Wolf Witch in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian, made inquires in Hollywood on behalf of a Chinese producer: Screenwriter wanted. Must like mermaids.

Randall Frakes heard about the project from Gava and threw his hat in the ring. A longtime friend of James Cameron’s, Frakes had been a story consultant on Terminator and had penned a number of B movies, including the 1988 sci-fi comedy Hell Comes to Frogtown.

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Randall Frakes had written a number of B movies when he heard about Empires of the Deep. (Photo: Courtesy of Randall Frakes)

Jiang offered him $25,000 to develop the story and rewrite the script. Frakes envisioned a campy adventure film like 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts. “It sounded kind of Disney, but I wanted to get my foot in China,” Frakes told me when I reached him by phone at his home in Los Angeles. “I thought, This could be fun.”

In 2007, Frakes flew to Beijing to meet Jiang. The tycoon invited him to his office in the central business district. Seated behind a desk in his large suite, Jiang asked Frakes what he thought about the story. Frakes was honest: It needed a lot of work. “It was a theft, a bad quilting version of scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark, from some of the Star Wars films, from all the major films that had been successful in the eighties,” Frakes told me. “I recognized them immediately, and he admitted it.” In one part, Jiang described a chase through a mine with the characters riding mine carts. Frakes pointed out that the scene was cribbed directly from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Jiang insisted that it stay in. “He was arguing with me adamantly, like the thing he had written was Holy Scripture,” Frakes recalls. “I said, ‘Your story doesn’t make any sense. People will see it’s a grab bag of all these movies.’”

Jiang didn’t debate; instead, Frakes says, he took Frakes down to the parking garage to show off his Lamborghini.

Frakes spent three weeks in Beijing. At night he and Jiang met in Jiang’s office. Jiang told him that he planned to cast foreign actors in the lead roles and wanted to tailor the movie for international distribution.

By the time Frakes got involved, Jiang had already been courting a director: Irvin Kershner, who was best known for directing The Empire Strikes Back and the James Bond film Never Say Never Again. Kershner was in his eighties, and his star had faded; Jiang’s movie offered him the opportunity to get back in the game.

Back in Los Angeles, Frakes met with Kershner at Kershner’s plush mansion in Laurel Canyon. They agreed that the story didn’t work and instead cooked up a modern-day version about a group of characters looking for an alternative energy source who accidentally discover a lost underwater kingdom. “This is the movie I want to direct,” Frakes remembers Kershner telling him.

Frakes sent the treatment to Jiang and argued that the modern setting would play better with Western audiences—namely, sci-fi obsessed teenage boys—and that the story would more naturally lead to video games, serialization, and theme parks. “What is at stake is not something that happened a long time ago, but like the first ‘Terminator’ movie, it is happening NOW, to people like ourselves,” Frakes wrote in the treatment.

Frakes explained that Kershner offered Jiang the best chance for getting the movie made. And Kershner wanted to make the modern version of the movie. But Jiang refused, and both Kershner and Frakes jumped ship. (Kershner died in 2010. Frakes is still listed as the film’s cowriter, though when we spoke he was adamant that none of his ideas were ever used.)

Next, Jiang courted Jean-Christophe Comar, a French director and visual-effects expert, who calls himself Pitof and directed the 2004 Halle Berry vehicle Catwoman. Jiang’s people sent Pitof the screenplay. “The script was just about impossible to read. It was basically a direct translation from Chinese into English,” Pitof told me. “I thought it was quite surreal.” But Jiang offered to pay Pitof $400,000 up front for a year’s work, and the French director agreed.

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Pitof had directed Halle Berry in Catwoman before he took over Empires. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Christophe Comar)

Pitof believed that the original script was so bad that he would need to start from scratch. He hired Michael Ryan, who had worked on a number of television cartoon series, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers: Animated, to help him draft a new script. Pitof says the finished product was like an improved version of 2010’s Clash of the Titans, with strong visuals and dashes of humor.

Jiang hated it and accused Ryan of being a “bad writer,” as Pitof recalls. After 12 months in Beijing, Pitof decided the project “was bullshit,” he says, and flew back to L.A.


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Maxx Maulion was new to Hollywood when he got cast in Empires. (Photo courtesy of Maxx Maulion)

Jiang had cycled through two screenwriters and two directors, all of whom had tried and failed to steer him to some semblance of a coherent story. So now he turned back to Lawrence, the director he’d rejected as not Transformers enough.

By the time Lawrence signed on, Jiang had appointed himself casting director and hired an agency in Los Angeles to find candidates for the leads. Lawrence attended the casting sessions and sent his picks to Jiang, who made the final decisions, sometimes based solely on their photographs or brief audition videos. The part of Aka, the mermaid princess, would be played by a young actress named Shi Yanfei, who had little acting experience and hardly spoke English but happened to be Jiang’s girlfriend.

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Irena Violette had appeared in 13 Going on 30 before she was cast as the mermaid Dada. (Photo courtesy of Irena Violette)

Irena Violette, a Romanian-born former model who’d had small roles opposite Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30 and Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon in Four Christmases, was cast as the mermaid Dada, Aka’s loyal bodyguard. Sharon Stone and Monica Bellucci were reportedly courted for the role of the Mermaid Queen. That role would later go to Olga Kurylenko, a Ukrainian-born actress and model who had starred with Daniel Craig in 2008’s Quantum of Solace and who was the movie’s only bona fide celebrity. She was reportedly paid $1 million.

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Steve Polites had just finished theater school when Jiang cast him in Empires. (Photo courtesy of Steve Polites)

The role of Atlas went to Steve Polites, a handsome 29-year-old fresh out of theater school in Baltimore who had starred in a 2006 straight-to-DVD horror film called The Murder Game. He was signed on for the trilogy. Trajin, Atlas’s sidekick and the movie’s comic relief, described in the script as a “stocky, fun fellow,” would be played by a 27-year-old actor named Maxx Maulion, a cherubic redhead who had appeared in a few indie shorts and TV movies. Jonathan Kos-Read was cast as the menacing Ha Li King, an ally of the mermaid kingdom. Famous in China after a decade working in the country, Kos-Read was a rare Western actor who spoke fluent Chinese.

Once the film was cast, Lawrence flew to Beijing. On the plane, he tried to reconcile the attempts of the previous writers. Somewhere in the blurry distance he began to see the outlines of a story. He needed to clean up the plot, flesh out the main characters, and bolster the comic elements. The 13-hour flight was too short.

INT. BUSTLING OFFICE, BEIJING – DAY

The place is a hub of activity: Dozens of YOUNG CHINESE SPECIAL-EFFECTS ARTISTS are at work, surrounded by mermaid paraphernalia: mermaid murals on glass, oil paintings of mermaids. There’s a large screening room, JON JIANG’s office in the back, and, off to the side, a chilly, dimly lit room where some 60 designers are working on special effects and graphics.

Three

Around 2007, Jiang launched a special-effects company called Fontelysee Pictures to handle the production of Empires. (“Fontelysee” is a garbled transliteration of Champs-Élysées, the boulevard in Paris.) When Lawrence arrived in Beijing, he went straight to Fontelysee’s offices: All around he saw designers working on illustrations depicting finned and fanged sea monsters, phosphorescent mermen soldiers, and vast underwater kingdoms. Many of the drawings were reminiscent of H. R. Giger, the late Swiss surrealist who designed creatures for the Alien series. Artists drafted detailed maps of the kingdoms of Jiang’s imagination and produced CGI trailers to present to financiers, whose money would add to Jiang’s own considerable investment. Chen Peng, who worked in the Fontelysee art department and hired local staff for Empires, remembers the early days as exciting. Everybody bought into Jiang’s vision, Chen told me, which he described as “mysterious” and “unprecedented.” “It’s different from Chinese classical creations,” he said.

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On his first day, Lawrence met with Jiang in his office, with its view of downtown and specially designated nap room in the back. Lawrence hadn’t spoken to Jiang since their awkward first encounter in L.A. The real estate tycoon was friendlier and, through a translator, welcomed Lawrence to Beijing. That night, Jiang treated Lawrence and a few members of the crew to an extravagant meal, and Lawrence presented everyone with American-made gifts. Lawrence remembered how Jiang wouldn’t look him in the eye back in Los Angeles; this time he did.

Over the next few days, Lawrence got to know the team. The movie’s assistant director was a stoic man in his early thirties named Hai Tao, and the coproducer, Harrison Liang, had lived in Los Angeles and spent the bulk of his days chain-smoking in the office between Lawrence’s and Jiang’s. Hai Tao and Liang both spoke fluent English and served as the director’s liaisons with the billionaire, struggling to translate directions so confusing that language often failed them entirely.

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The script called for massive crabs. (Photo: Maxx Maulion)

INT. MOVIE SOUNDSTAGE – DAY

LAWRENCE walks through a set depicting a Greek city square with temples resembling the Parthenon. One temple stands apart from the rest: It looks like something from ATLANTIS – the roof is decorated with a fish-scale motif: THE TEMPLE OF POSEIDON. Statues of nude Greeks with ten-foot spears guard the temple.

Soon after he arrived, Lawrence toured a prop warehouse filled wall-to-wall with swords, suits of armor made with actual metal, and the Mermaid Queen’s lavish throne. These were the rejects; Jiang had already ordered all new props to be made.

Outside Beijing was a complex of soundstages where sets for Act I were under construction. Lawrence went to see the set of an ancient prison. Walking down the hallway leading to the dank, dark cells, he noticed that it “looked like a hallway at a YMCA gymnasium”—clean, sterile, and freshly painted. He told the set crew that the hallway had to match the rest of the prison: dirty, decrepit, with roots coming out of the ground. “I need this to look like it was built a thousand years ago!” he commanded. The crew tore it down and started again.

Lawrence also worked on casting extras. Jiang wanted to hire foreigners who lived in China: Those chosen would be paid 8,000 yuan (about $1,200) per month for four months of work. Men had to be at least six feet tall, women five-foot-seven. “European/North American origins are preferable,” one ad read. Some days the office was flooded with actors auditioning for bit parts. Many were Russians or foreign models living in Beijing who barely spoke English. “There wasn’t a large well of talent,” Lawrence told me.

Once Lawrence had oriented himself at Fontelysee’s offices, he holed up in his hotel room, surrounded by storyboards, and turned his attention to the script. He wanted to put some soul into the characters and improve the pace of the plot, removing cumbersome dialogue and exposition. His inspiration was his favorite movie, Raiders. He envisioned Empires as an action comedy, epic and fun. In L.A., Lawrence’s assistant researched the mythology of Poseidon and old Germanic runes, which appear on Atlas/Silver Eye’s skin:

Releasing immense ANGER and dark HATRED, Atlas/Silver Eye mercilessly cuts down all the Mermen Soldiers and in the mix slaughters the Demon Soldiers in savage bloodlust.

He LAUGHS wildly. The RUNES appear all over his body. He releases his true bestiality slashing the monstrous Demon Soldiers… killing one… killing a second… killing a third…

Lawrence worried that audiences wouldn’t root for Atlas, the protagonist whose quest to retrieve his abducted father and the stolen temple propels the narrative forward. He created a romantic storyline involving Atlas and a village woman, as well as a subplot with a child from an orphanage with whom Atlas would develop a father-daughter relationship. Lawrence needed to make the universe of the movie consistent with itself and the plot sensible from beat to beat. But there were a lot of holes. In one scene, Atlas’s father figure, Damos, dies after a major battle in which thousands of mer-people are slaughtered by demon warriors. As the surviving characters mourn, one of the mermaids reveals a magic pill that brings Damos back to life.

Lawrence laughed when he read it. If the mer-folk possessed magic pills that could restore life, why wouldn’t they revive all the others who had been killed? Lawrence rewrote it so that the mermaids revived Damos using a dangerous ancient spell, one that could have grave consequences to the mermaids: They risked their lives to save his. This solution, Lawrence thought, added a sense of jeopardy to the scene.

After spending hours each night working on the script, Lawrence would meet with Jiang to talk about the revisions. Harrison Liang translated the meetings as the two men launched into heated but amicable debates over the script. Then one day, as Lawrence and Jiang were arguing over the magic-pill scene, Lawrence said to Liang: “Tell him ‘Your script is one of the worst pieces of fucking shit I’ve ever read.’”

Liang refused to translate, but Lawrence insisted. Liang passed on some version of the message, although Lawrence doubted it was the literal translation.

Jiang remained calm. “What makes you think you’re a writer?” he asked Lawrence. “You have no credits on IMDb as a writer.”

“Neither do you,” Lawrence said.           


INT. FONTELYSEE OFFICE – DAY

The atmosphere is like the first day of school. The STARS have arrived. STEVE POLITES and MAXX MAULION get their first taste of fame when Fontelysee’s female employees mob them in the office.

In November 2009, Lawrence greeted Steve Polites and Maxx Maulion at the Beijing airport. Lawrence warned them that the movie wouldn’t be like anything they’d ever experienced before. “Nothing is like it is in America,” he told them. “Everything changes here from moment to moment. What is true today will not be true tomorrow.”

The actors drove straight to the Fontelysee offices. To prepare to play Atlas, the hero and the son of Poseidon, Polites had grown out his hair to match the concept art he’d been shown. But at the office, the hair stylists were alarmed by the state of Atlas’s mane. Polites tried to explain that he had hat head, but the term was lost in translation. “This is not how my hair looks normally,” he said. “Let me wash my hair.”

The women spoke in rapid-fire Chinese. They pulled out a wig that looked like “a knock-off Lord of the Rings hobbit wig,” Polites recalls. He was then escorted across the street to a hair salon where stylists permed his hair and bleached it.

Over the course of the next week, his hair changed from orange to green to black and finally to blond, styled in tight curls. He pleaded with Lawrence to step in, but it was too late. Polites looked like he’d had a bowl of instant noodles dropped over his head.

Then he was handed over to the wardrobe department, which had fashioned his costume ahead of his arrival. At the fitting, he drowned in the immense armor that covered his torso, while his pteruges, a skirt worn by Greco-Roman warriors, seemed to reveal a daring amount of thigh; it fell six inches above his knee.

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Polites and Maulion in costume between takes. (Photo: Maxx Maulion)

Other characters’ costumes weren’t much better. Maxx Maulion’s Trajin outfit was a burlap toga. The merman costumes were full-body rubber outfits with nubs meant to look like coral. The actors’ faces would be painted green, with fins affixed to their heads. The suits were too loose and needed to be glued to the actors’ skin. (With actual glue. In a blog post, one merman extra recalled that his skin became irritated; when he checked the adhesive bottle, he noticed a warning label that read “AVOID CONTACT WITH SKIN” in large print.)

For the mermaids, the hair department opted for purple skullcaps with what looked like cornrows on top and dreadlocks dangling from the back. The wardrobe team had envisioned the mermaids with plastic seashells covering their breasts, their bodies painted in shimmering blues and greens. But the tails presented a problem: Lawrence wanted to use pliable fins that would delicately wrap around the actors’ legs like a skirt, so they could get around the sets. Instead the costume department devised rigid appendages that would attach to the actors’ thighs. Walking would be a problem.

Looking at the costumes and props, Maxx Maulion—Trajin—kept thinking, Oh man, this is going to be crazy. The Americans began mockingly referring to Empires as “the fish movie.”

Meanwhile, Lawrence was still hard at work on the script, and he asked the actors to meet with him periodically to discuss how to enrich their characters. Polites and Maulion rehearsed their lines in their hotel rooms. The movie seemed only theoretical until the day the cast was invited into a screening room. The special-effects department had made a trailer featuring some of the movie’s early animation and CGI. The graphics looked low budget, but at least there was plenty of room for improvement.

While the preproduction teams got ready to start shooting, Polites and Maulion became fast friends, wandering between the looming skyscrapers of their downtown neighborhood and watching DVDs in their hotel rooms. The pair were on a high; when locals discovered that they were actors from Hollywood, they would ask for autographs. Polites was new to the industry; he had moved to L.A. just a year before he was cast. He worked at a restaurant while he auditioned for acting roles, and Empires was by far his biggest booking. Maulion had had a few small roles in film and TV and only recently obtained his Screen Actors Guild card. Suddenly, he was cast in a leading role—with a paycheck of $70,000, more than he’d ever made.

When I met Polites and Maulion over breakfast on a sunny Hollywood morning in November, they spoke of the optimism of those early days. True, there were things that seemed off—the uncertain schedule, the unfinished script, the weird costumes—but like Lawrence, they believed Empires could be their break. “This was a big deal for me,” Maulion explained. “To book something of this nature was like winning the lottery.”

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Jon Jiang on the set. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie)

Four

In December, Jiang ordered the production to begin shooting. Lawrence was frustrated. There hadn’t been time to rehearse or even to have the full cast do a read-through, but Jiang insisted.

Plus, Lawrence was only about a third of the way through rewriting the script. He shared what he had so far with the cast, the draft peppered with emotional notes. After one scene, in which the characters are transported through an ocean portal to the South China Sea, where they encounter a group of Chinese characters—a scene included to accommodate government censors—Lawrence wrote: “Jiang – I don’t know what to do with this section – it does not fit or serve the story.”

Finally, on page 45:

(DIRECTOR’S NOTE TO ACTORS: THE ENTIRE SCRIPT FROM THIS POINT ON IS BEING RE-WORKED TO FILL IN ALL THE LOGIC HOLES – YOU WILL RECEIVE AN UPDATED SCRIPT LATER)

The production moved to a small town outside Beijing and into a hotel with a karaoke bar and a restaurant that served shark fin soup. The soundstage lot—with sets for Atlas’s home village, a prison that housed captured pirates, and the city square, where the merman/crab invasion takes place—was located nearby.

Before the first take, there was a ceremony at the city-square soundstage to bless the expensive Panavision cameras that had been rented for the picture. Red blankets were placed over them, and incense sticks were lit. A crew member made a brief speech in Chinese.

EXT. ANCIENT GREEK VILLAGE FILM SET – DAY

POLITES and MAULION, in character, walk through a Greek village. They pass caged chickens, merchants’ tents, residents’ homes, and the general’s residence. The cameras roll.

The first scene Lawrence shot depicts Atlas and Trajin. Atlas picks up an apple and tosses it to Trajin. A horse crosses their path. It was a thrilling moment. “Here I am, a nobody in the scheme of things, an independent filmmaker, here on the set of this big movie,” Lawrence says. “We had a lot of hope at that point, because it was everything we’d ever wanted to do. Massive sets. Huge crew. Film cameras.”

But something would go wrong during each take: the horse wouldn’t cross, an extra would fall down, Maulion would drop the apple. After a handful of tries, they wrapped the scene. Neither Polites nor Maulion thought they actually got the shot they needed, but they shrugged it off. Polites was still trying to make peace with his hair, and his skirt felt obscenely short, but he was living his dream.

This is great, he thought. We’re doing it.


Lawrence learned quickly how the style of filmmaking in China differed from the West. Whereas Hollywood sets are extremely hierarchical collaborative dictatorships, Chinese sets are decidedly unsystematic, improvised operations where problems are dealt with as they arise. Just like in Chinese society as a whole, the concept of guanxi—relations or connections—is enormously important. One’s loyalty depends on who it is one has the strongest relationship with. That might be the director or a cinematographer or a producer—but it’s rarely the audience or the movie’s bottom line, which are generally the two highest priorities for American movies.

Empires’ original cinematographer left before shooting began, replaced with Rao Xiaobing, a veteran director of photography who split time between China and the U.S. Rao, Lawrence discovered early in the shoot, was talented and a respected professional who wielded a lot of influence with the crew, to whom he was fiercely loyal.

At first the plan was to shoot the movie with two cutting-edge digital cameras, but Rao lobbied to shoot on film, an old-fashioned and more expensive option. Lawrence supported the choice—after all, his hero, Spielberg, once said he’d shoot on film until the last processing lab shut down.

Because of the expense, Rao would shoot quickly and move on. The actors often had to complete a scene in three or four takes, whereas on a Hollywood set a director might film dozens. It became clear to Lawrence and others that Jiang had decided to get Empires on film fast. Despite all the money that had been invested in preproduction, the frantic shooting schedule and constant cutting of corners led to the first of many rumors that the budget for the movie was far smaller than the reported $100 million.

Polites, the star, quickly lost the optimism of the early days. He felt the shoot was being rushed; they were rarely given the chance to rehearse a scene. Most of the actors’ time was spent sitting around in costume while shots were set up. As they waited, he and Maulion talked about their next career moves and chatted up the female translators.

The actors had been brought to China on generous contracts that promised cushy amenities, most of which failed to materialize. American actors are used to well-appointed trailers where they can hang out between takes. None were provided. Polites had asked for a gym so he could bulk up, as the role demanded, but his request was ignored.

The Americans had expected a selection of food provided by on-set craft services, but the Chinese productions ate more simply. The cast and crew were given the same thing every day: bone-in chicken, a cup of broccoli, and rice. Maulion, whose character was supposed to be chubby, immediately began dropping pounds. Before bed he would eat peanut butter out of the jar and an entire sleeve of Oreo cookies to keep his weight up. He asked his mom to send him cans of tuna from the States.

On set, tension between Lawrence and Rao began to simmer. Lawrence was a hands-on director when it came to lighting and lenses, and he asked the crew for complicated setups to get the shots he wanted. He had a grand vision for Empires. Rao, however, was more of a realist—this wasn’t a Hollywood movie, and he knew it. The communication problems meant that setting up a shot that would take 45 minutes on a Hollywood set would sometimes take four or five hours, with Rao shouting instructions to the Chinese crew. And then, after all that prep time, the actors would be rushed through the shot.

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Shots took hours to set up, leaving actors with nothing to do but sit and wait. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie)

Jiang did not attend the filming, but he called Harrison Liang frequently, asking for updates and sending instructions for Lawrence and the rest of the crew. Indeed, Lawrence rarely had a chance to talk face-to-face with the billionaire. When Jiang did show up, he would make unreasonable demands, like insisting that a smoke machine make more smoke—a time-consuming process—when the actors were ready to shoot.

But there were moments of camaraderie. Once, Jiang approached Polites, placed his hand on his shoulder, and said, “I want to make you into a big star.” And Jiang was respectful of his director, even if he ignored most of his suggestions. “Mr. Jiang likes you,” Lawrence remembers Liang telling him one day. “He’s never given anybody as much respect as he’s given you.”

EXT. BEACHSIDE, QINYU, FUJIAN PROVINCE – DAWN

In a canvas tent, TIRED ACTRESSES playing MERMAIDS sit in chairs as the makeup team applies full-body paint. Raindrops pelt the roof of the tent.

Five

In January, after a few weeks of shooting outside Beijing, the crew moved to coastal Fujian province, in southeast China. The weather was miserable, with day after day of rain.

Fujian sits on a spectacular stretch of coast, with mountains, rivers, caves, and valleys nearby. The script included many scenes in such locations, but the sites were remote and in some cases dangerous. Lawrence began to grow seriously concerned about the state of the shoot. The script was ever changing and the schedule in disarray, and the challenges of the terrain exacerbated the strained relationships on set.

Irena Violette, the mermaid Dada, joined the production in Fujian. Her boyfriend, Jerred Berg, an actor between jobs, came with her. Violette arrived ready to work and with a sense of humor. Oh well, this is China, she shrugged whenever problems arose. But soon her good humor wore thin, and she began describing herself as “the black sheep” on set because of her disagreements with the crew.

The makeup to complete her costume required hours of preparation every day. But the shooting schedule was so haphazard that sometimes she would spend several hours getting ready and then never shoot a frame of film. Frustrated, she would voice her concerns to the crew. She was furious that the actors had to wake up so early and sit around for hours in makeup when it was obvious that the weather wasn’t going to cooperate.

In particular, Violette and Rao didn’t get along. When Violette finally got in front of the camera, she wanted more takes. Rao refused, claiming that they didn’t have enough film.  

Other tensions arose. At one point, Lawrence saw a crew member being kicked in the head by a camera operator. He rushed to step in, but Hai Tao, the assistant director, held him back and told him not to get involved. The stunt team operated independently of Lawrence, and he wasn’t on hand for most of the stunt shoots. Lawrence had no power over the team, but he heard reports that the stuntmen’s safety was being compromised. There were regular accidents, and one stuntman, after hours of being pulled around on ropes, quit in tears because of the pain.

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Maulion and Polites on the beach (Photo: Courtesy of Maxx Maulion)

And still, Lawrence had been looking forward to shooting on the beach. The script described a  thrilling raid led by the Ha Li King, played by Jonathan Kos-Read wearing a tentacled crown on his head, who tries and fails to defend the Faery Kingdoms from the Demon Mage. When Lawrence discovered that the beach was flanked by a resort, and that the crew had subsequently built a giant wall to disguise it, it was too late to find another location. In the script, the Ha Li King’s forces are overwhelmed by the Demon Mage and he surrenders. Lawrence surrendered to the chaos and shot on the beach.

Then a scene took the crew to a cave set, where the script called for Silver Eye, Atlas’s alter ego, to free Greek merchants captured by “Thracian Marauders”—pirates. The crew had prepared a massive, unruly horse for Polites:

FROM A LEDGE ABOVE THE PIT

The mighty, black horse leaps into the air – its WHINNY NAY is haunting. Silver Eye holds tightly to the reins. The horse and rider seem to fly overhead.

PIRATE CAPTAIN (sounding alarm)

Silver Eye…!

The cave was dark and cold. The crew wore hard hats; the actors did not. The horse was difficult. The script called for the animal to jump over a feasting table, but instead it reared around excitedly, frightening the extras, some of whom were chained to the cave’s wall. Then suddenly a chunk of rock the size of a manhole cover came crashing from the roof and crushed a spotlight.

Meanwhile, based on Jiang’s frustrated missives, which Liang and Hai Tao transmitted to Lawrence, the billionaire seemed to be growing increasingly irked by the foreign cast and crew’s difficulties adapting to the Chinese way of doing things. Jiang believed the Americans were being soft.

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To reach a location shot on a remote riverbed, the cast and crew were forced to crawl on hands and knees over slippery boulders. (Photo: Maxx Maulion)

EXT. ROCKY RIVER VALLEY – DAY

A river snakes through a rocky ravine. The day is overcast, drizzly. The camera pans down to a GROUP gingerly making their way through the challenging terrain. PEOPLE slip and stumble, yelling “shit!” and “fuck!

A few days after the cave scene, Lawrence, Polites, Maulion, Violette, and Berg, along with some of the Chinese crew members and translators, hiked out to scout a shooting location situated on a rocky riverbed. It had been raining for days, and the rocks were covered with wet, slimy moss.

As a safety measure, the crew had laid carpet over the rocks and hired carpenters to build a handrail along a particularly difficult section. Still, there were spots so precarious that the group needed to get down on all fours and crawl.

The hike took an hour, and once they arrived the Americans debated with their translators and a few Chinese crew members about whether it was possible to shoot there at all: The costume and makeup tents had to be set up at a distance from the shooting location, and Irena Violette and the mermaid actors would need to walk over slippery rocks with fins attached to their legs.

Violette was particularly concerned that she might get hurt. Nobody even knew how long it would take to get to the closest hospital.

“If I slip and fall, is there a helicopter?” Violette said.

Lawrence asked one of the translators if the movie had medical insurance. The translator said that it did but that there was no evacuation plan.

“If somebody falls and breaks their neck or their skull, what’s the backup?” Lawrence asked.

“They say they will take the fastest measure,” the translator said.

Back at the hotel, Lawrence fought to scrap the location, and Rao agreed that it was unshootable. But Jiang, who was not on set, was unwavering; the rumor was that his girlfriend, Shi Yanfei, insisted on the spot.

Lawrence appealed to Hai Tao, the assistant director. Could he explain to Jiang that Lawrence didn’t want to shoot under such dangerous conditions? Jiang asked Hai Tao to tell Lawrence that if he didn’t do his job, he’d be fired. He took back his threat, but Lawrence reluctantly went ahead with the shoot anyway.

In the coming days, Chinese workers hauled the gear to the location, carrying it atop bamboo poles. Then the crew set up a tent where the actors could dress and get into makeup.

On the day of the shoot, Violette hiked out at dawn. It was yet another cold and drizzly day. Inside the tent was dark, but there was a heater, so at least it was warm. The artists began applying makeup and affixing fins to her legs.

A few hours later, Rao rushed over. “Come on,” he said, according to Violette, “let’s shoot.” The makeup artists explained that there wasn’t enough light in the tent. They asked Violette to move outside so they could finish more quickly. Violette objected: It was wet and cold, and she was half naked. She asked for someone to bring in another light and finish inside the tent. (When I reached out to Rao to discuss his experiences on Empires, he declined to participate in this article, writing in an email, “I have moved on.”)

A translator told Rao that Violette would not cooperate, and Rao relayed the message to Jiang. Violette insists that wasn’t the case; she simply didn’t want to stand in the cold and risk getting sick.

Violette began to cry. “This is bullshit,” she said, “I’m done.”

She left the tent and walked across the rocks to tell Rao she was quitting. On the way, she ran into Lawrence, who told her that he’d heard that Jiang planned to fire her. “Good,” she said, “because I’m quitting anyway.” Lawrence told her to let Jiang fire her so she could keep her wages.

Violette hiked back to the hotel to pack her bags. She called Harrison Liang; her contract stipulated that production owed her a ticket home, and she wanted one now.

Two days later, no ticket had arrived. Liang told her that the production would not pay for her ticket and demanded that she repay all of the salary she’d earned so far. He threatened to sue her in a Chinese court. (Liang didn’t reply to requests for an interview.)

Violette and Berg’s passports were at the production office, so Violette called an American consulate for help. The official on the phone advised them to make their way to the nearest U.S. consulate, either in Guangzhou or Shanghai.

The couple met with Lawrence to plan an escape. They decided that in the evening Lawrence would call an all-hands production meeting in the hotel lobby. While the crew was distracted, Violette and Berg would slip out a window.

That night, with the entire production gathered around the director, the couple scurried down a hallway unnoticed. They dumped their luggage out the window and crawled after it. Then they walked down to a riverbank beyond the hotel grounds and hiked along the river until they found a spot narrow enough to cross. They waded through the water, carrying their luggage above their heads, and then climbed up the steep embankment on the other side.

CUT TO:

Under the cover of darkness, VIOLETTE and BERG plop down on the riverbank, their feet and pant legs soaked. The night is cold. They change their socks and shoes and begin the long hike down the mountain, hiding in bushes whenever a car approaches.

The next morning, the couple reached a police station in a town called Fuding. The police gave them travel papers and drove them to a train station, where they caught the 11 a.m. to Shanghai. “Once we were on the train and the train moved, I felt I could exhale,” Violette says.

That night they checked into the Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai. The American consulate provided them with temporary passports and obtained Chinese exit visas. A few days later, they were on a plane to Los Angeles.

At the mountaintop hotel, Lawrence kept up a ruse that the couple were refusing to come out of their room. During mealtimes, he would take a tray of food into their room and dump it out the window.

Eventually, the crew demanded that Violette return to the movie. Lawrence knocked on the door one last time.

“Hey guys, it’s me,” he said. He went into the room and emerged moments later to face the Chinese crew with the truth. “They’re gone.”


The casting director soon recruited Kerry Brogan, an American actress living in China, to replace Violette, and Lawrence resumed shooting the movie. But a few weeks later, he realized that he wanted out, too. His contract would end soon, and the movie wasn’t at all what he’d signed up for. Plus, he had another project offer, not to mention a young daughter waiting for him back in Los Angeles. Worse yet, the cast and crew, and Lawrence himself, had not been paid in weeks.

He told Jiang that he would finish the picture—for a million dollars. Jiang accused him of extortion. Lawrence was off the movie. He went to Jiang’s Beijing office to arrange for his payment, refusing to leave until the money had been sent. The director and the billionaire said a cordial goodbye. They shook hands, and Lawrence bowed slightly.

The experience on Empires was tough on Lawrence. He took a yearlong sabbatical, but the frustration lingered. “It knocked the wind out of me,” he told me when we met in Los Angeles. “I questioned what I’m doing in this industry.” He describes his time on the set of Empires as “a dark comedy.”

Although Lawrence’s journey had ended, Jon Jiang still believed Empires was poised for global box-office domination. The cast and crew remained in China. Before Lawrence left Beijing, Jiang asked him, “Do you know any other Hollywood directors?”

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Chinese film sets are decidedly unsystematic, improvised operations where problems are dealt with as they arise. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie)

Six

Last December, I met the director Michael French for coffee in Vancouver to find out what happened on the set of Empires after Lawrence left. French, a laid-back Canadian director of comedies, wore a half smile when we spoke about Empires that suggested I had no idea how much of a circus it was.

A few years before Empires, French had become good friends with Rao Xiaobing on Heart of a Dragon, a biopic he had directed in China. The film chronicles the life of Rick Hansen, a Canadian paraplegic who circled the globe in his wheelchair, focusing on the days Hansen spent in China climbing a section of the Great Wall. The shoot was grueling, but French left with a valuable understanding about how Chinese movie sets operate.

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Michael French had directed a number of comedies and decided to direct Empires as one. (Photo: Courtesy of Michael French)

After Lawrence left, Rao reached out to French about the Empires job, and French agreed to take over the project in February 2009. He had one condition, however: He had a work commitment and had to be back in Canada at the end of April. Jiang agreed to the terms.

French flew to Beijing and then onward to Fujian. The next day he went down to a beach where he found “a big wall, and mermaids, and people killing each other in the water,” he told me. Jiang’s team forbade French from speaking with Lawrence, so he wasn’t sure exactly how to envision the movie. But he found the script campy, so he decided to direct it as a comedy.

French’s laid-back approach and good relationship with Rao improved the mood on set considerably. Filming was about a third completed when French arrived. He had roughly 100 days to shoot, and he planned to finish the script during that time. To speed things up, French cut big swaths of dialogue from the script; he figured his job was “to fix the leak in the pipe. All I cared about was making my days,” he told me.

Olga Kurylenko, the Mermaid Queen, arrived in Beijing in April to film her scenes. She was well-liked on set, playing her character as a powerful leader preparing her kingdom for battle against the Demon Mage:

INT. THRONE ROOM – PALACE – MERMAID ISLAND – CONT’D

The Queen sits on a throne with an empty seat beside her. NOBILITY from the other SEVEN FAERY KINGDOMS stand before her.

QUEEN

My lords and ladies, it has been a thousand years since the nobility of the Eight Faery Kingdoms have all been assembled in one place. I only wish we were here now under more auspicious circumstances.

The faces in the room are grave.

QUEEN

Our darkest hour is upon us. Our only hope lies in the fulfillment of the prophecy. (she rises) We have recovered the sacred temple. But only the Royal Blood will ignite its power. Will you shed your blood for your subjects – for your future?

Like his predecessors, French had to contend with a meddlesome billionaire. One day, Jiang interrupted filming to berate Jonathan Kos-Read, who was playing the Ha Li King. The character marries Princess Aka to secure a royal alliance between the mermaid and Ha Li kingdoms, combing forces to fight the Demon Mage. But Aka loves another. “My heart is weary and my spirit drifts like seaweed uprooted in a storm,” she laments.

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Shi Yanfei as Aka on set. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie)

Kos-Read saw the king as a ghoulish and conniving figure and played it with a hunched posture. “You are like the boundless sea, my Queen—all who encounter you, high or low, lose themselves in your beauty and grace,” he rasped in a growly British accent. He had already filmed for ten days when Jiang scolded him for his acting.

“Do it liked a prince in Shakespeare!” Jiang demanded.

“OK,” Kos-Read replied, “but there won’t be much continuity.”

Jiang didn’t care, and so Kos-Read tried the scene with an upright posture and a poncy British accent.

“Yes! That’s the character,” Jiang said.

French stood by watching. When Jiang left the set, French offered a solution: They would film each scene with both versions of the character—and forget about Jiang’s vision in the editing room.

INT. AUDITORIUM, DOWNTOWN BEIJING – DAY

A press conference is taking place. On a stage made to look like an ancient temple, MERMAIDS wearing what appear to be swimming caps with dangling dreadlocks dance to heavy drumbeats and flashing lights.

In April 2010, a little more than two months after French took over Empires of the Deep, the cast and director were asked to appear at a press conference in Beijing. Journalists were given 3-D glasses to watch a trailer that featured Kurylenko as the Mermaid Queen. Her words echoed over the auditorium: “The Demon Mage, so long imprisoned by our ancestors, can no longer be restrained!” The trailer looked half finished, the special effects as if they were from a nineties video game.

Shi Yanfei, who plays the mermaid Aka, and Polites took the stage. Kos-Read, the event’s host, announced Kurylenko, who walked down a red carpet leading from backstage in a slim black dress. “Ni hao,” she said in stilted Chinese, “wo ai dajia”—I love everyone. Applause broke out across the theater.

A few weeks later, Michael French’s contract expired. Most of the script had been put on film, but Jiang began adding extra scenes and demanded that French stay through the end, or else he wouldn’t be paid for the last of his work. French was exasperated. “The train was off-track. They couldn’t pay the crew. They couldn’t pay for the cameras. But they could add extra scenes?” he told me. He believed the producers had failed the movie. “There was nothing they could offer that would beat the prospect of going home.”

He told his friend Rao that he was leaving and booked a plane ticket to Canada. On April 30, his birthday, Empires’ third director flew home.


Throughout that spring, Jiang invited journalists to visit the set. “This is a Hollywood film made by Chinese,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “We’ll use our resources to market it so it will succeed. It has to.” To a reporter from The New York Times, he compared himself to George Lucas, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson. “Empires,” he said, was “a very serious love tragedy” that “is a combination of something mystical, something that satisfies your bloodlust, and something sensual.” Jiang boasted that the script went through 40 drafts with the help of ten Hollywood screenwriters, and he envisioned distributing his movie to 160 countries. In Jiang’s office, according to the Times, was a dry-erase board that read “Days until Monica Bellucci shows up on set,” “Days until the Cannes Film Festival,” and “Days until the grand premiere,” all left blank.

The Times reporter also noted a problem that Lawrence had encountered during the earliest days of the film: People weren’t getting paid. At the beginning of the shoot, checks were a day or two late. But as the production stretched on and the budget ballooned by a reported $50 million, pay arrived weeks and even months behind, and in some cases not at all.

Jiang admitted to the Times that some people were getting paid late because of “liquidity problems.” Once, according to French, a group of foreign extras who hadn’t been paid in weeks threatened to walk. Instead of paying them, the production team called the local police to come to the hotel and check their visas—a scare tactic. One day, China Film Group, the behemoth state-owned studio, locked the door to a soundstage because it hadn’t been paid for use of its gear.

No one knows how much of his own money Jiang invested in the project. Some of the people I interviewed think he nearly bankrupted himself, but Peter Hu, a former Fontelysee executive, told me that he believes Jiang relied almost entirely on outside financing and that when it dried up, the payments to cast and crew stopped. By the time the movie was finished, the investors were furious. “It’s not a happy ending,” Hu says. “They lost a lot of money.”

After Michael French left, Jonathan Lawrence heard from someone in Jiang’s office. Would he come back to the movie?

No.

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American actors were promised plush trailers where they could relax between takes. None materialized. (Photo: Gilles Sabrie)

INT. A SOUNDSTAGE, BEIJING – DAY

Empires’ fourth director, SCOTT MILLER, rushes around the set. CHINESE SET BUILDERS are constructing a palace for a banquet scene atop a GIANT FISH, 20 feet high and surrounded by green screens. ACTORS wait for the set to be completed.

The interior is too dark to film; the WORKERS saw off the top of the palace they have just finished building.

MILLER

I guess that’s one way to get light.

Seven

In early 2016, I tracked down Empires’ fourth and final director, the man who saw the movie to wrap. Scott Miller is a Los Angeles–based filmmaker and the son of Warren Miller, the famed producer and director of over 750 sports documentaries. Miller got along well with Jiang, and unlike many of those involved, he has fond memories of the three months he worked on Empires. “It was a blast,” he told me when we spoke over the phone. “I enjoyed it immensely.”

Miller had worked with Harrison Liang in the past and accepted the Empires job with enthusiasm. He saw Empires of the Deep as a love story between Atlas and Aka. It was epic and fun, yes, but what it was missing was emotion, and he added material to build up the romance.

When he arrived in China, morale on set was abysmal. He tried to improve it by allocating more money for better food for the cast and crew. He slowed down the pace of shooting and worked closely with Steve Polites and Shi Yanfei to deepen their portrayals. He watched the footage of the previous few directors and lobbied to reshoot the whole thing to realize his vision. (Miller’s request was denied. The directors and actors disagree about how much each director shot. Most agree that the shoot was almost evenly divided between Lawrence, French, and Miller. But Miller says that he shot a full two-thirds of the movie.

Maxx Maulion couldn’t imagine reshooting the film. By May 2010, he had been in China for six months and saw no end in sight. With three different directors, he had three different takes on his character. Was he a joker? A drunk? A sad sack? He hadn’t been paid in three months—he was owed more than $30,000. He noticed that the production was rushing his scenes and believed that they were trying to film him out of the movie to avoid paying him what he was owed.

Maulion’s agent told him to walk off the set and come back to Los Angeles. He told his friend and costar Polites that he was leaving. He felt guilty, but Polites understood. While he was in the cab to the airport, his phone buzzed with texts: He was due on set in an hour. He didn’t respond.

Polites wanted to stick it out: He was the star, and he was fighting sea monsters. Empires was what he’d always dreamed of doing. A few months later, Polites shot his final scene: a brief encounter in the mermaid palace that required him to get sopping wet. He was ready to go home. Before he departed, he asked the wardrobe department if he could take Atlas’s sword with him as a souvenir. They said no, so he settled for his cape.


Back in L.A., still stinging from his experiences in China, Maulion wondered if Empires would ever be released—and whether his character would still be in the film. The movie was scheduled for a 2011 premiere. But the date came and went. In October 2012, two years after principal photography wrapped, a 3-D trailer appeared online. The website Den of Geek wrote that it looked “hurriedly put together for the Syfy Channel.… Clearly, this was not a film that would make James Cameron fear for his position as the king of the glossy blockbuster.”

After Empires, Maulion wrote and starred in an indie comedy called Tony Tango. In 2012, he promoted the movie at the American Film Market at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. As he walked into the lobby, he noticed a banner for Empires of the Deep.

He searched for the Empires booth and found it downstairs in the international section, where, in a dark, largely empty corner, he encountered Jon Jiang. Maulion greeted him, and the exchange was amiable. Maulion asked if he was still in the movie, and Jiang said through a translator that he was; they’d hired a chubby European man to shoot from behind for the remainder of Trajin’s scenes. There were no visitors to the booth, and Jiang appeared disheartened. Maulion figured he wasn’t having any luck finding a distributor.

“No hard feelings?” Maulion said, shaking hands with Jiang. He still hadn’t been paid for his last three month’s work.


In 2013, one of Jiang’s assistants called Steve Polites and invited him to the Cannes Film Festival to promote the movie. The producers bought Polites a ticket to France and rented him a tux. On the way to the airport, he got a call with news that the trip was canceled. “After that I was kind of like, OK, I’m washing my hands of this,” Polites says.

But Empires wasn’t done with him. The next year he was invited to a screening of the movie at the Sony Pictures lot in Los Angeles. Jiang had reportedly hired Michael Kahn, Spielberg’s longtime editor, to cut the film, and it looked as if it was finally being geared up for release. Polites went to the theater with some trepidation; he was still trying to come to terms with his hair, among other things. He brought along his wife for emotional support.

Although he was amazed to see himself on the big screen fighting sea monsters and demons, much of the film was outright ridiculous. The story was a mess, the plotline didn’t work, and the CGI looked cheap and unfinished. The best the movie could hope for, Polites figured, was to find a cult following. “It’s so kind of wonderfully weird in its own way. It’s so bad it’s good.”

Two weeks later, in April 2014, almost four years after filming ended, he flew back to China for reshoots. Neither Scott Miller nor Rao Xiaobing was there; in fact, Polites didn’t recognize anyone from the original crew. He spent a week in China and did only one full day of shooting. By then Polites’s hair was short, so the wardrobe team picked up a wig for him to wear. He describes it as “Marilyn Monroe–esque.”

INT. THE LOBBY OF THE CHINA WORLD HOTEL, BEIJING – LATE AFTERNOON

Three men and a woman sit around a table in the luxury hotel’s café. JON JIANG wears sweatpants, white sneakers, what looks to be an expensive black lambskin coat, and an ascot tied around his neck. CHEN PENG, his friend and former employee, sits across from him. A jet-lagged JOURNALIST and his FIXER question the billionaire about his missing blockbuster.

Eight

In late November 2015, I traveled to Beijing to find out what had happened with Empires of the Deep. After some prodding, Jiang reluctantly agreed to an interview. As we sat over drinks in the hotel lobby, he was friendly, with a nervous bounce in his knee. Drinking Coke with lemon from a glass, he displayed an earnest excitement, especially when he mentioned a new movie he was writing called Parallel Universes, based on the theories of quantum mechanics.

I asked him about the revolving door of directors on Empires. Pitof, he said, was good at special effects and played a positive role in the early stages of the movie. But he kept changing the script, of which he had little understanding. “I thought it would be better to hire a director from Hollywood,” Jiang told me. “It’s very hard to communicate with the French.”

“We wanted it to look as good as Star Wars,” Jiang continued. He said he hired 3-D experts from Avatar and added more than 1,300 special effects—more than Transformers. Postproduction was expensive, and it took years to complete. Jiang said the production was waiting for more investment money. The budget for the movie kept growing, and they struggled to pay for it all.

When I asked Jiang if I could watch the latest cut of Empires, he told me I’d have to wait for the theatrical release. It wouldn’t do the movie justice to watch it on DVD.


On January 21, 2016, a new and improved trailer befitting a slick video game appeared on a Chinese crowdfunding website. The special effects were better than earlier versions, but the teaser didn’t reveal much in the way of plot, focusing instead on sea monsters, mermaids, and epic battle sequences. “The war between good and evil has just begun,” the text overlay read.

The producers were seeking to raise 1 million yuan ($150,000) by March 23 for an undisclosed purpose and were advertising a dubious April 2016 release date. For less than $25, an individual donor’s name would appear in the credits, and for $7,600 a company’s logo could be printed on movie posters and advertisements. The promotional material on the site included a picture of Steve Polites with another actor’s name written underneath it, listed Irvin Kershner as one of the directors alongside Scott Miller and Michael French, and credited Randall Frakes as a screenwriter. It made no mention of Pitof, Jonathan Lawrence, or Maxx Maulion.

Four months later, just 2 percent of the fundraising goal had been reached.

EXT. UPSCALE RESIDENTIAL COMPLEX, BEIJING – DAY

On a frigid winter morning, a JOURNALIST searches for an opening into a padlocked three-story rental office decorated with Greco-Roman columns. He finds a door that’s not quite closed and yanks it open.

Before I left Beijing, I traveled to one of the properties that made Jon Jiang a rich man. It’s called Fengdanli She, which translates to “red maple leaf beautiful house.” Situated on the dusty outskirts of Beijing, six miles north of the Bird’s Nest stadium, the gated community has a faux-European design meant to convey luxury. Although it’s only a decade old, up close the brick homes look cheap and worn, like so many properties hastily erected during China’s boom.

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 In a dusty abandoned office outside Beijing, the remains of an empire. (Photo: Mitch Moxley)

Well-to-do young families bundled in parkas and wool hats strolled past neatly trimmed hedges. Guards in military-style winter hats and oversize yellow uniforms manned the front gates with clipboards. Next to the front entrance was the complex’s former rental office, a three-story white building. The doors and windows were padlocked, but eventually I found a door that was ajar and crawled inside.

The air was cold and still; the building appeared not to have been entered by another human being in years. Used mattresses, discarded office chairs, and filing cabinets collected dust. But among the detritus were other, more peculiar artifacts. In one room there were dozens of swamp green rubber merman costumes hanging on racks. In another, fake pieces of coral littered the ground. There was a chest plate for a Greek warrior, a five-foot-wide starfish, and a helmet with a plaster fin on top. There was what looked like a castle turret made of styrofoam, statues of seahorses, and dozens of spears and axes stacked against a wall.

Jiang told me that he is determined for the film to be more than a collection of dusty props in a warehouse. Ten years after he first shopped Mermaid Island around Hollywood, six years after filming wrapped, and four years after the first trailer appeared online, Jon Jiang’s dream remains very much alive. When we met in the China World Hotel, the man behind the mermaids insisted that Empires would soon be released. It just needed to be approved by Chinese censors, and then he would begin looking for an international distributor. Empires of the Deep was still poised for global success, as it has been all along.

“The world,” he said, “has never seen anything like this before.”

FADE OUT.

THE END


Satchel Paige and the Championship for the Reelection of the General

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How the best baseball pitcher in the American Negro leagues came to play for the cruelest dictator in the Caribbean.

By Jonathan Blitzer

The Atavist Magazine, No. 57


Jonathan Blitzer has written for the Oxford AmericanThe New Yorker, and The New York Times, among others.


Editor: Katia Bachko
Designer: Thomas Thiel
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checkers: Juanita Ceballos and Jika Gonzalez
Illustrator: Kelsey Dake
Photographer: Tatiana Fernández Geara

Published in February 2016. Design updated in 2021.

One

On a warm April day in 1937, Satchel Paige sat in his room at a boarding house in New Orleans, listening to voices drift up from the lobby. Word around the establishment was that some guys with foreign accents and Panama hats were looking to talk to him. Paige had asked around, but no one knew who they were. He was used to being pursued. He was the most famous black baseball player in the country and the ace pitcher for one of the best teams in the Negro leagues, the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

The season opener was scheduled for April 25, and Paige had arrived alone, in his Green Packard convertible, without his teammates or his coaches knowing whether he was going to show up at all. He liked making people wait. He did it to batters, who suffered through his famed hesitation delivery; to his wife, Janet, who finally issued an ultimatum after three years of dilatory courtship; and to his fellow Crawfords, who struggled to stay loose midgame while he sauntered out to the stands to smoke and spar with the fans. They all put up with his antics because he was the best there was, and he knew it.

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Satchel Paige

By the spring of 1937, he had earned hundreds of wins and multiple no-hitters. He dominated the black circuit during the spring and summer, lending out his services to white semipro teams for pocket money along the way. In the off-season, he barnstormed across the country and played winter ball in California, where he pitched against big leaguers like Jimmie Foxx and Dizzy Dean, who came away saying he was the toughest pitcher they’d ever seen. He was every bit the showman that he was the ballplayer. As a youngster in his home state of Alabama, he’d once called in his outfielders to sit in a half-circle around the mound, with runners on base and two away. He wanted to get the final out of the inning on the strength of his arm alone. When he struck out the batter on three straight pitches, his gambit instantly took on the cast of legend. “If you can do it, it ain’t bragging,” Paige used to say—he even bragged about bragging.

Paige rented a room at a battered boarding house with a pointy, shingled roof on Dryades Street, in downtown New Orleans. It was one of only a handful of places in the city that accepted black lodgers. Paige had been ducking in and out since he got there, rushing to the team’s practices and exhibition games in preparation for opening day against the Crawfords’ crosstown rivals back in Pittsburgh, the Homestead Grays. It would be the start of a season-long “diamond war,” as one newspaper wrote, and New Orleans was chosen as neutral turf for the showdown.

Unlike the white Major Leagues, with top-dollar salaries and the media’s undivided attention, the Negro leagues consisted of one improvisation after another; operations were underfunded and undersubscribed. Getting fans to turn out depended more on spectacle than on the quality of the play itself. Gus Greenlee, the owner of the Crawfords, profited from a healthy rivalry between the two teams. In addition to Paige, he was peddling a novelty act: a right-handed catcher who reclined in a multicolored rocking chair behind home plate. Greenlee was sure that his team’s new catcher would “start throwing and rocking his way to fame,” he said, adding, “He’s liable to be as big an attraction as Satchel before the season’s gone.”

Soon after Paige got to town, his teammates told him about the men who had been lurking by the fields and asking about him. Paige began to notice them in the bleachers, flitting forms in the distance that would mass when he took the field and then scatter when he walked off. Wherever he drove, he felt that he was being followed. Paige figured he knew what it was all about: another offer, possibly to play somewhere south of the border like Puerto Rico or Cuba. “The pay was always good down there,” he would later recall in his memoir. “Down there, nobody was locking their doors to Ol’ Satch.” Whoever these guys were, though, he would have to avoid them. He didn’t want to be tempted away by their offers. Janet was pressuring him to stay put after he had traveled to Puerto Rico without her, canceling their vacation so he could pick up an extra paycheck, and she was still upset with him.

Now, from up in his room, Paige could make out the sounds of Rs rolling and vowels flattening out, like he remembered from the Caribbean. He thought he heard his name and bolted upright. Dressed in his usual attire, a flashy suit and fedora, Paige grabbed his car keys and scrambled down the stairs to the alley where his car was parked. The rooming house shared a driveway with a shoe-shine parlor called Globe Trotters. Sun glinted off its sign and into Paige’s eyes as he wheeled out. He’d almost made it to the street when, suddenly, there was a screeching of tires and a black limousine slammed into view, blocking his way. A door opened and out stepped a short man, with brown eyes and black hair oiled back to accentuate a mild widow’s peak; he was fair skinned and wore a cream-colored linen suit.

“I’m Dr. José Enrique Aybar,” he said as Paige cautiously got out of his car. “I direct the baseball team in Ciudad Trujillo.” The men in Panama hats, it turned out, were from the Dominican Republic.

“I’d heard of sick clubs and ballplayers that looked pretty sick,” Paige later remembered, “but I never knew there was one so sick it needed a doctor to manage it.” He fixed his gaze on Aybar. “What can I do for you, Doc?”

“President Trujillo has instructed me to obtain the best pitcher possible for his team, and our scouts recommend you,” Aybar said.

“I’m glad your scouts like me, but I figure I’ll just stay with Gus Greenlee.”

“We are very interested in winning,” Aybar said. “We will give you thirty thousand American dollars for you and eight teammates, and you may take what you feel is your share and divide the rest.”

Paige was stunned. “Do I get to see the money?”


In the pantheon of American baseball, Satchel Paige has always occupied a special place. He was one of the game’s all-time greats and also one of its most shameless and storied self-promoters. A whole mythology surrounds him and his exploits; he talked almost as fast as he pitched. In photos his mischievous smile made him seem invincible. A few years ago I learned, by chance, that he had played for one of the most infamous Latin American dictators who ever lived. It struck me as the kind of story only Paige himself could concoct, a tale so gaudy as to seem camouflaged in the annals of sports. I decided to investigate what happened when these two outsize individuals collided.

I began with Paige’s famously self-aggrandizing memoir, Maybe Ill Pitch Forever, in which he breezily recounts his first meeting with Aybar. There’s an insouciance to the anecdote that is vintage Paige. But while he portrayed his Dominican suitor as straight-laced and blandly solicitous, Aybar was the emissary of one of the most violent and dangerous men of his day. Paige didn’t know that at first. (In his defense, neither did the U.S. government.) Some accounts of their meeting have Aybar wielding a pistol to drive home his offer, although Paige was apparently unimpressed. Perhaps so far from the Dominican capital, where he held tremendous power, Aybar did not seem threatening.

In his later years, Paige talked openly about his anxious impressions of General Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the country from 1930 to 1961, but by then the story had already been buffed to a high sheen. I always wondered if it wasn’t meant to be blinding. Paige liked to tell tales—zany and quippy and heaped high with bravado. But a plaintiveness shone through. I was lured to the legend of Paige’s greatness by his own storytelling, only to find a fissure in the monument he’d built to himself.

Paige was all but synonymous with black baseball, and yet it often seemed that his towering celebrity in the Negro leagues hardly registered in the vehemently segregated world beyond. The feeling dogged him from his early days but seemed to gain force in the 1930s, when he was maturing as a player. One day, while playing winter ball in California, he was contacted by scouts from the Yankees, who wanted to test a young prospect named Joe DiMaggio by trying him out against Paige’s pitching. DiMaggio joined a team of pro players culled from some of the best Major League rosters, while Paige’s teammates consisted entirely of high schoolers and amateurs. Paige struck out 14 batters on the day and knocked in his team’s only run, single-handedly carrying the squad into the tenth inning, but the game was remembered for a fluky infield hit he surrendered to DiMaggio with two outs and a runner on third. The scouts cabled back to New York to relay DiMaggio’s definitive new credential—“Hit Satch One for Four”—launching his pro career. “I got more notice for losing that game than I did winning most of my other games,” Paige said afterward.

While the Yankees were signing DiMaggio, Paige slunk off to continue barnstorming, which brought its own problems. Being black meant something different every place he went. In Bismarck, North Dakota, he played alongside white teammates—something that would have been unfathomable in the South. He was the toast of the town for his dominance on the mound in the Midwest, and yet he and his wife had to live in a semi-furnished railway car on the outskirts of town. “Having to live like that ate at me,” he said after he got back to Pittsburgh. “The blood gets angry.” By the mid-1930s, white baseball stars were starting to publicly question the league’s policy on segregation, but nothing came of it: Pro owners either wouldn’t take the risk of being the first to sign a black player or simply couldn’t fathom eliminating the racial barrier.

When Paige accepted Aybar’s offer, a young journalist named Ollie Stewart, writing for the Baltimore Afro-American, saw Paige’s defection as more than a mere dollar proposition. “While some newspapers and sports writers were hammering away (verbally) to open the gates of white baseball leagues to colored players, Satchel Paige and a few other guys got tired of waiting for the miracle to happen and quietly shipped off to Santo Domingo to cash in on their talent,” he wrote at the time. South of the border, Stewart said, “the color of your bills seems all that counts.”

If you’d asked Paige why he did it, he probably would have winked and told you about the money-filled briefcase Aybar brought back, as promised, after their chat in the alleyway. But there was something else he was questing after, something harder to pin down. He was willing to trade a city he knew for one he didn’t, to give up his bankable celebrity in the States for a chance at a different life, and to cash in on his reputation by cozying up to the strangest allies he could find. In the process, he very nearly brought an end to the Negro leagues for good. What’s stunning even now is Paige’s willingness to risk so much. At 30, married and in his sporting prime, he decided to leave behind the world that made him.

Two

The precariousness of black baseball gave rise to a paradox: The league was made and run by strongmen and swashbucklers who projected power in spite of their unequal status. Perhaps the lone figure in the game who could rival Satchel Paige for brashness and bravado was Gus Greenlee. Like Paige, he was over six feet tall and commanding, but where Paige was wiry, with a winsome nonchalance, Greenlee was thickset and imposing, 200 pounds and fleshy faced. He had come up hard, from the South, and clawed his way north toward prominence. Greenlee dropped out of college, abandoning his family to come to Pittsburgh, where he began driving a cab and selling bootlegged whiskey, earning the nickname Gasoline Gus.

By the time Paige met him, Greenlee was a power broker of black Pittsburgh. The Caliph of Little Harlem, they called him. He was a veteran of the First World War, an impresario, and a business owner, all self-made. He owned the Workingmen’s Pool Hall, the Sunset Café, and Crawford’s Grill, which took up nearly a whole city block and played host to the city’s black elite. But running numbers was his lifeblood. He pulled in $25,000 on a good day, which allowed him to finance the one thing that gave him his special sense of purpose: his ball club. He bought the team in 1930, then recruited top-flight talent to build the premier outfit in the game: Satchel Paige; a clean-up-hitting catcher by the name of Josh Gibson; and a center fielder, James “Cool Papa” Bell, who was said to be so fast that he could switch off the lights and be in bed before the room got dark. The league’s scattershot quality made Greenlee an instant titan. He wasn’t just a club owner; he was the president of the league, having revived it after a string of bankruptcies.

Perhaps the lone figure in the game who could rival Satchel Paige for brashness and bravado was Gus Greenlee. 

But by the spring of 1937, Gus Greenlee was in a bind. One of his employees was snitching. The cops kept busting up his numbers rackets, and it was bleeding him dry. Much to their annoyance, he’d already told Paige and his teammates that they’d have to go to New Orleans on their own dime. He’d pay them for their opening games, but they were in charge of their own accommodations and travel until then. Greenlee’s troubled finances exacerbated a long-standing worry that Paige would spring from his grasp and even take some of his teammates with him.

In March, Greenlee traveled to New York for a weekend meeting with other club owners and league officials. They packed into a small office at the Tammany Democratic Club on Seventh Avenue to hash out details of the coming season. One thing they could agree on was a need for stronger contracts, since all of them were concerned about losing their top players. Team owners were always cutting deals to lure players away with better salaries or bonuses; it was known as contract jumping. Greenlee was the worst offender, but even he was growing battle weary. All the teams were hurting as the Depression dragged on. Ticket sales had slumped by the end of the previous season, and practically every club was in the red.

The meeting was civil. No more breaking contracts, the owners decided. What was true for the players had to be true for the owners, too. “No infringement of territory rights,” Greenlee declared. The league commissioner, Ferdinand Q. Morton, nodded vigorously. “That’s right, no nosing in,” added Cum Posey, the debonair owner of the Homestead Grays. He glared at Greenlee as he said it. Greenlee had been pilfering some of Posey’s best guys, then trading them back at a profit. The latest was Josh Gibson, whom Greenlee sold back to Posey for $2,500 while they were all still seated around the table.

As opening day approached, Greenlee was cautiously optimistic that the new contract agreements meant he could stop worrying about Paige. By 1937, Greenlee had already banned Paige from the Negro leagues once before for breaking his contract and accepting more money from other teams, but, desperate for Paige’s star power, he’d taken him back.

Three

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Dr. José Enrique Aybar

Aybar was an unctuous negotiator. He trotted out a parade of luxuries to ensure that Paige appreciated the significance of being summoned by a head of state. “I never seen a man with such power,” Paige remembered. He was describing Aybar but thinking of Trujillo. “He flies us down to Ciudad Trujillo on a big plane, and we ain’t put out no place to let other passengers on. No, sir. We got right of way. And what’s more, we don’t even have passports.” Janet Paige would follow several days later—Aybar was paying for her trip, too. Paige’s personal catcher, a bruiser named Bill Perkins, was also along for the ride. All they knew was that they were playing for Trujillo.

Each year, the Dominican Republic celebrated a baseball tournament that divided the country into four regional rivals. Clustered around Santiago, in the north, were supporters of the Eagles of the Cibão region; in the east, fanning out around the port city of San Pedro de Macoris, were those faithful to the Estrellas de Oriente, whose mascot was a giant elephant; Santo Domingo, the capital city, which had been recently renamed Ciudad Trujillo, was cleaved in two by those loyal to the Escogido Lions and the Licey Tigers. Stars from across Latin America flocked to the Dominican Republic to play, and the nation happily succumbed to baseball fever.

In February 1937, a council of businessmen convened in the capital to plan the year’s tournament, and the proceedings took on an air of solemnity and anticipation. Trujillo had recently announced presidential elections for the following year; he enjoyed the formality of the vote, all the better for his personal pageantry. The tournament, as one of the signal events on the national calendar, would need to reflect his supremacy. The council decided on a fitting title: “The Championship for the Reelection of Rafael Trujillo.”

Soon after, the owners of the Tigers and the Lions—long-standing cross-town rivals just like Greenlee’s Crawfords and Posey’s Grays—combined forces to represent the city. If Santiago and San Pedro de Macoris could summon fearsome and gigantic beasts to represent their clubs, Ciudad Trujillo’s image was bigger still: The club was called the Dragons, and Aybar himself signed on as its vice president. Winning the tournament was an obsession for Aybar—a gift he wanted, and felt he needed, to deliver Trujillo himself.

Aybar was a rabidly loyal supporter of Trujillo precisely because he’d once been a traitor to the cause. He was a dentist by training but also something of a kingmaker—a member of the reigning political party and a frequent speaker at its meetings. When Trujillo first came to power, after a coup he’d orchestrated in February 1930, Aybar had been one of his most vocal naysayers. The son of a poor postal clerk who had a reputation for cattle rustling, Trujillo was an uneducated tough; as a teenager he enrolled in the country’s national guard, which had been set up and run by U.S. marines in the early 1920s, when the Americans occupied the country. Quietly but tenaciously, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming head of police. Trujillo wasted no time in consolidating his power, and he gave the national police a new name: the Dominican Army. But even as Trujillo grew in stature, Aybar doubted his staying power. Trujillo called for an election in May 1930 to shore up his legitimacy. A month before the vote, Aybar gave a speech in which he said that Trujillo was like “the product of an abortion; he had no viability at all.”

If uttering those words had felt, for a moment, like an act of grandiloquent heroism, it had promptly become a liability. Rumors that Trujillo was systematically eliminating his rivals spread in the run-up to the vote. The military stormed meetings of political opponents, jailing and killing critics. Politicians outside Trujillo’s orbit fled the country, while judges tasked with overseeing the vote abandoned their posts and sought asylum at the American embassy. Gangs loyal to Trujillo rode the streets of the city in dark, unmarked cars, wreaking havoc.

By August, with the city shaken and smoldering, Trujillo had won the election with more votes than there were eligible voters. From that moment on, Aybar labored hard to make his loyalties clear. Before long, the local press started calling him the Dominican Doctor Goebbels. He hounded Trujillo’s critics and devised elaborate schemes to eliminate anyone who could damage the dictator’s popularity. By 1937, he was a member of Trujillo’s inner circle, even creating a special security detail for the leader, drawn from students at the university where he was dean of the dental school.


The streets were full of soldiers, armed and draped in military fatigues, when Paige arrived, on April 18. He touched down 50 miles east of the capital in a Pan-American hydroplane with a twin tail and four propellers mounted on each wing. As it skipped across the Higuamo River, people ran to the bank to wave it in. A group of men from Aybar’s club greeted Paige as he climbed out, enthusiastically shaking his hand before piling together into a car.

I can only imagine what Paige must have been thinking on that drive. The trip was more than an hour long, so there would have been plenty of time for him to reflect on his situation. But Aybar mostly kept him in the dark. Paige must have known a little Spanish from stints playing in Latin America, but not enough to ask his hosts hard questions. “If that man don’t like you, you wake up and you’re movin’,” he later wrote of Trujillo. “And from what I seen it don’t take much for him not to like you.” Trujillo’s sway was unmistakable, even in the jumble and fog of his arrival. It was waiting for Paige like an announcement on the facade of the hotel where he was staying: Hotel Presidente, a three-story structure with a rooftop garden overlooking a park in the center of town.

Last summer I visited the National Archives, in Santo Domingo, to root through old newspapers and steal a glance into Paige’s life in the capital. There were two main dailies back then, El Listín Diario, which came out in the morning, and La Opinión, which was sold around lunchtime. There may not have been an explicit policy of censorship at the time, but the papers were visibly constrained just the same, the style cramped and canny. Both trafficked in the mainstream news of the day: headlines about the Spanish Civil War raging in Europe, obligatory panegyrics to Trujillo, and society pages with wedding announcements and photos of tiara-wearing doyennes. Tucked in the middle of each broadsheet was the sports section. The columns teeter and veer, the tiny type packed densely around scant photos. The sports pages of La Opinión were looser and more playful, and they brimmed with commentary and humor pieces. Journalists were savoring the drama well before Paige arrived in the capital.

When the council overseeing the tournament first met, its members made a fateful decision: No limits would be placed on the number of players each team could import from abroad. This immediately set off an arms race. In each city, influential businessmen and political figures rushed to recruit the best talent. Dominican players alone weren’t enough to assure victory; the teams looked mainly to Cuba, Latin America’s baseball capital, to secure the most competitive rosters. “We would have imported white American league players,” Aybar told the press, but “the salaries paid them by the big league magnates made it impossible for us to do better.” Not so for black American players.

From the start of the tournament in March, the competition was stiff. The Estrellas de Oriente, the champions from the 1936 tournament, already boasted the country’s greatest star, the fleet-footed center fielder Tetelo Vargas, who was joined by an array of decorated Cuban moundsmen. Santiago was reportedly paying the highest sum in the history of Latin baseball—about $1,000 a month—for the Cuban legend Martín Dihigo, a player so complete and dominant he was known as El Hombre Team, because he played every position on the diamond, and often hit third in the batting order, the spot reserved for the deadliest hitter in the lineup. The Dragons, meanwhile, had assembled a squad that consisted of a smattering of Dominicans and Cubans, a costly lot whose combined star wattage was dim. 

There was a certain irony to these recruiting sprees, given Trujillo’s fanatical patriotism. His rhetorical platform had trumpeted the dignity of the nation above all else. Yet, in the baseball tournament meant to serve as the principal advertisement of his reelection, there were a surfeit of Cubans. One sports reporter groused, “It’s simply a drag-out fight among the regions in which each one tries to spend more money buying ballplayers from abroad.” The stakes were too high to spare any expense but too expensive not to imperil nationalist dogma.

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An artifact of the 1937 championship. (Courtesy of Orlando Inoa)

The schedule, which consisted of about forty games, was straightforward: three matchups each weekend in two separate ballparks. There’d be a double-header in one—a game in the morning at 9:30, a break for lunch, and an afternoon game at three; then, later that evening, the players would pack into a caravan of automobiles, complete with team-supplied chauffeurs, and travel to one of the other two cities represented in the tournament for the Sunday game.

The Dragons were having trouble just staying out of last place by the time Paige arrived. Fans were disgruntled, and the sports pages of the Ciudad Trujillo newspapers were riddled with invective against the hometown losers. There was a sinking feeling in the capital that the Trujillo club had thrown its money after a bunch of lackluster prima donnas.

Paige’s debut with the Dragons came on April 25, the same day that he was supposed to be facing the Homestead Grays in New Orleans. It was the first game of a double-header against the Estrellas de Oriente. The papers described Paige as being “at least 6 feet 7 inches tall,” a good four inches of exaggeration; with him, they claimed, the Dragons were easily “the best baseball club ever assembled in all time in the capital.” A few days before Paige flew in, another American star, Herman Andrews, had arrived on a steamer and had been clobbering the ball in the Dragons’ weekday warm-ups. Two thousand fans showed up to watch him take batting practice, and he rewarded them by hitting seven home runs out of the park and straight into the sea behind the stadium. The team’s president announced that he would employ divers and install inflatable docks to catch all the balls.

The promise of a big offense, in the form of Andrews, coupled with legendary hurling from Paige, worked the capital into a frenzy. The Café Hollywood, a downtown bar with a carefully curated aristocratic feel, was selling tickets for the weekend’s games and had already raised prices for Paige’s big day. The local newspaper sold five-cent baseball cards of the players in anticipation.

Paige and Perkins wore their Trujillo pinstripes on the street. There wasn’t a clubhouse at the stadium, so they changed at the hotel, slinging their spikes over their shoulders and walking south, in flip-flops, down Calle Pina toward the sea. Swarms of fans buzzed around them, calling out to Paige and asking for autographs.

Trujillo had rebuilt the stadium four years earlier, after a hurricane razed the capital, killing thousands and reducing the city to rubble. When Trujillo was through, every cornice of the city seemed to bear his fingerprints. The baseball stadium rose like a shrine, with three tiers of seats spread along the first- and third-base lines which came together in a V that touched behind home plate; the outfield was spectacularly framed by the sea. In right field, just beyond the fence, was the partially submerged hull of an American battleship with four gigantic stacks, called the USS Memphis, which had crashed on the rocks in a storm in 1916 and had never been hauled away. It was a fixture of the landscape, and a target in deep right field for batters, as was a sign nearby, erected behind the center-field wall, that read: National Championship for the Reelection of President Trujillo, 1938-1942. Long Live the Benefactor of the Fatherland. Anyone who hit it received a $25 reward. In Paige’s view, there was something menacing about the layout. “The diamond was in a place that looked something like a bull ring, only there’s no bull fights down there,” he told an American journalist years later.

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The battleship USS Memphis loomed beyond right field. (Courtesy of Cuqui Córdova)

Seven thousand fans packed the seats for Paige’s first game, filling the stands with the steady rumble of cheers and stomping feet. The grass on the field looked thick, and there were mounds of dirt around each of the infield bags.

Paige strolled out to the mound to take his warm-ups, kicking his foot high in the air and rearing back with a twist of his torso before uncoiling toward the plate. He was lanky, and his uniform sagged around his slender frame. But there was a majesty to his figure as glimpsed from the stands, where his easy, fluid movements made him look like a pulsating force field, gliding and snapping in his motions. It was Paige against the Cuban ace Ramón Bragaña—a battle between the King and Prince of the plate, the papers said.

Paige took the mound first. He circled the hill, flipping the rosin bag in his hand before tossing it aside and dragging his cleats down across the rubber. His eyes burned as he zeroed in on Perkins’s mitt. Paige rocked back with his left foot and raised his arms straight above his head, then let them slump down to his chest as he readied himself for a kick of his leg. Time stood still through these preliminaries, and Paige liked to make the batter flinch, blowing the ball in just as he was getting antsy. Paige and Perkins were the perfect match of bravado. Paige had written FASTBALL on the sole of his left cleat, so that it was the last thing the hitter would see as Paige’s enormous foot came tumbling toward him off the mound. Perkins, for his part, had written THOU SHALL NOT STEAL across his chest protector.

There was a majesty to his figure as glimpsed from the stands, where his easy, fluid movements made him look like a pulsating force field, gliding and snapping in his motions.

Tetelo Vargas led off, and Paige walked him, then forced the next three batters to ground out to the infield. He eased into his rhythm, striking out the Estrellas’ captain in the second inning, then its shortstop in the third. As he walked off the field, Dragons fans threw money onto the diamond in rowdy appreciation.

The game was scoreless through three innings, but the Estrellas put a run on the board in the fourth. The Dragons answered with three of their own in the bottom of the inning; by the sixth they were up six to one, and Bragaña had been taken out.

Then Paige began to falter. It started when Tetelo walloped a double to center, followed by a home run by the Estrellas’ shortstop in the top of the seventh inning. “He hit it to the Memphis,” fans shouted while the runners rounded the bases and Paige kicked at the dirt. A message had been sent: Paige, and the Dragons, were not invincible. In the eighth, Paige gave up another run after allowing two more hits and put runners on first and second. It was clear that the time had come to pull him from the game.

By now the Dragons’ lead had narrowed to two. Paige’s replacement, a surgical Cuban right-hander named Rodolfo Fernández, walked the bases loaded and let up a double, which scored three. The Dragons were now down one, and the score held going into the bottom of the ninth, when Silvio García, the Dragons’ third baseman, ignited a two-out rally to tie the game and send it into extra innings.

The teams battled into the bottom of the 11th, the score even, as the Dragons loaded the bases. The Estrellas brought out a hard-throwing left-hander named Manuel “Cocaina” García to face Herman Andrews, who’d already struck out three times. The Dragons manager, in turn, replaced Andrews with a right-hander for a better hitting matchup.

Cocaina worked from the windup, blazing the ball in with a windmill delivery. His first pitch was a ball—then his second and third. With a 3-0 count and the winning run on third, he delivered his next pitch, which drifted out of the strike zone. He walked the batter, forcing in the winning run.

The Dragons streamed onto the field in celebration, and the fans climbed down from the bleachers. A chorus of “Hero” reverberated around Silvio García, feted for his game-tying double. From the dugout, Rodolfo Fernández noticed that the runner who had just been walked had not made it to first base in the crush of festivities, and the umpire had still not officially called the game. Fernández shouted and pointed, and for a second the celebrating stopped as people looked quizzically at the wildly gesticulating pitcher; the runner, hearing him, spun around, ran to first, and touched the bag, and with that the Dragons won 8–7.

Paige’s debut had ended in a no-decision—technically he neither won nor lost, because the score changed so many times after he exited the game—but his reception afterward was cold. The pro-Dragons press in Ciudad Trujillo lambasted his “poor” outing in barbed headlines, and there was half-serious speculation that the team would have to lower ticket prices back to pre-Paige levels. The next game was a week away, and Paige would have to prove himself anew.

Four

For months I’d been on a quest to find the scorecards from the 1937 tournament. I first heard about them from a Dominican memorabilia seller living in Miami, whom I’d met on the recommendation of a chiropractor out of Dallas with a Negro league obsession that he nursed in his spare time. These were the kinds of people I was meeting, the sort you could cold-call one afternoon with a wildly random question about 1937 only to find an unflappable voice on the other end of the line who’d cut you off—politely—to recite the batting orders of the teams in question. I eventually learned that the scorecards did exist but had been sold to an auction house in Pennsylvania, then, in 2014, acquired by an unnamed buyer for $6,658.33. After that the trail went cold, and I flew to Santo Domingo to see what I could turn up.

It was there that I met Cuqui Córdova, an 87-year-old amateur historian who has amassed, in his cozy family apartment, the largest collection of Dominican baseball memorabilia in the world. In three manila file folders, tucked away in a desk-side drawer, were his records of the tournament. And there, wedged between photographs of Paige, Aybar, and the USS Memphis, were ratty photocopies of the scorecards. In neat, sometimes florid longhand, designated spectators noted with letters and symbols the schematic developments of the games. “R-SS” meant that the batter hit a ground ball to the shortstop (in Dominican parlance, the R stood for “rolling”), “2B” that he hit a double. English words were written into the cramped little boxes reserved for each batter, often with phonetic miscues like “aut” instead of “out” (spelled like it sounds to a Spanish speaker).  Each scorer had his own style, telltale penmanship, or preference for how to space out the markings on the page. With the scorecards, it was like a light suddenly went on. The plays of every game were illuminated, but there was also an unexpected effect—doubt over Paige’s reconstruction of some of the action. Now I could see past his serial embellishments and, with the additional aid of the newspapers, right onto the field itself.

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A scorecard from the 1937 championship, part of Cuqui Córdova’s collection.

A week later, in Ciudad Trujillo, the Dragons had hosted the Estrellas and lost badly. “We played like we never seen a baseball before,” Paige said. The next day, he was back on the mound in Santiago against Martín Dihigo and the Eagles. The matchup, which featured three new black Americans making their debuts for the Santiago squad, brought thousands to Enriquillo Park. “It ain’t no cakewalk,” Paige later described it. “We got a flock of colored Americans on our team, but they got as many on theirs. How them babies could hit that ball!”

The game was scoreless when Dihigo came to the plate in the bottom of the third, tapping his cleats with a reddish bat and wiggling into the box. The fans rose to their feet. Paige may have been the famed ace, but Dihigo was the pride of Latin baseball. Theirs was shaping up to be the matchup of the tournament—Paige all brash and flashy, an American through and through, and Dihigo a paragon of quiet grace and command.

Paige was sweating on the mound. He looked at the ball in his mitt, focusing in on the stitching, with the word Wilson written between its seams. He had to paint the corners against Dihigo; a single mistake could be costly.

Paige reared back and delivered, his long limbs popping and whirling toward the plate, ropy and cyclonic. He fired one strike, then another. He clocked in a curveball off the plate to see if he could tempt Dihigo to fish (no luck); he tried to sneak in another and missed. The count was two balls and two strikes. He paced around the mound and glared at the runner on first, then remounted the rubber in the stretch, his shoulders facing third and his arms dangling down at his sides as he looked in for a target. Perkins didn’t give Paige any signs. When they first met, back in Birmingham, Paige had told him, “I’m the easiest guy in the world to catch. All you have to do is show me a glove and hold it still.”

Perkins got set, his mitt upturned and steady behind the plate. Paige whistled it in, and just as the ball crossed the plate Dihigo strode effortlessly forward with his left foot, extending his arms out to meet the pitch. With a smooth, compact swing Dihigo connected, and the ball soared into the outfield. Antonio Castaños, the Dragons’ right fielder, camped under it, bounding back farther and farther toward the wall, but the ball kept going, clear of the right-field fence for a two-run homer.

By the seventh inning, Paige had been yanked. The Santiago fans were dancing in the bleachers, clapping and moving their hips to a merengue called “Leña,” the Spanish word for kindling, in a tribute to the team’s hot bats. Aybar had warned Paige about the stakes, and Paige had only half believed him. Now he could see that the teams were evenly matched.

Back in the capital later that night, Paige sent a cable to Cool Papa Bell in Pittsburgh requesting reinforcements. Paige had conferred with Aybar, who gave him special dispensation to offer money—$800 a head—to Bell and three others to join the team: an outfielder named Harry Williams, the pitcher Leroy Matlock, and shortstop Sam Bankhead. A few days later, Bell cabled back. “Satchel, they treatin’ us so bad here we’ll come down. But make it a thousand, and we’ll stay eight weeks.”


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Gus Greenlee

In Pittsburgh, Gus Greenlee’s team was dwindling before his eyes. By late May, eight of his top players had left for the Dominican Republic. He knew more would follow. Scouts were sneaking into games to scope out recruits and approaching them on the sly to lure them to Ciudad Trujillo with more money than Greenlee could ever offer them. “Haiti pirates,” he called them. At Crawfords games he prowled the stands, searching the crowds for interlopers. He also deputized his public relations man to make his own rounds badmouthing Paige as one of the ringleaders of the exodus.

The departures fueled a debate in the black press. Paige sympathizers saw him as a businessman angling for a good deal. All through the 1920s, baseball fans had gotten used to reading about marathon contract negotiations for white players, like Babe Ruth, whose astronomical salaries were national news and beyond reproach. There was no reason why Paige, who was black baseball’s equivalent hero, shouldn’t enjoy the same privileges, argued Ollie Stewart, the sportswriter for the Afro-American.

The opposing side was made up of supporters of Greenlee and the club owners, who claimed that Paige and the others were ingrates for abandoning the leagues that had made them. Most of the local papers had long been loyal to the club owners anyway, and the tone of their screeds was personal and cutting. The pitcher whose name was once synonymous with black baseball had come to symbolize the disloyalty threatening to do the whole sport in. “Satchel Paige has gotten more out of Negro baseball than anyone ever connected to Negro baseball,” Cum Posey wrote in his regular column in the Courier. It was a rare moment of agreement between him and Gus Greenlee, two rivals united against a common scourge. “Negro baseball does not owe him anything. He owes negro baseball plenty.” Like the other club owners, Posey was losing players to the Dominican Republic, but it was the broader pattern that concerned him. It wasn’t just the 1937 season but the risk that black baseball could go out of business.

The pitcher whose name was once synonymous with black baseball had come to symbolize the disloyalty threatening to do the whole sport in.

Meanwhile, the Dominican race for American talent was gaining speed. On May 4, two days after Dihigo hit his deep home run off of Paige in Santiago, the Estrellas’ owner, a businessman named Federico Nina, arrived in New York. “Pleasure” is all he proffered to the agents who processed his papers, before proceeding to the Hotel Hargrave on 72nd Street to meet up with Luis Mendez, the Dominican consul. Both men were short, with dark hair and brown eyes, and had a preference for light-colored suits and wide-brimmed hats. Together they left for Pittsburgh, where the Crawfords and Grays were playing a series at Greenlee Field. Nina had his eyes on a trim right-hander named Ernest Carter, one of Greenlee’s guys, but he was also in the market for infielders, and Pittsburgh was a fount of talent.

The following Saturday, they took their seats in the stadium’s bleachers. Greenlee had men scanning the stands; he’d gotten a tip that two foreigners had been driving around Pittsburgh asking for directions. But in a stadium full of black spectators, the Dominicans blended right in. When Nina arrived in New York, the agents at customs had recorded his race as “negro.” Greenlee’s henchmen would have to keep their ears open for any stray Spanish overheard in the stands.

It didn’t take long for the two to be found. Greenlee called a local alderman, telling him that a “raid” was in progress and that foreign agents were lurking around the city with the aim of breaking legally binding contracts—a crime, he claimed, that was tantamount to conspiracy. The alderman called the cops, while Nina and Mendez, none the wiser, followed Carter to the Crawfords Grill for the post-game celebration. Before long the three were repairing to Carter’s hotel off Wylie Avenue to talk about an offer. Carter’s manager, the barrel-chested Oscar Charleston, a wily outfielder and veteran of the leagues, watched as they left the restaurant and followed them to the hotel.

Nina and Carter had just shaken on the deal—$775 for eight weeks of play—when Charleston burst into the room, shouting insults. He towered over Nina, wagging his finger in the diminutive Dominican’s face. “I came here to whip you,” he shouted. “But since you’re so little, I won’t do it. Why don’t you go into the white leagues and get your players?”

The police arrived and cuffed Nina and Mendez, who were stunned by the turn of events. The charges against them were bloated and dramatic, bearing evidence of Greenlee’s handiwork: The two had “unlawfully, falsely, knowingly and maliciously conspired, combined, and confederated and agreed to induce, entice, and take from the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Inc., and Homestead Grays Inc., certain baseball players and employees of the said corporations under written and binding contract.” Their acts were “dishonest” and “dishonorable,” and redounded to the “prejudice of … the National Association of Negro Baseball Clubs.” Included among the charges was the list of players Nina had been courting: four from the Crawfords and two from the Grays. The players, in the language of the allegations, were “the property” of these two teams; luring them away was on par with theft.

Nina and Mendez spent two nights in jail before posting $1,000 bond; by the time they were released, the jailing had become a major diplomatic incident. Mendez had contacted the Dominican consul general, who spoke with the U.S. State Department. Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, personally wrote him back to say he was looking into the situation. Calls were made, cables sent. The Allegheny County district attorney spoke with the alderman, and finally a judge dismissed the charges. The two Dominicans were free to go home, which they did—taking Carter and several other ballplayers with them.

As Greenlee and the other club owners saw it, there was only one viable option for stemming the tide of departures: They had to convince the U.S. government to intervene. The next week, team owners held an emergency meeting in Philadelphia, where they voted unanimously to circulate a resolution among sympathetic national congressmen. Their message was clear, if desperate: “Be it resolved that these actions on the part of the Dominican baseball promoters and permitted by the officials of the Dominican Republic BE AND ARE HEREBY CONDEMNED. Be it further resolved that steps be taken to have these practices STOPPED.” In their view, the ideal outcome was for the State Department to order Trujillo to fly Paige and the other players back. They bombarded their representatives, arguing that the congressmen risked insulting their black constituents unless they took action to save black baseball. The Dominican affair, Greenlee’s lawyers told two Pennsylvania Democrats, “involves a matter of great importance not only to us as club owners, but also to the American Negroes generally.” Meanwhile the league’s commissioner, Ferdinand Morton, beseeched New York senator Robert F. Wagner, an outspoken fan of black baseball, to intervene on the owners’ behalf. “All the work which we have done to secure for the colored ball player a decent wage will go for naught,” he wrote.

For all their fervor, they hit a wall. According to the American attaché in Santo Domingo, Nina and Aybar were acting out of private interest, so there wasn’t much room for diplomatic intervention abroad. But there was enough political will to find some sort of solution. In late June, Hull’s deputies met with the owners in Washington.

The meeting’s minutes and internal memos, catalogued at the National Archives, reveal that the government officials were eager to help Greenlee and his counterparts in good faith. But their cooperation highlights a major contradiction at the heart of the American government’s attitudes toward black baseball and its black citizens. If the government’s openness to the interests of the Negro leagues indicated a conciliatory approach to the black community, it also emphasized just how limited that benevolence truly was. The government had never taken serious interest in integrating professional baseball, and it would be 17 years before the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to legal segregation. Yet there was the secretary of state, hosting black club owners in the country’s capital.

Five

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Rafael Trujillo

For the players in Ciudad Trujillo, the week between games was long and full of temptations. They went to nightclubs and cabarets, to brothels and swanky bars with names like the Rialto and the Encanto. They danced to five-piece bands that played merengues, which Trujillo had recently declared the national music, and in honor of the Americans, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington tunes were sometimes interspersed in the lineup for a dose of straight-ahead Yankee swing.

Race translated differently in the Dominican Republic. The black Americans were absorbed right into the teeming, multiracial scene. Sometimes, as a kind of Caribbean grace note, they were even called gringos. Still, there were ugly moments. The pitcher Bert Hunter, who was playing for Santiago, struggled with his control early in the tournament and became an immediate target for testy fans. He was heckled and called King Kong. When he finally settled into his groove after a few games and won the fans over with a commanding victory, he lumbered past the first-base line, swinging his arms up and down in mock imitation of a gorilla, and yelled back at them, in broken Spanish: “¿Ah, sí? ¿Ya no King Kong? ¡Ahora gran pitcher Hunter! ¡Mucho bueno!(“Oh, yeah? No longer King Kong? Now the great pitcher Hunter! Very good!”)

His rage confused the Santiago faithful, who understood racial innuendo by a different standard: To them, as to Trujillo, being “black” meant being Haitian. There was a long strain of racial antipathy toward the country’s neighbors to the west, and Trujillo, whose family was partly Haitian, took pains to emphasize his own affinity with Europe. He enacted harsh anti-immigration laws to keep out Haitian fieldworkers and even took in leftist refugees from the Spanish Civil War, an anathema to a right-wing strongman, simply to “whiten” the complexion of the population. His obsession with merengue was a more benign example. He much preferred it to Afro-Cuban dance music like the rhumba because it reminded him of an old-world, European-style waltz. Satchel and Janet Paige danced it, delightedly, without knowing the fetishism it stood for.

The high-society allure of the capital exercised a particular tug on the players. The aspiration of achieving celebrity commensurate with their talent, so baldly squelched in the States, was finally a reality. The journalist Ollie Stewart, who’d traveled to Santo Domingo to cover the tournament for the Afro-American, saw life there as practically utopian. “If there is a future for colored Americans (and I am convinced more than ever now there is a bright one) it is in this part of the world—in these islands now being developed, now coming into their own.” In his view, there was one person to thank for that: Rafael Trujillo. “President Trujillo rebuilt the city, made it sanitary, built streets, roads, put in electric lights, good water, drained off mosquito-infested swamps and brought peace to the republic,” Stewart wrote, echoing, ironically if only unconsciously, the kind of contemporary tropes being used overseas to prop up dictators like Mussolini. Behind closed doors, Trujillo was summoning his aides for advice on how to dispose of the Haitians crowding his borders. But on the streets, all Ollie Stewart could see were storefronts decorated with photos of the American ballplayers.

The aspiration of achieving celebrity commensurate with their talent, so baldly squelched in the States, was finally a reality.

The players themselves were lulled as well. Not only did they have their hefty monthly salaries; they also walked around with their pockets flush with cash from a raft of tournament-wide incentives—$10 bonuses for won games, $10 more for home-runs, $40 for the winning pitcher. Bill Perkins traveled with an entourage to keep the fans off. “He was such a heavy lover, this precaution was taken to keep the women away from him,” Stewart observed. When Paige walked the streets with Janet he was mobbed, with boys perpetually trailing him and women shouting insults at his wife. “You’re not beautiful, we’re beautiful!” they yelled, as if trying to peel Paige away.

The festive mood had grown somber by May. The Dragons were losing, stuck in last place in spite of the tens of thousands of dollars spent on their success. While Federico Nina was trawling for talent in Pittsburgh, his Estrellas blew out the Dragons in back-to-back matchups in San Pedro de Macoris, outscoring them fourteen to three. After another string of losses, this time to Santiago, the Dragons’ management adopted special “disciplinary measures” to “submit the players to solid training and to wean them from all the whiskey and beers.” The newspapers called out Paige, Andrews, and Perkins by name as repeat offenders. Excessive drinking now led to fines, which the papers catalogued as though the whole of the capital was acting as the team’s chaperone. The week after the Dragons eked out a lone victory against Santiago, Andrews and Perkins each had to pay $6.25 for a night of debauchery that had led to a missed practice.

The Dragons’ manager resigned, “in light of the fact that the club needs someone who can dedicate more time to the discipline and organization of the operation,” as he put it. Two other businessmen, who vowed to redouble their supervision of the team, took over in his stead. Their first move was to institute a curfew. “It was almost like we was in jail,” Paige complained in his memoir. “We was kept at a hotel and had to be in bed early. No matter what we done—like if we went in swimming—there was soldiers around and nobody could speak to us.”

I was stunned when I came across this account in Paige’s memoir. Paige’s complaint about the soldiers chimes with what is easily his most infamous, if also most beguiling, anecdote from the time. In the midst of one tight game, while he was on the mound, Paige says, Trujillo ordered troops to surround the field. The dramatic subtext is clear: If Paige hadn’t come through with a win, he wouldn’t have survived to tell the tale.

The other players remembered swimming and fishing, even horsing around on the beach, but none of them mentioned these stifling armed watchmen, nor, for that matter, the same sense of imminent disaster. What likely fueled these discrepancies was Paige’s sourness about anyone telling him how to live at all. There’s no question that the Dragons’ owners were bothered by Paige’s lifestyle; he had been an exceptionally expensive acquisition, and the team’s management, understandably, felt he was overindulging. Paige was used to getting what he wanted from Greenlee, and that wasn’t how the Dominicans operated.

But it’s also true that Paige was feeling the pressure more than most, since Aybar had been portentous with him from the outset. He was earning big money—$1,200 a month for three months, plus several hundred more as a bonus—to bring the capital its championship. “We was President Trujillo’s ball club and we got to win that championship, because if we won’t win maybe the people won’t reelect him again,” Paige said. “It’s that important.” Mostly, this was Aybar talking. Like any proper courtier of his era, he could be more Trujillista than Trujillo—more of a booster for the regime, and more of a menace.

Paige looked and acted unflappable, but to judge from his memoir he truly was getting nervous. The troops he saw on the street may very well have merged in his mind with the curfew and the new battery of restrictions from the team’s management. Aybar had convinced him that Trujillo was lurking behind every out of every inning and that the consequences would be grim if Paige couldn’t turn things around for the Dragons.

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An advertisement for a game between the Dragons and the Eagles.

Paige wasn’t the only one to feel the pressure. The tournament had been charged from the start, with fans sometimes storming the field in protest when a call was made against their club. But by May, players, coaches, and managers were all getting tense as play tightened.

The Dragons responded by cleaning house. On May 19, management announced a “new Unified Front,” headed by Aybar, to strengthen team discipline. The phrase was meant to have a political ring to it, and Aybar decided to run the club like it was an extension of the government. When a fresh batch of American recruits arrived in San Pedro de Macoris to play for the Estrellas, soldiers escorted them to the capital, where they suited up for the Dragons. Nina made more than one trip back to the States to plug the gaps in his roster, and when he returned he was arrested and thrown in jail for a week before he could go home.

Two days after the Dragons’ new initiative was announced, Cool Papa Bell, Leroy Matlock, Sam Bankhead, and Harry Williams arrived on two private planes chartered by Aybar. It was the biggest single importation of new recruits to date. An entourage waited for them at the landing strip, complete with the team’s captain, the new director of discipline for the club, a member of the executive committee, and a lucky Ciudad Trujillo fan brought along to pose for the press. The team officials immediately presented the four players with tournament registration papers to sign, and they set out for the Hotel Presidente. “Forty-five days ago, none of this seemed possible,” one news article declared; the capital had become a kind of magnet for the premier black American talent of the day. The arrival of four more players was touted as an immediate achievement of the new Unified Front.

The Dragons’ next home game, against the Estrellas, was a triumph. Paige gave up just two hits that made it to the outfield, and Cool Papa Bell smacked a single and stole a base, the fans gawking at his speed. His trademark was a chop-like swing of the bat that grounded the ball straight into the dirt so it would careen up high into the infield. In the time it took for the ball to drop into a fielder’s mitt, he’d already be standing on first. Everyone cheered as he scampered to the bag. When Bell reached base, it was like his team had a run in the bank; he was so fast, he could score from first on a bloop single to even the shallowest part of the outfield.

The Dragons notched one victory, then another. The Eagles were holding firm, but the once champion Estrellas were beginning to buckle. In June, Ramón Bragaña, the team’s star pitcher and best hitter, was suspended for ten games for getting into a fistfight with an umpire. A week later, the Estrellas lost 20–5 to the Eagles in a game held in honor of the birthday of Trujillo’s son, Ramfis. Nina was savaged in the press for seeming to have thrown the game to save his best players for their next matchup, later that day, against the Dragons. It was an unfair charge that stemmed from an indisputable reality: Against the expanded ranks of the Dragons and the Eagles, the Estrellas were outgunned and overmatched.

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The Santiago Eagles. 

In a few short weeks, the momentum had shifted: the black American players were dominating the competition, and by the middle of the summer the newspapers had taken to calling the tournament the World Series of Black Baseball, championship billing that Gus Greenlee and the other club owners had for years tried in vain to drum up in the States. By the end of May, even more players had arrived to shore up the ranks of the Eagles—the pitcher Chet Brewer, the second baseman Pat Patterson, and outfielder Roy Parnell.

The Dragons, meanwhile, were on an upswing of their own. After the arrival of Bell, Williams, Bankhead, and Matlock, the reliever Robert Griffin joined the team on June 1, and there were rumors that Josh Gibson would be coming later that same week. The Estrellas managed to scrounge up a few black players—the hard-hitting second baseman George Scales and, later, Ernest Carter—but they didn’t have the firepower to match their rivals. Between May 22 and June 12, the Estrellas lost five of seven games and sank into last place. The Dragons passed them on their way up into second place and were now within striking distance of the Eagles.

By now, Paige’s and Aybar’s fortunes were entwined. Each victory the Dragons notched brought Paige one step closer to making it out of the Dominican Republic safe and triumphant. At the same time, it meant ever better publicity for Trujillo. Paige labored on the field, while Aybar conspired off it. And all the while the team in Trujillo’s name became like another medal on the general’s decorated lapels. His hold on the country tightened as he consolidated monopolies in the salt, tobacco, and lumber industries; the list of his assets grew larger by the day. His wife, meanwhile, was put in charge of a business that forced state employees to pay her a 2 percent service charge to cash their paychecks. Together, Trujillo and his family gained control of 40 percent of the country’s wealth, and his reign was only just beginning.   

As Paige’s luck on the diamond took a favorable turn, he began to question whether he even wanted to return to the States. “I would be willing to go to South America and live in the jungles rather than go back to the league and play ball like I did for ten years,” he wrote in an op-ed that ran in the Afro-American later that summer. “The opportunities of a colored baseball player on these islands are the same or almost the same as those enjoyed by the white major league players in the States. That’s something to think about it.”

Practically all his old teammates were in Ciudad Trujillo with him anyway. Josh Gibson arrived on June 11, and fans turned out by the thousands to watch his debut the next day. The Dragons were facing the Estrellas at home, and Cocaina García kept Gibson hitless, but barely. In the sixth inning, Gibson crushed a line drive straight back up the middle and right at the pitcher. The ball sought García out like it was personal, and he flailed his glove to knock it away from his face. Gibson had arrived ready, his swing unkinked and fluid. The next day, he hit a double against the Eagles, and the game after that he pounded a double and a triple.

The Dragons and Eagles were pulling away. By June 21, the Dragons were 13-11 and the Eagles 11-10. The Estrellas had sunk three games under .500. The baseball council decided to narrow the tournament’s final three weeks to a competition between the two leading teams; it declared the Estrellas’ chances mathematically impossible, given their current record, and took the team out of contention, thanking Nina and his guys for their service. Tetelo Vargas and Cocaina García left for Venezuela, Ramón Bragaña for New York. For the Dragons, this cordial exit didn’t mean that there was a graceful way that they, too, could lose the tournament—in fact, just the opposite. Now the Dragons and Eagles would have to square off on center stage.

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The Dragons with Dr. José Enrique Aybar (second row center; Satchel Paige is seated to his left).

Aybar sent away for new uniforms from Havana, one last frill for his team in the final stretch. The Dragons didn’t need any fresh motivation, though. The team was finally gaining momentum. The players were on a tear, besting the Eagles in a string of matchups. And with three games left, in the final week of June, they needed only two more to clinch victory.

The Eagles fought back. In the first game of a double-header on July 4, in Santiago, they kicked off the bottom of the first inning with a six-run rally against the usually untouchable Robert Griffin. Martín Dihigo pitched for the Eagles. The Dragons didn’t get on the board until the sixth inning; then they exploded for three more runs in the seventh and came back to within one run in the top of the ninth before the American Clarence Palm, in to relieve Dihigo, closed them down. The final score was 8–7, and the Eagles had managed to withstand the Dragons at their offensive best. Josh Gibson had hit for the cycle—a single, double, triple, and home run—but it wasn’t enough.

In the afternoon game, Paige was back on the mound, strong as ever, but his counterpart, the ex-Crawfords pitcher Chet Brewer, was better. He threw a one-hitter, in which the Dragons eked out two paltry runs on three Eagles fielding errors. The Eagles survived elimination yet again.

In the customary week off before the next game, Brewer, who’d been stationed in Santiago throughout the tournament, came to the capital to relax for a few days. He and Paige were likely to face off again in the coming weekend, the latest in a career-long rivalry between the two players. They were reluctant friends, close after all their years together. “None of us got any publicity when Satchel was there,” he once said. Brewer was soft-spoken and even-keeled, but he felt some resentment toward Paige. “I pitched against Satchel a lot of times. We just about broke even on wins,” he said. Yet “they always starred Satchel. He had all the billing.”

One evening, Brewer walked over to the Hotel Presidente to see if Paige and some of the other guys wanted to have a drink, but they weren’t there. In broken Spanish, he asked a boy in the street about the ballplayers; by this point, everyone knew them in the capital. “They’re in jail,” the boy replied.

Paige had complained before about feeling, at certain moments, like the Dominican Republic was one big prison cell, but that had been an exaggeration. This time it was literal. It wasn’t even the first time he’d been locked up for baseball—he’d once found himself in jail in Pittsburgh while Greenlee and another owner fought over who had claim to the pitcher. (Keen on some extra money, Paige had signed contracts with both of them.) This time, though, it had to have been terrifying. For all Paige knew, he’d been put on lockdown by order of the dictator himself. On top of that was an even scarier association: a black man, in 1937, stuck in a jail cell.

It’s impossible to reconstruct exactly how Paige wound up there, but it seems safe to assume that Aybar ordered it. Brewer figured that someone in the upper echelons of the team’s management had decided to lock up Paige before his big start to make sure a night of carousing wouldn’t dull his performance. The pressure put an added strain on Paige as he suited up the next morning. “You’d have thought war was declared. We were guarded like we had the secret combination to Fort Knox,” he said. Paige was no stranger to the spotlight, but he was starting to wonder about his safety. Say the Dragons didn’t win, he recalled thinking—we’re here without passports!


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From left: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Bill Perkins.

There was another game the following week, and the Dragons, behind Leroy Matlock, would have a chance to secure the championship. Before the Dragons walked onto the field, Aybar took the team aside and got everyone quiet. Then, in a soft but firm voice, he gave them a laconic piece of advice: “You better win.” Paige, his voice a little shaky, piped up. “What’a you mean, we better win?” he asked. Aybar’s response was sterner still. “I mean just that. Take my advice and win.”

The Dragons took their warm-ups, and Paige glanced around at the stands. “Some of them guys the president had watching us sent shivers up and down your spine. They was that tough looking. They packed guns and long knives, and I know they could use ’em. We didn’t want to give them a chance,” he said. He had plenty of time to take stock. Leroy Matlock got the start and Paige watched from the bench. Matlock was in fine form in the early innings; from the looks of it, Paige’s services might not be needed at all.

Brewer was back on the diamond for the Eagles, even though he’d gone the distance the previous game. This was another advantage for the Dragons—their bullpen allowed each of their starters a comfortable amount of rest. If it wasn’t Paige on the hill, it would be Matlock; if not Matlock, Griffin; and if not Griffin, then Rodolfo Fernández. The Eagles had a slightly tighter rotation, especially since the Cuban southpaw Lefty Tiant had gone back home a few weeks before. Their signal ace was Brewer, who, for his part, showed no signs of fatigue. He gave up first-inning hits to Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson, but that was to be expected; each of the next two innings Brewer retired the Dragons in order.

The din in the stadium grew steady, with shouts and cheers blanketing the ballpark; in its evenness, the noise almost seemed to fall away, and a kind of silence reigned over the diamond itself. The teams went back and forth through the second, third, and fourth innings. One squad stole a few hits, then stranded its runners on base when the opposing pitcher hunkered down.

In the bottom of the fifth, Brewer had fallen into a rut—he’d walked the lead batter and then surrendered the game’s first run. With one out, he gave up three consecutive hits to load the bases. Martín Dihigo had seen enough. The player-manager trotted in from center field, where he’d started the game, and relieved Brewer himself. By now Dragons fans were in hysterics. Dihigo took his warm-ups with an easy, rolling motion and barely even a kick of his leg. Sam Bankhead, who was due up, stood a few feet off the plate and took practice swings in sync with the pitches as they came in. Dihigo signaled he was ready, and the umpire waved Bankhead over to the plate.

Dihigo wound up and delivered, and Bankhead unleashed a mammoth swing. The ball shot off his bat, rising steadily over the infield, then the outfield; it easily cleared the fence for a grand slam. Money, hats, and flowers rained onto the field. The Dragons scored three more runs by the end of the inning and were up eight to zero going into the sixth.

Paige came into the game in the top of the ninth inning with the Dragons leading by five. There was one out, and runners stood on first and second. A cushy lead like this could be dangerous for Paige, who was best when pitching with a sense of urgency.

Feeling that victory was within reach, the local fans called out to Paige to put the Eagles away. “The more the fans yelled, the harder I threw,” Paige said. “I bet I never did have a better fastball only I never see any better hitters than them guys.” The first three batters he faced all got hits—and just like that the Eagles had three more runs on the board and had pulled to within two, the score at 8–6. “Boy, my mouth was dry that day,” he later wrote. “‘Satchel, old boy,’ I say to myself, ‘If you ever pitched, it’s now.’”

The fearsome Roy Parnell grounded to second for out number two, and up came Dihigo. He scorched a single to right field, and again the bases were full. The leading run was on first base. Paige disliked pitching at the stadium in Ciudad Trujillo because it was so small—short fences in left and right field and a cropped outfield. He felt his back was against the wall.

Clarence Palm, the Eagles’ imposing catcher, strode to the plate. He took a hefty cut at the ball, and it skipped into the gap between short and third. Bankhead ranged to his right and dug the ball out with a sure-handed grab, then planted his right foot and gunned the ball across the diamond. One of the runners crossed home and another, the tying run, was rounding third. Everyone watched as the ball sailed across the infield toward first base. Paige stiffened. The throw was on line; the first baseman stretched out from the bag to snag it. The umpire pumped his fist—Palm was out at first. Dragons win.

The team celebrated by the mound, circling around a grinning Satchel Paige. He’d gotten himself out of another jam. A photographer steadied the revelers and had them pose for a picture, then took one of Paige alone, his hat off and a dazed smile on his face. He was missing a button on his jersey, so that the word Trujillo, which was emblazoned across his chest, didn’t quite line up; it was a final act of unwitting irreverence.

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From Cuqui Córdova’s collection, a photograph taken at the end of the 1937 championship, after the Dragons had clinched the victory.

Six

If Paige thought victory would ingratiate him with Trujillo, he was sorely mistaken. Aybar organized a celebratory picnic at one of the dictator’s residences, but Trujillo never showed. There was one crucial fact about Trujillo that Paige did not know: The dictator didn’t even like baseball. Not only that, he hadn’t gone to any of the tournament games. The championship held in his honor hardly seemed to register with Trujillo at all. His daily memos, typed up and brought to him each morning as a primer on what was going on in the country, mentioned agrarian reform, bureaucratic appointments, diplomatic engagements—all manner of small-bore politics and administration, but not a word about how the tournament was developing.

For months, Trujillo had been receiving updates about the growing presence of Haitians at the border, which he increasingly viewed as a threat to Dominican sovereignty. On August 4, 1937, a few weeks after the tournament ended, he took a trip to the border himself. The situation, as he saw it, was becoming ungovernable. Dominican farmers complained that Haitian immigrants were pillaging and robbing their plots, and Haitian currency was circulating on the Dominican side, which Trujillo took as an added affront. He fired his agriculture secretary and ordered the construction of a Catholic church in the border town of Dajabón, vowing to return and police the area personally.

On October 2, after coming back for another survey, Trujillo gave orders to his officers: Any Haitian on Dominican soil illegally was to be killed on the spot. The military fanned out along the border, spreading terror. For a full week, soldiers hacked men, women, and children to death with machetes. Around 15,000 people were killed before the campaign let up.

The rampage made international news. Though Trujillo remained in power, his rule growing ever more brazen and bloody, outcry over the massacre forced him to withdraw from the 1938 elections. The Championship for the Reelection of Rafael Trujillo, and all the other blandishments gracing the social calendar during the previous year, had brought too much attention to a dictator who, finally, needed to lay low. He named a puppet in his place to quiet some of the international uproar. The years wore on. Critics at home and abroad mysteriously disappeared. Rival presidents in neighboring countries uncovered plots to assassinate them that seemed to emanate from the Dominican capital. Thirty years into his reign, Trujillo, his family, and their cronies controlled 80 percent of the nation’s economy and employed 45 percent of the country’s workforce.

One night in May 1961, on a dark stretch of coastal highway, Trujillo was assassinated en route to visit his mistress. With the collapse of the old order, Aybar, who had enjoyed a long career under the dictator, lost the protections that came with that privilege. In 1965, American troops invaded the Dominican Republic to support a coup and police the streets through the ensuing chaos. One night a mob rampaging through the upscale neighborhood of Santo Domingo where Aybar lived tried to rob his house; he ran outside to frighten them off, waving a revolver. American soldiers, who arrived on the scene but didn’t know exactly what was happening, took aim and shot him dead.


Shortly after the tournament ended, Satchel Paige and his fellow Americans returned to the States, where they played on the semipro circuit for a few months while waiting for a rapprochement with team owners from the Negro leagues. They banded together under the name the Trujillo All-Stars and, dressed in their old Dominican pinstripes, entered a prestigious semipro competition in Colorado called the Denver Post Tournament, which they won. When the papers didn’t name-check Trujillo, they referred to the team as “Satchel Paige’s Outlaws,” an appellation he welcomed. “If you ask me what was the biggest event for colored baseball in 1937, I’d say the winning of the pennant of the Dominican Republic by the best players in the league,” Paige said, proud and unrepentant. That fall the international press began reporting on Trujillo’s atrocities, and while it seems unlikely that Paige kept up with the developments, it also seems inevitable that he took note of the criticism directed at Trujillo.

In between Trujillo’s and Aybar’s deaths, Paige published his memoir. By then he was trying to define his legacy. Professional baseball was integrated in 1947, and its protagonist wasn’t Paige—or, for that matter, any of black baseball’s legendary stars—but a 28-year-old second baseman who’d played all of five months in the Negro leagues. His name was Jackie Robinson, and as Paige immediately grasped, he was instantly immortal. “I’d been the guy who’d started all that big talk about letting us in the big time,” Paige said in his memoir, with more than a touch of resentment. “I’d been the one who everybody’d said should be in the majors.”

The main reason he was left off the integrated rosters was his age: He was 41 at the time. By then, Cool Papa Bell was on the path to retirement and Josh Gibson was already dead, of a brain tumor. If together they’d been trailblazers—the game’s first true black stars—they were also the first to be sacrificed in the push to integration. Pioneers but throwbacks, they were too weathered to lead the way to the sport’s next frontier. Paige watched as Robinson broke the color barrier in the National League and then as a center fielder named Larry Doby followed suit, 11 weeks later, in the American League.

Paige wasn’t ready to resign himself to the bleachers. The day after Doby signed with the Cleveland Indians, Paige sent a telegram to the team’s owner: “Is it time for me to come?” The response was chilly: “All things in due time.” Paige, dejected, kept barnstorming. Now that professional baseball was integrating, the Negro leagues teetered on the brink of irrelevance—and, in short order, bankruptcy, too. Greenlee, for one, was a husk of his former self. His stadium had been demolished in 1938, and soon after he was forced to resign as league president. Once he was shut out, he never managed to work his way back into black baseball; he’d created too many enemies. In 1946, at the age of 50, he suffered a heart attack, and he died six years later.

One day in early July 1948, while Paige was traveling with a semipro club in Iowa, he got a call from the Indians. The team was ready to give him a tryout. They were in a tight pennant race that summer and short on pitchers. “I wasn’t as fast as I used to be, but I was a better pitcher. If I couldn’t overpower them, I’d outcute them,” he said of the prospect of facing big-league batters. The world’s first glimpse of Paige in the bigs wouldn’t be of the dazzling fireballer he’d been all his life but of a grizzled veteran. It was both a tragedy and a triumph. On July 7, he was signed. Two days later, at the age of 42, he took the mound for Cleveland in his Major League debut. He had prevailed against all odds—even, it seemed, the passage of time. As always he had a saying handy to motivate himself: “Don’t look back, someone might be gaining on you.” He remains the oldest rookie in the history of the game.

The Arc of the Sun

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The Arc of the Sun

Chasing history in the great South African pigeon race.

By David Samuels

The Atavist Magazine, No. 50


David Samuels is the author of two books, The Runner and Only Love Can Break Your Heart. His work has appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Feuilleton, and n+1, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Editors: Katis Bachko, Joel Lovell
Designer: Gray Beltran Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checkers: Riley Blanton, Cara McGoogan
Photos: Jonathan Torgovnik Video: Courtesy of the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race

Published in July 2015. Design updated in 2021.

I met Paul Smith, the man responsible for shipping the Queen of England’s pigeons, near a sunlit pigeon loft in Linbro Park, a light-industrial section of Johannesburg, South Africa. The loft, home to 2,453 pigeons, has a corrugated aluminum roof with translucent plastic panels to let in the sun and high-grade chicken-wire walls to encourage the circulation of air. Each of the pigeons inside the loft has a perch where it is accustomed to roosting. In two days’ time, the pigeons will be loaded into crates, put on a truck, and transported approximately 325 miles from here, to a point along the Vaal River, a tributary of the Orange River in the Northern Cape. There they will be set free, in the hope that they will fly back home.

Paul, a voluble little white-haired man in his early seventies who wears a white polo shirt, baggy cargo shorts, white Nikes, and white tennis socks, has won nearly every honor that pigeon racing has to offer. Before taking up the sport full-time, he made women’s stockings. “I first raced pigeons in 1959, when I was 15,” he says. “I couldn’t win a race to save me life.” He has traveled to Thailand, a haven for pigeon fanciers, 34 times. He helped organize pigeon races at the Seoul Olympiad and at the Berlin Wall. He has won the UK championship ten times and come in second ten times. The race that is closest to his heart, he confides, is the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race, which bills itself as the most lucrative pigeon race in the world. The owner of the first-place pigeon receives $150,000, with subsequent finishers taking the balance of the million-dollar purse.

The Million Dollar, Paul tells me, was the brainchild of Zandy Meyer, a Johannesburg businessman who died two years ago. “Can’t tell you too much about him, can I?” Paul offers, in the curious way he has of emphasizing the first-person pronoun while providing only occasional dabs of specific detail, a habit that sometimes results in his conveying exactly the opposite of the meaning that he appears to intend. “There’s a lot of stories about him.” He first met Zandy, he says, in 1994 at a pigeon race in Thailand that Smith helped arrange on behalf of the country’s national tourism board. “We were sitting out there with a bottle of 12-year-old Chivas Regal. There were no pigeons home”—by which he means that none of the birds had yet returned to the loft—“and we were gradually getting worse and worse for wear. And I said, ‘I don’t know why you don’t have one of these in South Africa. Lovely climate. Cheap labor.’”

Zandy, whose six brothers were all well-known athletes in South Africa, had a crippled leg, which didn’t prevent him from becoming a famous ladies’ man who also keenly enjoyed all other available forms of competition. As soon as Paul raised the idea, he began to imagine a pigeon race with the kind of purse that would rival Sun City’s $2 million golf tournament. “Zandy said to me, ‘Wherever you think you can get pigeons for the race, go,’” Paul recalls. “‘I know a few people who’ve got money.’” According to Paul, the original backing for the Million Dollar supposedly came from 17 Swiss millionaires, who preferred to remain anonymous, although he also suggested that at least some of the money came from Zandy’s own pocket. For that first race, in 1996, Paul managed to attract 893 pigeons. The race lost money. The next three races also lost money. After five years, it began breaking even, and in years since it has turned a reasonable profit.

As Paul goes on about the history of the Million Dollar, I find myself soothed by the deep, throaty “blu-blu-buu-buu-buu” call of the thousands of pigeons in the lofts beside us. With their solid metal frames and high plastic ceilings, the two buildings where the pigeons sleep and eat seem like a nice home to fly back to. The buildings are divided by chicken wire into 16 cross-sections, each of which contains approximately 250 pigeons, which roost on inverted aluminum V’s that are fixed to the chicken-wire walls in undulating rows. The positioning of each pigeon on its perch exists in a clear hierarchical relation to the perch of every other pigeon. Their stillness broken by brief, fitful movements, they cock their heads to the side and fix one eye on the curious humans outside their cage. While the eyes of birds are often described as unblinking, they blink plenty, at regular intervals, like they are transmitting messages in Morse code from their Pleistocene ancestors. If you look deep into a pigeon’s eye, you can see the dinosaurs looking back at you.

Every pigeon in the loft arrived in South Africa between the ages of four weeks and four months old from one of 33 countries, with Germany (532 birds), the U.S. (505 birds), and Kuwait (213 birds) sending the most. After spending 30 days in quarantine, they took up residence in the loft, where they live under the round-the-clock care of three on-site trainers, who prepare them for the race. It is impossible to tell which of the pigeons belong to Paul Smith without scanning the bands on their ankles. Inside each band is a numeric code, which corresponds to another code that exists inside a digital black box, which remains untouched until the race is over.

The two lead trainers, Andre van Wyk and Corrie Naude, speak to the birds in Afrikaans. They have relatively little interest in talking to humans. Andre, a tall, cadaverous man whose bony ass does nothing to fill his well-worn blue jeans, talks in the halting way that is common among people who spend most of their days communicating with animals. He has been training pigeons for the race for the past eight years. He grew up in the Free State and received his first pigeon when he was three years old.

“On my third birthday, somebody gave me two white fantails,” he tells me. “From then until now, I am with the pigeons.”

“How do they make you feel?” I ask him.

“Good!”

If you look deep into a pigeon’s eye, you can see the dinosaurs looking back at you.

The pigeons in the loft here in Johannesburg are less than a year old, which is young for racing. Newborn pigeons, known as squeakers, are shipped to South Africa between May and July. Once the birds are released from quarantine, Andre first teaches them to circle, directing them from the ground with a flag. After a month, if they can stay aloft for one hour, they are ready to fly home. Their first time out, the pigeons are taken three miles from the loft, then, in subsequent weeks, progress to a distance of six miles, then nine, then twelve. When they return home, they get extra food. After two months of training, they know to go out of their baskets and fly back. They then compete in preliminary races, including five “hot spot” car races, in which the owner of the winning pigeon wins a new vehicle.

In Germany, Andre says, they fly their pigeons 14 weekends in a row, without rest, which is why the pigeons there are so strong. “If a pigeon can make it, they’re a great pigeon,” he says. “If they can’t make it, they’re out.” It is not unusual, he adds, for pigeons to go missing on race day, then make their way back to the loft a year or two later.

Throughout his life, Andre has always kept his own birds, but now things are different. “I live here at the loft,” he says, gesturing toward his rooms near the pigeon coop. “I can’t keep my own pigeons here.”  

The science of how exactly pigeons return home is frustratingly incomplete. The British ornithologist G.V.T. Matthews proposed in the 1950s that pigeons use “the arc of the sun” to fix their course. His theory was soon eclipsed by the work of William Keeton of Cornell University, the father of “magnetic cue theory.” While the sun did play a role in helping pigeons to return home, Keeton asserted, the birds took a far greater share of their guidance from the magnetic field of the earth, which allowed the birds to orient themselves through a kind of internal compass. Keeton’s theory held sway until the 1970s, when its primacy was undone by Floriano Papi of the University of Pisa. Through a clever series of experiments, Papi proved that while pigeons could fly straight home when their magnetic receptors were blocked, they were lost without the use of their olfactory organs. (I am relying here on a very clear and elegant discussion of the various theories in A Very British Coop, by Mark Collings.) Papi’s “olfactory theory” proposed that pigeons smell their way home, a view that remains dominant today despite a challenge in the 1990s from Tim Guilford of Oxford’s zoology department, who advanced the theory that pigeons rely on visual cues, or “steeple-chasing,” a suggestion that was in turn challenged by Rupert Sheldrake of Cambridge, who suggested that pigeons rely on something he identified as “morphic resonance,” which as far as I can figure out is total nonsense.

While all the pigeon fanciers I have ever met or read are awestruck by the pigeon’s homing abilities, none seem to display much interest in any of the theories that purport to explain the behavior for which the birds are bred. What unites fanciers is a strong personal attachment to the idea of home. In the Pocket Sports edition of Ron Bissett’s Pigeon Racing, a cheaply printed castoff from Islington Libraries that I purchased for $1 at the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan, I found the following observation: “I have asked many of my friends in the sport today to pin-point the exact start of their interest in the sport, and many of them cannot, although the stock reply seemed to me to be ‘I have been in it as a boy’ or ‘it has always been in the family.’” Bissett adds that “pigeon racing is the only sport in which a man can compete in his own home and in which his family can take part.”

Because fanciers appear to be united by a deep longing for home, it makes sense that they come from all walks of life. King Edward VII of Great Britain raced his pigeons in the name of one of his gardeners. Britain’s reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, flies her pigeons from the royal pigeon loft at Sandringham House in King’s Lynn. Historically, the Netherlands, Belgium, and England have produced the greatest homing pigeons and pigeon fanciers, and as the populations of those countries have spread out across the world, the pigeons have followed. The mining districts of Newcastle are also famous for the excellence of their pigeons, which presumably benefited from the pleasure that men who spent their days underground took in seeing their birds fly free. The best-known pigeon fancier in the world today is probably Mike Tyson, who grew up fatherless on the streets of Brooklyn, before being taken in by the legendary trainer of human pugilists Cus D’Amato, and who kept 4,000 birds in a Harlem mansion at the height of his brutal career of knockouts and ear biting. “A pigeon fancier is very caring,” Tyson observed. “There is a great gentleness about them when they handle the pigeons.”

Fanciers agree that the body of a good racing pigeon should feel hard and firm, and should sit snugly in the hand. The skull bone should be bold and well formed, and the bird’s eyes should be clear and bright. They agree on the importance of feathers, which should be plentiful and very soft. The long wing feathers, known as flights, should fold to a place about ½ an inch to ¾ of an inch from the end of the tail feathers. According to the precepts of “wing theory,” the wing of a good long-distance racer will show very little enlargement between the ten secondary and ten primary flights. The tips of the primaries will be more rounded, and the outside primaries will open up like the fingers on your hand. Quality short-distance flyers show a pronounced step up between the secondaries and primaries, which have sharper tips. The most important flights for both types of flyers are the three outside ones—the eighth, ninth, and tenth—on the outer joint of the wing, which push the air back like a swimmer doing the breaststroke.

Trainers are gentle with their birds because they love them and in order to inculcate the idea that home is a good place to come back to. They are up to date on the latest treatments for common avian diseases, can fashion a splint for a broken leg out of a wooden matchstick or coffee stirrer and a few strips of plaster, and promote themselves to their birds from a very young age as calm, protective, and trustworthy. They will often bring parental gifts of corn, maple peas, tic beans, watercress, and other healthy foods that pigeons like to the loft. After a few weeks of gentle treatment, the trainer will start to accustom the birds to their baskets. A trainer will generally put corn in a basket, then introduce the new birds and leave them there overnight.

The history of the relationship between pigeons and human beings, which might be said to begin with the pigeon, or rock dove, that Noah sent aloft after the flood, is certainly worth many paragraphs on its own, if such a digression didn’t threaten to interfere with the story of the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race (SAMDPR). So I will skip quickly from the domestication of the pigeon by the ancient Egyptians, to their pioneering use as a means of commercial communication by the merchants of Aleppo, to the use of carrier pigeons in the far parts of Europe by the Romans, as described in the works of Pliny and Marcus Terentius Varro, to the establishment in the 12th century of the world’s first true pigeon post by Sultan Nuruddin, caliph of Baghdad. Seven centuries later, Nathan de Rothschild’s farsighted investment in carrier pigeons allowed him to receive news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, three days ahead of everyone else, thus securing the Rothschild fortune for the next two centuries. The French emperor’s use of pigeons in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71 was so decisive that by 1891, France housed and fed a population of approximately 250,000 pigeons devoted to government use. The newly united nation of Italy set up 14 strategically located pigeon lofts, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire soon followed suit. In 1900, the British successfully used pigeons to communicate across South Africa and win the Boer War.

During World War I, pigeons played an important role in numerous engagements, including the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, when 178 pigeons assigned to tanks safely delivered their messages back to Allied military headquarters. Many of the greatest heroes of the American Expeditionary Forces, which turned the tide of the war in favor of the Allies, were pigeons whose names have gone down in history books, including Big Tom, who flew 25 miles in 25 minutes under heavy machine-gun fire in the Meuse-Argonne action of 1918; Spike, who carried 52 messages for the 77th division without injury; and President Wilson, who had a leg shot off while delivering a message that helped decide a particularly hectic firefight in the Ardennes. The most famous of all American war pigeons was Cher Ami, who at the cost of a leg and a wing saved the “lost battalion” of the Argonne from being obliterated by its own artillery fire. After his death one year later, in 1919, Cher Ami was mounted and displayed at the National Museum in Washington.

At nine on Thursday morning, Andre and Corrie begin shooing the pigeons out of their loft for basketing, which involves loading them into rectangular wire-mesh transport boxes, which are known as baskets. The deep thrumming of the pigeons reminds me of the sound of ocean waves, over which the trainers shout, “Out! Out! Out! Out! Out!” The birds waddle together down the concrete walkway like subway passengers during morning rush hour, until all of a sudden one pigeon stops, at which point the whole group stops. The trainers resume their cry: “Out! Out! Out! Out! Out!” Shades are drawn over the last two sections of the loft, and the baskets are inserted into a slot at the bottom. The baskets are then slotted into their places on the pigeon truck, which looks more or less like a rolling bank vault.

“I’m a pigeon fancier. That’s for the last day of the race. Please come out,” pleads Willi van Beers, the owner of the legendary Birdy, a top bird at the 2008 Million Dollar, to a photographer who is angling for a better shot of the embarking birds. The unfamiliar interaction, Willi worries, might spook some of the birds and affect the outcome of the race. Behind him are workers from Malawi, outfitted in yellow T-shirts and bright blue pants, who carry the baskets to the truck and place them in a grid that measures seven box slots down and twelve across. “Both of you, do it nicely!” Willi commands. The entire process of loading the pigeons into the baskets takes less than an hour. When they are done the loft’s buildings stand empty, stained with pigeon shit and stray feathers.

On a shady covered patio a safe distance from the loft, Paul Smith is talking with several other fanciers about new treatments for herpes and chlamydia, which appear to be as common among pigeons as they are among clubgoers in Ibiza. “That’s water-based, innit?” he inquires of a new vaccine.

Fanciers read wings like tarot cards, looking for clues about a bird’s capacities and likely performance. 

The baskets, currently containing all 2,453 pigeons entered in the race, aren’t the race baskets, it turns out. They are only temporary baskets, which will be unloaded from the truck in a big gymnasium-like hall down the block. There the pigeons will be removed from the baskets one by one and brought over to long tables, where their ankle bracelets will be checked against the master list. Then their wings will be stamped and they will be put in the official race baskets, which will be loaded onto the truck, which will be parked by the loft until early the next morning, when we will begin the long trek up to the Northern Cape.

The baskets are laid out near the door of the hall beneath a festive neon sign that reads “South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race.” At the other end of the hall are the big white travel baskets, smelling sweetly of hay. Paul Smith sits at one of the inspection tables, instructing wing stampers in the proper way to ink a pigeon. First you take the bird in a tight, firm grip, so you can feel its fast-beating heart, then you fan the wing open on the table. Structurally speaking, the wing is definitely the most interesting part of the pigeon. Fanciers read wings like tarot cards, looking for clues about a bird’s capacities and likely performance. “If you get a nice cover with no gaps, that’s good,” Paul says, spreading out a pigeon wing for me to inspect. “This one has good cover all the way through.”

White flights are often thought to be superior in hot climates because they reflect the sun, but in fact they are not, he says, because they fray. If it rains, and there is no oil in the feathers, they will become soggy, and the bird will go down. Dark feathers are the ones with the oil. He presses his stamp on the inkpad and then on the wing. Then he removes the white sticker on the bird’s left foot, in order to check each number against the log, and covers it up with another sticker.

“Yeah, we’re all nuts,” Paul answers when I ask him whether pigeon people have particular characteristics in common. “We can all talk about pigeons. We’re all hoping.” The oceanic thrum of the birds doesn’t make him feel one way or another. You don’t mind if it’s a winner that’s doing it, he says. But the losers make the same noise.

The line halts. Men stand patiently at the tables, gently cradling pigeons against their pot bellies. Paul passes the time talking to a cheetah biologist who is originally from San Diego but has lived in Botswana for seven years. She is here with her boyfriend, whose pigeon won a preliminary race. Paul tells her that he is from England but spends a lot of time outside the country.

“Your accent hasn’t dimmed any,” the cheetah biologist says.

“Well, everything else has.” The line still isn’t moving. There are only about another 2,000 pigeons left to stamp.  

Not every pigeon that is shipped to South Africa has a chance to win the Million Dollar. Most are owned by breeders and rival syndicates, which may ship anywhere from several dozen to over a hundred birds. Once the results of the first half of the preliminary races are in, the owners choose whether to pay the $1,100 per team of three pigeons, two of which act as backups to the first, preferred competitor, to enter the Million Dollar. All the birds fly the race, but only the results of birds whose fees have been paid are included in the official results. Last year, for example, 96 pigeons from Holland were shipped to the race. The owners paid to enter 95 pigeons in the race at $1,100 a head. The 96th pigeon went onto an online auction site, where unclaimed pigeons are available to the highest bidder, but nobody bought it. On race day it came home first, costing the guy who shipped it $200,000 in race and auction winnings. The lesson is that it can be dangerous to skimp on entrance fees.


Paul Smith looks out at the well-feathered baskets that are piling up at the end of the room and sighs. He has reached the bargaining stage, willing to sacrifice his own slight chance of victory—which based on the number of his own pigeons he has entered is somewhere around one in fifty, or 2 percent—for the even smaller share of glory that he perhaps might claim for having shipped the winning pigeon. “All I want is to see the Union Jack,” he says wistfully.

The pigeon handlers who carry the birds from the table area to the racing baskets are all from Malawi. They earn 90 rand a day, about $7, for their labor, and they sleep together in the bunkhouse on the far side of the pigeon loft. “They make sad sound,” says Ronnex Msimeko, whose smooth, unlined face, boyish stature, and gentle demeanor do little to betray the fact that he is 38 years old. If you squint at Ronnex and his fellow workers, they could easily pass for pupils in a missionary school. They speak Tumbaka to one another, which is the language they use at home, where they farm maize, groundnuts, and tobacco, and keep animals, including goats, pigs, chicken, and kudu. In two months, they will return to Malawi on buses and in minivans, and use the money they have earned to buy more land and goats.

It has been three hours, and maybe half the pigeons have been unloaded. I take a seat by the wall and read a copy of the Johannesburg Star. “Looting Frenzy,” the headline proclaims, above a picture of laughing township dwellers running through the streets of Soweto. One is carrying a crate of tomatoes, and another is carrying a bottle of soda. The article below describes “scenes of widespread looting playing out all day across the township’s many suburbs,” represented photographically by four young men carrying off a beverage display case imprinted with the Pepsi logo. Shop windows were smashed and two people died in the riots, which were directed at traders from Ethiopia and Somalia. “It’s one thing if they take all these things to their families, but they’re just wasting it,” a man named Buhle Mguda told the Sunday Times. Only foreign-owned shops were destroyed and looted. “I’m not safe in Somalia. I’m not safe here. We’ve got too many problems,” said Faisel Ali, a shopkeeper whose business was spared. “Wherever you work, they want to take your life.”  

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a home, or to keep the home they might make for themselves elsewhere, is a message that can be found on nearly every page of the Star. Grab this land, says Godrich Gardee, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, South Africa’s radical leftist party, urging the expropriation of acreage belonging to white farmers. “They used guns to take over our land. Now, you must erect your shacks there.” The best time to take land that might once have belonged to your ancestors is during public holidays, Gardee is quoted as saying. “This country has a lot of public holidays. You must occupy the land during the public holidays, when the police and Red Ants”—a security brigade that removes squatters—“are on holiday. You must do it secretly. Do not make announcements on radios. They must just find you staying there.” He has renamed the farmland Zimbabwe, which is a nice hat-tip to the land-expropriation policies of South Africa’s neighbor to the north. There a minister of Mashonaland East province named Joel Biggie Matiza has presented “offer letters” to 19 of the province’s 33 tribal chiefs—an offer letter being a legal document frequently used by the regime of Zimbabwe’s 91-year-old dictator, Robert Mugabe, that overrides all previous title deeds and other documents governing ownership of any piece of agricultural land. According to these offer letters, the 200 to 300 white farmers who are still working small pieces of their onetime holdings in Mashonaland East must leave land that might not exactly be theirs but would be equally hard to describe as “belonging” to the government or to the chiefs. White farmers who openly support Zanu-PF—Mugabe’s political party, which has ruled the country since it gained independence from British colonial rule in 1980—will be spared.  

Lucky Countess, one of Paul Smith’s pigeons, has won three weeks of preliminary races “on the bounce” or “on the spin”—both are British sporting lingo for consecutive victories—and is therefore looking good for tomorrow’s race. Despite having led the English teams for the Olympiad and winning plenty of big races, Paul has never won the Million Dollar, a race he personally helped found and the one he clearly cares the most about. His best showing was in 2001, when he came in second with Nicolodon, a Hungarian pigeon he bought online after its owner failed to claim it; eight of the top 32 pigeons that year were Hungarian. To cover costs for the 48 pigeons his personal syndicate has entered in the race this year, he will have to win $52,000 in prize money just to break even. When I ask him about coming in second again he grimaces, and then he says: “How happy would it make me if I won this race? Very happy.”

Pigeons are substitutes for family. They give love. They make pigeon fanciers happy, even if no one understands exactly how they find their way home. They appear in the eighth chapter of the Bible, returning to Noah’s outstretched hand. They facilitated human communication over long distances before the invention of the telegraph, the telephone, and the Internet.

In addition to their critical role on the battlefields of World War I, pigeons also played an important part during World War II, especially in anti-Nazi movements in occupied Europe, which is still within the living memory of some of the older fanciers here, and is therefore one of several hot subjects of conversation at the hotel bar after the day’s basketing is done. The most affecting of the many stories I am told is recounted by an 85-year-old American fancier, Dr. Alfred Piaget, who flies Tournier pigeons in New Jersey and is a distant relative of the pioneering child psychologist Dr. Jean Piaget. He heard the story firsthand during a trip to Belgium to visit members of the Cattrysse family, who live in a small Flemish town called Moere. There, in a simple farming community of 1,200 inhabitants, the Cattrysse brothers, Gerard and Oscar, painstakingly built what by 1939 was widely regarded as the single greatest pigeon loft in the world.

According to an account they gave to a pigeon fanciers’ magazine after the war, the Cattrysse brothers were instructed in the art of breeding and flying pigeons by the great Belgian fancier Charles Vanderespt, who between 1923 and 1935 won an astounding total of 4,635 prizes, including the international prize in the Bordeaux Belgium-Holland race of 1935, which was famous for its dreadful weather. In 1923, the brothers read a news article in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir about a man named Pierre Decnop, from Anderlecht, who had won the three top prizes in a race from Dax. They purchased some of Decnop’s hens and began crossing them with Vanderespt cocks, but the pigeons they bred showed no interest in flying, even after three years in the loft, which ran the length of the attic above the warehouse of the brothers’ grocery store in town. Still, there was no question about the quality of the Vanderespt cock, which, coupled with a different hen, had bred Goliath, a famous prewar long-distance racer.

In 1936, the brothers purchased a magnificent blue hen from a fancier in Gistel and paired her with a checkered Vanderespt cock. Among the offspring was an outstanding blue cock named Grote Blauwen, who became the sire of the Cattrysse line, which was quickly recognized as one of the greatest in all of Europe.

Four years later, the Germans occupied Moere, and the Cattrysse brothers’ houses in town were commandeered as quarters for German officers. The brothers and their families moved into what had been their garage. According to the laws of the occupation, all pigeons in the area had to be turned over at once to the German authorities, who feared that the birds could be used to carry messages to and from resistance groups. Gerard and Oscar were permitted to continue caring for their pigeons under the direct surveillance of the German commander. Other families in Moere refused to turn over their birds and continued caring for them in secret, despite increasingly draconian punishments as the war dragged on and the local resistance linked up with the British, becoming a major thorn in the side of the German occupier.

A few weeks after the Normandy landing in 1944, the local German commander came to the brothers and informed them of an urgent new directive he had received from Berlin. “My orders are to kill every bird and cut their legs off,” he told the brothers. But the German officer had fallen in love with the birds, and with the Allied armies now moving inland from the beachhead, he also may have known that the war was lost. So he came up with a solution that would allow him to present his superiors with the required number of pigeon legs.

“Look, you and I both know that you have a lot of friends hiding their birds,” the commander told the brothers, at least in Alfred Piaget’s version of the story. “If by tomorrow night you can give me thirty to forty birds, I will spare thirty or forty of your birds.”

The famous Cattrysse line would be saved—if the brothers could convince their neighbors to substitute their own birds. That night, and through the next afternoon, Gerard and Oscar Cattrysse made the rounds on their heartbreaking errand, searching for substitute birds for the slaughterer’s knife. The brothers knew what they were asking of their neighbors. They also knew that they had something valuable to offer in return.

“If you can find it in your hearts, then we will breed you young ones,” they offered the local farmers. In return for handing over the birds that they had nurtured in secret throughout the war years, they would gain a share in one of the greatest bloodlines in Europe. The brothers returned before dusk with several dozen birds, whose throats were slit by the German officer, who fled town shortly afterward. Thanks to the willingness of the people of Moere to sacrifice their own birds on behalf of their neighbors’ superior bloodline, Cattrysse pigeons play a part in pigeon racing to this day.

I arrive at the pigeon loft at four the next morning, when it is still dark. There is a light on in Andre’s small kitchen, which is decorated with pictures of his children and a homey painting of a Voortrekker homestead alone in the middle of the veld. I pour myself coffee from a fresh pot on the kitchen table, where a radio is playing country music with lyrics in Afrikaans. The three men talk among themselves in their tribal language and shuffle their feet in the presence of a guest. Andre’s dog goes from man to man, nuzzling legs and hands, searching for the comfort of a pat on the head. After making his rounds, the dog ceremonially sniffs Andre’s worn leather motorcycle jacket, which is slung over the back of a chair.

Like Nazi-occupied Europe, apartheid South Africa seems like a strange backdrop for musings about the idea of home. Yet the Afrikaners, who are the poor whites of South Africa, have their own language and manners, and their own sense of rootedness in the land. With the country’s first free elections in 1994, the Afrikaners became yet another African tribe that lost its homeland, having been made constitutionally equal to the darker-skinned tribes they had so casually and brutally discriminated against. In fact, the Afrikaners lost their homeland twice, first to the British in the Boer War, and then to the definition of South Africa as a non-racial democracy in which power would be shared equally among all citizens on the basis of one man, one vote. While the idea of the Afrikaners as a white-skinned African tribe may seem wildly at odds with more common narratives of racist European colonial settlement, it is congruent in many ways with the history of the Afrikaners themselves, as well as with the history of the Zulus, Xhosa, Venda, Sotho, Tswana, and Khoi, dark-skinned northern tribes that also traveled south between the 16th and 19th centuries to populate the country they now share.

It is a basic pleasure for anyone who has been trained to do anything to be cut loose from one’s moorings, be pointed directly at an object, and think about that and nothing else.

Outside, the headlights of the pigeon transport go on, and the rumble of the truck’s motor drowns out the cooing of the birds in their baskets, which are airy and lined with straw. Inside, they are safe with the flock.

I will be traveling with Corrie, who has generously allowed me to ride along in the back of his buckie, a vehicle that is somewhere between a large station wagon and a small panel truck. Because of the low ceiling, the only comfortable way to ride in the back of the buckie is to lie flat on the plywood feed bins. Everything fits together well, and nothing is dirty. A blanket and pillow I took from my hotel room soften my makeshift bed, which has been scoured by a decade or so of hard use. It’s like lying flat on my back in a longboat from the Pequod.

The city of Johannesburg is dark, which is how things usually are at night, or, more recently, during the day. The city’s overburdened electrical grid frequently goes out during the daytime, and blackouts are now a more or less normal feature of life, just like the carjackings, home invasions, large-scale public thefts, and outbreaks of xenophobic violence that target Somalis and Eritreans. The acrid smell of burnt rubber wafting in through the open window of Corrie’s buckie is a reminder of the apartheid-era fashion for filling rubber tires with gasoline, hanging them around the necks of suspected informers, traitors, and enemies, and then setting them ablaze. Now the people of townships burn tires for fuel; the smell is unfamiliar to most Americans and Europeans but familiar to everyone else in the world as the olfactory precipitate of poverty and inequality.  

The windows offer a 270-degree panorama that reminds me of driving down the California coast at night. The sand berms outside look like the walls of beach castles built by giants, remainders of Johannesburg’s gold mines, which are now being worked by Chinese companies that reprocess the leavings for leftover gold.

Dawn soon washes the stars from the sky, and the sun comes up quickly over the highway. Sixty miles from Johannesburg, the savanna is a flat green with single trees in the center, like an illuminated picture in a children’s Bible. The farms have their own water tanks and provide watering holes for cattle.

We stop for coffee and inflate the tires of the pigeon truck. The road ahead runs two lanes in each direction, separated by a Mohawk of tall grass that has been bleached white by the sun. At the next truck stop, an hour later, I get out of the buckie to stretch my legs and peer inside the baskets. A pigeon looks back at me. Our eyes meet amid the rustling of the straw. The journey ahead is a strenuous one, and not without some real risks. There are hawks, electrical lines, and boys with guns. There is the sun, the wind, and a chance of rain. Depending on the weather, somewhere between half to three-quarters of the birds will actually make it home.

It is a basic pleasure for anyone who has been trained to do anything to be cut loose from one’s moorings, be pointed directly at an object, and think about that and nothing else. As the sun grows hotter, I decide to conserve my energy and enjoy the feeling of my back on the plywood, rolling with the bumps. The highway is now only two lanes, one going to Johannesburg and the other heading toward the Cape. We are hurtling through landlocked seas of grass toward an object that I have imagined but not yet met. Corn is in season but not yet up to the breakdown lane. The water towers out here are placed high off the ground, on stilts.

We stop in Bloemhof, which resembles a central Kansas shit hole, in front of Champion Chicken, which offers “lekker gaar hoender” or “tasty cooked chicken.” Inside the truck, the birds are hitting a note that sounds almost electric—“b-b-woomp!”—in anticipation of being fed and watered. The inside of the truck is cool, with a shady central aisle running between the two solid walls of chicken-wire baskets. At the foot of each row of baskets runs a trough made of stoppered white PVC tubing, where the larger birds have positioned themselves. The white mustache-like bands above their beaks, known as the cere, give them the unexpected look of mid-period Victorian gentlemen.

Corrie opens the bins in back of the buckie and pulls out a white bag of kernel corn, which he lugs over to the truck. He opens up the bag and pours, showering kernels down the tubing. The most aggressive birds push to the front of the baskets and peck first. Then they retire to the back of the cage and let the next birds have a go. When they are done eating, Corrie brings out a hose and floods the tubes with drinking water. Tomorrow at 6 a.m. they will have their last meal before the race. The men fold down the gate of the buckie and eat roasted chicken with their hands, washing it down with Coke.

Our next stop will be Kimberley, where we will pass by what was once the world’s richest diamond mine and is now the world’s largest man-made hole. In 2013, a dog fell into the hole and was stuck there for a week, until a rescuer rappelled down 500 feet and brought him out. Being in diamond country means that you can buy uncut two-carat stones at the garage across the street for 100 rand (about $9). Taking a piss in the bathroom is two rand.

François, the young Afrikaner veterinarian who tends to the pigeons, tells me that his friend gets more than $40,000 to live-stream ANC rallies that no one watches. He is a sweet, moonfaced boy who wears a black beret and respects his elders. “The big divide is between the men over 40 or 50 who fought in the Boer Wars,” he tells me, referring to the wars that South Africa fought in Rhodesia and elsewhere, in the hopes of beating back challenges to apartheid, “and those who are younger, like me.” Unlike many of his white peers, he has no interest in moving to Australia, or Canada, or New Zealand, or any of the other places to which white South Africans are fleeing in droves. South Africa is his home, and the wildlife here is better than anyplace else in the world.

On the telephone pole nearby, someone has posted a mimeographed tone poem above a smudged photograph of an ample woman:

LOST LOVER

HERBALIST 

IN 3 DAYS ONLY 

AND PEOPLE WHO WANT BABIES.

A local phone number is written by hand beneath the photograph.

An elderly couple pass by the truck filled with cooing pigeons without a second glance. The woman is dressed in the southern African uniform of a piece of cheap printed cotton wrapped around her waist and a cotton polo shirt on top. Because this is a wealthy area, her sandals are leather rather than plastic. The man, who looks older than she is, is dressed in a churchgoer’s black gabardine trousers and white cotton shirt, which has been turned yellow by the sun.

Anton, a tiny, strutting, red-faced man who drives the pigeon truck, is wearing a green and yellow Superman T-shirt with a giant cartoon S on the front. The S stands for Springboks, the national rugby team, which is beloved by Afrikaners. His shirt catches the eye of another one of the locals, a skinny young black man in a red T-shirt, who curses at him. Andre nearly goes berserk, like one of the dwarves in The Hobbit, for the honor of the Springboks. In his agitation and insistence you can hear it all, pride and yearning and racism and befuddlement at a world in which belief in what is right, in what should be his—his rights, his land, his home—doesn’t rhyme with the history that has unfolded around him. But this is a black town in the new South Africa, and today is about the pigeons.

The men get back in the truck, and I climb into the back of Corrie’s buckie, and we head south once more. A lone hawk circles the camouflaged roof of an old military depot or staging area, which is now a used-car lot. We are close to Vierfontein, with its graveyard filled with orderly rows of headstones in Afrikaans. The midday sun through the windows is boiling hot. Jurassic-type ostrich roam the veld. The trees here have been trimmed and shaped by sun and wind, like bonsai that are several hundred times the expected size. The elegant netting of the cables strung overhead has a touch of asymmetrical whimsy that reminds me of a steel-and-wire work by Paul Klee, on a Soviet scale. 

In Kimberley, the City that Sparkles, we pass by Samy’s Dial-A-Veg, a deli that delivers produce, and Samy’s Trading, an adjacent enterprise whose scope is unclear. In the shops I see Goldrush slot machines, which I have moved into towns like these in the American South with my uncle. Slot-machine parlors in towns like Kimberley are sinkholes for the wages of men who are too exhausted to think straight about what they are having for breakfast, which is often when they start gambling.  

Outside Kimberley, the air coming through my window feels like someone set a hair drier on high and pointed it directly at my face. Every field we pass has been burned brown by the sun. In one there stand a flock of shorn sheep whose black faces are turned toward the road while their white bodies stay parallel with the train tracks. We drive past the large fenced-in compound that houses the district jail in Wolmaransstad, then turn down an unpaved farm road lined with farms, until we pass one of the most remarkable agricultural structures I have ever seen—a grain silo with 16 separate compartments, eight on each side, each of which is at least ten stories high, and resembles a launch bay for ICBMs. In the center is a gigantic Italianate brick tower that looks like it was transported directly from Venice, where it housed the doge. Here the master of the house is corn.

We park at a guesthouse along the Vaal River. Pigeons are fed and watered beneath a stand of willows. Fishing rods for the guys are laid out on picnic tables so they can catch fish for supper. I sit with the state health inspector, James, who is Xhosa. We talk about South African president Jacob Zuma’s house, which cost almost $20 million. The real theft, James says, is being committed by the six big Zulus behind Zuma, whose names are never in the newspapers. It is wrong when tribes use state power to deprive other tribes of their share of the pie.

After dinner I sit outside with the men and swat mosquitoes. Above the Vaal River is the most beautiful night sky I have ever seen, with the Milky Way spread open in a way that is lush and obscene. Anton laughs. “That’s South Africa!” he says.   


In the 1970s in Brooklyn, where I grew up, pigeons were everywhere, which is probably why I am here. Some of my earliest gray-scale memories include pigeons, which fluttered and occasionally nested on the windowsill of the first place I was aware enough of to call home, a housing project near the Brooklyn Bridge built for working families like mine. There was a bona fide pigeon coop on the roof of a building nearby, like in the famous scene from On the Waterfront. Sometimes I could see a man on the roof waving a flag, which in my imagination was red but in fact could have been any color. The pigeons he guided back to their loft every night were a promise of safety that New York City in the 1970s was obviously unable to keep, which is why my parents moved to the suburbs, where the birds in the trees outside my window twittered and cooed in foreign tongues that signified nothing.

Years later I moved back to Brooklyn and had a son, who played in the same playgrounds that I did and also loved pigeons. When his mother and I split up, I moved to an apartment with a view of the waterfront, three blocks away from what was now his other home and half a block from the playground with the pigeons. One day he became angry, crazily angry, at a boy who threw a stone at a pigeon that was standing by the swings and would not listen to any explanation for why the other boy might have been so cruel. “Someone should throw a stone at him, hard, and crack his head open,” my son insisted between sobs, a large rock clenched in his hand. We both had lost whatever previous idea of home we each might have had, him for the first time, which I knew from experience is hard. Still, the loss had come to seem inevitable.

Home was not with the woman I married. It wasn’t even in the Brooklyn where I grew up, which had turned into a playground for rich people with quadruple-size bathrooms and walk-in closets. America was my home, except that my parents were from somewhere else. Their parents were from the Soviet Union, which was a vast empire that no longer existed. That made me more of an American, my teachers told me, which made me feel better intellectually if not emotionally, until I went off to college, where I discovered that America wasn’t actually a place, either: It was an idea that people disagreed about. There was a lot that I didn’t know about home then, and very little that I know now.

America was my home, except that my parents were from somewhere else. Their parents were from the Soviet Union, which was a vast empire that no longer existed. That made me more of an American.


We drive out of the gate at four the next morning, on the move to liberation point, where the pigeons will be released from their baskets. A little tsetse fly buzzes in front of the glowing screen of my iPhone. The motor rumble merges with the ocean sound of pigeons, a warm, low, guttural sound to welcome the dawn.

We park on an airstrip in Douglas, and as the men open the grates on either side of the truck, I ask Corrie if he has a hunch about which bird is going to win.

“I have no idea,” he answers. “One of them.” The birds in the top rows of baskets will be let out first, he tells me. Otherwise the birds in the lower baskets will be crushed to the ground. “They look for space,” he explains, which is as succinct an explanation as any of how pigeons fly. At the end of last year’s race, three pigeons landed at more or less the same time on the roof of the loft. Then they had a walking race to the finish line.

Like many quiet people, Corrie does his talking in a rush, all at once. “I was born in a pigeon loft,” he says over the thrumming of the pigeon truck. “I started racing on my own when I was nine years old. So I have more than 50 years of racing, and every year they amaze me. I love the birds. And you think you know, but in fact you know nothing.”

A team of young videographers hired by SAMDPR are busy setting up complicated-looking suites of GoPro cams to shoot the moment of liberation from every angle. Corrie and I watch them work for a few moments, and then I ask him what the pigeons know about the race and whether he thinks it is hard for them to be so far from home. “They are trained to do this race. It’s not a problem for them,” he said. “We breed them for the love of the loft. They want to go back to the loft. If they don’t want to go to the loft, they are free,” he continues, and then he squints up at the truck. “For the pigeons, their reward is that they come home,” he says softly. “They must come back home.”

The doors are open. The wire baskets are now the only thing standing between nearly 3,000 pigeons and open sky. They will fly 325 miles on the greatest journey of their lives, and most of them will never fly again, living out the rest of their days at stud. A crown plover calls saucily from the grass outside, and some of the pigeons respond with loud squawking: You think you are free, but your life is aimless, pointless. We are going back home, where we are fed and cared for.

Anton is standing on top of the truck as the mass of pigeon sound rises and falls beneath his feet. When they are released, the pigeons will head toward the windmill, perhaps 1,500 feet away, and then veer left toward the river. Bending down, Anton starts cutting the white plastic ties on the baskets. Each basket has two ties. By 5:28 a.m., he has finished the first side of the truck.

“It’s one of the greatest wonders of the world,” he says when I ask him whether it is worth working 36 hours straight at the car park in order to spend his weekend driving a truckload of pigeons up the Northern Cape. “How do they get home again?” When they come out, there is a droning noise, he explains, and then a wind comes over you.

There are four minutes still to go. Anton gently knocks on the metal of the truck to rouse the laggards. The pigeons are ruffling their feathers and crowding forward. They seem eager to go. “Opgewonde,” Anton says, which is Afrikaans for “eager.” The birds will cross the river many times. If we hurry back, we should be able to beat the winner by maybe an hour or two. I tuck myself between the two joined pigeon trailers so I can feel the whoosh of liftoff.

Alles alrecht, 100 percent guarantee,” Anton tells Corrie, with one minute to go. On the back end of the truck is a silver lever, which is held in locked position parallel to the ground. When Anton pushes the lever up, the doors to the baskets will fold down, and the pigeons will fly out.

A split second later, he does, and they do. The men bang on the sides of the truck, and the pigeons swoop upward, then gather together in the sky in a loose ball, which thickens and darkens as the pigeons already in the air are joined by those in the bottom baskets. When all the pigeons are out, the banging stops. The pigeon ball drifts over the field for a few moments and then turns left. A line of pigeons stretches out toward the horizon. Four seconds later it is gone, and the sky is empty.

The SAMDPR video guy, who was standing on the roof of the second trailer, looks befuddled. “Where are the birds?” he asks. It all happened so fast, and now it is impossible to get his shot. As it happens, the GoPro cams didn’t work either, and now there is no footage of the liberation. Luckily, François captured the moment on his cell phone, and he shows it to everyone.

When I play the liberation video backward, I discover something even more spectacular: A ball of pigeons emerges from the sky and hovers for a few moments over the field. Single pigeons then peel off and fly low and straight toward the camera, backward. Two seconds later, the black ball breaks apart in the sky. The pigeons fly back to the truck, and the cage doors shut, making their temporary home permanent.  

It is our job to get back to the lofts before the pigeons do, by driving at double speed across the grassy plains. Somewhere up in the sky, the pigeons are seeing an aerial version of what we are seeing now, the grass giving way to the blinding white-silver gleam of aluminum-roofed shacks, then to the cinder-block homes with tires on the roof. Some will glide and surf the thermals. Others, arriving a few minutes earlier or later in the same exact airspace, will beat their wings against strong gusts that threaten to blow them off course. The pigeons will get thirsty and drink from the Vaal River below. Those that continue the journey home will get back up into the air and fly over the township houses with their rooftop solar collectors, courtesy of the ANC’s last election victory.

We stop only once before we reach the city limits, where the highway maintenance is noticeably worse. Exhausted from the drive, we head directly to the loft and climb a short flight of steps to the control room, which overlooks the pigeon trap on the loft roof, which looks like a birdhouse and has food and water inside. The difference between a pigeon trap and a birdhouse is harder to spot but should be obvious from the word trap: The birds can go in, Corrie explains, but they can’t get out.

Michael Holt is waiting in the control room, which has four airy windows looking out on the loft roof, where the winning bird will land. When the first bird enters the trap, there will be a gap of one-twentieth of a second while the code is inputted. The results will be visible to Michael within 20 seconds, after which the victory chime sounds and a fanfare is played. “They were seen somewhere an hour ago,” Michael offers when we walk in. Michael, two SAMDPR workers, and a photographer, Corrie, and I are the only people here. “Owners get too excited,” Michael explains. “They make noise and scare the pigeons. So they’ve never been allowed near the lofts on race day.”

The only exception is Paul Smith, whom I can see from the window is pacing around the loft grounds. Every 20 or 30 seconds, he nervously checks his watch. “We’ve seen him get sick,” Michael says.  

After my third bottle of water, to counteract the dehydration of the long drive, I am feeling woozy but no longer feel like I am going to pass out. I am anxious for the pigeons that won’t make it. I haven’t talked to my son in a week. I imagine him sitting on the couch and reading a C.S. Lewis book and wondering when the pigeons will come. I am homesick.

Two pigeons land on the roof. One is plainly bigger than the other. “Go! Go!” I start to cheer. The pigeons ruffle their feathers, turn away from the trap, and stare back at us. It is a strange moment. Michael, the photographer, and the other three guys in the control room are all looking at me.

The bigger one starts to walk toward the trap, and then he stops, allowing the smaller one to catch up to him. The smaller one then takes three steps forward and stops. Now everyone in the control room is laughing. Over the course of ten minutes, the pigeons trade the lead three times before they reach the halfway line I imagine running the length of the roof.

Now the race is really on, or so I am hoping. But crossing the finish line is a formality that doesn’t seem to interest the pigeons at all. As they stop and start and then stop again, it seems entirely possible that a third pigeon will suddenly appear in the sky, fly into the trap, and win the race. But no other pigeons are visible. It’s like watching a spider race. It strikes me at this moment that while the pigeons have flown 325 miles across the length of South Africa, and crossed the Vaal River many times, this is the only part of the greatest pigeon race in the world that I have actually seen with my own eyes, except for the moment when they left their cages. The leisurely walk across the roof continues, until the smaller of the two pigeons has had enough and dashes across the finish line, followed by the larger pigeon.

Twenty seconds later, the results of the race are official: First place belongs to Sanjay 1, a blue bar cock with pearl eyes owned by Karl-Heinz Koch of Germany, with a flight time of nine hours, four minutes, and 18 seconds, which marks a surprising improvement from his previous finish of 1,158 in the fifth and final preliminary race. That, in turn, represented a great improvement over his finish of 3,014 in the first prelim, close to dead last, results which, depending on how you read them, show the bird’s unique passion for self-improvement or else illustrate the maxim that every bird has his day. He is followed by Robben Island, a Kuwaiti bird from a distinguished racing lineage who finished in the top 100 in ten races so far this season. Melton Moment from Australia arrives at the finish line nearly two hours later. “Fuck, that was fast,” Corrie offers. But because his owner failed to pay his fee, third place goes to the fourth-place bird, Welfen-Fuerst, who came in five and a half minutes later.

Most of the birds are still 60 miles away, with storm clouds closing fast. No one wants to think for very long about the birds that won’t make it home. It’s an Episcopal moment. I imagine a hail of drenched pigeons falling out of the sky onto the green-carpeted veld. They will have to wait for the rain to pass and their feathers to dry out before they can continue their flight. Those who break their wings will be unable to fly home. They will lie there on the ground, looking up at the sky.


Back at the Hilton, the fanciers gather for the post-race banquet, where “well done” alternates with “best of luck” and expressions of concern for the birds who are sleeping out tonight. The top ten pigeons get gold medals, five of which go to Germans and are collected by Willi van Beers, who looks gleeful when the German national anthem is played. “They are really driving the sport right now,” says Frank McLaughlin, an American fancier seated to my right. While pigeons, like people, can be a crapshoot, the great fanciers have a knack for selection, he says. Out of a group of 2,500 good birds, there are a handful of truly exceptional birds that are from another planet. “I can put two fingers like this and feel the electricity in the superstars,” he says.

I ask him about Zandy Meyer, the patron saint of the Million Dollar. “He was a wonderful speaker. Spoke about seven languages,” he remembers. “He was very smart and had an incredible amount of integrity. And he knew a lot about people. He told me once, ‘If you ever want to know what people really think of you, watch how their kids react to you, and then you’ll know.’”

I spend the rest of the evening table hopping, meeting fanciers, including Dr. Alfred Piaget, who started at age seven with a pair of pigeons he got from the farmer across the street, only to discover that they were both male, which is why they didn’t have babies. Raising pigeons helped him make friends. He is proud of having published one of his earliest articles in the American Pigeon Journal. Five years ago, he went to the great Barcelona pigeon race, where 25,000 birds were released from 24 open-sided freight containers, with two fanciers on each car to make sure the birds were OK. “It sounded like thunder,” he remembers. “They were out of sight in three minutes.”  

Though Frank and Albert are both expert fanciers, neither one has ever come close to winning the Million Dollar. Ton de Kovel, a thin, curly-haired man in is his early fifties who is sitting at the next table, won the race in 2013, with a pigeon called Untamed Desert. He is sitting alone and is glad to tell me the story, which begins with his mother, who passed away the same year he won. The previous year, she bought two chairs from Eijerkamp, a famous retailer of modern furniture. When I look puzzled, Ton explains that the Eijerkamp family are famous fanciers. “When you buy furniture there, you have the right to get pigeons for free,” he says.

When he went to get the pigeons, however, Henk Jurriens, the trainer, told him that they weren’t ready yet, but he could send Ton’s pair to the Million Dollar Race in South Africa. Ton agreed. On the morning of February 2, 2013, he went to the gym and noted that one of his pigeons was still in the final race, which by his reckoning gave him 1 in 2,750 odds of winning. Later that day, he checked his computer and found that his pigeon had won. He screamed—and then immediately assumed that his computer had been hacked. The next day, the news of his pigeon’s victory was broadcast on national radio, at which point he realized that his luck was real and that he was now $124,300 richer.  

“I never thought that I could win,” Ton explained. “My father was a fancier, not me.” His father, who died in 2011, kept a loft for 50 years, beginning in the Second World War. “He was a real pigeon fancier,” he remembers fondly. “He was talking to the pigeons, and they were fond of him.  They came to him. When he was away, they missed him. They loved him.” He himself never cared much for the pigeons, he adds. Now they are all he has left.


The Million Dollar pigeons will always believe that the loft in Johannesburg are their home, which is a big reason why they will never race again. Instead they will mate, which after racing is the second-favorite subject of pigeon fanciers, who become legends by locating and maintaining a bloodline that produces winners. One result of the importance of breeding to fanciers is that much writing about pigeons reads like a strange cross between writing about bridge and the writings of the Aryan enthusiasts who gained such wide popularity in Europe and America during the 1920s and 1930s. As Dr. W.E. Barker, one of the great postwar British authorities on pigeons, wrote in his classic Pigeon Racing, “Luck and chance have no part in the scheme of the creation. There is no law in nature more certain than the law of Heredity.”

The practice of line breeding—meaning the pairing of half-brothers with half-sisters, grandfathers with granddaughters, mothers and sons, and other combinations that would discomfit the authors of the Bible and legislators nearly everywhere on earth—is understood to be not just normal but necessary for sculpting a genotype that will spit out future champions, generation after generation. When the bloodline starts to resemble the later generations of the Habsburgs, breeders seek to revive it through cross-breeding before returning to the DNA of the original pair.

The morning after the banquet is the auction, where I can hold the winning pigeons in my hands, in case I want to buy them. The Kuwaiti pigeon, who came in second, is clearly the most impressive of the pair who waited on the roof for 14 minutes yesterday. His body is slung forward, like an Olympic sprinter. “He’s in very good condition. The feathers are like silk,” Paul Smith shows me. I take the bird in my hand. The feathers do feel like silk. “There’s a gap here in the feathers,” Paul points out. “People would frown on that.”

Sanjay 1, exhausted by his once-in-a-lifetime journey, sells for $6,000. “If we could export these pigeons, they would sell for $30,000,” Paul explained. “But nobody wants to take that big of a chance.” A moment later, someone whispers in his ear and he winces, then he explains, “I’m told my pigeon just arrived now.” Frank McLaughlin buys a pigeon named Black Champ for a friend. “Well done on that pigeon,” the auctioneer says. Al-Juwaisri 1, the 13th-place pigeon, who has a particularly good bloodline, and top results in the preliminary races, goes for $13,000—twice the price paid for the first-place bird, who had the day of his life yesterday.

In the back, I find the great pigeon breeder Jan Hooymans, a tall, gentle Dutchman, who is talking to an Australian man named Ben Williams, who has bought two of his birds. “You hear that a lot of good pigeons have very soft feathers and are built very well, and that’s an important thing,” he instructs. “For example, if you make a selection for the Olympic games, in the marathon, a skinny guy may win. And if you have a 100-meter sprinter, you need strong, bulky legs. So first you think, what distance does the bird need to fly?” After that, he continues, the key is selection and breeding, with the goal of always returning back to the bloodline of the stock pair. “Selection, selection, selection,” he insists. “Fly a lot, breed a lot.”

When he is done, he hands over a business card with a pair of pigeons on the front. “That’s the stock pair,” he explains to me. “All the children from that pair, almost all, 90 percent, have good racing results, some better than others. And also good breeding results. It’s phenomenal. I have had pigeons all my life, and I have never had such a pair.”

A top-shelf fancier is lucky to find a truly great pair once in his lifetime, so every detail of how the pairing was made is worth remembering, on the off chance that lightning strikes twice. “I had a good cock, a son of the Blacksen,” he remembers. “That’s my Young Blacksen. And all the hens I put him on produced good or very good birds. So I said, This is my chance. I have to look for a very special hen. I went to Gerard Koopman”—perhaps the greatest fancier in Europe—“and I bought at auction the daughter of Kleine Dirk,” a famous champion racer who was also inbred, “named Amore Re. And I put them together, and the youngsters were wonderful. There was James Bond. I think he bred eight or nine top-ten birds. Harry flew three times in the national—he came in first, first, and third of 30,000 pigeons over 500 to 600 kilometers. His sister won first in the national and went directly to the stock loft.

“And now I’m looking again for such a pair,” he continues. “But it’s tough. When I was a child, I was always going to auctions, looking at the winning birds, how they are, how they must be. But I can’t look into a pigeon. I had luck.”

Pigeon racing is no way to make money, he explains. He supports his pigeon-racing habit with the money he makes from running his family’s mushroom-compost factory. What drives him is his dream. “My dream is to make world-famous pigeons,” he explains. “And I remember the mistakes I make. I make hundreds of mistakes. And I don’t forget those mistakes. And then you learn.”   

Pigeons will always fly home, no matter how far away you take them, because that is how pigeons are bred and trained. Whether people are made the same way is an open question. However, one answer I did receive on the night of the banquet has stuck with me. It came in the form of a story from Alfred Piaget, the 85-year-old pigeon fancier, who told me a coda to the story about the Cattrysse brothers loft and the bravery and self-sacrifice of the people of Moere, who ensured that the famous birds of their village survived to breed more champions after the war.

Years ago, Alfred told me, he made a personal pilgrimage to Moere, where he met the daughter of one of the Cattrysse brothers. She had been a little girl when the Nazis occupied her village. She told him that 26 or 27 years later, when she was then a young mother, she heard a knock at the door to her home. She opened the door to find an old man standing there. He was clearly not from the village, but she felt that she had seen him before. As he stood in front of her, she recognized the young officer who had been stationed in her house and had allowed her family’s pigeons to live if other birds would die in their place. He felt that he needed to apologize for what he had done during the war, he said. He wanted to come home.

Welcome to Dog World!

My job was to make tourists believe they were seeing the “real” Alaska. Then things got real.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 49


Blair Braverman’s work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Orion, High Country News, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, and elsewhere. Her first book, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, is forthcoming from Ecco/HarperCollins. She trains and races sled dogs in northern Wisconsin.

Editor: Joel Lovell
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Christopher Swetala
Images: Blair Braverman, Kevin Ellis/Metro DC Photography
Video: Ken Carlisle, Kevin Ellis/Metro DC Photography

Published in June 2015. Design updated in 2021.

Dog World was perched atop a glacier near the edge of an icefield the size of Rhode Island. The only reasonable way to get there was by helicopter, and eight times a day they came in, five birds, loaded with cruise-ship tourists who’d spent $500 to go “flightseeing” over the icefield and then set down on the glacier for a dogsled ride—a taste of Real Alaska.

At first, from the helicopter, the only thing they’d see was the sweeping ice, smooth and white, punched through with mountaintops. If they had never been there before, the sight was near religious, something to bring them to tears. The pilots were instructed to play Enya on repeat, piped directly into their passengers’ headphones—music the tour company believed was a properly swooning soundtrack for the otherworldly vista below.

We lived there from May to September—I and nine other musher guides, a few staff, and 200 huskies—in a cluster of canvas tents and plastic igloos. Our job was to provide a luxury experience: all the thrills of a glacier with none of the discomfort, either physical or mental, that comes with the terrain. It wasn’t that our efforts were secret; they were just invisible. We cleaned the kennels constantly so that tourists would be spared the sight of a single lump of dog poop. We raked up fur that collected on the snow and piled it behind the tents in an enormous mound we called the woolly mammoth. Sometimes we had to be creative: If my dogs’ eyes got sore from the sun, I’d put mascara around them to minimize reflected light. “Those dogs must be related,” the tourists would say, admiring the huskies with big black circles around their eyes, and because it was easier than explaining, I let them believe it.

Nothing was meant to live on the glacier, and the longer I stayed, the clearer this became. Yet somehow we all got used to it. We no longer jumped at the gunshot crack of an avalanche on a sun-warmed afternoon. Turquoise lakes a half-mile wide formed and vanished overnight. As the surface snow melted, the foundation under our camp sank steadily away, and we’d wake to find our tents, which were on skis, perched atop pedestals of hardened snow. On rainy weeks, we gave up the dream of staying dry. At night, when I undressed, my waterlogged, sunburned skin fell off in white strips, which I’d toss to the nearest dogs, who sniffed them and turned away. I wrapped my fingers in duct tape to keep my shredded skin in one piece when I shook hands with tourists. When it was foggy we probed for crevasses, working a tight grid through camp, pushing aluminum poles into the snow until our palms blistered and our muscles burned. I never saw a big crevasse, but sometimes turquoise cracks split the snow. They were usually small, just a few inches across, and when I crouched close and peered into them they seemed to extend down forever.

The camp was a closed system: If we ate cherries for lunch, we’d be picking the pits out of the outhouse pump two days later (and getting a lecture from our manager about not swallowing pits in the first place). All human and dog waste had to be packed into barrels and flown to Juneau in a sling that dangled beneath the helicopters. On a bad day, we called it the Goddamn Ice Cube. On a good day, Summer Camp on the Moon.

But if the camp was a closed system, then the tourists, with their camcorders and designer sunglasses, existed outside of it. Our job was not to give them a peek in but to build the walls of their fantasy so solidly that they could not see anything else—to reassure them that even though they were on a glacier, nothing was dangerous, all was good, and everything was under control.

Our days started at 6 a.m. sharp and lasted until early evening. Most of my time was spent guiding the tourists. Each of the eight daily tours consisted of an orientation, a lap around a two-mile trail, and a chance to pet the dogs. My groups were often surprised that their guide was a young woman, and when I first arrived on the glacier I had taken pride in disarming them with my enthusiasm and knowledge. I praised their adventurousness, offered expertly timed confessions (“I was terrified on my first helicopter ride, too!”), took photos with their cameras and let their kids stand in front of me on the sled runners, pretending to drive. At first the performance was exciting, a chance to play the role of my bravest, brightest self. But with time my end of the conversation solidified into a script, one I could deploy with pristine enthusiasm. I hardly noticed what I was saying.

The tourists were always curious about glacier life, and I did my best to give them what they wanted. I told them about the hummingbirds that stopped by on their way to the moss-covered mountains, but I didn’t tell them about the time a lightning storm closed in on us and I thought for sure we’d all get electrocuted. I told them how strange it was to live in a world almost totally drained of color, but not about the elaborate plans another guide and I had come up with to escape the glacier on foot if we ever needed to. I told them the food was great and the mushers and dogs were like family and I had the best job in the world. Then I’d go back to my tent and cry.

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During my last summer on the glacier, I shared a tent with a girl named Rebekah, who became one of my closest friends. I was 20 years old, a Californian who had fallen in love with dogsledding at a folk school in arctic Norway. Rebekah was a homeschooled 18-year-old from Indiana who had never been away from her family for more than a week and who lived her life, in her words, guided by Jesus Christ and His teachings. She had cherubic curls and a constant sheen of sweat on her pink face; because she was an assistant, not a musher, she always seemed to be running from one chore to the next, fetching this harness or that shovel for whoever called out to her first.

There were a few male mushers at the camp whose teasing had an edge. One evening, Rebekah removed her boots and socks in the community tent to find that her feet had swollen like bread dough and had the pale cast of something left underwater. “That’s trench foot,” said a musher named Chad, who was new to the glacier. (Some names have been changed in this story.) “I saw it all the time in Nam. You’ll have to amputate.”

“If you amputate, you’ll go to hell,” said Dan. He was in his mid-twenties, handsome and popular.

“Shut up, Chad,” another musher said. “You never been to Nam. You’d’ve shit yourself like a baby.” 

None of them were looking at me, so I didn’t say anything. 

That night, Rebekah and I stayed awake longer than usual in our tent. Often we sat in silence, reading young-adult books about the end of the world and trading pieces of trail mix, but that night we talked.  “I just want to go home,” Rebekah said. “Don’t you want to go home?”

She was planning a short trip to see her family, a break to steel herself for the last month of summer.

I nodded but I didn’t answer. I wanted the best for Rebekah, but when she talked about leaving my throat went tight. I was scared that she wouldn’t want to come back. I didn’t know how I could stay on the ice without her.

It hadn’t always been that way. The previous summer I’d loved the job: working with the dogs, adjusting to the spectacular landscape—not to mention getting paid more than I’d ever made before. There were more women around then, three or four female mushers at a time, veterans of major dogsled races who could handle an ice auger like an embroidery needle. I copied the way they talked and dressed, buying my clothes off the men’s rack at the Salvation Army, joking with the pilots, and lifting water buckets between tours so that I’d be strong enough not to wobble when someone tossed me a 50-pound sack of dog food. The other women seemed to belong on the glacier in a way that I—who was torn between a desire for adventure and a deep-seated aversion to physical risk—never would. But they welcomed me. And for a while, as my skin darkened and my arms hardened and I learned not to flinch at the roar and wind of the helicopters, I began to feel more like them, like the tough girl I had always wanted to be. 

But the real difference between those summers for me was that during the first one Dan and I were a couple. Everyone was nice to me when I dated Dan, including, at first, Dan himself. He took me hiking, showed me around Juneau, and wrote sweet notes that he folded up in dog booties and tossed to me across the kennel.

“You’re good on a snow machine,” he told me one night. Then, when I blushed: “What I mean to say is, I think you’re pretty.” 

I lost my virginity to him in a cheap tent in a campground on one of our days off. By the next day, our relationship had changed. Sex seemed to make Dan a different person, focused and cold, insistent even when my body was sore. “You’re not supposed to like it yet,” he told me repeatedly over the next weeks—practice would make perfect. That sounded wrong to me, but I couldn’t argue from experience. I cobbled together boundaries where I could. 

One line was agreed upon: Dan and I would never hook up on the glacier. For one thing, we were disgusting, covered in grease and sweat and a days-old film of dog poop. And sleeping in each other’s tents would risk both our jobs; the company was strict about single-gender living spaces. But more important, there was no privacy on the glacier; nothing you did in your tent belonged just to you. Every thump, every murmur, traveled clearly across the ice from one tent to another. I wanted the other guides to see me as a musher, not a girl. The last thing I needed was for them to hear that.

A few weeks after our first time together, though, Dan slipped into my tent while I was alone, promising that he just wanted to hold me. Before long he was tugging my long underwear off my hips, kissing me even as I pressed my mouth shut. Tensing his arm when I tried to push his hand away. Pulling a condom from his pocket, rolling it on. As soon as I saw it, my heart sank: He had come here for this. I told him I didn’t want to, and he told me yes, I did, he could tell. When I clenched my knees together he shoved them apart. “Shh,” he whispered as I squirmed, no place to pull away between his body and the tent wall. “We don’t want everyone to hear us.”

“Everyone” meant the men on the other side of the canvas. They couldn’t know. I couldn’t face them if they knew. I closed my eyes and let my body go slack. 

When it was over, Dan got up quickly and slipped out through the tent flap. He walked out backward, so that his floating head was the last thing I saw. “Now we can say we’ve had sex on a glacier,” his head said. “Admit it, that’s pretty cool.” 

I grabbed a baby wipe from the box on the floor and rolled over to face the wall.

I wished by then that we had never gotten together, but I didn’t want to confront him and shatter the careful social balance of the camp. The only thing harder than dating Dan on the glacier would be breaking up with him on the glacier. And so for the rest of the summer, I played girlfriend the same way I played dogsled guide, learning the motions week by week, not stopping to think about what it all meant.

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I started college that fall. Dan gave me a framed photo of the two of us, one I couldn’t remember having been taken. He told me I was only going to school to please my parents. What I should do, he said, was follow my heart and come north to live with him. We could drive dogs year-round. I pretended to think about it. I put the photo facedown in my desk drawer and covered it with papers. 

That winter I broke up with Dan again and again, but each time he wrote to me the next day as if nothing had happened, until finally I gave up trying to object. Our correspondence lagged. He was far away, and I distracted myself with things that were closer, adopting a vegan diet, working out for hours every day until I no longer recognized the body Dan had fucked.

It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t go back to Alaska. It never occurred to me that I might not want to. Of course I’d go back to the ice. I didn’t know how else I’d get to be with the dogs, doing what I loved. And for a while on the glacier, I had felt tough. What would it mean about me if I turned back now? 

When I landed in Juneau, expecting to be picked up by one of the company’s support staff, Dan stood by the baggage claim. He greeted me with a hug, said he’d taken the day off to meet me. Of course he had. We were going to have a great summer, he said, without a hint of acknowledgment of our months-long breakup. His certainty made me question my own. Had I misunderstood the whole thing? 

Over the next day, as we waited in town to fly up to the glacier, I told Dan I wouldn’t sleep with him. I told him I didn’t like it when he touched me. I told him I didn’t want to be a couple. But the more I objected, the more he tried to convince me otherwise. “Just give me a reason,” he kept saying.

Later, when he slipped his arm around me in the women’s apartment, I found the only words that had an effect: “I’m not attracted to you.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Dan said, crossing the room in three steps, smacking the doorframe on his way out. And like that, the matter was settled.

Dan had already arranged for side-by-side kennels and shared days off, which meant that we spent a lot of time over the next weeks, when we weren’t ten feet apart among our rows of dogs, pressed together in a helicopter flying to and from the glacier. We handled this at first by ignoring each other completely. But soon he began upping the ante, talking loudly to other guides about how I was doing my job wrong, how I was unfit to give tours, how the dogs would never listen to my high, girlish voice. I’d enter the kitchen tent to find him questioning the veterinary care I gave my yearlings or scoffing at something he’d overheard me say to a tourist. Once, as he escorted a couple to my sled, I heard him say, “She’s good at acting like she knows what she’s doing. It’s too bad you didn’t get an experienced musher.” But usually when I was within earshot he’d fall quiet. 

I’d seen guides laugh along as Dan mocked the more vulnerable among us. He had been particularly amused by a heavyset couple who had needed snowshoes to get around and ended up quitting early in the season. After they left, he made fun of another new guide, the only black musher, for wanting to be a doctor. Dan teased him even more when he was seen exiting an outhouse with his laptop. Weeks later, that guide was fired.

When Dan aimed his scorn at me and the others followed, I was dismayed but not entirely surprised. What bothered me more was when they harassed Rebekah. Hard-working, cheerful Rebekah, who Chad tried to get to deworm the dogs by inserting the pills rectally. Rebekah, who’d fallen for the idea of Alaska, the idea of dogsledding, and back in Indiana had saved up money from making change in a McDonald’s drive-thru to buy herself a malamute and a husky, which she trained to pull her on Rollerblades. Her dream had been to mush dogs. And by the time she planned to see her family, she’d been on the glacier for two months, more than half the summer, without once getting to drive a dogsled. She kept setting aside time, getting her work out of the way—and somehow, just as she was about to go out on the trail, someone would yell that they needed her to scoop poop or fetch some booties, and the trip would be delayed once again. 

But now Rebekah was about to leave, and she couldn’t see her family without having driven a sled. So I begged an hour off and we hit the trail with enough time for a quick ride before her departure. We had just taken off when five helicopters rounded a distant mountain single-file and then roared into camp, coming down fast on the ice, hot rotors thumping. Moments later, nearly 30 stunned and immaculate cruise-ship tourists stood around the American flag at the edge of the dog yard. 

It was not a scheduled landing. I knew it, and everyone back at camp knew it, but we also knew better than to acknowledge to the tourists that anything was unusual. 

So the other mushers didn’t even glance at each other as they corralled the tourists together with big smiles and shouts of “Welcome to Dog World!” Rebekah and I, partway down the trail, stopped our dogs and watched from a distance. The tourists seemed happy—we could hear the buzz of their excitement—and the guides ran around harnessing dogs and hooking them to their sleds as quickly as they could. The pilots huddled together behind the helicopters. 

It turned out that a sudden storm, a wall of cloud between Juneau and the glacier, had blocked their usual flight path and forced them to forgo the flightseeing tour and make an early landing. Now, from the glacier, the weather looked overcast but by no means terrible; visibility was better than it often was. The pilots decided to continue on schedule. They lifted off in a line, heading back to Juneau. In an hour, they would return to pick up the tourists and drop off the next group. The mushers took off with their tours, and Rebekah and I continued along the trail.

For a while, at least, the ride was lovely—maybe the best I’d had all summer. It wasn’t raining, Rebekah was laughing, and the tourists’ voices sounded from the other trails, where other people were responsible for them. But within 15 minutes another rumbling echoed over the glacier, and a tiny figure in an orange vest zoomed toward the dogsled trails on a snowmobile. This was Malcolm, our manager. We’d been warned about orange vests: They were used to signal urgency. 

Malcolm waved to the tourists as he passed them—“Stunning, isn’t it?”—and then came to a stop next to Rebekah and me. “We’re in trouble,” he said. “The pilots can’t get back.” His voice was higher than I’d ever heard it. “Nobody’s hurt, but the tourists are trapped here now. They’re trapped here.” 

Rebekah was jumping a little on the sled brake. “What should we do?” she said. 

He told us to let the staff know what was going on without alarming the tourists. “Just tell them they’ll be here longer than expected—maybe an extra hour or two until the weather clears. And girls? Try to make it sound like a good thing.”

Rebekah drove fast around the trail, and we were waiting in the kennel by the time the other teams returned. We split up to spread the word: “Great news! You get a longer tour than usual!” While the tourists cheered and rushed to pet the dogs, I sidled up to each musher and whispered an update in his ear. Chad snorted—“Nice one, Blair”—but Henry, an older guide whom I considered a friend, nodded and squeezed my arm before straightening up and returning to his group. I had been hoping that Rebekah would reach Dan before I did, but by the time I’d worked my way over to his kennel she was still several teams away, giggling sharply and gesticulating to a man in a cowboy hat.

When Dan saw me coming, he led his tourists away from me, toward the lead dogs, who had flopped down in the snow. “This here is Mo,” Dan said. “He’s awesome.” (I noticed he was following instructions: Mo was short for Money, but Malcolm had directed him never to use the dog’s full name, since tourists might interpret it as angling for tips.) When I reached the group, I put on my biggest tour-guide smile and gave them the news.

“Wow!” said Dan. “Why don’t you all pet Mo for a minute?” He walked a few feet off, head down, and I followed. “What’s going on, Blair?”  

I told him the birds couldn’t get back. This was the closest that Dan and I had come to being alone together in two months, and I couldn’t help noticing how familiar he was.

“OK,” he said. He crossed his arms. 

“Just keep them happy for as long as possible,” I said. “I’ll let you know when there’s more information.” 

For just an instant, Dan looked up, and our eyes met. We both took a step back. “Don’t tell me what to do,” he said. “And next time, send Rebekah. At least she knows not to interrupt me when I’m with tourists.” By the time I gathered a response, he had walked away. 

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Back at camp, Malcolm and Nell, our cook, were standing around the satellite phone. They had called the cruise ship to say that the passengers would be late; the captain had agreed to wait three hours, but no longer. Nell was heating a massive pot on the propane stove, preparing cocoa. The goal was to keep things fun for as long as possible. Let the tourists hang out in the kennel, then bring them in for hot drinks. They were making plans for snowmobile rides and a snowman contest. As long as the backup helicopters arrived within an hour or so, there was no reason for the tourists to worry.

But after a half-hour in the kennel, when the weather had not just failed to clear but gotten worse, we brought the tourists into the community tent and fed them cookies. Malcolm broke the news: They were stranded. The helicopters couldn’t make it in. “No,” a man said, “that can’t be. My ship is leaving.” This met with nods of agreement. Then the tourists got angry—at the guides for misleading them, at the pilots for misjudging the weather, at the ship for not waiting. Didn’t we understand that this was a serious inconvenience? A woman had left her infant child with a babysitter. A couple was worried about standing up a dinner date. A few people raised concerns about medication they’d left behind, but their voices were lost in the general despair. 

By that second summer, it seemed to me that the tourists’ unhappiness was a bomb that could detonate at any time, and my job was to keep it from doing so. I had, at that point, spent almost six months giving eight rides a day, eight hour-long rides during which I acted delighted by all things dog and glacier, fascinated by every detail that my passengers cared to tell me about their cruise—a whale that very morning!—and their trip so far, and their relatives stuck at home, and their new Welsh corgi. It all felt so fake. I was still somehow a great guide, as measured by the generous tips and teary hugs I received, and the grateful letters that arrived occasionally, wadded in a pilot’s pocket. But the truth was, the more the tourists loved me, the more I resented them. I blamed them for not seeing through me; their admiration felt like a constant reminder that I didn’t deserve it anymore. By the end of each day, my cheeks sore from smiling, it felt like all I could do was stand in the snow, watching the patterns of light on the mountains, ducking my head at another sexual remark of the kind that, without Dan on my side, I was no longer spared. “Another one, Blair,” a pilot would call, letter in hand. “What are you doing, giving blow jobs?”

Ten thousand tourists passed through the camp each summer, and I had never seen any of them get stuck like this before. But it didn’t really surprise me, either; nothing about the glacier surprised me anymore. I had learned, over months of avalanches and lakes, trench foot and neoprene, to adjust to its changes without question. I stood back and watched the tourists from a distance. They were mostly middle-aged couples dressed in striped raincoats of the type I imagined were sold on cruise ships. A little girl held hands with her mother. Another woman walked in tense circles, pointing her useless cell phone at the sky. For a moment, as I watched the tourists jostle in line for the sat phone, blatant in their desperation to leave, I envied them. And then the moment was gone. The tourists became tasks again, not people—each one simply another item on my to-do list. 

Framing a backcountry emergency as an extended luxury tour is no enviable task, but Malcolm did his best. “We have a cook,” he announced, his voice confident. “We have plenty of food and water.” He laid out his plan for making their unexpected stay as enjoyable as possible, offering them as many dogsled rides as they liked. 

The tourists looked grim, but Malcolm gave them a pleasant nod and then stepped outside, gesturing for the staff to follow. “I don’t care what you need to do,” he whispered once we’d gathered around him. “Just keep them happy. Do whatever it takes. Act like this is the best thing that ever happened to you. And for God’s sake, don’t do anything that could get us sued.” 

The afternoon passed in a haze of card games, the tourists checking their cell phones in vain, the weather reports over the sat phone steadily bleak. At some point, it became clear that they would be staying for dinner. 

Nell, who ran a tight kitchen, must not have been pleased. But she knew how to keep her cool—she had been on the glacier longer than most of us. Nell could work magic with a propane stove, making lasagna, fry bread, biscuits and gravy. In the same way that the guides monitored the dogs’ weight and food intake, Nell scrutinized ours; since I had lost weight over the winter, she had taken to pouring oil over my food. The second a staff member sneezed, she was ready with a mug of hot chocolate and orange Tang, a mixture she swore by for the vitamin C. 

The tourists ate Nell’s dinner—meat loaf, real mashed potatoes, chocolate cake—around picnic tables in the community tent. The staff squatted behind the storage tent, eating sandwiches. We would be ceding our tents and cots to the tourists—we had extra sleeping bags for emergencies—and after dinner Malcolm went tent by tent to make sure the quarters were ready. He’d decided we should call the tourists “guests,” as if they had been invited over for a dinner party and just happened to be spending the night. “Put all your stuff in trash bags,” he said, “and pile it outside. We want to make sure the guests are comfortable.” 

When he reached our tent, Malcolm made Rebekah and me take down the perfume ad we had tacked to the support beams. “We can’t have the guests sleeping under a naked picture of Leonardo DiCaprio,” he said. But when Rebekah reached to take down a photo of a baby at a day care center where she worked back in Indiana, Malcolm stopped her. “Put that somewhere prominent,” he said. “It makes us seem human.”

Rebekah surveyed the empty tent. “Where are we going to sleep?” 

“I really don’t care,” Malcolm said. 

Back in the community tent, the tourists were gathered around the three tables, playing Go Fish and Parcheesi. A few guides hung around outside, sitting on a pair of snowmobiles, not saying much. Every 20 minutes or so, one would take a long breath, stretch a smile across his face, and pass through the tent flap. “Parcheesi! I love Parcheesi! Who’s up next?” Whoever had been relieved would step out of the tent, visibly deflate in the sudden chill air, and collapse onto the empty snowmobile seat. In this way, the tourists were infused with a constant rotation of freshly conjured enthusiasm.

When it was Rebekah’s turn, she stepped off the snowmobile and headed toward the tent. 

“Rebekah,” Chad called after her. 

“What?” 

“Just remember: Jesus hates you.”

After my Parcheesi shift, I didn’t feel like waiting with the other guides, so I began pacing the camp. I wandered over to the kitchen, but I could hear Nell talking to herself, so I walked over to the storage tent, figuring that if anyone confronted me I could say I was looking for something. When I stepped in, I found Chad and Henry sitting close together. They had been whispering but stopped abruptly.

I asked if we had duct tape. Chad looked at me blankly. 

“To fasten a bandage,” I said. 

“Maybe we could use her,” said Henry. “I could use an assistant.” 

“What’s your medical training?” said Chad.

I’d needed first-aid certification to qualify for the job, but when I applied I was living in Norway, far from any official courses. Our limited training at the folk school consisted of a few encounters with classmates who hid in the woods, covered in reindeer blood, moaning over various feigned injuries that we were encouraged to remedy with birch branches and torn strips of T-shirt. Afterward, I made my own certificate. 

“Some medical training,” I said. 

“Good.” Henry lowered his voice. “There’s a woman here, she’s got this blood-pressure thing and her meds are back in Juneau. I’ve been talking to the hospital. They say that if she’s stuck here through tomorrow, we’re going to have to let blood.” 

“Let blood?” I said.

Chad told me they’d find me when they needed help. “The guests can’t know about this, all right?” 

“All right,” I said. It was all I could do to keep my voice calm.

“All right,” said Henry.

They were waiting for me to leave. 

“All right,” I said again. Then I stepped out of the tent and zipped it shut and looked out at the white sea of that endless fucking glacier. 

I thought about going to the kennel next, but I knew the dogs would get noisy and people would notice and I’d need a reason for being there, so I decided instead to figure out sleeping arrangements. There wasn’t much to figure out. The men had claimed the community tent, the storage tent had no floor space, and Nell would have the kitchen, which left the vet tent for Rebekah and me. That was OK. It was far away, at least. I slung our trash bags over my shoulders and staggered through the snow, dumping them just outside the entrance. Then I untied the bags and began rummaging inside. I had my head so deep in one that I didn’t notice when Dan came up behind me. 

He was holding back a dog with each hand, clutching their collars as they stood, panting, on their hind legs. I unzipped the flap and threw my blanket onto the floor. “No room for dogs,” I said. “We’re sleeping here. There’s nowhere else.” 

Dan pushed past me into the tent. When I followed him in, I saw that he had kicked aside my blanket and was making room for the dogs. 

“Why are you doing that?” I said. “We need to sleep here.” 

“The dogs are sick,” he said. 

“The dogs are fine.” 

He didn’t answer. 

“Dan,” I said, “why are you doing that?” 

It struck me that I’d never been afraid of him, not even when he had pressed himself onto me, when he’d hushed my objections. I’d been resigned, unhappy, but never afraid—at least not like I was in a storm or a helicopter. And I wasn’t afraid now, either. Unhappy, yes. Resigned. And here was Dan. It all felt familiar.

“Dan,” I said again, more softly. “Why are you doing that?” 

“Don’t sleep here,” he said. “Sleep with me. We’ll find a place.” 

“I can’t.”

“We could fix all this right now,” he said.

I thought about it. What would be harder, what would be easier.

“I miss you,” he said. He was crying, and the sight of that shocked me more than anything else that happened that day. “You’re different now,” he said. “I miss who you were. You were a better person before. Don’t you remember how happy we were? We could have that back. It’s up to you.”

It was up to me—if only I would sleep with him. The unspoken standing offer, now made clear. 

I’m ashamed now to admit how seriously I considered it: the proposition that things could change, that the animosity, at least, could be over. I tried to remember the feeling of Dan’s mouth on my ear, the heat of his skin against me. Whether those feelings were more or less horrible than the silence, the muttered comments and strained relationships with coworkers, my constant prickling awareness of his whereabouts. It was hard to say. 

“I told Rebekah I’d stay with her tonight,” I said. “Besides, there’s nowhere else to sleep.” 

“We could tell Nell we need the kitchen,” Dan said, and I was caught off-guard by the absurdity of it, the image of Nell wielding ladles to defend her territory, and for a second everything dissolved and we were two people laughing. 

“Fine,” Dan said. “But it’s not going to get better. When you want it to, come find me.”

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We assured the tourists that the helicopters planned to come first thing in the morning, because what else could we do? We had to get to bed somehow. Rebekah and I hooked Dan’s dogs to a cable staked outside the vet tent. We spread our blankets in the small rectangle of floor between plastic chests and stacked dog crates, boxes of Neosporin and Cipro and tea tree oil. There was a folding table with mascara, zinc cream, rolls of stiff new booties. A propane heater hissed in one corner, and the rafters were draped in dark insulating blankets. Within a few minutes of lying down, curled beside each other, the tent had warmed enough to release the strong smell of piss and menthol. It burned the inside of my nose.

I had always liked nights on the glacier, the thin buffer of time between leaving the kennel and falling asleep. Most evenings I’d spend an hour or so grooming trails on a snowmobile, gunning the engine repeatedly to keep the metal grader from catching in the snow. It was an optional job, cold and loud at a time of day when most of the others were settling in after dinner, but I volunteered whenever I could. I’d realized early on that driving the trails was the only time I could be alone. I loved it when a fog came in, when I couldn’t hear voices or dogs and couldn’t see anything but white opening up in front of me, white closing in behind. When I finished the rounds I’d pull up to an empty camp, a silent ghost town with just the faint glow of flashlights showing through tent walls. Rebekah was usually asleep by then, and I’d peel off my clothes carefully, draping the rain shells and long underwear over the half-dozen lines strung from the central rafter. I hung my boots up last, upside down, catching the toes in loops of string so that moisture drained overnight. Then I’d tiptoe through fast-spreading puddles and fall onto my cot, zip my sleeping bag, and exhale. 

Now, in the vet tent, Rebekah was not asleep. I could hear her turning, could make out the tiniest of whimpers. It was black in the tent, the snow’s glow blocked by the insulating blankets—the first real darkness I’d seen in weeks, and even that was unsettling. I whispered, “How are you doing?” 

“My flight,” she said. 

I’d forgotten. “Your parents will understand.” 

She sighed. That wasn’t the point.

“I’m sorry the guys are so mean to you,” I said. It was the first time I’d acknowledged it aloud. “I wish they weren’t.” 

“What do you mean?” Rebekah said.

“You know. Trench foot, Jesus. Everything.” 

“They’re just being guys,” she said. “That’s how they do things.” 

“But it shouldn’t be like that. You shouldn’t have to go home because of them.” 

“I’m going home because I miss my family,” she said. 

Not to escape, like I wanted to.

“They’re meaner to you than they are to me,” Rebekah said. “I mean, if I can say this—Dan is the worst.” She told me how she’d met him at the beginning of the summer, before I’d arrived there, and how he’d said “all sorts of things” about me. “I was pretty nervous to share a tent with you, actually, after what I heard. Then I met you and within five minutes I was like, What was he talking about? ’Cause you were so nice.” 

“No,” I said, trying to make sense of it. According to Dan, we hadn’t broken up yet. I had the odd, sudden sense that Rebekah was embarrassed for me. 

I thought: We were never happy. Neither of us. Of course. 

It took me a long time to fall asleep. I wondered how many of the tourists were also awake, twisting in their borrowed sleeping bags and blinking their eyes against the constant, unfamiliar glow of the icefield. Where was the little girl, and the woman whose blood we might have to let? At the thought of her, my stomach turned. What would we use—a knife?

The tourists were probably uncomfortable, I thought. They were probably scared. They’d wake to realize that they were still here, still trapped—that none of it had been a dream. 

Rebekah and I woke early to the sound of voices. She went straight to the community tent, but I was relieved when Malcolm directed me toward the kennel instead. I spent the morning moving team by team, working to get all the dogs fed. I wasn’t used to caring for the other guides’ dogs, and when one of them nipped my arm, I felt like throwing down the food in frustration. But reaching my own team felt like coming home. I took my time with each dog, rubbing ointment between their toes, kissing the dips between their eyes. Even though it was overcast, I spread sunscreen on the females’ bellies and over the males’ balls, extra protection from the UV rays that reflect off the ice. I took pride in brushing them sleek and stretching their muscles with my thumbs. 

Every so often, heart pounding, I’d peek into the storage tent to get medical updates. There was no news on the woman with too much blood—I figured she must’ve been stable enough to stay with the group, even if her condition was serious. It would be years before I learned that she may never have existed, that the whole bloodletting thing was probably a lie made up to provoke me. 

But if the bloodletting was a lie, other dangers were real. One man was an insulin-dependent diabetic, and if he were stuck on the ice for just one more day, he might slip into a coma. I heard whispered news that a mountain-rescue team was mobilizing back in Juneau, ready to cross the frozen wilderness with ropes and ice picks, carrying insulin in their packs. 

For close to two hours I stayed with the diabetic man, who I guessed was in his mid-fifties. He sat on a cot, breathing slowly, radiating a calm that I envied. I tried to tell him the stories I’d perfected over months of tours—tall tales about dogsledding adventures, arctic weather, cute puppies. He was a patient listener, but the stories felt empty to me. Halfway through a secondhand story about a polar bear encounter, which was one of my standbys, I found myself wishing that I’d never started telling it at all. So instead I took a piece of paper and drew a picture of the man, taking my time. I tried to capture the angles of his broad face, his soft skin. When I finished, he admired the sketch at length, then tucked it into his breast pocket. He took my hand and told me how honored he was to be spending time with such a lovely young woman. I squeezed his hand and felt like a liar. 

When the man fell asleep, I left his tent and went outside. Some of the guides were sitting on the snowmobiles, looking out over the icefield. It took me a moment to realize what they were watching. There was a figure in the distance, heading away from us. “He won’t get far,” someone said. “He’ll either get spooked and come back, or he’ll fall into a crevasse.”

“Who is that?” I asked.

“Chad,” the guides said in unison. One of them added, “Either he’s going for help or he just lost it.”

“Lost it?” someone else said. “What’s to lose?” They all laughed.

Chad waved. I knew he was just goofing off and would come back soon, but he looked so small out there that the idea of watching him horrified me. I thought about going back inside the community tent, but Dan was probably there, so instead I went to the guest outhouse and locked the door. It smelled nice in there, like biodegradable cleanser. I stood with my eyes closed, leaning against the wall, grateful to be alone. But at some point I noticed myself, a sad, foul-smelling girl, hiding in an outhouse, and once I’d noticed that, I couldn’t un-notice it. I squirted sanitizer on my hands and trudged back out into the snow. 

Late in the afternoon we gathered the tourists in the community tent, planning to break the news about a possible second night. They had been remarkably positive all day, playing along with our smiles, bravely agreeing to an umpteenth round of cards. Some of the younger ones had even helped to feed the dogs, hauling buckets of soupy kibble from plastic igloo to plastic igloo. They were trying as hard as we were, but their faces in the tent were solemn. 

That was when we heard the thin rumble, so quiet that at first I thought it was in my head. Everyone froze, listening, and then began to cheer. The tourists rushed out into the snow, clutching their jackets as the birds landed. I stepped back and watched from the kennel, sitting on a doghouse as some guides ushered the diabetic man into the nearest helicopter. Rebekah and the other tourists climbed into the other four.

I don’t remember whether any of the tourists hesitated and looked back. It’s true that earlier a few had made remarks about wanting to stay. “I can’t believe you get paid for this,” they’d said, fantasizing about how, if they could take the summer off, they’d love to come work here. Malcolm took this as a sign of success. But in the moment, midrescue, the dogs were in a frenzy, yelping and leaping on their chains, and the pilots were shouting, and the noise of the rotors drowned everything else. 

I remember this, though: When the helicopters first came into view, all of the guests, as if by instinct, raised their arms, reaching. And without realizing it, I did, too. 

Company Eight

The true story of one man’s quest to reform firefighting in America.

In Memory of Adam Myers, Middlebury (Vt.) Fire Department

The Atavist Magazine, No. 44


Matthew Pearl is the author of the novels The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, The Last Dickens, The Technologists, and The Last Bookaneer (published in April 2015). His nonfiction pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe,and Slate. He lives in the Boston area.


Editor: Charles Homans and Evan Ratliff
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Illustrator: Greg Coulton
Other Images: The American Antiquarian Society, The Bostonian Society, Christie’s Auctions, City of Boston Archives, Harvard Map Collection, Keno Auctions, Library of Congress.

Published in January 2015. Design updated in 2021.

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Map of Boston, 1832. Photo: Courtesy of Harvard Map Collection.

The sun’s first rays were slipping between the brick buildings, and already a sizable crowd, coats pulled tight over dressing gowns, had gathered on the balconies and sidewalks to watch for the firemen. The church bells, doing their usual double-duty as fire alarms, clanged at an urgent pace. Twenty-eight-year-old Willard Sears ran ahead of the fire engine as it rounded the corner toward State Street. He and the other firemen pulled Number Eight by a long double rope, known as a drag rope, into the physical center of Boston, the heart of the city’s commercial and governmental district.

“Fire! Fire!” the men called in order to clear the way ahead, the rumble of the engine’s wheels and the men’s boots on the stone streets drowning out the warning bell dangling from the top of the machine. Turning onto State, Sears could see another fire engine ahead of them in the middle of the street, surrounded by men in long dark coats and black trousers—a mirror image of his own crew. An elaborate glittering painting of a bird adorned the side of the vehicle. This was Number Twelve, known as the Eagle Engine. But the firemen of Company Twelve were not rushing toward the blaze. Their attention was on the approaching crew. Sears realized what this was: an ambush.

Sears—a physically imposing man, square of jaw and shoulders—drew out the speaking trumpet that was holstered in his belt. He hailed the other commander: “Give me a chance to get through.”

Joseph Wheeler, Company Twelve’s foreman, stared down his counterpart from beneath the wide brim of his badge-adorned leather cap. “Go to hell!” he shouted.

Ash drifted in the late autumn air, and looking above him, Sears could finally see exactly where the thick smoke was coming from. City Hall was burning.

“I am going through there to the fire,” Sears called out.

“Go to hell!” Wheeler repeated.

“I shall run you down if you don’t give me room,” Sears warned.

“Go to hell!”

As the crowd of spectators grew, Sears considered his options. He came from a long line of fighters. One of his ancestors, an original Cape Cod settler named Richard Sears, was said to have lost an arm in a battle with Indians. Sears’s father marched more than a hundred miles to fight against the British in the American Revolution. His brother had trained recruits, again to oppose the British, in the War of 1812. When he had taken command of Company Eight a year earlier, Sears didn’t realize he was signing up for a war of his own, but it was clear now—he had found his battleground in the streets of Boston. He turned his back to the Eagle Engine and faced the forty-odd men of his company, their chests heaving for breath. He raised the speaking trumpet back to his lips and gave his command.

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Lithograph of a fireman with his speaking trumpet. Photo: Louis Maurer, the Bostonian Society.

The stately granite neoclassical building that housed Faneuil Hall Market was divided by an airy, arched passageway, with doors and windows opening onto the streets. All the small touches, like the delicately fluted columns and the Grecian cornice, marked the esteemed priority the new city of Boston granted its business community. The throng that surrounded the vendors’ stalls swelled with tourists who flocked to the newly finished showstopper of a building. A plaque under the cornerstone noted not only the year ground was broken, but also that it happened “in the forty-ninth year of American Independence.”

Willard Sears picked his way between the lines of people waiting for vegetables, fish, mutton, pork, poultry, beef, butter, and cheese. The noises and smells were invigorating. He was on his way through the marketplace, across Merchants’ Row, and into venerable Faneuil Hall to meet with the mayor, Josiah Quincy III.

Raised in Cape Cod to work hard and believe in a kind of personal manifest destiny, Sears had moved to Boston six years earlier, in 1822, the same year the town of Boston incorporated as a city. The rapidly growing seat of commerce now counted 50,000 inhabitants and boasted every conceivable kind of enterprise. To a born entrepreneur like Sears, Boston’s growth offered irresistible opportunities, but the influx of people also brought vice and squalor. Witnessing this side of the city, he’d later tell people, turned him into a teetotaler. He was also a blustery abolitionist, and being against slavery was no more popular in Boston than opposing consumption of alcohol. Sears sought out socially conscious churches and joined the Young Men’s Moral Association, a group dedicated to discouraging drinking, gambling, and other behavior that disrupted a city’s moral compass. As Sears prospered in his fast-growing construction business, he became stubbornly convinced that moral virtue begat success, and he spread his gospel to anyone who would listen.

Sears and Quincy had met shortly after Sears moved to Boston, and they discovered that they shared a reformer’s spirit and preference for unconventional thinking. At 56, the lanky, handsome Quincy had been in politics almost half his life, serving in the Massachusetts legislature and the U.S. Congress before he was elected mayor—Boston’s second—in 1823. He was a native Bostonian who had grown up watching the city expand, together with the challenges it faced. The image he honed was of a politician who solved problems using every means at his disposal.

When Sears and Quincy first crossed paths, the newly elected mayor had been wanting to do something about the infamous, secretive gambling dens and unlicensed dance halls that played host to thieves and prostitution rings and had been the sites of several murders. At the time, law enforcement was in its infancy; a small number of constables and watchmen patrolled the city, but Boston would not have a branch of detectives with investigation skills for another 18 years. The police superintendent told Quincy that there was nothing to be done about these criminal haunts—and that trying to shut them down would be a fool’s errand. “A man’s life would not be safe who should attempt it,” he said.

The mayor, unsatisfied, turned to Sears: Would he be willing to go undercover to gather intelligence? “There shall be at least an attempt,” Quincy said, “to execute the laws.” Twenty-year-old Sears agreed. Posing as a sailor on shore leave—a typical customer who ventured from the nearby docks—he explored the notorious establishments of west Boston and Ann Street, collecting names and details about the building layouts. Warrants were issued soon after, and Sears became the unofficial “mayor’s detective.”

Five years later, as Sears took a seat in the mayor’s office at Faneuil Hall, Quincy told him he had a new target to investigate: the Boston fire department.

At the time, firefighting already had a long history, but the techniques had barely changed since the early 17th century. Then, households had kept ladders and leather buckets on hand so that neighbors could help fight fires. The members of these “bucket brigades,” organized by fire wardens, did not have the skills or the inclination to risk their lives extinguishing complex blazes. (One fire warden was known to knock reluctant citizens on the head with a pole to compel service.) The most useful innovation came from England late in the 17th century. It was the water engine, a kind of tub on four wheels that was filled with buckets of water and then transported to a fire. Clubs of firefighting volunteers—one of the earliest of which formed in Boston when Company One, “Old North,” took charge of the city’s first imported English engine in 1678—organized regular shifts and trained on the new equipment. When a new engine was acquired, another company would form around it and take up a post in a new neighborhood.

Companies had to be authorized by the city, but once formed each lived by its own rules, complete with its own constitution, and this unstable situation continued into the 19th century. The city paid for the engines, equipment, and repairs. But the men were strictly volunteers and were proud that they received no salary for their work as firemen. That did not mean money was not at stake. The city paid bounties to the first fire companies to reach a fire, and it was common for the companies—made up as they were of competitive and athletic young men—to break out into brawls when they met in the street while trying to beat each other to the blaze. There was a sense that men who engaged in fighting violent, dangerous forces would be inclined toward violent and dangerous behavior themselves. They even taunted each other in song while they worked to put out a fire:

There is an engine house not far away Where they are last at fires three times a day.

The newest fire engines, built by top engineers in New England, had suction systems that allowed firefighters to use hand pumps instead of buckets to draw water into the tubs from municipal reservoirs or fire plugs (early versions of the hydrant). But because the engines and the hoses attached to them were not yet powerful enough to pump water back out at a great distance, engines would often have to form a chain from the water supply to the fire, pumping water from one to the next until the hoses could reach the flames. Many firemen scoffed at this kind of cooperation. Sometimes they would arrange for an ally to cover a fire plug with a barrel and sit on it, to prevent other engines from using it. Certain companies refused to accept water from particularly hated rivals, or purposely pumped too much water into the next engine in order to flood it. For desperate citizens fearing their lives could go up in smoke, it was hard to know which to worry about more, the fires or the firefighters.

Even though the term fire department was in use by the time Sears and Quincy deliberated on the subject in 1828, it was largely a misnomer. A department implies a unified operation, but these fire companies—collectively totaling about 1,000 men—were a loose collection of quasi-sovereign societies. Dealing with them proved uniquely trying for Quincy. Even after he’d replaced the old neighborhood fire wardens with a citywide chief engineer and board of engineers in charge of all the fire companies, oversight proved elusive. The companies clung to their independence, and their leaders considered any government action to regulate them to be tantamount to oppression. As the city’s reliance on them grew along with its own size and density, the firefighters became more difficult to control.

Quincy lacked leverage and knew it. The mayor would push new oversight measures through the City Council only to have them ridiculed and resisted by the firemen, who would pass out broadsides that called for the public to crush the anti-liberty “monster” that was city government. Specific firemen could be dismissed, companies could be disbanded, but finding competent substitutes was not easy. The dispute became a major test for City Hall, which was still trying to gain the trust of a populace unaccustomed to centralized authority and still unsure whether a mayor “was a four-legged beast or some other kind of animal,” as one reporter later recalled. If Sears could secure a place for himself in one of the 17 engine houses, Quincy figured, he could feed the mayor information that would allow him to craft more potent initiatives, even if the firefighters themselves might never be won over.

Photo: Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society
Photo: Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Sears had reasons for taking part in the scheme beyond his relationship with the mayor. He and his brother, Ebenezer, had become prolific builders. They put up whole neighborhoods and specialized in building churches—a holy mission for Sears, who signed his letters “your brother in Christ.” They prided themselves on quality construction, but even the best buildings of the era were firetraps. A single clogged chimney, a handful of wooden shavings left too near a hearth, or a drunk nodding off with a cigar in hand was all it took. Newly fashionable architectural features such as high ceilings and taller buildings increased risks, and with older wooden structures such as barns, stables, and outhouses crowded together throughout the city, all of Boston was a tinderbox. Fires wiped out dozens—sometimes hundreds—of homes and businesses in the city each year. Some 349 buildings had gone up in smoke in 1760, the worst year on record. The following year, Faneuil Hall itself burned down. A few years before Sears moved to Boston, the magnificent seven-story Exchange Coffee House, which took three years to build, caught fire and collapsed in a horrifying spectacle that would be remembered as the moment the city seemed to be punished for its sins. If the problems in the fire department weren’t fixed, it seemed inevitable that a fire would one day rage so far out of control that it would permanently cripple Boston. Who better than a builder like Sears to help stave off such a disaster?

Sears assured the mayor that he could win over the members of a fire company—that he could make them believe he was one of them, just as he had the criminal denizens on his earlier undercover assignment. Sears had jet black hair and a strong and stoic face that beamed with confidence, with a glimmer of slyness in his flinty, dark eyes. One local paper described him as “sturdy” and “spirited.” His combative and overconfident style could push as many people away as he inspired. Still, after years of managing construction sites, he was used to dealing with the kind of young, rowdy men who filled the rolls of the fire companies. Most valuable, perhaps, was his age: 24 was young enough to convincingly blend in with them.

One Sunday morning, Sears, while making the rounds to study all the fire companies, approached a small wooden building on Warren Street, the temporary home of Company Eight in the energetic South End of Boston. Eight, also known as Cumberland, was ranked among the worst of the worst for its misconduct and had the highest number of members under the age of 21. (Companies like Eight also had even younger followers who rooted for and assisted certain engines without joining—fire roadies, so to speak, who could get hurt or killed when they got in the way.) And a paper trail suggested some profiteering. Eight’s former engine house needed repairs, so the city built the new structure on Warren Street and paid a $130 annual lease to the property’s owner, Thomas Emmons—who happened to be a member of Company Eight.

Sears slipped through the open doors and found nearly two dozen firemen sprawled out on the sparse collection of furniture and on the floor—on the Sabbath, too, the avid churchgoer and church builder noted. The members, along with a group of young women, appeared to be recovering from a decadent night. The sight appalled the temperance fanatic, but Sears also saw an opportunity. “For when I am weak,” taught the Book of Corinthians, “then I am strong.” Sears had found the weakness he had been hunting for.

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Boston’s Exchange Coffee House Burning, by John Ritto Penniman, 1824. The fire depicted occurred in 1818. Photo: Courtesy of Keno Auctions.

Sears handed his fee to Company Eight’s treasurer and received the accessories that distinguished him as an official member: a leather cap, a number eight badge, and a personal copy of the company’s bylaws. Despite the fact that he was smuggling ulterior motives into the engine house, it would be hard for Sears not to feel a few inches taller suited up in firefighting gear. Part of a generation that felt simultaneously blessed and wronged by living in a time without a major war, the young man of action now had his uniform.

Sears had been forced to wait far longer than he had anticipated for his initiation. You couldn’t show up and expect to enroll in a fire company; most required a standing committee to accept an application for nomination and then, once there was an opening on the roll, three-fourths of the members’ votes to approve a new member. It called for the kind of glad-handing and maneuvering for which a man like Sears had little patience.

By the time Sears became a member of Eight, the engine had been moved from Thomas Emmons’s property on Warren Street to a now renovated, city-owned building known as the old Franklin Schoolhouse near neighboring Tremont Street. Sears, due to his standing as a businessman rather than any experience as a fireman, was made an assistant foreman. He might have been a spy, but he couldn’t repress his reformer’s instincts, and he was soon announcing his opposition to the men’s drinking and boisterous public behavior.

This made Sears less than popular in the engine house. The fire companies had spent years battling attempts to change their culture; back in 1825, Company Eight’s members had resigned en masse in response to Mayor Quincy’s creation of the board of supervising fire engineers. One of the company’s first slogans had been “Don’t tread on us.” When Sears’s beliefs became clear, he lost his place in Company Eight.

Sears, flustered with the quick failure, tried to join other companies, but the firemen had ways of warning each other about agitators, with names of personae non grata distributed and posted at each engine house. “We know you, you are a reformer,” Sears later remembered being told. “And we don’t want any such tomfoolery in the company.” He was refused wherever he went.

By now, Sears’s benefactor was long gone from City Hall. Boston’s 1828 mayoral election—at the time, they were held every year—was hotly contested, and the fire companies organized against Quincy, mobilizing their men, encouraging (or compelling) others to vote, and distributing broadsides throughout the city. More than 40 years later, Quincy’s family still blamed the firemen for forcing his withdrawal from the race after it became clear he could not prevail. The ousted mayor had a soft landing as president of Harvard University, but his bitterness lingered. His farewell address included a blunt reminder that, just as when he arrived in office, “the element which chiefly endangers cities is that of Fire” (with a capital F).

But by then, Quincy’s mission had become Sears’s. Perhaps Sears’s quest turned to an obsession the moment his fingers gripped the leather brim of the fire cap in one hand and the cold metal badge in the other. He would have to find his way back into an engine house.


On August 2, 1831, the members of Company Eight, fed up with the city’s meddling, voted unanimously to quit, sending a note.

to the city’s newly appointed chief engineer, Thomas Amory, that “we would have nothing to do with the Engine after 9 o’clock a.m. this day. Therefore the Engine will have no Company after that time.” The company surrendered their engine, their apparatus, and the keys to their engine house, and marched out.

It was a bold act of brinkmanship that could force the city to beg them to come back—but the firefighters had miscalculated. The timing was perfect for Sears. He quickly secured permission from City Hall to form a new company and take over the abandoned engine. He had gone far beyond Quincy’s undercover assignment. He now had a fire company of his own.

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Company Eight’s fire engine, 1750s. Photo: Courtesy of the Bostonian Society.

The company headquarters Sears inherited was nondescript and unadorned, part of a three-story building that was split between the engine house, a watch house, and a primary school. The floors and walls were thin, allowing noise to carry in every direction. Wandering through the empty engine house, Sears could hear the grammar recitations from the school. It was far from ideal. But it was Sears’s style to build success from humble beginnings. When he was listed years later in a book called The Rich Men of Massachusetts, his entry included the note that he “began poor.” Humble beginnings described the origins of the fire company, too, which in 1755 had salvaged its first engine from a Dutch vessel that wrecked off the coast of Boston. (The source of the company’s nickname, Cumberland, was lost to history, but may have come from this doomed ship.)

Alone in the engine house, Sears studied the fire engine. She—a fire engine was always a “she”—had been rebuilt in 1828 by Stephen Thayer, an established engineer who was once the captain of Eight. She wasn’t of the newest style, and she was heavier to pull than those made by rival builders. The base, with its four waist-high wheels, looked something like a working-class chariot, with a copper tub rising up in the middle. This was attached to an arachnid-like array of rods, which the firemen pumped up and down to draw water from a reservoir or fire plug, into the tub, and out segmented hoses. (Charles Dickens once described the American style of fire engine as resembling a “musical snuff box.”) The men dragged the whole contraption through the streets by ropes. Engines could be modified for horses to pull, but that risked bringing unwanted hostility from other firemen, who considered using anything but manpower a sign of weakness. Forget steam, too; in London, a prototype steam-powered fire engine was torn apart by a mob, presumably prodded by the fire brigades.

Sears envisioned himself as a fireman in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin, who in 1736 became one of the country’s first when he helped form Philadelphia’s Union Fire Company. Sears was another entrepreneur trying to overturn a broken system. He was a budding tycoon who preferred to be called a mechanic. (Franklin, too, had found a certain sublimity in the term.) Differentiating his fire company from the others, Sears felt, would be a matter of recruitment. He picked men who shared his moral values and brought with them useful skills, the sort that might be overlooked by companies focused on simply amassing the brute strength they needed to outdo adversaries.

Sears recruited Prescott Fisk, a 23-year-old grocer who refused to sell liquor in his store. Thomas Blasland Jr. came from a family of druggists and could mix the latest tonics and medicinal preparations he believed would keep up the firemen’s strength. Forty-four-year-old Marcus Howe was much older than the typical fireman, but as a shoemaker he could patch boots worn out from pulling the heavy engine back and forth across the city.

As the new members were settling in and trying out their equipment, a 29-year-old man walked through the door. Even the greenest of the recruits would have recognized him as William Willet, the man who had previously been the company’s highly experienced captain before disbandment. But the battle-tested ex-captain was not there to cause trouble, as Sears’s crew might well have feared. Willet, a clerk for his family lumber business, had been through enough power shifts and regime changes at the company not to take Sears’s ascension as a personal affront. He wanted to come back home.

Sears, for his part, had reached out with an olive branch to former members of Company Eight interested in rejoining. He wanted nothing to do with troublemakers, but he could benefit from having veterans such as Willet who knew their way around the engine house. Bringing former members back into the fold might also quell hostility from other ex-members.

Indeed, joining Willet in returning was George Veazie, one of his top protégés in the old Company Eight, a promising young carpenter who had moved to Boston from Quincy. But Willet and Veazie were exceptions. Of the more than 50 firemen who had walked away from Company Eight before Sears took over, only seven rejoined. Most former members wanted nothing to do with an interloper, much less one rumored to have radical reforms in mind. Their arrogant certainty that Sears would fall flat on his face was matched only by his own arrogant certainty that he was going to prove them wrong.

There was one man Sears wanted to recruit above all others: his older brother, Ebenezer. The only two boys among eight siblings, Sears and Eben shared a tight bond despite an eight-year difference in age. When he was 19, Sears left the salt mines and farms of their family homestead in Brewster, Massachusetts, to follow Eben to Boston.

After a series of apprenticeships, the Sears brothers hung their own shingle as builders in 1825. They were working on some brick houses on Haymarket Place one day in July of 1826 when the construction-site scaffolding collapsed; some members of the crew had been drinking and hadn’t properly secured it. When the wreckage was cleared away, lying in the debris was a seriously injured Eben.

The social pressure for men to drink was strong in Sears’s day, and alcoholic consumption was reaching historic highs without being curbed by education—or, too often, by common sense—about the effects of inebriation during dangerous tasks. This time Sears’s hero, his brother, was a casualty. The accident broke Eben’s collarbone and left him housebound for weeks. Sears, as he typically did, looked to pull redemption from failure. He offered ten cents more each day to the workers who gave up their customary eleven and four o’clock liquor breaks. About half of the men took him up on his offer. The idea stuck with Sears: that creating a more virtuous workforce would lead to a safer and more profitable business.

Although Sears had followed Eben’s footsteps as a child, as adults it was increasingly the younger brother who drove their plans and ambitions. Now 36 years old, Eben had adopted his brother’s vow against drinking, but he did not share Sears’s quick passion for taking on causes like reforming the firefighters. Sears badly wanted to recruit him to Company Eight, but unlike the bachelor Sears, Eben had a family to think about. He and his wife, Eliza Crease, had three children—eight-year-old Eliza, three-year-old Mary Jane, and two-year-old Eben—and a fourth on the way.

Sears lived in one of the Crease family’s houses, and he felt as close to his nieces and nephews as if they were his own children. They were the only family he had in Boston. So he was as devastated as Eben and Eliza were in the fall of 1831 when their eldest daughter came down with scarlet fever.

On a morning in late November, the Sears brothers carried Eliza’s body to plot number 24 in the Charter Street Cemetery. Sears was heartbroken to feel the lightness of the child’s coffin; in her final days, the sore throat and fever had kept Eliza from eating, and she’d wasted away. The Sears brothers came from a family that had been extraordinarily fortunate in its children’s health. At a time when it was common for a family to lose one or even several children to an early grave, their parents, Willard and Hannah, had raised six girls and two boys without any stillbirths or young deaths. On top of Sears’s own grief over his niece, witnessing the outward despair of the more introspective, reserved Eben was unbearable.

In early 1832, Eben told Sears that he would join his brother’s fire company. It presented one way to keep his mind off his loss—and for Eben to keep an eye on his irrepressible brother. Eben had a hair-trigger temper, not unlike his younger brother, but was proud of his self-control. Between the raging fires and the bitter ex-firemen running around, Sears would need someone to help keep him in check.

Sears’s meticulous investigations into the culture and practices of the companies had revealed that firemen often expected gifts, such as refreshments and liquor, from the people whose homes and businesses they saved—merchants and families who might have suffered thousands of dollars in damages minutes before. The prospects for such bonuses might influence whether or not the firemen responded to a call. (One particular Saturday night blaze at a barroom brought almost all the fire companies in the city out to help.)

Some fire companies expected more than wine. They waited after a fire for donations of cash—sometimes hundreds of dollars—from the owners of the properties they had saved from destruction. Such demands were not likely to be explicit; the sight of 30 or 40 strapping men in ash- and soot-stained uniforms who had just risked their lives, lingering, would be a hint. If the firemen did not get what they wanted, what would happen if another fire broke out and the same company answered the alarm? Public opinion was that firemen, as the ex-mayor Quincy later summed it up, formed “a class of citizens whose claims it was unsafe to deny.”

Sears prohibited this kind of extortionate muscle flexing and all other unseemly excesses. While his new crew members were still learning each other’s names, Sears put up a tablet in the engine house. Its three columns were headed “No drinking of liquor,” “No use of tobacco,” and “No profanity while on duty.” All of his firemen had to sign their names below the first column, while the other two pledges were voluntary—though most signed their names to all three.

As the company trained, Sears allowed one of the experienced firefighters to take on the role of foreman. The Quincy-born George Veazie, who had come to Boston the previous year, was not physically imposing. Twenty-two years old, with blue eyes that were in striking contrast to his dark complexion, he stood just shy of five foot five. But his skills and knack for leadership had impressed Company Eight’s previous regime, and the reputation carried over. Sears might have been the captain, but he would defer to Foreman Veazie when it came to the firefighting.

The week after three people died in a fire in Duxbury (too far from Boston for the city’s engine crews to reach), Company Eight responded to an alarm in Roxbury at the Chemical and Color Manufacturing Company—about as dangerous a setting for a fire as one can imagine; the facility’s 210-foot-high chimney expelled fumes from the acids and sulfates that the firm supplied to Boston’s growing industry. The blaze had started in a wooden building and quickly spread throughout the complex. Dragging its engine three miles from the South End, Company Eight worked with Roxbury firemen and another engine from Boston to contain the fire before it did serious damage or injured anyone. Fire companies could be penalized for leaving city limits; there were issues of jurisdiction to consider. But Sears was more than willing to take on fines if it meant being of use.

Hauling a fire engine through the streets was an exhausting business—and more than half the time there wasn’t any fire to be found. During the first half of 1832, there were 25 false alarms in Boston compared with 22 fires. Observers worried that this pattern would result in fire companies failing to respond to alarms—especially after a member of Company Fourteen was crushed by the group’s engine while rushing to a false alarm. The seeds for alarms could even be planted hours in advance, as when an anonymous letter writer sent a note to City Hall that read “there will be a fire in Boston to night.”

Ex-members of fire companies were known to exact revenge on their successors in any number of ways: setting off alarms in order to follow the company and start fights or disrupt firefighting, vandalizing or torching engine houses, and sabotaging engines by taking the screws out of the water pump or cutting the leather hoses, which could go undetected until they were needed. In addition to former members, active firemen could start false alarms to wear down or flush out rivals. The authorities rarely caught the culprits. There were too many suspects—including former members of Company Eight who couldn’t stand the “weak” (as some of them would later put it) temperance men running with their engine.

Sears cautioned his men to keep their heads down and concentrate on their duties. When the city celebrated George Washington’s birthday, the fire department held an elaborate parade. Engine Eleven marched under a banner reading SEMPER PARATUS: “Always ready.” (As bells rang and a gun salute fired, one bystander grumbled that Company Eleven’s motto should be translated as “Parades forever.”) Company Eight, in contrast, held up its plain and slightly archaic icon of fire ax, lantern, and fire bucket. Both Company Eleven and Company Seven—known as the aristocratic or “silk stocking” company—illuminated their engine houses with elaborate, expensive light displays. (In Eleven’s, lights shone through a transparency depicting Washington and the current president, Andrew Jackson.) Sears, despite enviably deep pockets, declined to decorate his engine house with flashy evidence of his patriotism and refused to host one of the celebrations that lasted through the night. The rest of the department began to notice that Eight was straying from the program.

Sears may not have cared about adding fancy decor to the engine house—a pastime for some companies that spruced up their headquarters with “an utter disregard of expense,” as one fire department chief later remembered. But when it came to the safety of the firemen and civilians, he spent hundreds of dollars at a time on the latest advancements. The “smoke cap,” invented locally at Lowell, was an early gas mask, giving what one newspaper described as “the semblance of a man with the head of a monster” and allowing a fireman to remain in a smoke-filled environment five times longer than usual without harm. Trained dogs could run ahead of the engine and clear the streets of pedestrians with warning barks—forerunners of the famous Dalmatians that would become familiar mascots of firehouses. Eight went from being one of the worst-behaved fire companies in the city to among the most efficient and best equipped.

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An 1832 portait of Company Thirteen in uniform. The artist is unknown. Photo: Courtesy of the Bostonian Society.

The rash of fires on Independence Day 1832 started late the night before, when a four-story building housing a grocer and a furniture dealer (neither of which was covered by any fire insurance) was set ablaze by thieves. In the middle of the night, a ramshackle two-story Cambridgeport house—the dwelling of what one newspaper called “loose people of color”—burned down, possibly at the hands of another arsonist. In the morning, near Spears’ Wharf, a carelessly tossed cigar hit a kettle of tar in an engraving shop. The blaze traveled to the Vulcan, a docked brig known for being found two years prior adrift at sea with its crew murdered by pirates. The Vulcan in turn ignited the rest of the wharf, and soon two nearby schooners were aflame, the scent of their cargoes of mackerel, molasses, salt, and sugar choking the air.

Boston was the second-wealthiest commercial center in the country, and a stalwart businessman like Sears knew how crucial it was to protect the infrastructure of the busy harbor. Company Eight arrived, along with Companies Two and Thirteen, both of which had cleaner records than many of the city’s other companies. The press later lavished praise on the companies’ performance and cooperation. “They were at their posts and every man seemed to know his place and perform his duty,” reported the Daily Columbian Centinel. “There was no confusion, no interfering with each other’s duties: in the midst of the greatest activity, there was perfect order and harmony of action.”

But even with the buildings saved, the ordeal was not over. The ships in port continued to burn, and Boston had no fireboats to reach them. The entire wharf, including many other wooden buildings storing flammable materials such as tar and coal, was threatened with conflagration—and once Two and Thirteen had returned to their engine houses, the only firefighters on hand were the men of Company Eight. The July Fourth holiday meant that many smoke eaters were off to celebrate or already in no condition to work. As one newspaper would euphemistically put it, “Many of the firemen were absent from the .”

One of the city’s fire engineers was on the scene to supervise. “Captain Sears!” he called out. “I want your company to guard the fire.”

Sears hesitated. His men were exhausted and had been in danger long enough. He insisted that, according to city ordinances, another fire company should be assigned to keep watch on the fire.

“I can’t help it,” the engineer replied, alluding to the fact that the companies that had been on the scene had already left. “The other engines are all broken.”

“The other engines all broken?” Sears asked. “It won’t take me long to break my engine. It is not my duty to stay, and I shall go home.”

“I command you to stay and guard this fire!”

“If you will admit to me in the presence of witnesses that all of the fire companies of Boston except Number Eight are drunk, I will stay and guard this fire.”

“That’s damned impudent,” the engineer said.

“It’s the truth, and if you won’t admit it, this company goes home.” Sears turned to his men and put his lips to his speaking trumpet. “Limber up, men!”

The engineer gave in. “Look here,” he said before Sears and his men could finish gathering their gear to depart from the scene. “Let me tell you, just you stay and guard this fire. About the other companies being drunk, between us two, they’re damned near it, I’ll admit.”

Sears, having provided an object lesson to his crew, was satisfied. Turning his attention to the flaming sea, he gave the signal to Veazie, who ordered the men to station themselves along the harbor and snuff out any flames that licked the docks.

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Robert Salmon’s A Fire in Boston by Moonlight, dated 1830–1835. Photo: Courtesy Christie’s Auctions.

Splitting the leadership of Company Eight with George Veazie had been a shrewd decision on Sears’s part. With Veazie handling the day-to-day business of firefighting, Sears was freed up to concentrate on charting their overall course. Veazie, having come from Quincy in 1831, was new enough to the city and the department not to be tainted by corruption or competitiveness. Sears could see much of his younger self in the hard-working carpenter, the go-getter who came from an outlying area of the commonwealth to find his calling and fortune in Boston.

Veazie, likewise, saw a vision of his future in the successful and enterprising Sears. If he had stayed in Quincy, he would have had to bide his time behind his uncle, an established carpenter—now in the midst of renovating former President John Quincy Adams’s house—who, like Sears, preached integrity and industriousness. Boston, on the other hand, presented a wealth of opportunities for a young man to earn respect and money, just as Sears had done ten years earlier. And joining a volunteer fire company in the city was a networking opportunity; it offered a rare chance to socialize with people from every rung on the social and professional ladder, from day laborers to wealthy engineers, cabinetmakers to bookkeepers.

But in the summer of 1832, there was little time for conversation in the engine house. Just three days after the Fourth of July fire, Boston suffered one of its worst blazes in years. An arsonist set a carpenter’s shop on fire in Merrimac Street, near the Charles River. The flames spread to a three-story brick stable—which collapsed into the street shortly after all 90 horses were safely outside—and then to several adjacent buildings before consuming the Warren Hotel. In a throwback to the bucket brigades of the colonial era, citizens were sent to nearby roofs with pails of water in case burning cinders were taken by the northeast wind. To make matters worse, the wells near the hotel were nearly dry because of drought and overuse by a cluster of nearby distillers—especially maddening to Sears and the true believers, like the temperate grocer Fisk, in his reformers’ squad.

That fire was massive enough that, according to a reporter for the Transcript, in the dark of night you were able to read a newspaper by the light of the flames in any street of the city. As people crowded around at a distance to watch the spectacular inferno, petty criminals saw a chance. A wallet and a gold watch were reported stolen. Another man was nabbed by two thieves and thrown to the ground before a bystander intervened. Thieves were known to set additional, smaller fires during a big blaze to add to the distraction. It was a perfect example of why men like Sears and Quincy saw fire not just as a destructive power in its own right but as a portal to moral disorder.

Companies from around the city rotated shifts on the July 7 fire for more than 12 hours before it was fully extinguished. Just a week later, another arsonist—or perhaps the same one—struck, burning down a stable and killing five horses on Leverett Street. Sears’s company answered the alarm for two other arson fires in Dedham on October 30 and in Dorchester a few days later—fires that together killed 60 horses and a Revolutionary War veteran who had been asleep in the Dedham stable’s loft. Sears continued to risk fines by venturing beyond the city limits with his squad. Company Eight was beginning to have the impact he had envisioned.

Sears refused to play games with lives on the line, ordering his men to take no part in the competitiveness among companies that was often on display at the scene of a fire. But the refusal was not mutual. Other companies often tried to block Eight’s routes to fires. Racing to respond to the Dedham blaze that October, Eight found itself neck and neck with Company Twelve and Company One. The scramble got out of hand, and a member of One broke his leg in two places when it was crushed under the company’s engine. The infighting came at great cost; before any of the engines made it to Dedham, the fire had already done its damage.

On the night of November 3, as the men recovered from their exertions at the Dorchester fire the day before, Sears noticed something amiss at Eight’s engine house: George Veazie was nowhere to be found. Perhaps something had come up with the 23-year-old’s new wife, Julia.

When there was still no trace of the foreman later, Sears could take his pick of what to worry about. Company Twelve, their most aggressive competitor, could have committed some mischief against the young man, or he could have fallen into the hands of a revenge squad of Eight’s own ex-members. They considered Veazie a traitor, a friend whom they had helped train upon his arrival in Boston, only to watch him become an interloper’s right-hand man.

Then Sears heard the news. Veazie had been .

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Lithograph of fireman dragging the engine, 1858. Photo: Louis Maurer, Library of Congress.

Charged with passing counterfeit currency, Veazie swore innocence. The whole thing, he insisted, stemmed from a misunderstanding when he’d paid for new boots with a fraudulent bank note that someone had given to him. But even if Veazie wasn’t guilty, for the moment he was stuck in jail. Sears would have to pick up his duties as the coordinator of Company Eight’s day-to-day firefighting activities—at a time when Eight was under mounting scrutiny.

Charles Wells, Boston’s mayor at the time, was a former builder, which might have given him and Sears some common ground. But the two men were near opposites. In contrast to his reform-minded predecessors, Wells prided himself on his lack of civic ambition. He was out to cut costs. A former member of the city council, he was more interested in protecting the status quo than he was in innovative ideas. The other fire companies complained to Wells about Number Eight. “If Sears and his men weren’t such reformers, if they would only take a little with the rest of the boys and be one with us, we wouldn’t find any fault,” other firefighters told the mayor.

Things came to a head on November 21, 1832. It was about four in the morning when a young man, a newspaper deliverer, was on his way through the city to deliver the Advertiser to Roxbury. While still in Boston, he noticed light reflected onto the wall of the Second United States Bank; flames were bursting from the windows of the first and second floors of a brick building on State Street. The young man and others who were passing heard a dog’s howl. Some went to find a watchman to raise an alarm while others worked on breaking a window to free the terrified animal.

Company Five—which had recently been reconstituted after a fracas with the board of engineers led to its dissolution—was based close by in an engine house at Dock Square. The men fought the flames for hours, unaware that a canister in one of the ground-floor offices contained four pounds of gunpowder—more than regulations permitted to be on the premises. When the fire reached the canister, a massive explosion shattered windows in adjoining buildings and hurled the firemen to the ground. Ten members of Company Five were injured in the blast, two of them severely.

When the fire on State Street was finally extinguished, the city fire engineer dismissed the companies from the scene. Only upon closer inspection did the engineer notice that the blaze wasn’t actually out. The flames had spread to the roof of the building opposite the offices: the Old State House, which for the past two years had been used as City Hall. Cinders drifted into the attic through the cupola, and soon the building was aflame.

The church bells sounded again. Sears and Engine Eight were trying to chase down the location of the fire, following the shouts of bystanders and watching the sky for smoke, when they came upon the engine of Company Twelve—the same squad that shadowed their movements at consecutive fires the previous month—blocking the way in the middle of the street.

Company Twelve, led by a candlemaker named Joseph Wheeler, had one of the closest engine houses to Eight’s, based a few blocks south on Washington Street—and in the Boston fire department, proximity usually begot rivalry. What was more, seven members of the earlier incarnation of Company Eight, men who had quit before Sears took the reins, were now part of Twelve, including Alfred Dow, William Willet’s former assistant foreman. Twelve’s members had designs on the old Franklin Schoolhouse—Eight’s station house—which, while cramped, provided access to both Tremont and Washington Streets, two main thoroughfares that could be used to travel rapidly north and south, almost the entire length of the city, and beat other companies to a fire.

But if Sears was about to meet his match, it might not have been in Wheeler but in one of the men who flanked him. Company Twelve’s assistant foreman, 24-year-old Joseph Drew, was a goldsmith by trade, and like Sears he proudly traced his ancestors to the founding of the American colonies. Like Sears, Drew wanted to command his own fire company. He had no interest in reforming the department, but sought to place himself in a position of power to help fulfill his political aspirations.

With Twelve’s squadron standing in his way, Sears had a choice to make. If he recharted his own company’s course—not an easy thing, with the bulky engine—he risked overexerting his men before they reached the fire and giving the flames more time to spread. If he sent his men to challenge the blockade, it could lead to a violent confrontation—the sort of disorder that had created a need for a reform company in the first place.

The dense black smoke on the horizon came from the gilded cupola that capped the Old State House’s tower and at one point had made it the tallest building in the city. Below the tower, the building stood three stories tall, and at 110 feet long it was more spacious than it first appeared. The offices of the mayor, the city council, and the board of fire engineers were inside the building. Sears knew this was his chance to show Eight’s worth to the city authorities in the most dramatic fashion possible. He could demonstrate once and for all that the old guard of firefighters were no longer in charge.

“Forward, men!” Sears cried into his speaking trumpet. Eight’s crew took their places around the engine, checking their grips on the drag ropes. “Close up, run them down, smash their crane’s neck, and never mind breaking legs.”

Company Eight charged. The Eagle’s men leaped out of the way, and Eight rammed the front of their engine. The base of Eagle’s engine snapped. Wheeler’s enraged men, threatening to “clean out” their enemies, chased after Sears’s squad as Eight continued its course to the fire. “Fire out!” shouted men from other companies who were aligned with Twelve, hoping to confuse Eight’s firefighters. When Eight stopped in front of the burning City Hall, Wheeler’s men, unencumbered by their engine, had them surrounded.

Fights between fire companies could be brutal. Clubs, wrenches, and axes were popular weapons, along with whatever else was handy. Mose Humphreys, a printer in New York who spawned Paul Bunyan–like folk legends about his time as a fireman, was said to have his shoes fitted with spikes for such occasions. Sears might have abhorred the foolish feuding between fire companies, but as the saying went, he wasn’t brought up in the woods to be scared of an owl. Once, when he’d rented the only hall in Boston that would allow the English abolitionist George Thompson to lecture against slavery (with a more than $1,000 deposit out of Sears’s own pocket), he personally stood guard outside the door in the face of an angry mob.

Now Sears counted 18 firemen from the rival company who had made it as far as City Hall—but those men were struggling to catch their breath, while Sears’s better-conditioned firefighters, 40 in number, remained ready for anything. Of course, Eben would be at his side, as usual, but so too would this other kind of family that had formed around the engine and its charismatic, unwavering captain. Sears ordered them to hold their position. Wheeler and Drew, seeing that they were outmatched—and knowing that the political ramifications of a burned City Hall would be too far-reaching for any fire company to contain—finally called off their men.

Fire crews were arriving from around the city, and Company Eight jumped into the precarious state of affairs. The men had to tie ladders together to reach the upper windows and clamber on top of the building. Scaling City Hall, they surrounded the cupola and lowered themselves into the attic, where the worst of the fire was concentrated. After a three-hour struggle, the flames were successfully confined to the attic floor, which was destroyed. The rest of the building was “saved almost by a miracle,” as the Boston Statesman put it three days later. An engraving by British painter Robert Salmon of the fire companies battling the blaze was adopted a few months later as the background for a certificate of service given by the city to firemen.


The year after Josiah Quincy had left the mayor’s office, fire companies negotiated an exemption from serving on juries and in the military after seven years of firefighting. Had there been a war going on, Sears surely would have volunteered regardless of how long he had been a fireman; even when he was nine years old, watching Eben suit up to fight in the War of 1812, he and other boys of Brewster formed a guard patrol along the shore to watch for British ships. If some firemen saw the benefit of their roles primarily in replacing other civic duties, for Sears it was civic duty.

But Sears knew enough about the current administration not to expect commendations for his dedication. Interrupting the elation that followed the extinguishing of the City Hall fire, Mayor Wells called Sears in for a meeting, which quickly became an interrogation about the incident with Company Twelve.

“Why did you run into Number Twelve?” Wells demanded.

“Because they obstructed our way to the fire,” Sears replied.

Damaging another company’s engine was as serious a charge as there was among firemen. Wells threatened to discharge Sears and disband Company Eight altogether. “You broke their machine,” he said.

Sears was incredulous. “We did,” he said, “and the next time they purposely get in our way, we will smash their machine into pieces.”

“You might have broken their legs.”

“We don’t want to break any legs, but we may next time. What is the fire ordinance? What are our orders?” Sears wondered if this mayor—unlike Quincy—even knew the answer. “‘You will proceed at once to the fire, and break down all obstructions.’ There, Mr. Mayor, is the law, and we only obeyed it.”

The irony was thick as smoke: Here they were, sitting in the very building that could have burned to the ground, which had already happened once since it was rebuilt in 1713 after a fire. “And now I will resign and you can have the engine,” Sears said. “I will have nothing more to do with it.”

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Old State House in Flames, 1832, by Robert Salmon. Photo: Courtesy of the Bostonian Society.

Mayor Wells might not have liked Sears, but he was pragmatic. He knew that Sears had turned Company Eight into a powerful model of efficiency. Losing one of the best fire companies in Boston could lead to hikes in fire-insurance rates, which wasn’t good for Wells’s political position. Besides, the mayor had enough problems to deal with as it was. The city struggled with debt—caused by dreamers like Quincy with big projects like the Faneuil Hall Market (also known as Quincy Market)—and was in the midst of a serious cholera outbreak. He walked back his reprimand. But Sears was too proud a man to forgive easily, and before he finally agreed to stay on Wells practically had to beg.

Sears now had some leverage over the mayor. But internal problems were multiplying at the South End engine house. George Veazie, it turned out, was being accused of more than accidentally using a fraudulent bank note. He was being charged with intentionally passing counterfeit bills to multiple businesses—and records indicated that he had tried to do the same thing on a visit to New York earlier that year.

His case went to trial in December. Veazie, prosecutors claimed, went into three stores trying to pass two $10 notes—promissory documents from the Suffolk Bank—in exchange for boots and a few dollars’ change in bills. One of the storekeepers was suspicious of the bank note Veazie showed him and left to warn the neighboring stores and fetch a constable. Veazie was cornered. Although he pleaded not guilty, he had already admitted to the arresting constable that the bank notes were counterfeit, a fact the bank officers confirmed at trial (while also marveling at the counterfeit notes’ high quality).

Even the prosecutors seemed to accept Veazie’s explanation that he received the counterfeit notes from his father-in-law, who promptly disappeared and apparently was never found by the authorities. But Veazie’s family members never disputed that he knowingly committed the crime. His family and friends in Quincy assured the court that Veazie was honest and hardworking but acknowledged that living in Boston may have changed him; he had thrown himself wholeheartedly into his role as foreman of Sears’s groundbreaking company, but time spent in the engine house and at fires naturally took away from his work and steady income as a carpenter. In the end, Veazie was sentenced to four years imprisonment with hard labor. “Look out! Look out!” ran the headline in the Transcript, warning Bostonians of the criminal in their midst.

Veazie was taken to the State Prison in Charlestown—a structure that Sears had worked on as a builder—on December 22, 1832 to serve his sentence. Sears had lost a foreman, a firefighting mentor, and a potential protégé for his construction business. At the next monthly meeting of Eight, Sears and his men reluctantly voted to give Veazie a dishonorable discharge—the first and only time that would happen on Sears’s watch. The incident was enough to make Sears question his own famously decisive judgment, especially in an endeavor where faith in one’s comrades was a matter of life and death. It also shattered the naive idea that he had created a shining city—or at least a shining engine house—that would be a bulwark against moral weakness. Perhaps the young men Sears had judged harshly from afar, rather than being deficient in character, were overwhelmed by a system that not only tolerated rash, impulsive action but counted on it to keep the men primed for their death-defying duties. Sears had been set on fixing the failures of the men to protect the public, while in fact the young men needed protection from a system lacking any stability.

Sears’s enemies took advantage of his distraction. With Veazie’s case going to trial, a faction of discontented members of Eight held a secret meeting to enroll a new contingent of 26 men as members of the company—which would provide them with enough votes to force Sears out. The new recruits included eight embittered ex-members whom Sears had replaced, among them William Weston, John Anderson, Thomas Emmons, and Company Twelve’s Alfred Dow. (It was now clear that the malcontents had been feeding intelligence on Eight’s whereabouts to Twelve—probably through Dow—which had allowed the rival company to shadow its movements.)

The breakaway faction and the new members made a scene at the next general meeting of Company Eight and threatened Sears and those loyal to him. Chief Engineer Amory intervened, using the authority of the city government to expel the new members. Sears had come full circle: Officials now recognized that he had built something that was worth protecting. The coup attempt ultimately failed, but with every step Sears took, he felt his company grow more brittle.

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Boston firemen cleaning the machine, 1851. Photo: John Prince, Library of Congress.

When Eben Sears told his brother that he wanted out of Company Eight, the writing was on the engine-house wall: Sears’s experiment was coming to an end. Over the course of a few months, between January and May 1833, Sears watched the pile of returned badges grow as men resigned in the face of harassment and obstructions—their furniture vanishing, the rival companies breathing down their necks, the mutineers and ex-members trying to gain control, the government officials flip-flopping about regulating the department or loosening the reins, and George Veazie’s embarrassing conviction.

Even Sears grew exhausted from the disruption and disappointment. He craved a settled life. On January 24, 1833, he had married Mary Eastabrooks Crease, the younger sister of Eben’s wife, Eliza. He had a new project to throw himself into: starting a family.

Sears’s Company Eight finally disbanded altogether in the early summer of 1833. The engine was taken over by a new group that included former members—as well as key alumni of archrival Company Twelve, whose ambitious assistant foreman, Joseph Drew, became the new captain of Eight. The tablet admonishing “No drinking of liquor” was probably the first thing to come down as Eight returned to its old habits. Almost immediately, the new Eight challenged Company Thirteen to a public competition between their engines in the Boston Common on July 4. Company Thirteen, likely the most sympathetic among the other fire crews to Sears’s reform push, declined the challenge, citing its experience of the “evil arising out of such meetings.”

Six months later, the old Franklin Schoolhouse caught fire, incurring thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. The incident came only a few months after the new officers of Company Eight the city for upgrades to the engine house. Whether the fire was a message to the slow-moving government bureaucracy to comply with their demands, an arson committed by a rival company, or an accidental fire that started in the building’s furnace (as the Boston Post reported), it remained a startling image: the epicenter of Sears’s reform movement, engulfed in flames. To add insult to injury, a thief braved the fire in order to steal a writing desk and some ammunition.

Misfortune followed Sears, too, after his departure from Company Eight. His and Mary’s first child, Willard, died at birth in the fall of 1833, exactly two years to the day after his niece Eliza died. Two years later, Mary died during the birth of a second son, Samuel—who also died—barely two and a half years after she and Sears had married.

After the loss of his family, Sears threw himself into his business dealings and social causes with even greater ardor. He bought Boston’s Marlboro Hotel, which had been famous for its tavern at the terminal of a stagecoach line. Sears did what only Sears would even try to do, turning an establishment known for raucous drinking into a temperance hotel. It was not only a complete break with the Marlboro’s history but an entirely new concept: There was no drinking, smoking, or profanity permitted. The landlord said grace before meals, and a Bible passage was read and hymns sung in the lobby twice a day. The transformation proved unexpectedly savvy from a business standpoint. The Marlboro soon became the go-to accommodation for the many devout Christians who passed through Boston.

When no venue in Boston would lease a room to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society for its annual meeting, Sears had his employees put in studwork and platforms in the hotel stable and provided seating for the audience. He soon razed the stable and replaced it with a chapel, where hotel guests were expected to attend services and which Sears leased out for meetings and lectures.

Some of these events were abolitionist or otherwise related to Sears’s personal crusades, but giving a platform to speakers whom nobody else would host became its own cause. The devout Christian Sears liked to say that, given the opportunity, he would welcome Abner Kneeland, the radical preacher who declared churchgoers’ traditional view of God “a chimera of their imagination” and was about to become the last person in America convicted of blasphemy. In addition to political reformers and advocates, the chapel played an important role in literary and cultural history; it was the first venue for the Lowell Lectures, a famed speaking series that brought James Russell Lowell, Louis Agassiz, and William James to the Marlboro.

The city marshal of Boston—a forerunner to police chief, which the city did not yet have—warned Sears in the spring of 1837 not to allow Sylvester Graham to hold a meeting at the Marlboro chapel for a women’s group. Graham was controversial for advocating vegetarianism and a new kind of flour that would later give rise to the graham cracker. A mob of bakers and brewers had already prevented Graham from delivering his lecture once, at Amory Hall on Washington Street, a block away from the Common, by threatening a riot. “I am in favor of freedom of speech,” Sears said to the city marshal. “If the time has come to decide the question whether that freedom can be maintained, I am as ready to meet it on the subject of Grahamism as on any other reform.”

“We can do nothing to stop a mob,” the marshal said. “Your building will most likely be torn down.”

“Let it be done,” Sears replied. He was not particularly interested in Graham’s diet. With typical grandiosity, he assured the marshal that he was ready to offer himself “as a sacrifice on the altar of freedom.”

Boston’s new mayor, Samuel Atkins Eliot, reiterated the city marshal’s warnings and again urged Sears to cancel the lecture. “Our police is nothing, nor can we depend upon the military.”

“It is said by some that public opinion is human omnipotence,” Sears told Eliot. “But when it is going wrong, it should be made right.” To Sears, giving in to what he called “mobocracy”—rule by those who seemed most dangerous—would flip the correct social order of things, allowing the powerful to deprive the downtrodden of their rights on a whim and, conversely, permitting the poor to demand that those who had earned wealth and power yield it.

The mob descended on the Marlboro as predicted. Sears had been directing one of his construction crews to pull down some plaster for a repair project, and knowing that he would have no protection from city officials, he told his workmen to place the stripped plaster and some chemical lime near the windows. When Sears could not persuade the anti-Graham mob to go away peacefully, he went back inside the hotel, climbed to an upper floor, and gave a signal, at which point he and the workers shoveled the mixture of mortar and lime into the air. The cloud of noxious dust temporarily blinded the crowd, and it dispersed without causing further trouble. Sears’s heady days with the fire department had taught him that however lofty his ideals, brawlers were to be met on their own terms.

A few weeks after his victory over the rioters, Sears, now 33, took a trip to New York and married for the second time, to a 23-year-old Vermont antislavery activist named Susan Hatch. It was during this stage of his renewed domestic contentment, four years since his brief career as a fireman, that Sears returned to their home near the entrance to the Boston Common one afternoon to find a group of unexpected visitors waiting for him.

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A circa 1837 cartoon depicting a group of wealthy blue bloods on Boston Common, trying hard (but mostly failing) to learn how to be firefighters. Photo: David Claypoole Johnston, Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Sitting in the Searses’ parlor were representatives from eight of Boston’s fire-insurance companies. While the fear of fire had for years been a boon to the city’s insurance industry, the worsening performance of the city’s firefighters meant the firms regularly paid out big settlements. The city had been forced to disband or accept resignations from six more fire companies for misconduct. The latest delinquent edition of Company Eight had just abandoned its engine in angry protest against another new city ordinance. The successes and ambitions of Sears’s squad might have been short-lived, but they had not been forgotten.

“Mr. Sears,” pleaded one of his guests. “The city government is helpless, and what are we to do?”

Sears wasn’t eager to relive the ignominious end of his Company Eight experiment. “Really, gentlemen,” he said, “I have no advice to offer.”

“Mr. Sears, we have organized an impromptu company and have taken one of the engines. We are trying to do something so that the city may not be entirely unprotected. We want you to come and help us out of difficulty.”

Sears sensed an opportunity, though it was not the one the visitors had in mind. He agreed to take the Boston Brahmins (as Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes years later would famously brand the city’s elite) out to the Common and train them in basic firefighting techniques. In the new company were leaders in various fields in Boston, including George Hayward, a prominent surgeon who lived in Beacon Hill, and Deacon Charles Scudder. It was surreal for Sears to once again be called captain, to pull on a fire cap and adjust it over his now receding widow’s peak.

Sears had brought along some of the members of his old team of firemen, who put the blue bloods through the ringer. “Man the hose!” yelled one of his assistants as the aspiring volunteers tried haplessly to screw the sludge-filled segments together. “Get down on your knees, take that hose between your legs, pinch it between your knees and get it together.” With a crowd gathered, the aristocratic executives in fine coats and neckcloths sprayed themselves with water and grease as they tried shooting water up a flagpole, a scene memorialized with glee by a local cartoonist.

“Gentlemen,” Sears told them when it was over, “I will have nothing to do with a volunteer fire department. I will not do anything unless you organize a paid force.” He had made his point. Instead of a new fire company, a committee was put together to pressure the mayor and the city council to consider Sears’s idea.

Momentum slowly began to pick up. Then, a few months into the campaign, a group of fire companies got into an altercation with a large Irish funeral procession—it started with an apparently accidental collision between a fireman and a funeral-goer—that turned into a nearly citywide brawl. The fight, which came to be known as the Great Broad Street Riot, was brutal and bloody, though somehow no one was killed. It was one of the ugliest incidents the fire department had ever been involved in, and Company Eight was right in the middle of it.

Between the political pressure and the riot, Mayor Eliot and the City Council were compelled to act. They passed legislation reorganizing the entire department, replacing the volunteer system with a paid (though not yet full-time) professional force. This experiment created the first professional fire department in the country. People joked that only free blacks and the Irish would make up the companies—the implication being that no one else would be low enough on the professional ladder to consider being a fireman a paid occupation. But the new Boston model would be followed in every city in the United States. Sears’s Company Eight, as one newspaper put it later, had been “the entering wedge that finally split, and broke up the existing system.”

The men who had come together to join and challenge Sears’s Company Eight went their separate ways over the years. William Willet, who had commanded Engine Eight in the days when it refused to accept Quincy’s implementation of a board of engineers, joined the board himself shortly after the company’s disbandment. Eben and Eliza’s family continued to expand, adding four more children in the years after little Eliza’s death, and Eben had more time for his busy household; he was still involved in some of his younger brother’s construction projects but was content to let Sears tackle the most ambitious ones without him. Sears and his second wife had no children, but he remained close throughout his life with his nieces and nephews. One of the ringleaders of the attempted takeover of Company Eight in 1832, carpenter William Weston, died a few years later at 29, from heavy drinking, while Joseph Drew, who inherited Sears’s captain’s badge, had to testify his way out of a scandal when caught at the scene of the burning of a Catholic convent.

George Veazie, whose arrest for counterfeiting helped push Sears’s project off the rails, received a pardon more than halfway into his four-year sentence. His family had petitioned the governor on the basis of Julia Veazie’s poor health, and the fact that Veazie’s father had died shortly after Veazie’s conviction, leaving his younger children in precarious positions. Veazie’s uncle promised that his nephew would “live in future an exemplary and honest life” and be “a useful and industrious citizen.” In 1843, Veazie reportedly went west to follow the gold rush, only to return to Quincy defeated, unsuccessful at another shortcut to wealth.

Sears accumulated more businesses and causes, always happy to defy the conventional wisdom of the establishment. He helped to charter the Female Medical College in Boston, with a mission to train women doctors, to make childbirth safer—a legacy of his sorrow over losing his first wife and sons. He was also a patron and original board member of a new evangelical Christian college in Ohio called Oberlin, one of the first colleges to be coeducational and to admit African-American students. He helped guide the formation of the Northern Pacific Railroad and built some of the first major buildings in San Francisco (later destroyed, ironically, by fire).

He also kept his promise to the executives who had visited his home that if Boston’s fire department was professionalized, he would be involved. With the new department in place, Sears helped restructure Company Nine, known as Despatch. Sears was briefly a member, and he brought in Jonas Fitch, a trusted employee at his construction company, as the captain.

With the revamped department in place, Boston developed a kind of nostalgic curiosity about the freewheeling days of the volunteer department. Stories of Sears’s exploits as the head of Company Eight were passed down within his family and among his contemporaries at the fire company. But aside from a few obscure newspaper articles, his legacy was never preserved, and he appears to have been forgotten long ago. With all the literati and reporters he encountered, Sears could have ensured that a definitive chronicle was written, but that wouldn’t fit the style of a “true-hearted mechanic,” as the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator called him.

Besides, Sears preferred looking forward to looking back. Once the fire department was in place, he added another title to his résumé, taking advantage of the safer new order he’d helped forge. He started his own fire-insurance company and installed himself as its president.

A Note on Sources

The most recent mention I can find of Willard Sears’s Company Eight is a three-sentence summary in a 1967 book about the Boston police by Roger Lane called Policing the City. Earlier, in addition to references to his time in the fire department in obituaries of Sears in 1890, there was an article in the Boston Herald in 1884, for which at least one former member (and, I suspect, Sears) shared memories of Company Eight with an unnamed journalist. But because the records of the Boston Fire Department from the 1830s are so fragmented, the full story has never been told.

I pieced together that story from what survives of the early fire department records, including correspondence, membership lists, city council communications, broadsides, fire-company constitutions and bylaws, and the minutes of meetings of Company Thirteen and Company Six, the only ones I have found that survived from the years Sears was involved in Company Eight. I also reviewed many Boston newspapers from the time. There was indispensable material in the Boston City Archives, the Bostonian Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Boston Public Library Special Collections, where Kimberly Reynolds was a great help. Elizabeth Bouvier of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court archives and the staff of the State Archives of Massachusetts helped me unearth the material about George Veazie’s arrest and trial.

Secondary sources contextualized Sears’s fire-company experiment, including Samuel Pearce May’s The Descendants of Richard Sares (Sears) of Yarmouth, Mass., 1638 – 1888, Josiah Quincy’s A Municipal History of the Town and City of Boston, Edmund Quincy’s Life of Josiah Quincy, Arthur Wellington Brayley’s A Complete History of the Boston Fire Department, Amy Greenberg’s Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth-Century City, Robert S. Holzman’s Romance of Firefighting, Stephanie Schorow’s Boston on Fire: A History of Fires and Firefighting in Boston, Mark Tebeau’s Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America 1800–1950, and the Bostonian Society’s collection guide prepared by Phil Hunt. I also consulted Daniel Cohen’s enlightening “Passing the Torch: Boston Firemen, ‘Tea Party’ Patriots, and the Burning of the Charlestown Convent,” from the Journal of the Early Republic, and I benefited from personal correspondence with Cohen, James Teed of the Boston Fire Historical Society, and Eben Sears’s descendants Willard May, Susan May, and Wendy Eakin.

On an unexpected personal note, at the time I was finishing my work on this article, my wife was finishing research on the Cape Cod side of her family and found that she descends from Richard Sears, placing her and my children—and, less directly, me—in the same family tree as Willard Sears.

Cloud Racers

The story of two rival pilots chasing a dream during the golden age of aviation.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 37


Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University. He has written for a wide array of publications, including Fast Company, Forbes,The New York Times, Slate, The Washington Post, and Wired.


Editor: Charles Homans

Designer: Gray Beltran

Producer: Megan Detrie

Cover Illustration: Chris Gall

Fact Checker: Riley Blanton

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

Images: Corbis, Associated Press, Lockheed Martin, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska State Library, University of Wyoming, Wikimedia Commons, Facebook, Library of Congress

Video: Critical Past, Universal Newsreels, National Archives

A Note on Sources:

All events described and dialogue quoted in Cloud Racers are drawn from contemporaneous newspaper and magazine accounts, newsreel footage, and books. For Wiley Post’s story, these include Forgotten Eagle and Will Rogers & Wiley Post: Death at Barrow, both by Bryan B. Sterling and Frances S. Sterling; Around the World in Eight Days, by Wiley Post; From Oklahoma to Eternity: The Life of Wiley Post and the Winnie Mae, by Kenny Arthur Franks, Gini Moore Campbell, and Bob Burke; and Wiley Post, His Winnie Mae, and the World’s First Pressure Suit, by Bobby H. Johnson, Stanley R. Mohler, and Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. For Jimmie Mattern, I relied on an unpublished autobiography he wrote toward the end of his life, which resides in the collection of the McDermott Library at the University of Texas at Dallas, as well as Around-the-World Flights: A History, by Patrick M. Stinson. In addition, thousands of newspaper column inches were devoted to the exploits of both pilots in the early 1930s, and both men published firsthand accounts of their round-the-world exploits in The New York Times.



Published in May 2014. Design updated in 2021.

Prologue

July 1, 1931

By 7 p.m., the crowd milling around Roosevelt Field on Long Island had swelled to 5,000. When dusk fell an hour later, twice that many were crowding the half mile of fence edging the runway. The police had organized a cordon, complete with a small battalion of motorcycle cops. A dozen planes buzzed back and forth overhead, carrying sightseers and photographers. Every once in a while, one of them would catch the attention of the onlookers, who would burst into cheers before realizing that this was not the plane they were waiting for—that it was not the Winnie Mae.

On June 23, the one-eyed Oklahoman pilot Wiley Post and his navigator, a spindly Australian named Harold Gatty, had set out from Roosevelt Field in hopes of breaking the record for the fastest flight around the world. For eight days radio broadcasts, newsreels, and newspaper headlines heralded the Winnie Mae’s approach: “AVIATORS OVER SEA, TRYING TO GIRDLE WORLD,” “WORLD FLIERS FACING PERILS IN TODAY’S HOP,” “FLIERS’ WIVES HOPE THIS IS LAST STUNT.” As the Winnie Mae crossed continents and oceans, newspaper editorials lauded Post’s and Gatty’s pluck, and churchgoers prayed for their safe return. Schoolteachers based geography lessons on the aviators’ route as they skimmed the northern latitudes over Europe, Siberia, Alaska, and the Yukon. The only people not glued to the latest developments, it seemed, were Post’s parents, busy cutting hay back on their 90-acre farm in Maysville, Oklahoma. “He didn’t have our blessing when he started out in this flying business,” his father groused to a reporter.

Now the duo were completing the 14th and final leg of their 15,474-mile journey, cruising over Ontario, Canada, at 150 miles per hour. There had been times when they thought they might not see Roosevelt Field again—rainstorms so violent that Post wondered if animals might be gathering in twos below, lightning that crackled at their wingtips, crosswinds that threatened to hurl the Winnie Mae into mountainsides, wing-icing cold, clouds so thick that the mist seeped through cracks in the plane’s canvas skin.

A few hundred feet off the runway, Colonel Charles Lindbergh was parked in a limousine. Four years earlier, Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis, single-handedly ushering in the era of aerial conquest and, in the process, becoming the world’s most famous celebrity. Fans had snapped up Lindbergh china, towels, paperweights, pillowcases, and Spirit of St. Louis weather vanes. A doll bearing his likeness was a big seller at Christmas. Lindbergh had transcended being a man; he had become a tchotchke. Now he looked out at the crowd eagerly awaiting his heirs, two of the many daredevils who had taken to the sky in hopes of outdoing Lucky Lindy.

By 1931, airplane pilots were claiming all sorts of aerial achievements: the first to cross the Atlantic east to west, to traverse the Pacific, to fly from Europe to Australia, to pass over the North and South Poles, to travel to Ireland from America, to zip across the U.S. nonstop from New York to California. But the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe didn’t belong to an airplane pilot at all. It belonged to Dr. Hugo Eckener, who had accomplished it two years earlier in an airship, the Graf Zeppelin, in a journey that took 21 days. The two men winging their way toward New York in a Lockheed Vega that evening hoped to beat “the balloon.”

Post and Gatty were a study in opposites. Thirty-two-year-old Post was short—barely five foot five—and thick, built like a piston, with untamable dark hair framing a moon face, a mustache, caterpillar eyebrows, and a gap between his front teeth. A farm boy with an eighth-grade education, he wore a white eye patch, the legacy of an injury he had sustained seven years earlier while working on an oilfield. He had a glass eye he would pop in for photographs, but otherwise he didn’t bother with it, especially while flying—at high altitudes it froze and gave him headaches. Gatty, by contrast, was a spit-polished wisp of a man who could emerge from the other side of a rainstorm as dapper as he’d entered it. A 28-year-old veteran of the Australian navy, he was, according to Lindbergh, “the best navigator in the country, if not the world,” so gifted that he could mark his location by studying the flight patterns of birds.

Unlike Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, who donned leather jackets and scarves while flying, Post and Gatty wore business suits, though by now theirs were rumpled and stained with oil, mud, and sweat. More than a week into their journey, they were running on little more than adrenaline, lightheaded from gas fumes and the unwavering drone of the engine. Post’s leg was sore from kicking the wooden pedals he used to steer the plane, and his one good eye was bloodshot from sleeping only 15 hours in eight days. Gatty’s shoulder was stiff and purple from a whacking dished out by the Winnie Mae’s propeller in Alaska.

From the cockpit, Post could see the Manhattan skyline. The Empire State Building, completed just two months earlier, nosed up into the clouds, the lights coming on as day retreated into evening. “We had gone all the way around the world,” Post would later recall, “for a glimpse of it from the west.”

Brooklyn, Queens, Mineola blurred into one long run-on sentence before Post’s lone bleary eye. He was coming in over the Roosevelt Field hangars when he saw the crowd massing to greet them. Planes crowded the airspace above the runway, the photographers on board snapping away. Post was anxious to land before one of them smashed into the Winnie Mae. “Make a turn and give them a chance,” Gatty shouted through the vacuum tube they used to communicate, barely audible over the engine’s rasp. “I would rather let them have it up here than be made to walk the plank afterward.”

Post marveled at his navigator’s naïveté. They had been dogged by reporters, photographers, and curiosity seekers at every step of their journey, even in remote parts of Siberia. The closer to New York, the more intense the reception they received. In Cleveland, well-wishers ripped Gatty’s jacket pocket.

Post took a wide, triumphant turn for the benefit of posterity, then, against a southeasterly wind, eased in for the final approach. The Winnie Mae dipped her left wing, and, tail down, landed in a cloud of dust against a sky streaked pink by the sunset. “It was as if messengers had come out of the skies to the earth dwellers with promise of greater victories,” The New York Times gushed, “for man has not yet come to the limit of his striving with the forces of sea and air and land.”

As Post taxied up the dirt runway, he was blinded by lights. Thirty policemen on motorcycles chugged through the dust to form a chain around the plane. Motion-picture trucks gunned their engines and sped toward the Winnie Mae. Radio announcers dragged skeins of wire; cameramen sprinted across the field. Then they came, from the far side of the field: hundreds of people, tumbling over the fence that divided the runway from the old Westbury golf course, running toward the plane.

The spectators cut through the line of motorcycle cops, scrambled up the Winnie Mae’s undercarriage, banged on the windshields, shoved, elbowed, and punched one another. Afraid the propeller might decapitate some unfortunate soul, Post cut the engine, and the blades came to a rest. His ears still ringing, Post called back to Gatty, “Well, here we are, kid.”

Unable to quell the riot, Nassau County police resorted to their billy clubs. The vice president of an airfield-services company was dragged from his car and beaten. A photographer was clubbed unconscious. In the heart of the melee was 21-year-old Mae Post, afraid for her life. She had been separated from her husband for six weeks and cried as her beloved “Weeley” jumped to the ground and swept her up into his arms. Before leaving her hotel to greet the plane that evening, she had told reporters, “I hope he never does anything like this again.”

The airmen were ushered to a waiting automobile and driven to a nearby hangar for an interview with Pathé News, which had paid them for an exclusive. “Do you feel tired?” the reporter asked.

“Oh, not very tired,” Post said. In fact, he was exhausted, his ears still ringing with the roar of the engine. It would take days to get his hearing back.

“What was the worst part of the trip?” a reporter shouted.

“This,” Gatty replied, “is the worst part.”

The men in the Winnie Mae were heroes of a sort that would vanish by the close of the decade, as aviation became normalized with the spread of commercial air travel. In 1931, however, the world was not yet thirty years removed from Kitty Hawk; the sky remained a largely untamed frontier, and long-distance flight remained a dangerous, perhaps foolhardy, endeavor. Navigational instruments were just beginning to evolve beyond the compass and sextant, and the steel fuselage was still a rarity. Planes like the Lockheed Vega were little more than canvas stretched over plywood, powered by a single 420-horsepower engine (about the power you’d get in a present-day sports car). Breakdowns were common, radios had limited range, maps were unreliable, and bad weather could be a death sentence.

But each new boundary-pushing, attention-grabbing flight had the quixotic effect of making the world feel a little smaller, a little less boundless—you could read a lot into the way newspapers described Post and Gatty’s endeavor as a race to “girdle the globe.” Every new first claimed by an aviator focused attention on how few firsts there were left to claim—and by the time the Winnie Mae touched down at Roosevelt Field, there was really only one that mattered. Even as the crowds rained ticker tape upon Post and Gatty in their car rolling through Manhattan the day after they landed, the world’s pilots were wondering who would be the first to do what Post had done, but without a Gatty seated behind him in the cockpit—who would be the first to circle the world alone.

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Wiley Post, left, and Harold Gatty ride through Manhattan on July 2, 1931, the day after completing their record-breaking round-the-world flight. (Photo: Corbis)

Part I: Getting Off the Ground

One

1923

Near Pearl Harbor, a Curtiss Jenny open-cockpit biplane descended from the sky and crash-landed in a sugarcane field. A crowd gathered; the pilot, a U.S. Army second lieutenant, was alive but still trapped in the plane, and a few good Samaritans tried to pull him from the wreckage. “There were two fellows in that plane,” someone said. “Where is the other guy? He must be tangled in the wreckage and probably dead now.”

A teenager on the edge of the crowd, a rail-thin 18-year-old boy, spoke up. “I’m the other one who was in that plane,” Jimmie Mattern said, and promptly fainted.

It figures that the first time Mattern flew, the plane crashed. Later he would become one of the greatest pilots of his generation, and equally famous for walking away from crashes that would have maimed or killed others. Once, after engine trouble forced him down in the wilds of Alaska, he lived off the land for three days until he was rescued. Another time he vanished over the Texas prairie, where he was discovered a couple of days later munching on fried chicken in a farmhouse. Then there was the time he received a telegram in Chicago inviting him to be a judge at an air race in Florida. Borrowing a plane, he started south but plowed into an Indiana cornfield. He scrounged up another plane, making it as far as Georgia before he flopped down into some sand hills. A pair of pilot pals heading in the same direction offered him a lift to Florida, where he arrived the night before the race. Then a friend invited Mattern to tag along to a party on a yacht, which broke down at sea. He didn’t get back to shore for two days and missed the judging.

Mattern was born in Freeport, Illinois, the fourth of four children of a German émigré who owned a small chain of shoe stores. His family enjoyed a modest middle-class existence until he was 15, when his father died. The shoe stores were liquidated, and his mother found herself with no means of support and barely enough money to make it through the year.

The family moved to Calgary, where Mattern was taken out of school and worked variously as a cowboy, limousine driver, window washer, and bus boy before finding his way to Seattle, where he met an Army recruiting sergeant. A hearty meal and one night in a real bed at the local armory was all the convincing Mattern needed. A few days shy of his 17th birthday, he lied about his age and enlisted.

Following boot camp, he heard about an opening in the bugle corps for a drummer and got himself transferred to Hawaii. He was passing the time near Pearl Harbor one afternoon, watching aircraft take off and land, when he met the second lieutenant, who pointed to an approaching biplane and told Mattern, “When that plane up there comes down, I am going to take it up and wring it out.”

“Can I go with you?” Mattern asked.

In those days, plane-crash survivors were rushed back to the air so they wouldn’t develop a fear of flying. That night, Mattern flew in an old bomber, up front in the plane’s transparent nose, peering down on the lights of Oahu. There and then, Mattern decided he wanted to become a pilot.

Three years later, in 1925, he was honorably discharged and given $300. After a hitch with a cruise-ship jazz band, he returned to Seattle and married his girlfriend, Delia, a pretty, curly-haired blonde from Walla Walla, Washington. But Mattern didn’t stick around long after the honeymoon. In 1926, he traveled to San Diego, where Ryan Aircraft kept its headquarters. The place was fast becoming a hotbed of aviation, where would-be pilots like Mattern flocked to learn to fly. The factory had just received an order for a plane from a young pilot named Charles Lindbergh who was preparing for a nonstop solo flight from New York to Paris.

Aviation was so young then that the 500 flying hours that Mattern’s instructor had logged made him a grizzled veteran. (Today, a flight instructor might rack up four times that many hours and a commercial pilot could log 20,000 hours in a career.) The instructor took Mattern up in a surplus Jenny and showed him the basics over Dutch Flats, a dirt airstrip near the Ryan factory. After three hours and 20 minutes, Mattern was soloing. “The biggest thrill of all is the first time you find yourself up there all alone,” he later wrote. “It’s a once in a lifetime feeling. You never had it before but you have it now.”

It wasn’t long before Mattern hopped a train to Troy, Ohio, and plunked down his savings for a Waco 10, a three-seat open-cockpit biplane similar to the Jenny. When the Waco factory representative found out how inexperienced Mattern was, he refused to let him fly it home and arranged for a pilot named Freddie Lund to chauffer him back west. “Fearless Freddie” Lund was a legendary silent-movie stunt pilot and wing walker for the renowned Gates Flying Circus, who was famous for his loop-the-loops. With Mattern as his passenger, he navigated over the Midwest and through New Mexico to California by following railroad tracks—what he called the iron compass. Lund and Mattern both stuck around Los Angeles, and Lund showed his young charge his arsenal of tricks. A couple hundred hours of practice later, Mattern officially became a pilot. His license, only the 576th ever issued by the International Aeronautical Federation, was signed by Orville Wright.

Around this time, Mattern learned that a motion picture called Lilac Time, a romance between an American aviator—played by Gary Cooper—and a French farmer’s daughter during World War I, was about to start shooting. The next day, Mattern flew to the set in Santa Ana and put on a show, auditioning with a few moves Lund had shown him. He uncorked a series of snap rolls, power dives, wingovers, loops, and barrel rolls, the power of the engine urging him on to wilder and wilder acrobatics. Mattern was offered a job on the spot.

His first scene was particularly dangerous: a power dive from 5,000 feet, descending from above the clouds down through a bomber formation of more than 50 planes, a tactic made famous by the Red Baron. His motor running full throttle, Mattern plunged through a narrow space in the formation, struggling with the controls as he battled the wash of the other planes’ propellers. He felt sick when he finally pulled out of the dive, the ground rushing toward him. But when he landed, the other pilots congratulated him; in his first on-camera flight, he had pulled off a rare one-take stunt. Mattern felt like he had aged ten years in ten minutes. Still, he knew he would like this line of work.

A few weeks later, he was hired for another film: Hell’s Angels, produced by Howard Hughes, himself an avid pilot, although Mattern was skeptical of his flying ability; the enigmatic millionaire had even fewer hours in the air than Mattern. One day, near the set, he watched Hughes climb into the cockpit of a plane that Mattern had just test-flown, a Thomas Morris Scout with a rotating engine. Less than 200 feet up, Hughes banked steeply to the right—a maneuver Mattern had specifically warned him against. The plane spun in and went into free fall. Mattern was over the runway fence as soon as Hughes hit the ground, pulling him out of the wreckage. Hughes emerged with only a gash on his forehead. An hour later he was back on the set, a bandage wrapped around his head, yelling, “On with the show!”

As much as he enjoyed the adrenaline rush, Mattern was ambivalent about courting danger. Life was cheap for stunt pilots, he knew. He couldn’t think of anyone who walked away from the job with a bankroll stuffed in his pocket and his body in one piece. One of the pilots on the set tore the wings off an old Fokker and barely got out alive—then had to do it again, because the first take had been marred by glare on the camera lens. Three pilots died during the filming of Hell’s Angels, and Mattern wondered if he would be next.

On the ground, however, life was good. Chumming up to a millionaire had its advantages. Jimmie Mattern and Howard Hughes became fast friends and often went on double dates with starlets Hughes cast in his movies. (Mattern neglected to tell Hughes about his wife back in Seattle. Then again, Hughes was married, too.) Mattern once surreptitiously borrowed a Rolls-Royce from the back lot of a movie set and drove it around Hollywood for months. “It wasn’t the most comfortable for making love,” Mattern recounted later, “but what car is?” When Hughes found out he made him return it, and “the Hollymoon,” as Mattern called it, was over.

Less than a year later, the Depression struck. Money for death-defying aerial stunts was in short supply, and Mattern, until recently one of the most in-demand pilots in show business, found himself barely able to eke out a living. He flew as a bush pilot in Alaska, carted frozen seafood over the Gulf of Mexico, worked for a rich wildcatter on the Texas oilfields, and eventually became chief pilot for Cromwell Airlines, which operated in Texas and Oklahoma. When Carl Cromwell, the airline’s oilman founder, died in a car accident in the fall of 1931, the company went belly-up and Mattern was out of a job again.

The bankruptcy had a silver lining: Mattern inherited one of the company’s planes. As luck would have it, it was a Lockheed Vega, perhaps the most iconic airplane of its time. Amelia Earhart had flown a Vega 5B across the Atlantic, and Wiley Post and Harold Gatty had used the subsequent model, the 5C, to circumnavigate the globe.

The Vega was built for speed and distance, but it was also beautiful to behold. Its outward look was influenced by the curvilinear forms and geometric motifs of art deco. The fuselage was composed of plywood sheets wrapped around a wooden skeleton and covered in canvas. The propeller sported rounded tips and the fenders were shaped like guitar picks. The paint job was tasteful and minimalist, all white except for accents in two shades of blue. In a few years, wooden planes would be obsolete. But in the early 1930s, the Vega was the epitome of technological progress. Mattern wanted to see what it was capable of.


Mattern had keenly followed Post and Gatty’s progress in 1931 as they circumnavigated the world. He dreamed of claiming his own place among the world’s highest fliers, but at the time he was too busy hopping from one Southwestern dust trap to another, ferrying packages and people, trying to make ends meet. Now, suddenly, he was free of responsibilities and in possession of a plane that was up to the task.

But smashing aviation records took money—lots of it. Mattern lost his savings along with everyone else after the 1929 stock-market crash, and he had no way to cover the fuel and maintenance costs that a major aerial expedition would entail. Until he could come up with a plan, he stashed his Vega in a hangar in Fort Worth and joined the Air Corps Reserve—not only to keep his flying skills sharp but also for the three square meals a day.

As it happened, Mattern’s roommate at the Air Corps’s Randolph Field barracks near San Antonio was Bennett H. Griffin, a former World War I flying ace. Once Mattern showed him his Lockheed Vega, the two began hatching plans. “Benny,” Mattern asked, “how would you like to be my partner in an attempt to break the around-the-world speed record?”

It took them ten minutes to agree and ten months to raise the money and overhaul the plane. They installed ice detectors, a new compass, and what were then state-of-the-art communications systems: an internal telephone connection and a tube through which they could pass notes in a small aluminum bucket. In all, it cost them $50,000—a small fortune in 1932.

Mattern and Griffin spent a week at the training center at Randolph Field in Texas learning to fly by instruments—so they could fly blind, if need be—while Mattern tried to work out the logistical challenges. The plane would need to carry 450 gallons of fuel, he figured, which would weigh more than a ton. That easily exceeded what the Vega could hold in its fuselage. Much of it would have to be stored in wing-mounted barrels, which Mattern didn’t yet have. The man who sold him a set of the tanks was none other than the man whose record he aimed to beat: Wiley Post.

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Wiley Post with the Winnie Mae. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution)

Two

1932

The earthbound life had never treated Wiley Post well. Born in 1898 on a farm in West Texas, he had moved with his family to Oklahoma when he was eight. Life there was precarious—Post’s father was barely able to keep the homestead afloat—and the family treated Post as an afterthought. He was short for his age, shy and unassuming, and did poorly in school, unlike his eldest brother, Jim. But he did have an independent streak and a way with a wrench. By the time he was 11, he was earning money as a door-to-door mechanic, repairing sewing machines and lubricating farm equipment, tweaking gas generators and sharpening reaper blades. At 13, he dropped out of school.

One summer day in 1913, Post convinced his father to allow him to travel with Jim to a county fair in Lawton, Oklahoma, a 50-mile journey from Maysville. They set out after dusk in the family’s horse and buggy and arrived at the fairgrounds the following morning. Post was making a beeline for the farm machinery when he spotted the oddest-looking contraption he had ever seen sitting alone in a field. He figured it must be that “aeroplane” he had been hearing about. “To this day,” he would later recall, “I have never seen a bit of machinery for land, sea, or sky that has taken my breath away as did that old pusher.” Mesmerized, he measured its height in hands, just like he had seen his father do with horses. When his brother found him that evening, he was still sitting in the rickety cockpit.

Post was a teenager when the United States entered World War I, and he joined the Students’ Army Training Corps, where he studied radio, math, and chemistry. His brothers were fighting in Europe, and Post expected to join them. He hoped the Army would train him to fly, and in his spare time he hung around the local military airport, watching the planes come and go. Just as he was set to graduate, however, the war ended, and instead of Europe, Post found himself in Walters, Oklahoma, earning $7 a day as a handyman on the oil patch. He tried his hand at drilling and wildcatting himself, but the price of oil dipped, and soon he was broke, his savings evaporated, without a job in sight.

Desperate, he resorted to armed robbery. He set up a barricade on a quiet country road, and when a car stopped he pulled a gun on the driver. A spate of similar thefts followed for months, until Post stopped the wrong car and was overpowered by four men. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in the State Reformatory in Granite, Oklahoma. There he fell into a deep depression, refusing to speak or eat. A prison doctor diagnosed him with a “melancholic” state that “was steadily growing worse.”

Post was paroled on June 5, 1922, after serving 13 months, and set about distancing himself from the criminal he had become; years later, when he was famous, he lived in fear of his fans learning of his secret past. He returned to the oil fields. But one day, on a drilling job near Holdenville, he saw a plane overhead, and the urge to fly swept over him again. He quit on the spot and headed for Wewoka, Oklahoma, where Burrell Tibbs’s Flying Circus, a troupe of stunt pilots, had decamped.

The three men in charge possessed two beaten, battered planes. The parachutist had taken three successful jumps that week but injured himself on the fourth. Post volunteered to make the next jump. The fact that he had never before been in a plane, let alone thrown himself out of one, seemed of little consequence.

The moment Post stepped onto the wing he forgot the few cursory instructions he had received that morning. When the pilot cut the throttle and shouted, “OK, get ready!” Post just stared at him. The pilot glared back. Post threw a leg over the side and inched his way to the wing’s edge. He buckled his harness to the snap rings of the parachute and dropped to his knees. The pilot turned the plane into position over the drop zone, pointed to his right, and yelled, “Let’s go!”

Post backed off the wing, then found himself swinging helplessly underneath. He hung there for several seconds before he remembered to pull the release cord. Then he was falling, the quilted expanse of central Oklahoma wheeling beneath him. He felt a sharp tug as the chute opened. Off course, he was heading for a field instead of the fairgrounds. When he finally hit, his knees buckled. He tried to run the way he had been told and fell flat on his face. By then, he already knew: the sky was where he belonged.

Within a week, Post became a regular jumper with the flying circus. But the business soon stagnated; airplanes weren’t the rarity they had once been, and fewer and fewer people were willing to pay to see them. If he wanted to live his life in the sky, Post realized, he had to become a pilot himself. To do that, he needed to buy his own plane.

On October 1, 1926, Post was working on the Seminole oil field in central Oklahoma, trying to put together the money, when a roughneck pounding a bolt with a sledgehammer launched a shard of metal in Post’s direction, striking him in the eye. Post lay in the hospital, in complete darkness, for several days. When the bandages were removed, he could make out shapes and light with his right eye but nothing with his left.

After doctors removed his eyeball, Post stayed with an uncle in southwest Texas to convalesce. As the sight in his right eye gradually returned, Post worked on depth perception. He would look at a hill or tree and estimate how far he stood from it, then step off the distance, his four-mile-per-hour gait acting as a guide. Little by little his calculations improved, until he realized he was better at judging distances with one eye than most people were with two. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma State Industrial Court awarded him $1,800 in workman’s compensation, which he spent on a used Canuck open-cockpit airplane. “I bought a plane,” Post said later, “but it cost me an eye.”


Years later, when he had obtained some measure of fame, people would remark that Post seemed more at ease around machinery than men. Machines he could fix—one look at a wheat thresher or car engine and he knew exactly how it worked or why it didn’t. With people, though, he never knew what they wanted. When he addressed a crowd, the best he could do was mumble a few platitudes and skulk away. Reporters did their best to get him to say something, anything, interesting; he rarely obliged. He flew planes and tinkered with cars. What other hobbies he had tended toward mechanical obsession, like synchronizing his collection of wristwatches.

In the clouds, however, Post was transformed. As one of his peers later put it, “He didn’t just fly an airplane; he put it on.” In the air, Post was bold, a daredevil and a speed demon; a pilot, it was said, who could land on a mountain peak. “He apparently didn’t have a nerve in his body,” a businessman who often flew with him later recalled. “When other people were scared, Wiley just grinned.” His takeoffs were a sight: From a near standing start he would shoot up vertiginously and then bank right. It was a risky move, but one born more out of pragmatism than anything else. It helped the one-eyed pilot better orient himself in the sky.

By late 1927, in spite of his natural gifts as an aviator, Post once again fell on hard times. He was living in Oklahoma City, sharing a small apartment with his 18-year-old wife, Mae, whom he’d met and married earlier that year, and barely eking out a living as a pilot. Unable to afford necessary repairs to the Canuck after a minor crash, a desperate Post approached F. C. Hall, a wealthy Oklahoman oilman he had flown for in the past, to see if he’d be interested in employing a full-time pilot.

Hall, a onetime drugstore owner, had demonstrated an almost supernatural ability to strike oil where others hit bedrock. Over a decade, he drilled 300 gushers and only two dusters. When Post made his offer, Hall didn’t need much convincing. His business depended on staying one step ahead of the other oilmen in Oklahoma, and he had recently missed out on a deal because he couldn’t get to the other side of the state fast enough. He offered Post a salary of $200 a month and bought a new airplane, a three-seat Travel Air. There was only one condition: Post had to earn his pilot’s license.

At the time, flight was just starting to become civilized, and there was talk that all pilots would be required to hold licenses. Post feared that his ocular disability would disqualify him, so instead of pursuing a license, he’d confined himself to out-of-the-way airfields where no one would check his credentials, or he’d deplane after dusk in the hopes that airport officials would have gone home by then. But Hall was able to help Post wrangle a waiver for his disability, and eight months and 700 flying hours later, Post received license number 3259 from the Aeronautics Branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Like Jimmie Mattern’s, it was signed by Orville Wright.

Post quickly proved his mettle as a pilot. One day he was flying Hall over the Texas Panhandle when the open-cockpit Travel Air got caught up in a storm; Post was able to make a smooth landing in spite of the conditions. The experience convinced Hall to invest in a new craft that would protect him from the elements. Post flew to California to pick up a Lockheed Vega—one of the first to roll out of the factory in Burbank. Hall named it Winnie Mae, after his daughter.

When the Depression hit, Hall was forced to cut his payroll and sell the Winnie Mae back to Lockheed, where the newly unemployed Post secured a job as a test pilot. The change turned out to be a blessing for Post, who itched to venture into the more glamorous precincts of aviation and had tried without success to persuade Hall to let him try his hand at air races and transcontinental speed-record-setting flights. Now he was rubbing elbows with famous aviators like Amelia Earhart, for whom he tested a used Lockheed plane. (She called it “third-hand clunk”; he called it dangerous and convinced the company to sell her a different one.)

Months later, Hall phoned to tell him that times were better and offered Post his old job back. Sweetening the deal, he told Post he could buy a new plane—“and,” Hall added, “I’ll let you make some of those flights you were figuring on last year.” Post agreed, and Hall asked him to order a new Vega and to make any improvements to it he wanted.

Post later described the day the Vega came off the assembly line as one of the greatest of his life. It was “about the last word in airplanes,” he wrote to his wife. The new Winnie Mae cost $22,000 and could seat seven, with a 420-horsepower Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine. He had Lockheed set the wing at a slightly lower angle to lessen wind drag at high speeds and took four inches off the tail to prevent it from bouncing on rough landings. The design tweaks made the plane ten miles per hour faster than the factory models, and with an extra 350 gallons’ capacity in its additional fuel tanks, it could travel farther, too.

Post entered his first race in 1930, an air derby between Los Angeles and Chicago that, with a purse of $7,500, had attracted the world’s top pilots. Looking for an edge over the competition, Post sought out Harold Gatty, a navigational savant who Will Rogers once wrote could  “take a $1.00 Ingersoll watch, a Woolworth compass, and a lantern, and at twelve o’clock at night tell you just how many miles the American farmer is away from the poorhouse.” Gatty stayed up all night before the race and handed Post his charts and maps just prior to takeoff. This was Post’s first attempt at flying with navigational tools; until then he had flown strictly by feel. When Post hit Chicago on August 27, beating the second-place pilot—who, as it happened, was flying the original Winnie Mae—by 11 seconds, his victory was so unexpected that race officials didn’t even know who he was. And in Gatty he had found an accomplice for his next great venture.

Hall, who bankrolled Post and Gatty’s around-the-world expedition the following year, predicted that Post would become a rich man if he succeeded. But when they hit the promotional circuit upon their return, Post and Gatty—neither of them known for loquaciousness—had trouble drawing a crowd amid the deprivations of the Depression. The ghostwritten book Around the World in Eight Days, which detailed Post and Gatty’s historic flight, was far from a bestseller. Post and Hall, meanwhile, were arguing over Post’s insistence on using the plane for personal appearances. Post finally demanded that Hall sell it to him, and Hall drew up a bill of sale on hotel stationary. By September, Post had scraped together the agreed-upon $3,000 down payment. The Winnie Mae was his, but it had cost almost every penny he had.

Once again, he scrambled to earn a living. Flying jobs were difficult to come by; people found it hard to trust a one-eyed pilot, even one with Post’s impressive résumé. Post was famous, but not famous enough—not like Charles Lindbergh, with his movie-star looks, or Earhart, with her well-oiled publicity machine, lecture tours, and merchandizing empire that now included everything from books to a line of clothing. Post was still a country boy with rough-hewn manners and a cotton-mouthed drawl. Some newspapermen even suggested that Gatty was the brains of the operation. Meanwhile, F. C. Hall, perhaps out of spite, bought yet another Vega, which he christened The Winnie Mae of Oklahoma, and hired another pilot to undertake a round-the-world flight in it. (The plan never got off the ground.)

By the winter of 1931, Post was downright morose. Sitting on the edge of the bed in a Chicago hotel room, he told a reporter for the North American Newspaper Alliance, “Our flight didn’t prove a thing. No stunt flying does.” The reporter asked if Post would retire. “That’s a good one!” Post scoffed. “Lindbergh is the only guy who made enough off his flight to retire. The day of moneymaking flights is past.”

When he sold the Winnie Mae’s wing tanks to Jimmie Mattern, Post didn’t have much use for them himself. By 1932, he was so broke he couldn’t afford fuel. Between March and September of that year, he spent just 14 hours in the air. He wasn’t the only struggling airman. That year there would be just five trans-Atlantic flight attempts. When Mattern and Griffin set out on July 5 to break Post and Gatty’s record in Mattern’s own Vega, called the Century of Progress, the skies were virtually empty.


Mattern and Griffin’s journey began less than promisingly. Flying beneath a bank of fog hanging over the Atlantic, they almost plowed into an ocean liner, then got lost over Newfoundland and again outside Berlin, where a crowd of people organized themselves into an arrow pointing toward Templehof Airport. Nevertheless, they managed to break the trans-Atlantic record set earlier that year by Amelia Earhart and were well ahead of Post and Gatty’s time as they crossed into the Soviet Union from Poland.

Fifty miles from Minsk, disaster struck. The entry hatch broke loose and hurtled back into Mattern’s section of the cockpit, shredding the control panel and nearly decapitating Mattern, then flew back against the plane’s tail, clipping off the vertical fin. Mattern struggled to keep the craft level as gasoline sloshed back and forth in the tanks. With so much fuel aboard, he knew, he was piloting a flying bomb. Below, a field dotted with haystacks was visible in the moonlight. He throttled down, gently dropping the plane onto the edge of the field. Mattern was congratulating himself on a perfect landing when the wheels sank into the earth. What had looked like solid ground was, in fact, a peat bog. The plane’s nose hit the ground, propeller spinning, and the fuselage pirouetted in the air.

Mattern revved the engine and the plane flipped over on its roof. Upside down, he was trapped in his seat, straddling the red-hot motor, which seared his knees. A fuel tank had ruptured and gas was streaming down his neck. He could hear Griffin outside the wreck. “Well, Jimmie,” his copilot drawled, “what ocean is this?”

With Griffin’s help, Mattern dug his way through the earth beneath the plane, until Griffin could pull him out by his ankles. Mattern emerged covered from his face to his knees in mud and lacerated by the twisted metal and sharp rocks. Griffin looked worse; a five-gallon fuel can had left a deep gash on his forehead. Griffin screamed obscenities as Mattern poured iodine over the wound. The sun was rising, and Mattern could see that the plane was not just upside down but also broken in two.

After the engines cooled and the threat of fire passed, the two men crawled onto the upside-down wing and lay there. Before long they found themselves surrounded by a platoon of armed soldiers, who poked bayonets into their chests and shouted at them in Russian. For several hours, Mattern and Griffin remained prisoners on the wing of the wrecked plane, unable to communicate with their captors. Eventually, an officer appeared, trailed by a pack of reporters who had been waiting for the fliers at the airport in Moscow. The two Americans were placed under house arrest. Before a military tribunal in the Kremlin, they were accused of spying, questioned for a day and a half, and then suddenly freed. When they returned to the United States, an invitation awaited from President Herbert Hoover to visit the White House.

Mattern’s mother told a niece that when “your Uncle Jimmie gets back this time, we’re going to tie a ball and chain to him so he can’t ever get away again.” But Mattern was already trying to recover his plane so he could prepare for an even more daring adventure. He would try the same route again, but this time he would fly it like no pilot had flown it before—all by himself.

Part II: Lost

Three

June 3, 1933

Jimmie Mattern felt as if he had been asleep about five minutes when he heard the knock. “C’mon, Jimmie!” said the muffled voice behind the door. “This is your big day.”

The 28-year-old hadn’t even undressed from the night before. He had returned to Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel at 7 p.m., hoping to make it an early night, but a pack of reporters chased him across the lobby and all the way to his room. He tried to clear them out, but they kept pushing for one more question, the room filling with popping flashbulbs and cigarette smoke. After what happened on his last expedition, who knew if they’d get another chance at an interview? When Mattern ordered dinner from room service, a few of them cracked Last Supper jokes.

Finally, Mattern switched off the lights, but he was too jittery to sleep, tossing and turning until his sheets twirled in knots around his ankles. Just as he was dozing off, the phone rang. It was his meteorologist, Dr. James H. Kimball, who informed him that he would have clear skies for the first 1,200 miles. Then, midway across the Atlantic, the weather would turn cold and possibly overcast, and there would be storms the rest of the way to Europe. On the bright side, Kimball said there was a strong chance of westerly winds all the way across the Atlantic.

“That’s good enough for me,” Mattern said. He would fly blind through snow, rain, or molasses if it meant a steady tailwind. He telephoned the field to order his plane made ready and went back to bed while mechanics began fueling. Three and a half hours of sleep, he figured, was better than nothing. He rose and slipped his flight suit on over the same leather windbreaker and knickerbockers he wore on his flight with Griffin the year before. An hour later he arrived at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, where a completely retooled Century of Progress was waiting.

The plane had come back from the Soviet Union in two crates a year earlier, and Mattern had set out to rebuild it. An engineer at Standard Oil, Ed Aldrin, whom Mattern had befriended, offered up three spare Vegas he had in a hangar for parts. (Aldrin had a son named Buzz, whom Mattern would bounce on his knee; when the younger Aldrin traveled to the moon 36 years later, he had Mattern’s pilot’s license with him aboard Apollo 11.)

Mattern refurbished the engine and pulled the tanks from his plane while salvaging a fuselage, wings, and a tail from another that had once made a record flight to Buenos Aires. He visited Vincent Bendix, of the Bendix Corporation, and arranged to have everything on his console overhauled. Mattern lowered his landing gear and added shock cords to handle the weight of 702 gallons of fuel—enough to stay aloft for 28 hours—and aid in rough landings. He installed a controllable pitch propeller, which not only enabled him to start the engine from inside the cockpit without help but also improved fuel efficiency and speed. The final touch on the new Century of Progress was a patriotic paint job: red, white, and blue, with a menacing eagle running the length of the fuselage.

There were things that Mattern would’ve liked to have added and didn’t: a radio, deicers, an automatic pilot. His Vega was a single-engine monoplane, so if the motor—well, he didn’t want to think about it. But Mattern considered technology less important than the man behind the throttle. Sheer force of will, he believed, would make all the difference.


After the Soviets released Mattern in 1931, he wasn’t home more than a few days before his marriage unraveled. Delia was tired of being married to an absentee husband, and she was especially leery of his new venture. The way Mattern saw it, it was either his wife or his airplane. He chose the plane. Delia moved back to Walla Walla to live with her sister, though she would continue to play the dutiful wife whenever reporters came knocking.

Mattern had plenty to worry about beyond his personal life. He had to find financing for his solo round-the-world expedition, and he had to do it quickly. Rumors abounded that Wiley Post was also mulling a solo circumnavigation. Whoever could raise money first would take off first.

Mattern’s failed circumnavigation with Griffin might have been a disaster, but it granted him enough minor celebrity to open doors. Once he got people face-to-face, his natural charm took over. Even at the nadir of the Depression he was able to sell his new expedition idea to Hayden R. Mills, of the Mills Novelty Company, a manufacturer of slot machines, jukeboxes, and player pianos, and Harry B. Jameson, a partner in the Arrow Mill Co., a maker of wooden plates for storage batteries. Together they put in the lion’s share of the $50,000 Mattern needed to get off the ground.

His plan was to fly across the Atlantic and beat Lindbergh’s solo record to Paris—the technology had improved enough in the past six years that he was sure he could do it—then continue around the world to Moscow, make a few stops in Siberia, and cross the Bering Sea to Alaska and arrive home by way of Canada. Even if he didn’t break Post and Gatty’s speed record, he would still be the first to circumnavigate the world alone. And since he had heard that Post had pegged July 1 as his departure date, he hoped to beat him to the air by a month.

The reporters gathered at Bennett Airfield to see him off. “I’ll see you in about a week, I hope,” Mattern told them. Pathé News was paying Mattern to shoot exclusive photos for the agency during his flight, and as he made preparations to leave, a representative handed him a 35-millimeter box camera. In a small storage bin built in his cramped cabin, he also packed six oranges, some Japanese green tea, and two thermoses holding hot and cold water, one labeled “Happy” and the other marked “Landings”—gifts from the artist George Luks, a fan of his.

Mattern’s mechanic had warmed the engine and parked the Century of Progress at the far edge of the runway, its tail resting on the grass so that every possible inch would be available for takeoff. The plane held almost double its weight in fuel, and Mattern wanted to be sure he could clear the expressway. Glancing around the airfield, he half expected his one-eyed rival to sidle up next to him, but last he heard Post was still in Oklahoma City, struggling to retrofit his plane with finicky new technology. Mattern, who had kept the fact that he was flying solo secret until the last minute, had won this stage of the race.

He revved the engine and nodded to the mechanics, who pulled away the wheel chocks. At 5:21 a.m., the Century of Progress started down the runway. At 60 miles per hour, the wings bit into the westerly headwind and the tail came up. The plane lifted clear of the runway. Mattern pulled back on the stick as hard as he could, and the plane struggled to clear Flatbush Avenue by 30 feet. By the time he was over Jamaica Bay, he was at 1,000 feet. He banked a wide left turn and flew back over the airport, above the cheering spectators, who watched the Century of Progress disappear into the Long Island haze as the sunrise bled across the horizon.


On his way north, Mattern hugged the Eastern Seaboard, reveling in the clear weather and 15 mile-per-hour tailwind. By the time he hit Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, he was ten minutes off Post and Gatty’s pace from two years before—but since he didn’t need to refuel, he was actually a couple hours ahead. Seven hours and 49 minutes after leaving New York, Mattern’s plane was heard near Lewisporte, Newfoundland, then over Fogo Island, in Notre Dame Bay, where his engine’s roar startled several fishermen. By late afternoon, he was sighted over the tiny Wadham Islands, off the extreme northeastern coast of Newfoundland, the last scrap of land Mattern would see before the Continent.

Airfields in Europe eagerly awaited news of his whereabouts. Finally, at 8:15 a.m. the following morning, Western Union operators on Valentia, an island off the southwestern coast of Ireland, claimed to have seen the Century of Progress overhead. At 9:30 a.m., the steamship Hastings reported an eastbound plane overhead in the English Channel; another report from Ireland’s County Kerry had the plane flying in the opposite direction. But as one claimed sighting after another receded into ambiguity, the truth became harder and harder to ignore: Mattern, it seemed, was nowhere to be found.

Crowds maintained a ceaseless vigil at Le Bourget Field in Paris. As the hours ticked away, anticipation turned to fear, and fear turned to despair. The Le Bourget dispatcher reluctantly switched off the floodlights that had burned through the night. Weary newsmen at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport dragged themselves off to bed. English telephone operators made last efforts to raise remote stations.

MATTERN MISSING ON WORLD FLIGHT,” cried a June 5 New York Times headline. “Eighteen hours overdue on the first stage of his world flight, James Mattern is feared to have been lost somewhere in the Atlantic.” “MOSCOW HAS NO WORD FROM AMERICAN FLIER,” read the Boston Globe’s headline; “SILENCE SWALLOWS AMERICAN AVIATOR HEADED FOR PARIS,” declared the Spartanburg Herald Journal. Mattern’s manager, Jack Clark, ventured that his exhausted client might have landed in a remote corner of Ireland or France and fallen asleep in his plane, but when almost 48 hours had passed, even he began to fear the worst.

“I never give up hope and I won’t,” Delia Mattern told an Associated Press reporter, her “light brown eyes showing just a hint of anxiety.” Her husband had landed in rough places before. She had never understood his daring air escapades. She would ask if he was afraid and Mattern would reply, “Of course I’m not afraid. If I were I wouldn’t be going.” He didn’t seek her counsel. He did things his own way.

Four

June 3, 1933

As long as land was near, Mattern didn’t bother to mark his position on the map; he had flown the same route less than a year earlier. Now that he was over open sea, however, his compass informed him that he was several degrees off course. Sipping green tea, he realized that the thermoses might be magnetized, drawing the iron compass needles toward them. He smashed both containers and stuffed the shards through one of the plane’s tiny windows. Still, the compass remained off kilter.

Then Mattern remembered the Pathé News camera. He snatched it up and passed it from his left hand to his right, watching the compass needle follow the camera’s path. He rapped the heavy camera body with his knuckles: Metal! But the windows were too small to ditch the camera. He was stuck with it. All he could do was move it from one side of the cockpit to the other every 15 minutes and hope he didn’t veer too far off course. Forget Paris, he thought. He would be lucky to find the Continent.

Less than a third of the way across the Atlantic, the Century of Progress smacked into whiplash turbulence, gale-force winds, and pelting rain. Trying to evade the storm, Mattern climbed higher, but that soon proved equally untenable. The temperature in the cockpit plummeted. With ice forming on the wings, slowing and weighing down the plane, he veered south and then north in search of calmer, warmer air. He dove back into the heart of the storm, close enough to the water that he worried he might plow into the surf.

Then there was a bolt of lightning and a sickening noise from outside. From the sound of it, Mattern assumed his wing had cracked. Heart racing, he thought: I guess I’m going to join all of the others who tried and didn’t make it. He thought of his mother, sitting by the radio, waiting for word of her son, and his father, long gone from this earth. But miraculously, the wing held. The wooden frame complained but didn’t break, and the Century of Progress flew on.

For ten hours he battled the swirling North Atlantic storm, struggling to keep the plane on course as he hurtled through rain, sleet, snow, and wind. Soon darkness enveloped him. He was flying blind, relying solely on his instruments, and cursing himself every time he was a minute or two late repositioning the camera. The night felt like a year.

Sleep deprivation posed as great a danger to Mattern as any lightning storm. It could lead a good pilot to make bad decisions. Lack of sleep had almost been Charles Lindbergh’s undoing on his trans-Atlantic flight six years earlier. Seventeen hours after leaving New York, he began to hallucinate. “My back is stiff; my shoulders ache; my face burns; my eyes smart,” Lindbergh wrote in The Spirit of St. Louis, his account of the journey. “It seems impossible to go on longer. All I want in life is to throw myself down flat, stretch out—and sleep.”

The Washington Post, in its coverage leading up to Mattern’s flight, reported that he did not fear falling asleep: “If he dozes off, and the plane falls, a gadget fastened on to an altimeter squirts water when the plane tumbles down to a minimum altitude of safety.” Perhaps this was Mattern having fun at the expense of a gullible reporter. In reality, his system was much more prosaic. When he needed to sleep, he attached rubber bands to the stick from his console, so the plane would list slightly to the right, and then he crossed his legs and pushed down on the left rudder with his right foot to equalize the drift. This kept the Century of Progress on an even course while Mattern took quick catnaps—but he couldn’t risk it in weather like this.

Twenty hours after takeoff, Mattern finally made it to the other side of the storm, but now a new problem presented itself. Fighting his way through the squall had cost him precious fuel, and he knew he would be cutting it close with what was left in his five main tanks. He still had the reserve 70-gallon tank Amelia Earhart had given him as a going-away present. But when he tested it, the engine quit—something was blocking the fuel from injecting into the motor. He switched back to one of the main tanks until it ran dry and tried again. Still the engine couldn’t draw the fuel from the reserve. Mattern was going to need that tank, and it wasn’t like he could pull off to the side of the road to repair it.

Leaning into the rising sun, Mattern finally spotted land on the horizon. His last main fuel tank was almost dry, and in desperation he flipped the switch to the reserve. The engine coughed, stopped, and, this time, kicked on again. Later he would learn that a small piece of felt had lodged in the line. When he turned on the gas this time, it was finally forced out. As sea gave way to land, Mattern looked down at the landscape of mountains and glaciers and wondered how far north he had ventured.

With no airfields in sight and only a few minutes’ worth of fuel left in his emergency tank, he searched for a place to land. He spotted a small island with a sandy beach where sunbathers frolicked and cut the engine to bring the Century of Progress down in a glide. As he approached, he saw too late that he was coming down on a patch of pebbles and large stones. It was a bumpy, teeth-chattering ride; Mattern thanked his foresight in installing shock cords. Even so, the rough landing knocked the tail out of alignment and blew one of his tires.

Mattern checked his watch. He had shaved ten hours off the 33 Lindbergh had taken to cross the Atlantic. Elated, he squeezed through the hatch and sank to his knees on the beach. “I just flew nonstop from New York,” Mattern told the first people to arrive to greet him, two boys and two fishermen. “I need your help.”

None of them spoke English, so the boys ran to fetch someone who did. They returned with a man who introduced himself as Jens Søre, a mechanic who had lived in the United States, who informed Mattern that he was in Jomfruland, Norway—80 miles from Oslo and 1,000 miles north of Paris. Mattern told Søre that all he needed was some gas and oil and he would be on his way, but Søre urged him to rest while he dispatched a message to Oslo. While Mattern napped, a seaplane arrived with the chief of the airport in the nearby town of Horten, who was astonished that anyone could have set a plane down on that beach without wrecking it. In addition to the misaligned landing gear and blown tire, one of the Century of Progress’s wingtips had been damaged by flying stones. There was also a more serious gash in one of the wings—caused, Mattern surmised, by the lightning strike.

The airport chief had brought along a couple of mechanics and supplies of fuel and oil. It took them four hours to mend the plane and fill it with enough gas to make Oslo, where Mattern could refuel for the long haul to Moscow. Mattern was determined to return to the sky, but his hosts convinced him to grab a little more sleep and wait for dawn.

When the sun rose, Mattern made his way back to his plane, which had been pulled by horses up onto a grassy hillock so the mechanics could make their repairs. Overnight the wings had been covered with graffiti: the scrawled names of female admirers in Jomfruland.

Mattern revved the engine, the airport chief and the mechanics pulled the rocks they had used as makeshift blocks away from the wheels, and the Century of Progress started rolling. The beach was too rough for a takeoff, so Mattern taxied down the knoll. The improvised runway was pocked with sandpits large enough to swallow a wheel. As the plane picked up speed, however, Mattern saw them: A handful of Norwegians were waist deep in the holes, waving their arms frantically, operating as human traffic cones. Brave people, Mattern thought as he climbed into the sky.

Five

June 5, 1933

It wasn’t until Mattern swooped out of the clouds over Moscow’s muddy airfield that the world—save for a handful of Norwegian sunbathers and a few airport personnel in Oslo—learned of his whereabouts. It had been a short hop from Jomfruland to Oslo, where Mattern had handed his troublemaking camera to the airport manager to ship to New York. At 6:40 a.m., he started on his 1,100-mile flight to Moscow, over Sweden, the Baltic Sea, Estonia, and Latvia. He had completed the first third of his journey in 51 hours and 31 minutes, three hours faster than Post and Gatty’s record time.   

A reporter told him that many feared he had been lost. Mattern grinned. “Fooled ’em, didn’t I?”

In the reception room at the Moscow airdrome, a physician took his pulse and told him he needed to rest. Mattern brushed him off, promising to take a two-hour nap before taking off again. He ate sparingly from the spread of caviar and steak laid out in his honor. After a shower, a shave, and a nap, he joined the Soviet mechanics who were working on his plane. Later, back in the airdrome, a group of Soviet pilots advised him on the best route over Siberia; his maps—which showed only a few lakes, mountains, and settlements—were almost useless.

At one point, Mattern looked outside and saw people swarming over the Century of Progress; a guard was supposed to be watching the plane but was nowhere to be seen. The fans seemed particularly enamored with the metal propeller. Mattern ran out, gunned the engine, and took off shortly after midnight, bound for Omsk—a large city in southwestern Siberia, just east of the Ural Mountains, about a third of the way across the Soviet Union.

Over the Urals, the Century of Progress got caught up in a lightning storm. Once he was in the clear again and dawn broke, Mattern followed the tracks of the Trans-Siberian railway as Post and Gatty had two years before, battling stiff headwinds. At full throttle, he managed only 120 miles per hour, at least 40 miles per hour below his usual cruising speed. It took 12 and a half hours to cover 1,400 miles. Dropping out of the sky in Omsk, he was too tired to realize that he was coming down harder than he should have. The plane hit the runway with a jolt, cracking the right landing strut.

On solid ground again, Mattern took a sauna, then fell asleep for three hours while mechanics fixed the strut and refueled the plane. When he awoke, he called a New York Times reporter in Moscow, who informed him that he was only a few hours behind Post and Gatty’s time. “That’s great!” Mattern shouted through the static, his voice hoarse. “I’ll beat ’em yet.”

But the pace was wearing on him and his plane. A third of the way to Irkutsk, a smaller city 1,600 miles east, just north of the Mongolian border, his eyelids began to droop. He was having trouble breathing, too. His head was spinning. He caught a whiff of gasoline and began to retch. His last conscious thought was that a fuel line had broken, but he couldn’t let go of the controls. The Century of Progress plummeted to earth as its pilot blacked out.


Mattern regained consciousness as the ground rushed at him. He pulled back on the stick as hard as he could, and the plane nosed laboriously up from its free fall. Below, the landscape was an unbroken expanse of trees. Mattern opened his window, then turned the plane on its side to let in more air, trying to keep himself from vomiting all over the cockpit.

Finally, Mattern spotted a field that looked smooth enough for landing and coaxed the Century of Progress down onto the dirt. By the time the plane rolled to a stop, he was unconscious again. The next thing he knew, Russian peasants had climbed into the plane and were trying to yank him out of his safety harness.

Coughing from the fumes and shouting obscenities, Mattern staggered from the plane, but once his feet touched earth his legs buckled. One of the peasants, about Mattern’s height and twice as wide, caught him. “You keep those boys from jumping all over that plane, see,” Mattern told him, “and don’t let them take any souvenirs.”

The man seemed to understand. He tapped another man to guard the plane and dragged the wobbly flier into a small wooden shack. Lying down on a bunk there, Mattern once again felt his world whirl out of control. He retched until there was nothing left in his stomach, then retched some more. Finally, toward evening, he felt well enough to stand.

Outside, he found his plane where he had left it, in the middle of a cow pasture, surrounded by dozens of people marveling at the machine. One of them was a short, stocky man who looked about 50; with his gray beard, he reminded Mattern of General Ulysses S. Grant. He was a foreman at a metal-refining plant in the town of Belovo, a few miles from where Mattern had landed, but he had spent time in the United States and spoke fluent English. When Mattern told the General what he needed, the man enlisted members of the crowd to pull the airplane out of the mud.

Mattern could see that the Century of Progress, especially its tail, was in bad shape. With tools and materials from a nearby factory, the newly deputized ground crew tacked sheet metal to the tail until early the next morning, when a plane arrived with the chief engineer from the airport in Novosibirsk, 140 miles away, and his assistant.

The two mechanics worked in pouring rain inside a roped-off square. Soldiers with bayonets on their rifles arrived to guard the plane while a crowd of locals watched. Toward dusk the rain stopped; the crew continued working by the light of torches made from cotton waste soaked in oil. The crowd grew, as if this was their evening entertainment. Mattern tried to eat but nothing would stay down; he could still feel the gas fumes sweating out of his system.

When the repairs were complete, the Century of Progress looked two-thirds airplane and one-third junkyard heap. Mattern figured it would fly lopsided but hold together long enough to get to a city where more-professional repairs could be made. The rain-sodden field, however, was another matter. Mattern walked a couple hundred yards with the General and the mechanics from Novosibirsk shaking their heads.

After unloading as much gas as he could, Mattern started the motor, but the wheels wouldn’t bite. His ad hoc crew laid down ashes and sacking, mobilizing the entire crowd. Still, he couldn’t pull the plane out of the slop.

Mattern suggested they move the plane to higher, drier ground. It would be a very short runway, terminating in a copse of tall trees, but it was better than nothing. “Nyet,” grunted a Russian pilot—not for a plane of the Century of Progress’s size. But Mattern insisted. After they towed the craft uphill, Mattern hopped in and started the motor. With no brakes, he would either get aloft or crash into the trees; there were no other options. He picked up speed and pulled back on the stick. The Century of Progress left the ground just in time, the landing gear brushing the tops of the trees. Six days after leaving New York, Mattern was back in the air.

As he gained altitude, Mattern’s plane flew steadier than the pilot himself felt. Four hours out of Belovo, the rain and fog abated and he saw sunshine for the first time in practically a week. He slid open the window for fresh air and saw a large sugar-loaf-shaped mountain, which he had been told was near where he was headed. Mountains looked awfully good to Mattern after thousands of miles of plains.

Mattern stayed just long enough in Novosibirsk to fuel up for the long haul to Irkutsk and, 2,000 miles later, Khabarovsk, one of the principal cities in the Soviet Far East, near China, his last major stop before the Pacific Ocean. On the way the weather turned nasty over the Zeya River, northeast of the Mongolian border, and Mattern lost his bearings and set down near the river to spend the night. By the time he arrived in Khaborovsk the next day, he was too tired to talk. He rested for a day at a hotel while mechanics readied his battered plane for the haul across the Bering Sea to Nome, Alaska.

Leaving Khabarovsk the next morning, Mattern ran into more foul weather: a mixture of headwinds, rainstorms, and dense clouds. As night fell and the sky turned dark, he lost his way. He realized that he was running low on oil, too; the Russian product was cruder and burned much faster than what he was used to. Without any idea of how to get back to Khabarovsk, he had no choice but to bring the plane down again, regardless of what lay below. He stacked pillows around his head and began his descent, hoping for the best.

Six

June 12, 1933

It proved to be a surprisingly smooth landing. After shutting off the engine, Mattern climbed out of the hatch and jumped eight feet down to the ground, where he promptly fell asleep. At dawn, he awoke to find his plane teetering on a sandbar overlooking a river, across from a small village.

A boat full of peasants rowed across the river and gave him eggs, fish, and black bread. But Mattern was anxious to get flying again and pantomimed that his plane needed oil. No one spoke English, but one of the peasants turned out to be a former pilot in the Soviet army. He dispatched a couple of men to a nearby collective farm, where they found what Mattern needed. He started his abused Wasp engine, which smoked from the change in diet—the oil was intended for tractors, not airplanes—but turned over all the same, and held out long enough for him to return to Khabarovsk.

At four the next morning, June 12, Mattern tried again. On his first stopoff in Khabarovsk, he had eaten dinner with a group of Soviet pilots, who had advised him to take a more southerly route where he would likely come by better weather, but Mattern had opted for a more direct path. This time he heeded the pilots’ advice, heading southeast over the Sea of Okhotsk. Five hundred miles out over open water, however, ice gathered on his wings. He couldn’t shake it off even after dropping so low that he was practically skimming the water. Worse, the Century of Progress was once again mired in thick fog. Mattern decided to return to Khabarovsk yet again. He had flown 1,400 miles over the past three days but hadn’t gained an inch.

Once more in Khabarovsk, he restored himself with a couple of hearty meals and eight hours’ sleep. He was far behind Post and Gatty’s time now, but he was still on track to be the first pilot to fly solo around the world. All he had to do was make it this last leg across Russia and the 500-mile expanse of the Bering Sea. Once he hit Alaska, he figured, he would be home free. Shortly after his Hollywood stunt-flying days, Mattern had spent several months in Alaska working as a bush pilot. He knew the terrain and the weather there well.

Mattern waited through two more days of dirty weather before revving his engine again. The third time was the charm. Several hours later, he was on the far side of the Sea of Okhotsk, the Kamchatka Peninsula below him. The thumb-shaped peninsula, which separated the Okhotsk from the Bering Sea, resembles Alaska, a sparsely inhabited wilderness of thick boreal forest and mountain ranges. Some of the peaks rise as high as 8,000 feet, and Mattern knew he couldn’t fly over them. At that altitude his wings would ice up, and the Century of Progress would come crashing to earth. Winding his way north and shivering in the high-altitude cold, Mattern warmed himself with the knowledge that once he was out of the mountains, he could turn east. At that point, Nome would be just four hours away.

Then Mattern noticed that his oil pressure was dropping perilously low. The low-grade Russian oil was giving the finely tuned Wasp heartburn. Although he had a reserve oil supply stashed in the back with a bicycle pump jerry-rigged to push it to the engine, the pump had frozen. He was losing engine power, with hundreds of miles of open water ahead of him.

Below lay an almost endless expanse of tundra, most likely uninhabited, certainly inhospitable. Drawing on his bush-pilot experience, Mattern looked for little streams and tried to follow them; streams, he knew, usually led to rivers, and rivers led to settlements. Consulting his maps, he reckoned his best bet would be to get within limping distance of the Arctic outpost of Anadyr—but he was still 80 miles away. He would have to find a safe place to land. During the summer months, the Arctic tundra is in many places a soggy patchwork of marshes, bogs, lakes, and streams—not bad terrain for a crash landing. Still, the crash near Minsk the year before flashed through his mind. If Mattern flipped over this time, there would be no one to dig him out.

There was only one thing he could do. Mattern opened the throttle all the way and accelerated to the Vega’s top speed, 200 miles per hour. Skimming over the tundra, he deliberately sheared off his landing gear, then brought the plane down, belly-flopping on the soft ground. The plane bounced and shook. Mattern heard one of the wings crack; he was afraid that the entire undercarriage would tear apart. Feeling a sharp pain in his ankle, he realized that the impact of the landing had forced the engine back against his body. Finally he came to a complete stop. Somehow the Century of Progress—and Mattern—had held together.

The marooned pilot leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. He said a quick prayer and freed his wounded ankle. It wasn’t a full break—the bones didn’t look like they had pulled apart—but he was sure it was fractured. After staggering out of the hatch, he looked around: barren tundra, tufts of brush and grass, and rocky soil. His plane was a wreck. Wind whistled by his ears and he shivered. Never had he felt so alone.

Seven

July 15, 1933

Before dawn crept over Jamaica Bay, Wiley Post ambled over to the outgoing-flight register at Floyd Bennett Field and signed his name. In the next box he scribbled “Destination same.”

Post had remained cagey about his plans, but word had leaked out in a February 19 New York Times article that he was considering a second round-the-world journey—this time alone—but that he had to conduct “exhaustive tests” before making up his mind. When the morning of his departure from Floyd Bennett Field finally arrived, he watched the mechanics tend to the Winnie Mae and fingered a medal that another pilot had given him as a good-luck charm. It had once been owned by Count Felix von Luckner, a German naval officer who was famous in World War I for never suffering casualties on the ships under his command.

Mae Post watched him. “Are you about gone?” she asked.

“Pretty soon,” he said.

“Be careful.”

“I will.”

Jimmie Mattern’s disappearance a month earlier had set Mae’s nerves on edge. Post tried to reassure her. His plane had every possible modern innovation. He had delayed his departure to wait in Dayton, Ohio, for Army engineers to install a radio receiver. It would enable him to fix his position from broadcasts on ordinary radio frequencies if he knew the call letters of the station doing the transmitting. Post was also counting on his automatic pilot, affectionately nicknamed Mechanical Mike, to do much of the flying for him—it was the first time a civilian aircraft had been outfitted with one—and his controllable-pitch propeller to shorten takeoff runs and squeeze every last mile out of his fuel. Additional wing tanks increased his range, and he planned to complete the journey with just five stops, starting with a direct flight from New York to Berlin.

All these careful preparations, he believed, were what separated him from Mattern. Post was eager to try new technology; Mattern flew by the seat of his pants. In his rush to take off first, Mattern had not considered the effects that sleep deprivation could have on a man, nor had he properly outfitted his plane to address them. Post reckoned his friend had likely crashed in some remote corner of Siberia before he got to the Bering Strait, his demise accelerated by fatigued decision-making.

Seeking to avoid a similar fate, Post had adopted a rigorous training regimen designed to attune his body to the deprivations of his journey. He took short naps instead of sleeping through the night, sometimes sitting up until dawn in the cockpit of the Winnie Mae with his lone eye open. He restricted himself to one meal a day. He worked to attain a Zen-like state, clearing his mind of all thoughts except flying.

Wearing a natty new gray suit and blue shirt and tie, Post climbed into the cockpit. “I’ll be back as quick as possible,” he shouted. He gave the word and the motor jumped to life, the propeller scattering the gravel on the airfield. On board were 645 gallons of fuel, quart-sized thermoses of water and tomato juice, three packages of chewing gum, a package of zwieback bread, a knife, a hatchet, a raincoat, a cigarette lighter, mosquito netting, a sleeping bag, and a flashlight. He also brought fishing tackle; that way, if he ended up marooned in Siberia, he could always fish for food. He had a suitcase containing a few changes of clothes, including three fresh eye patches that Mae had sewn for him, and a piece of equipment he hadn’t bothered with on his last adventure: a parachute.

Post’s Wasp engine crescendoed, spewing exhaust. The white and blue monoplane picked up speed over the concrete runway and, despite the heavy load, quickly climbed, receding into a silhouette against the dawn, a half-moon gleaming overhead. It was 5:10 a.m.

After settling in at a comfortable altitude, Post turned on the autopilot. Later that day, as he approached the British Isles, he encountered tempestuous weather, just as Mattern had the month before, but he kept his radio on until he heard “a special broadcast for Wiley Post” from station G2L0 in Manchester, England, cutting through the static. Post adjusted his radio-compass needle to get a fix on the station; others popped up on the dial as he flew over the Irish Sea, England, the Continent. He was flying blind, but he had never felt so secure in his location.

By the time Post passed over the Elbe River, the weather had improved, and he could finally see where he was. Ahead was Berlin’s skyline. When he landed at Templehof, 25 hours and 45 minutes after leaving New York, he had not only broken Mattern and Bennett’s time by almost four hours but also completed the first nonstop flight from New York to Berlin. As he taxied up the runway, the American flag and German national colors floated above the field. Steel-helmeted Nazi storm troopers with rifles kept 2,000 cheering Germans at bay. Among those in attendance was the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring.

Post, assisted by a policeman, climbed down from the plane while a band played “The Star Spangled Banner” and Nazi anthems. He wanted to get his plane gassed up and get going as quickly as possible. His new record notwithstanding, he had hoped that he could make it to Berlin in 22 hours; the weather had added three and a half hours to his time. “I don’t want to eat,” he told the reporters gathered at the airdrome. “I don’t want to shave. I just want to clear out of here. I flew here on tomato juice and chewing gum, and that’s enough for me.”

Post was whisked off to the same room he had rested in on his first flight. He took a cold shower and stretched out on a bunk, trying to clear his mind, but he was restless. A lot of people were depending on him. Earlier that year, Post had inked an agreement with a local Oklahoma City businessman to line up investors in exchange for a 10 percent cut of whatever fees he earned from post-trip appearances. Wary of reliving his troubled relationship with F. C. Hall, he insisted on a pool of investors this time around. That way no single person could amass too much influence. The Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, eager to assist a homegrown celebrity aviator, had eagerly formed a committee. Eventually, 41 businesses and individuals contributed, and several aeronautical companies came through with donations of equipment, support, and supplies.

Too antsy to nap, Post returned to the airfield to supervise the plane’s refueling, vexed by the slow pace and antiquated equipment. The airport maintenance crew in Berlin were using hand pumps, which Post calculated would add an hour to his time, leading The Washington Post to quip:

The Winnie Mae, the Winnie Mae

She flies to Berlin in a day

And then complains of the delay!

Two hours and 15 minutes after landing, Post climbed back into his plane, with weather charts prepared by Lufthansa sticking out of his pocket. He had planned for Novosibirsk, Siberia, to be his next stop. But as he crossed the Soviet border, he couldn’t find his maps. He tore apart the cabin looking for them, but it was no use. He had no idea where they were. Worse, the autopilot had sprung a leak in its oil line.

Frustrated, he turned back and brought the Winnie Mae down to Königsberg, a city in eastern Germany. Sweat streamed down his face as he climbed out of the cockpit. He found another set of maps at the airport, but the mechanics in Königsberg weren’t able to fix the autopilot; the closest place to get it repaired was Moscow. Should he risk flying the 3,000 miles to Novosibirsk without it, or stop in Moscow for repairs? No one believed in Post’s piloting skill more than Post did, but he was afraid he might lose his way over Siberia. With broadcasting towers few and far between, the radio navigator would be useless for vast stretches. He took the safe bet: Moscow.

Then he went to sleep. When he awoke five hours later to a dawn wakeup call, he learned that the weather between him and Moscow was “quite bad”: heavy rain and fog, according to official reports. He slept for a few more hours. By the time the weather cleared, he was so anxious to leave that he forgot his suitcase, leaving him with only the clothes on his back.

The flight to Moscow was mostly uneventful, and soon he was looking down on the Kremlin, sparkling in the sun. Meeting Post at the airport was New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty. Because Moscow had not been on Post’s planned itinerary, no official was on hand to translate for him, so Duranty conveyed his autopilot repair request to the airport director.

Meanwhile, a doctor examined Post and ordered him to get some sleep. Post told the doctor he wasn’t tired and tried to decline the meal offered to him, too; “Being hungry helps me stay awake,” he explained. The doctor later told Duranty, “I have had 12 years of experience as an aviation doctor, but I never met a pilot with such steady, solid nerves and such a regular pulse after an exhausting effort and such balanced control. When I first heard he was trying to fly around the world in four or five days, I thought it was madness—now I believe he will succeed.”

The forecast called for clear skies all the way to Novosibirsk and then cloudy beyond, with a light southeast wind. Radio stations in Kazan, Sverdlosk, Omsk, and Novosibirsk, briefed on Post’s itinerary, would call every ten minutes on a special wavelength and provide weather updates in English. Post climbed back aboard the Winnie Mae, and at 5:10 p.m. he took off down the runway, the plane, Duranty later wrote, “gleaming like a seagull” as it disappeared into the distance.

The weather forecast, however, turned out to be inaccurate. After five hours of clear skies, Post, flying over the Ural Mountains, ran into the thickest clouds he had ever seen. Taking advantage of the deicers he had installed, Post climbed to 21,000 feet—four miles between the Winnie Mae and the ground. Post stayed at that altitude for two hours, but the lack of oxygen made him woozy, and ice was beginning to overwhelm the deicers. He descended into the fog—a dangerous maneuver while crossing the mountains, but he had little choice.

Post knew how fragile life was. He had learned that lesson the moment the sliver of steel pierced his eye. Still, he had taunted death on plenty of occasions. During his wing-walker days, he had made a habit of pulling his rip cord at the last possible second to see how far he could free-fall, basking in the adulation of the crowd. When he flew with passengers, one of his favorite practical jokes was to let his first fuel tank run dry, stalling the engine, and only then switch to the next and restart the propeller, relishing how much it scared his guests.

Now, however, Post took no such chances. Eye trained on the altimeter and compass, he flew by dead reckoning. His plane might have been flush with the latest gadgetry, but at the moment his safest option was to rely on his own piloting skills. Once he was beyond the Urals, he could bring the plane to a lower altitude and once again follow the tracks of the Trans-Siberian railway until they spidered off in divergent directions.

When Post finally descended into Novosibirsk, he was met at the airfield by Fay Gillis, a 24-year-old American aviator and journalist living in Moscow, whose help Post had enlisted in organizing logistics. Three weeks earlier, Gillis had hitched a ride in the back of a mail plane from Moscow, wedged between bales of letters, and had been waiting in Novosibirsk ever since. She had scared up 660 gallons of gasoline and 150 gallons of oil, more than enough to slake the Winnie Mae’s thirst. She made sure that the landing field was mowed every other day and that qualified mechanics were on hand, and she collected maps and arranged for a room, so that Post could rest while his plane was refueled. “I am saving my last piece of American soap for him, which he ought to appreciate,” she said in an interview.

Gillis had her own motives for assisting Post. She was a stringer for the New York Herald Tribune and hoped to secure a scoop for the paper about Post’s arrival. But as Post reclined on a couch at the airport, eating the bouillon and fruit she had provided him, Gillis learned that he had an exclusive contract with The New York Times. Gillis had to wait to file her own story until after she had helped him file his.

Post stayed in Novosibirsk long enough to refuel, then pushed on to Irkutsk. “The chief marvel of Wiley Post’s spectacular flight around the top of the world,” a July 19, 1933 editorial in The Washington Post declared, “is not the endurance of the machine, but the endurance of the man.” But, it warned, “the most dangerous stretch of Post’s route lies between Khabarovsk and Nome. The Sea of Okhotsk, Kamchatka and Bering Sea are rarely clear of storms and fog.”

The truth was that Post was dead tired. Gillis could see the fatigue etched in his face as he left Novosibirsk—and he had almost half a world to go.

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Jimmie Mattern’s and Wiley Post’s progress as of July 18, 1933.

Eight

June 16, 1933

Jimmie Mattern cried a lot the first two days he was marooned. His plane was crushed and broken. He was 100 miles into the Arctic Circle, equipped with only a set of maps, a tool kit, pliers, a hatchet, three chocolate bars, and the clothes he was wearing. He also had a gun, which had been hidden in a secret compartment for emergencies just like this, and a top-of-the-line Wittnauer watch; the company co-sponsored his trip, and the watch was somehow still ticking after the crash.

He axed a hole in the fuselage to create a makeshift shelter, lining the walls with maps to help insulate against the cold, and jerry-rigged a cookstove and heater from a fuel container and engine cylinder. To give himself something to do, he kept a journal. Someday explorers might find his body, he figured, and he wanted them to know what kind of man he was.

The landscape was bleak—the soggy sod and heather of the Arctic tundra in summer—and his prospects bleaker. Each day, Mattern dragged his injured ankle behind him three miles to the Anadyr River and prayed that a boat would pass. Each night, he trekked back to his plane. He was still bruised and sore from his improvised landing, and soon he had blisters on his feet as well.

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The Anadyr lowlands in northeastern Russia. (Photo: F.A. Kondrasho)

He was fortunate, he knew, that he had crashed during summer, when the Arctic weather was reasonably warm and the daylight hours extended well into the night. If it had been autumn, he might already be dead of exposure. Even so, the temperatures dipped into the twenties after dark, and it was only going to get colder. His leather flight suit was a godsend, but it would keep him only so warm. His makeshift heater had its problems, too—there was no ventilation in the back of the plane, and he could only run it briefly before the compartment filled up with smoke.

Game was hard to come by. The animals of the tundra steered clear of Mattern, as if they intuited his desperate intentions. On the third day, however, he managed to shoot a duck. He stashed it in the river to keep it cold, resolving to hold off eating it until the following day, after he finished constructing a raft out of driftwood and baling wire. Anadyr, an outpost for fur traders and explorers en route to the North Pole, was within 100 miles, if his calculations were correct. Without adequate food, he worried that he wouldn’t be able to make it there on foot. But by taking a raft down the river, Mattern figured he could be there in four days, perhaps five, depending on the current.

After another frigid night in the carcass of his plane, he pulled a piece of iron from the Century of Progress’s tail to use as a griddle for roasting the duck, then limped down to the river. He was heartbroken to discover that seagulls had poached his kill; scattered bones and feathers were all that remained.

Glassy and weak from hunger, Mattern was afraid that he was losing his mind. No rational man would have left a dead duck in a stream and expected it to be there the next morning. At six that evening, he returned to the Century of Progress. He thought about making tea but had nothing to boil water in. The wind howled. A storm was brewing.

It rained throughout the night and the following day. Mattern stayed inside, listening to the drops beating against the skin of the plane. He caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. The ghost that stared back was gaunt, his hair a cubist mess, his face darkened with stubble and grime. The eyes had lost their pilot’s alertness; they were the eyes of a man who might not be long for this earth.

Scrounging around the wreckage of the plane, Mattern found a bag of cookie crumbs. He ate them slowly; it was all he had for the day. Then he wrote in his diary:

I have been thinking about a lot of things lately. I pray every day. I think of my mother and hope that she is not worrying so much that it would affect her health. I, of course, think of so many things. I could have done better with my life. I have always tried to do what is right. I did want to make money. Well, now I realize how useless money is and of no value in the Arctic wastes of Siberia. I have over one hundred dollars in my pocket, and it won’t even make fire to keep me warm… My only hope is to get out of here and back to civilization. That’s all I want. My foolish days of records is over and I want to settle down to a quiet life.

The more he wrote, the more tired he felt. Fog settled over the plane, the air thick and cold. Mattern set out hunting again, his ankles weak and uncertain, his feet cold, wet, and numb. He wasn’t able to bag anything, and the little food he had left—half a chocolate bar, some cookie crumbs—had almost run out. By the river, he lit a fire with green bushes, which smoked and smoldered, hoping someone would see it, either from the air or heading down the river. No one came.

Pilots are taught to stay with their planes in the event of a crash, but Mattern knew his circumstances were different. While he was sure people would be searching for him, the land was so vast and remote that there was little chance they would find him. His only hope was the raft.

The next morning he penned a note, which he left inside the fractured fuselage. He explained how he had crashed and that he was almost out of food, and gave his best guess as to his coordinates: latitude 64’35” west, longitude 175’30” north. I have made a raft and am going down the river, he wrote.

If you locate the airplane and I have not been found, I will be between here and a hundred miles down stream. I will stay to the right bank out of the wind going down… I have a map and a compass so to establish landmarks as I go along. Keep looking, boys, as I want to get out of this mess. I will never give up. Will be looking for you.

The weather was gorgeous, warmer than it had been. Mattern carried his maps, his flight suit, and his gun down to the river. Weak from hunger, he fell several times and had trouble getting back on his feet. He loaded the raft and, after saying a prayer, pushed it into the stream.

It sank.

Mattern jumped into the icy water to save his maps, battling the current as he dragged everything back to shore. Soaked and shivering, he knew he needed to build a fire—a big one, right away. Hovering over the flames, he forgot about the fuel that had soaked his clothes in the plane crash. Suddenly he was on fire, screaming in pain, staggering back into the river.

After he took his clothes off to dry, he crouched in his underwear next to the fire. The burns stung, and his teeth ached from the cold. I am now very discouraged and don’t know how things will turn out, he wrote in his journal. Then he fell asleep, warm for the first time since he’d crashed.

As one week in the wilderness became two, Mattern chronicled his mounting hopelessness in his journal. I have kept the fire going all day and just been looking for a boat, he wrote. I don’t know whether to start walking or not. Really don’t think I should. I would get weak and then if the airplane was located I would not be found. Yesterday I shot a muskrat and ate him. It made me sick but filled my stomach. He camped by the river in the event that a boat floated by, but he was running out of wood for fires—he’d picked clean the entire area.

He set about building another raft. When he was sure it was river-worthy, he piled his few belongings on board and settled facedown on the deck, paddling with his hands, cold water breaking over his head. For several hours he kept at it, until a strong current pushed him back the way he had come. He washed up on a small island across the river from his camp. The tide must have come in from the Anadyr Gulf, he figured. Ten days trying to float his way out of this wilderness and he had barely moved an inch.

On the 15th day, give or take—Mattern had lost count—he was trying to build a fire from grass when two specks a great distance down the river caught his eye—so far away he couldn’t make out what they were. He set his compass on them and went away for a few minutes. When he returned, the specks had moved. Oh God, he wrote in his journal. I hope it is what I think it is. He watched for what seemed an eternity, but this time the specks remained in the same position. Sinking into disappointment, he figured he had been hallucinating.

Then the sky opened up ever so slightly, and a ray of sunlight shone down. Now Mattern could see oars striking water. They were coming straight toward him. He was overcome with excitement. He screamed as loud as he could: “I’m saved! I’m saved!”

Two boats pulled up to shore carrying people who looked to Mattern like Eskimos. In the larger vessel were three men in furs, accompanied by a woman, two teenage girls, a young boy, and two sled dogs. In the other were two adolescent boys rowing a man, a woman, and three small children.

Mattern looked at them. They looked at him. Mattern grabbed a few threadbare possessions and piled into the boys’ boat.

Nine

June 30, 1933

Mattern thought of them as Eskimos, but they were in fact Chukchi: an indigenous people who had come to Siberia after the Eskimos, the largest Native nation (today numbering about 15,000) on the Asian side of the North Pacific. The word Chukchi was derived from chauchu, a Chukchi word meaning “rich in reindeer.”

Not long after Mattern settled into the boat, two ducks floated downstream. One of the men in the other boat imitated their quack and the ducks turned toward the boat, at which point another man shot them. They scooped the carcasses out of the water. Mattern had practically starved for weeks because he couldn’t catch a duck; in half an hour, his new traveling companions had killed two.

The Eskimos never stop rowing, Mattern wrote. How strong they are. They are all dressed in raw furs, the outside of a fox turned inside. The mother is nursing the baby. The boys play with it. They seem very affectionate. The mother makes a noise like a rattlesnake to keep the baby quiet. The dogs sleep all the time. The girls seem bashful. It has started to get cold. I put on my flying suit. You should see them watch me use those zippers. It was wonderful to them, you could tell. They offered Mattern bread, which tasted glorious, especially after his previous meal of half-cooked muskrat.

The two teenage boys paddled until they found a place to pitch camp. The men trudged out onto the tundra looking for geese, while the boys unfurled bearskins and pitched tents made of reindeer hide, and the women built a fire and made biscuit dough from flour and river water. They picked herbs and roots—plants that had surrounded Mattern during his days of starvation but that he had no idea he could eat.

Malnourishment had left his hands clenched and his teeth loose and achy. A woman handed him herbs boiled in water and indicated that Mattern should swallow it; hours later he was feeling better. The children ran up and down the riverbank and played on the damp tundra. Soon the men returned with two of the fattest geese Mattern had ever seen, their necks tied together and draped over one of the men’s neck. The women scooped bear fat out of half a five-gallon fuel can and fried the biscuit dough. They all sat around on their haunches and ate biscuits and honey and drank tea. It was Mattern’s first real meal in weeks.

Later, Mattern would learn that these were actually three families of Chukchi, and he was lucky to have been found by them; they were the only people for miles around. They maintained a trap line 200 miles long, where they collected game, honey, and furs. Once a year they traveled down this river with their furs to trade for flour, guns, and ammunition. They were on their way home when they came upon Mattern.

As Mattern wrote in his journal by the fire, his new companions looked over his shoulder with curiosity.

Mattern produced his map kit and offered two of the boys pliers and another a hunting knife. One was enamored with his Pratt & Whitney tool kit, and Mattern gave that away, too. I feel that God has been great to me, he wrote. My only thoughts of sorrow are my wonderful airplane put to sleep on the frozen tundra north forever.

It took four days and nights before they reached a settlement, a cluster of large reindeer-hide tents. The Chukchi were soon at work in the river, fishing for salmon. They carved out the guts, tossed them in a barrel, and hung the rest of the fish in strips to dry. Mattern slept peacefully that night under furs, with a fire burning in the center of the tent and the smoke drawn up through a small flue in the roof.

The next day he was paddled across the river to meet the tribal chief, who invited Mattern to stay in his tent. They are amazed at seeing me, a white man, dressed in a tanned leather zippered flying suit, he wrote. They gather around as if I were a sideshow attraction. As a matter of fact I am just that. Everyone wants to come to the tent to look at me. If I fall asleep the Eskimo squaws wake me up zipping my flight suit.

When Mattern returned to the other bank of the river days later to visit the families that had rescued him, they were gone. He asked other members of the tribe where they were. Through pantomime he learned that they were traveling to Anadyr, and Mattern grew frantic. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get his point across. Finally, he pulled out the $100 in cash he had. Within a few hours he was bound for Anadyr. I am writing this in the boat with six Eskimos, he wrote that afternoon.

Three rowing, two others and myself in the middle and a very old one steering in the rear with his cape up over his head and the sun setting at his back. What a great feeling to again be moving and what a great picture. The land has sloped gradually to the shore and snow is along the beach with a pink sky, a smooth lake and a boat full of very picaresque people. Every stroke of the oars says, ‘AMERICA.’

Several hours later, they stopped for tea and biscuits and waited until a motorboat pulled in further down the riverbank. Mattern walked down the shoreline to meet it. A few hours after that he arrived in Anadyr, 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where Mattern spoke English to another human being for the first time in more than a month. After he took a bath and devoured a meal of canned beef and beans, he went to the telegraph office. His message to his manager consisted of six words: Safe at Anadyr, Siberia. Jimmie Mattern.

Jimmie Mattern’s mother, Caroline, reads a telegram from her son, July 10, 1933. (Video: Universal Newsreels)

Ten

July 5, 1933

From Anadyr, Jimmie Mattern traveled by barge back up the river, accompanied by a score of Chukchi men and two dogsled teams. At the crash site, they salvaged what they could of the Century of Progress. Mattern chopped the motor off the plane’s wooden frame with an ax. He and the other men lifted it onto a platform atop the two dog sleds. There were six ropes and three men to a rope, pulling like mad and bent close to the ground. After half an hour they managed to drag it all the way to the barge, then sailed back to Anadyr, where Mattern boxed up the remains of the plane and sent them to the United States.

All Mattern had to do now was get to Alaska and locate another plane he could pilot to New York. After what he had been through, this didn’t sound impossible. In Anadyr, he waited for an exit visa and a ride to Nome; one of the Soviet Union’s top pilots, Sigizmund Levanevsky, was on his way from Khabarovsk to pick him up. In the meantime, Mattern telegraphed his manager in New York, who set about searching for another plane so that Mattern could complete his flight. The 505-mile hop from Anadyr to Nome aboard another pilot’s plane would mean that Mattern’s accomplishment, if he beat Post, would always carry an asterisk. But at least he could finish the job.

In New York, a group of Mattern’s friends from his time at Floyd Bennett Field were determined to locate a plane for him. While trying to scrape together the money, they met Irving Friedman, the president of Brooklyn’s Kings Brewery. (Prohibition wouldn’t end until December that year, but Kings was doing a brisk business selling low-alcohol “near beer.”) Friedman was not particularly interested in aviation, but Mattern’s friends sounded so sincere that he donated the money to buy the sturdy plane that the pilot Clyde Pangborn had used to fly over the Pacific from Tokyo to the West Coast two years earlier.

The rescue party set out for Alaska in the hopes that they could then leave for Siberia and bring Mattern the plane. But an American plane required Soviet permission to land; Levanevsky, meanwhile, needed U.S. permission to touch down in Alaska. And Moscow and Washington were not on speaking terms. The United States, which cut off diplomatic ties with Russia following the October Revolution 16 years before, did not formally recognize the Soviet Union, so Friedman found himself serving as an informal ambassador, sending and receiving messages that the two countries couldn’t officially exchange with each other. It took a fair amount of wrangling before a deal could be reached that allowed Levanevsky to land in Nome, where Friedman’s rescue plane would be waiting for Mattern. Back in Anadyr, Mattern killed time by taking Russian lessons, learning how to play “Home Sweet Home” on the balalaika, and filing stories about his adventures with The New York Times, which held exclusive rights.

Levanevsky’s plane was delayed by bad weather, and as the days dragged on, Mattern became increasingly agitated. Then he received a devastating message from Nome: Wiley Post was in Siberia, making great time on his way around the world. His rival was in Irkutsk, about to leave for Khabarovsk. Mattern knew he was lucky to be alive, but he was having trouble containing his desire to get back in the race.

Still, there was honor among pilots. If he couldn’t have the record, Mattern figured he might as well assist Post in some small way. He went to the Anadyr wireless station and put his basic Russian to use, working with the operators to translate their weather reports, which were then forwarded to the United States Signal Corps through its station at Nome. Judging by the chatter over the radio, Post was practically overhead.

Eleven

July 20, 1933

Wiley Post motored over eastern Siberia and then turned up toward the Arctic Circle, following a path similar to Mattern’s before he had tumbled out of the sky five weeks earlier. Post was now 3,000 miles east of Novosibirsk. The weather had turned foul, forcing him to fly blind for seven hours. The maps were unreliable and, anyway, were impossible to follow with zero visibility. Post relied on his compass, calculating drift from the way the clouds swirled around mountain peaks, practically the only land he saw.

Piloting a plane under such conditions would have been challenging even for a well-rested pilot, and Post had barely slept since Moscow, 3,700 miles ago. He picked up radio transmissions from WAMCATS—the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System, on the far side of the ocean—while making his way over the Bering Strait. Zeroing in on the signals, he was able to navigate with almost no visibility. When he hit Alaska, he dropped low and edged back toward the coast, following the shoreline around Cape Prince of Wales to Nome, where he buzzed the radio station and airport.

Instead of stopping in Nome, Post decided to keep going to Fairbanks. Although he was dog tired and way ahead of his 1931 time, he felt a tremendous urge to press on. He had heard over the radio that Jimmie Mattern was not only alive but back in the air and on his way to Nome. Post didn’t have a minute to spare. It wasn’t simply man versus machine or man versus nature anymore. It was once again man versus man.

Not long after hitting the Alaskan interior, Post ran into thick fog and his automatic direction finder quit. Radio stations continued to broadcast to him, but he wasn’t receiving any signals. Climbing over the clouds, he expected to pick up Fairbanks, but all he got was static. He was wandering all over the interior now, dodging mountains and following rivers that led nowhere, completely lost.

The husband-and-wife Alaskan bush pilots Noel and Ada Wien happened to be flying to Fairbanks, too, when they spotted the Winnie Mae over the Yukon River. Recognizing the plane, they tried to radio Post with directions to Fairbanks, but Post didn’t respond; he didn’t seem to see them, either. The couple’s Bellanca couldn’t keep pace with Post’s Lockheed, so they continued on to Fairbanks, expecting to see Post there. When they didn’t, they assumed the One-Eyed Wonder must have put his plane in a circling pattern so he could nap. In fact, Post—seven hours after hitting Nome, barely able to keep his eye open and running dangerously low on fuel—was looking for a place, any place, to land.

Midway through the afternoon, he spotted a tiny village with a short, primitive airstrip. He could pick out the wireless masts; wherever this place was, at least he wouldn’t be completely cut off from civilization. Swooping down for a closer look, he estimated that the uneven, pockmarked runway was perhaps 700 feet long, ending in a ditch. He wouldn’t be able to use his brakes; the strip was too bumpy. There really wasn’t enough real estate for him to land safely, but he was desperate. He had been in the air for 22 hours and 42 minutes and hadn’t had a wink of sleep in close to 40 hours.

The Winnie Mae’s wheels bounded over the unpaved surface, and the plane jounced and swerved. Then the right landing-gear support collapsed. The plane’s nose pitched forward, and the propeller dug into the ground. The Winnie Mae tipped forward, tail in the air, and came to a stop.

A man ran over to help the pilot, who miraculously had gotten through the landing unscathed. Recognizing the great Wiley Post, he asked if the Winnie Mae could be repaired.

Post didn’t know. All he knew was that he was a thousand miles from nowhere with a plane that wouldn’t fly, hobbled by a busted propeller and splintered landing gear. He was angry with himself for not stopping in Nome to rest and gather fresh weather reports. If Gatty had been with him, this accident would never have happened. But Post had been impatient, and now he was paying for it.

The man led the exhausted pilot to a nearby shack. Post, almost too tired to care, curled up on a cot and passed out.

Twelve

July 18, 1933

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(Photo: University of Alaska Fairbanks)

After two and a half weeks trapped in Anadyr, Mattern was napping in his room one day when he woke up to the whine of an engine. He put on his boots and raced outside. A two-engine seaplane was circling above him. When the craft landed on its pontoons in Anadyr Bay and pulled up to a boat dock, Mattern went to greet Levanevsky, a lithe, taciturn Soviet war hero and a personal favorite of Joseph Stalin. Levanevsky had set out from Khabarovsk five days before, skirting Japan and flying up over the Pacific to Anadyr. It was supposed to be a one-day journey, but he had run into a typhoon.

Levanevsky didn’t speak English, but he had brought a bottle of whiskey and indicated that Mattern should join him and his small crew. Five hours later, Mattern stumbled back to his room. As he passed out on his bunk, he wondered how Post was doing. He figured he was either right on his tail or perhaps a little ahead. But with a trip like this, a lot could go wrong.

Even if Post got to Alaska first, that didn’t ensure victory. Mattern vowed that just as soon as the room stopped spinning, he and the Russians would leave for Nome.

The next morning, Levanevsky refueled his seaplane—the mosquitoes were so thick that they clogged the funnel his crew was using to change the oil—and, with Mattern aboard, taxied to the center of the bay and opened the throttle. A hundred yards later, however, Mattern knew that they wouldn’t get off the water; there was simply too much weight onboard. Levanevsky dumped 100 gallons of gasoline, and after a few more tries the plane finally staggered into the air. The weather, for once, was all sunshine, and by evening they were over St. Lawrence Island, the westernmost piece of Alaska, directly below the Bering Strait.

As Levanevsky closed in on the final 125-mile leg to Nome, however, fog forced him to turn back to St. Lawrence, where he landed near a remote beach to camp for the night. Mattern was becoming fatalistic, wondering what else could possibly go wrong. He got his answer the next day, when he learned that Levanevsky had dumped too much fuel in Anadyr and didn’t have enough to get to Nome. The nearest land was more than 100 miles off.

Fingers crossed, they took off anyway. To conserve fuel, Levanevsky stayed close to the water, surfing over the waves. Then more fog descended and the Russian pilot struggled to see where he was going. Mattern checked the gas gauges. They had maybe five minutes of gasoline left.

Moments later, Levanevsky spotted land. He followed the beach until he found Nome—an amalgamation of wind-scoured clapboard buildings sprawling along the pebble beach of the Bering Sea coast. The motor quit as he approached, and the plane came down with a splash on its pontoons. They were close to shore, a few miles up the beach from Nome. Mattern almost had to be restrained from jumping in the water to swim the last bit. Levanevsky told his crew to inflate a rubber life raft, and he and Mattern joined him to go ashore, leaving many of the crew aboard. Walking down the beach, they saw several launches heading toward them. A tugboat picked them up and towed the plane to the harbor, where Mattern was greeted as a conquering hero.

A couple of journalists informed him that Wiley Post had crashed in Flat, a gold-mining town 268 miles southeast of Nome. Mattern expressed his condolences, hiding his excitement. He was still in the race. Once he had a plane, he figured, he could be back in New York in two days.

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Jimmie Mattern’s and Wiley Post’s progress as of July 20, 1933.

Thirteen

July 22, 1933

Wiley Post awoke and emerged from the shack to find the Winnie Mae mounted on a wooden derrick, with mechanics working on it. The man who had greeted him as he emerged from the wreck turned out to be the Flat Mining Company’s manager, and he had organized the men from his work crew into a repair team. Being a mining company, it had a full complement of tools.

He told Post he had called over the radio with the news of the crash, and a pilot named Joe Crosson had radioed back. Crosson was famous in the Alaskan bush, highly regarded for his piloting and navigation skills. He was the first pilot ever to land on a glacier, and two years earlier he had flown a shipment of diphtheria serum up to the far northern village of Barrow to head off an outbreak, braving the still-frigid March weather in an open-cockpit biplane. Both Post and Mattern had met him on their travels in Alaska and counted him as a friend.

Crosson told the mine manager that he was bringing a new propeller and tools from Fairbanks and that he’d persuaded the chief mechanic from Pacific Alaska Airways, the regional Pan American subsidiary, to accompany him. By dawn, they had arrived and had gotten the Winnie Mae air-worthy enough to make the short flight to Fairbanks for more significant work. Post followed Crosson’s plane to Weeks Field in Fairbanks, where he asked for “a bath, a shave, a big feed, and some civilian clothes.” While Post slept, Crosson and the mechanics he’d rounded up swarmed over the plane and mended the landing gear, patched the fuselage, replaced a tube in the direction finder, tuned the instruments, and replaced the tires. Post had lost a whole night in Flat and another eight hours in Fairbanks, but at least he was well rested and the Winnie Mae was in fine shape—and he was still ahead of his record.

Out of Fairbanks, at 21,000 feet over the Alaska Range, the temperature in the cockpit plummeted to minus six degrees and ice formed on the wings, the extra weight gradually forcing Post down. He had the motor wide open, but he still couldn’t correct his gradual descent, and soon he was dodging 15,000-foot mountain peaks in the thick clouds. But by Whitehorse Junction in the Yukon, the weather and terrain had improved, and Post needed only nine hours and 22 minutes to make Edmonton.

It was raining when he arrived, as it had been two years earlier when he and Gatty had landed in Edmonton. The runway had been so swamped then that the Winnie Mae was forced to take off from Portage Avenue, a paved road that ran two miles from the airfield to town; Edmonton’s mayor, aware of the international attention, put emergency crews to work pulling down the electric lines strung alongside the road. When Post and Gatty flew over the Hotel MacDonald, where they had stayed, the maître d’ and his platoon of bellhops stood on the roof and offered a salute. This time, Post stopped just long enough to ice his head—it was aching from flying at high altitudes with insufficient oxygen—drink some water, catch a half-hour nap, and refuel. Then it was on to the homestretch, 20 hours and 12 minutes ahead of his record.

Post flew the final 2,000 miles prodded along by a stiff tailwind. He was sighted ten miles northeast of Winnipeg in the late afternoon, and a forest ranger in a fire tower tagged him 28 miles north of Orr, Minnesota, at 5:45 p.m. Post crossed over Marquette, Michigan, on the south shore of Lake Superior, at 7:50 p.m. The next report came from Toronto at 9:47 p.m. By 10:28 p.m., he was coming up on Niagara Falls.

After Toronto, Post dozed off several times, letting the autopilot take over. In his waking moments, the full weight of what he was about to accomplish began to settle on him, and he felt the crush of depression. He was a man more comfortable in motion than sitting still—and after this, what aerial expeditions were left for him? Later he confessed that he had considered landing so he would arrive a day later and miss out on besting his record, just so he could do it again—but better this time.


Tens of thousands of onlookers massed at Floyd Bennett Field early in the day on July 22, 1933. Cars clogged the roads leading to the airport, the worst traffic jam in the city’s history. As night fell, searchlights beamed above the field. At 9:35 p.m., a shrill whistle warned planes to keep clear until Post had landed. Harold Gatty, now an aerial navigation instructor and adviser to the U.S. Army, arrived in a bomber from Washington. “I am tickled to death at the prospect of Wiley beating our record,” he told a newspaper reporter. “After all he’s gone through on this trip, he certainly deserves it.”

The Winnie Mae swung over Newark, across the lower tip of Manhattan, and over the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Post, arriving on a moonless night, had his motor throttled down so low that he was on top of the airfield before anyone heard him approach. “There’s a plane!” someone yelled.

Lee Trenholm, Post’s manager, sitting in a car with Mae Post and Harold Gatty, cried, “It must be Wiley!”

Earlier that day, Mae Post had posed for pictures, pretending to study a map of North America. “I think,” she said, smiling, “that I would have to kill him if he tried it again.”

Now the floodlights illuminated Post’s white-and-blue plane against the dark sky. There would be no victory lap for posterity like last time. Post set the Winnie Mae down gently in a textbook three-point landing. He was 21 hours ahead of his time with Gatty two years earlier.

A New York deputy police commissioner was the first to reach the plane. As Post sat hunched in the cockpit, he reached up to shake the pilot’s hand. “Where have you been all week?” he asked.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Post replied.

From “Look to Lockheed for Leadership,” a 1940 promotional film. (Video: Lockheed Martin)

Fourteen

July 22, 1933

The Bellanca that Irving Friedman had purchased for Mattern’s rescue group had crashed en route, in Hazelton, British Columbia, near Prince Rupert. Mattern would have to pick it up there, but he had to wait to take off from Nome until the same weather that had vexed Post had cleared. When Mattern finally left Nome aboard a seaplane bound for Fairbanks, Post was in Edmonton, one hop from New York. Just like that, the race was over.

But Mattern was determined to finish his flight, record or no. After three days in Fairbanks, he was flown to Hazelton, where the Bellanca sat on a short field, fixed. The plane’s puny 225-horsepower engine was overmatched by its size, and Mattern unloaded every pound he could do without and still only barely cleared the trees on takeoff. He made it to Prince George, British Columbia—about halfway to Edmonton—and stopped for the night.

Even now, stripped of its world-historical potential, Mattern’s journey seemed to hit every possible obstacle. The Bellanca’s engine stalled as Mattern pulled up from the runway in Prince George. In Edmonton, he picked up another plane, which promptly blew a gasket. After an emergency landing, he was forced to take a car to Toronto and borrow yet another plane. He wondered if, as he later put it, “someone was trying to tell me something.” Relief finally came in Buffalo, where his old friend Ed Aldrin was waiting for him with another Lockheed Vega, an eagle much like the one on the late Century of Progress painted on the side.

When he touched down on Floyd Bennett Field at 4:41 p.m. on Sunday, July 31, Mattern quietly sobbed in his cockpit. Post had arrived ten days before, but it scarcely mattered now—how many times had Mattern wondered if he would ever see this airport again? His sense of humor intact, Mattern quipped to a reporter that his rival might have bested him, “but I beat Magellan by a few days.” The “Robinson Crusoe of the air,” as The New York Times dubbed him, was 15 pounds lighter than when he had taken off from New York nearly two months earlier. He limped gingerly forward to shake hands.

But celebrity is a funny thing. Mattern might have failed in his round-the-world quest, but in the process he had acquired a spectacular story, and he soon found himself to be far more famous than the rival who beat him. Like Post, Mattern was invited to the White House, and he soon signed on for a two-week engagement at New York’s Paramount Theater, where he earned $17,000 a week—roughly $250,000 in today’s dollars—regaling audiences with tales of his ordeal in the Arctic. The following year he starred in a 23-week radio series, sponsored by the Pure Oil Company, that dramatized his life. (There were more than a few embellishments; the radio version had Mattern rescue a woman and her baby from a forest fire.)

It was enough to enable Mattern to ride out the rest of the Depression in style, dating starlets and chorus girls—including a showgirl named Dorothy J. Harvey, who became his second wife. Their courtship was somewhat complicated by the fact that Mattern was technically still married to Delia, who remained in Walla Walla, though they had been separated for almost the entirety of their marriage. Filing for divorce in Chicago in 1937, Mattern charged Delia—not without considerable irony—with abandonment. He rarely if ever talked about her after that; in his unpublished autobiography, which he wrote a few years before he died, in 1988, he scrubbed out any mention of her.

A celebrity in his own right now, Mattern hobnobbed with the rich and famous—including the humorist and actor Will Rogers, the biggest star of his generation. In early 1935, Rogers asked Mattern if he’d fly to Alaska with him. But Mattern was too busy with his radio program and recommended another pilot whom both men knew well.


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Wiley Post in Fairbanks, Alaska, in August 1935. (Photo: Alaska State Library)

Though he had outflown Mattern in his round-the-world expedition, Post fared worse back on solid ground. After returning to Oklahoma, he tried to capitalize on his fame with a cross-country promotional tour sponsored by an oil company. His first stop was Quincy, Illinois, where, immediately after takeoff, the Winnie Mae’s engine cut out 50 feet above the ground. Post lost control, and the plane crashed. The cockpit was a crumpled mess, and Post suffered a fractured skull. Souvenir hunters made off with pieces of the plane while its pilot was taken to a nearby hospital.

After the rest of the tour fell apart due to a lack of interest, Post sank into another depression. He considered other aerial distance records, but none seemed as compelling as the one he had just completed. The only other direction he could go was up, and for a time he focused on setting new altitude records. In 1934, with the assistance of B.F. Goodrich engineers, he designed the first pressurized aviation suit, the direct predecessor of the modern-day spacesuit. With its rubberized fabric exterior and repurposed deep-sea-diver’s helmet, it made Post look like a cross between the Michelin Man and a Cyclops. After one crash landing in the Mojave Desert, he had to calm down a passing motorist he approached for help; the man was convinced he was in the presence of a Martian.

But the Winnie Mae was not built for the high-altitude abuse Post was heaping on it, and in 1935 he was forced to retire the plane, selling it to the Smithsonian Institution. Casting about for work, he approached Pan Am to offer his services as a company pilot. The airline’s executives, however, believed that stunt pilots like Post were good for front-page news but too unreliable for steady commercial work. Lyman Peck, Pan Am’s director of Alaskan development, tried to soften the blow with another suggestion. He pointed Post to a recent weekly column by Will Rogers, in which Rogers mused, “I never been to that Alaska. I am crazy to go up there some time.”

Rogers and Post had met a decade earlier when Post gave him a lift in his plane. They were both Oklahomans who had scrambled up to stardom from nothing, and they became fast friends. Rogers was a strong advocate of aviation at a time when most Americans were still leery of it. Although he got airsick whenever he got in a plane, he flew hundreds of thousands of miles every year and dedicated numerous columns to flight. “Was out at daybreak to see Wiley Post take off,” he wrote in a syndicated column published on February 23, 1935. “Was in the camera plane and we flew along with him for about thirty miles. We left him 8,000 feet over the mountains. He soon after had to land. He brought her down on her stomach. That guy don’t need wheels.”

When Rogers approached Post with his idea for a trip to Alaska, Post grabbed it immediately. Rogers agreed to finance the journey and pay for a new aircraft. Post mixed and matched parts to create his own “bastard” plane, with a wing from a used Lockheed Explorer and the body from a Lockheed Orion 9-E Special, and added pontoons. It was ugly, and it turned out to be nose-heavy, too; Joe Crosson, whose opinion Post generally respected, flatly told him it wasn’t safe and advised him against flying it.

But Post was undaunted, and in August 1935, he and Rogers set off for Alaska, camping, fishing, and hunting whenever the urge struck them. Along the way, Rogers continued to file his weekly columns. Late on the morning of August 15, Post and Rogers climbed into the plane, which was docked on the Chena River, deep in the Alaskan interior. Post taxied to the middle of the river, turned to face the wind, and gunned the engine, climbing rapidly until he disappeared over the trees.

He and Rogers were bound for Barrow, 500 miles north on the Arctic coast. Post hadn’t bothered to check the weather in Barrow. If he had, he would have heard that a thick fog bank had rolled in, obscuring the local airfield. By 7:30 p.m., Post was lost above the clouds and near the end of his fuel supply. He dropped down low enough to spot a family of Alaska Natives camped on the shore of a lake.

The Okpeaha family were surprised when a plane splashed to a stop nearby. Post and Rogers emerged to ask directions, and the father, Clair Okpeaha, pointed to the north and said that Barrow was about 30 miles away. Rogers asked how the hunting had been. It had been good, Okpeaha replied: walrus, seal, caribou, enough food for the winter. Post and Rogers stretched their legs and discussed their situation. The fog made it hard to see where they were going, but Barrow—and a warm bed and hot meal—was only a few minutes away. They decided to go for it.

Post jump-started the engine and took off across the water, rising steeply and banking sharply as he always did. At 400 feet, the engine backfired and the plane stalled in midair. It somersaulted down, hitting the shallow water nose-first, driving the motor halfway up through the cabin. The right wing sheared off, shattering the floats. The plane came to rest upside down. The only sounds were the wind sweeping over the tundra and the hissing of hot steel in the icy water.

Okpeaha ran to the water’s edge. “Halloo, halloo!” he called out. There was no answer.

Fifteen

August 16, 1935

Newsreel report on Wiley Post and Will Rogers in Alaska, August 1935. (Video: Critical Past)

Jimmie Mattern awoke to the sound of a telephone sometime after midnight. A reporter for United Press International was on the line.

“Have you heard the news?” the man asked.

As the reporter told him what had happened in Barrow, Mattern sat on the edge of his bed, numb, and wondering if somehow there could be a mistake. Then another thought came to mind: He had almost taken Rogers on that flight. Would things have ended differently if it had been him in the cockpit?

The nation’s flags flew at half-staff the next day. Charles Lindbergh paid to have the bodies flown back to Oklahoma; Joe Crosson volunteered to do the flying. Crosson’s wife received Post’s and Rogers’s personal effects, which were delivered to her in Fairbanks. Their wallets were still wet, so she placed them by the cookstove where she had prepared their last home-cooked meal two days earlier, when they had stayed overnight. In Rogers’s wallet, she recognized the family photos he had showed her during the visit, and she began to weep.

Post’s funeral was held at the First Baptist Church in Sentinel, Oklahoma. It was a simple service—as simple as Wiley Post the man. In New York City, pilots gathered to pay tribute; a squadron of 24 planes flew over Floyd Bennett Field, into Manhattan, and back to Brooklyn. Rogers’s funeral was the largest in Oklahoma history, and 20,000 people attended a ceremony in Hollywood. “Will Rogers hadn’t a living peer in the affection of millions,” the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “and Wiley Post ranked next to Lindbergh as their hero of the air.”

Two years later, Mattern flew to Alaska for another grim occasion: he was joining the search for Sigizmund Levanevsky, the Soviet pilot who had brought him from Anadyr to Nome, whose plane, it was believed, had gone down somewhere between Barrow and the North Pole. (He was never found and later presumed dead.) In Barrow, Mattern stopped in on Charlie Brower, an Alaskan folk hero whom Post and Rogers were on their way to meet when they crashed.

Known as the King of the Arctic, Brower had lived on Alaska’s northern coast for 50 years as a trader and whaler. He took Mattern to meet Clair Okpeaha, the last man to see Post and Rogers alive. Okpeaha described their final minutes: “We watched from the shore. We heard the motor rev up to a deafening pitch and saw the plane begin moving, faster, faster, pontoons spraying behind as the plane came up on the steps of the floats. Lifting off and starting to climb, it banked to the right, making a turn toward Barrow.”

Of course ol’ Wiley banked to the right, Mattern thought. He only had one eye. Post’s style of banking hard to the right on takeoff was fine in a sleek Lockheed Vega but was precisely the wrong approach to take in a plane like the one he had mashed together from odd parts. His plane was also nose-heavy, and the engine wasn’t fully warmed up. The fog would’ve created condensation in the carburetor. Under those conditions, a steep bank of the sort Post was prone to attempt during takeoff would’ve been a recipe for stalling.

After the plane crashed, Okpeaha went on, “there was a dull explosion, a flash of fire, and then dead silence. Our first instinct was to run away. Then I went a little closer. I went as close as I could and shouted over and over but got no answer.” Okpeaha took off running, 12 miles across the tundra, to find Charlie Brower, who served as the local magistrate. Five hours later, he collapsed at Brower’s feet, so out of breath he could hardly speak. Finally he got out “crash.” One of the men had tall boots, he said; the other had a “sore eye, rag over eye.” Brower knew immediately who he was talking about.

Mattern shook his head. He was confident Post could have handled any situation in any airplane. He believed his friend could have flown to Mars, if he’d wanted to. But the truth was, that “bastard” plane of Wiley’s should have never left the ground.

Charlie Brower gave Mattern the seatbelts that had hugged Post and Rogers when they died, along with the plane’s throttle and some papers Rogers had on him.

That night Mattern opened his journal.

They are not forgotten, he wrote. They were my friends.

Epilogue

Wiley Post’s round-the-world speed record wasn’t broken until 1938, when Howard Hughes—flying a jet with a crew of four—managed to make the trip in three days, 19 hours, and eight minutes. But Hughes maintained that “Wiley Post’s flight remains the most remarkable flight in history. It can never be duplicated. He did it alone! … It’s like pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a woman in half.”

Mae Post used the $25,000 she received from the Smithsonian Institution for the Winnie Mae to buy a small cotton farm in Texas, where she lived for the rest of her life. She never remarried and always wore the wedding band Post gave her.

In 1969 Wiley Post was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and ten years later the U.S. Post Office issued two commemorative airmail stamps bearing his likeness. As the years have worn on, however, he largely faded from the public memory, and is now best known as a character who pops up throughout the Broadway revue Will Rogers Follies, with one recurring line: “Let’s go flyin’!” Eventually Rogers does, and the play ends.


Jimmie Mattern joined Lockheed as a test pilot in 1938. In 1946, after developing spasms and shakes, he was diagnosed with a ruptured blood vessel in his brain, which was blamed on his many vertiginous dives from high altitudes. Doctors gave him only a few years to live; they were off by more than 40. But Mattern never flew again. He and his wife, Dorothy, moved to Phoenix, where they worked as real estate brokers and opened a travel agency, while Mattern operated as an aviation consultant. Jimmie Mattern died on December 17, 1988, two days before he was to be the honoree at Texas Aviation Pioneer Day.

Coronado High

Coronado High

How a group of high school kids from a sleepy beach town in California became criminal masterminds.

By Joshua Bearman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 27


Joshuah Bearman has written for Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Wired, McSweeney’s, Playboy, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine, and he is a contributor to This American Life. He is currently working on his first book, St. Croix, a memoir.


Editor: Charles Homans
Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran
Animation: Colleen Cox
Web Design: Alex Fringes
Music: “Life’s a Gas,” written by Marc Bolan, copyright 1971 TRO/Essex Music International, Inc., performed by Islands
Animation Soundtrack: Jefferson Rabb
Research and Production: Vonecia Carswell, Lila Selim, Chris Osborn, and Nadia Wilson
Cover Photo: Courtesy of Gary Kidd
Audiobook Narrator: Brett Gelman
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton

Published in July 2013. Design updated 2021.

The Lost Coast

1976

There, on the horizon: a ship.

Dave Strather* could see it through binoculars, the sails ghostly against the water. He was sitting on an exposed cliff overlooking the Pacific. It was dark, and the beach was deserted for fifty miles in both directions. This was the Lost Coast, a vast swath of rugged, uninhabited, magnificently forested Northern California, the kind of place that made you understand why people have always been drawn to the Golden State. Dave chose the spot for landfall precisely because it was so empty. He and his team needed secrecy.

The sailboat was laden with contraband: 4,000 pounds of Thai stick pot, the latest in marijuana commerce, a product as potent as it was valuable, which Dave and his crew—a team of smugglers called the Coronado Company—would unload and sell for millions of dollars. Once Dave made visual contact, his team got on the radios: “Offshore vessel, please identify.”

“This is Red Robin.”

Finally. Smuggling always involves waiting, but Red Robin—the code name for a ship called the Pai Nui—was months overdue, and Dave’s nerves were frayed. The Company, as its members called it, was already a successful and sophisticated operation, importing Mexican pot by the ton, hugging the coast in fishing boats from as far south as Sinaloa. But this was a new type of gig, crossing the Pacific in a double-masted ketch. There were more variables, more opportunities for error. The Pai Nui had run out of gas before it even reached the International Date Line. Then, under sail, she was becalmed in the Doldrums. And then she disappeared.

“Red Robin, come in,” Dave had said into his radio a thousand times, in a daily attempt to reach the boat. He set up a radio watch, 500 feet above the ocean, for a better line of sight. The beauty of single sideband radio was that you could communicate halfway around the world, coordinating, as the Company liked to do, with your fleet at designated hours on Zulu time. The problem with single sideband—besides that it wasn’t secure, and anyone could listen—was that there wasn’t much bandwidth. Dave and the others would eavesdrop on conversations in dozens of languages, hoping to hear the captain of the Pai Nui. Back in September, it was pleasant to be perched on a palisade covered in redwoods, taking in the panoramic view, drinking a beer, tweaking the dial, watching the ocean go from silver to teal to green to blue in the late afternoon. By late December, however, everyone was cold and jumpy. But now, just before Christmas, their ship had finally come in.

Dave and his team snapped into action. Everyone was practiced and drilled—that was the Company’s style. They were a tight, coordinated unit, most of them friends who grew up together in Coronado, a secluded little beach town on a peninsula off the coast of San Diego. A decade earlier, they had been classmates at Coronado High. Some of them were surfers and would bring small bales of pot across the border after surfing trips to Mexico. A half-decade later, the Coronado Company was the largest smuggling outfit on the West Coast, on its way to becoming a $100 million empire, one the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would later call the most sophisticated operation of its kind. “These kids were the best in the business,” James Conklin, a retired DEA special agent, says about the group he tracked for years. “They were ahead of their time. They operated almost like a military unit.”

The crux of the business was the off-load; the battle was won—or lost—on the beach. Everyone had their role. Dave ran field strategy. Harlan Fincher, who had a knack for equipment, was the logistics manager. Al Sweeney, a hobbyist photographer and silk-screener in high school, was the crack forger. Grease monkey Don Kidd was the chief mechanic. Allan Logie, a onetime motorcycle racer, was the flamboyant wheelman. Ed Otero, a great swimmer and athlete, provided muscle. Bob Lahodny, a handsome charmer whose 22-karat Baht chain signaled some mystical time spent in Thailand, had made the Company’s Asian supply connection. Lance Weber, who started the whole thing, was a fearless nut whom everyone called the Wizard on account of his thaumaturgical ways with engineering, especially the boat motors he rigged to run at smuggler speeds.

At the center of it all was Lou Villar. A former Spanish teacher, Lou had taught some of the guys back at Coronado High. Lance originally brought Lou along for his language abilities; it helped that he was a smooth talker. But when he got a look at all that money, Lou discovered an instinct for business. He organized the Company into a visionary outfit, with himself as the kingpin.

It was Lance’s idea to buy the DUKW, a 31-foot, six-wheeled, World War II–era amphibious landing craft that served as the audacious centerpiece of the operation, allowing the Company to drive right into the water and dock at sea with the sailboat. Lou had thought this was crazy—Oh sure, why not use zeppelins?—but after some research, Dave convinced Lou to approve the purchase of the 7.5-ton vehicle, which the crew had stashed in a barn near the tiny delta of Juan Creek.

Dave directed the boat south of the creek, where the beach, as expected, was deserted. (On the occasions when civilians wandered too close, they were intercepted by Dave, dressed as a park ranger, who told them that the area was the site of a wilderness-reclamation project and off-limits to civilians.) Lance went down the coast to Fort Bragg, 20 miles to the south, to get eyes on the local Coast Guard station. Company lookouts—code-named Nova for north and Saturn for south—took position out on the Pacific Coast Highway. At midnight everyone radioed in with a round of affirmatives. The coast, as they say, was clear. “Let’s get the Duck rolling,” Dave said over the comm.

With Ed and Don in the cockpit, the Duck pulled out of the barn, drove down the Pacific Coast Highway to the beach, and nosed into the water. They’d welded an additional wave shield to the bow so the Duck could break through the heavy California surf. Their compass turned out to be useless. But Ed, undaunted, plowed through the murky night—“nine feet up a black cat’s ass,” as Don put it—to meet the waiting ketch. They tied up, quickly transferred the load, and found their way back by aligning two lights Dave had set up onshore marking a safe passage. “Heading back,” he radioed Dave, who looked at his watch: So far, so good.

It was a funny thing to see the Duck rise from the darkness, shedding seawater like a real-life Nautilus—until it stopped rising. By now the tide had gone out, and the Duck, weighted down with Thai product, sank in the soft sand. The tide wouldn’t lift the vehicle for another six hours. By that time it would be broad daylight, and the Duck would be as conspicuous as a relic on Omaha Beach.

“Fuck,” Dave said over the radio. “We’re stuck.”

Ed hit the throttle and spun the wheels, sinking the Duck deeper into the sand. “Kill the engine!” someone yelled. Don got out, looked at the tires, and stood back. “Don’t panic,” he said. “I know exactly what to do.”

Don told Allan, who was on the beach, to get a couple of pickup trucks and a lot of rope. Like everyone else, he called the hirsute Allan “Fuzzy.” The two men were close, both a little wild, a couple of pranksters who got under Dave’s skin. But by God, they knew how machines worked. Now they assembled an elaborate pulley system connecting the pickups to the Duck’s winch. “Are you sure this is gonna work?” Dave asked.

Don didn’t flinch when the motors fired, and sure enough his ad hoc Archimedean apparatus enabled the Duck to lift itself out of the sand and back up to the road. It was a goddamn glorious sight. Cheers went up on the beach. Safely back in the barn, the Company hands unloaded the Duck’s fragrant cargo. It was a sweet reward to sample the supply; Don thought the faintly purple buds were thick and beautiful, the finest he’d ever smoked.

The cache was processed at the old general store next to the barn. It was the Company’s biggest haul to date: $8 million (about $33 million today). The Company had stepped up its game, bringing in better product with more sophisticated technique. The distributors would be pleased. By now they had been waiting a long time, too. Back in his cabana at the Beverly Hills Hotel—as the ringleader, he rarely set foot near the beach himself—Lou had had a hell of a time keeping them calm. He was worried that the Company’s reputation would be ruined if the supply didn’t show. It was a relief to call the dealers and announce, “The Eagle has landed.”

The exchange with the dealers always happened fast. Like in the movies, the money would come in Halliburton briefcases. Unlike in the movies, the Company usually waited to count it. And count it. And count it. And count it. It took so long to count that much cash, they got bored. When all was said and done, the partners each made half a million off the operation. For his rescue of the Duck, Don got the MVP award, a new Company institution, which came with a $25,000 bonus. Everyone else got their wad and scattered to the winds—the sweet scent of their trade wafting from their clothes.

It was exhilarating, the money and the camaraderie. Company members saw themselves as hippie outlaws. There was no violence—they didn’t even carry guns—just the threat of the law, which bound them together. They were criminals, but they were also a family.

Afterward, Lou and Dave sat in Lou’s cabana, going through receipts, looking at ledgers, accounting for a very good year. Later, they burned the receipts and went out to a Beverly Hills restaurant to celebrate. “Here’s to everyone’s efforts,” Lou said as they hoisted champagne flutes. “Let’s do it again soon.”

*Not his real name.

From The Beachcomber, the Coronado High School yearbook, 1972.

The Teacher

1964

Lou knew he wouldn’t stop until he reached the Pacific. He had left New York in his convertible on that modern-day westward migration, a midcentury Manifest Destiny, with the top down and the red metal-flake lacquer on his Corvette flashing in the sun. On the radio were Dick Dale and the Beach Boys, songs about girls, woodies, surfing. That’s where he was headed. He was 25 and looking to change his life.

Lou was born in Havana, Cuba, to a family of small-business owners. His mother brought him to New York City as a teenager, in 1954, and he liked it: the hustle, the gritty determination required to get ahead. Lou was smart-mouthed and got into more fights than he should have for a guy his size. Despite being small, however, he was a great athlete, and he held his own in the rough-and-tumble of Flatbush, Brooklyn.

After college, Lou studied law at Syracuse, but it was the early 1960s, and the California lifestyle was just dawning on America. Syracuse was awfully far from the beach, and when he heard about a job teaching Spanish at a high school in Coronado, he packed his bags.

Coronado was all Lou had hoped for, an easygoing beach town of 18,000 people, known for its handsome Victorian hotel, Navy base, and isolation. It was a funny mix, a sort of military Mayberry. Coronado was connected to the mainland by an isthmus, but it took so long to drive around that it might as well have been an island out in San Diego Bay. Lou loved the nonchalance that came with the geography. Everyone called it the Rock, or, playfully, Idiot Island: a place where people did their own thing.

At Coronado High, Lou quickly developed a strong rapport with the students. He was handsome and charming and cultivated a cool image. In addition to teaching Spanish, he coached swimming, water polo, and basketball. Lou liked to shoot hoops with his students after school; he was the kind of coach kids confided in. A lot of his students were Navy brats, raised in strict military families just as Vietnam was escalating. Lou had an ear for what the kids wanted to talk about. He was not much older than them, and he understood.

Lou’s father died when he was three, and his own high school basketball coach had helped fill the role; he knew everything that a coach could be. My boys, he called his players. But when the whistle blew, they knew it was time to work. Lou was a demanding coach, and his players loved him for it.

Among Lou’s Spanish students was Bob Lahodny, a popular kid with an easy smile, president of the class of ’68 two years in a row. Bob, a swim-team star, was a close friend of Ed Otero’s, class of ’72, another strong swimmer on the team. Ed’s nickname was Eddie the Otter, or sometimes just Otter. He was short and stocky, powerfully built, but he didn’t like practice and was difficult to control. Lou liked Ed and thought he could have been a great competitive swimmer, but he had no discipline.

Discipline was something you needed if you swam or played ball for Lou. He could be unforgiving even with his favorite players, like Harlan Fincher*, the star center of the basketball team. Harlan was tall and friendly—he’d been named Best Personality and Best Sense of Humor in his senior year—and he liked Lou’s coaching. Lou thought the same of Harlan’s playing, until the day Harlan snuck off with some friends and a bottle of Chivas after school and showed up dead drunk for the last game of the season. Furious, Lou took Harlan off the floor. “When you play for me,” Lou told him, “you give me everything.” He didn’t speak to Harlan again for the rest of his time at Coronado High.


The social scene in Coronado in those days was typical of its time: greasers, lettermen, and—by the time Gidget was on television—surfers. The greasers wore black Converse, the lettermen wore white tennis shoes, and the surfers tended toward blue Top-Siders. Over time there were more and more Top-Siders as surfing took hold. Not far behind Gidget was the rest of the ’60s: hair, rock and roll, and drugs. Coronado was fertile ground for the changing times, full of military kids eager to rebel.

Alarmed by the influx of drugs, the city government set up a pilot project at the high school to keep students on the straight and narrow. It was called the “no-bust policy,” and one of its counselors was Lou Villar. His approach was simpatico; he’d spent plenty of evenings in his kids’ homes, watching disciplinarian fathers fume and military wives crawl on the floor after three martinis, and he sensed the hypocrisy. He knew the kids were just looking for an outlet and suggested alternatives. “Why smoke a joint,” he’d ask, “when there are so many other ways to have fun in life?” It was persuasion over punishment, and Lou was nothing if not persuasive—until he stopped believing the message.

Lou had always been the bohemian teacher, the one who pulled into the faculty lot in a red Corvette and shades. When the school banned sunglasses, he wore his prescription Ray-Bans in class anyhow. For the students of Coronado High, this was a sign of solidarity: Lou was going through the same changes they were, reflecting a culture that was advancing at a frantic pace. Imagine starting high school in 1964, how fast it was all moving between freshman and senior year: from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Tet Offensive, from the Voting Rights Act to the Watts Riots, from Help! to “The White Album.”

Like his students, Lou started growing his hair and learned to surf. It was humbling at first, eating saltwater a thousand times before he managed to get up on the board. But once Lou could feel the ocean lift him up and bring him to shore, he was hooked; there was energy in that ride. He started inviting “his boys,” and some girls, over for dinner. Together they all smoked their first joints. Everyone was scared, convinced they’d go crazy. Instead, smiles gradually spread around the room. They talked waves while the hi-fi played the Doors, whose front man, Jim Morrison, had lived in Coronado.

Soon, Lou was counseling his kids against following in their parents’ footsteps. “That’s not a career,” he would say, pointing at the ships moored off the Navy Yard. “That’s a war machine.” Lou thought it was pretty cool that one of his favorite Spanish students, Dave Strather, a talented musician, wanted to become a rock and roller. Lou started dating Kathy, a beautiful former cheerleader—voted Most Popular the same year she was in the homecoming court—who had graduated from Coronado High a couple of years earlier. She was seven years younger than Lou, but Lou himself was not yet 30. We’re just kids, he thought, and the kids are finally in charge.

It was just a matter of time before he quit teaching. Nobody wanted to be in the establishment anymore. In the summer of 1969, the summer of Woodstock, he traded his Corvette for a VW bus. During his last week in class, Lou brought in his turntable, wore his shades, and listened to Jethro Tull with his students. 

The bridge was going up that summer. You could see the caissons rising out of the bay, spelling the end of the Rock as a de facto island. In August it opened to traffic. The two-mile feat of box-girder engineering arced gracefully across the bay, connecting Coronado to the rest of the world. The locals gathered on the Coronado side, waiting to watch those first cars roll across, knowing things would never be the same. 

Lance Weber (Photo: Courtesy of Rex Gammon)
Lance Weber (Photo: Courtesy of Rex Gammon)

The Boys

1969

Lance Weber was never cut out for the Navy. He had joined after graduating from Coronado High mostly so he wouldn’t get shot at in Vietnam. His father, a Navy captain, wanted him to be an officer, but when Lance’s service was up, his parents had to accept that he was just another washed-out swabbie loafing around back on the Rock.

One thing the Navy did do for Lance, however, was teach him how to turn a wrench. After his stint as an engineer on a submarine, he could make anything work. Back in Coronado, he tricked out a VW microbus with a Porsche engine and built the island’s first low-rider bicycle by hand. “Here comes the Wizard,” people would say, watching Lance cruise the beach on his tuned-up rig, barefoot, shirtless, his long blond hair flowing behind him and a stoned smile on his face. Easy Rider had just come out, and leaning back on two wheels was maybe the coolest thing you could do. When people said Lance was a space cadet, that meant they thought he was a rad fucking guy.

That summer marked the first great marijuana supply shock in the United States, the consequence of booming stateside demand and a drought in Mexico. Prices spiked, encouraging creativity. There were mules caravanning the desert, planes flying low over the Arizona mountains, tires stuffed with green at the border. It was the dream of every pot smoker to get a “block,” or a kilo, keeping some and selling the rest. And for the stoned surfers on the beach in Coronado, there was an enormous arbitrage opportunity just a few miles south. The trick was figuring out how to get the stuff home.

It was Lance who came up with the idea of taking to the water. At the Long Bar in Tijuana, he got his hands on 25 pounds of pot and swam it north from the beach by the bullring of the Plaza Monumental de Tijuana. He washed up on the U.S. side, on a beach with no name, no facilities, not even a parking lot—a perfect terminus for illegal night swims. He did it again, and again. It was dangerous, being in the water at night with only the blinking radio-tower lights for guidance, but it was worth it: Each delivery netted five grand.

Soon, Lance had a little team of marijuana marines working with him, swimming as many bundles as they could get their hands on. They were misfits, guys who couldn’t get girlfriends in high school before Lance put pot and money in their hands, and now they looked to Lance as their eccentric leader. He got busted in 1971, but the few months he served in Lompoc made him Coronado’s first hippie outlaw hero, a local legend.

When Lance got back, Paul Acree, one of Lance’s misfits, introduced him to a new connection, and they strapped on their fins again. A few bales later, however, they came up with a better idea: a Zodiac, similar to the inflatable rubber crafts used by Navy SEALs. One run in the Zodiac was good for 100 pounds of grass. It was easy money.

Looking to expand the little operation, Paul brought in Ed Otero. Ed was the archetypal California boy: blond, square face, cleft chin, like a letterman who had traded his varsity jacket for the waves. He was a former lifeguard, strong on land—he was known around town for tearing phone books in half—and in the surf. They would call him the Otter for his facility in the water, his ability to break through nasty surf with bales in hand.

A division of labor emerged: Paul arranged supply, Lance piloted the Zodiac, and Otter swam. The only thing holding them back was the connection, their guy in Tijuana. They called him Joe the Mexican, and since none of them had taken Lou’s class, they couldn’t understand a word Joe said.


Lou was in dungarees, standing on a ladder with paintbrush in hand, when Lance rolled up on his low-rider bike.

“You speak Spanish, right?”

“Sí,” Lou said. “Naturalmente.” It was a rhetorical question.

“Then come down here,” Lance said. “I got an idea.”

“I don’t have time,” Lou said. “I have to finish painting this house.”

“I’ll make it worth your time,” Lance said. He would pay Lou fifty bucks, he explained, to go with him to Tijuana for dinner.

Fifty bucks sounded good to Lou. He was painting houses for money, living in a little cottage. Since quitting Coronado High, he had become a bona fide beachside Buddhist, surfing, reading Carlos Castaneda, pondering the evils of materialism, making candles, and meditating with a local guru named Bula. He’d run into his old student, Bob Lahodny, among Bula’s disciples. He had also reconnected with Dave Strather,  who had recently returned to Coronado after spending a few years as a studio musician in San Francisco.

Life was simple, and Lou and Kathy were having a great time—until free love got the best of them. After four years together they had split up, driven apart by jealousy. There was nothing wrong with their relationship other than timing; 1971 was a bad time to be young, good-looking, stoned, and married. Now Lou spent his days painting houses and his free time at the beach. That was where he met Lance, out on a jetty where people went to watch the sunset.

Lance had gone to Coronado High but graduated before Lou’s time. They started hanging out around the Rock and roasted some pigs together. (Luaus were the thing then.) Lou loved that life. But he didn’t love being so broke. Traveling down to Tijuana and translating for Lance was the easiest fifty bucks he ever made—until Lance offered him a hundred the next week to do it again.

During the second meeting, Lou sensed an opportunity for his friends and negotiated a larger load for a better price from Joe the Mexican. Impressed, Lance offered Lou a cut of the next shipment.

When it was time for the pickup, Lou helped Lance, Paul, and Ed inflate the Zodiac and load it offshore by the little salt-eaten Rosarito beach shack where Joe the Mexican delivered the goods. Once they got it across the border, Lou’s share was $10,000. It was more money than he had earned in the past several years. He gave away his painting equipment and never looked back. Like everyone else, Lou had been smoking pot for giggles, but then came a moment of clarity, when he took that joint from behind his ear, sparked it up, and saw the future. 

The Gig

1972

Gigs, they called them. Or scams. Or barbecues, since they would plan them while throwing steaks on the grill at sundown. Everyone would get the call—“Do you want to go to a barbecue?”—when it was time to mobilize. The missions were simple at first, with just the 12-foot Zodiac running a couple hundred pounds at a time from Rosarito to the Silver Strand beach on Coronado’s tiny isthmus. But the loads were getting bigger, and even Eddie the Otter had trouble hauling 50-pound bags through head-high waves. And everyone knew it was unwise seafaring, to say the least, to negotiate the coast in that little raft with no lights and no navigation.

Still, Lance was an adventurer; he would have made a great swashbuckler, Lou always thought, or a test pilot. When Lance reached the Silver Strand, he’d signal with a flashlight and run the Zodiac right up onto the sand—Burn up the motor, he’d say, well buy a new one. They would off-load the bags, deflate the boat, and pack it all into the van. It would be over in five minutes, the most exciting five minutes they’d ever experienced: everyone holding their breath until the van was on the road, knowing as they drove away that they each had just made twice their parents’ annual salary.

At first there was one gig a month. Then it was one a week. Within a year, the crew was scaling up from the Zodiacs to a clandestine armada of speedboats, fishing boats, even a 40-foot cabin cruiser. Some of the money they made went back into the business. Lance bought a Chris-Craft called the Lee Max II and rebuilt the engine so he could carry serious weight at top speeds. They hired beach crews to expedite the off-load.

It was risky, bringing more people into the operation, but it was Coronado, and everyone knew each other. “If we take care of them,” Lance said, “they’ll take care of us.” And the partners could afford to be generous. Still in their twenties, they were walking around with $50,000 in their pockets, then $100,000, then a quarter of a million dollars. “Don’t you love it,” Lance once remarked, “when life goes from black and white to Technicolor?”

Lou walked into a bank, asked for the balance of his mother’s house, and paid it off in cash. Once, when he was buying first-class tickets to Hawaii for himself and his girlfriend, it dawned on him that he had enough money to hang out there and surf for the rest of his life. And he might have, had Ed and Lance not flown over personally to retrieve their partner. “Come on, Señor Villar!” Ed said. “There’s more money to be made!”

It got to be like clockwork, enough so that sometimes Lance’s and Lou’s girlfriends would tag along on the supply runs to Tijuana. It was about this time that Lance started calling Lou “Pops,” a nickname that caught on. “What do you think, Pops?” Lance asked one evening, drinking Coronas on the beach in Baja.

“I think we got a good thing going here,” Lou said. “Let’s not fuck it up.” 

Lance Weber, top right, and friends from Coronado pose with the Coronado Company’s DUKW amphibious landing craft. (Photo: Courtesy of Gary Kidd)

The Agency

1973

When the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration opened its office in the San Diego suburb of National City in 1973, it had just six field agents. The DEA was a brand-new agency, assembled from various other departments, including the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), a tautologically titled bureaucratic relic that was poorly equipped to fight the war on drugs that President Richard Nixon had declared in 1971.

The impetus for the drug war was a congressional report issued the same year stating that as much as 15 percent of U.S. soldiers serving in Vietnam—a conflict that put hundreds of thousands of Americans in close proximity to the Golden Triangle—had come back hooked on heroin. The same report said that half of the service smoked pot. Alongside other law-enforcement agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the FBI, the DEA was tasked with fighting what Nixon called “the new menace.”

Bobby Dunne was one of the first agents working out of the new office. He’d started his law-enforcement career in National City a dozen years earlier, as an animal-control officer. After working his way up through the ranks of the local police department, he’d become a federal narcotics agent in 1968 and spent several years working in Guadalajara, Mexico. Dunne was excited to be abroad but quickly realized that corruption in Mexico made his job nearly impossible. When he came back to the States, he asked to join the DEA’s San Diego office, because “the action,” as they called it, was at the border.

The new agency needed all the local savvy it could get. San Diego was a world apart from drug interdiction on the East Coast, where well-understood organized-crime syndicates brought heroin in through the ports. California was a new front, the Wild West. Newly arrived agents couldn’t believe it: In one 12-hour shift at San Ysidro, you’d get three or four hauls of 100 kilos. Dunne was the first officer to pull a full ton of pot out of a truck heading north.

Dunne was a field agent, and in San Diego the work lived up to the title. In other DEA offices, you went to work in a suit and tie and spent a lot of time at your desk. In San Diego, the agents were veterans of border details and dressed like vaqueros: boots, jeans, guayaberas, cowboy hats. They spoke Spanish, wore beards and mustaches, and spent the nights in Tijuana bars with informants and local cops. To get anywhere, you had to roll up your sleeves and go drinking down in Revolución, getting to know the people on both sides of the border trade.

None of that shoe-leather work, however, clued the DEA into the new homegrown smuggling organization right under their noses, on the other side of San Diego Bay. The DEA’s first tip about the Company came from a Coronado police officer who had heard through the grapevine about some local guys and a former teacher running bales of pot up the coast. The beach runs weren’t in Coronado proper and were beyond police jurisdiction, so the officer called the feds.

Dunne was intrigued. He was assigned to a special unit that worked closely with local police and other law enforcement, and he debriefed the Coronado officer. He arranged for the Coast Guard to run some exercises with Zodiacs and realized that the small crafts could cruise the coast without showing up on radar. Very clever, he thought. Then the DEA got wind of a boat called the Lee Max II, owned by a local kid named Lance Weber who had done time in Lompoc a couple years before for smuggling. There were reports of the Lee Max II on the water at 3 a.m., and Dunne doubted they were out fishing.

Once, following a late-night sighting of Lance’s boat, the DEA posted agents at regular intervals along the coast, hoping to catch the smugglers in action. They saw the boat motoring away from a lonely stretch of beach in Carlsbad, north of San Diego. Dunne and the other agents rushed to the scene and scoured the beach, but it was too late. All they found were footprints going up the dunes to a house overlooking the ocean. 

Professionals

1974

Lately, Lou had been spending more time in North County. There was money up there, in Carlsbad, where he rented a house, and new hot spots like Del Mar and La Costa. One night, Lou met the owner of the Albatross, a nice seafood restaurant housed in an old church in Del Mar. He thought the place was groovy: good food, drinks, and music, and well attended by rich dopers. The owner of the restaurant was a big-time distributor himself.

Lou had come to recognize that smuggling was as much about personality as it was about know-how. To climb the ladder, you had to play it cool. Which is what he and the restaurant owner did, warily revealing their mutual interest, pulling their cards away from their vests to talk about how they might fit into each other’s business models.

“How much can you handle?” Lou asked.

“How much can you bring?” the owner replied.

The Albatross crowd offered Lou entrée to a new class of distributors, the kind of dealers who dressed well and belonged to racquet clubs. Lou began joining them for dinner, talking books, travel, and wine. They turned Lou on to a wine importer up in San Francisco, and he started ordering Bordeaux and white Burgundies. Refinement suited him. By now he had cut his hair and traded his hippie beads for silk shirts. When Lou suggested bringing in a ton, and the dealers said they’d pay cash on the barrelhead, he saw the horizon expanding before his eyes.


 Lance delighted in the prospect of expanding their little navy. But carrying more weight meant more people on the beach—five, ten guys running bags up and down the sand—and they needed to tighten the screws on the organization. Lou started strategizing. He turned to his good friend and former student Dave Strather.

Dave’s band was still playing around town, and he had recently married a tall, good-looking hippie girl named Linda. But Lou knew he was struggling financially. “Are you interested in some profitable moonlighting?” Lou asked him one day.

Dave, a solid bodysurfer, handled himself well in the waves and started as a loader. But he was a gifted planner, and it wasn’t long before Lou gave him more managerial duties. Lou wanted a right-hand man, and Dave was a natural. He was a drummer, after all, used to keeping time, being the backbone. Even in his hippie days he was fastidious, shampooing his long hair every day (and belying his nickname, Dirty Dave). That hair was gone once Dave started running around with a clipboard and checklists, buying and storing equipment, running smuggling gigs like a stevedore superintendent.

That put Dave at odds with Ed, whose run-and-gun style had been central to the early days of the operation but was fast becoming obsolete. Ed was a beloved figure around Coronado, a fun guy, the life of every party. But he was impulsive. When Ed was a lifeguard, he liked to drive his truck down the sand at full speed—and that’s how he’d flipped it right into the water. Dave bristled when he would show up at a gig at the last minute and start bossing people around, imperiling Dave’s meticulous plans. Dave would appeal to Lou, who tried to promote Ed out of Dave’s hair. “You don’t want to be a grunt on the beach,” he told him. “You’re in management. Let Dave roll up his sleeves.”

That mostly worked, at least at the smuggling sites. Off the beach was another matter. Ed was young, wild, and flush—a dangerous combination in a small town. Here he was, no known job, celebrating one of the organization’s first big paydays at the Chart House down on the Embarcadero, cozying up to some girl with his hands full of cash. “Look what I got, baby,” Ed told her, laying out ten grand in bills. Lou would’ve jumped on the table to cover it up, but the whole place had seen it already. We need to cut these shenanigans, Lou told his colleagues. We’re gonna bring heat on ourselves.

What he didn’t know was that they already had. The DEA was onto Lance, watching him run the Lee Max II like a daredevil, at full speed on autopilot, ripping through the swells like a lunatic. And Lance was as flamboyant on land as he was cavalier in the cockpit. He knew he was known to the authorities, and he loved pushing his luck. “I like making the cops look bad,” he’d say. “It’s fun.”

Not to Lou, it wasn’t. One night after a gig in Carlsbad, they’d planned to meet at a coffee shop near Oceanside Harbor after the beach crew unloaded the shipment. Lou was sitting in his booth with a fork in a slice of cherry pie when he looked up and saw Lance drive past in his truck, pulling the Lee Max II on its trailer, two squad cars in tow. The cops tore the boat apart, right in front of the coffee shop, but found nothing. Lance relished his little victory—and then walked in to meet Lou. “Don’t even talk to me,” Lou said, jumping up to leave. “Just keep walking.”

It was the same night Special Agent Dunne  found footsteps on the beach near Lou’s house. The DEA agents had followed Lance in his boat to the marina, but when the boat came out clean, the district attorney refused the DEA a search warrant for the house.

It was a close call. Lou didn’t realize how close when he moved to Solana Beach and relocated the entire smuggling outfit out of Coronado. It was the first time some of its members had lived anywhere besides the Rock. By then, everyone on the island knew what they were up to. They even had a name for their hometown smugglers: the Coronado Company.

The name stuck; Lou had misgivings about it, but it suited the group’s professional aspirations. By now they were evolving quickly. Lou turned out to be not just a natural leader, but also an organizational genius. The one-time anti-materialist candlemaker became a business visionary, laying out plans for the Company to dominate its market niche. As he had when he was a coach, Lou knew how to motivate people, establish mutual trust, and make the members of his squad believe in their abilities. Pops was now a father figure to a new kind of team. It was fun in those early days, he told his boys in the Company, but amateur hour is over.


The new organization left little room for Paul Acree. Paul was always his own worst enemy. He was cold and had a nasty gift of gab. He could be funny, but always at the expense of others. Paul had found the crew’s original line of supply in Tijuana, but Lou knew he wasn’t the right guy to make the bigger connections the operation needed to grow. You couldn’t look like a hood at the next level. His idea of business—give me the money, you get the pot—was oafish. Where was the salesmanship in that? Where was the finesse?

And lately, Paul had started sniffling and rubbing his nose. Nobody knew when exactly he had become an addict. Maybe it was when everyone got rich and he could suddenly get as much heroin and coke as he wanted. Once driven, he was coasting now, showing up at meetings with watery eyes. He looked terrible. He was Lance’s friend, but even Lance knew that you couldn’t trust a junkie. When the Company convened to vote Paul out, it was unanimous.

One of the Company’s Mexican contacts, known as Pepe de Mexicali, had told Lou about the time he had to get rid of an associate who had been caught with his fingers in the jar by taking him on a “one-way plane ride.” The Coronado Company’s style was more genteel than that; if you got fired, they just stopped calling you. With Paul, the partners decided, they would simply move away. They left him with $10,000. It wasn’t much in the way of hush money, especially for a guy who was speedballing, but that was the offer.

With Paul gone, Lou took on an even larger role within the Company, and he started to act the part. He conducted business from his new house in Solana Beach, on a cliff overlooking the ocean, with his malamute, Prince, at his feet. There he’d preside with his girlfriend, Kerrie Kavanaugh, a waitress he’d met at another tony spot in nearby Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Lou had left her a $100 tip one night, followed the next day by 20-dozen roses, along with a card bearing a poem he wrote. Kerrie thought the roses were a bit tacky—a nice little bouquet of handpicked wildflowers would have better suited a girl like her—but the poem was nice. She showed up at Lou’s house, where she found him sunbathing on the deck.

Lou had spent a few years floating between girls, but he saw immediately that Kerrie had a spark. She was smart, with a bright smile and an eager outlook on the world. Lou was older, wealthier, and more worldly than the boys who hit on her on the beach. He doted on her, gave her gifts and several cars, paid for her dance classes. Soon she moved from her beach trailer into Lou’s place. They would entertain the rest of the Company guys and their girlfriends there, drinking greyhounds until dinner and then smoking and doing lines while dancing to the Average White Band until three in the morning. The next day, they’d wake up and start all over again.

Lou initially told Kerrie he was an interior decorator, but she didn’t believe it for long; his place was well decorated, but she never saw a single catalog or bolt of fabric around. It wasn’t a surprise when Lou finally confessed that he was a drug kingpin, nor did it change how she felt about him. Kerrie was the kind of girl who watched the Watergate hearings from beginning to end. With her anti-establishment sympathies, Lou’s profession had a renegade appeal.

For his part, Lou saw himself as a new kind of CEO. He just wanted to excel at what he did. He was already a multimillionaire, as were his partners. They thought that was all the money in the world. They were wrong. 

Kerrie Kavanaugh and Lou Villar shortly after they first met, in the mid-’70s.
Kerrie Kavanaugh and Lou Villar shortly after they first met, in the mid-’70s.

The Don

1975

Lou and  Dave were south of the border, in a Tijuana flophouse near the racetrack, surrounded by a dozen men with machine guns. They were drug-lord foot soldiers; you could tell from the chrome-plated pistols in their belts. No one moved. Dave and Lou waited. The seconds felt like hours.

They had gotten themselves into this situation on purpose, after deciding that the Company should do some supply-chain outreach. Dave had run across a guy they called Rick Pick who said he knew Roberto Beltrán. The Don. The head of the Sinaloa-based trafficking syndicate, one of the biggest drug dealers in the world. Lou and Rick met and sized each other up. Once they decided that they trusted each other, Lou said, “Introduce me to the Don.”

Thus began a series of false starts and frustrations. Late at night, Lou and Dave would get a call and rush to the appointed meeting place under the San Diego side of the Coronado Bridge, only to find nobody there. Finally, when the real call came to meet in Tijuana, Lou arrived two hours late on purpose. That’s the Mexican style of business, he thought. Mañana! Keeping them waiting, Lou reasoned, would show that they were equals.

But now, trapped deep inside the syndicate’s flophouse, they knew they were not equals. And Beltrán’s guys didn’t look happy. Dave was terrified. But Lou kept his game face. He was still wondering if the meeting was for real. “Are we going to see the Don?” he asked. Finally, the Don’s bodyguard, who went by the name El Guapo, led them into a small room. There, reclining on a king-size bed, was Beltrán.

Dave and Lou were surprised to see that the Don looked like a maharishi, or maybe a bum: scraggly hair, jeans, unshaven. When they walked in, he didn’t get up. It was a weird scene, standing at the foot of the bed, unsure of what to do. Dave thought they were dead. Especially when Lou decided to take a pillow and lay down on the bed, right next to Beltrán. Dave silently said a prayer.

One of the things Dave liked about Lou was his finesse. Dave’s own father was the executive officer of the Navy base on Coronado, a tyrant whose explosive temper kept him from ever becoming an admiral. He had trouble forming real relationships with anyone, including his son. Dave hated his father, and he admired Lou for being the opposite in every way. Dave thought he had an aristocratic bearing, an elegance that could charm people in any situation. But this situation was different. This was Roberto Beltrán. And he wasn’t smiling.

Lou and the Don were chatting softly, faces inches apart. Within a few minutes, Beltrán was grinning, then laughing. Lou’s instinct was right; the Don respected the wildly daring initiative of showing up like this, offering a new service to the syndicate. No one from the States had ever approached him. “What do you have to lose?” Lou told him.

Lou knew the Mexicans were sending half-tons north every way they could think of and losing a lot of it at the border. It was a model that made money—the supply that got through paid for the rest—but still, there was a lot of smuggler’s shrinkage. This is what Lou told Beltrán, in so many words: The Coronado Company can reduce your shrinkage. “Let’s do business,” the Don said.


The days of cabin cruisers were over.  Lance hired a commercial fishing vessel and a sailor of fortune who went by the name Charlie Tuna. The boat arrived for pickup at an isolated beach on the Sea of Cortez. Beltrán’s bodyguard drove Dave and Lou; they were rumbling along the barely paved highway in the shadow of the Sierra Madre Occidental when they saw roadblocks flanked by soldiers on the road. The jig is up, Dave thought, but their caravan was waved right through. The men were from the Don’s security team, part of his service package as a supplier. Federales on the Don’s payroll guarded the beach operation.

Out on the water, Charlie Tuna maneuvered his boat through the beach mud, getting as close to shore as possible. The boat was loaded with hundreds of bales, passed from sand to canoe to Zodiac to deck, along with some cases of beer for the crew’s return trip. “See you in Malibu,” Charlie said over the radio.

Onshore, Lou shook hands with the Don. The whole deal was on credit. And now the Company owed the Sinaloa suppliers $3 million. It had never occurred to Lou what might happen if something went wrong. “Good luck!” Beltrán told Lou. “You’ve got some real cojones, you know?”


Fifteen tons, Dave thought, right on the goddamned beach? The Mexican job was an enormously challenging off-load, an order of magnitude bigger than their usual runs. Dave bought more sophisticated equipment and procured several houses to use as staging sites and covert entrepôts, including a rental right off the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.

That was where the team assembled. The company had added some new recruits, including Allan “Fuzzy” Logie, a surfer turned motorcycle racer. Fuzzy was amazed at the scale of the Company’s operation and quickly took a liking to Don Kidd, another trafficking tenderfoot recruited by Lance. Don hailed from Coronado—Lou had taught his brother Spanish—and he would have been class of ’69 if he had graduated instead of going to Vietnam. The Company had brought Don on as a gofer, but he quickly distinguished himself as a talented mechanic whose expertise would eventually elevate him to chief engineer.

The midnight chaos reminded Don of Vietnam, exciting but perilous. They were in plain view of the neighbors, whose lights were on. And they were out there on the water for hours, buzzing around in the Zodiacs, carrying everything by hand.

Luckily, it was overcast, and the reflected glow of the city gave them extra light. They got the job done, but it took forever. Fuzzy ran for eight hours straight. In the end, they managed to fit all 15 tons in three rented Ryder trucks. The next stop was the processing site. As the convoy pulled away from the beach, they drove right past a highway patrol cruiser on the shoulder with lights flashing. Fuzzy smiled as they passed; the officer was writing some poor bastard a speeding ticket while a truck packed with thousands of pounds of pot sailed by at 60 miles an hour.

At the warehouse, where Dave had organized an assembly-line-style repackaging system—every brick was weighed to the gram, bagged, marked with a sticker, and recorded—Lou showed up to inspect the wares. It was a job well done. When everyone got their cut, Fuzzy asked if he could get paid in weed. He had to settle for cash instead. “Well,” he told the others, “I hope I get invited to another barbecue.”

Lou, intent on impressing the Don, decided to deliver his money immediately, in person, without being asked. When Lou and Dave flew to Culiacán, Sinaloa, and, once again surrounded by machine guns, handed over duffel bags containing $3 million in cash—they had carried them on the plane and snuck through customs with swiped inspection tags—the Don smiled. “We owe you a party,” he said. That night, he feted them at a restaurant in Culiacán, where he and Lou arranged the next consignment: another 20 tons.

When they got the shipment into the safety of a warehouse in Santa Cruz, the load was ten feet high.  Ed pulled out some blocks and arranged them into a chair, and they all took turns sitting on the throne of hard-packed kilos. The Coronado Company were now the biggest pot smugglers on the West Coast. What they had done, at their age—Lou, the oldest among them, was just 34, and most of the rest were in their mid-twenties—was without precedent. They were a bunch of young hippies sitting atop an empire. 

Company members pose on top of a shipment of marijuana. (Photo: Courtesy of Gary Kidd)
Company members pose on top of a shipment of marijuana. (Photo: Courtesy of Gary Kidd)

The Insider

1976

People around Coronado told different stories about how exactly it was that Paul wound up talking to the DEA. Some said he just wanted to get back at the Company. Others said he was arrested trying to steal some navigation gear and, jonesing in jail, made a deal. Whichever it was, the moment Paul started talking was the moment that Dunne and the other agents discovered just what they were up against.

They were shocked at the Company’s scale. As far as they knew, smuggling on the West Coast was a haphazard business. And here was Paul telling them how the Company was landing thousands of kilos on a beach with SEAL-like precision not three miles from their office. They were operating at a level far beyond the DEA itself; the agency’s National City office, only a few years old, barely had the budget and personnel to cover San Diego County, much less go toe-to-toe with an organization like the Company.

Paul, meanwhile, had nothing to lose. His money was gone, but his drug habit wasn’t. All he had left was information. Paul might have been excommunicated from the Company, but he was still connected to Lance. Although Lance had moved away from Coronado with the rest of the partners, his girlfriend, Celeste, still lived on the Rock. When he was in town, he hung around with the old crowd, even Paul. Sensing opportunity, Dunne let Paul go, sending him out to gather more information.

Coronado was a natural rumor mill, and word got around quickly that Paul was snitching. But Lance was a chatterbox, and he couldn’t help himself from filling in Paul on the Company’s latest exploits anyway. Back in the DEA office, a picture began to come together. The agents heard about the organization’s humble beginnings, the deal with Roberto Beltrán that pushed the Company into the big time, and, the following year, a trip to Morocco.

That gig started with a meeting at a Black Angus Steakhouse in La Mesa and took them to the Canary Islands, Casablanca, and Tangiers. The idea had come from the younger brother of Lou’s ex-wife, Kathy. He had done some frontier surfing on the edge of the Sahara, the scene of some legendary perfect right breaks, and came back talking about hashish, the potent black tar of the Berbers. The Company found a new captain—Charlie Tuna’s friend, who (no joke) went by the name Danny Tuna—and a new ship, a 70-footer rigged for albacore fishing called the Finback. There were bumps along the way, like Danny running out of money and trying to sell his equipment to confused dockside Canary Islanders. Lance and Ed flew to Tenerife, where they found Danny, drunk, lost, and carousing with British girls on holiday. They got the Finback to Algeciras, at the Strait of Gibraltar, resupplied, and then steamed back in rough weather across the Atlantic and Caribbean.

It turned out that the Finback’s cargo wasn’t actually hash but rather kief, a less valuable precursor product. But the DEA agents understood the operational significance of the mission. These guys had crossed oceans and solved major logistical problems on the fly. No one in the office had ever seen anything like it.

It had been years since Lou had seen Bob Lahodny. Since the two crossed paths as earnest disciples of the meditation guru Bula on the beach in Coronado, the onetime class president and swim champ had gone abroad. He’d bought the Pai Nui, a handsome, teak-decked sailboat, and sailed around the South Pacific. He was in Bali when he fell in with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Like-minded expatriates from Southern California, the Laguna Beach–based group was known for proselytizing about the benefits of LSD—they were close associates of Timothy Leary and had once worked with the Weather Underground to help him flee the United States. They also ran a vast drug-smuggling network, manufacturing and distributing acid in the United States and running hashish from Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Brotherhood had connections in Thailand, too, and Bob brought them back to Coronado. “You guys can make the same money from two tons of Thai stick as 20 tons of Mexican pot,” Bob told his old pal Ed when he reappeared in the States.

Thai stick had enjoyed an aura of mystique ever since U.S. soldiers started coming back from Vietnam tours with batches of the extremely powerful varietal knotted around bamboo skewers. It had developed a reputation as the new marijuana gold standard; One Hit Shit, they called it. The DEA at the time believed it to be among the most profitable commodities in existence: a ton bought in Bangkok for $100,000 went for $3.5 million stateside. The hard part was getting it there. Unlike drugs flowing north from Latin America, Thai stick had to come in by boat. And boats happened to be the Company’s specialty.


Bob came on as a partner, bringing in his connections but steering clear of the operation. He was, in Lou’s words, a “good-time Charlie rather than a brass-tacks guy.” Still, the first shipment he brought back aboard that Pai Nui was a multimillion-dollar proof of concept of how Thai stick would revolutionize the Company. When Dave did the math, his eyes widened. The Company could earn more—far more—while being more discreet. It was a smuggler’s dream.

By now, the Company had earned a begrudging respect from its pursuers; the DEA agents in National City regarded Lou and his crew as smart businessmen and tactical geniuses. But Dunne had an idea about how to tighten the screws on their investigation. A veteran agent, he was one of the few people in his office who knew how to write up a conspiracy case. The tactic was mostly unknown in the DEA at the time, but it was a legal tool that would allow for deeper investigative powers and bigger indictments.

Once Dunne and the other agents learned the full magnitude of the Company’s activities, they started laying the groundwork for the case. Using the information that Paul had fed them, the agents began piecing together the facts of a conspiracy. By the spring of 1976, as the Company was contemplating its leap into the Thai trade, Dunne had enough to convince the U.S. attorney in San Diego to convene a grand jury.

Now the DEA’s investigation had a name. Operation CorCo was in full swing.

Freeway All the Way

1977

“You nearly clipped Bambi!”

 Fuzzy pulled up alongside Dave in fourth gear. They were straddling a pair of enduros, off-road motorcycles they’d brought up to the redwoods, where Fuzzy was teaching Dave how to ride. Dave was getting the hang of it, opening up the throttle on the open forest roads, taking in the hum and rattle and the prismatic sun filtering through the canopy. He hadn’t noticed a spotted fawn grazing on the shoulder. Fuzzy saw Dave’s tire brush its bushy white tail. “You’re lucky to be alive!” he said, grinning.

The two had been up there for weeks, cruising the backcountry of the Lost Coast, looking for even more remote loading sites after the success of the Pai Nui. Finding the right spot was an art. Dave constantly studied maps, scoping out prospective landing sites as far north as Alaska. But the empty beaches of the Lost Coast, many of them accessible only by old unpaved logging trails, had the advantage of being conveniently close to San Francisco.

The nimble, long-range enduros, their reach extended by gas cans stashed in the woods, were the best way to negotiate the difficult terrain of one of the country’s most beautiful landscapes. The whole territory was a refuge of dropouts and outlaws: Hells Angels, ex-cons, hippie communes. But the forest was vast enough to swallow all of them, and Dave and Fuzzy would be alone with the trees for hours.

One day, they bumped their way down a road that followed the coastal bluffs of the Sinkyone Wilderness to a small cove. They stopped their bikes, scanning the terrain from above. The cove faced south and kept the roiling Pacific at bay. There was a nice break, but Fuzzy knew there’d be no time for surfing. Dave looked at the map. The cove was marked as Bear Harbor. In the late 19th century it had been used for loading lumber onto ships, but the wharf was long gone. “This is just what we’re looking for,” Dave said.


Sometimes Lou’s story was that he was a trust-funder. Sometimes he was the son of a Texas wildcatter. Once he was mistaken for a member of Kiss, and he let that story linger. Whoever he was, Lou owned it. “I’m in oil,” he’d say. “And if you ask any more questions, I’ll ask you to leave.”

If you wore money well, Lou thought, you could be whoever you wanted. You could live for months at a time at the Beverly Hills Hotel or the Waldorf Astoria in New York, paying $1,500 a night in cash. Maybe you were a movie producer or a chief surgeon somewhere. No one asked questions; the money made you invisible.

Lou made the drug business look like any other business. He would rendezvous with his distributors on tennis courts in Palm Springs, meet in the open, change from a coat and tie into tennis whites, let the other guy win the set, shake hands, and make the deal. There were no rough edges. Nobody in the Company wanted to be a gangster. They wanted to fit in, to live the good life.

Lou had long since traded his VW bus for a Ferrari. In the trunk, he carried a valise full of “fun tickets,” $100 bills to satisfy any whim. He and Ed and Bob bought palatial homes, acquired a taste for antiques. Bob and Ed, who had climbed Machu Picchu together, added Mesoamerican touches to their Asian aesthetic. Lou’s tastes ran toward the eclectic; among other things, he had bought a carved opium bed from China. He would jet to Paris on the Concorde and spend the weekend buying $5,000 worth of shoes. He spent $15,000 on a fake passport under the name Peter Grant, bought a Mercedes as James Benson, shopped at Wilkes Bashford as Richard Malone. This was the name Lou was known by in La Costa and in Lake Tahoe, where the Company liked to vacation. One day, Lou surprised Kerrie with tickets to Jamaica, where they lived for a month on a remote lagoon, disconnected from everything, just snorkeling and reading. It was there, at Dragon Bay, that Kerrie discovered that she was falling in love with him.

In 1976, Lou had bought a place in Tahoe for himself and Kerrie. Dave and Linda moved there as well, to a condo nearby. Dave felt like he was coming into his own in the Company. Lou trusted Dave’s judgment without question, and Dave respected the vision that had gotten them this far. He treated Lou like an adoptive father, and Lou, who had no kids of his own, treated Dave like a favored son. Dave still wasn’t a partner, but he had moved beyond beach master to something like a general manager, with final word on operational decisions.

Tahoe became a refuge for the Company, a place where the couples hung out together and received a steady stream of guests. Lou bought a beautiful vintage Chris-Craft boat called the Rich and Dirty for waterskiing, and he’d spend all day blasting Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on the eight-track while Kerrie carved a slalom wake behind him. At night, Kerrie would fish for deepwater mackinaw trout and stuff it whole for dinner. Kerrie had grown close to Bob and loved how Ed lived big and laughed all the time. The same style that had caused problems on the beach made Ed the life of the party, the kind of guy who’d walk into a room bellowing, clapping along as Dave and Bob played stoned duets on the piano.

Sometimes they’d invite their investors to the lake, guys Lou brought in to spread the risk. Lou was good at intuiting potential partners. Some of them were already trade insiders, but others were straight: bond brokers and lawyers and other pedigreed people who couldn’t resist the 2- or sometimes 3-to-1 return Lou was offering. The Company had its own accountant, buying properties on its behalf, creating shell companies with names like Mo Ching Trading Co., Tow Tow Ltd., and Ku Won Investment Co., Ltd.

Another frequent guest in Lake Tahoe was Phil DeMassa, a San Diego area criminal defense attorney. Lou had met DeMassa a few years earlier, at one of the birthday bashes Ed liked to throw for himself. DeMassa was known in the drug trade as a high-priced but effective attorney. He was a litigator who liked the fight, worked long hours, and was successful at keeping the government at bay. Lou wanted that kind of firepower and gave DeMassa $300,000 in cash to come aboard. Just don’t deal in anything white, DeMassa advised Lou, and he’d take care of the rest.

There, above the electric blue lake, a thought dawned on Lou: Money is energy. A frictionless medium for amplifying your will. Once, Lou asked Kerrie to come and stand with him in front of $2 million that he had arranged in $10,000 stacks. “Can’t you feel it?” he said, looking at the bundles. With the cash it had on hand, the Company could do whatever its principals dreamt up—“buy the road,” as Ed liked to put it.

On a practical level, that was Ed’s job. His rough style turned out to be good for the dirty work required to run a multinational criminal enterprise: paying off local officials, buying boats in seedy foreign ports, vetting sellers abroad. Others thought those assignments were dangerous, but Ed saw them as adventures. His passport—under the name Kenneth Eugene Cook, Jr.—filled with stamps from India, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Senegal, the Seychelles, and the Panama Canal Zone.

Expansion plans were under way closer to home, too. Word from buyers was that the East Coast was dying for smoke. Switching geography, the Company figured, would help throw off the heat, too. Dave had studied his maps and praised the gods of fractal geometry for giving distant Maine as many miles of coast as California. He purchased a beach house on Dennison Point in Cutler, overlooking Little Machias Bay; an equipment house outside the small town of Freedom; and a communication house near Skowhegan. Across the globe, Ed attended to the maritime details: cargo-ship certifications, port clearances, tonnage certificates. Soon the shipment, seven tons of Thai stick, was on the move.

By now the Company had perfected a cell structure, flexible but tightly organized, bonded by friendship and mutual trust. Company guys lived around the country, under assumed names, and communicated by 800 numbers with answering services, where they’d leave coded messages with callback numbers to pay phones. Everyone always had a bag of quarters. Dave was an early adopter of beepers and used techniques from a class at the Bornstein School of Memory Training to encrypt key numbers onto a chart that crew members could stick to the backs of their watches. You’d get a message—“Burma Christmas”—and know who to call back. With this system the Company could disappear for months at a time and then reemerge at the ready.

Heading up the Maine operation with Dave was Harlan Fincher, the Coronado High basketball team’s former center. Harlan had gone off to school on an athletic scholarship and then returned to Coronado to work as a printer. Since his drunken appearance at the last game of his varsity career, Harlan hadn’t heard from Lou—until, one day at work, he received a call out of the blue. “Hi, Harlan,” a familiar voice said, “long time.”

It was Harlan’s job to transform into reality the elaborate schemes that Dave had dreamed up for the Maine operation. The project had many technical hurdles. The house on Dennison Point sat near the edge of a cliff, looking out over the waters where the first naval battle of the American Revolution was fought. The beach below the cliff was a serious bone patch—rocks everywhere, some the size of VWs—and the tides were huge and fast-changing. This wasn’t like back home in Coronado, with 300 yards of flat sand.

It was Don who came up with the solution: installing a yarder, a five-ton piece of industrial logging equipment, in the house’s garage. The yarder would lower trucks by cable straight down the face of the cliff so they could negotiate the rocks out to the dock the Company had built at the water’s edge. The trucks would be loaded and driven back to the palisade, then winched back up the cliff face and into the garage. It was outrageous but clever, an improvised mechanical marvel.

The rest of the gear was stored in a 19th-century barn, beneath a giant sleigh of similar vintage hanging in the rafters. For months the team worked there, tending to mission preparations. Fuzzy tested the outboards and doused the spark-plug cylinders in starting fluid. (You didn’t want to be out there in the dark pulling cords.) He altered the gravity feeds Dave had bought to move the bales, using his arc welder to make them adjustable.

Elsewhere in the barn were the new Maravias, 35-foot-long Kevlar barges they had bought for towing the pot back from the mothership. Dave had them custom-made; he told the Maravia sales agent that they would be used to transport cattle across the Rhine. Where Dave came up with that, he didn’t know. It was the kind of cover story that just rolled off his tongue by now, the instinctive cloak-and-dagger of a life built on anonymous P.O. boxes and money orders and answering services and forged identities.

The fake IDs were Al Sweeney’s department. Dave brought him in because he remembered from high school that Al could point a camera and print well. Al was the science-club type: quiet, smart, focused. He’d meet with Company guys at the San Francisco Hyatt, carrying a turquoise garment bag that doubled as the backdrop for the California ID photo, which he could reproduce within 48 hours. Even after the DMV instituted a new band of invisible ink, a supposedly unbreakable security measure, Al figured out how to duplicate it.

In addition to being the Company’s master forger, Al had been a ham-radio hobbyist in high school, and with Company money he created a totally secure communications system, installing military-grade crystals in their radios so they could transmit on protected channels. In Maine, he was stationed at the communication house, 110 miles from Machias in Skowhegan, to operate the 60-foot antenna they’d installed to stay in touch with the ship. A lot of juice ran to that 5,000-watt tower; when you turned it on, the lights would dim, the room would hum, and you’d get warm standing next to it, waiting for word to come that the mother ship, code-named Cowboy, was nearing Little Machias Bay.

Cowboy finally arrived in October, negotiating Maine’s difficult inlets at night, guided by the two main towers of the Navy’s submarine communications center, just across Little Machias Bay. The crew motored the Zodiacs out to meet the ship in smuggler’s blackout, beneath a moonless sky.

They dropped chem lights in milk bottles as buoys to mark the way back. The man in the bow of each Zodiac held up a piece of aluminum so the mother ship could pick them up on radar. The crews wore thick black wetsuits; the Zodiac pilots had hockey helmets rigged with radio headsets. They looked ridiculous with six-inch antennae sticking up from their heads, but that’s what Harlan improvised so they could work hands-free. From the beach, Dave monitored their progress with a Starlight night-vision scope he’d seen in the pages of Soldier of Fortune.

The operation went off without a hitch: After traveling 10,000 miles, the Thai stick breezed through the final stretch, from the boat to the beach and up the cliff. It was another flawless operation. And it felt great. While the load was being sorted in the equipment house, Ed brought the investors in for inspection. The equipment was packed and stored, and the stash was loaded into a Dodge van. A Company detachment, all of them dressed in deliverymen’s Dickies, drove down the Eastern Seaboard, the van and a chase car a mile apart, dropping off boxes marked “Generators” in the wee hours. It was $20 million worth of product in all. It seemed just right when Steve Miller came on the van’s radio one night, singing “Take the Money and Run.”

In a suite at the Waldorf Astoria, the partners divided the spoils. One of the investors, Bruce Tanaka, had a lead on some Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9s, which were semi-street-legal and had to be imported from Europe via an underground dealer. Tanaka was taking orders. As a reward for a job well done, Lou and Ed each bought one of the luxury sedans, in complementary colors.

The victory celebration, as usual, was epic. In an age of excess—the idealism of the ’60s had long since given way to the indulgence of the ’70s—the Company could afford to be more excessive than most. “Why settle for a glass of champagne,” Lou would say, “when you can have a magnum?” It was vivid living, surrounded by friends, seeing your champagne flute filled as soon as it was empty, unless you followed Pops’s lead, draining your glass and throwing it into the fireplace. Toasting big, stumbling out to the limos at dawn with a girl on your arm—it felt like you were going to live forever. It’s what Ed meant when he and Al stood looking out at the ocean one day, toward ports east, and he said, “You know what? It’s just freeway all the way.”

Heat

1978

Lou was on the slopes in Vail, Colorado, when he learned about the indictment: eight counts in San Diego’s district court, naming him, Ed, Lance, Bob, and 22 others. The DEA’s Operation CorCo had convinced the grand jury. The indictment hadn’t been unsealed yet, but Phil DeMassa’s office had gotten wind of it early. “The bloom is off the rose,” DeMassa said, after a call came in from his office. Lou frowned, planted his poles, and kept skiing.

Lou figured that if the authorities knew where they were, they’d have been arrested already. He was right—the DEA had no leads on Company members’ whereabouts, and the agents in San Diego lacked the resources to go after fugitives, especially if those fugitives had deep pockets. The agency could gin up indictments, but it lacked what agents called “habeas grabus,” the capacity to make big arrests.

Lou and Dave arranged to meet DeMassa at the Mark Hopkins hotel in San Francisco. As DeMassa walked down Sutter Street, they watched from the eighth floor through binoculars to make sure he wasn’t being followed, then led him through a back entrance into the hotel. “As your attorney, I advise you to turn yourself in,” DeMassa said once they were safely in the room. Then he grinned. “Now, with that out of the way, let’s get down to business.”

Using carefully worded hypotheticals, DeMassa briefed the Company on how to survive as fugitives. He told them to protect their cash and documents in sealed envelopes addressed to him, so they would be shielded by attorney-client privilege and could be opened only with a warrant. He parsed the charges, the felonies and misdemeanors. The three of them agreed that the principals should stay on the run and that some others might surrender and strategically cooperate so as to get light sentences but not give up the goods.

This was a new idea, doing time for the Company. But things were different now, more complicated. Lou would have to turn on the coach charm and tell his team that sacrifice was necessary. The rest of the indictees would show up in court, en masse, on the day the indictment was unsealed. “We can get slaps on the wrist for the underlings,” DeMassa promised. Then he told Lou that he’d spent his latest $300,000 payment already. Lou sent him on his way with another fifty grand in cash.


Hiding in plain sight, the Company’s principals went further upscale, relocating to Santa Barbara. Bob, who was already hanging out with his Brotherhood of Eternal Love friends up there, moved into a huge Spanish-style hacienda. Out back was a tennis court, where he and Lou would have fierce five-hour matches. Ed bought a house near Bob, and both of them took up polo, stabling 20 ponies apiece at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club. Ed wasn’t great at the game—still the bull in the china shop—but Bob had real finesse. Lou thought he looked beautiful in the saddle.

Bob’s friends called him “Light Show” Lahodny on account of his love of the glamorous life, and he was living up to his nickname in Santa Barbara. People took notice of his good looks and smile; he was Kennedy-esque, they thought, like a ’70s-style, feel-good Bobby. Maybe that was what the members of the local Chamber of Commerce were thinking when they asked him to run for a newly opened state Assembly seat. He politely declined—a wise decision for a drug smuggler living under a false name.

On his visits to Santa Barbara, DeMassa protested half-heartedly about all the public revelry. But the truth was that he was fond of Bob and Ed and liked going to those parties, too. All of them did. Still, it was a dangerous game, being that high profile. Ed was probably the most conspicuous. He couldn’t reinvent himself as a patrician the way Bob and Lou had. The more money he had, the more he looked like a criminal. It was a matter of style: The Company guys all called Ed “the Kid,” because he called everyone else “kid,” as in, “Hey, kid, how about some more wine over here?”—the kind of demeanor that got plenty of second looks at the Polo Club. In many ways, Ed was in fact a big kid, always looking for fun and excitement, and when Lou gave him a Ferrari one Christmas, surprising Ed by leading him, eyes closed, to a baby blue convertible with a big red bow on it, Ed smiled and said: “Damn, kid! You shouldn’t have.” Now Lou agreed that he probably shouldn’t have, watching Ed clock 100 miles per hour down Shoreline Drive or pull drunk donuts in the parking lot of Santa Barbara’s ritziest joint, appropriately called Talk of the Town.

But Ed earned his keep. He ran point on the Thai supply chain, which Lou considered a lion’s den. It was Ed who traveled overseas, connecting with growers, cutting out the middlemen and increasing the Company’s profits—the kind of profits that made it possible to throw money at DeMassa, hold the feds at bay, and keep the Company machine running smoothly, moving product, while the partners played with their ponies. The bigger problem for the Company partners was not in Santa Barbara at all.


Lance claimed that it was his decision to leave the Company. The other partners were under the impression that they’d fired him. He had become too much of a liability, they thought; his showboating had gotten out of control. He may have cut his hair short, but he was still the same old Lance, standing out rather than blending in, opening suitcases full of money wherever he went. Lance’s other nickname was Ensign Hero: the Navy washout who thought he was invincible. In Tahoe, after the indictment came down and they were all on the lam, Lance would be out on the lake, testing the high-powered cigarette boats he’d built, getting yelled at over a police helicopter loudspeaker for speeding.

The real trouble with Lance was his leaking. “We know you’re talking to Paul Acree,” Ed told Lance one day. Lou remembered the day Lance showed up on his bike, like some kind of stoned angel, asking him to get off the ladder and go to Mexico. There would be no Company if not for Lance, he knew. But now he and Bob and Ed had no choice but to buy him out.

They eventually settled on an “exit package” of $400,000. In the spring of 1978, DeMassa met Lance in the parking structure of the Orange County Courthouse, where they chatted briefly. “Stay out of trouble,” DeMassa told him. As he was leaving, he pointed to a briefcase he’d set between them. “Oh,” he said, “I think this is yours.” When he opened the briefcase, Lance felt jilted. It contained $180,000: half the agreed amount, less DeMassa’s “transaction fee.”

Part of the reason everyone moved to Santa Barbara was to ditch Lance. But Lance wouldn’t go away that easily. He had more to lose than Paul. He was named in the indictment along with everyone else. He was a fugitive like them, but he was on his own. Out in the cold, his only value to anyone was what he knew.

Lost At Sea

1978

Success,  Dave knew, was a fragile thing. So many parts of a smuggling operation could go wrong, it was necessary to have not just a Plan B but also a Plan C and a Plan D. Still, even the best risk manager could never make the risk go away entirely.

The first sign of trouble with the latest gig occurred right at the beginning, when Danny Tuna, after being contracted by the Company to bring five tons of hash back from Pakistan, vanished. Danny was a drinker, and he’d gone on a bender and disappeared. Enter Plan B:  Ed flew to Singapore, bought a 130-foot boat called the Tusker, under the auspices of a shell company called Ocean Survey and Studies, Limited (based, naturally, in Beverly Hills), and hired a new captain, Jerry Samsel. The Company had never worked with Samsel before. None of the members of his crew were regulars. And not long after the Tusker left Pakistan bound for Maine, they stopped hearing from him.

Back in Maine,  Al Sweeney listened for the Tusker during their radio appointments but heard nothing but static. Dave was confused. He had supplied the Tusker’s crew with the usual coded Mylar charts to give encrypted positions and provided them with several radio systems: single sideband, VHF, UHF, and CB. What Dave didn’t know was that Samsel had turned paranoid and ordered a total radio blackout. This was in September. The Tusker wasn’t due for 10 weeks. All the Company could do was wait.

Tensions were high.  Fuzzy and Harlan were at each other’s throats. Dave was so frantic one night that Fuzzy slipped opium into his joint to calm him down. And quiet, shy Al was coming undone, getting edgier each day and claiming that he could hear messages from the missing ship coming through the static. Then, one day in October, the feds appeared.

Dave saw them first. Andy, a new hired hand, had picked him up at the airport in Bangor, Maine, and they were driving to the house atop the cliff in Machias when a man sitting in a car by the side of the road did a double take, flipped a U-turn, and started following them. One of the neighbors, it turned out, was a retired cop, and he had grown suspicious about the house’s occupants. He reported the address to the police, who suspected smuggling and contacted the DEA. A title check revealed a mysterious buyer whose only listed address was a P.O. box in Boston. The DEA didn’t know they had stumbled on the Coronado Company fugitives from California. But local agents had been mobilized, and now they were behind Dave and Andy. Dave took a deep breath and stepped on the gas.

The truck Dave was driving happened to be one that Fuzzy had enhanced with lift kits for ground clearance and a “down and dirty” switch that turned off the brake lights and head- and taillights—a feature that came in handy for evasive driving in the backwoods of Maine. At one hairpin turn, Dave slowed, told Andy to take the wheel, jumped out of the truck, and rolled into the woods. The agents sped past. Dave hiked for nine miles to a pay phone, where he called for Fuzzy to pick him up.

Andy was arrested, the Company’s first casualty in action. Dave made it back to the equipment house near Freedom, which remained safe. But the Tusker’s silence had now become a much more serious problem. The Company house was made—and the boat, oblivious and somewhere out on the ocean, was headed right for it.

“Listen, listen,” Al kept saying, handing Dave the radio headset. “They’re talking to us.” Dave heard only squelching, but Al was writing down positions. Fuzzy thought he was going batty. Yet Al was so convinced that sometimes Dave thought he could hear voices, too, off in the distance. Someone was saying something, but you couldn’t understand what. It was spooky, watching Al every night, listening intently, eyes closed, recording the advance of a ghost ship.

Al’s wireless séances didn’t convince Ed, who decided on a daring Plan C: He would go find the Tusker himself, from the sky. He traveled to South Africa, chartered a plane, and began flying a grid pattern over the Atlantic to intercept the Tusker before she steamed into a trap. He spent hours over the ocean, passing back and forth and scanning the surface, ready with a series of messages he’d drop to the ship if he spotted her. It was a desperate measure, but if he could direct the Tusker to an alternate site, disaster would be averted.

The plane never spotted the Tusker, because the boat was already north of Ed’s search area. The miscalculation was not Ed’s fault. Dave had told the ship’s captain he should under no circumstances arrive before Christmas, but Samsel had ignored him and was, in fact, making great time. The Tusker appeared in Little Machias Bay two weeks early, anchored in the private cove by the house, and sent a party ashore. Samsel had left his antenna up in the weather and it had frozen off; now that he wanted to break radio silence, he couldn’t. Two crew members knocked on the Company house door and were confused when no one answered.

The feds were on alert when Dave mobilized Harlan and another hired hand, nicknamed Rabbit, for Plan D: an amphibious intercept. Harlan and Rabbit fired up a Zodiac and approached the cove from the sea. There was the Tusker: a sitting duck, just 50 yards offshore. Harlan radioed an emergency call to Dave, boarded the Tusker, and told the captain to make a break for it. As he and Rabbit sped away in the Zodiac, Harlan could see the blue lights of the Coast Guard boats behind them.

Harlan beached the Zodiac, and he and Rabbit scrambled ashore. They grabbed their emergency kits, which were issued to every Company employee: backpacks stocked with a compass, rations, matches, gloves, some Pemmican beef jerky, and other supplies. What they needed now were the burlap leggings. They had been furnished at the suggestion of a wilderness expert and tracker who worked for the Company out west. If there’s a manhunt, he’d said, the police will have dogs, and burlap on your legs will hide the scent. Harlan sat down on the beach, pulled on two burlap sacks, and ran into the forest.

When Dave stopped hearing from Harlan, he radioed the equipment house, where Fuzzy answered. Dave then sent Fuzzy and another scout to the house—a classic tactical mistake in the fog of war. On their second visit to the house, Fuzzy was pulled over. As the police approached the car, he tore up his fake ID and slipped the pieces into the driver’s-side door panel.

The Tusker didn’t get far before it was boarded by the Coast Guard. At first glance, the guardsmen found nothing. The hash was in a cargo hold only accessible from the exterior of the ship; it was December in the North Atlantic, and the Tusker was so thickly iced over that they missed the hatch cover. The guardsmen instructed the Tusker to follow them into port, then pulled away in their own vessel. En route, the Tusker’s crew axed off the ice, opened the hatch, and started throwing the cargo of sealed cylindrical containers overboard. Arriving at port ahead of the Tusker, the guardsmen were confronted by irate DEA agents and, realizing their mistake, raced back to the Tusker in time to see the crew on the deck pitching the hash into the sea.

The entire crew was taken into custody, as were Rabbit and Harlan, whose burlap leggings did not save them. They all called DeMassa, who called Lou, who authorized $50,000 in defense and hush money for everyone: five grand apiece. Dave avoided capture, left Maine, and reconvened with Lou. Together they worked damage control. It was a heavy blow to the Company, but not a fatal one. The DEA had only arrested the help. They didn’t realize Harlan had a supervisory role, but even if they had, Harlan would never have talked. Five arrests and no one had a thing on them but some sextants, a matchbook from the Ambassador Hotel in Singapore, and Dave’s mysterious little Bornstein School charts. But the fishermen of Little Machias Bay were pulling high-quality hash from their nets for days.

DEA special agent James Conklin, left. (Photo: Courtesy of James Conklin)
DEA special agent James Conklin, left. (Photo: Courtesy of James Conklin)

Fugitives

1978

The code of silence stuck. Fuzzy and Harlan took the fall, pleading guilty to small counts in the indictment. Still, the Company was less than happy. Several million dollars’ worth of product had been tossed from the Tusker. While no one had rolled over on the Company, the seams of the operation had been exposed. And for the first time in its decade of operation, the Company found itself with a management-labor divide.

It hadn’t gone unnoticed that since the indictment had come down, the Company partners had been riding polo ponies and sauntering around Santa Barbara in white V-neck sweaters while their employees went underground. When the Tusker operation fell apart, the partners were a thousand miles away. Lou was safely ensconced at the house he’d bought in Hilton Head, South Carolina, at the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort. Now that it was all over, even Dave was having doubts. For God’s sake, he thought, I jumped from a car at 20 miles per hour. I watched my friends get arrested.

“Listen, Lou,” Dave said one night over dinner. “It might be time for me to quit. I can’t do this anymore.” The desperado life was starting to wear on him, he said. They’d been fugitives for more than a year. It was enough to make Dave paranoid, always looking in rearview mirrors and store-window reflections. He was gone more than he was home and often couldn’t call his wife, Linda, for weeks at a time. After the indictment came down, the couple had moved to Denver—a city they’d chosen at random—and now Linda was lonesome. She couldn’t see her family. To call his own mother, Dave had to use codes and pay phones. Relations with his sister were even more difficult: She was an assistant district attorney in San Diego, and Dave had to hide his whole life from her.

“I hear you, Dave,” Lou said. “I feel it myself.” Kerrie, too, had become frustrated with their lives, he said, especially once she and Lou moved to Hilton Head. But “the Company needs you,” Lou went on. “I need you. Without you, the Company is nothing.”

So Dave stayed. The money was too good, the work still thrilled, and Dave still wanted to make Pops proud. He liked excelling at something. In spite of everything, he still thought of himself as a Company man.


Intercepting the Tusker had been a lucky break for the DEA. The agency didn’t even realize that they’d stumbled across the same smugglers named in an existing indictment on the West Coast. It was hard for the agency to coordinate nationally, and the CorCo case had lost its office champion when Bobby Dune transferred from San Diego to Boise, Idaho.

Then a special agent named James Conklin picked up the case. Like Lou, Conklin had come west for his own piece of the good life under the sun. The Detroit-raised son of an FBI agent, Conklin had earned a philosophy degree from St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York and then gone to Vietnam, where he served two tours as a Marine Corps captain. The America he came home to in 1969 wasn’t the same one he’d left four years earlier. He worked a couple of regular jobs, but after being in a war zone, the deskbound life felt limp. He sat there thinking: Is this as good as it gets?

As Nixon’s war on drugs escalated it grew less metaphorical, and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was actively recruiting military officers fresh from Vietnam. In 1973, when the agency was absorbed into the new DEA, there was a need for staff in San Diego, the new epicenter of border trafficking. Conklin, recently married, was tired of living in New York—the weather, the cost, the chaos. The following year, he and his wife loaded their things into a U-Haul.

By the time Conklin came across the Operation CorCo file in 1978, the case was cold. Despite Dunne’s work and the resulting indictment, the DEA brass had taken little interest in the Coronado Company. They wanted heroin busts. Or maybe coke, which was just starting to make a beachhead. Pot was small potatoes: “Kiddie dope,” they called it. Hell, Conklin figured, half the prosecutors smoked it themselves.

Reviewing the dormant CorCo file, Conklin realized that the sheer scale of the Coronado Company put it in the top tier of smuggling operations. He told his bosses about the tonnage, the tens of millions the smugglers had made. That got the pencil pushers interested, and the San Diego office authorized Conklin to go after the Company partners.

Conklin knew what he was up against. The Company’s leaders were smart, the DEA had run out of leads, and the agency was still poorly funded, working out of derelict federal buildings and borrowing boats from the Coast Guard for naval busts. When Conklin started, his unit had just four cars: two American Motors Javelins, a seized purple Plymouth convertible, and a seized Riviera with bullet holes in it. New agents got guns but no holsters; they wrapped their .38 Specials in rubber bands so they wouldn’t slip out of their waistbands. As late as 1979, when the Company was landing $7 million shipments of Thai stick, there wasn’t a single DEA interdiction agent north of Los Angeles on the West Coast.

But the DEA crew was finding its legs, slowly but surely. The agents were dedicated—married to the job, their ex-wives would say—and they were used to being in the trenches. And the government, Conklin knew, had time on its side. A trafficker, after all, was really just another kind of addict. They couldn’t stop. They loved the rush. The great smugglers could change the odds for a time, but like a blackjack player in a casino, their long-term prospects were dim. The only way to beat the house was by taking your winnings out the door—but smugglers left their chips on the felt. And even the best operation had a lowest common denominator. Somewhere, someone was eventually bound to do something stupid.


 Lance tried to go legit. After parting ways with the Company, he hung around Lake Tahoe, working on developing the ultrafast cigarette boats he hoped to sell. He claimed to have serious interest from the military and potential clients in the Persian Gulf. But his boats—long, thin hydroplanes tricked out with such powerful engines, you could see daylight beneath the hull at top speed—were too fast to be good for anything: fishing, waterskiing, even smuggling. The only buyer for Lance’s boat would have been James Bond, and even Bond wouldn’t want a 30-foot rooster tail flying out the back. He told Fuzzy, with whom he was living at the time, that he was thinking about going to Switzerland. He could hide his money there, hit the autobahn, chase blondes.

Lance felt himself inching further and further out on a limb. Though he remembered Lou’s story, the one from Pepe de Mexicali about pushing troublesome associates out of a plane, he knew that the Company wasn’t his real problem—prison was. He had a bad time in Lompoc after his 1969 bust, being a small, pretty blond and all. He vowed he was never going back there.

The Gamble

1980

 Dave was at 5,000 feet, riding shotgun in a Cessna four-seater, looking down at the vast green wilderness of the Olympic Peninsula, near Seattle. At the controls sat Hugo Butz, a Vietnam chopper pilot turned bush flier who was game for smuggling sorties and aerial surveillance. He had connected Dave with two pals, a pilot and a mechanic with the Air National Guard at nearby Fort Lewis for the Company’s most audacious plan yet: off-loading 10 tons of Thai stick in one of the U.S. military’s own helicopters.

The John L. Winter was another fishing boat the Company contracted for a trans-Pacific smuggling run. The guardsmen were going to “borrow” one of Fort Lewis’s double-rotor Chinooks to lift the load off the deck of the ship in one swift action. There’d be no beach exposure at all. The whole operation would take only a few minutes. Then the ship would be gone, the stash would be deposited in the woods at a secluded clearing, and the Chinook would return to base.

That’s what they were reconnoitering in Butz’s plane now, a nice spot where the Chinook could set down its cargo not far from protected waters. They were all the way at the tip of the peninsula, over the Makah Indian reservation, a nearly unpopulated landscape of forest and salmon streams. From the air, they picked out a cove near Neah Bay: totally isolated, the last stop on the peninsula, and a mile from a flat patch of land clear-cut by loggers. They had found their landing zone.


Lou and Kerrie were spending most of their time in Hilton Head, tanning and playing tennis on the custom clay court at Lou’s beachfront estate. But the game was getting old for her, as was the isolated luxury of Hilton Head. She didn’t want to live like a rich retiree on the lam. It got to you after a while, serving guests with a smile while calling yourself by a fake name. After years living double lives, their only real friends were other people in the Company. In Tahoe or Santa Barbara, at least everyone was together and you could be yourself.

But Lou thought the Company social scene was dangerous. He was in Hilton Head to lay low, away from the conspicuous frolicking in Santa Barbara. He wasn’t exactly out of sight, either, ensconced in a mansion and all, but at least he was keeping quiet. Kerrie had gotten heavy into coke. Ed and Bob were partying hard, too. They were bored with their polo ponies; powder was the only thing that approximated the rush of smuggling.

Lou would indulge a few lines socially, or stick a hot knife into a ball of opium he kept around, inhaling the smoke off the blade to mellow out after a bad day. But he wasn’t the addictive type, and he thought the danger with drugs was getting caught up in the lifestyle. You wound up hanging out with weirdos. And that was how you brought attention to yourself.

For Kerrie, the luster of living with Lou was gone. She felt the years going by; nearing 30, she was thinking about children, a family, a career. In Hilton Head, it hit her hard: This would never be a normal life. Lou was more anxious now, more absorbed in the business. He kept more secrets, and Kerrie started catching him in lies. Maybe they were small ones, but they told a larger story: Once you leave the truth behind, it’s hard to find it again.

When the end came, they didn’t talk much about it. One day, she just packed her things and told him she was going back to La Costa to work as an aerobics instructor.

It was a surprise and yet not surprising. Lou was, in fact, making plans to get out of the business altogether, hiding away money and planning a move to the Bahamas. The islands were beautiful and ran on a dollar economy—a safe haven for illicit cash. They could live like they had in Jamaica. But that feeling had faded, he knew. Five years together and the two of them had never bickered or argued or said an unkind thing to one another. When she left, Kerrie looked back at that beautiful palmetto-ringed house, the only one on that stretch of beach, and knew she’d never see it again.


Lou was too busy to be heartbroken—or at least that was what he told himself. Between the Company’s ongoing legal mess, managing personnel, and planning for the next operation, there was plenty to do. It was getting expensive, keeping the Company together. DeMassa kept asking for more and more money—fifty grand here, forty-five there. It was some consolation that at least Dave could still be counted on.

“Helicopters?” Lou asked, going through the plans for the Neah Bay gig.

“It’s a great idea,” Dave replied. “If it works.”

But Dave was more paranoid than ever. He was having trouble keeping track of the double, triple, quadruple life he was living. Sometimes when he was asked for his name at a sales counter, he would forget who he was supposed to be. Lou tried to talk Dave through it, but he, too, had close calls. On one trip to San Francisco, he left his clutch full of fake IDs in a hotel lobby. When he was summoned by security, he pretended to be a businessman on a gay tryst to explain it.

On top of it all, Dave now had a family to look after; it was a hassle to arrange for his daughter to share his real name instead of his fugitive alias. Dave was torn between his loyalty to the Company and to his family. He felt like the little Dutch boy, plugging holes in the dike. How do you hold back the sea, he wondered, when you run out of fingers? 

Back in Hilton Head, Lou worried, too. He drank his Bordeaux, looking out at the ocean that, every so often, rose up in a storm and took everything with it. Lou recalled how it was when they started back in Coronado. We were all just normal people, he thought. Friends on the Rock, their lives unwritten. He could remember that feeling of promise, when they were young and there wasn’t yet time for tragedy.

Lou Villar’s house at the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort in Hilton Head, South Carolina. (Photo: Courtesy of Lou Villar)
Lou Villar’s house at the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort in Hilton Head, South Carolina. (Photo: Courtesy of Lou Villar)

Lucky Break

1980

When  Conklin’s DEA task force busted the low-level street dealer, they quickly realized they had a guy who didn’t want to go to prison. While in custody, the dealer happened to mention crossing paths with “a big-timer up in Santa Barbara.” That big-timer was Ed Otero.

The dealer was reluctant to talk, and Conklin worked him gently. Conklin was as straight as they come—he had never even tried marijuana—but he didn’t judge people. Plenty of his friends smoked pot, and when he went to parties they’d joke with him, call him “the narc.” He had no interest in locking up every street dealer. It made him an outlier in the take-no-prisoners milieu of the DEA, but it also made him good at cultivating informants. “This is a way out for you,” Conklin told the dealer. “You can go back to a regular life and never worry about seeing me again.”

In exchange for leniency, the dealer provided an address. It was the first concrete lead the DEA had gotten on the Company members’ whereabouts. When Conklin’s team checked out the place, it was empty, but a visit to the local post office showed that the mail was forwarded to someone named Bambi Merryweather—Bob’s girlfriend and Lou’s secretary, although Conklin didn’t know it. Conklin ran her name through the DEA’s database and got a hit out of an agency office in Virginia. The local office, Conklin discovered, was already working some information on a suspected drug dealer in Hilton Head, and Bambi Merryweather was mentioned in the file as well. Two building contractors in Hilton Head, Mike and Jerry Agnor, had reported that a man whose mansion they were renovating was a drug smuggler. They didn’t know his real name, but they called him Mr. Thai Pot and mentioned that he had a secretary named Bambi. The name was too unusual to be a coincidence.

Conklin flew the Agnor brothers to San Diego. He had been assembling a book of the entire Thai smuggling scene, from suppliers to traffickers to distributors, and filling it with pictures of the insular, elusive network. He asked the Agnors to flip through it. They immediately picked out Lou Villar.


At Neah Bay, the receiving crew was in place, stashing 500-gallon tanks of aviation fuel at the LZ for the helo, setting up Dave’s custom cargo cage, and bringing in a semi-trailer truck to move the pot. By now more of the regulars were gone. Don had left by mutual agreement; he had managed to save up some money from the gigs to invest in his VW shop in Oregon. The crew was full of new faces: locals, friends of friends. It made Dave nervous, what with all the heat on the Company.

After losing Al Sweeney, Dave hired a guy Harlan knew who worked for a contractor that made surveillance equipment for the CIA. Dave’s paranoia had led to all kinds of purchases, like a voice stress analyzer and audio scramblers, the latter of which became standard issue for Company partners. But now he requested something new: a bug.

One of the new guys on the crew was disappearing alone, every night, at the same time. One night Dave followed him; he was going to a pay phone. Dave planted the bug in the booth’s mouthpiece and began listening in. The mysterious transmissions, he discovered, were just sweet nothings to the guy’s girlfriend.

Dave was relieved, but the bug was still a nifty toy, and he thought he’d have a little fun with it. He planted it under the kitchen table at the Company’s equipment house. Over several days, he listened to the crew chatting, and then casually surprised people in conversation by mentioning bits of what he’d heard. One night Dave came into the kitchen where everyone was assembled, wearing headphones and a big grin. “Gotcha!” Dave said, reaching under the table and pulling out the bug. “Cute, right?”

Harlan didn’t think so. The Company was built on trust, and the very idea of eavesdropping was a slippery slope. He didn’t see Dave’s stunt as a practical joke. What he saw was a bad omen.


No one likes digging through the trash, but you’d be surprised what people throw away. In addition to naming Lou, the Agnor brothers had helped Conklin connect the Company to a San Diego accountant named Andy Willis. Conklin got a search warrant and began accompanying the local garbage crew to Willis’s office, getting up early, riding the side of the truck, and dabbling in waste management.

Willis, it turned out, would’ve benefited from a paper shredder. In his garbage, Conklin found an epistolary trail connecting Willis to Lou, mostly operating under aliases. Soon Conklin had uncovered a whole network of pseudonymous assets, like Bob’s partnership in an oil well in Arcadia Parish, Louisiana, and the bank accounts of the Mo Ching Trading Co., which happened to own coastal properties in sparsely populated areas. “We got gold,” Conklin told his partner Larry McKinney.

As the CorCo case grew more complicated, more agents were brought in to help follow the money, including an expert on loan from the Internal Revenue Service. Thus was formed the financial-asset removal team—acronym: FART—which Conklin hoped would pick up the income trail and fill in the blanks. They began to piece together the Company’s financials, assembling the asset case by showing unclaimed income through expenditure on houses, cars, and other luxury line items. The last time Lou filed a tax return, he was a teacher in Coronado making $7,000 a year. Bob was still filing, as a drywall installer with a $10,000 annual income. He had spent nearly three times that much on tack for his polo ponies in one year alone.

But Conklin couldn’t just start arresting people. Even when he presented his superiors with documentation supporting his estimate that Lou, based on the value of his houses alone, was worth $6 million, it wasn’t enough. The Justice Department wanted more evidence. Conklin was miffed but patient. He and his team had been on Operation CorCo for years now, and, truth be told, they were having a blast. Conklin liked matching wits with the Company. They were worthy adversaries, guys who’d be good at anything, he thought. It just so happened they were really good crooks. 

Code Red

1980

The Company had timed its Neah Bay gig for late summer, when the Pacific Northwest’s legendary gloom usually breaks. But when the John L. Winter arrived on August 23, the coast of the Olympic Peninsula was still shrouded in dense fog. Helicopters couldn’t fly in those conditions at night, and waiting for the fog to lift was a problem. The ship’s captain came onshore; he and his crew didn’t want to wait around out there to get plucked by the Coast Guard. The pilot pointed out that joyriding a military helicopter was tough to reschedule. Dave was pissed—at them, at himself, at the weather. His supremely elegant plan had been spoiled by an unseasonable dew point.

So for the first time in years, Lou showed up on-site. He met the chopper crew at the Tumwater Inn south of Olympia, turned on the charm, and managed to convince the pilot to attempt an even riskier daytime operation. It helped that Lou sweetened the deal, and noted that the pilots were already implicated. If one of them went down, they all went down.

On the day the weather finally turned perfect, however, the Chinook was a no-show. Another helicopter at Fort Lewis had been damaged on takeoff that morning, and the rest were grounded. Or at least that was what the pilot said; Dave suspected he just chickened out. He cursed the smuggling gods and went back to the drawing board.

The Company fetched its classic beach equipment—the Zodiacs, barges, gravity feeds, 4×4 pickups—and hired some locals from the Makah reservation to assist with their fishing boats. By now tempers were short. Offshore, the John L. Winter’s crew was jittery. As the days passed at Neah Bay, there was plenty of time for anxious speculation. Bringing in the Indians at the last minute was a risky move. They were charging $150,000, an exorbitant fee—the kind of deal you strike only in an emergency—and were wild at the wheel, unable or unwilling to get their ships into proper position. On the night the off-load finally commenced, Fuzzy could hear everyone arguing on the radio, blabbering back and forth for hours. It was the opposite of the streamlined command structure the Company was known for.

It was a bad start, hours late, already past midnight. Earlier on the beach, Fuzzy watched tiny waves lap at his feet, but his surfer’s instinct told him—from the mist, the sense of the atmosphere—that these waters would rise. By the time they started work, eight-footers were crashing on the rocks. Fuzzy fought his way out with a Zodiac and one of the Maravia barges, and docked at sea with the John L. Winter. The Indians met him there in their boats. It was raining, and the swells made work difficult, but together they managed to transfer six tons of Thai stick off the ship and onto the barge. Luckily, the high tide allowed a small vessel to shoot the mouth of the tiny Soo River, which emptied into the ocean near Neah Bay, so the Indians started ferrying the stash, 500 pounds at a time, into the shelter of the river.

Dave was positioned on a hill, watching through his night scope as a collection of green figures ran back and forth on the beach, battling the sea. It was a battle the Company was losing. The tide was going out. The boats were scraping the shallows. The hastily hired help was not following orders. When Turk Markishtum, one of the fishermen from the reservation, knocked his hull on a rock, he refused to continue. “I’m worried about my boat,” he said.

“How much does your boat cost?” Dave asked over the radio.

“$125,000,” Markishtum said.

“We’ll buy you two goddamn boats if you keep going,” Dave said. “Just bring the shit in!”

But now the tide was almost all the way out. No boat with a keel could get into the mouth of the river, and there was $10 million worth of Thai stick still sitting out there on the barge. The local fishermen took off. On the horizon, the black of night was giving way to the first pale hint of tomorrow.

“I’m getting that barge!” Fuzzy yelled into the radio. With the scope, Dave watched him break a Zodiac through the pounding surf and race out to sea. He tied the barge to the Zodiac. The Maravia was 35 feet long but flat-bottomed, and even with the bales stacked several feet high on its deck, Fuzzy figured he could tow it into the Soo.

“Go for it, man!” Dave yelled through the radio, watching Fuzzy make for shore with daylight emerging behind him. “Gun it!” Fuzzy couldn’t hear Dave over the whine of the outboard, and could barely see through the ocean spray, but he got the barge close. And then, just as he entered the mouth of the river, Fuzzy felt himself rising.

Dave watched as the monster wave curled up and lifted Fuzzy, his Zodiac, the barge, and the Thai stick 10 feet above the beach. Fuzzy managed to surf the tethered inflatables on the wave momentarily, until the crest toppled. He felt the weight of the barge land on top of the Zodiac, pinning him to the rubber floor—a potentially lethal position, trapped under several tons of cargo, with a million pounds of water behind it. A fatalist, Fuzzy was stoic. The party was over when it was over. And how ironic, he thought, to be killed by my own stash.

The wave started to swamp the Zodiac, and Fuzzy realized that his hand was still on the throttle. He instinctively gave the little motor all the gas, and when the wave shifted, the Zodiac broke free and shot down its face. Seconds later the towline broke and the barge swamped, dumping some of its load into the water. After tumbling through the foam, it came to rest on the beach. The beach crew unloaded what remained on deck and collected the rest of the bales from the river. Dave had come down from the hill and welcomed Fuzzy back onto the beach. “You barely got out of there with your life!” Dave said.

“It’s like I always say,” Fuzzy responded. “When in doubt—punch it!”

Dave and the beach crew scrambled to get the load into a U-Haul truck. First light was upon them. There was only one way in and out of the heavily forested area, the stash house was 10 miles away, and time was running out.

The road out of the forest was slick and canted, and the truck didn’t get very far before it slid off the asphalt. Dave’s nightmare was coming to pass: Everything was going wrong at once. “Leave the truck,” Dave said, now officially panicking. “Transfer the stash to the pickups.” That’s when Fuzzy discovered that the U-Haul’s rear door was jammed. The truck’s whole frame box was warped and wouldn’t open. “Get an axe!” Dave yelled. But there were no axes.

Dave looked around. The crew was losing faith. Birds were singing, announcing the morning. The scale of the disaster was dawning on everyone. “All right, everybody,” Dave said wearily over the radio. “This is a code red.” He had never said those words before. He couldn’t believe he had to give the order to abort. The Tusker was a lot of bad luck, but this was defeat. They had failed.

They had 60 bales in the pickups—a small fraction of the load. The rest they left on the beach, along with the boats and motors, the conveyor belts and generators. Dave instructed everyone to get their emergency kits, which contained oiled rags for clearing fingerprints. “Wipe it all down, boys,” he said. Fleeing the scene in the bed of one of the Company’s pickup trucks, Dave wondered what he would say to Lou.

The recovered bales went to pay back the investors. The rest was a loss. And the Company was already feeling the pinch. Smuggling is speculative and expensive: It had cost a lot to stage this fiasco, a million bucks spent to lose twenty. Dave, ever faithful and feeling guilty, bought Lou a gold Patek Philippe as an apology, even though everyone knew it wasn’t really his fault. At least no one was arrested on his watch, Dave thought. Hours later, Walter Cronkite was reporting on the CBS Evening News about the mysterious drug-trafficking incident on the Olympic Peninsula. The police discovered the entire smuggling operation in situ—the bales in the water, the truck, and all the gear—but they didn’t find a single fingerprint. 

One Last Score

1981

Lou moved back to Santa Barbara, against his better judgment. Spooked by Neah Bay, the Company partners had decided to mount a final mission and then disband. Lou saw his psychic, a common form of business guidance in California at the time—who warned him, “I see bad things on the horizon.” Lou took note but didn’t listen. He and the rest of the Company partners wanted to retire big. The proverbial temptation of the last big score was too great.

Lou took up with a local artist and, somehow, her sister at the same time; they lived together in a house situated on a 100-acre orchid farm. There, the Company organized its final gig: four tons of Thai stick delivered to Bear Harbor, the kind of operation they’d pulled off without incident many times.  Danny Tuna was back in the employ of the Company after promising to clean up his act. He had a new boat, the Robert Wayne, and promoted his first mate, John Engle, to captain it back from Thailand. The idea was to keep it small, easy, and lucrative.

Things seemed to be going fine until, a few months later, a ham-radio operator in the Philippines picked up a distress call from the western Pacific. It was the Robert Wayne; the vessel had been hit by a rogue wave, Engle said. It smashed the windows and swamped the gear, including the radio. Engle had managed to get out an SOS by splicing the CB to a high-gain antenna.

A few days later, the Robert Wayne’s propeller shaft broke. The ship was drifting now, a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan. As the hold was full of drugs, Engle couldn’t exactly call the Coast Guard. Fortuitously for the boat’s crew, it turned out that Danny’s sister was an escort at a Tokyo bar called Maggie’s Revenge, where she was popular with some yakuza men. (Danny’s sister was an exotic girl for a Japanese gangster to have on his arm—six feet tall, blonde, congenitally blind, and, according to Conklin, who later interviewed her, “a total knockout.”) Danny managed to arrange an intervention from the yakuza, who agreed to tow the boat to Yokohama and oversee repairs.

The yakuza wanted $300,000 for their services, on top of $250,000 for the Robert Wayne’s repairs. Ed negotiated a loan from a Company investor and brought the down payment to Chichi-Jima, a tiny island in the Pacific, in a suitcase. As insurance, the yakuza kept Danny Tuna with them “as a guest” until the mission was complete and the rest of the money was delivered.

Incredibly, the Company’s crisis management came through. The Robert Wayne made it to California and the off-load went smoothly. Some of the cargo was converted to cash, and the rest was transported back to Santa Barbara, to be sold in a few days. Lou agreed to store some of the pot and cash at his house—a breach in his usual security protocol, but he figured they’d get it to distributors in a few days. In the meantime, the Company threw a classic victory party at Bob’s place. This score would put everyone over the top, they thought, a couple million each for the partners. It felt good to be together again, everyone smiling, laughing, raising a toast to a clean getaway.


Conklin looked at his watch. It was 11 a.m. on November 5, 1981. He and his team were in position around Santa Barbara, waiting. Then another agent called in an approaching silver four-door Mercedes, license plate 1ATM158. The car turned west on Alston Road and then south on Cima Linda Lane, where other surveillance units made the driver: Ed Morgan, a.k.a. Kenneth Eugene Cook, Jr., a.k.a. Edward Otero.

It was early November, and the DEA had been sitting on the houses of Ed, Bob, and Lou for months now. Lou had no idea his Hilton Head contractors had led the heat to his doorstep on the opposite coast. The Agnors had told the feds that they’d been burned by Lou, stiffed $50,000 for services rendered. (Lou would claim that the money discrepancy was actually their lost investment in Company commerce.) Now Conklin had teams in place. “Let’s do it,” he said.

Ed saw the tail and tried to run, but he didn’t get far. The DEA boxed him in at the wheel of the car he loved so much, less than a mile from his house. Shortly thereafter, DEA agents saw Lou driving his matching Mercedes 6.9 and started following him.

Lou was by himself, heading for Bob’s house. It was a beautiful day, and Lou had just had lunch with the girls at home. He was feeling good, thinking about the pot in his basement and how much it was worth. When he saw that he was being tailed, he turned down the radio. He changed course, but the car followed. After a half-dozen turns, Lou found himself in a cul-de-sac. The cops didn’t even need to flash the lights.

“Keep your hands on the wheel,” Lou heard. Before the feds got a chance to yank him from the leather-lined interior, Lou recalls, one of the agents had pulled his .45 and stuck it in Lou’s mouth. The agent’s hand was shaking, as if he was overwhelmed by finally seeing the man he and his colleagues had been chasing for years. “You will never forget this day,” the agent said. “And your life will never be the same.” Lou knew he was right.

The DEA had caught up with Bob and Dave, too. They happened to be riding in Ed’s car when he was caught. For all his investigative efforts, Conklin didn’t realize who Dave was or the important role he played in the organization. But in Ed’s car, along with $20,000 in cash, the agents found Dave’s valise, which contained two fake IDs, an airline ticket, and several notebooks—all detailed accounting ledgers. It was a phenomenal bit of luck; the DEA had caught the Company principals en route to an accounting meeting.

By the end of the day they were arrested, and Bob’s house was surrounded with yellow tape, its contents tagged as evidence: three safe-deposit keys, photos of landing sites, and records showing payments to ship captains. At Lou’s house, Conklin found $557,829 and 892 pounds of product from the latest shipment, worth about $3 million. In Lou’s enormous safe were envelopes, each containing $25,000 and labeled “Johnny,” “Terry,” and “Fred”—pay for the crew. Lou had never before accepted delivery of pot on the premises. Now, handcuffed in his own living room, he could hear the agents in the basement taking down the secret panels that hid the stash. “Holy fuck,” one of them shouted. “We hit the fucking jackpot!”

It was quite a haul—for Conklin, too. He’d worked for years, with inferior equipment and funding, to put cuffs on these guys. His resources were so thin, in fact, that his agents had nearly run out of gas on the way to Santa Barbara; they were over their fuel budget and had to refill out of pocket to catch their targets. But now the Company’s leadership was all in a cell together, and the DEA had confiscated $12 million in cash, contraband, vehicles, and property from the organization. (To Conklin’s chagrin, he never did find the Duck.) When the news broke, McKinney told reporters that the Company had grossed $96 million over the past decade. At a minimum, Lou thought in his cell.

Private detectives Sanda Sutherland and Jack Palladino, 1979. (Photo: Corbis Images)
Private detectives Sanda Sutherland and Jack Palladino, 1979. (Photo: Corbis Images)

Cat and Mouse

1981

 Fuzzy heard about the arrests on the news. Drug lords busted in upscale Santa Barbara. Sounds familiar, he thought. Then the phone rang. “Hey, Fuzzy, it’s been a while.” Fuzzy would’ve recognized that goofy nasal voice anywhere. “I’m sure you know why I’m calling,” Lance went on. “I got you into this. And now I’m going to get you out.”

Lance had already arranged for Fuzzy to sit down with the DEA. Fuzzy was conflicted, but as he considered the cards he had been dealt, he realized that he had only one to play. “It’s every man for himself,” Lance said.

The DEA loved Lance and Fuzzy from the moment they walked in the door. “You guys were the A-team,”  Conklin said when Fuzzy and Lance sat down in the San Diego DEA offices, a tape recorder in between them. “Light years ahead of everyone else. We want to know how you did it.”

Fuzzy recognized one of the agents who had been on hand when he was arrested in Maine. Another agent, Fuzzy noticed, had pulled into the parking lot in one of Ed’s Corvettes. Fuzzy looked at the DEA team assembled around him, everyone with their notepads and Hawaii 5-0 suits. He rationalized that he would just confirm what they already knew. Besides, he had taken a fall once, and become a convicted felon, in the service of the Company. This time the feds were threatening 30 years. That was a long time away from his motorcycle. So Fuzzy gave them a tape he’d already recorded, describing the information he knew that would be valuable to the DEA. “Hi,” the tape began. “My name is Fuzzy, and I’m going to tell you a story about the Coronado Company.”


At the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego, where the Company members were housed, the higher-ups were still sticking together. Lou was running damage control, even managing collections from jail. At their individual arraignments, the partners gave DeMassa instructions to collect money from distributors, through their attorneys, whom they’d fronted. Some of it DeMassa used to pay the beach crew from the last operation, some he kept, and some he gave to the partners’ girlfriends.

“I need information,” DeMassa told Jack Palladino one night over lobster bisque at the Stanford Court Hotel. Palladino was DeMassa’s trusted private detective, one-half of the husband-and-wife detective agency Palladino & Sutherland; together they’d worked with DeMassa on other major criminal-defense efforts, defending the Hells Angels against the government’s RICO investigation. Jack and Sandra’s job was to gather as much information as possible about the DEA’s case against the Company and how the agents had gotten their evidence; maybe it was coerced or otherwise tainted. Find out what people know, DeMassa told Jack, and how they know it.

But the DEA already had a strong case. With the testimony of Fuzzy and Lance—now known as Confidential Informants SR2820012 and SR2820013, respectively—Conklin was able to issue a second round of indictments with wider scope and more detail, the kind that comes from inside information. DeMassa wanted Jack and Sandra to figure out who’d flipped.

There was no shortage of suspects. Coronado was full of people the Company left behind who had nursed resentments for years. “They burned a lot of bridges,” one early beach-team member told Jack. Any number of disgruntled ex-employees could have dropped a dime. During grand jury testimony, Jack sat in a white van with painted-over windows in front of the courthouse where the jury convened, taking pictures of everyone who walked in, but found no familiar faces.

Having mostly worked in criminal defense, Jack and Sandra had a philosophical opposition to informants. In her office, Sandra kept an original World War II–vintage poster that warned: “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” Their odds-on favorite, of course, was Lance, but nobody had any proof. Meanwhile, Lance was playing his own game. More than once as Sandra traveled around the country talking to Company associates, she found that Lance had gotten to them first, fishing for intel he could use as a bargaining chip with the DEA.

The private detectives met with Lance over a few dinners and meetings, each side hoping the other would slip up. At first everyone involved played coy, pretending they were on the same team. “Who do you think is talking?” Sandra would ask.

“Who do you think is talking?” Lance would reply.

The encounters settled into a routine of I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know-that-you-know-what-you-don’t-know gamesmanship. Jack and Sandra saw these meetings as opportunities to allow Lance, who always talked too much, to impugn his own credibility. They wore wires, hoping he’d put his foot in it. Extortion, for instance, would count him out as a government witness, and Lance had intimated that money might make him “go away.” 

Lance knew they were taping him, and he tried to get around it. At one meeting, at a hotel in Reno, Jack bugged the room. Lance switched rooms at the last minute. He figured (correctly) that Jack was miked anyhow, and to be safe, he walked in with a note announcing that the entire meeting would be conducted on Magic Slates, the children’s writing pads where you pulled up the cellophane flap to make the words disappear. There they were, two private detectives and a drug smuggler, sitting in silence, negotiating on a kid’s toy. Nothing was said or written, and there was no record of their meeting, which Jack thought was very clever.

Lance didn’t like turning on his friends, but all’s fair in love and war, he thought. He felt bad threatening Ed, Bob, Dave, and Lou—they all still had affection for one another—but the Company had screwed him over. Now it was their turn to get screwed.


For months, Lou sat in the San Diego Metropolitan Correctional Center, still waving his scepter against Company foes. With money there was yet power. According to DeMassa, Lou wanted to bribe his way out. Judge, jury members, maybe a congressman if he had to. Ed, Bob, and Dave were all on different floors of the jail. They never talked directly, coordinating instead through DeMassa. Harlan and Dave both started teaching themselves law, to get into the statutes themselves.

Dave faced an “848,” the federal government’s continuing criminal enterprise statute—it was the trafficking equivalent of RICO, dubbed the drug kingpin law, carrying the prospect of decades in prison. Dave wasn’t a kingpin, but a heavy charge was how the government put on the squeeze, looking for cracks in the foundation. The Company felt abused by the inflated charges, but from the DEA’s perspective, it was the sole means of pressing an advantage. When a crew was as successful and as tight as the Company was, the DEA had to find leverage where it could. So the feds wheeled out the 848s, investigated friends and families, and, for good measure, indicted all the Company girlfriends.

Jack and Sandra tried to trace the DEA’s footsteps, looking for evidence that the agents overstepped their bounds. Sandra went around reminding everyone not to talk without a lawyer present and offering protection to people like Ed’s father, a Navy janitor, whose pension the DEA had threatened. At one point, Jack discovered that he was under surveillance himself. A well-known rock photographer let the DEA use his apartment, across the street from the Palladino & Sutherland offices, to spy on them.

There was more than enough resentment to go around. The DEA hated DeMassa; he was, according to Conklin, a “shyster attorney” who used “crooked detectives” to get criminals off. Jack and Sandra thought the DEA took it personally that anyone would dare stand up to the agency. “It wasn’t common to do that,” Jack recalled later. “And we were good at it.”

But the DEA was chipping away at the Company. DeMassa was on the defensive; he knew that the agency was gunning for him as well. Bob eventually chose to go to trial, but DeMassa encouraged Ed and everyone else to plead out. Lou arranged a plea bargain before he could be charged with an 848. The kingpin never faced the kingpin law, but he got 10 years anyway. So did Ed, who struck the same deal. During Lou’s sentencing, he looked up at the judge and told himself that he would never again lose his freedom. When he got out, he vowed, he would change his life, again. Freedom wasn’t worth all that money. But what was it worth?


In 1982, Lou was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution on Terminal Island, just off Los Angeles Harbor, to “do his dime,” as it was called in the yard. He looked around and thought: I can’t spend 10 years here. In the MCC library, he had met a prisoner who traded homespun legal advice to his fellow inmates for cookies. “Want my advice?” he told Lou. “Get yourself out of here. That’s what all these other motherfuckers are trying to do. And they’re actually supposed to be in here.”

The jailhouse lawyer knew a former U.S. attorney named Kevin McInerny, who talked Lou through becoming an informant. Conklin was shocked when he got the call from McInerny: “Lou Villar wants to talk.” 

The Deal

1982

It was controversial within the DEA whether or not to let Lou turn. He was too high up in the Company, some said—what was the point of rolling up the organization if you were going to let the kingpin walk? But Lou could provide detail on financing, suppliers, and dealers—the entire Thai network that Conklin had in his sights. Conklin had been able to indict a lot of those people based on Lance’s and Fizzy’s testimony, but for convictions he needed someone to take the stand. He also had his eye on a target closer to home. He wanted to go after DeMassa.

Lou already felt cheated by DeMassa. The Company had paid him half a million in fees, and in Lou’s mind all he did with it was negotiate some rather unfavorable plea bargains. Lou asked McInerny to reach out to Dave. Lou knew Dave could get out if he wanted to. So far he’d held firm, even though DEA agents had visited him in prison, stalked his wife, and harassed his sister, the prosecutor. Dave’s family had pleaded with him to turn on the Company. Finally, Conklin came to him and told him he had one last chance. He showed Dave the 848 paperwork with his name on it. “There’s a train leaving the station,” the agent told him. “Do you want to be on it or under it?”

Conklin felt like he was doing Dave and the others a service. In a way, he thought, the Company guys were lucky to get caught now: The days of fun-loving hippie smugglers were giving way to the violence and gangsterism of cocaine culture. Arrest was a way out, informing a path to redemption. “You have a chance to be a regular guy again,” Conklin told Dave. Dave waited until he thought everyone who had worked for him had been dispositioned, so his testimony wouldn’t affect his employees. And then he switched sides.


In his cell at the MCC,  Harlan was still fighting the prosecutors, poring over court documents. He’d been imagining that Pops and the Company might still mount a cavalry charge. Instead, his boss and friends would testify against him.

It was understandable that Lance would turn state’s evidence; he’d been shafted. Maybe Fuzzy, too; he was an outsider, never one of the Coronado boys. But Lou? Lou had been at the center of everything. It was as if the Godfather broke omertà. And that broke Harlan’s heart.

He remembered when he did his first piece in jail, how Lou took him aside and coached him on doing his time. Now it was Lou’s turn, and Lou was skipping out. We were a fucking championship lineup, Harlan thought. And Lou was the coach. Harlan sometimes still felt an echo of remorse from 14 years earlier, when he disappointed Lou on the basketball court. He never imagined then that Lou would disappoint him in return. “We loved him,” Harlan would later tell the journalist Mike Wallace. “And he rolled right over on us.”

On one of Harlan’s trips to the courtroom, he was being led into the elevator when he ran into Lou, accompanied by prosecutors, on his way to testify. Harlan was dressed in corrections orange. Lou was in his civilian clothes, looking sharp as always, with a big smile on his face. “How are you doing?” Lou said. He looked Harlan in the eye and shook his hand. “Don’t worry, kid,” he said, just like in his coaching and Company days. “Hang in there.”

They got off on different floors. Harlan spent six more months on the ninth floor of the MCC and was then transferred to Terminal Island for the rest of his sentence. Lou walked out of the building and into the California sunshine.


The fallout from Lou and the other informants’ testimony was widespread. Many Company members and their associates did time. The Fort Lewis helicopter pilots were court-martialed. The Indians from Neah Bay were arrested. A third indictment came down in 1984, naming more suppliers and distributors; Conklin was disabling the Thai network, just as he had hoped. Eventually, more than one hundred people were indicted. Lou gave up many of them himself, even Kerrie’s brother Kent, who had worked with the Company on the beach. Some people, like Kent, spent just a few months in prison, others years.

The DEA raided DeMassa’s office, taking all his files, and eventually arrested him, charging him with harboring Bob Lahodny as a fugitive and 16 counts as a co-conspirator in the Company case. He went to trial in 1985. Facing 20 years, DeMassa pled guilty to three felonies and served six months in a halfway house.

Bob Lahodny went to trial in 1985. After 10 days—during which Lou, Dave, and Fuzzy all testified—Bob changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced to five years. He got out in 1989 but was arrested again that year, along with Ed Otero, after the two attempted another smuggling gig in Northern California.

Ed was serving his second sentence when he saved the life of a prison guard who was being held hostage by two armed prisoners, and was released early. Seven years in prison was enough to straighten him out. He moved to Palm Springs, started a legitimate—and successful—air-conditioning business, and bought himself a boat with his own hard-earned money.

Dave was released in 1983. He was relieved that he could see his family, but he knew he couldn’t go back to Coronado. He moved away and got into real estate. The first time Dave saw Lou after being arrested was on a plane to Maine, where they had both been subpoenaed to testify in a case related to the Little Machias Bay bust. Dave was still angry at Lou for informing on him before he turned state’s evidence himself. By the end of the flight, however, the two men were cracking tiny bottles of booze and rekindling their friendship. Other relationships, however, couldn’t be recovered. Lou never again saw Bob, Ed, Lance—or Kerrie. “What really hurt,” Kerrie says, “is that Lou never apologized.”

2013

The man who walked into the pizza place was barely recognizable as the tanned playboy I’d seen in pictures and newspaper articles. At age 76, he looked like a retiree, with white hair and a warm smile. “No one else besides the people who lived it has ever heard this story,” Lou Villar said.

Arranging the first meeting had been complicated, requiring the kind of cloak-and-dagger planning that Lou knew from the days of the Coronado Company. I showed up at the restaurant, waited, and was finally approached by Lou after I “checked out.” He was spry, fit, and still sharp as he jumped into a story that hadn’t been told in thirty years.

As I spent time with Lou, I could see the charming and charismatic man who had drawn so many people into his orbit at the Company. But I also saw the tragedy of his story. By the time we met, I had spoken with many who still felt the sting of his betrayal.

Lou himself served nearly two years in prison. After he was released, he was resentenced to a year of unsupervised probation. He managed to hold on to a bit of money, some of his furnishings from Hilton Head, and his wine collection.

Did Lou have regrets? He did. He’d testified against people he cared about. It was an agonizing decision, one he couldn’t rationalize away: “I told my story in exchange for freedom, and I’ll always have to live with that.” He hadn’t spoken to a reporter since 1985, shortly after he got out of prison. At the time, he said he regretted his Company days; they’d affected his family and destroyed most of his friendships. But things looked different to him now, with nearly three decades of perspective. “Those were lessons that had to be learned,” he told me.

He understood why his friends were angry. Still, he told himself, some of them could have taken a deal like he had. They had chosen to stick with honor among thieves, but Lou thought that was just a hollow criminal piety. Maybe that, in turn, was a hollow informant’s piety. But Lou now says that for him, time behind bars was an opportunity to accept defeat and learn how to live a legitimate life again. In his forties, he changed his name and started over. He was successful in his new career, he told me, but it wasn’t the same as the Coronado Company. “Then again,” he says, “what could be?”

When Lou and Dave spend time together now, their wives have forbidden them from talking about the halcyon days of the Company, because it can go on for hours. No matter how nostalgic he gets, Dave says he wouldn’t do it again. Lou says he would. The highs, the lows, the hard lessons—“those are the things,” he says, “that made my life.”

Lou Villar (Photo: Courtesy of Lou Villar)
Lou Villar (Photo: Courtesy of Lou Villar)

Epilogue

2013

 Ed Otero died in January 2013 of a heart attack while fishing for tuna off the coast of Mexico. “Ed rode the wave of life through the ’70s and early ’80s,” his obituary noted, “which included many adventures.”

 Dave Strather divorced, remarried, and raised his daughter. He still has one of the Company’s voice scramblers and can reproduce the Bornstein chart from memory.

 Bob Lahodny moved back to the San Diego area after his second prison term, got married, became a stockbroker, and lived, according to friends, “a festive and happy life” with his wife until they divorced. After that, Bob struggled to find his footing again. He died in 2010, from complications from hepatitis C, which he contracted while traveling in Asia.

 Lance Weber never got his performance-speedboat business off the ground. He moved back to Coronado and met a new girl, Deanna, whom he married a few years later. He invited Jim Conklin and other DEA agents to his wedding, where Conklin presented him with a pair of handcuffs in a shadowbox with an engraved plate reading, “Congratulations on Your Life Sentence!” Lance and Deanna had two children. He died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2000.

 Allan “Fuzzy” Logie made it through 10 years of probation without incident. He still rides motorcycles but had to stop surfing after he crashed his bike and injured his back. He remembers every mechanical upgrade he ever made to a vehicle.

 Al Sweeney received five years of probation and moved back to Coronado. He died of a brain hemorrhage in 1985.

 Don Kidd still runs his garage in Oregon, where he still specializes in the impossible. “It gets annoying,” he says. “People always bring me the shit they can’t fix.” He and Harlan Fincher have stayed friends, visiting each other every few years.

Harlan Fincher served four years in prison. When he returned to civilian life, he owed the government tens of thousands of dollars he didn’t have, on account of the IRS asset case against him, which made it hard for him to recover financially. Between that and his felony record, he had difficulty finding work that made use of his many talents. He married in 2006 and manages a ranch.

 Paul Acree disappeared before the initial Coronado Company arrests in 1981. None of the other Company veterans know where he is or if he is still alive.

 Phil DeMassa returned to law after his conviction; the California Bar Association did not pull his license, on the grounds that his crimes did not “involve moral turpitude.” Still, his practice never quite recovered. He died in a scuba-diving accident in 2012.

 James Conklin spent 26 years with the DEA and still admires the ingenuity of the Company. After finishing the CorCo case, he was given a plum assignment in Thailand, where he was tasked with taking on the Company’s supply at the source. He spent four years there, essentially eradicating the entire Thai stick trade. He retired in 2004 and moved to Las Vegas, where he started a private-investigation firm with his son.

 Jack Palladino and Sandra Sutherland are still private investigators and have worked on behalf of many high-profile clients since the Coronado affair, including John DeLorean, the auto executive charged with smuggling cocaine in 1982, Bill and Hillary Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign, and Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco-industry whistle-blower portrayed in the film The Insider. They now live and work in San Francisco’s Upper Haight neighborhood and are aided in their investigative efforts by their cat, Tipsy, who likes to sit on the files.

 Kerrie Kavanaugh took a few years to move beyond what she now calls “the follies of the early ’80s” and eventually went back to school to pursue her culinary interests. She worked as a chef on private yachts, where she met her husband, a ship’s captain. They moved to the Pacific Northwest and had a daughter.

Lou Villar hasn’t talked to Kerrie in 35 years, but he kept a copy of the poem he wrote her.

The Legends of Last Place

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The Legends of Last Place

A season with America’s worst professional baseball team.

By Abe Streep

The Atavist Magazine, No. 24


Abe Streep’s writing has appeared in OutsideThe New York Times MagazineMen’s JournalPopular Science, Mother JonesThe Southern ReviewBloomberg Businessweek, and elsewhere.

Editor: Charles Homans
Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran
Photographs: Ryan Heffernan, Nick Sedillos
Research and Production: Nicole Pasulka, Rachel Richardson
Fact Checker: Thomas Stackpole
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Music: Abe Streep


Published in April 2013. Design updated in 2021.

Prologue

Another monsoon. The rain beats against the grandstand, drowning out John Fogerty’s growl on the aging Fort Marcy Park sound system. There aren’t many people here yet, a couple dozen fans but few of the regulars—no sign of the lefty pitcher’s brother or the guy who carves the big wooden Virgin Mary statues. The home team sprints off the field toward us, 25 young men slipping over concrete in metal cleats and trying to beat the storm. Their jerseys, made of thin red mesh, read SANTA FE. The grandstand is the only shelter at Fort Marcy, so all of us, players and spectators, huddle together listening to the rain. It’s the last home game of the 2012 season. The summer’s final batting practice is a washout.

The fans do not whisper when the players flop down next to us. No autographs are sought. The Santa Fe Fuego are the newest addition to the Pecos League, a group of six independent minor league baseball teams in Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico. The players earn $54 per week and live in homestays with Santa Fe families. They use the same bathroom as the fans, a small concrete cave. (At least there are doors on the stalls, a recent development; for most of the summer, curtains provided the only privacy.) Later tonight, after the crowd has left, the players will scour the grandstand for trash, collecting stray napkins and mashed foil containers holding the remnants of our $3 burgers. There are no grounds crews in the Pecos League.

The Fuego sip from outsize gas-station soda cups and work their way through thick wads of chewing tobacco, waiting for the game to begin. Though players cycle through the Pecos League with revolving-door regularity, I’ve been following the Fuego long enough now—since the beginning of their debut season—to know the ones who’ve stuck around. There’s Brandon Thompson, a mountainous, hard-throwing reliever from Montana, who looks as though he should be hauling some large vehicle in a strongman competition. There’s Andrew “Archie” Archbold, the quick center fielder, with his bad goatee that doesn’t entirely link up at his bony chin. His jersey dangles off him as if from a hanger. Bill Moore, the Fuego’s manager, says that Archie “weighs 120 pounds when he’s got rocks in his pocket and it’s raining.” It’s raining.

Late July is monsoon season in northern New Mexico. Storms gather over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the afternoon, then dissipate or roll in and briefly batter the town, cooling the high desert. Tonight’s opposition, the Roswell Invaders, a far superior team by every statistical measure, don’t join us under the grandstand. They huddle beneath the small roof of the visiting dugout, getting wet. Call it a home-field advantage.

The pounding eventually lets up and sun filters through the clouds, filling the sky with the kind of wild light that helps fuel Santa Fe’s economy, drawing second-homers and tourists who come to paint watercolors of the evenings. More fans arrive. The Invaders emerge from the visiting dugout in jerseys the color of antifreeze. Archie sprints to center, leading the home team onto the field for the last time this summer.

With the exception of the center fielder, the Fuego are big, powerful men who do not embody the Platonic ideal of athleticism. They fill out their uniforms in the belly and ass. They are strong hitters, with the second-best batting average in the league. Defense is the chink in their armor. The Fuego’s pitchers have, on average, given up nearly one run for every inning of the season; their cumulative earned-run average is more than 8.00. (A good major league pitcher’s is around 3.00.) The fielding has been a bounty of errors. July was particularly merciless. The Fuego have lost 16 of their last 23 games.

The players like to point out that many of these losses came by one run. They like to say that with a break here or there, things might have turned out differently. But blind pride is a job requirement for athletes, and no amount of it can sway the hard fact that the Fuego have an anaconda grip on last place in the Pecos League.

Independent leagues sit at the bottom of professional baseball’s sprawling caste system. They are essentially the minor leagues’ minor leagues, consisting of players trying to reach the Single A, Double A, and Triple A farm teams affiliated with major league clubs. The publication Baseball America, which is the authority on these matters, has ranked North America’s independent leagues by payroll. The Pecos didn’t even pay its players enough to make those rankings. According to a Baseball America official, the Pecos is “the lowest level of professional baseball” currently in existence.

To occupy last place in the Pecos League, then, is to lay claim to a singular title. Absolute superlatives are tossed off too often and easily in the sports world, but this one is not negotiable: As of July 25, 2012, the Santa Fe Fuego are, empirically speaking, the worst professional baseball team in America.

And yet here I am. I’ve spent too many hours this summer at Fort Marcy.  Maybe it’s everything the Pecos League lacks: scouts, agents, corporate funding, and the kind of dancing-bear kitsch that fills most minor league productions. Or maybe it’s just nostalgia, the baseball junkie’s favorite opiate. Out here on the concrete bleachers, I sometimes feel as though I’ve been dropped into a pre-steroidal epoch when the second basemen were short, the relievers were fat, and you could almost see yourself out there on the field. You’d never go to an NFL game, watch the centaurs lobotomizing one another, and think, Man, that could have been me. But the fantasy of self-projection, an old and fading tradition in baseball, is still alive down here in the Pecos League. These are not the automatons who have taken over the New York Yankees I grew up rooting for. On blue nights like this, I envision myself out in center getting a jump on a ball to the gap. The marvelous opening line of one of the great baseball books, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, once again arrives in my head: “I’m 30 years old, and I have these dreams.”

If this all sounds a little ridiculous, well, I am 30 years old, I still own my cleats from college, and I’ve spent the better part of the summer eating $3 burgers. Besides, underdogs are easy to love. Over the past three months, inside what has at times seemed like a throwaway season in a throwaway league, I have found an extremely tough group of athletes who are willing to take real risks and make deep sacrifices in pursuit of a quixotic goal. Their dedication has reminded me of something essential about sports: Outside the confines of a major league stadium (or your TV screen), they are an occasionally comedic, often brutal endeavor with truly high stakes. There are unexpected bursts of inspiration—a 90-mile-an-hour fastball, a tape-measure home run—to remind you that these guys do, in fact, have a chance to scrap their way out of the cellar and into the higher reaches of pro ball. The Fuego play hard, and they play hurt, and they play to win. It just usually doesn’t pan out that way.

One

On November 9, 2011, Rodney Tafoya stood in a long line at Santa Fe city hall. He was clean-shaven and wearing a sharp beige sports jacket, his black hair immaculately sculpted with gel. His trim, five-foot-nine build was betrayed only by the first swellings of a middle-aged belly. He had two minutes to speak, and he had no notes, but his intentions were unambiguous. He planned to convince the city government to give him one more shot at greatness. He felt a passion rising inside him. Time was running short. He was 47 years old.

In the fall of 2010, Andrew Dunn, a former college ballplayer turned part-time real estate agent and Internet programmer, had managed to scrape together enough money to start his own small league. He’d previously owned a team in the foundering Continental League, and when that organization folded, Dunn saw opportunity. (Lacking the major league economic backing that the more prestigious, affiliated leagues enjoy, independent leagues are constantly refinancing, going out of business, or joining forces and rebooting under new names.) The Pecos League’s inaugural 2011 season was relatively successful, but following the summer two of the six teams folded. Dunn decided to replace them with two expansion teams. He wanted to put one in Santa Fe.

The team didn’t yet have a name. (At one point, Dunn had proposed calling it the Sangres—the Bloods. This did not go over well.) More urgently, Dunn didn’t have permission to sell beer at Fort Marcy, a public park and the only ball field in Santa Fe with adequate seating. (A city ordinance bans the sale of alcohol in public parks.) In a league where teams made nearly all their money from beer and ticket sales, this effectively prohibited games from being played at all. But Dunn had an ally on the city council, an avid baseball fan named Ron Trujillo. With Trujillo’s aid, Dunn proposed an amendment that would allow Santa Fe’s fledgling club to sell beer at Fort Marcy. A spirited debate ensued, fought on the op-ed pages of the local papers and at a series of public meetings, culminating in the November gathering at city hall. At the end of the meeting, the fate of the Fuego would be decided. Any Santa Fe resident was welcome to comment. The line of speakers stretched around the walls of the room, past the long desk where the council members sat.

The debate divided largely along class lines. The team’s supporters seemed to consist mostly of young families. The opposition was older and lived in the vicinity of the park. Fort Marcy sits at the intersection of two roads: One of them leads to the lush village of Tesuque, where Cormac McCarthy owns a house, the other to a series of gated communities and the local ski area. The opposition’s argument was simple: Beer and baseball would aggravate the town’s not insignificant drunk-driving problem. The team’s supporters accused the wealthy residents of elitist NIMBYism.  

The president of the local chamber of commerce spoke in support of the team, as did a man in a faded Albuquerque Dukes shirt who brought photos of his father playing at Fort Marcy in 1951. The owner of Santa Fe’s most popular bar worried that the pros would mess up the playing surface for his softball league. An elderly man who lived near the park barked, “There will be car crashes, there will be drunken driving!” A woman in a rainbow scarf alleged a conspiracy between the city and the league, calling it a “D-u-n-n deal.”

Then it was Tafoya’s turn. Tafoya, a vice president at an Albuquerque branch of Bank of the West, was something of a local celebrity. He grew up in Santa Fe, where his brother, Jack, showing foresight, taught him to throw left-handed by tying his right arm behind his back. The boys’ father fought in Normandy; their mother worked in a nursing home. Tafoya starred in little league and high school and acquitted himself well playing for two small colleges, but he was not drafted. He pieced together a career pitching in minor leagues throughout the United States and Mexico before an injury drove him into banking.

Now Tafoya stepped up to the mic, placed his hands on either side of the podium, and spoke firmly. He told the crowd two things. One was that baseball and beer were synonymous. “I played in Canada, I played in Mexico,” he said. “I played in the minor leagues here in the United States. There was never a venue that didn’t sell beer. How can you have baseball without beer? I mean, come on.”

The other was that Tafoya was planning a comeback. He hadn’t pitched professionally since 2006, with a Mexican team, but he had the itch again. He told the city council that he wanted the opportunity to take the mound one last time in his hometown. “I will be the oldest pitcher in the United States in independent baseball,” he said, but “I can still throw an 86-mile-per-hour fastball. So in my heart, if they give me a spring-training tryout, you can bet your life that I’m going to make this team.” He raised his fist to enthusiastic cheers.

Four hours after the meeting began, the council voted. The panel split evenly, four for the amendment and four against. The mayor cast the deciding vote: There would be beer, and there would be baseball.

Rod Tafoya speaks before the Santa Fe City Council.

The task of assembling the Fuego fell to a 67-year-old veteran college coach named Bill Moore. When Andrew Dunn came calling in the fall of 2011, Moore was living in Mesa, Arizona, where his wife, Billie, ran a beauty center in an assisted-living home. Moore had spent the previous three years managing the Bisbee Copper Kings, in the Pacific Southwest League—a wood-bat summer league for college players—where he had achieved a 93-28 record, winning the conference three years running. That fall, however, the league had folded under the weight of unforeseen financial turmoil.

When Moore visited Santa Fe, he was unimpressed by Fort Marcy Park’s diminutive dimensions. The field measured 340 feet from home plate to left field, 355 to dead center, and 285 to right. Most pro parks are at least 320 feet down the lines and 400 in center. Fort Marcy’s small size combined with the thin mountain air—Santa Fe’s elevation is 7,300 feet—would guarantee plenty of home runs, but Moore preferred fundamentals and small ball: singles, bunts, stolen bases. Still, the chance to start a team from whole cloth was enticing. And though he’d spent three decades in baseball as a coach and scout, at one point even consulting with the Montreal Expos, he’d never managed a pro team. More pressingly, he was out of work. Dunn had found his manager.

Most of the hundred-odd players who showed up for tryouts that winter were in their early or mid-twenties: independent league veterans, recent college graduates, a few older guys hoping to reignite careers that had gone cold. Independent league players are scrappers, dreamers, and drifters hanging on to one common goal: getting out. One hundred and thirty eight players from the Pecos League have moved up to higher leagues in the past two years, but none have made it to the majors. Playing in the Pecos is thus somewhat akin to betting everything on a single hand of blackjack.

Bill Moore had no major league dreams. He just wanted to win. He had a budget of $2,000 a week and a simple plan: recruit power hitters who could consistently knock balls out of Fort Marcy. He was going to fill up the scoreboard. He started calling former colleagues and players—“somebody who might know somebody,” as he put it to me—and lining up prospects from college ball, professional leagues in Australia and Sweden, and other Pecos League teams that had succumbed to financial realities.

Forty-seven players were invited to a weeklong spring training at the beginning of May. Tafoya was among them. So were two players from a Kansas summer league: Scot Palmer, a 245-pound catcher who had played at Kansas’s Newman University, and Andrew Archbold, the skinny center fielder.

Palmer was surprised to get the call. At the end of the 2011 summer season, following a lackluster senior year at Newman, he’d dislocated a hip in a collision at home plate. He hadn’t expected to hear from any pro teams. When Moore asked about his health in October 2011, Palmer said he was 100 percent. At the time, he was using a cane and working as a valet at a Wichita casino. But he rehabbed furiously, and in April he and Archie caravanned to Santa Fe. Both men drove old Saturn sedans. Fifteen miles outside Trinidad, Colorado, Palmer’s engine blew up. He took what he could carry, threw it in Archbold’s car, and sold the remains of his vehicle for $125 to a guy he found in a gas station.

Palmer had not fully understood what he was getting into. It turned out the Fuego didn’t pay for players’ lodgings during spring training, and he had $37,000 dollars in student loans to pay off. To save money he ate only granola, and he quickly began to lose weight. He worried about his chances of making the team; there was another catcher in camp, too, a terrific defender from Australia named Kieran Bradford who’d played in the Pecos League the previous year. One night, at the Motel 6, he and Archbold noticed that Archie’s trunk was popped. Someone had broken in and stolen the center fielder’s baseball bag with all his gear. He and Palmer trolled the parking lot and found the bag dumped behind a car. The thieves had only wanted Archie’s iPod.

Palmer had had enough. He told a teammate he was planning to return home to Kansas, that he couldn’t afford to try out for the Fuego. But when he got back to the hotel following practice, he saw everyone packing. They had a new home: Tafoya’s house. Fifteen of them bunked there, on couches, on chairs, on the floor. Evan Kohli, a bruising first baseman from Minnesota, packed his six-foot-three, 205-pound frame into a recliner. Palmer slept on the hardwood floor. One night, Tafoya cooked everyone hot dogs.

In the second week of May, Moore announced the opening-day roster. Twenty-two of the 33 players were active, which meant they would make $54 per week plus travel expenses. The rest were the “taxi squad.” They would be invited to all home games, but they wouldn’t be paid and had to cover their own travel and hotels if they wanted to accompany the team on the road. Palmer, Kohli, Bradford, and Archbold made the active team. So did Tafoya. The comeback was on.

Tafoya called his teammates with the semipro Albuquerque Athletics and told them he would not be widely available for the summer. He didn’t need permission from anyone else. He had never married and had no children. “I would love to get married, I would love to have a family,” he told me. “But the one thing I’m not willing to give up is baseball.”

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Santa Fe New Mexican, May 10, 2012

Two

My own encounter with the Fuego began with a fastball to the head. It was a bright, cold night in May, and more than 1,000 fans turned out, many of them clad in Fuego red, to see the first pro baseball game in Santa Fe’s history, against the Triggers of Trinidad, Colorado. Several friends and I decided we would check out the action, too. Beer sales weren’t yet up and running, the public-address system went in and out, and the scoreboard barely worked. No matter. The crowd greeted the Fuego with glee.

Tafoya got the start. There may have been more deserving pitchers, but Tafoya had a sort of emeritus status on the team for reasons both honorary and practical: He was the Fuego’s oldest and most experienced player, and half the guys still slept on his floor. Even Moore, the manager, bunked in the guest room. He was wise to keep Tafoya happy. A group of fans, led by a 59-year-old part-time artist named David Nava, who’d grown up on Tafoya’s street, stood at the back of the grandstand with cardboard signs spelling out the pitcher’s name.

Tafoya wound, kicked, and delivered a fastball: strike one. This was followed by two sliders, which were called balls, and another fastball, which the leadoff batter for the Triggers obliterated. It sailed over the right-field fence. One–zero, Triggers.

The game slowed dramatically after that. The Fuego scored their first five runs without getting a hit, on account of the Triggers’ generous pitchers, who walked ten, and fielders, who committed eight errors. Three hours after the opening pitch, it was still the fourth inning. In the stands, glee was fast turning to boredom.

The crowd was filtering out when an imposing, six-foot-six Triggers pitcher threw a fastball into Fuego utility man Nick Muller’s head. It sounded like an ax hitting dry wood. The activity of the crowd—the bustle at the burger stand, the occasional tepid chants—came to a halt. Muller staggered, listing forward and aft. The Fuego poured off the bench.

The crowd—I’ll confess to being complicit here—chanted “Wild Thing!” Once peace was restored, the man on the PA announced that those in attendance had a “terrific opportunity to get involved with Fuego baseball” by hosting one of the players for the duration of the season. A friend of mine scoured the field, looking for cute potential tenants, but found none to her liking.

Four more Fuego batters were hit over the course of the game. Brawls were averted, though a Trinidad coach was ejected. The Fuego emerged victorious, but disagreement persists over the score, which the Santa Fe New Mexican reported as 14–8 and the team’s website reported as 16–8. Archbold showed promise, with three hits and five runs batted in. Tafoya, who gave up eight hits, five walks, and eight runs over three-plus innings, saw room for improvement. “If I can keep the ball down and make a few adjustments,” he told a newspaper reporter, “I know I’ll be fine.”


Before I get much further, I should own up to a certain lack of critical distance.

I have something of a baseball problem. I inherited it, unoriginally, from my father, who at one point proposed naming me Homer. I grew up worshipping at the altar of the Yankee second baseman Willie Randolph. During my freshman year at Yale, I walked onto the baseball team, the only Bulldog who hadn’t been recruited specifically to play ball. The dugout was full of outsize guys from Florida and North Carolina who threw 90 miles per hour. With my five-foot-nine frame and dearth of recruiting letters, I earned the nickname Scholar. My teammates were surprised that I’d made the squad at all.

All the incoming freshmen players except for me pledged the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity (George W. Bush’s). After hitting the weight room in the morning, they would walk around campus in a small pack, hats flipped backward, first to the dining hall for piles of eggs, then to their classes—which, it seemed, they all took together. But they were not on the team for the camaraderie. They were there to dominate. I was not. I dreaded the weight room, the locker room, even the field. The sport felt survivalist.

At the end of the semester, I transferred to Middlebury College, which had recruited me for baseball. Vermont breathed something back into my relationship with the game. When I say that I was not a very good player, I am not engaging in false modesty. One year, on the first day of practice, I broke my foot playing pickup basketball. In my best season, I started in right field, batted ninth, hit .340, and stole a few bases. In my senior year, I dove into a fence, wrecked my back, and batted an anemic .239. But baseball was once again a source of joy. It was the absurd rituals, the inside jokes, and the prevailing feeling that, if nine guys worked in unison, a group could produce something worthwhile. This notion proved to be unfounded for our team, which never made the league playoffs, but why not pull up your socks and engage in a little delusion? That’s the point.

My attachment to the more marginal forms of baseball lingered after graduation. During a summer spent fishing in Montana, I earned extra cash by working as an usher for the local minor league team. I don’t recall the Missoula Osprey winning a single game I worked, but there were a charming group of homeless fans who convened regularly on a hill above center field to vocally brutalize the opposition. You don’t get that at the new Yankee Stadium. You get sushi and Delta banners.

If the Osprey seemed old-school, the Fuego were downright prehistoric. At the beginning of the year, I had gone as far as considering trying out for the team. When I told Moore, he smiled kindly. “Everyone thinks they can play,” he said. “If you’re feeling froggy, show up to batting practice in some baseball pants.” I didn’t put on the baseball pants. I wasn’t good enough, even for the Fuego. But I did keep showing up.

Three

Beer sales proved more problematic than Dunn had anticipated, due to miscommunication regarding the permits. The drinking area, it turned out, had to be isolated from the rest of the crowd by fencing. On May 24, though, two weeks after the home opener, the requisite paperwork was filed, the bureaucrats were satisfied, and the Santa Fe Brewery set up a properly fenced-in beer garden up the left-field line.

This had the effect of isolating the drinkers from the rest of the crowd and prohibiting parents from enjoying a beer. Still, you take what you can get. It was about time for some good news. The team was now three and seven, and attendance had dipped considerably since the first, glorious thousand-fan game. But the Fuego had the chance to win back the home crowd. It was a cool summer night, and the White Sands Pupfish were coming to town.

The Fuego had played, and lost to, White Sands on their first road series a week and a half earlier. The Pupfish’s home field is in Alamogordo, New Mexico, not far from the White Sands Missile Range, a 3,200-square-mile swath of desert where the U.S. Army tests weapons. The area’s signature inhabitant is the oryx, a large African antelope introduced in the early 1970s by New Mexico Department of Game and Fish chairman Frank C. Hibben, a mercurial archaeology professor and big-game aficionado, so he could hunt them for sport. The oryx would have been a natural local mascot for the White Sands team—its long, spearlike horns demand attention—but Andrew Dunn, for unknown reasons, had instead chosen the pupfish. A threatened species native to the desert’s streams, the pupfish is about two inches long and has been described as a biological relic. The jersey designers didn’t bother trying to incorporate its image into the White Sands uniform.

The Pupfish could hit, though, and as the fifth-place team they were the closest thing the Fuego had to a bitter rival. When Santa Fe arrived in town on May 15, White Sands had recently cut two players: Jason Hyland, a burly outfielder from Massachusetts, and Trent Evins, a pitcher from eastern Oregon. Before the first game, Pupfish coach Chris Paterson had offered the two to Moore. Moore snapped them up, cutting a couple of lesser Fuego players to make room.

Evins had been scouted by the Red Sox but was never drafted. He was tough, though, a fighter with a husky build and unkempt facial hair. He wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and worked in a plywood mill in the off-season. Moore told him that he had one shot to make it with the Fuego. Evins packed his bags and moved across the field.

The Fuego lost the first game Evins started, against the Cowboys of Alpine, Texas, but Moore liked what he saw. Evins threw hard, and he threw strikes. The coach invited him back to Santa Fe. It was an eight-hour drive; Palmer rode back with him in Evins’s old Audi. They talked about baseball, girls, and fathers. Evins’s, a former pro ballplayer who’d played with one of the San Diego Padres’ farm teams, had died of a heart attack when Evins was in high school. Soon after Evins and Palmer got back to town, they discovered that a homestay for two players had opened up with a mother of two named Andrea Probst. They moved in together. Their first night in the house was awkward until Probst offered them beers. Then they sang karaoke to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” with their new teenage home brother and sister.

Now back on the Fuego’s turf, Moore was starting Evins against his former teammates from White Sands. Evins was out for revenge. He opened strong, striking out five batters through the first four innings. His slider bit. His changeup made his heavy fastball look harder than it was. Then the Pupfish managed to get two balls in the air, both of which carried over the short Fort Marcy fences.

Out in left field, Dunn was speaking to local reporters near the beer garden. The commissioner, who is about five foot ten, with a trim, athletic build, wore a blue Pecos League polo shirt, creased black slacks, and a Bluetooth headset. He spoke quickly, in a flat tone, and did his best to avoid his interviewers’ eyes. One reporter asked how long the city would possibly support the team, given the Fuego’s poor performance. I couldn’t make out Dunn’s answer. From the beer garden a fan called out, “Somebody buy a beer for Coach Moore!” On the mound, Evins kept mowing down Pupfish: the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings passed without another run crossing the plate. The Fuego, it seemed, had found their ace.

In the bottom of the seventh, Archbold hit a single and stole second easily. Another batter walked, and then Hyland came to the plate. He was angry. He hadn’t been given an opportunity on the Pupfish before they cut him, and he’d been struggling since the Fuego picked him up. Hyland was a proud jock in early winter. Nine years earlier, he had led the University of Tampa to the Division II College World Series, where he won the most valuable player award. Following his senior year, however, he suffered a herniated disk and had two spinal-cord surgeries. Now he was attempting a comeback. But at 29, he was an old man in the Pecos League. He did not hide his emotions. Before the game he’d been jawing at the Pupfish.

The White Sands starter, Kyle Smart, served up the pitch, and Hyland unloaded on it. The ball soared over the right-field wall and disappeared from view beyond a row of tall trees. Hyland dropped his bat, watched the ball, jogged slowly toward first base, then whooped and twirled his finger in the air, the universal sign for a home run. The Fuego had the lead. Someone handed Dunn a plastic bucket. The voice crackled over the PA system: You will see commish Andrew Dunn passing the hat for Jason Hyland for hitting a three-run home run to put us in the lead!

The crowd chanted: “Fill the hat! Fill the hat!”

You can host a player and find out what it’s like to be involved in major league—in semi—in pro baseball here in Santa Fe!

“Fill the hat! Fill the hat!”

As Hyland passed third, the Pupfish started barking at him. Moore was displeased.

All donations are tax deductible and go directly to the player!

Evan Kohli was up next. The Pupfish pitcher threw a fastball into the square of his back, clearly an act of retaliation for Hyland’s theatrics. Man on first, one out. The bucket kept circulating through the crowd. I threw a dollar in.

These guys toil all day just like the big guys but don’t get the same paycheck!

The pitcher served up a meatball, and Josh Valle, the third baseman, hit it over the short right-field wall. Kissed his fingers, tapped his chest, pointed to the sky. Six–two, Fuego.

In the top of the eighth inning, Moore removed Evins. He had struck out 13 Pupfish. Moore sent in a reliever named Joey Garcia, who allowed, in short order, one fly out, two singles, a hit batter, a walk, and three home runs. Moore removed Garcia, but the damage was done: The Pupfish were back in the lead, the crowd deflated.

Palmer hit a home run in the bottom of the eighth—Let’s pass the hat for Scottie “Big Stick” Palmer!—but it was too little, too late, especially because, one inning later, the Pupfish managed a grand slam. The scoreboard, unable to process the number of runs the visitors had just scored, broke.

Remember, fans, tomorrow is dollar hot dog night!

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Santa Fe New Mexican, May 26, 2012

Four

Two days later I drove to Rod Tafoya’s house, now the Fuego’s unofficial headquarters and bunkhouse. A row of wood bats were lined up on the porch next to a stack of copies of Tafoya’s autobiography, Ageless Arm: My Passion Lives in the Core!, which a small New Mexico publisher had put out the previous year. A 1980s Chevrolet Corsica sporting faded stickers from the Erie Sailors and the Boise Hawks was parked on a driveway made of worn Astroturf. Ballplayers wandered around the street dressed in a manner familiar to anyone who has been to Florida in March: tight tank tops, gelled hair, baggy shorts, flip-flops, metallic necklaces. Tafoya was away, working at the bank.

Moore, who is about five foot five, greeted me at the door wearing denim shorts, old Top-Siders, no shirt, and his permanent smile. He was fit and muscled, all torso. His skin was sun beaten and wrinkled in a grid around his neck. The number 25, which he has worn his whole career, was tattooed on both of his shoulder blades. A straight white line divided his chest evenly, the result of emergency quadruple-bypass heart surgery two years earlier.

One morning in March 2010, Moore woke up with heart palpitations. Soon he was in the operating room watching the doctors shave his chest. While he was on morphine in intensive care following the surgery, Moore foresaw his death. He immediately and frantically started counting baseball games. “I tried to figure out how many games I’d played and coached in,” he told me. “Keep in mind I was drugged up, but I came to some conclusion it was around 5,000.” He was back on the field two months later for opening day with his Bisbee team, though he did give up Copenhagen, of which he’d previously chewed a can a day—two during doubleheaders.

Baseball was one of two great constants in Moore’s life; the other was his wife, Billie. He had committed himself to both shortly after returning from Vietnam, where he’d served in the Navy for four years, five months, and eleven days—“not that I was counting,” he said. At 22, he tried out for the team at Phoenix Community College. The manager had offered him a role as a player-coach, and he’d sat on benches ever since.  In between coaching gigs, he supported his wife and two daughters by running a used-car dealership, Aloha Bill’s Garden of Gears, which he sold in 2000. Since then, Billie had pulled in the lion’s share of the family income. For the past 40 years, whenever he was on the road, Moore had written Billie a weekly love letter. He occasionally sent them when they were under the same roof, too. The mailman would pick up the letter on Monday and deliver it back to the house on Wednesday.

Moore led me into Tafoya’s house, which smelled of cologne. A television nearly the size of a pool table occupied one corner, and jars of nutritional supplements and creatine were everywhere. Moore poured coffee; it was the one habit he hadn’t given up since the operation. He seemed undaunted by the Fuego’s losing streak, which was now up to seven games. He was encouraged by Evins’s performance, and he had added other promising players, including a 25-year-old outfielder from Georgia named Parris Austin, who had been drafted relatively high by the New York Mets a few years back and cut after one year in Single A ball. “I’m psyched about him,” Moore said. To make room for the additions, he had cut Hyland. This came as no surprise to the other players on the team. Coach Moore did not go in for showboating.

Moore was looking forward to ending the White Sands series, which had been unforgiving, and to facing the first-place Las Cruces Vaqueros and the second-place Alpine Cowboys. “Alpine kicked our ass badly last time,” he said. He attributed the losses to his pitching staff, which had thrown nothing but “titty-high fastballs.”

That trend, however, showed no sign of abating. On June 1, Tafoya started against the Vaqueros and gave up ten hits in five innings for a 9–4 loss. He was not making adjustments, he was not keeping the ball down, and he was not fine. He was working on a new pitch, a cut fastball, which was working with only minimal effect. He was 0-2.

By this point in the season, I was regularly sneaking away early from my job to attend Fuego games. I had become accustomed to the quirks of the Pecos League. The players hung out behind the home dugout eating snacks before the game and occasionally mingling with fans. The scoreboard usually broke around the fourth inning or whenever one team scored more than 10 runs. Half the time, nobody really seemed to be in charge. You could pay for your ticket if you wanted to wait in a line, or you could just walk in and sit down. The announcer, a guy named Rick, got players’ names wrong. More often than not we lost.

On June 5, the afternoon before the Fuego once again faced the Alpine Cowboys, I was standing on the field with Moore when one of the Alpine coaches approached. He wanted ice and water.

“It’s not here yet,” Moore said. “It’ll get here. I just don’t know when.”

“I need ice for my pitchers’ arms.”

“Well, I need ice, too,” Moore said. “And I want a fucking tractor and a mat. And pitching mounds for the bullpen. But I don’t have them. This is the City Different, Santa Fe. What do they call it?”

“Mañana Land,” I offered.

“Mañana Land. It’ll get here, I just don’t know when.”

Moore was exasperated. He had been under the impression that the city was going to provide a certain amount of maintenance at Fort Marcy. But the deal that Dunn had struck with the council was bare-bones: The league paid a $1,750 fee to rent the field for the season’s 34 home games, as well as 10 percent of food and beer sales. The city would maintain the field surface as it did any other public park. But additional improvements, such as mounds in the bullpen or doors for the stalls in the bathrooms, had to come from the team. A volunteer trainer from the local hospital brought the ice.

“I need ice for injuries,” the coach repeated.

“Well, it’ll get here, but I got water for now,” Moore said. “I’ll be honest, though. My priority at the moment is seeing whether they finally put any shit paper in the bathroom”—there had been no toilet paper at Fort Marcy for a week—“and I’m about to find out.”

A couple of Fuego pitchers approached, seeking permission to go for a run. “Did you take care of your responsibilities?” Moore asked. In the Pecos League, all the minutiae that goes into producing the theater of baseball—raking the infield dirt, laying down the chalk lines, watering the field, cleaning the stands—falls to the players. The pitchers had completed their duties. “Go for it,” Moore said.

“OK,” one of the players said. “We’re going to do a five-mile—”

Moore waved them off. “Don’t tell me. You’re making me tired.”

That evening brought mercy. In the seventh inning, Austin laid down a good bunt between home plate and the pitcher’s mound, and Archbold slid home far ahead of the throw from the pitcher. Following the play, the two outfielders pointed at each other in ritual celebration.

But Archbold was aware that Austin represented a threat. He and Austin shared the gift of speed and little else. Austin was 25, Archbold 23. Austin was six foot three and built like a wide receiver, strong and lean; Archbold was five foot ten with a body type that called to mind uncooked spaghetti. Austin was aloof, with the breezy confidence of someone accustomed to walking onto fields and being picked first. Archbold was painfully quiet. In the off-season, Austin moonlighted as a model. Archbold worked the cash register at a Lowe’s in Wichita, Kansas.

Austin was the only member of the Fuego who had briefly placed a foot in the promised land. A high school star in Douglasville, Georgia, he was selected by the Mets in the 2004 amateur draft and made the Mets’ Class A affiliate Hagerstown Suns in 2006, at age 20. There he struggled, batting .281 with eight strikeouts, two stolen bases, and just one RBI in 32 at-bats. He was cut at the end of the season, cast from the anointed inner circle of affiliated ball out to the distant periphery of the independent leagues.

Two years later he signed on with the Alexandria Aces, in the Pecos’s precursor, the now defunct Continental League, to attempt a comeback at age 23. According to the Aces’ coach that year, a Salt Lake City–based high school teacher named Dan Shwam, “Parris was really a phenomenal athlete. One of the best athletes I’ve ever managed. His flaw was mental toughness, being focused every day. At times Parris acted like he really wanted to play. At times it seemed like he didn’t care to be there.… He had the makeup of a Triple A guy, but he never figured it out.” Shwam cut Austin at the end of the year.

Archbold possessed neither Austin’s natural gifts nor his disdain for work. He’d gone unnoticed in high school and had managed to walk onto the baseball team at Pennsylvania’s Waynesburg University after getting recruited to run cross-country. Two years later, he was playing in a summer league in Kansas when the coach from Sterling College recruited him. Archie starred at Sterling, batting .408 and stealing 29 bases in his senior year to lead the conference in both categories. He was conference player of the year and an all-American but never got a look from any affiliated minor league teams.

“As far as athletic ability, raw talent, he’s middle of the pack,” said Adrian Dinkel, Sterling’s manager, who was an assistant coach during Archbold’s senior year. “If you’re six-six and left-handed, you’re going to get drafted.” Archie wasn’t and didn’t.

Archie did have one singular talent: an uncanny ability to read the ball off the bat. I’ve never seen a center fielder—my former position—get reads like him. He was waiting under just about every fly ball that came his way that summer. It was a marvel to watch but seemed unlikely to get him far. Teammates valued what Archie delivered, but scouts preferred power, multiple tools, the opaque notion of potential.

The Fuego won 9–5 in their second game against Alpine, closing out the series with a 7-13 record. That put them just two and a half games behind fifth-place White Sands, who they were playing in their next road series. I wondered if Archie would be back when the team returned. I recognized Austin’s quiet cockiness; guys like him usually meant trouble for scrappers like me and Archie. I had learned in college ball that the spoils in sports often went to the players who grasped most fully that the team’s success and their own had little to do with each other. The Bulldogs I played with at Yale had three pitchers who went on to be drafted in high rounds, and the team came in last place in the Ivy League the spring after I transferred. A friend who played minor league ball once told me that at that level, you have to value the physical act of hitting or throwing a baseball far more than the notion of a team.

The Pecos League, for all its charms, was no different. I knew that the Fuego were killers. They had to be. You don’t live in homestays on $54 a week as a lifestyle choice. You do it in order to move up and move out. And getting cut from the Pecos League can be fatal. There are no lower landing pads.

Archie was not a mercenary. I say this not because he played my former position, or because I admired the gorgeous routes he took to the ball, or because, like me, he couldn’t hit much, or because he refused to talk poorly about other teammates. I say it because he was the rare ballplayer who genuinely didn’t care about statistics. I asked him how many bases he’d stolen—he was close to leading the league for a while—and he didn’t know. He took a karmic view of the game. “When you’re looking out for your teammates,” he told me, “looking to play for the team rather than yourself, you seem to be rewarded.”

This sounded awfully noble, but I wasn’t sure how far it would get Archie. The Fuego weren’t winning games, and losing breeds personnel change. Turnover was the only constant in the Pecos League. Even though I’d attended most of the games, by this point in the season I recognized only a handful of players. Moore received calls every day from former colleagues, players looking for work or coaches who’d had to cut guys they liked.

The volume of these calls began increasing in June, which was not unusual. Pro baseball’s amateur draft happens in early June, and it sends ripples throughout the various minor leagues. There are only so many roster spots; to make room for fresh prospects, affiliated teams cut players. The ones who don’t catch on with other affiliated teams filter down into the higher independent leagues, which then have to make cuts of their own. The dominoes fell through the fiefdoms, and eventually, Moore had his pick of new players.

When the Fuego came home from White Sands, I went to the ballpark. I saw Archie but not Austin. Where was Parris? I asked Moore.

“Our left fielder leads the league in home runs, and we have arguably the best defensive center fielder in the league,” Moore said. “Parris was the fifth outfielder.” He’d been sent home to Georgia.

Austin declined to be interviewed when I reached him to ask about his Fuego experience. I expected as much. He was a ballplayer. You have to be proud. It’s a professional requirement.

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Santa Fe Fuego pitcher Rod Tafoya. (Photo: Ryan Heffernan)

Five

A sense of unease had settled over the Fuego by late June. In 2011, 43 players from the Pecos moved to higher independent leagues or affiliated teams. By the middle of the 2012 season, only a handful had. It became harder to ignore the fact that most Fuego players were destined to stick around and become that dreaded thing: a Pecos League veteran. Fifty-odd bucks a week, hotels with three beds in a room, grounds-crew duties, dinner at Applebee’s on a good night.

Even Tafoya, an inveterate dreamer, recognized how bleak the odds were. “Why go for a guy that can hit home runs in the lowest of leagues when you can get a guy who’s 18 out of high school with the same power?” he told me. “It’s just the way it works. They want youth.” Still, he was reluctant to say as much to his younger teammates. “You never want to destroy anyone’s hopes and dreams. Because in baseball you really never know what could happen. The odds are astronomical, but you never know. You just never know.”

Tafoya’s own career was a testament to this conviction. After finishing a promising college-ball career with no interest from minor league teams in the United States, he headed south to Mexico. He quickly rose through that country’s minor league ranks, earning an invitation in 1987 to spring training with Mexico City’s Diablos Rojos, powerhouse of the Triple-A Mexican League, which hosted many former and future major leaguers.

This was the big time. Tafoya was 23. He put on a suit and took a taxi to spring training, but when he hopped out of the car, the driver sped away with his clothes, cleats, glove, and passport. Then the Diablos cut him. A slightly inferior club, the Rieleros of Aguascalientes, picked him up. Tafoya was still close enough to touch the hem of major league ball: His starting shortstop was the former Texas Ranger Mario Mendoza, a defensive whiz whose prolonged offensive impotence infamously gave birth to the phrase “the Mendoza line,” which refers to a batting average of .200. He had been released by the Rangers five years earlier, in 1982, after it fell to .118.

Tafoya pitched in eight games alongside Mendoza before the Rieleros’ manager cut him. At three in the morning, Tafoya says, the team’s bus deposited him on the side of an empty highway, far from civilization. A coyote howled in the night. Miraculously, a taxi appeared from the blackness. Tafoya eventually made his way back across the border and farther north to Idaho, where he signed on with the Boise Hawks in the Northwest League. The Hawks were an independent team, but this was a Class A league; though Tafoya still wasn’t playing on an affiliated team, at least he was playing against them. He pitched to Mike Piazza and once struck out current Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. He was the Little Caesars Pizza Player of the Week.

Not long after, though, Tafoya tore a ligament in his elbow while practicing his slider. He didn’t tell anyone and signed up to pitch for another independent team in Erie, Pennsylvania, without fully recovering. It didn’t go well. In 1993, while pitching for a team in Oregon, he took up banking as a side job, then gave up on pro ball in 1998 and moved home to the modest adobe in Santa Fe where he grew up. In his spare time, he began offering his pitching services to local semipro teams, with some success. (Semipro ball falls far below independent league ball in the sport’s hierarchy; games are held at night or on weekends, and players aren’t paid.) As the dream of professional stardom receded, his sports career attained a new focus: His goal in life from now on, he resolved, was to win 300 semipro baseball games.

Tafoya surrounded himself with reminders of his mission. It was on his website—“Countdown to 300!”—and on his car, a black BMW with a vanity plate that read WIN 300. It was the driving narrative arc of his autobiography, Ageless Arm. A year later, he was just 29 wins from his goal. He could taste it. But Tafoya was scrupulous in his accounting, and he did not mix pro wins and semipro wins in his countdown. The two “just aren’t the same thing,” he told me.

This meant that by chasing one last chance at professional baseball glory with the Fuego, he had voluntarily put the brakes on what was now his singular ambition. But a baseball player offered a shot—however remote—at the big time is congenitally incapable of not taking it. It might be hard to imagine that any of the Fuego or their counterparts truly believed that they were going to fight their way up through the ranks to play for the Red Sox or even for a Double A team. But they did. They had to. To be good at whacking a baseball takes an immense amount of concentration focused on a brief moment. It also takes a confidence that’s almost irrational. Perspective is not particularly useful, nor is a close examination of one’s life choices. You have to hope.


On June 20, the Trinidad Triggers were back in town. Tensions were high. The Fuego had recently been feuding with two of the umpires, whom they accused of being antagonistic and vindictive, eager to throw out coaches and players alike. A rumor was circulating that one of the men in question, a Puerto Rican ump named Edwin Ortiz who spoke only limited English, was trying to lead the league in ejections. “They are fucking atrocious,” Moore told me at one point. He pointed at my notebook: “You can put that in there.”

A certain amount of frustration on the umps’ part was understandable. In many ways, their careers paralleled the players’. They were at the bottom of professional baseball’s pecking order, looking to move up, making just $1,500 for the summer while paying their own travel expenses. They felt disrespected by the players; “Indy ball,” one veteran independent league ump told me, “is major league attitude with minor league talent.”

Things had come to a head the previous night in a game against the Vaqueros. Ortiz’s partner and de facto translator, a Santa Fe local named Harold Moya, had called the Fuego’s John Murphy out on two very dubious strikes. In response, Moore calmly walked over to the visiting dugout, picked up a bucket of baseballs, carried them to home plate, and dumped them over Moya’s head.

It was difficult to get suspended for abusing an ump in the Pecos League, so tonight Moore was once again in his customary spot up the third-base line. In the bottom of the first inning, with runners on second and third, Palmer hit a ball farther than he ever had in his life. It traveled out of the confines of Fort Marcy and over the firehouse that sits beyond the left-field wall. Palmer smiled as he jogged around the bases. Both his father, a former powerlifter and high school ballplayer, and his host mom, Andrea Probst, were in the crowd. The Fuego were winning four to nothing. His father went in search of the ball.

In the top of the third inning, Palmer noticed that one of the Triggers, a leadoff batter named John Fabry, was tipping pitches—using hand signals while on the base paths to cue hitters into what was coming next. This is a time-honored practice in baseball, but “don’t make it so fucking obvious,” Palmer told Fabry. He hinted that a fastball to Fabry’s ribs might be in order.

Retaliation came quickly. Later in the same inning, Palmer was standing in the third-base line, calling for someone to cut off an outfielder’s throw, when the Triggers’ shortstop hunched down and sprinted into Palmer at full speed, putting his shoulder into the meat of the catcher’s chest protector. Palmer somersaulted backward.

Even the most lugubrious, cellar-dwelling team achieves a temporary and riotous unity when their catcher is taken out. The Fuego poured from the dugout. Palmer got up out of the dirt and told them to back off. He was fine.

Then there was a single to center. Archbold deftly fielded the ball and threw a dart to Palmer. The catcher turned up the line, where a phone-booth-size designated hitter was rumbling toward him. The runner steamrolled him, and the Fuego cleared the bench again. This time Palmer didn’t stop them. He hobbled off to the dugout, holding his side.

Two days later, Palmer was still out of the lineup and recovering. He was sitting behind the dugout when a man and a young boy approached him. Palmer recognized the man, who looked to be in his mid-thirties. He often sat behind home plate, and Fuego diehards were few enough that an attentive player could identify them by sight. The man introduced himself as Mario Montoya. He worked at an auto-repair shop in town. The boy was his 8-year-old son, Isaiah, who wanted to learn to catch. Palmer showed him the basics: how to hold a ball across the seams, how to squat and set up.

After another game, Montoya’s uncle, David Nava, the artist and former neighbor of Tafoya’s who appeared regularly in the pitcher’s cheering section, approached Palmer.

“I want to talk to you,” he said.

“Yes?” Palmer said.

“That was nice, for you to play with the kid.”

Palmer said they could come by anytime, after any game. Before long, Isaiah and his siblings, 5-year-old Gabriel and 4-year-old Melodie, were bringing gloves to the park, throwing the ball behind the backstop with their cousins. After the games, Palmer would play with them on the field before he helped his teammates clean up the bleachers. Isaiah, Melodie, Gabriel, Montoya, and Nava attended just about every home game. Occasionally, they sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” over the PA system in the seventh inning.

At night, at Montoya’s house, the kids would play Fuego. Isaiah was Palmer, Gabriel was Tafoya, and Melodie was Scott Davis, the shortstop. Palmer started looking forward to seeing them at the games. It made for long evenings. But “baseball sort of became a job,” he told me. “It gave me peace of mind to see them throwing the ball, to throw with them.”

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Santa Fe Fuego manager Bill Moore watches his team play the Roswell Invaders after being ejected from the game by umpire Edwin Ortiz. (Photo: Ryan Heffernan)

Six

It was impossible to immerse oneself in the happenings of the Pecos League and not come away with some burning questions about the basic conditions of its existence. How was the league solvent? How did it negotiate minimum-wage laws? Could it seriously not afford to buy some doors for the bathroom stalls?

Andrew Dunn was generally not one to humor such questions. In his limited dealings with the local sporting press, the Pecos League commissioner had acquired a skill for circular and evasive talk. It was sort of like speaking to a politician, but one who avoided eye contact and was prone to snap during the brief interviews he would agree to from time to time. He wouldn’t divulge the league’s finances beyond estimating that the Pecos ran on “about $1.5 million,” or about what Alex Rodriguez makes in a week. (Santa Fe’s 10 percent take of the beer concessions, ostensibly the Fuego’s main source of income, amounted to $831.43 for the entire 2012 season.) Dunn once obliquely mentioned that a former investor in the league had proved to have a criminal record. Who was it, I asked?

“I don’t want to talk about it.” 

On another occasion, I asked him about the Fuego’s future or lack thereof. “We’re not going anywhere,” he barked. “I’ll just do it as a hobby if I have to. I don’t care. I just want to play. We’re playing indefinitely.”

What about the park? Would there be improvements for 2013?

“The surface will be better. I’ve heard that their scoreboard might get fixed. They’re going to do speakers.”

Who’s “they”?

“I don’t know. I do not know the answer to that.”

What about the players’ salaries? How were they legal?

“We’re giving them housing, and they’re progressing toward a skill set. They are seasonal workers.”

It was true that the Pecos League players, by virtue of their freelance status, were not subject to minimum-wage laws. Their hold on employment, such as it was, was tenuous in any case. Before the Fuego went south for its late June road trip to Las Cruces and Roswell, Moore received word from Dunn that he soon would have to trim the playoff roster to 25. Moore wanted to take 22 players on the road to save money. He hadn’t used Tafoya in nearly a month, since the June 1 loss. The manager was in a singularly awkward position. How do you cut the man whose guest room you sleep in?

Following the last Trinidad game, a 23–6 victory, Moore announced that he would be reading the names of the active players for the next road trip from a list. Tafoya’s name did not come out of the coach’s mouth.

That night, Tafoya went in his room and locked the door. His thoughts turned dark. He had sacrificed a great deal for the Fuego. He’d opened his home to them and temporarily set aside his goal of 300 semipro wins. He was working 100-plus-hour weeks and was approaching 50. He’d spent the summer driving all over the state in the hope that he would be summoned to throw baseballs, and now this had been taken from him with what seemed to be finality. He deeply loved baseball, and to lose it would be to lose hold of the anchor in his life. He had thrown 97,000 pitches. He didn’t know how many more there might be.

“There’s a very uncomfortable feeling in baseball,” he told me later. “It’s a feeling inside—things just aren’t like they were before. And it happens every day. Guys get released in pro ball every day. It’s just the way it is. You’re older.” Then somebody like Moore came along. “He gives you another shot, and you can’t get anybody out. So what do you do then? You’re at a fork in the road. ‘Do I have what it takes? Am I able to get hitters out?’ That’s it. Can you or can you not?”

Tafoya was lying in bed, thinking, when he heard a knock on the door. It was Moore.

“You got a minute?” the coach asked. Tafoya came out.

“You’re still on the team,” Moore said.

He explained that Tafoya was simply not coming in the van on the next road trip. He was welcome to drive down to Roswell the next weekend if he wished.

Six days later, Tafoya threw his glove and spikes in the WIN 300 BMW and drove the three-plus hours south to Roswell. It was Saturday, June 30, and Moore needed a spot start. The team had won two of five in Las Cruces, bringing its record to 15-27, but was short on pitching. Tafoya had another chance.

It did not go well. The first batter got on base on a shortstop’s error. The next batter singled. Tafoya threw a wild pitch. Fly out. Error. Single. Double. Single. Walk. Walk. Bases loaded. Single. Single, single, single, fly out. Single. The runners came and came and came, and before the third out arrived, Tafoya had given up 10 runs in one inning. Moore removed him.

Tafoya drove home to Santa Fe, where I met him not long after. “They were some big boys,” he said. “And there were some errors.”

I asked when he was starting again.

“When Coach says I’ll pitch, I’ll pitch,” he said, smiling.

Tafoya had brought me to a room in the back of his house, a vast expanse of black and white linoleum tile. It was his baseball room. The walls were lined with shelves full of game balls, all of them filed in chronological order, inscribed with the dates and statistical details of his triumphs: innings pitched, strikeouts, hits. There were 500 balls in the room, 200 of them representing victories. He showed me one from 2009, when he won two semipro games in a day in Puerto Rico, throwing 222 pitches. “That’s when they started calling me Ageless Arm,” he said.

Tafoya sat on the floor and instructed me to sit on the one chair in the room, which was covered with a number 32 jersey from the semipro Albuquerque Brewers. The number 32 was everywhere, on jerseys and in photographs of Tafoya at different stages in his career: young and thin in Idaho, older and with a full face in Puerto Rico. Always smiling.

The effect of the room was dizzying. I felt as though I was inhabiting the sort of monument to athletic achievement I had fiercely desired at age 14. About 15 wooden bats balanced upon one another in a spiral in the center of the room, creating a sort of precarious statue. One of the bats belonged to Kohli, the first baseman. He’d signed it for Tafoya.

“Thanks for being a role model and father figure to me,” it read.

“It doesn’t get much better than that,” Tafoya said.

The Fuego’s poor performance, and his own, upset Tafoya. But he preferred the long view. The playoffs were not mathematically unattainable. He just needed to keep the ball down. He would be fine.

He wanted to show me something. He’d come home to find a note on his door, he said. Philip Rowland, an outfielder Moore had picked up from White Sands, was still staying at the house on Cedar Street, though Moore had cut him after two games; he and Tafoya had become good friends. Looking for a new opportunity, Rowland had done some Internet research while the Fuego were in Roswell, and he’d found that an independent team in California had three batters hitting under .100. The note was scrawled on a bank envelope hanging from Tafoya’s front door:

HEY ROD I MIGHT BE LEAVING TODAY. WHAT’S YOUR PHONE NUMBER? I WANTED TO SAY FOR YOU TO BE 48 AND STILL BE PLAYING AND WORKING YOUR NUTS OFF MAKES YOU A CHAMPION IN MY BOOK. TAKE CARE ROD. PHIL


The Fuego traveled to Trinidad at the beginning of July. Palmer, trying to check his swing in the second game, felt a pop in his wrist. It hurt, but he didn’t think much of it, and he didn’t tell Moore. There was only one other true catcher on the team. Besides, Palmer’s grandmother and uncle had driven down from Wichita to watch him play. There was no way he was leaving the game. He hit a home run later that night and tried to forget about the wrist.

The Fuego finished the series with a 14-28 record. They were in fifth place, but the playoffs were not completely out of reach: The top four teams made the tournament, and the Fuego were only three and a half games behind fourth-place Trinidad. An awful lot of their losses had come by one run. There was reason for hope. They had the leading hitter in the league, Kohli, who was batting around .450, and the home-run leader, a left fielder named Chris Brown who bore more than a passing resemblance to Albert Pujols. Evins was pitching well. Palmer was punishing the ball, despite the wrist. Archie caught everything in the outfield.

But the Fuego needed to make a run. There were only 28 games left in the season. They began promisingly: First-place Alpine came to town, and the Fuego managed a coup, winning 27–10 with a league record for runs in a game. Santa Fe’s pitchers only walked two, and the defense committed no errors. Tafoya pitched an inning with minimal damage. Things were looking up.

Then the wheels came off. Kohli fell into a slump, his average dropping beneath .400. The pitching melted down. Errors mounted. The monsoons came, too. Occasionally, David Nava, Mario Montoya, and their crew would arrive early to help the players spread cat litter on the infield to dry it off. The Fuego won only one of their next 10 games. This was in the middle of a stretch of 16 consecutive games with no days off, and the players were hurting.

In a league with no disabled list, an injury means losing your job. The Fuego rarely took days off, and 80 games in three months beats a body. (This, incidentally, is why many ballplayers start taking performance-enhancing drugs—not to transform into freak shows of Bondsian proportions, but to stay on the field and rise through the ranks. All the players I spoke to denied seeing PEDs in the Pecos—“You try doping on $50 a week,” went the refrain—but I’d be shocked if no one was using.)

Archie tweaked his back badly taking a warm-up swing in early July. He told Moore, who said, “We need you.” Archie couldn’t swing with a complete follow-through. “Can you run?” Moore asked. He could. “Can you bunt?” He could. “Do what you need to do,” said Moore.

Palmer, meanwhile, was not improving. Toward the end of the Alpine series, he was having trouble holding onto the ball and fatigued easily. The wrist was constantly sore, but he didn’t want to come out of the game. His mother had come down from Wichita to watch the series. “The last thing I wanted to do,” he told me, “was not play.”

So he played, and said nothing.

Seven

One of Rod Tafoya’s favorite major league pitchers was a crafty, soft-throwing left-hander named Jamie Moyer, who debuted with the Chicago Cubs in 1986 and won 269 major league games before undergoing elbow surgery in 2010. He made headlines in 2012 when he embarked on a comeback with the Colorado Rockies at age 49. This made him the only professional baseball player in the country older than Tafoya. (The famed juicer Jose Canseco, at 47, was nipping at their heels; he made an independent league cameo—a common practice for aging stars—last August.)

Tafoya started tracking Moyer’s progress at the beginning of the season. In May, the Rockies cut him and he signed on with the Orioles, but Baltimore cut him in June, at which point Moyer signed on with one of the Toronto Blue Jays’ minor league affiliates. They dropped him on July 5, and this time no one else picked him up.

This was a week after Tafoya’s disastrous start at Roswell. But now Tafoya was once again on the Fuego roster, for the home series against Alpine. After pitching a scoreless inning in the Fuego’s 27–10 upset, Tafoya promptly posted an article on his website, AgelessArm.com. “Rod Tafoya Now Oldest Active Pro,” read the headline. “In Moyer’s illustrious 25-year MLB career, he is 269-209. In Tafoya’s case, he has had a few flashes of brilliance, however, he has yet to win a Pecos League victory.”

Following that game the Cowboys struck back, winning the next two by one run each. Then, on a hot Saturday afternoon, Kohli was lounging in the dugout before the game when an unknown man approached him. He was a scout for the Washington Nationals. He was there primarily to see the Alpine starting pitcher, but he handed Kohli a questionnaire to fill out and send back to him. This sent a surge of energy through the dugout. Attention was being paid.

Unfortunately, Moore was once again short on pitching. He started a six-foot-five, rail-thin right-hander named Ryan Westover he’d just picked up, but the Cowboys treated Westover’s fastballs like an open bar. By the end of the second inning, Westover had surrendered seven runs on eight hits, three of them homers. It was Westover’s first and last appearance of the season. By the bottom of the sixth, the Fuego had gone through five pitchers and were still trailing 16–3. Moore told Tafoya to get ready.

The lefty straightened his cap and jogged out to the bullpen to warm up. He went through his usual routine: fastballs, curves, cutters. He warmed up for two innings straight, working up a good sweat. Tafoya felt amazing in the bullpen. He was throwing as hard as he had all year, but for some reason he also had his control. He was at the fork in the road, and he was determined.

He jogged out of the bullpen and threw nine pitches. Seven were strikes. He struck out the first two batters and got the third, a righty, to fly out weakly to right field. And that was it. He was finished. He walked off the mound to faint cheers, slapped the hands of his teammates, and wrote his stats down on a game ball. It was the last time Tafoya would ascend the mound this season, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that, in that moment, he had once again tasted what he’d felt back in Idaho during the George H. W. Bush administration. The clouds that had been lingering since the day he was temporarily cut had parted at last. Tafoya had regained his anchor.

When I visited Tafoya at home some time later, I asked if he would be playing with the Fuego next year. Tafoya looked past me; there was still a lingering glow from his last stand against Alpine. “I just proved to myself and to everybody out there that knows my story that at 48 I can still compete professionally,” he told me. “Albeit at the lowest level out there. But I still proved that it could be done.

“I will probably die pitching,” he went on. “I don’t think I’m going to ever quit. I thought about it on my drive home tonight, and I just don’t see life without baseball in my future. There’s no reason for it to stop. In the amateur games I pitched this summer”—Tafoya had started more than a dozen games for the Albuquerque A’s — “I had an ERA under one!”

His voice rose. “Sixteen strikeouts per nine innings!” Now he seemed to be pleading. “How can you stop when you have those incredible numbers?”

I asked what he planned to do after he hit his goal. “Once I hit 300, I’m going to take a little break and take it all in, smell the roses a bit.” He smiled. “Then, who knows? I might go for another 100 and shoot for four.”


I showed up at the ballpark late. It was one of those impossible Santa Fe summer evenings. The monsoon had come and gone. A rainbow emerged from the remnants of the storm clouds and arced over the center-field fence. Blue shadows lit red mountains. We were hosting Las Cruces, and we were already down seven or eight runs.

Some guy I didn’t recognize was behind the plate. Palmer,  I later learned, had finally asked out. He started the game and struck out in his first at bat on a pitch in the dirt, then finally approached Moore. “Skip,” he said, “I can’t do this.” He confessed that his wrist was killing him.

The Fuego went down 14–0 that night, and Palmer went to see a doctor on the trainer’s orders. His wrist was a mess. The doctor said that he had torn a ligament. Playing on it for weeks had been a poor decision, and now surgery was the only option. Palmer was devastated—he’d dislocated his hip and broken his arm before, but he’d never had major surgery. He decided to have the procedure back home in Kansas, but not until the fall. He liked being near the mountains, and he wanted to see the season through to the end.

He spent more time with David Nava, Mario Montoya, and the kids. Montoya invited him over to cook marshmallows; the kids were awestruck. They all started helping the team out with chores: one day they brought brooms to the game to sweep the bleachers so the players could rest. Without his $54 paycheck, Palmer was deeply worried about money. One day, Nava brought him a gift certificate to the Olive Garden. Another day, Nava brought five paintings he had made, which he said Palmer could sell. Then Nava literally emptied one of his piggy banks, giving Palmer a few bucks in change.

During one batting practice, I asked Palmer about his plans. He said he wanted to get the surgery done so he could get back on the field. He had hit over .400 that season, with 13 or 14 home runs, depending on whether you believed Palmer’s count or the Pecos League’s own frequently suspect statistics. There were opportunities. “I always told my mom, as long as I can provide for my family, my girlfriend, or myself, I’m going to play until I can’t play no more,” he said. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

In August, he went back to Kansas to see another doctor, who examined his MRI results and was astounded. Palmer had torn several ligaments and pieces of connective tissue just above his wrist. By playing through the injury, the doctor said, he’d pushed and rotated the intricate bones in his wrist out and to the right. Not only did he need surgery, he would never play baseball again.

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Sunset over Fort Marcy Park in Santa Fe. (Photo: Ryan Heffernan)

Eight

The Fuego played their final home game of the season on July 25. Despite the fact that the playoffs were now out of reach, Santa Fe still had a whiff of influence as a spoiler: Their opponents, the Roswell Invaders, were in second place, not far behind the Alpine Cowboys. A win would hurt Roswell’s chances of overtaking Alpine for home-field advantage in the playoffs. I waited for the game to start, listening to Lynyrd Skynryd crackling over the PA. The small details of a night at Fort Marcy seemed especially vivid: the smell of meat fried in corn oil, the crisp folds of the American flag out beyond the center-field wall, the evening sun in the spent monsoon clouds. A solitary chant went up from the beer garden: “ET Go Home!”

Welcome, fans, to the final game of the season at Fort Marcy Park! the announcer thundered over the PA. This evening’s old-school classic-rock program is dedicated to Coach Bill Moore!

In the bottom of the second inning, with one man on and two outs, Archie made his way to the plate. Archie had toyed with his stance and swing repeatedly over the years. It was now a choppy thing that started with his hands way over his head. He usually strode into the ball and slashed his bat downward, attempting to whack ground balls that his long legs could turn into infield singles. Now he wagged the bat awkwardly, high above his body, and Roswell’s pitcher, a thin right-hander with an ungainly overhand motion, delivered a high, weak fastball.

Archie swung, and the ball took off down the left-field line, the only part of Fort Marcy that is major league size. It was a line drive, and it traveled too quickly for anyone in the park to process what had happened until it was over: Andrew Archbold had hit a home run.

At first, Archie didn’t seem to comprehend it, either. He sprinted around the bases, running right past Moore, whose mouth was open in a great laugh. Palmer came by the beer garden with the plastic bucket. I paid my money and thought of the message on Moore’s voice mail: “In the great game of life, there is baseball, and there is everything else.”

The crowd chanted: “Fue-go! Fue-go!”

Josh Valle hit a long home run over the trees, made the sign of the cross, banged helmets with Brown.

“Fue-go!”

Brown ripped a double down the left-field line, then scored on a sacrifice fly. Four–one, Fuego. The hits started to blend together, and the bucket kept coming around. This pitcher was a gift. Soon it was 7–3, Fuego, though you wouldn’t have known it from the scoreboard, which displayed only zeroes. Archie knocked in another run with a bunt single.

“Fue-go!”

“My wife would give up one of her bedrooms for Archbold,” said a fan in the grandstand.

“You’re not getting him,” replied a polite, small woman named Roberta Catnach, Archbold’s Santa Fe host. “He calls me Mom.”

In the middle of the seventh we were ahead nine to three, and Moore led the crowd in a gravelly rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Everything was falling together in a peaceful, easy way. The players looked happy. Moore looked happy. They were experien