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 . 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  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. , 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 .

Dave directed the boat south of the , 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 , 20 miles to the south, to  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 .


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 , 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  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  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.


 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’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 , 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 , 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  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  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  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 onetime 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 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 .


The days of cabin cruisers were over.  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 . 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 .

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.  pulled out some blocks and arranged them into a chair, and they all took turns sitting on the throne of . 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 . 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  flew to Tenerife, where they found Danny, drunk, lost, and carousing with British girls on holiday. They got the Finback to , 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 “ rather than a brass-tacks .” 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  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  was marked as . 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  and  bought palatial homes, acquired a taste for antiques. Bob and Ed, who had  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 , where the Company liked to vacation. One day, Lou surprised  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  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  in Cutler, overlooking ; an equipment house outside the small town of Freedom; and a communication house near . 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 , 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  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 mother ship. Dave had them ; 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 ’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 and 22 others. The DEA’s Operation CorCo had convinced the grand jury. The indictment hadn’t been unsealed yet, but ’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  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 . 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 ,” 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 , 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:  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,  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.  and  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 , 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 , 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.  and  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 , at the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort. Now that it was all over, even  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.” , 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  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.


 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  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  near : 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  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.  and  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.  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 .

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— 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  custom cargo cage, and bringing in a semi-trailer truck to move the pot. By now more of the regulars were gone.  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 , Dave hired a guy  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 .

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.  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,  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 , 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.  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 , 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  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. .

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 , 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,”  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,”  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  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  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, , and Dave were all on different floors of the jail. They never talked directly, coordinating instead through DeMassa.  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  had in his sights. Conklin had been able to indict a lot of those people based on ‘s and ‘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 .

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 . 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,  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  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  as a fugitive and 16 counts as a coconspirator 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 , 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.”

Pops

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  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.

Half-Safe

A story of love, obsession, and history’s most insane around-the-world adventure.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 20


James Nestor has written for OutsideDwellMen’s JournalNational Public RadioThe San Francisco ChronicleThe New York TimesSan Francisco Magazine, and more. He is currently working on a narrative nonfiction science and adventure book tentatively titled Deep: A Sea Odyssey.

Editor: Charles Homans

Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran

Research and Production: Nadia Wilson

Cover Illustration: Chris Gall

Photos: Courtesy of Guildford Grammar School Archives

Video and Music: From “Its A Small World,” El-Von Productions, Courtesy Guildford Grammar School Archives

Special Thanks: Alex Heard, for invaluable editing assistance; Rosemary Waller, Guildford Grammar School; and Deirdre Carlin, without whom this story could not have been told.

Fact-Checker: Thomas Stackpole

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

Published in November 2012. Design updated in 2021.

One

The Atlantic Ocean

December 1950

They had spent 14 days in darkness.

Late on the morning of the 15th day, December 2, 1950, light finally peeked through a crack in the curtain that hung over the passenger-side window. Ben lifted the curtain and looked outside. The sky was blue, and the sun, as big as a dinner plate, shone brightly. The storm clouds had retreated to the horizon. Ben took a dirty tissue from his shirt pocket, swabbed his eyes, and lifted himself from behind the steering wheel.

It had been four full months since Ben and his wife, Elinore, steered the tiny amphibious jeep they called Half-Safe into the frigid waters of Halifax Harbor and headed east toward Africa. It was the first time anyone had tried to circumnavigate the world by land and sea in a single vehicle, let alone one that was eight times smaller than any motorized boat that had ever crossed the Atlantic. It was a harebrained scheme, and the Carlins knew it. That was the point.

Adventure for its own sake had first attracted Ben, an engineer from rural Western Australia, to Elinore, an American Red Cross nurse, when the two met in India at the end of World War II. And there could be no more outlandish adventure than an attempt to “drive” across the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans—and actually drive across the continents in between—in an automobile. Especially this automobile—a converted 1942 GPW (General Purpose Willys) amphibious jeep built by Ford for the U.S. Army. It looked like a cross between a 4×4 and a rowboat, with a stubby pointed front, a square rear end, and a five-by-ten steel box on top. It was half car, half boat, and entirely ridiculous. The GPW amphibious jeeps were designed to putter through shallow streams for a few minutes at a time and usually failed even at that; they had proved so useless in the field that the Army canceled production. They were never intended to be used on the ocean.

Helpless and lost in the middle of 41 million square miles of open water, Ben and Elinore realized that their comic little adventure was quickly becoming a suicide mission. Both were in their thirties but looked as though they had aged decades in just a few weeks. Elinore, famished and vomiting anchovies into a tin mug, had gone from voluptuous to skeletal. Ben looked worse. His skin was pale, a delta of stress lines spread across his forehead, and his eyes were baggy and bloodshot. His face was caked with exhaust soot, engine grease, and sweat.

But now, weeks into their Atlantic crossing, the Carlins had no choice but to suck it up and keep following the compass east, toward the coast of the Spanish colony of Western Sahara, toward solid ground and safety.

Ben squinted out Half-Safe’s back hatch and looked at the deck. The jeep was sitting dangerously low in the water. Waves washed over the windshield and side windows, threatening to swamp the cabin. The cloth sea anchor, designed to drag in the water to stabilize the vehicle, floated behind Half-Safe in tatters, shredded by the storm.

At least the fuel supply—a 10-foot-long floating steel container carrying 280 gallons of gasoline—was intact. As long as the weather stayed calm, Ben figured they had just enough gas to make it to Madeira, a speck of an island 400 miles off the coast of Africa. The only information Ben could get from the radio was that the worst of the storm was still ahead. But the antenna was broken, and he had trouble making voice contact with the world beyond the jeep’s cabin.

Ben returned to the driver’s seat, grabbed his sextant, and hoisted himself onto the roof. He paused to gulp the fresh air, a respite from the funk of mold, sweat, exhaust, and human sewage in the cabin below. He noted the angle of the sun on the horizon and checked his watch.

Above him something caught his eye. A whirlpool of wispy clouds, in the shape of a miniature hurricane, floated calmly above Half-Safe. Ben watched as they passed over him, then floated off. He crawled back into the jeep and steered east. The next half-hour was calm.

Then the rain came, followed by wind and waves. By afternoon, the swells had risen to 30, 40, even 50 feet. There was nothing miniature about the storm, Ben realized. This was a full-on hurricane—and the Carlins were in the middle of it.

The ocean looked as if it were smoldering. The jeep was flung up over the crests of the waves and down the other side so violently that Ben and Elinore were shot from their seats into midair. The fuel tank broke loose; Ben watched as it bobbed in the spindrift and then disappeared into the darkness. He had no other option but to gun the engine and try to run before the storm.

By evening the swells had gotten bigger. It was only a matter of time before the roof collapsed and the cabin flooded. Ben turned to Elinore and made her scream the escape procedure in his ear.

“You shout, ‘Out,’” she yelled, her voice straining above the rain and waves beating on the steel walls of the cabin. “I get out and wait. You follow and grab the gear. I follow you. Keep in contact!”

Ben steadied himself in the driver’s seat, lit a cigarette, and gripped the steering wheel. Too weak to move, too nervous to speak, Elinore sat silently on the back cot. They felt the sea below their feet inflate like a giant lung. They sat and waited and braced themselves for the next hit.

Around 3 a.m. the following day, the motor sputtered, then stopped. Gas vapor entered the engine compartment. Ben watched as an explosion of orange and red flame appeared through the windshield. He was sure it had blown a hole in the side of the jeep. That meant the next wave that hit would swamp the cabin and drown them. “This is it—out!” he shouted to Elinore.

Another wave hit, knocking Ben to the floor. He stumbled through the rear hatch. The jeep was somehow still afloat; there was no hole. He stood there on the roof, blasted by the wind and rain, dumbfounded. Had the days of sleeplessness finally caught up with him? Was he hallucinating? Elinore stuck her head through the hatch, but Ben shoved her back into the cabin. He returned to the driver’s seat and turned the engine over. It started. He drove blind for the next 24 hours.

The storm worsened. At first the big swells exploded against the jeep every half-hour. Soon they came every 15 minutes. Then every five. Ben turned on the radio above Elinore’s cot and tapped out a message in Morse code: XXX. It meant Important, please listen. The antenna was broken, he knew, but maybe by some miracle the signal would get through. He typed it again. And again.

Another wave hit, then another. Ben pulled the lighter from his shirt pocket and lit another cigarette. Elinore watched the cherry dance in the darkness, wondering which of the waves detonating against Half-Safe’s windshield would be the one to finally burst in. Through the passenger-side curtain, they watched the sky darken. They felt the ocean below them lift the jeep stories high, then launch it into the air. Ben tumbled, his cigarette arcing across the dashboard like a rescue flare shot into a moonless night. The window went black. Half-Safe climbed another wave.

halfsafein1-1394141196-39.jpg
Ben and Elinore Carlin inside Half-Safe, 1950. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives

Two

Perth

November 2011

A patchwork of sun-bleached stucco walls, wandering roads, and corrugated-steel roofs flashed past the passenger-car windows along the TransPerth rail line. Soon the train came to a stop and the conductor called out East Guildford Station. I grabbed my bag and followed a group of boys in navy jackets, shorts, and red ties across the pedestrian overpass that led to the back gate of Guildford Grammar School. Behind a white picket fence stood a small brick cottage that housed the school’s archives.

The archive librarian, Rosemary Waller, welcomed me in. Along the back wall of the main reading room were shelves overflowing with antique books, bottles of wine, and a few framed photographs. A hat rack held old pith helmets, cricket jerseys, and army hats festooned with medals. The opposite wall was covered with century-old newspaper clippings, handwritten letters, and photos. One clipping caught my eye. It showed a black-and-white photograph of Ben and Elinore’s amphibious jeep.

“Could you imagine living in that thing?” Waller said. “It must have been just horrible.” She directed me to a wooden desk piled with four stacks of photo albums, manila folders, and white envelopes. Numbering perhaps a thousand pages in all, these were the complete surviving records of Ben Carlin, who died in 1981. Carlin had kept careful notes and scrapbook materials about his circumnavigation attempt, convinced it would make him famous and wealthy. But outside of Guildford, Ben, Elinore, and their jeep were mostly forgotten. Few people had ever seen the photographs, letters, and clippings collected here. There was a stack of sealed envelopes at the edge of the pile that looked untouched.

I had first heard about Carlin and Half-Safe about a decade ago, after my own, less extraordinary misadventure at sea. I was sailing the Golden Gate, the strait spanned by the famous bridge, outside San Francisco with an old friend named Steve, a novice sailor who had just bought a 36-foot boat. We were barely out of the harbor before it became obvious that neither of us knew what we were doing. We had trouble tacking, steering, basically moving. Then the motor broke. Then raw sewage started gurgling up from the toilet belowdecks. “You don’t have to use it, do you?” Steve asked. (I did, but I didn’t say anything.) Then the backup engine went out. Soon we were drifting slowly west, toward the open ocean.

It was my first real taste of being adrift at sea, lost. For six hours, Steve and I felt alternately terrified and oddly bored. By nightfall, Steve had given up and called emergency rescue. As we waited to be towed back into the harbor, he told me about a story he had heard from an Australian traveler he met backpacking in Southeast Asia. It was about a guy named Ben Carlin who spent years in this kind of predicament—years stuck in the five-by-ten cabin of a tricked-out military jeep that was somehow also a boat, trying to make it around the world.

When I got home, I went online and read what I could. The Ben Carlin story seemed too ridiculous to be true—but if it was true, it was the most bizarre adventure tale I’d ever heard. Either way, I had to find out more. There wasn’t much to find, however: a one-line mention on a GeoCities page, a picture of the jeep on a site maintained by Army-vehicle enthusiasts. There was a photo of Carlin on the Guildford website. Undated, it showed him with a smug smile on his face and a cigarette in his mouth, leaning against Half-Safe’s prow, Elinore grinning at his side.

I soon discovered that Carlin had written a book, published in 1955, titled Half-Safe: Across the Atlantic by Jeep, but it had long since gone out of print. The publisher canceled plans for a sequel, but Carlin wrote a manuscript for it anyway, and he later bequeathed it to Guildford along with his life savings and all the records from his expedition. In 1989, Guildford published the book under the title The Other Half of Half-Safe but never bothered to sell it except at the school.

When the copy I requested arrived two months later, I found it almost unreadable: Carlin’s rambling technical descriptions went on for pages, his jokes were odd and forced, and his descriptions of himself were a laborious mash of muscle, misanthropy, and one-upmanship.

And yet, what Carlin had accomplished was undeniably extraordinary. Although his trip lacked the easy shorthand of Amelia Earhart’s attempted around-the-world flight or Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic survival saga, the Half-Safe voyage was in its own way a more remarkable feat: Carlin had pushed a rejected hunk of military surplus where no machine had ever gone before or would go again. Why had history ignored him? What happened to him?

All that seemed to be left of Carlin’s adventure was a few pictures, a few stories, and perhaps whatever remained of the thousand-odd empty soup cans he had tossed out the driver’s side window of the jeep, on the floors of three oceans and beneath the sand of half a dozen deserts. The more I thought about it, the more I had to know the answer. Which is why I had traveled 9,000 miles from San Francisco to Perth. If there were answers to my questions, they had to be in the Guildford archives. I wiped the dust from the photo album on top of the stack and turned the first page.


Even today, Perth is an isolated place. The nearest major city, Adelaide, is more than 1,600 miles to the southeast, making Perth one of the most remote metropolitan areas on earth. In the early 1900s, it had a population of 276,000, about a sixth of what it is today, much of it dispersed across 100 miles of surrounding desert. Ben was born near there in 1912, 60 miles northeast of the city, in a small town called Northam.

Nothing is known about Ben’s father; his mother died when he was 4, and her absence haunted him his entire life. From age 10 through 17, Ben attended Guildford. He went on to the University of Western Australia and the Kalgoorlie School of Mines, where he trained as a mining engineer. He spent much of his twenties eking out a living in the dust and dirt of Kalgoorlie, a tiny mining outpost some 300 miles east of Perth. Photographs from Kalgoorlie at the time show a desolate landscape of dry shrubs and gaunt men living in white tents.

In 1939, on the eve of World War II, Ben moved to China and took a job as a mining engineer for a British coal company operating in Beijing. A year later, he managed to enlist in the Indian army—then under British command—and served in the Middle East and Italy as a field engineer before being sent to India, where he was stationed at the Kalaikunda Air Force Station in West Bengal. It was there that Ben’s quest began.

One day in March 1946, Ben and his friend Mac Bunting, a squadron leader in the Royal Australian Air Force, were sweating off hangovers in a former U.S. Army Air Forces surplus yard at the base when a small vehicle caught Ben’s eye. It was a 1942 GPW Model Ford that had been converted so that its body looked like a boat hull: an amphibious jeep. Neither Ben nor Mac had seen anything like it.

At the start of the war, the Army had ordered the Ford Motor Company to build jeeps capable of negotiating short expanses of water—streams, lakes, and small bays. Ford engineers worked quickly, using parts from existing vehicles and improvising the rest. The result was one of the strangest-looking automobiles ever built.

It was a quarter-ton jeep, water sealed and wrapped in a thin sheet of metal for buoyancy. At the rear was a second driveshaft attached to a marine propeller and a nailed-on rudder that hung off the back bumper. It looked like a smaller and much sketchier version of the amphibious duck boats used by the Army and, in later years, by novelty-tour operators.

On land, the GPW amphibian worked fine, more or less like a regular jeep, but its performance in water was abysmal. It ran aground easily, was almost impossible to maneuver, and averaged a laughable 2.5 miles per hour at four miles per gallon. Within a year of production, the Army cancelled the line. By war’s end, only a fraction of the 12,978 GPW amphibians remained in service.

None of this deterred Ben. “You know, Mac,” he said. “With a bit of titivation you could go around the world in one of these things.”

Mac scoffed, but Ben persisted. “The more I thought about the idea—and within a few days I was thinking of little else—the more I liked it,” he later wrote. “Quite reasonably possible, it would be difficult enough to be interesting, a nice exercise in technology, masochism, and chance—a form of sport—and it might earn me a few bob.”

Ben thought he could complete the trip in a year, seeing the adventure as “a last flutter before the inevitable relapse into domesticity.” In 1947, when the army finally cut him loose, he went to the United States. He had to find a jeep, and he figured his best chances would be in a U.S.–based Army surplus yard.

During a layover in Hong Kong, Ben dropped in on a friend, Elinore Arone. They had met several months earlier in India, where Elinore, like Ben, had gone in search of a more interesting life. A 27-year-old brunette from Watertown, Massachusetts, she had been working as a bank teller in her hometown when the war broke out, and she joined the American Red Cross. She and Ben had had an on-again, off-again romantic relationship in India, and he was eager to see her.

Ben was more reluctant to explain why he was heading to America. Given Elinore’s appetite for adventure, it was likely she would jump at something as absurd as the amphibious jeep journey, and Ben was convinced that the trip “was no job for a woman.” But during the layover, he couldn’t resist telling her his plans, and Elinore insisted on joining. Ben relented, and the two agreed to meet on the East Coast.

On January 30, 1947, Ben handed $901 to the clerk at the Army surplus auction yard in Aberdeen, Maryland, and the next day drove his 1942 GPW amphibious jeep right off the lot. It was dented, dilapidated, and barely running, and it took Ben more than two days to make it 70 miles north to the Annapolis Yacht Yard, where he’d rented a slip. By the time he pulled in, the jeep was stalling from clogged fuel lines, the gas tank had fallen out, and the exhaust pipe was coughing noxious smoke. This was the craft Ben hoped would take him and Elinore around the world.

Three

Annapolis

October 1947

Ben spent nearly a year retooling the jeep, reinforcing the superstructure, replacing glass with plexiglass, installing a new hull to carry extra fuel, and coating the metal with neoprene, a synthetic rubber developed by DuPont that would later be used in everything from wetsuits to fan belts.

He also built a proper cabin, which made the jeep look like a miniature houseboat on wheels. The interior was a claustrophobic five by ten feet, with the jeep’s driver and passenger seats placed side-by-side in the front and a small cot wedged a few feet behind in the back. Above the cot were a pair of radios and a hatch, the only means of climbing in and out of the vehicle.

By October 1947, in spite of all Ben’s work, the jeep really wasn’t seaworthy—for one thing, he could hardly steer it. But time was running out, and Ben was down to his last $300. Elinore, who had arrived from China five months earlier, was working odd jobs and living with her parents in Boston to save money. Ben decided it was time for a test run from Annapolis to New York City.

A few days before Halloween, Ben climbed into the jeep, started the engine, and set out northeast across Chesapeake Bay. His plan was to drive up to the top of the bay, head east overland until he reached Delaware Bay, follow the bay southeast to the Atlantic, and then travel up the New Jersey coastline to New York. By the third day, Ben was about 50 miles into Delaware Bay when he was stopped cold by howling winds. He spent two nights and a day bouncing against the steel walls of the cabin, trying to keep the jeep from crashing into the rocks. So far, the vehicle was barely managing two miles per hour on the water. At that rate, it would be faster for him to walk to New York.

The morning of the fourth day, the winds died down just enough to proceed. As Ben drove out across the bay, he saw that he was aimed straight at an outcropping of rocks. He tried to steer right, toward open water, but the wheel wouldn’t move. His hands wouldn’t move, either—in fact, he couldn’t even feel them. Soon his arms, feet, and face were numb. Blinding white flashes appeared in front of his eyes. He felt nauseous, as if he was about to pass out.

Ben had felt this way before, 10 years earlier while working in the mine in China. Carbon monoxide was filling the cabin. It was killing him. He dragged himself out the rear hatch and threw himself onto the roof. He flopped onto his back, gasping for air. The jeep rumbled on beneath him; the steering wheel was pinned starboard, and the craft was making sweeping circles around the bay. Ben watched helplessly as each circuit took him closer and closer to the rocks.

Then, with a crash, the jeep jolted to a stop. Ben looked over and saw that he was rammed into a metal piling. The jeep’s hull was punctured, but the engine hadn’t stopped. Still paralyzed, he lay there wondering how big the hole was. If it was too large, the vehicle would sink before he could regain control of his limbs. If it was small, he might survive. He watched, helpless, and waited.

After half an hour, Ben felt tingling in his fingers and toes, then in his hands, feet, and limbs. He sat up, took a deep breath, shook his head clear, and hurried into the cabin to kill the engine. He looked over the side. A bolt from the piling had ripped a foot-long hole just below the waterline on the port side of the jeep’s main gas tank. If the bolt had hit just 18 inches away from where it did, it would have torn open the hull and sent the jeep to the bottom.

Between fits of vomiting—a side effect of carbon monoxide poisoning—Ben held his head in his hands. If he couldn’t make it 300 miles along a sheltered coast, how could he possibly make it across 3,000 miles of open ocean? How could he make it around the world?


The next month, he drove over land to New York. That winter, Ben lived alone in near poverty in a fleabag hotel in Manhattan, while Elinore took a temporary job in Mexico. Broke and without prospects for employment, Ben hounded the British Consul for back pay that he said the Indian army owed him. He had a glass of milk and a buttered roll for breakfast and skipped lunch. Dinner was canned spaghetti warmed in the bedroom washbasin and eaten with two toothbrush handles. He lived this way for four months.

In mid-April, a payment of $1,800 finally arrived from the Indian army, and Ben began prepping the jeep for a trans-Atlantic crossing. When Elinore returned to New York in May, she and Ben made their years-long affair official, marrying at City Hall over lunch. It was a formality that the press agent they’d hired to promote their forthcoming journey had suggested. In the late 1940s, a pair of adventurous newlyweds setting out on a honeymoon across the Atlantic in a jeep would be an easy story to sell.

There were many false starts in the years that followed. During their fourth launch attempt, in August 1948, the Carlins managed to make it roughly 300 miles out to sea from New York before a shaft bearing came loose and the engine died. Ben tried to jury-rig a quick fix while dangling upside down in the ocean. Nothing worked. As the jeep drifted helplessly in the Atlantic, Ben passed the time by stuffing notes inside empty beer bottles that read, “No beer!”

A week and a half later, they were rescued by an oil tanker headed to Montreal. They arrived three days later. Back on land, Ben prepared the jeep for the road while Elinore went out drinking with the ship’s crew. Soon they were on the road heading east to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ben was determined to give the Atlantic crossing another go that summer, but renovating the jeep was taking too long—winter storms were fast approaching. The Carlins had no choice but to delay another year. Elinore went back to New York while Ben took a job in a machine shop.

In his spare time, and using all of his spare money, Ben took the jeep apart again. He also gave it a name: Half-Safe, taken from a popular radio commercial for Arrid deodorant. Don’t be half-safe—use Arrid to be sure. One year became two, and then, in June 1950, Elinore returned. Ben quit his job. It was time to give their harebrained scheme one last try.

Four

Halifax

July 1950

Ben pushed the hair out of his eyes with a greasy hand and climbed from the dock in Halifax Harbor onto the back of the jeep for a final look-over. Everything was ready. Even the weather had improved in the past 12 hours—a large high-pressure system was approaching from the west. Ben reckoned that if he and Elinore left immediately, they could ride into the Gulf Stream and make passage across 1,800 miles of the Atlantic to the Azores, a sparsely populated chain of islands 1,000 miles west of the Portuguese coast, in less than three weeks.

The final step before leaving was to clear customs. Waiting on the dock above the jeep were two corporals from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Because the jeep was amphibious, it existed in a legal gray area. There were no laws permitting such a craft to set out across Canadian waters—but then, there were no laws prohibiting it, either. The Mounties filled out the customs forms as best they could.

A small group of onlookers and friends cheered as Half-Safe motored out to sea. Among them was Richard Battey, an old friend and one of the few dedicated backers of Ben’s quest. Richard had loaned $1,200 for the jeep’s renovations, which Ben promised to repay once he and Elinore made it England. By that point, Ben and Elinore figured, they would be rich and famous. It seemed inevitable—their quest had already attracted the attention of the editors of Life magazine and Hollywood producers. They just needed to drive across 3,000 miles of ocean first.

As Ben pulled away from the dock, Elinore sat on the back cot and lit a cigarette, looking out the open rear hatch across the water. Behind her, Half-Safe was towing a tank filled with 280 gallons of fuel. Onboard, they carried 30 gallons of water, eight gallons of oil, and enough food for six weeks. A few feet in front of Elinore, Ben sat hunched behind the steering wheel, watching the spherical compass bobbing on the dashboard.

Half-Safe’s windshield and side windows were covered with black canvas to keep out seawater and rain. The canvas also blocked out most natural light. Inside, day was hardly distinguishable from night; Ben and Elinore lived a shadowy twilight of flickering electric bulbs and the occasional phosphorous flame of a struck match.

For Ben,  looking at a window at an unending ocean would have done little good anyway—there were no landmarks to follow. Every few days, when the weather permitted, he would confirm his position with a sextant reading. On overcast days, he had no choice but to drive on blind faith.

Half-Safe was a rough ride. When the engine was running—which was most of the time—the cabin rattled with teeth-chattering violence. The air was spiked with the noxious perfume of exhaust, gasoline, and, occasionally, raw sewage from the marine commode located beneath a cushion on the passenger seat. This was where Ben and Elinore had to relieve themselves, in plain sight of one another, two feet from the driver’s seat. Ben had installed electric fans on each side of the dashboard to combat the smell, but they mostly just distributed it around the cabin.

Then there was the endless back-and-forth roll over the ocean’s swells, the tiny jeep frame bouncing over waves and slamming through wind slop. Through the cracks in the black canvas, occasional flickers and flashes would show the water just below waist level, sometimes above shoulder level.  

In some ways, riding in Half-Safe was like traveling in a motorboat or sailboat, but without any of the benefits—the gusts of wind, the panoramic horizons, the liberating feeling of fast motion. In other ways, it was similar to riding in a car, but one that the driver could never pull over, never stop. It was a claustrophobic and abusive environment, an experience wholly other: at best difficult, at worst miserable. Most of the time, it was somewhere in between.

Half-Safe crept along at its usual four miles per hour. Nevertheless, closing in on the second week at sea, Ben and Elinore had somehow traveled nearly 400 miles, almost a quarter of the way to the Azores. That distance put Half-Safe beyond reach of the thunderstorms that often raked the Atlantic seaboard in late summer. What Ben didn’t take into account, however, were the hurricanes heading into the Gulf Stream from the south. The summer of 1950 was particularly warm, and by July a number of storms were already gestating off the Caribbean. The Carlins, inching toward the Azores, were headed right into their path.

Five

The Atlantic Ocean

August 1950

Ben and Elinore landed on Flores Island in the Azores on August 19, 1950. What Ben had thought would be a two-week journey from Halifax had taken 32 miserable days. Still, the Carlins had managed to avoid hitting any major storms during the crossing, and they were happy to have most of the Atlantic behind them.

They spent the week in Flores, refueled, and, on August 27, set off again on a 160-mile run to the island of Horta. Approaching the breakwater outside the harbor there, they were surprised to see a small armada of local boats coming out to greet them. In her diary that day, Elinore would claim that half the island’s population of 10,000 turned out to celebrate them in town. “Long apprised of our coming,” she wrote, “Horta had simply closed down for the day, proclaiming a ‘Festa do Jeep.’”

For the next three months, Ben and Elinore island-hopped, exhibiting Half-Safe to earn money for repairs and the fuel they would need for the last 1,200-mile leg of the Atlantic crossing. A Life article that appeared in November called their Atlantic crossing “certainly the most foolhardy and possibly the most difficult transatlantic voyage ever made.”

The plan now was to head to Madeira, an island halfway between the Azores and the African coast, where they would refuel before continuing on to Western Sahara. Ben thought the 600-mile trip from the Azores’ São Miguel Island to Madeira would be a “downhill run,” taking a week and a half at most. But by the time they left port, the weather had already gone sour. Northwest winds battered the jeep; Ben continued pushing east, trying to outrun the storm. But after six days, the conditions had become dire. Eleanor became violently seasick. Ben had trouble steering the jeep in the rising swells. Most nights he’d cut the motor and watch as Half-Safe drifted anchorless, deeper into the storm.

Nine days later, things had gone from bad to worse. Everything inside the cabin was wet — the bedroll, blankets, clothes, and pillows — and had been for days. By Saturday, December 2, the seas had risen to 40, even 50 feet. Elinore described their grim daily routine in her journal:

0900: Watched a most beautiful sky at sunrise—seemingly a good omen but has brought nothing but rain & wind.

1000: This is serious. Pitching very badly. Rain beats down. Hope it stops at 1100 when I go topside for a radio transmission…. It’s rather cold in the jeep—getting colder all the time…. Moreover, the bed-roll is so wet that the blanket is too—& my head—& it’s coming thru all my sweaters. Constant headaches.

1530: I’m freezing now so what shall I be tonight? We go up, up, up &—smack, down, down, down.

1700: Used to think it was a exaggeration when people talked of seas 30, 40 & 50 ft. high. I’ve now seen them—when I went topside for [Ben’s] 1600 transmission to Madeira. Bloody huge waves—& the wind she blew like hell.

It seemed impossible that the storm could go on like this, but there was no sign of it letting up.

The next morning, Ben heard a sound that startled him: the engine. For the first time in days, he could actually hear it running. Barely conscious after 67 straight sleepless hours, he peeked outside. The wind had abated to about 50 miles per hour, though the waves were still enormous. He fumbled with the radio—it had been useless during the storm, but perhaps now it would be working again. He tapped out the distress call: XXX.

To his astonishment, an operator from Madeira replied. The man was shocked to get Ben’s signal. The Portuguese navy had given up Ben and Elinore for dead days earlier—nobody, they thought, could survive at sea in a hurricane of that magnitude, especially in a floating jeep. Ben took coordinates for the spot where a Portuguese naval vessel, the Flores, would drop off two tanks of fuel, enough to get Half-Safe to Madeira.

The Flores arrived at 8 a.m. the next morning. Ben hitched Half-Safe to the stern, and he and Elinore were whisked aboard and welcomed by the crew. They ate, drank wine, and took much-needed showers. The Carlins made land in Madeira on December 12. What should have been a 10-day hop ended up an insufferable three-week slog.

Back on land, the Carlins licked their wounds and sold the movie camera Ben had brought along for the money they needed for food and repairs. They hung around Madeira for the next two months before deciding to give the crossing another go. This time the sea was more forgiving, and on February 21—seven months after setting off from Canada—Half-Safe reached Western Sahara. The Carlins had finally crossed the Atlantic.

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Half-Safe crossing the Sahara Desert, March 1951. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives

Six

Cape Juby

February 1951

The roads were a challenge from the beginning. Ragged in the best of circumstances, they had a tendency to vanish into 50-foot sand dunes. Half-Safe had lost its only spare wheel on the transatlantic crossing, and there were no replacement parts for Ford jeeps in Morocco. To be cautious, Ben drove at a snail’s pace. Elinore sat on the back cot, watching through the port-side window as nomadic shepherds drove their sheep toward the storm clouds to the north. Shepherds in the Sahara were known to chase the rain for hundreds of miles in search of grass. The Carlins followed them.

A week earlier, Ben and Elinore had made landfall in the small Western Sahara port town of Cape Juby. They were elated. After three years of toil, they had done the impossible: They had beaten the Atlantic. But now there was much more to think about, and on their first night back on land, Ben lay awake and pondered the challenges ahead. If Half-Safe broke down in the Sahara, the trip would be over.

Three days later, on March 4, after some quick repairs to make Half-Safe road ready, Ben and Elinore were finally granted papers and sent on their way, creeping along at less than two miles per hour towards Casablanca, 700 miles to the north. Days were spent driving and occasionally stopping at villages for peppermint tea; nights were spent beneath the stars of the Saharan sky.

Ten days later, they hit Casablanca in a blaze of publicity. Ticket sales from exhibitions of the jeep, plus a $100 advance for Life’s second article on the Half-Safe journey, gave Ben enough money to once again refit the jeep. With few spare parts or materials, he replaced the neoprene seals around the steering wheel with goatskin. But the attention around the Carlins, enormous at first, died as quickly as it started. Ben and Elinore and their journey across the Atlantic proved a fleeting curiosity to the few French colons who paid to see the jeep and meet the Crazy Carlins. Their feat seemed to inspire as much confusion as wonderment: They had made the journey, but why? What was the point?

On April 21, 1951, Ben backed Half-Safe into the Strait of Gibraltar. The jeep, chugging against the incoming tide, took six hours to make the 15-mile crossing to Europa Point, on the southern tip of Gibraltar. Nine months and 4,500 miles after they’d left Montreal, Ben and Elinore had landed on their third continent.

The Carlins’ four-month tour of Western Europe proved a welcome rest from the grueling journey so far. Ben and Elinore motored across Portugal, up through central Spain, and across southern France. Paris, still recovering from the war, turned out to be an unprofitable city for exhibitions, but the English were more interested. While staying in Paris in June, Ben and Elinore were flown to London to meet with editors at The Clarion newspaper, who agreed to pay them a hefty 500 pounds for a monthlong promotional tour in August. Ben and Elinore enthusiastically agreed, and for the first time in nearly a year they rested, soaking in the Parisian sights.

By mid-August, Ben and Elinore were ready for their triumphant sail to England, but The Clarion was not. At the last minute, the newspaper canceled their contract for no apparent reason. The Carlins’ holiday in Paris now looked like a waste of precious time. Their money spent, they would have to get to England on their own to find a new sponsor.

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Ben and Elinore Carlin with Half-Safe in Casablanca, March 1951. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives

Seven

Kent

August 1951

The summer night sky exploded with flashbulbs and cheers as Half-Safe lunged up Goodwin Sands on the east coast of Kent  the same landing that Julius Caesar had stormed 2,000 years earlier. Ben and Elinore climbed from the back hatch in front of the crowd of hundreds, who had been awaiting the Carlins for the past few hours. At the corner pub, they were met with a deafening round of applause.

A few days later, Ben called Mac Bunting, the Army buddy who had first helped conceive of the circumnavigation in India in 1947. They hadn’t seen each other in five years and in the past two years hadn’t even exchanged letters. When Mac arrived in Kent and saw the jeep, he was flabbergasted. “By Jove, old boy,” he exclaimed, “you were right!”


Half-Safe: Across the Atlantic by Jeep, which Ben wrote shortly after arriving in England, ends on that triumphant note. Back at the Guildford archives, I closed the cover of the second photo album and reshelved it. There were dozens of photographs Ben had taken during the journey, copies of letters he’d sent from the Azores and throughout Africa, a few receipts. But nothing I found shed light on what kept pushing Ben and Elinore to continue on through failure after failure, year after year—and I couldn’t find anything about what had happened to them after the journey was over.

One possible source of new information was Ben’s only daughter, Deirdre Carlin. I’d heard about her from Rosemary Waller months earlier, when I was arranging my visit to Perth. I knew nothing about her, except that she lived in Perth. I had been trying to reach her for months and finally heard back from her a week and a half before I arrived. Certainly she would know what had happened to Ben, but it would be a few days before I could ask her.


Ben and Elinore believed they’d have it made once they reached England, but by the second day in Kent, reporters stopped calling. There were no new offers to exhibit the jeep and no word from Hollywood. After a few days, the Carlins left for London. Within a week, their savings had dwindled to 50 pounds. They retired to a run-down hostel in the West End and reviewed their options.

After five years, they were just one-fifth of the way around the world, and the worst of the journey was ahead of them: war-ravaged Eastern Europe, roadless expanses of Middle Eastern desert, bandit-ridden Asia, and then the Pacific, the world’s largest ocean. Their plan of making money through exhibitions, magazine articles, and books had failed, and what little funds did trickle in went right back into keeping the jeep running.

Ben was starting to resent the exhibitions in particular and the people who attended them. Nobody really seemed to understand the journey. Many people simply thought the whole thing was a hoax. Meanwhile, Half-Safe had sentenced Ben and Elinore to a life of poverty, and they were growing weary of it.

“Now aged 39,” Ben wrote in August 1951, “I had lived from suitcase or kit-bag for 13 years; the travel urge was long satisfied and I yearned for a permanent hat-peg; a lawnmower, the pit-a-pat of footsies. If beforehand I had been persuaded that the trip would take longer than a year, I would have dropped it; now 5 years later I had barely started.”

If the Carlins were to continue, Ben would have to overhaul Half-Safe yet again—the jeep was literally falling to pieces. The metal superstructure had corroded from months of saltwater exposure, the frame was buckling, and the engine needed to be completely rebuilt.

Ben and Elinore’s marriage wasn’t in much better shape. Two weeks after landing in England, they separated. Whether they were drifting apart for personal or financial reasons isn’t clear. Elinore took a secretarial job with the U.S. Air Force in London, while Ben left for Birmingham to try to raise money. He moved into a boardinghouse room and took a job as a garage mechanic. He made plans to sell Half-Safe. The joke wasn’t funny anymore; the impossible journey seemed to be over.

But it wasn’t.

Ben tried but simply could not quit. In his time off from the garage, he continued plotting, thinking, tinkering. In the garage, he added larger fuel tanks to the jeep, refitted its brakes, and replaced the windshield with tougher tempered glass. The overhaul took two years.

In his letters and The Other Half, Ben gave plenty of reasons not to continue: debt, exhaustion, the near certainty that the jeep would give out entirely before journey’s end. He offered only one justification for trudging on, writing in typically overwrought prose:

Although a sweet-enough aria, Half-Safe’s Atlantic feat was no opera. There’s something peculiarly complete and satisfying about a circumnavigation; a magnum of champagne is manifestly more acceptable than glasses.

It was a psycho-facto that counter-tipped the imbalance: Of my past imbecilities the omissions rankled longer and stronger than the commissions: “If only I had grabbed that opportunity … taken a chance that time in … given that parboiled redhead one more break! Those are the pangs that gnaw in the night. Such an opportunity could never recur, and I’d kick holes in my coffin if I passed it up.

And so on the afternoon of April 20, 1955, Ben and Elinore climbed through Half-Safe’s back hatch once again. Elinore took her place on the cot, and with Ben behind the wheel they set off across the English Channel, past the White Cliffs of Dover toward France, back to the open sea and the open road.

Eight

Calcutta

August 1955

It had been four years since Ben and Elinore were last cooped up inside Half-Safe’s tiny cabin. By the time they landed on the beach at Calais, France, they both knew that four years probably wasn’t long enough. Richard Kaplan, a young documentary filmmaker from California, and John Simmons, a photographer for a London weekly newspaper, had joined them on the trip across the English Channel. Kaplan, who went on to become an Oscar-winning documentarian, told me that even that short trip with the couple was absolute hell. “It was miserable,” he said. “They were arguing the whole time, just yelling at each other. It was so bad, we sat on the roof to get away from them.” The next day, Kaplan and Simmons jumped ship.

Half-Safe rolled through Switzerland, then down to Verona, Italy, and on to Venice, where Ben and Elinore met with a throng of reporters. One asked if the Atlantic crossing had really happened and asked Ben to prove it. Others simply didn’t believe them. The journey was just too long, arduous, and insane to fathom. Half-Safe chugged on through Yugoslavia, and by mid-May the Carlins were in Turkey. This put them on track to cross the deserts of Syria, Iraq, and Iran at the start of summer—another miscalculation by Ben. Soon temperatures inside the cabin were reaching a sauna-like 150 degrees.

Ben pushed on, hoping somehow to outrun the heat, but it only got worse. Cabin temperatures reached 170 and 180 degrees, hot enough that the plastic boxes that held tools and spare parts softened and buckled. Nevertheless, by mid-August the Carlins had traveled 8,550 miles in 86 days. They had made it to India—though at a debilitating cost.

Elinore had lost 30 pounds, her hair was falling out, and she was constantly bedridden with stomach infections. As Half-Safe rolled through Jalandhar in India’s Punjab state, en route to Calcutta, she wrote in her journal, “Everything completely wet from humidity. … Yesterday’s wasp bite has swollen right arm … skin all round lips completely burned away—now peeling—mouth still ugly sight.”

In Calcutta, they settled into a friend of a friend’s apartment. In The Other Half, Ben describes this period of the trip as relatively enjoyable, but the correspondence in the Guildford archives suggests otherwise. Ben had contracted dengue fever and was bedridden for weeks. Elinore had a stomach flu that lasted a month. Broke again, Ben tried to sell the same Half-Safe story to two different magazines. The plan backfired when both editors realized what he had done and voided their contracts with him. In desperation, Ben sold the rights to Half-Safe to an American publisher, in violation of his contract with his English publisher, Andre Deutsch. Deutsch found out and threatened to kill their deal; Ben countered by accusing Deutsch of holding back advance payments for the book.

The Guildford archives contain a number of carbon-copied letters between Ben and a London lawyer named L. A. Morrow that suggest that Ben’s eccentricity was now turning into something darker. Perhaps the stress of the journey was wearing on him; perhaps it was the financial duress or simply the fever. Or perhaps it was a side of him that had been there all along.

Although Ben’s letters began professionally enough, within days they turned delirious and strange. He wrote that Deutsch was “an ambitious, unbridled egotist” with “little or no taste” and threatened him with numerous lawsuits. And this was all two months before Deutsch was to release Ben’s book. Meanwhile, Ben was spending his days obsessively taking apart Half-Safe’s engine and rebuilding it, though he knew it was in fine condition.

It was Deutsch, in fact, who bailed out the Carlins, suggesting that they ship Half-Safe to Australia for a book tour. Ten thousand copies of Half-Safe—a print run that suggested Deutsch’s hopes for a bestseller—were scheduled to hit Australian bookstores in October 1955, with 5,000 more to follow. A promotional tour, in addition to being good for sales, might be just the break that Ben and Elinore needed. Ben agreed, Deutsch sent expense money, and on September 19, Half-Safe set sail for Perth aboard the MS Carpentaria. For the first time in 16 years, Ben was going home.


The Australia tour was a disaster. Ben, Elinore, and Half-Safe made it to Perth in October, but the book did not—as it turned out, most of the bookstores where Ben and Elinore had planned to exhibit the jeep and sign copies never received their shipments. The few reviews that appeared were not favorable.

Ben accused Deutsch of plotting against him. In retaliation, he began charging exorbitant prices for viewings of the jeep and refused to cooperate with booksellers. In an effort to spite his publisher, Ben was sabotaging his own book, in the process throwing away his only real chance at profiting from the Half-Safe trip. His relationship with Elinore, meanwhile, was disintegrating again. By the end of the tour, she announced that she was leaving him. And this time she meant it.

On December 13, 1955, Ben rolled Half-Safe onto the MS Chakdina, a ship headed back to Calcutta. He would never see Elinore again.

Nine

Rangoon

February 1956

According to the British district commissioner in Rangoon, the road between the Burmese capital and the border of Thailand was impassable. “Your famous vehicle has not the slightest chance of covering the road successfully,” the commissioner, a young man in immaculate uniform, told Ben as he sat before his desk in the consulate office. “In plain fact, there is no longer a road. What there was has been destroyed by four monsoons. When I myself covered it last November, I saw two-foot-high boulders in the track. The army does not permit its ordinary jeeps to make the run.… Please turn back.”

Ben stifled a yawn, stood, and thanked the commissioner for his time, then left the office to prepare Half-Safe for the journey. He had no intention of heeding the commissioner’s advice.

The alternate route would involve traversing hundreds of miles of open water across the mouth of the Irrawaddy River, at the southern end of Burma. From there, Half-Safe would have to travel up an uncharted river and cross the Kra Isthmus into Thailand, where Ben would find well-paved roads for the next 300 miles of coastline. But this itinerary would add 500 miles and three months to the trip, an extension Ben couldn’t afford.

Instead, he borrowed maps and began charting his own straight-line path to Thailand. He would sail up the Gyaing River to Kyondo, a British army post west of the border. He would then take a 40-mile military road—the route the commissioner had advised against—from Kyondo over Victoria Point, the southernmost tip of Burma, to the border.

After six years in Half-Safe, Ben had grown numb to the warnings of officials. Elinore might have made him listen to reason, but she’d been gone four months. Just a month earlier, Ben had set out on his first trip alone, from India across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The route required him to spend as many as 20 hours a day, for five days, behind the wheel. “Having done something the hard way (with a crewman), one looks for a still harder way,” he wrote in The Other Half. To stay awake, he took methedrine tablets—first one, then another, then another.

One afternoon during the trip, Ben was staring at the lubber lines on the compass when he saw them twisting, apparently melting in the stifling heat. The compass itself flattened, then formed a sphere again. At its center appeared an image of Saint George, the dragon-slaying Roman soldier of legend. Now the compass lines were twisting and turning into the shapes of animals. Ben saw the face of a Hindu holy man glaring fiercely into his eyes. The man’s face kept expanding until it filled the dashboard. Ben swatted at the air to fend him off. “Damn!” he yelled.

Saint George, the animals, and the holy man disappeared. The compass was once again just a compass. It was the methedrine, Ben realized—he’d taken five tablets the day before and was finishing his 17th straight hour at the wheel. In the thrall of his hallucinations, he’d steered Half-Safe wildly off course. He cut the engine, dropped anchor, and collapsed onto the cot, shivering and sweating.

The Andaman crossing marked an ominous change in Ben’s habits. So far, most of Half-Safe’s travels, however dangerous, had been well planned. But since Elinore left, his judgment had grown erratic and, at times, suicidal.

His financial prospects, meanwhile, had collapsed further. When he reached Rangoon, a letter from Deutsch’s office was waiting for him, informing him that Half-Safe was not selling. Deutsch had ordered an initial print run of 20,000 copies for the English market, but now the publisher projected that no more than 3,000 or 4,000 would be sold. The rest were being dumped to a book club. Ben would see no more royalties.


A few days after Half-Safe reached Rangoon, officials in the southeastern outpost town of Kawkareik invited Ben and his new shipmate, a fellow Australian named Barry Hanley, to a farewell party before they attempted the military road over Victoria Point. The atmosphere was that “of a joyous wake,” Ben later wrote. “[T]he officers’ feeling seemed to be, ‘These boys are real triers. They are about to die on the road tomorrow. We must give them a good send-off.’”

The next morning, 15 Burmese officers escorted Half-Safe to the road in a military truck and watched Ben and Barry head into the jungle. As the road ascended into the foothills, the pavement turned to dirt. Further up the mountain the dirt disappeared, leaving only potholed bedrock. Boulders measuring 30 inches across appeared in the middle of the trail. To get past them, Ben had to balance Half-Safe’s tires on the least-eroded sections of the road for fear of getting permanently stuck between them. In a half-hour he covered only 100 yards. “The going was far worse than anything I had ever seen,” he later wrote. Then it got worse. “[A]ll sense of comparison was gone: beyond hellish and superhellish one’s power of description breaks down.”

Fatigue took over. Ben felt nauseous and drunk; the road began to taunt him. The jungle on both sides was a sheer, impenetrable wall of bamboo, brush, and vines. By afternoon, the temperature inside the cabin had reached 145 degrees. This went on for 10 hours.

The next day, Ben and Barry finally made passage over Victoria Point. Half-Safe had left Burma, and with it the most grueling overland segment of its route. Ahead of them were miles of relatively good roads through Thailand and Vietnam, then an easy crossing of the South China Sea to Hong Kong and on to the southern shore of Japan. They made the 2,500-mile trip to Japan in under five months.

On July 25, Half-Safe pulled into Kagoshima harbor, on the southern tip of the Japanese island of Kyushu. The water was as still as glass, reflecting a sky full of stars and the smoking crater of the Shinmoedake volcano. For Ben, Japan meant he was one step closer to completion; for Barry, it meant he could escape. He jumped ship and went back to Australia. Alone again, Ben was now looking at what he knew was his most serious obstacle: the Pacific Ocean.

Ten

Tokyo

July 1956

For the next nine months, Ben holed up in various cheap accommodations around Tokyo. Journalists would occasionally make pilgrimages to meet him there; among them were reporters from Time and Life, whose magazines had enthusiastically covered Half-Safe’s progress before. But the man they found barely resembled the swashbuckling adventurer who had thrilled their readers half a decade earlier. Ben had been drinking too much, and he seemed not just depressed and embittered but deeply broken.

Elinore was long gone, and she had taken much of the project’s appeal and innocence with her. Ben now seemed too eccentric, too crazy, too dangerously obsessed. Months later, Life canceled its article. The journey was taking too long, and the public, it seemed, had lost interest.

Ben, as always, was trying to scrape together the money for the next leg of the trip and refitting Half-Safe for its final sea voyage. He was back at it with Andre Deutsch, this time suing him for breach of contract over the dismal Australian book tour, during which only 6,149 copies of Half-Safe—barely a third of the 15,000 printed for the tour—had been sold. When Ben wasn’t writing angry letters, he was tinkering with the jeep, ripping its engine apart, rebuilding it over and over, and waiting.

Finally, in April 1957, he got a break: the Standard-Vacuum Oil Company agreed to fuel Half-Safe for the North Pacific crossing to Alaska in exchange for an 18-day promotional tour of Japan. Ben prepared to start his final overseas journey the following month, and he took on a new shipmate by the name of Boyé De Mente, an American magazine editor who had been living in Tokyo for several years.

De Mente later published his own book about his time aboard Half-Safe, called Once a Fool! From Japan to Alaska by Amphibious Jeep! His account, though not confirmed elsewhere, presents the most disturbing picture on record of Ben’s behavior. According to De Mente, Ben resented taking orders from his new oil-company sponsor. He started acting crazy, getting blind drunk and going on all-night rampages in the Japanese towns they visited.

De Mente recalled being awakened one night in a hotel room he shared with Ben. Someone was falling over him. The lights came on, and De Mente saw Ben, drunk, standing in the middle of the room wearing nothing but a kimono. Beside him was a woman in her late teens or early twenties, also in a kimono. Ben had thrown her on top of De Mente.

“It’s your turn now, mate!” Ben yelled, according to De Mente. De Mente begged off, saying the girl didn’t look like she was in the mood. Ben said that it didn’t matter, then opened the kimono to show off his bruised knees. The woman tried to run, but Ben pushed her back on the bed. Finally, hotel maids arrived and rescued her. De Mente looked over at Ben, who was passed out, dead to the world. Scenes like this played out every night for weeks.

Finally, on June 12, 1957, there were no more women, no more bars, no more hotel rooms—just Half-Safe’s little cabin, with Ben at the wheel, De Mente on the back cot, and the cold, gray Sea of Okhotsk ahead of them. They launched off the dock in Wakkanai, the northernmost city in Japan, and headed northeast. Half-Safe was at last underway across the Pacific.

It took only five days for the problems to begin. Half-Safe’s fuel supply was now kept in a large steel tank towed behind the jeep, and the rope connecting the two had become hopelessly knotted, pulling them close together. When the wind came up, the jeep and the tank began crashing into each other. Ben feared that if he didn’t unravel the rope, the tank might puncture Half-Safe’s belly and possibly sink the vehicle. The only way to clear the rope was to swim under the tank and remove it. So Ben dove overboard.

Even in summer, the water in the Sea of Okhotsk was about 30 degrees. Pawing at the rope, Ben quickly lost all sensation in his extremities. One of his fingernails caught on the rope, split, then peeled back entirely; he bit down on it and ripped it off at the quick. When he pulled himself onto the deck, his entire body was covered with red and blue splotches. He got back in the cabin, started the engine, and headed east.

Ten days later, in the middle of the North Pacific heading toward the Aleutian Islands, Half-Safe again stalled. Ben had driven the vehicle over a Japanese fishing boat’s net and knotted it around the propeller. The only way to free it was to once again jump in and do it by hand. Ben stripped and dove overboard, a knife clenched between his teeth. His hands went numb instantly, and he slashed wildly at the net, unable to feel whether he was connecting with his target. The fishing boat was about 100 yards away, hauling in a net full of salmon. Ben swam toward the vessel and climbed up the net. The crew lifted him out of the water with the day’s catch and deposited him on the deck, slick with fish blood.

Ben was naked and paralyzed by the cold. The fishermen tried to slap him back to life. They dumped more coal into the galley stove and poured diesel fuel over the embers, then pushed Ben toward the flames, wrapping him in a fur coat and urging him to warm himself with an enormous bottle of sake. Ben shivered and shook and slowly came to. Lifting his eyes, he saw Half-Safe in the distance, drifting away from him. The propeller was still not clear; to free it, Ben would have to swim back out and try again. He drank a liter of sake, grabbed one of the crewmen’s knives, and dove in. When he reached Half-Safe, he sawed everything in sight, finally cutting the propeller loose.

Ben pulled himself aboard and into the cabin. He sat on the cot, shaking as though he were electrified. He was unable to speak or move. Once he warmed up, he pulled his clothes on, urinated in a can beside the driver’s seat, shut his bloodshot eyes, and went to sleep. He woke up four hours later, yelled at De Mente for urinating in the can, kicked him out of the driver’s seat, and drove onward into the night toward Alaska.

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Half-Safe crossing the North Pacific Ocean, 1957. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives
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Ben Carlin aboard Half-Safe in the North Pacific Ocean, 1957. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives

Eleven

Anchorage

September 1957

As far-fetched as the fishing-boat incident seems, it appears in both The Other Half and De Mente’s book. By this point, De Mente wrote, Ben had lost his hold on the world outside of Half-Safe, outside of the journey. He was imagining arguments that never took place, demanding that De Mente follow his orders and then chastising him when he did.

Half-Safe reached Anchorage on September 3. De Mente quit as soon as he was on dry land. Alone again, Ben set off across Alaska. At long last, he was conquering the fifth and final continent of his journey. Having waited years for this moment, he expected elation. Instead, he became terribly depressed. “With no more oceans to cross,” he later wrote, “my life was ended.”

The little world contained within Half-Safe’s steel walls had become a refuge from relationships, responsibilities, jobs, other people—and now it was on the verge of disappearing. If Ben made it back to Montreal, he’d have to start playing by other people’s rules again. “I faced return to the jungle of life as a civilian—servilisation; I would have to learn to be polite to painful numbies and to either rhapsodize or lament over the ever tiny thing,” he wrote. For years he had worried that he would never complete his odyssey; now he worried that he would.

For eight months, Ben traveled alone around the U.S., though there is little record of where he went. From his correspondence in the Guildford archives, I learned that he spent a month in Hollywood working on a film deal that never materialized, then crashed Half-Safe in a ditch after a night drinking at a friend’s house in San Francisco. He zigzagged from California to Texas to Missouri. One afternoon in Detroit, he stopped by the Ford Motor Company’s headquarters to show off what he called “the most extraordinary automobile (judged on performance) that Ford or any other manufacturer had ever produced.” The company’s public relations chief didn’t even bother to step outside and look at Half-Safe.

Ben wandered on, driving through Ohio and upstate New York. In Buffalo, an attendant at a service station became engrossed in the map of Half-Safe’s travels that Ben had painted on the jeep’s exterior. Had Ben actually been to any of those places? he wanted to know. Still, nobody seemed to believe him. He drove on, up to Canada, as if he couldn’t bring himself to finish the journey.

Finally, on May 13, 1958—seven years and 10 months after he set out across the Atlantic—Ben drove west toward Montreal, where he and Elinore had stopped in 1948. He was older now, 45, gray in the beard, and heavier. Over the past decade, Ben had traveled 39,000 miles over land and 11,000 miles over water. He had crossed four oceans and five continents to become the only person in history to circumnavigate the globe by both land and sea in the same vehicle—a distinction he still holds.

It had been a decade of planning, rebuilding, marriage, divorce, dysentery, dementia, abject poverty. Eight years of driving, breaking down, and driving some more, across sun-scorched deserts and hurricane-ripped seas, through bouts of insanity and back again. But Ben had somehow made it. He had lodged himself in one of the wilder corners of history.

As the jeep rumbled into town, there was no parade, no press, no applause to greet him. Not even the Batteys, Mac, or Elinore had shown up to welcome him. Ben was totally alone. He turned off the engine and started walking, with no particular place to go.

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Ben Carlin in the1960s. Photo: Guildford Grammar School Archives

Twelve

Perth

November 2011

Although there were hundreds of photos from Ben’s circumnavigation in the Guildford archives, there were only a few of his life during the years that followed. It was as if he had simply stopped existing after he arrived back in Montreal. The picture on the last page of the last photo album showed a much older man, overweight, sitting in a chair with a pipe in his mouth, a forced smile on his face. It took me a moment to realize it was Ben.

Ben died in 1981, Elinore in 1996. The correspondence between them after the circumnavigation was nasty. In July 1961, Ben tried to convince her to give up all the rights to the Half-Safe story; her remaining share of them, he believed, was preventing him from selling his second book. In one letter to her lawyer, he rehashed romantic arguments from their earliest days in India, and he insisted that “never did I as much as tell her that I loved her.”

Elinore returned fire, writing in a letter later that month: “I don’t propose to have any correspondence with you. What little is necessary I trust you can take part in a sane and more polite manner. I do regret that you seem to have lost all sense of proportion and humor.” She would later marry an airline pilot she and Ben had met during their stopover in Madeira.

The only living link to the Carlins that I’d found was Deirdre, Ben’s daughter, who had agreed to meet on my last day in town. She was living in Perth, working downtown as an administrative assistant at an investment firm. If I stopped by her office, she said, she would be happy to talk.

When she stepped out of the elevator and into the lobby, I had no trouble recognizing her. She was tall, with Ben’s strong chin, brown eyes, and sardonic smile. I was full of questions. In particular, I was curious about Ben’s whereabouts from the end of his trip to his death. Deirdre smiled. “Oh, so am I,” she said. “The book is basically all I knew about my father.”

Deirdre was born in 1964, when Ben was 52 and her mother, a woman named Cynthia Henderson—Carlin’s third wife—was 21. The family was living in Arlington, Virginia, but Cynthia left Ben before Deirdre was born. As far as Deirdre could remember, he never visited. The first time Deirdre heard from him was in 1978, when she was 14 and studying at a boarding school in England, and received a letter from Perth. “Dear Deirdre,” it began:

This is a strange way for us to meet after so many years.

Five years ago I retired to Western Australia. A little under three years ago, when I was about to return to the States, I was hit by a stroke which paralyzed my left side. When I was in hospital a second stroke knocked out my ability to write with my right hand.

By Christmas 1976 I had just about recovered when a third stroke paralyzed my right side; this time there was to be no nearly complete recovery. In July 1967 [sic] I went to the States expecting to recover largely. But there was no more major recovery; nor will there ever be. I cannot talk intelligibly except to those who know me. I cannot walk without crutches. I cannot write or direct my hands properly. I cannot cook.

Ben tried moving into a nursing home, but “after two days there I decided it was no place for me; I returned to my still unsold flat.” He rarely left the apartment, living off of Meals on Wheels deliveries and food donations from a neighbor. The previous August, in 1977, he suffered a fourth stroke. “I am pretty useless,” he wrote.

Sweetheart, There is a great deal to tell you but I want to be sure that what I have to tell you reaches you; I SHALL NOT EMPLOY ANY TRICKS TO REACH YOU. Everything will be quite above board, and nobody can call me a liar. There is no way of your ever seeing me unless you come here or to the States. If your mother doubts my abilities or intentions she should write to me. Have the Social Security cheques been reaching you? I have two things connected with the registration of your birth that you should have and I have for you some photographs, the manuscript of a second book, and the names and addresses of two relatives.

And I shall not die penniless.

Your loving father,

Ben

Deirdre put the letter in a drawer. Every few months, she would unfold it, read it, and put it away again. In January 1981, when she was 17, she decided to write Ben back. She was about to leave boarding school; it was time to meet her father.

Three months later, she got a response from Perth. “Oh God, I was just so excited,” she told me, smiling at the memory. “Can you just imagine? I was going to meet him, I was finally going to see my father! I just had so many plans.”

The letter was written on Ben’s typewriter and stationery, but it wasn’t from him. It was from his neighbor, writing to inform her that Ben had died of a stroke a month earlier. He died alone, without any knowledge that his daughter knew he existed. After a decade of waiting to hear from her, Deirdre’s letter to him had arrived two weeks too late.

In 1987, David Malcolm, the president of Guildford, called to invite Deirdre, who was then living in London, to come to Perth. Guildford had decided to publish Ben’s manuscript for The Other Half of Half-Safe, and Malcolm wanted Deirdre’s help editing it.

On the Guildford campus, the headmaster led Deirdre to a curious machine—it appeared to be half jeep and half boat. In hand-painted script on the port side was a name: Half-Safe.

The vehicle had been rusting away in a barn in Ohio, where Ben had abandoned it 20 years earlier after reaching Montreal. Guildford had located the jeep in 1984 and had it brought back to the school, where it would be kept on permanent display.

This was the first that Deirdre had heard about her father’s extraordinary journey, and she was dumbfounded. Her mother had never mentioned it. Now she was surrounded by artifacts of a family history she’d never known.

Ben’s friends around Perth took Deirdre in. They told her stories of Ben’s wild sense of humor and his wilder sense of adventure. And they gave her one of his battered briefcases. In it she found a collection of visas he had gathered on the Half-Safe voyage. “Just gorgeous things,” she told me, “the way they used to do them back in those days, handwritten and elegant.”

Beneath the visas was a carbon copy of a letter that she recognized immediately: It was the letter he’d sent when she was 14. There were several others, too, all addressed to Deirdre, that she had never received. Ben had been sending her letters her entire life, since she was a baby. They’d never gotten to her, apparently intercepted by her mother until she left home for boarding school.

At the bottom of the briefcase was a photographer’s contact sheet, a grid of tiny portraits. Deirdre was shocked: They were photographs of herself, at age 4, posed in a green velvet party dress, holding a beach ball, with a broken front tooth. They had been taken at the request of a man whom she was told was her uncle Fred. They had spent a single day together in London, visiting the zoo and Selfridges department store. Though she didn’t know it, it was the only day she would ever spend with her father. Ben had carried the pictures with him for the rest of his life.


It seemed as if the two halves of Ben’s adult life were, in a way, sad reflections of each other: a failed quest for the world’s affection followed by a failed quest for his daughter’s. Although Deirdre had read Ben’s books and seen the jeep, she had never actually looked through the archives, never seen the photographs and letters I had just spent a week poring over. It was a strange feeling to be sitting there, telling her the details of his forgotten life. After an hour, we said good-bye. I walked out in the pouring rain back to my hotel room and mulled over what I had learned in the past week.

Ben never made it into the canon of the 20th century’s great adventurers; it wasn’t where he belonged anyway. His quest was a send-up of the earnest heroes of his age—the peak baggers, the continent explorers, the gender-barrier busters. “By nature I am an ornery SOB in that I cannot bear to follow the mob.” he wrote. “So, when men go to sea in ships, I take a vehicle; when they tackle continents in automobiles, I prefer a boat.”

Ben was weird, and his quest was weird, which is perhaps why it didn’t resonate in the 1950s and exactly why it resonated so strongly with me. He was a deeply flawed, obsessive contrarian—and a postmodern hero ahead of his time. He took a well-worn category of adventure—a circumnavigation—and subverted it so completely that it seemed new again. In this he was perhaps a grandfather to those of us who were born too late to discover the Arctic but might be the first to try surfing it.

Of all the discoveries I made in Guildford, none baffled me more than a letter I found from 1968, sent to Ben by a woman in Perth named Gwen Hall. In it Hall related that her husband had been on a fishing trip with a friend along the north coast of Perth when they found “half a cuttlefish with some printing on it” on the beach. On the shell was written “1948 Ben Carlin Half-Safe.”

Ben, then living in Washington, D.C., wrote back almost immediately. He recalled drifting helplessly 300 miles off the coast of New York in the summer of 1948, during Half-Safe’s fourth failed attempt to cross the Atlantic. He admitted having no recollection of writing his name on a cuttlefish shell, but if it happened, he recalled, it would have happened at this time. That would mean the shell had traveled some 20,000 miles across two oceans, in defiance of their currents, over two decades, to land 200 miles from Ben’s birthplace of Northam. A totally implausible journey—but, then again, so was driving a jeep around the world.

Ben never shied away from his own mythmaking; he relished it. Despite his jokes and self-mockery, there was little doubt that he, too, wanted to matter the way the great explorers mattered—to make his mark on history. Digging through the archives, it was clear that he took this dream to his deathbed. He had scrupulously catalogued his letters, photographs, even receipts from his years aboard the jeep. It was as if he was stuffing his whole story into a bottle and casting it out to sea, hoping that it might reach someone someday who would care. 

Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!

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Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!

In 1966, Brian Wilson entered the studio to compose Smile, a Beach Boys album that he believed would change the band, and perhaps the face of popular music, forever. What happened next became legend.

By Jules Siegel

The Atavist Magazine, No. 08


Jules Siegel (1935-2012) was a writer and graphic designer whose work appeared over the years in Playboy, Best American Short Stories, Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles, and many other publications. His articles about Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Thomas Pynchon, and other prominent Americans are primary (and often unique) sources of information based on his personal acquaintance and extensive direct interviews with the subjects. He was also active in the field of book art, with works in the Artist Books Collection of the Museum of Modern Art and other institutional and private collections.

Cover Illustration: John R. Drury

Sound/Video Editor: Olivia Koski

Designer: Jefferson Rabb

Brian Wilson Photos: Michael Ochs and Ray Avery/Redferns, used with permission from Getty Images

The Smile Sessions Box Set, released by EMI Music, includes five CDs, two LPs, and two seven-inch singles of remastered Smile recordings, along with an incredible collection of archival material related to Smile. It is available in record stores and online.

Smile session music and conversation outtakes were originally recorded by the Beach Boys for Capitol Records and Brother Records. The video clip of Brian Wilson playing portions of “Surf’s Up” is from “Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution” appeared on CBS News in 1967.



Published in October 2011. Design updated in 2021.

This article originally ran in Cheetah magazine in 1967.

1.

It was just another day of greatness at Gold Star Recording Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. In the morning four long-haired kids had knocked out two hours of sound for a record plugger who was trying to curry favor with a disc jockey friend of theirs in San Jose. Nobody knew it at the moment, but out of that two hours there were about three minutes that would hit the top of the charts in a few weeks, and the record plugger, the disc jockey and the kids would all be hailed as geniuses, but geniuses with a very small g.

Now, however, in the very same studio a Genius with a very large capital G was going to produce a hit. There was no doubt it would be a hit because this Genius was Brian Wilson. In four years of recording for Capitol Records, he and his group, the Beach Boys, had made surfing music a national craze, sold 16 million singles and earned gold records for 10 of their 12 albums.

Not only was Brian going to produce a hit, but also, one gathered, he was going to show everybody in the music business exactly where it was at; and where it was at, it seemed, was that Brian Wilson was not merely a Genius—which is to say a steady commercial success—but rather, like Bob Dylan and John Lennon, a GENIUS—which is to say a steady commercial success and hip besides.

Until now, though, there were not too many hip people who would have considered Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys hip, even though he had produced one very hip record, “Good Vibrations,” which had sold more than a million copies, and a super-hip album, Pet Sounds, which didn’t do very well at all—by previous Beach Boys sales standards. Among the hip people he was still on trial, and the question discussed earnestly among the recognized authorities on what is and what is not hip was whether or not Brian Wilson was hip, semi-hip or square.

But walking into the control room with the answers to all questions such as this was Brian Wilson himself, wearing a competition-stripe surfer’s T-shirt, tight white duck pants, pale green bowling shoes and a red plastic fireman’s helmet.

Everybody was wearing identical red plastic toy fireman’s helmets. Brian’s cousin and production assistant, Steve Korthoff was wearing one; his wife, Marilyn, and her sister, Diane Rovelle—Brian’s secretary—were also wearing them, and so was a once dignified writer from The Saturday Evening Post who had been following Brian around for two months.

Out in the studio, the musicians for the session were unpacking their instruments. In sport shirts and slacks, they looked like insurance salesmen and used-car dealers, except for one blond female percussionist who might have been stamped out by a special machine that supplied plastic mannequin housewives for detergent commercials.

Controlled, a little bored after 20 years or so of nicely paid anonymity, these were the professionals of the popular music business, hired guns who did their jobs expertly and efficiently and then went home to the suburbs. If you wanted swing, they gave you swing. A little movie-track lushness? Fine, here comes movie-track lushness. Now it’s rock and roll? Perfect rock and roll, down the chute.

“Steve,” Brian called out, “where are the rest of those fire hats? I want everybody to wear fire hats. We’ve really got to get into this thing.” Out to the Rolls-Royce went Steve and within a few minutes all of the musicians were wearing fire hats, silly grins beginning to crack their professional dignity.

“All right, let’s go,” said Brian. Then, using a variety of techniques ranging from vocal demonstration to actually playing the instruments, he taught each musician his part. A gigantic fire howled out of the massive studio speakers in a pounding crash of pictorial music that summoned up visions of roaring, windstorm flames, falling timbers, mournful sirens and sweating firemen, building into a peak and crackling off into fading embers as a single drum turned into a collapsing wall and the fire-engine cellos dissolved and disappeared.

“When did he write this?” asked an astonished pop music producer who had wandered into the studio. “This is really fantastic! Man, this is unbelievable! How long has he been working on it?”

“About an hour,” answered one of Brian’s friends.

“I don’t believe it. I just can’t believe what I’m hearing,” said the producer and fell into a stone glazed silence as the fire music began again.

For the next three hours, Brian Wilson recorded and re-recorded, take after take, changing the sound balance, adding echo, experimenting with a sound effects track of a real fire.

“Let me hear that again.” “Drums, I think you’re a little slow in that last part. Let’s get right on it.” “That was really good. Now, one more time, the whole thing.” “All right, let me hear the cellos alone.” “Great. Really great. Now let’s do it!”

With 23 takes on tape and the entire operation responding to his touch like the black knobs on the control board, sweat glistening down his long, reddish hair onto his freckled face, the control room a litter of dead cigarette butts, Chicken Delight boxes, crumpled napkins, Coke bottles and all the accumulated trash of the physical end of the creative process, Brian stood at the board as the four speakers blasted the music into the room.

For the 24th time, the drum crashed and the sound effects crackle faded and stopped.

“Thank you,” said Brian into the control room mic. “Let me hear that back.” Feet shifting, his body still, eyes closed, head moving seal-like to his music, he stood under the speakers and listened. “Let me hear that one more time.” Again the fire roared. “Everybody come out and listen to this,” Brian said to the musicians. They came into the room and listened to what they had made.

“What do you think?” Brian asked.

“It’s incredible, incredible,” whispered one of the musicians, a man in his fifties wearing a Hawaiian shirt and iridescent trousers and pointed black Italian shoes. “Absolutely incredible.”

“Yeah,” said Brian on the way home, an acetate trial copy or “dub” of the tape in his hands, the red plastic fire helmet still on his head. “Yeah, I’m going to call this ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Fire’ and I think it might just scare a whole lot of people.”

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Brian Wilson, wearing a fireman’s helmet, directs a cameraman in a scene from a 1968 Beach Boys movie. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

2.

As it turns out, however, Brian Wilson’s magic fire music is not going to scare anybody—because nobody other than the few people who heard it in the studio will ever get to listen to it. A few days after the record was finished, a building across the street from the studio burned down and, according to Brian, there was also an unusually large number of fires in Los Angeles. Afraid that his music might in fact turn out to be magic fire music, Wilson destroyed the master.

“I don’t have to do a big scary fire like that,” he later said. “I can do a candle and it’s still a fire. That would have been a really bad vibration to let out on the world, that Chicago fire. The next one is going to be a candle.”

A person who thinks of himself as understanding would probably interpret this episode as an example of perhaps too-excessive artistic perfectionism. One with psychiatric inclinations would hear all this stuff about someone who actually believed music could cause fires and start using words such as “neurosis” and maybe even “psychosis.” A true student of spoken hip, however, would say “hang-up,” which covers all of the above.

As far as Brian’s pretensions toward hipness are concerned, no label could do him worse harm. In the hip world, there is a widespread idea that really hip people don’t have hang-ups, which gives rise to the unspoken rule (unspoken because there is also the widespread idea that really hip people don’t make any rules) that no one who wants to be thought of as hip ever reveals his hang-ups, except maybe to his guru, and in the strictest of privacy.

In any case, whatever his talent, Brian Wilson’s attempt to win a hip following and reputation foundered for many months in an obsessive cycle of creation and destruction that threatened not only his career and his future but also his marriage, his friendships, his relationship with the Beach Boys and, some of his closest friends worried, his mind.

For a boy who used to be known in adolescence as a lover of sweets, the whole thing must have begun to taste very sour; yet, this particular phase of Brian’s drive toward whatever his goal of supreme success might be began on a rising tide that at first looked as if it would carry him and the Beach Boys beyond the Beatles, who had started just about the same time they did, into the number-one position in the international pop music fame-and-power competition.

“About a year ago I had what I consider a very religious experience,” Wilson told Los Angeles writer Tom Nolan in 1966. “I took LSD, a full dose of LSD, and later, another time, I took a smaller dose. And I learned a lot of things, like patience, understanding. I can’t teach you or tell you what I learned from taking it, but I consider it a very religious experience.”

A short time after his LSD experience, Wilson began work on the record that was to establish him right along with the Beatles as one of the most important innovators in modern popular music. It was called “Good Vibrations,” and it took more than six months, 90 hours of tape and 11 complete versions before a three-minute-and-thirty-five-second final master tape satisfied him. Among the instruments on “Good Vibrations” was an electronic device called a theremin, which had its debut in the soundtrack of the movie Spellbound, back in the forties. To some people, “Good Vibrations” was considerably crazier than Gregory Peck had been in the movie, but to others Brian Wilson’s new record, along with his somewhat earlier LP release Pet Sounds, marked the beginning of a new era in pop music.

“They’ve Found the New Sound at Last!” shrieked the headline over a London Sunday Express review as “Good Vibrations” hit the English charts at number six and leaped to number one the following week. Within a few weeks, the Beach Boys had pushed the Beatles out of first place in England’s New Musical Express’ annual poll. In America, “Good Vibrations” sold nearly 400,000 copies in four days before reaching number one several weeks later and earning a gold record within another month when it hit the one-million sale mark.

In America, where there is none of the Beach Boys’ California mystique that adds a special touch of romance to their records and appearances in Europe and England, the news had not really reached all of the people whose opinion can turn popularity into fashionability. With the exception of a professor of show business (right, professor of show business; in California such a thing is not considered unusual) who turned up one night to interview Brian, and a few young writers (such as the Village Voice’s Richard Goldstein, Paul Williams of Crawdaddy!, and Lawrence Dietz of New York magazine), not too many opinion makers were prepared to accept the Beach Boys into the mainstream of the culture industry.

 “Listen man,” said San Francisco music critic Ralph Gleason, who had only recently graduated from jazz into Bob Dylan and was apparently not yet ready for any more violent twists, “I recognize the L.A. hype when I hear it. I know all about the Beach Boys and I think I liked them better before, if only for sociological reasons, if you understand what I mean.”

“As for the Beach Boys,” an editor of The Saturday Evening Post chided his writer, who had filed the world’s longest Western Union telegram of a story, “I want you to understand that as an individual you can feel that Brian Wilson is the greatest musician of our time, and maybe the greatest human being, but as a reporter you have got to maintain your objectivity.”

“They want me to put him down,” the writer complained. “That’s their idea of objectivity—the put-down.”

“It has to do with this idea that it’s not hip to be sincere,” he continued, “and they really want to be hip. What they don’t understand is that last year hip was sardonic—camp, they called it. This year hip is sincere.

“When somebody as corny as Brian Wilson starts singing right out front about God and I start writing it—very sincerely, you understand—it puts them very uptight.

“I think it’s because it reminds them of all those terribly sincere hymns and sermons they used to have to listen to in church when they were kids in Iowa or Ohio.

“Who knows? Maybe they’re right. I mean, who needs all this goddamn intense sincerity all the time?”

What all this meant, of course, was that everybody agreed that Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys were still too square. It would take more than “Good Vibrations” and Pet Sounds to erase three-and-a-half years of “Little Deuce Coupe”—a lot more if you counted in those J. C. Penney–style custom-tailored, candy-striped sport shirts they insisted on wearing on stage.

3.

Brian, however, had not yet heard the news, it appeared, and was steadily going about the business of trying to become hip. The Beach Boys, who have toured without him ever since he broke down during one particularly wearing trip, were now in England and Europe, phoning back daily reports of enthusiastic fan hysteria—screaming little girls tearing at their flesh, wild press conferences, private chats with the Rolling Stones. Washed in the heat of a kind of attention they had never received in the United States even at the height of their commercial success, three Beach Boys—Brian’s brothers, Dennis and Carl, and his cousin, Mike Love—walked into a London Rolls-Royce showroom and bought four Phantom VII limousines, one for each of them and a fourth for Brian. Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston, the Beach Boys who are not corporate members of the Beach Boys’ enterprises, sent their best regards and bought themselves some new clothing.

“I think this London thing has really helped,” said Brian with satisfaction after he had made the color selection on his $32,000 toy—a ducal-burgundy lacquered status symbol ordinarily reserved for heads of state. “That’s just what the boys needed, a little attention to jack up their confidence.” Then, learning that he wouldn’t be able to have his new car for three months, he went out and bought an interim Rolls-Royce for $20,000 from Mamas and Papas producer Lou Adler, taking possession of the automobile just in time to meet his group at the airport as they returned home.

“It’s a great environment for conducting business,” he explained as his friend and former road manager, Terry Sachen, hastily pressed into service as interim chauffeur for the interim Rolls-Royce, informally uniformed in his usual fringed deer-skins and moccasins, drove the car through Hollywood and to one of Brian’s favorite eating places, the Pioneer Chicken drive-in on Sunset Boulevard.

“This car is really out of sight,” said Brian, filling up on fried shrimp in the basket. “Next time we go up to Capitol, I’m going to drive up in my Rolls-Royce limo. You’ve got to do those things with a little style. It’s not just an ordinary visit that way—it’s an arrival, right? Wow! That’s really great—an arrival, in my limo. It’ll blow their minds!”

Whether or not the interim Rolls-Royce actually ever blew the minds of the hard-nosed executives who run Capitol Records is something to speculate on, but no one in the record industry with a sense of history could have failed to note that this very same limousine had once belonged to John Lennon; and in the closing months of 1966, with the Beach Boys home in Los Angeles, Brian rode the “Good Vibrations” high, driving forward in bursts of enormous energy that seemed destined before long to earn him the throne of the international empire of pop music still ruled by John Lennon and the Beatles.

At the time, it looked as if the Beatles were ready to step down. Their summer concerts in America had been only moderately successful at best, compared to earlier years. There were 10,000 empty seats at Shea Stadium in New York and 11 lonely fans at the airport in Seattle. Mass media, underground press, music-industry trade papers and the fan magazines were filled with fears that the Beatles were finished, that the group was breaking up. Lennon was off acting in a movie; McCartney was walking around London alone, said to be carrying a giant torch for his sometime girlfriend, Jane Asher; George Harrison was getting deeper and deeper into a mystical Indian thing under the instruction of sitar master Ravi Shankar; and Ringo was collecting material for a Beatles museum.

In Los Angeles, Brian Wilson was riding around in the Rolls-Royce that had once belonged to John Lennon, pouring a deluge of new sounds onto miles of stereo tape in three different recording studios booked day and night for him in month-solid blocks, holding court nightly at his $240,000 Beverly Hills Babylonian-modern home, and, after guests left, sitting at his grand piano until dawn, writing new material.

The work in progress was an album called Smile.

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The Beach Boys in Los Angeles, 1967. Clockwise from top left: Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, and Mike Love. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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Wilson in the studio, 1966. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

4.

“I’m writing a teenage symphony to God,” Brian told dinner guests on an October evening. He then played for them the collection of black acetate trial records that lay piled on the floor of his red-imitation-velvet-wallpapered bedroom with its leopard-print bedspread. In the bathroom, above the washbasin, there was a plastic color picture of Jesus Christ with trick-effect eyes that appeared to open and close when you moved your head. Sophisticate newcomers pointed it out to each other and laughed slyly, almost hoping to find a Keane painting among decorations ranging from lava lamps to a department store rack of dozens of dolls, each still in its plastic bubble container, the whole display trembling like a space-age Christmas tree to the music flowing out into the living room.

Brian shuffled through the acetates, most of which were unlabeled, identifying each by subtle differences in the patterns of the grooves. He had played them so often he knew the special look of each record the way you know the key to your front door by the shape of its teeth. Most were instrumental tracks, cut while the Beach Boys were in Europe, and for these Brian supplied the vocal in a high sound that seemed to come out of his head rather than his throat as he somehow managed to create complicated four- and five-part harmonies with only his own voice.

“Rock, rock, Plymouth rock and roll over,” Brian sang. “Bicycle rider, see what you done done to the church of the native American Indian… Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfields. … Who ran the Iron Horse? … Out in the farmyard the cook is chopping lumber; out in the barnyard the chickens do their number. … Bicycle rider see what you done done…”

A panorama of American history filled the room as the music shifted from theme to theme; the tinkling harpsichord sounds of the bicycle rider pushed sad Indian sounds across the continent; the Iron Horse pounded across the plains in a wide-open rolling rhythm that summoned up visions of the Old West; civilized chickens bobbed up and down in a tiny ballet of comic barnyard melody; the inexorable bicycle music, cold and charming as an infinitely talented music box, reappeared and faded away.

Like medieval choirboys, the voices of the Beach Boys pealed out in wordless prayer from the last acetate, thirty seconds of chorale that reached upward to the vaulted stone ceilings of an empty cathedral lit by thousands of tiny votive candles melting at last into one small, pure pool that whispered a universal amen in a sigh without words.

Brian’s private radio show was finished. In the dining room a candlelit table with a dark blue cloth was set for ten persons. In the kitchen, Marilyn Wilson was trying to get the meal organized and served, aided and hindered by the chattering suggestions of the guests’ wives and girlfriends. When everyone was seated and waiting for the food, Brian tapped his knife idly on a white china plate.

“Listen to that,” he said. “That’s really great!” Everybody listened as Brian played the plate. “Come on, let’s get something going here,” he ordered. “Michael—do this. David—you do this.” A plate-and-spoon musicale began to develop as each guest played a distinctly different technique, rhythm and melody under Brian’s enthusiastic direction.

“That’s absolutely unbelievable!” said Brian. “Isn’t that unbelievable? That’s so unbelievable I’m going to put it on the album. Michael, I want you to get a sound system up here tomorrow and I want everyone to be here tomorrow night. We’re going to get this on tape.” Brian Wilson’s plate-and-spoon musicale never did reach the public, but only because he forgot about it. Other sounds equally strange have found their way onto his records. On Pet Sounds, for example, on some tracks there is an odd, soft, hollow percussion effect that most musicians assume is some kind of electronically transmuted drum sound—a conga drum played with a stick perhaps, or an Indian tom-tom. Actually, it’s drummer Hal Blaine playing the bottom of a plastic jug that once contained Sparklettes spring water. And, of course, at the end of the record there is the strangely affecting track of a train roaring through a lonely railroad crossing as a bell clangs and Brian’s dog, Banana, a beagle, and Louie, a dark brown Weimaraner, bark after it.

More significant, perhaps, to those who that night heard the original instrumental tracks for both Smile and the Beach Boys’ new single, “Heroes and Villains,” is that entire sequences of extraordinary power and beauty are missing in the finished version of the single, and will undoubtedly be missing as well from Smile—victims of Brian’s obsessive tinkering and, more importantly, sacrifices to the same strange combination of superstitious fear and God-like conviction of his own power he displayed when he destroyed the fire music.

The night of the dining table concerto, it was the God-like confidence Brian must have been feeling as he put his guests on his trip, but the fear was soon to take over. At his house that night, he had assembled a new set of players to introduce into his life game, each of whom was to perform a specific role in the grander game he was playing with the world.

Earlier in the summer, Brian had hired Van Dyke Parks, a super-sophisticated young songwriter and composer, to collaborate with him on the lyrics for Smile. With Van Dyke working for him, he had a fighting chance against John Lennon, whose literary skill and Liverpudlian wit had been one of the most important factors in making the Beatles the darlings of the hip intelligentsia.

With that flank covered, Brian was ready to deal with some of the other problems of trying to become hip, the most important of which was how he was going to get in touch with some really hip people. In effect, the dinner party at the house was his first hip social event, and the star of the evening, so far as Brian was concerned, was Van Dyke Parks’s manager, David Anderle, who showed up with a whole group of very hip people.

Elegant, cool and impossibly cunning, Anderle was an artist who somehow found himself in the record business as an executive for MGM Records, where he had earned himself a reputation as a genius by purportedly thinking up the million-dollar movie-TV-record offer that briefly lured Bob Dylan to MGM from Columbia until everybody had a change of heart and Dylan decided to go back home to Columbia.

Anderle had skipped back and forth between painting and the record business, with mixed results in both. Right now he was doing a little personal management and thinking about painting a lot. His appeal to Brian was simple: everybody recognized David Anderle as one of the hippest people in Los Angeles. In fact, he was something like the mayor of hipness as far as some people were concerned. And not only that, he was a genius.

Within six weeks, he was working for the Beach Boys; everything that Brian wanted seemed at last to be in reach. Like a magic genie, David Anderle produced miracles for him. A new Beach Boys record company was set up, Brother Records, with David Anderle at its head and, simultaneously, the Beach Boys sued Capitol Records in a move to force a renegotiation of their contract with the company.

The house was full of underground press writers. Anderle’s friend Michael Vosse was on the Brother Records payroll out scouting TV contacts and performing other odd jobs. Another of Anderle’s friends was writing the story on Brian for The Saturday Evening Post and a film crew from CBS TV was up at the house for a documentary to be narrated by Leonard Bernstein. The Beach Boys were having meetings once or twice a week with teams of experts briefing them on corporate policy, drawing complicated chalk patterns as they described the millions of dollars everyone was going to earn out of all this.

As 1967 opened it seemed as though Brian and the Beach Boys were assured of a new world of success; yet something was going wrong. As the corporate activity reached a peak of intensity, Brian was becoming less and less productive and more and more erratic. Smile, which was to have been released for the Christmas season, remained unfinished. “Heroes and Villains,” which was virtually complete, remained in the can, as Brian kept working out new little pieces and then scrapping them.

Van Dyke Parks had left and come back and would leave again, tired of being constantly dominated by Brian. Marilyn Wilson was having headaches and Dennis Wilson was leaving his wife. Session after session was canceled. One night a studio full of violinists waited while Brian tried to decide whether or not the vibrations were friendly or hostile. The answer was hostile and the session was canceled, at a cost of some $3,000. Everything seemed to be going wrong. Even the Post story fell through.

5.

Brian seemed to be filled with secret fear. One night at the house, it began to surface. Marilyn sat nervously painting her fingernails as Brian stalked up and down, his face tight and his eyes small and red.

“What’s the matter, Brian? You’re really strung out,” a friend asked.

“Yeah, I’m really strung out. Look, I mean I really feel strange. A really strange thing happened to me tonight. Did you see this picture, Seconds?”

“No, but I know what it’s about; I read the book.”

“Look, come into the kitchen; I really have to talk about this.” In the kitchen they sat down in the black-and-white houndstooth-check wallpapered dinette area. A striped window shade clashed with the checks and the whole room vibrated like some kind of op art painting. Ordinarily, Brian wouldn’t sit for more than a minute in it, but now he seemed to be unaware of anything except what he wanted to say.

“I walked into that movie,” he said in a tense, high-pitched voice, “and the first thing that happened was a voice from the screen said ‘Hello, Mr. Wilson.’ It completely blew my mind. You’ve got to admit that’s pretty spooky, right?”

 “Maybe.”

“That’s not all. Then the whole thing was there. I mean my whole life. Birth and death and rebirth. The whole thing. Even the beach was in it, a whole thing about the beach. It was my whole life right there on the screen.”

“It’s just a coincidence, man. What are you getting all excited about?”

“Well, what if it isn’t a coincidence? What if it’s real? You know there’s mind gangsters these days. There could be mind gangsters, couldn’t there? I mean look at Spector, he could be involved in it, couldn’t he? He’s going into films. How hard would it be for him to set up something like that?”

“Brian, Phil Spector is not about to make a million-dollar movie just to scare you. Come on, stop trying to be so dramatic.”

“All right, all right. I was just a little bit nervous about it.”

Brian said, after some more back-and-forth about the possibility that Phil Spector, the record producer, had somehow influenced the making of Seconds to disturb Brian Wilson’s tranquility. “I just had to get it out of my system. You can see where something like that could scare someone, can’t you?”

They went into Brian’s den, a small room papered in psychedelic orange, blue, yellow and red wall fabric with rounded corners. At the end of the room there was a jukebox filled with Beach Boys singles and Phil Spector hits. Brian punched a button and Spector’s “Be My Baby” began to pour out at top volume.

“Spector has always been a big thing with me, you know. I mean I heard that song three and a half years ago and I knew that it was between him and me. I knew exactly where he was at and now I’ve gone beyond him. You can understand how that movie might get someone upset under those circumstances, can’t you?”

Brian sat down at his desk and began to draw a little diagram on a piece of printed stationery with his name at the top in the kind of large fat script printers of charitable-dinner journals use when the customer asks for a hand-lettered look. With a felt-tip pen, Brian drew a close approximation of a growth curve. “Spector started the whole thing,” he said, dividing the curve into periods. “He was the first one to use the studio. But I’ve gone beyond him now. I’m doing the spiritual sound, a white spiritual sound. Religious music. Did you hear the Beatles album? Religious, right? That’s the whole movement. That’s where I’m going. It’s going to scare a lot of people.

“Yeah,” Brian said, hitting his fist on the desk with a slap that sent the parakeets in the large cage facing him squalling and whistling. “Yeah,” he said and smiled for the first time all evening. “That’s where I’m going and it’s going to scare a lot of people when I get there.”

As the year drew deeper into winter, Brian’s rate of activity grew more and more frantic, but nothing seemed to be accomplished. He tore the house apart and half redecorated it. One section of the living room was filled with a full-size Arabian tent, and the dining room, where the grand piano stood, was filled with sand to a depth of a foot or so and draped with nursery curtains. He had had his windows stained gray and put a sauna bath in the bedroom. He battled with his father and complained that his brothers weren’t trying hard enough. He accused Mike Love of making too much money.

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Phil Spector (foreground, with vest) with Brian Wilson and other members of the Beach Boys and Righteous Brothers, at Gold Star Studios in 1965. (Photo by Ray Avery/Redferns)

6.

One by one, he canceled out the friends he had collected, sometimes for the strangest reasons. An acquaintance of several months who thought he had become extremely close with Brian showed up at a record session and found a guard barring the door. Michael Vosse came out to explain.

“Hey man, this is really terrible,” said Vosse, smiling under a broad-brimmed straw hat. “It’s not you, it’s your chick. Brian says she’s a witch and she’s messing with his brain so bad by ESP that he can’t work. It’s like the Spector thing. You know how he is. Say, I’m really sorry.” A couple of months later, Vosse was gone. Then, in the late spring, Anderle left. The game was over.

Several months later, the last move in Brian’s attempt to win the hip community was played out. On July 15, the Beach Boys were scheduled to appear at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, a kind of summit of rock music with the emphasis on love, flowers and youth. Although Brian was a member of the board of this nonprofit event, the Beach Boys canceled their commitment to perform. The official reason was that their negotiations with Capitol Records were at a crucial stage and they had to get “Heroes and Villains” out right away. The second official reason was that Carl, who had been arrested for refusing to report for induction into the Army (he was later cleared in court), was so upset that he wouldn’t be able to sing.

Whatever the merit in these reasons, the real one may have been closer to something Monterey board member John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas suggested: “Brian was afraid that the hippies from San Francisco would think the Beach Boys were square and boo them.”

But maybe Brian was right. “Those candy-striped shirts just wouldn’t have made it at Monterey, man,” said David Anderle.

Whatever the case, at the end of the summer, “Heroes and Villains” was released in sharply edited form and Smile was reported to be on its way. In the meantime, however, the Beatles had released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and John Lennon was riding about London in a bright yellow Phantom VII Rolls-Royce painted with flowers on the sides and his zodiac symbol on the top. In Life magazine, Paul McCartney came out openly for LSD and in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco George Harrison walked through the streets blessing the hippies. Ringo was still collecting material for a Beatles museum. However good Smile might turn out to be, it seemed somehow that once more the Beatles had outdistanced the Beach Boys.

Back during that wonderful period in the fall of 1966 when everybody seemed to be his friend and plans were being laid for Brother Records and all kinds of fine things, Brian had gone on a brief visit to Michigan to hear a Beach Boys concert. The evening of his return, each of his friends and important acquaintances received a call asking everyone to please come to the airport to meet Brian, it was very important. When they gathered at the airport, Brian had a photographer on hand to take a series of group pictures. For a long time, a huge mounted blow-up of the best of the photographs hung on the living room wall, with some 30 people staring out—everyone from Van Dyke Parks and David Anderle to Michael Vosse and Terry Sachen. In the foreground was The Saturday Evening Post writer looking sourly out at the world.

The picture is no longer on Brian’s wall and most of the people in it are no longer his friends. One by one each of them has either stepped out of the picture or been forced out of it. The whole cycle has returned to its beginning. Brian, who started out in Hawthorne, California, with his two brothers and a cousin, once more has surrounded himself with relatives. The house in Beverly Hills is empty. Brian and Marilyn are living in their new Spanish Mission estate in Bel-Air, cheek by jowl with the Mamas and Papas’ Cass Elliott.

What remains, of course, is “Heroes and Villains.” And there is also a spectacular peak, a song called “Surf’s Up” that Brian recorded for the first time in December in Columbia Records Studio A for a CBS TV pop music documentary. Earlier in the evening the film crew had covered a Beach Boys vocal session that had gone very badly. Now, at midnight, the Beach Boys had gone home and Brian was sitting in the back of his car, smoking a joint.

In the dark car, he breathed heavily, his hands in his lap, eyes staring nowhere.

“All right,” he said at last. “Let’s just sit here and see if we can get into something positive, but without any words. Let’s just get into something quiet and positive on a nonverbal level.” There was a long silence.

“OK, let’s go,” he said, and then, quickly, he was in the studio rehearsing, spotlighted in the center of the huge dark room, the cameramen moving about him invisibly outside the light.

“Let’s do it,” he announced, and the tape began to roll. In the control room no one moved.

7.

David Oppenheim, the TV producer, fortyish, handsome, usually studiously detached and professional, lay on the floor, hands behind his head, eyes closed. For three minutes and 27 seconds, Wilson played with delicate intensity, speaking moodily through the piano. Then he was finished. Oppenheim, whose last documentary had been a study of Stravinsky, lay motionless.

“That’s it,” Wilson said as the tape continued to whirl. The mood broke. As if awakening from heavy sleep the people stirred and shook their heads.

“I’d like to hear that,” Wilson said. As his music replayed, he sang the lyrics in a high, almost falsetto voice, the cameras on him every second.

“The diamond necklace played the pawn,” Wilson sang. “A blind class aristocracy, back through the opera glass you see the pit and the pendulum drawn.

“Columnated ruins domino,” his voice reached upward; the piano faltered a set of falling chords.

In a slow series of impressionistic images the song moved to its ending:

I heard the word:
Wonderful thing!
A children’s song!

On the last word Brian’s voice rose and fell, like the ending of that prayer chorale he had played so many months before.

“That’s really special,” someone said.

“Special, that’s right,” said Wilson quietly. “Van Dyke and I really kind of thought we had done something special when we finished that one.” He went back into the studio, put on the earphones and sang the song again for his audience in the control room, for the revolving tape recorder and for the cameras that relentlessly followed as he struggled to make manifest what still only existed as a perfect, incommunicable sound in his head.

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Brian and Marilyn Wilson, 1965. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

8.

At home, as the black acetate dub turned on his bedroom hi-fi set, Wilson tried to explain the words.

“It’s a man at a concert,” he said. “All around him there’s the audience, playing their roles, dressed up in fancy clothes, looking through opera glasses, but so far away from the drama, from life—‘Back through the opera glass you see the pit and the pendulum drawn.’”

“The music begins to take over. ‘Columnated ruins domino.’ Empires, ideas, lives, institutions—everything has to fall, tumbling like dominoes.

“He begins to awaken to the music; sees the pretentiousness of everything. ‘The music hall a costly bow.’ Then even the music is gone, turned into a trumpeter swan, into what the music really is.

“‘Canvas the town and brush the backdrop.’ He’s off in his vision, on a trip. Reality is gone; he’s creating it like a dream. ‘Dove-nested towers.’ Europe, a long time ago. ‘The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne.’ The poor people in the cellar taverns, trying to make themselves happy by singing.

“Then there’s the parties, the drinking, trying to forget the wars, the battles at sea. ‘While at port adieu or die.’ Ships in the harbor, battling it out. A kind of Roman empire thing.

“‘A choke of grief.’ At his own sorrow and the emptiness of his life, because he can’t even cry for the suffering in the world, for his own suffering.

“And then, hope. ‘Surf ’s up! . . . Come about hard and join the once and often spring you gave.’ Go back to the kids, to the beach, to childhood.

“‘I heard the word’—of God; ‘Wonderful thing’—the joy of enlightenment, of seeing God. And what is it? ‘A children’s song!’ And then there’s the song itself, the song of children, the song of the universe rising and falling in wave after wave, the song of God, hiding the love from us, but always letting us find it again, like a mother singing to her children.”

The record was over. Wilson went into the kitchen and squirted Reddi-wip direct from the can into his mouth, made himself a chocolate Great Shake, and ate a couple of candy bars.

“Of course that’s a very intellectual explanation,” he said. “But maybe sometimes you have to do an intellectual thing. If they don’t get the words, they’ll get the music. You can get hung up in words, you know. Maybe they work; I don’t know.” He fidgeted with a telescope.

“This thing is so bad,” he complained. “So Mickey Mouse. It just won’t work smoothly. I was really freaked out on astronomy when I was a kid. Baseball, too. I guess I went through a lot of phases. A lot of changes, too. But you can really get into things through the stars. And swimming. A lot of swimming. It’s physical; really Zen, right? The whole spiritual thing is very physical. Swimming really does it sometimes.” He sprawled on the couch and continued in a very small voice.

“So that’s what I’m doing. Spiritual music.”

“Brian,” Marilyn called as she came into the room wearing a quilted bathrobe, “do you want me to get you anything, honey? I’m going to sleep.”

“No, Mar,” he answered, rising to kiss his wife good night. “You go on to bed. I want to work for a while.”

“C’mon kids,” Marilyn yelled to the dogs as she padded off to bed. “Time for bed. Louie! Banana! Come to bed. Good night, Brian. Good night, everybody.”

Wilson paced. He went to the piano and began to play. His guests moved toward the door. From the piano, his feet shuffling in the sand, he called a perfunctory goodbye and continued to play, a melody beginning to take shape. Outside, the piano spoke from the house. Brian Wilson’s guests stood for a moment, listening. As they got into their car, the melancholy piano moaned.

“Here’s one that’s really outasight from the fantabulous Beach Boys!” screamed a local early morning Top 40 deejay from the car radio on the way home, a little hysterical as usual, his voice drowning out the sobbing introduction to the song.

“We’re sending this one out for Bob and Carol in Pomona. They’ve been going steady now for six months. Happy six months, kids, and dig! ‘Good Vibrations’! The Beach Boys! Outasight!”

My Mother’s Lover

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My Mother’s Lover

A true story of romance, war, and two families’ search for the man who bound them.

By David Dobbs

The Atavist Magazine, No. 05


David Dobbs (www.daviddobbs.net) writes features and essays for publications including The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Wired, and The Guardian. Several of his stories have been chosen for leading science anthologies; most recently, his much-discussed feature “The Orchid Children,” was included in Ecco/HarperPerennial’s Best American Science Writing 2010. He is now writing his fourth book, The Orchid and the Dandelion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which explores the genetics of temperament—and the idea that the genes underlying some of our most troublesome traits and behaviors also generate some of our greatest strengths and accomplishments.


Additional Reporting and Sound/Video Editor: Olivia Koski

Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

Photographs: War photos, by Norman Zahrt (when Zahrt pictured)

Photo of author and his mother by Herman Dobbs

Designer: Jefferson Rabb

Music: Nicholas Thompson

Editor: Evan Ratliff

Special thanks to: the Zahrt Family, Alice Colwell, Cynthia Jane Dobbs, Allen Dobbs, Ann Dobbs, Herman Dobbs, Sarah Violet Kerrigan, Kathy Hall, Jimmie Holland, Chris McDermott, Maryn McKenna, Adam Rogers, and Steve Silberman



Published in June 2011. Design updated in 2021.

Twenty Questions

The February after my mother died, my brother, Allen, left his New Mexico home and boarded a plane for Honolulu. He carried a backpack that carried a rosewood box that carried our mother’s ashes. The next day, on Maui, he bought six leis and rented a sea kayak. With the leis in a shopping bag and our mother’s ashes in his pack, he paddled into the Pacific.

That day nine years ago was the sort one hopes for in the tropics: warm and balmy, with a breeze that pushed cat’s paws over the water. Beyond the mouth of the bay he could see rising plumes, the spouts of humpback whales gathered to breed. He paddled toward them. When he was closer to the whales than to the shore, he shipped his oar and opened his pack. He pulled out the box and sat with it on his lap, letting the boat drift. He watched the distant spouts. Without any prelude, a whale suddenly but gently surfaced about 30 yards in the distance and released a gush of air. It bobbed, noisily breathed, and dove.

Allen wouldn’t get a better cue. He lifted the leis one at a time and dropped them onto the water. They formed a loose, expanding circle around him. He turned the latch on the box and opened it; the contents looked denser and darker than he expected. They shished and gently rattled when he tilted the box. He had traveled a long way to bring her here, but there wasn’t much to return. Five pounds of hard ash. He tilted the box and poured her into the sea. Evelyn Jane Hawkins Preston Dobbs, as if eager to get there, dove straight for the bottom.

Four months earlier, she had been lying in a bed in Houston’s Methodist Hospital, where decades before she and my father had trained as physicians and where she had given birth to four of her six children. She had long been fearsomely strong. Tough? we used to joke. Our mother’s so hard you can roller-skate on her. Now she struggled to breathe. Her once thick hair lay thin and dank. Tubes fed and drained her. Purpura stained her skin. She was 80 years old and had been sick for most of the previous decade—breast cancer, hip replacement, bowel obstruction, pelvic stress fracture, arthritis, pulmonary fibrosis. She’d had enough. “A stroke,” she said. “Why can’t I just have a stroke and die?”

Allen, an emergency-room doctor, stood at the head of the bed holding her hand. “Mom, I hate to say it. But a fatal stroke is about the only thing you don’t seem at risk of.”

“Damn it, Allen, I’m a doctor, too,” she said. “I’m quite aware of that.” Allen looked at us helplessly. Until then it had seemed as if the world would need her permission to finish her. Now she had given it. She closed her eyes. Allen shuffled. No one said anything. After a while she said, “Children, I want to talk about later.”

“OK, Mother,” said Sarah. Sarah was the fourth of the six children, the one who lived nearest to her and had done the most to look after her. “What about later?”

“When I’m gone,” she said, “I’d like to be cremated.”

This was new. In the past, she had talked about getting buried next to her father, who was in a leafy cemetery in Austin.

“OK,” said Sarah.

“And I want you to spread my ashes off Hawaii. In the Pacific. Will you do that for me?”

“Sure, Mom,” said Allen. “We can do that.” My mother smiled at him and squeezed his hand.

“Mother?” Sarah asked. “May we ask why the Pacific?”

She closed her eyes. “I want to be with Angus.”

We children exchanged glances: Had anyone seen this coming? Heads shook, shoulders shrugged.

What we knew of Angus was this: Angus—the only name we had for him—was a flight surgeon our mother had fallen in love with during World War II, planned to marry after the war, but lost when the Japanese shot him down over the Pacific. Once, long ago, she had mentioned to me that he was part of the reason she decided to be a doctor. That was all we knew. She had confided those things in the 1970s, in the years just after she and my father divorced. I can remember sitting in a big easy chair my dad had left behind in her bedroom, listening to her reminisce about Angus as she sat with her knitting. I remember being embarrassed, and not terribly interested.

I was interested now. Even 30 years before, her affair with Angus had been three decades old. Now, 60 years after he had fallen into the sea, she wanted to follow him.

“Of course,” said my brother. “We’ll do that for you, Mom.”

A week later, seemingly on the mend, she was sent home to the elder center where she lived. For a week or so she continued to gain strength. But then she started to have trouble breathing, was admitted to the home’s care center, and, on her second day there, suddenly stopped breathing. Despite a standing do-not-resuscitate order, the staff tried three times to revive her, to no avail. The doorman told me later that when the ambulance arrived and the medics rolled her out, she was “blue as can be, Mr. Dobbs. Blue as can be.” The hospital, too, tried to bring her back, and they were still trying when Sarah arrived. By that time, our mother was brain dead but alive and could breathe only with a tube. Exactly what she sought to avoid. Sarah gathered her strength and told the nurses that this was against her mother’s wishes and she must insist they remove the breathing tube. “It was like jumping off a cliff,” she told me later. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was harder than pushing out a kid.” The nurses called the doctors. As they pulled out the breathing tube, my mother bit down on it. Sarah screamed, “Oh my God she’s fighting for life!” The doctors assured her that this was a common reflex and tugged it free.

Then they left. Sarah sat next to the bed and put her head next to my mother’s and held her hand. With the tube gone, her breathing slowed. Sarah cried against her neck. It took about 10 minutes. Finally, the room was quiet.

An hour later, my brother, sitting in his car on the side of the highway in New Mexico, called me to tell me she had died.

“So it wasn’t a stroke,” he said after we’d talked a while. “But at least it was fast.”

“Have to admire it,” I said, laughing. “Mom always got pretty much what she wanted.”

Or so a child likes to think.


By the time Allen got her to Hawaii, three months had passed. After the memorial services in Texas, I returned to my home in Vermont, where the coldest winter in a generation had the place in a lock. When I opened Allen’s email describing the ceremony he had fashioned, I sat at a desk overlooking the North Branch of the Winooski River, frozen three feet deep and topped by three feet of snow. I read my brother’s email, looked at the pictures, looked out my window, read his email again. I wondered how much you could discover about a person 60 years dead when all you knew about him was that his name was Angus, likely a nickname. I’d had three weeks to ask my mother such things before she died—three decades, actually—but had not. Now, with the snow outside and Hawaiian light sparkling in my head, I picked up the phone and called my mother’s cousin Betty Lou.

“What do I know about Angus?” said Betty Lou, repeating my question. Betty Lou has a beautifully soft north Texas accent. She was down in Wichita Falls, Texas, where she and my mother had grown up together, sometimes in the same house, much as sisters.

She took a deep breath. “Well, there’s not a whole lot I knew about Angus. But I knew his real name was Norman, I’m pretty sure it was, and he came from Iowa. He was divorced. They met in San Antonio when he was stationed there awhile. She was out of her head with that man. At one point, when he got stationed to Hawaii, she followed him clear out there for a while. He ended up getting sent way out in the Pacific—Guam, Iwo Jima, somewhere like that—and got killed right near the end of the war.”

“How’d she find out?”

“Somebody in his outfit wrote her. Letter actually got there after the war ended. And that letter, David, just about destroyed your mama. She could not be consoled. Weeks. I’ve never seen anybody grieve like that. Before or since. She did eventually pick herself up and go on, because you knew her, David—your mama was a strong woman. She even scared me sometimes. But I’m not sure she ever got over losing Angus.”

“You remember his last name?”

“Best I recollect, was Z-something. Zert, Zaret, Zart. Something like that.”

“You sure it started with a Z?” I asked. “That could make things a lot simpler.”

“I hope so, David. Because beyond that it gets pretty dang complicated.”

It took me about 20 minutes online to find a copy of the World War II Honor List of the Dead and Missing, State of Iowa. The book was just scanned pages, not digitized, with the names listed alphabetically by county. All I had to do was scroll down to the end of each county’s listings, past the Adamses and Joneses and Moores and Smiths and Thompsons. There were not too many Zs. I found him about halfway through the book, at the end of the listings for Johnson County:

ZAHRT NORMAN E 01700383 CAPT M

The M meant he was missing.

I started searching genealogy sites for anyone in Iowa named Zahrt. Every time I found someone, I sent an email saying I was seeking information about a Captain Norman E. Zahrt, who was a close friend of my mother—sometimes I phrased it as “a dear friend of my mother”—who according to a letter she received was either killed or went missing in action toward the end of the war. I sent about a dozen of these emails and got a few replies, all negative. After a couple weeks, I opened my email one morning and found a new response:

David,

What a surprise to get an email from you. Yes, my father is Norman Zahrt. My mother is Luella. Norman and Luella had two children: David born Sep 37 and Christy born Jan 40. I have attached a file which I presume you can open. It is Norman’s graduating medical school class. Please let me know whether or not you can identify Norman.

I don’t have words to describe the mixed emotions that come to me when I revisit this issue. I’ve come to learn that in the process of growing up one accumulates scars. And that the challenge is learning to own your scars, and live them.

You can imagine that this inquiry fills me with questions.

I didn’t have to imagine the questions. He listed 19 of them:

1. What prompted this search?

2. How long has the notion of this search been ‘brewing’?

3. What brings you to the point of finding Norman’s descendants and asking these questions?

4. What is your mother’s name?

5. What was your mother’s occupation?

6. Do you have a picture of her you could share with us?

7. Are you certain that Norman and your mother met in San Antonio?

8. If so what was your mother doing at the time in San Antonio?

9. Was your mother in the military?

10. Was she assigned to Hawaii?

11. Did she travel to Hawaii with the express purpose of seeing Norman?

12. Did your mother affirm that Norman was divorced, or did you receive that information from a secondary source?

13. Who was Norman’s friend who wrote to your mother after the war?

14. Is Norman’s friend still alive?

15. Can we reach Norman’s friend?

16. Is your father still alive?

17. Can you tell us a little bit about your father?

18. Did he know that his wife wanted to be with Norman?

19. What else can you tell us about your mother?

As you can imagine this is, to say the least, an interesting surprise. My sister and I would like to entertain a continuing exchange with you, but this is probably enough to begin with.

david

I had never seen a note at once so prosecutorial and generous. I dithered for days. Finally, I wrote and answered all 19 of his questions as best I could.

When David, along with his sister, Christy, responded, they did so with an openness that showed they really did want to own their scars. My mother posed as big a mystery to them as their father did to me. We began a long collaborative search—dusty records, strained recollections, tree-shaded graveyards—that ends, for lack of a better marker, with the story I’m about to tell you.

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Angus and Evelyn Jane on arrival in Hawaii, 1944

San Antonio

For years my mother wore a gold locket. When I was a boy, I liked to pull it up from inside her blouse on its chain, tugging it up from between her breasts so I could squeeze the curved button that ran along one edge and make the curlicued gold cover, heavily sprung, pop open to reveal a photograph of my mother’s grandparents. On an elegant chair sat her grandmother and namesake, Ivy Evelyn Stone, a formidable-looking woman wearing a full skirt, a fuller blouse, and an immensely confident expression. Next to her chair stood her husband, Gene, a railroad engineer in their hometown of Wichita Falls. Especially in Wichita Falls, a railroad town, this was a high-status position then, like that of an airline pilot 50 years later. He is dressed in suit and tie, hair slicked, with his hand on the back of the chair.

I viewed this portrait as a fair representation of the distant world from which my mother came: a stable, solid existence full of aunts and uncles and her mother and father and grandparents all living toughly but carefully in the high bright sunstruck towns of north Texas. The picture agreed with the steady, accomplished, morally sturdy person I and many others knew my mother to be. But it hid the fact that she came from a world that moved violently beneath her feet.

When my mother was young, her grandmother Ivy Evelyn, the one in the locket, was about the only person in her life that moved steadily, trainlike, along predictable lines. My mother’s own mother, Clara Lee, ran fast and wobbly. In Wichita Falls, she earned a reputation as a rounder, meaning she got around. Soon after finishing high school, Clara Lee moved to Dallas, where she met and married George Hawkins, an 18-year-old busboy who shared her notion of a good time. This notion quickly produced my mother, Evelyn Jane, but it did not produce a steady marriage. They split within a year. Clara Lee took my mother back home to Wichita Falls, and Clara Lee’s mother soon found herself tending young Evelyn Jane, first occasionally, while Clara Lee went out, and then full-time, when Clara Lee fled alone back to Dallas. Ivy had barely finished raising Clara Lee to adulthood. Now she was raising Clara Lee’s 2-year-old.

My mother proved a cheerful, obedient girl—an ardent student popular with her schoolmates and lively and memorable enough to appear in a novel (If Wishes Were Horses, now long out of print and unobtainable) that a childhood friend wrote a couple decades later. She grew up keenly aware of what constituted proper behavior. Dark remarks about her mother stung. Yet, soon after she graduated high school, she got serious with a local man named Carroll Preston, and within a year she married him. She was 19, and he was only a year older. In some ways, this marriage seemed to reject Clara Lee’s errant path for Ivy’s straighter track. The story about my mother’s wedding on the society page of the Wichita Record-News, October 8, 1940, mentions her mother only at the very end. Still, soon after the wedding she became pregnant. Preston tried to make a go of it, working at a restaurant, but there are hints she found him boring, and they soon divorced.

And so at 22, Evelyn Jane Hawkins Preston found herself in a position remarkably similar to the one her own mother had occupied two decades prior: She had a high school degree, a young daughter, a divorce, no husband, and few work prospects, and she lived with her parents—who, after an interval of almost 20 years, had remarried each other. This actually made Clara Lee’s sixth marriage and George’s fifth, for they had both married promiscuously since their divorce. This marriage, however, would last almost 25 years, until George died in 1967.

That my mother’s parents steadied only after letting others raise her must have chafed. Yet my mother made the most of it, letting Clara Lee help raise Lynn and, in an elegant Oedipal coup, enjoying some time with her father, whom she adored. A picture from this period shows my mother dancing with her father before a Christmas tree: she trim and pretty in a dark dress, he dapper and nimble in a pin-striped suit. Somewhere off-camera, presumably, Clara Lee tends Lynn.


It was about this time, in 1943 or early 1944, that my mother took a job at one of the cafeterias at Kelly Air Force Base, just outside San Antonio. The war was in full roar, and the base was growing rapidly, with pilots and crews training for the Army Air Forces.

Sometime in 1943, one of those crews brought Norman Eldridge Zahrt to Kelly. Norman had arrived in Texas the year before, bringing his own overstuffed baggage. Born January 5, 1915, he was almost six years older than my mother. He had lived a fairly ordinary boyhood in Marengo, Iowa, where his parents farmed corn. He did his share of farmwork, fished, and shot photographs, publishing at least one, of a tornado spout, while in high school. He was strikingly handsome and known for surprises. He surprised his family, for instance, by becoming the first Zahrt to attend college, at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, 30 miles southeast of Marengo.

He surprised them again in the middle of his senior year by eloping with Luella Sprague, who had graduated as valedictorian at Marengo’s only high school and was attending a teachers college in Iowa City. During their Christmas vacation in 1936, Norman and Luella drove 200 miles west to Elk Point, South Dakota, a border town suited to a quick wedding. David, their first child, arrived exactly nine months later. Luella dropped out of teachers college. Norman finished his bachelor’s and then startled everyone further by entering the University of Iowa medical school. Christy, David’s sister, followed the year Norman got his M.D., 1940.


n the fall of 1942, when Norman was starting an obstetrics residency, he was drafted by the U.S. Army Air Forces. He went to Florida for basic training and then, over a 14-month stretch beginning in January 1943, to several Texas air bases. He fetched Luella, David, and Christy from Iowa, and they settled in Houston, where he sometimes worked at Ellington Air Force Base. David and Christy remember the house being on Houston’s western outskirts so Norman could easily travel west to San Antonio. Sometime that year he met my mother.

If Luella felt any foreboding at all this change, it would have been hard to separate from a wariness natural to her experience. Her father died two weeks before she was born. Her mother died when she was 3 years old. When she was 9, her adoptive mother died.

Now, in January or February of 1944, when she and Norman and the kids had been in Texas for just over a year, Norman informed Luella that he was going to Mississippi. There he would train as a flight surgeon for the Air Forces’ Fourth Emergency Rescue Squadron, or 4th ERS, a new sort of outfit that would specialize in rescuing pilots shot down over water. It was hazardous duty and would pay accordingly. He would train for three months in Gulfport Mississippi, then head for the Pacific. In March he put Luella and the kids on a train to Iowa and moved east. About that time, he wrote his best friend from college, Don Reese, that he was trying to arrange for his lover, a woman named Evelyn Jane whom he had met in San Antonio, to follow him to Gulfport. When they could not pull that together, they turned their focus to Hawaii. My mother, aided by an acquaintance of her father’s who was in the Army Air Forces, secured a job in Oahu, where the 4th ERS was to move in July. To get the job, she had to sign a contract promising to stay for a year. She left for Hawaii that summer, probably June, by way of Seattle.

She was chasing a man with two small children. And she was leaving her own 3-year-old, my half-sister Lynn, with the very parents who had abandoned her 20 years prior.

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A radiant domesticity, October 1944

Hawaii

Of their time in Hawaii no letters survive, nor diaries, and Angus’s military records are skeletal. But there are pictures, and the pictures tell a tale.

Angus had time to take a lot of them. The 4th ERS found themselves mostly idle in Hawaii, waiting for planes coming from the West Coast and then for the Allies to take and secure the bases in Guam, Saipan, and Iwo Jima that were the 4th’s ultimate destination. Angus performed physicals on the men and taught swimming—something, as a fellow medical officer in the unit later said, it seemed it might be useful to know.

Dozens of his photos now occupy an album my mother left in a box full of other things so varied and trivial that my sister almost tossed the whole lot. The leather cover is crumbling, and the thick pages have browned, but the photos, corner-mounted, remain sharp and clear. Amid pictures of buddies in flight suits, of Angus smoking in the bubble of a gunner’s window on an Army plane, of men playing cards, of a tired-looking Angus reclining bare-chested in a plywood easy chair, are pages and pages of Angus and Evelyn Jane.

They look like newlyweds. One photo appears as if it could be a snapshot of the day my mother came off the boat. It bears no date but carries a distinct air of arrival. She and Angus are walking down a sidewalk still patchily wet in the Hawaiian sunshine, as if a shower has just passed over. My mother, who liked to dress up, looks sharp in a tailored trench coat and sunglasses. She carries a newspaper under one arm and smiles cheerfully but with a slight wariness, as if the picture is a bit more than she would like on the record. Close beside her—there isn’t an inch between them—walks Angus. He wears his khaki uniform and leather jacket. He beams.

If my mother looks a bit recalcitrant in that photo, she seems to have lost all such reservations by October, the date on the back of a series of 10 photographs of the couple playing with a half-dozen puppies on the front lawn of a ranch house. Several photos show one or the other of them holding a puppy, and a handful of photos show both of them with the puppies, first standing and playing with one wiggly, short-haired pup, then sitting on the grass playing with the entire litter. A house stands conspicuously behind them. While it’s possible that this was someone else’s house and someone else’s puppies, no one looking at these pictures would think so. They reek of an effort to record a happy domesticity. They are family portaits. Of course, they probably were not living together; it’s hard to see how Angus would have been allowed to live off base. Yet the two of them certainly seem, to use a phrase of delicacy my mother would later favor, familiar with each other.

Other shots show Angus and Evelyn Jane with a merry group of young men and women in bathing suits playing croquet on a wide lawn, with palm trees beyond; posing on a porch, with my mother looking particularly lovely; and in a scandalous, highly posed shot, with the two of them lying on the beach on their sides, propped up on their elbows and facing each other. They gaze out at the sea, but they are all but pressed against one another in the sand: a half-roll and a juicy smooch and they’d be Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster.

They look good, even marvelous in some of these photos. Yet, in others an anxiety seems to pervade. They had to know that their time together would end in war. And they had left kids behind. You can’t find a single photograph here that looks the same when you view it with that in mind.

Around the time these photos were taken, Angus wrote Leulla asking for a divorce.

One later photograph looks very much like the one of her arrival yet utterly different in its subtleties. Again they walk down the street, again a sailor passes behind. This time, though, palm trees rise in the background. Angus wears his summer khakis with no jacket, and a soft garrison cap has replaced the billed crusher he wears in the earlier picture. His tie is tucked into his shirt placket. My mother also wears a khaki suit, skirted. It bears above the left breast an insignia that seems to be wings. She has got herself into something, some auxiliary outfit supporting the USAAF. She’s doing her part.

So what’s different? They look hot and tired, and where before perhaps an inch separated them, now a foot of tense emptiness stands between. Angus, hidden behind aviator sunglasses, walks slightly in front and to one side. He manages a defiant dignity by looking straight at the camera. But my mother turns an ashen face away from both Angus and camera. She looks distinctly as if she wishes she were somewhere else. Was she suddenly feeling ashamed? Had she and Angus been fighting? Had the regrets latent in the earlier photographs broken into the open? Or had the rolled-up papers in Angus’s front pants pocket—awkward to carry but apparently too important to discard—brought bad news?

Bad news found them at least twice in Hawaii. The first time was in late November, when Luella wrote Angus refusing the divorce. Whether Norman told my mother of this setback no one knows. The other ill tidings arrived in December, when the Army Air Forces ordered the 4th ERS to Saipan. Angus would ship out in January. Evelyn Jane, having signed on for a year, would remain in Hawaii—her lover 3,000 miles west, her daughter 3,000 miles east—another six months.

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Angus, deployed in Saipan

To War

The Fourth Emergency Rescue Squadron sailed from Oahu on January 19, 1945, aboard the USS President Johnson, a transport ship that had been around since 1903. It stopped at Midway, then, dodging Japanese subs on the way, reached Saipan, in the Mariana Islands in the far western Pacific, on February 6. According to a surgical tech’s account, the Johnson arrived with 10 female crew members: “seven WACs, two WAVES, and one Nurse, all pregnant. We just couldn’t avert everything.” The 10 women took the next ship home. The men met their duty.

If Norman craved adventure, the deployment almost surely answered. The Emergency Rescue Squadrons had been formed in the summer of 1943 to consolidate the Army Air Forces’ prior efforts to rescue air crews shot down or forced to ditch. In Europe, the ERS units worked out of the United Kingdom and, later, Italy. In the Pacific, they hopscotched west and then north along the long curve of coral archipelagos—New Guinea, the Philippines, the Marshalls, the Marianas, and finally Iwo Jima—that the Allies took to secure bases in their slow, bloody push toward Japan. Taking these islands required some of the war’s most horrific battles, indeed some of the most savage fighting the world has ever known. Hundreds of thousands died. The battle of Iwo Jima alone killed almost 7,000 American servicemen and some 19,000 Japanese. During this push, the ERS units played a small but critical role. Before their arrival, 80 percent of the Allied pilots shot down in the Pacific theater died or were taken prisoner. Once the Emergency Rescue Squadrons began working out of their far Pacific bases in 1944, they rescued more than half of the downed pilots, saving several thousand men. Angus’s unit alone, in the roughly 200 days it spent at Saipan and then Iwo Jima, flew 862 missions, rescuing 577 airmen.

The ERS crews relied heavily on two planes. One was the B-17, the flying fortress that was the war’s busiest bomber. The B-17 could fly up to 2,000 miles, and pilots and crews loved it because it could keep flying after suffering extraordinary damage. Dozens of these planes flew home with huge holes torn by anti-aircraft fire or enemy fighter planes. One survived having most of its nose torn off. Another famously had its tail section all but severed in a collision with an enemy fighter yet still made it back to base, where the tail collapsed on landing. B-17’s also ditched well, floating up to half an hour, whereas the B-29’s and B-25’s that shared bombing duties in the Pacific usually sank in seconds. The B-17’s used by the rescue squadrons were adapted at the factory to leave the bomb-bay area largely empty. Each carried under its belly a 27-foot lifeboat that could be dropped by parachute to downed airmen.

The rescue squadrons also flew the Catalina PBY— a flying boat. The Cat’s wings and engines sat atop its boat-shaped fuselage, allowing the plane to land and take off in seas with waves as high as six feet. The PBY served well as either patrol plane or light bomber. Several squadrons’ worth, the Black Cats, were painted flat black to hide them from radar and anti-aircraft gunners when dive-bombing Japanese ships at night. Like the B-17, the PBY had enough range to support distant bombing missions. It carried a crew of eight, some of whom manned heavy machine guns in the plane’s nose and sides if the plane encountered fighters.

Rescue could be dangerous, dirty work. In the Pacific, the crews typically flew in support of the endless sorties of heavy bombers and support fighters that were attacking Japan every day. As the warplanes neared their targets and began taking fire, the rescue planes would hang back and circle, monitoring their radios for word of downed planes. If a B-17 found a crew in the water, it would drop its boat, then radio for a ship or submarine to rescue the pilot. A PBY might do the same or attempt a direct rescue.

These attempts were always risky, as the PBY was slow, lightly armed, and not terribly sturdy. Even successful rescues could be harrowing. One such rescue, for instance, occurred in March 1945, when a Navy Corsair fighter-bomber was shot down just 300 yards off the island of Koror, a thousand miles east of the Philippines. A Navy PBY piloted by a lieutenant named Fred Hopkins went in for the rescue, despite heavy anti-aircraft fire from shore. As Hopkins descended, a round of flak slammed the bottom of the plane so hard that Hopkins turned and headed offshore, expecting to have to ditch the plane. When his crew found they weren’t holed, he circled back and landed near the downed pilot as artillery shells exploded so close they threw water onto the plane. The crew tossed the swimming pilot a line, but the plane’s tail passed over it and tugged it from his hands. Hopkins spun the plane around for another try, but again the line slipped the pilot’s grasp. Finally, Hopkins drove the plane practically right over the downed pilot. The crew leaned out of the gun blister and hauled the bleeding pilot in by his life jacket, and Hopkins spun the plane into the wind and took off. They got the pilot back to base alive.

By the time the 4th ERS reached Saipan, Angus and his mates had heard such stories and plenty more with sadder endings. The Allied advance had taken enough territory from the Japanese that everyone knew what might await a crew shot down and captured. One PBY crew had been downed, captured, tortured, and then, as a spectacle to raise morale for the Japanese, dragged one at a time before the assembled troops, made to kneel, and beheaded with swords. This is why even pilots who didn’t know how to swim ditched at sea rather than on land.

Angus and his mates lived first in tents, then in plywood huts. The photos Angus mailed to my mother—most of them two-inch-square prints, a few blown up larger—show him and his buddies first building and then living in these large, open barracks. He sent shots of his mates playing cards and posing in combat garb and flight gear—Angus wearing full leathers with a fur collar, a bulky parachute, and a Mae West life vest, a .45 automatic on his hip. He took many shots of long, photogenic B-29’s with hyperfeminized mascots painted near the cockpit: Long Distance, a lounging, gowned brunette talking on a telephone; Heavenly Body, a bikini blonde astride a 500-pound bomb; Battlin Betty III, a Grable likeness curled atop a crescent moon. On the back of a two-by-two-inch print of a B-29, Patches, adorned with an absurdly leggy hillbilly blonde, Angus had written:

28 April 45

Saipan

“It ain’t necessarily human” —

look at the angle on that – uh – er – –

breast.

The angle of which is indeed most improbable.

Angus, perhaps enjoying extra privilege as both a captain and a doctor, received a corner area in the barracks, with room for a plywood writing desk and easy chair. The album holds a notable quartet of photos of Angus sitting in that chair. In one he reads. In another he smiles groggily. In a third he appears to sleep. In the last, he looks as if he’s tiring of either the photos or the photographer or the war or everything. On the wall behind him in these photos, tucked into a strap in his hanging suit bag, is a large print of a brunette in pinup pose. She reclines, apparently on a bed or couch or floor, with her arms up and bent so that they frame her face, her hands gently holding her wrists on the cushion just above her head. Within this tiny two-by-two-inch print, the pinup occupies less than an eighth of an inch square. I had to use a loupe to tell whether the woman was wearing a blouse. I had to use a magnifying glass and a bright flashlight to see that she was my mother. 

It’s not clear how often they wrote. Mail moved slowly—weeks to clear the censors, miles, chaos, and bureaucracy between Saipan and Oahu. Later, when my mom had returned to San Antonio, the letters, three or four weeks old, came every week or two. For six months, though, separated from both lover and daughter, she had only the mail with which to bind what she hoped would be a new family. Apparently, nothing in Angus’s letters made her doubt those hopes. Yet the war promised to stretch on endlessly.

Lost

Pushing the Japanese across the Pacific had required enormous savagery and persistence. No amount of firebombing—the USAAF was incinerating thousands, even tens of thousands of civilians a day now—seemed to weaken Japan’s resolve. Almost no one knew about the atomic bombs that would soon fall and speed the war’s end. By June, when my mother sailed back to the States, the Allies’ plans called for five more months of heavy bombing followed by a massive ground invasion. Most people expected the war to run into 1946.

On July 22, Angus wrote my mother asking if she had gotten back to San Antonio yet. He complained of heat, dust, bad food, thirst, of never getting enough water, of waking during a sudden storm to try to catch rainwater with the tent flaps only to have the rain stop as soon as he was outside and wet. He bemoaned “the 2-3 inches backwards you slide in this sand with each step, which makes me very tired.” All that, he wrote, “coupled with an extreme lethargy from the heat, I guess, left me pretty depressed. There’s nothing very good about this letter, I guess. It’s about as lifeless as I feel.”

Three days later, in the first hours of July 25, Angus was with the 4th ERS detachment at Iwo Jima when a call came in for a B-17 search and drop. Amid especially heavy bombing on the 24th, with hundreds of bombers igniting firestorms in multiple cities on the Japanese mainland, a P-51 pilot had been hit and bailed out near Lake Hamana, a coastal bay 150 miles west of Tokyo. The 4th readied a B-17 to find him.

Angus was not on flight duty that night. He was free to stay on base. B-17’s often flew without flight surgeons anyway, since they never picked anyone up. But the commotion either woke him from sleep or rescued him from its pursuit, and he gathered his gear and cameras, donned his flight suit, and joined the crew of nine aboard a B-17 known as Jukebox 21. Since he had no functional role, he was, in technical and bureaucratic terms, a passenger.

The crew aimed to hit the coast near first light, find the pilot, and drop him a lifeboat. A U.S. submarine, the Peto, lurked nearby ready to fetch him. Jukebox 21 cleared the runway at 0245 hours and headed almost dead north toward Lake Hamana, 750 miles away. At 225 miles an hour, it would reach the coast in about three and a half hours. The crew didn’t have to worry about enemy fighters—the Japanese Air Force had by then been decimated—but they surely expected anti-aircraft fire, and given the bombing the area had suffered lately, they could expect the anti-aircraft crews to be inspired. Only a month before, the Allies had firebombed the city of Shizuoka, just east of Lake Hamana, and destroyed more than half the city, killing over 10,000.

But Jukebox was well-maintained: a sturdy plane crewed by experienced men and a pilot who’d flown a full tour in Europe before joining the 4th in Iwo Jima. It was a good night to fly, dark but clear. And it was always a relief to climb from the heat of the islands into cooler air.

They called in right on schedule on their first two hourly radio checks, at 0345 and 0445. But at 0545, Jukebox neither called nor responded.

The 4th ERS waited several hours, then sent 12 planes on a search for them. For two days, in rotating flights out of Iwo Jima, Angus’s squadronmates and other crews searched for them, systematically working grids between Jukebox’s last radio position and Hamana Lake. No one found a thing. Months later the unit’s commander, William Lindsey, wrote the father of Jukebox’s radio operator, Sergeant Charles Hurn, that “the disappearance of this plane has always been a complete mystery.” It was the 4th’s worst loss of the war, and its last. Three weeks after Jukebox went missing, Japan surrendered.

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Jukebox 21, with personnel from the Fourth Emergency Rescue Squad on board, goes missing

Personal Effects

My mother had moved back to San Antonio in June, and in the days just after the war ended, as she readjusted to life with her mother and father and daughter and cousin there, two letters reached her from Iwo Jima. The first was Angus’s of July 22, lamenting the heat and sand. “I love you very much,” he reassured her. “I miss you always, but not acutely, for the demands of my environment haven’t given me time to think of it too much.” The second letter, arriving a week or two later, was written by one of Angus’s squadronmates. It informed her that Angus’s plane had disappeared, that a two-day search had turned up nothing, and that the crew were now presumed dead.

With this letter, the last she would ever receive from or about Angus, my mother became a survivor of the unfound. 

Luella’s notice came through more official channels, and it came faster. She was informed in early August that Angus was missing. Later, she may or may not have received the sort of letter that Commander Lindsey had written in October to Charles Hurn’s father, explaining that the crew were presumed dead. She did receive, in October, $500 worth of war bonds that Norman owned, along with his last paycheck, for $209. Luella, who had moved to Iowa City earlier that year, responded with a change of address and a note saying that it was “reasonable, almost a certainty, that my husband had more money than this amount.” She asked Lindsey to please help her find out where it was. Conceivably, she suspected my mother had it. Lindsey wrote back saying no other funds were found or known of.

Then, around Thanksgiving, the Army quartermaster’s office sent something more substantial: Angus’s footlocker, which contained the personal effects he had left in his bunk area. The accompanying inventory listed four pairs of khaki pants, seven khaki shirts, two ties, one pair of boots, and one pair of eyeglasses; one medical-notes zipper case, one medical manual, and one Basic History of the U.S.; one set of dominoes; one record player (broken); one box of camera attachments, the camera having gone missing with Angus; and one “bundle miscellaneous.” Did that miscellany include the pinup photo of my mother? Did it include her letters? It seems reasonable, but far from certain, that Angus’s cabinmates removed all of that before someone packed and sent his things. One hopes so.

When Luella received the footlocker, a year had passed since she had refused Norman’s request for a divorce. She had refused on the advice of a lawyer who essentially told her, “Not now. It’s a war and he’s half a world away. Let the war end. Let another year pass. If he still wants a divorce then, fine. But not now. It’s a war. Everybody’s crazy.” This proved good legal advice. Had they divorced, Luella would have lost substantial death benefits for both her and her children, who went to college on them. And had Angus lived, it might have proved good marital advice. But as it was, even as Angus’s personal effects made it harder for Luella to leave him behind, her refusal to release him earlier allowed Angus to now leave her yet again. Having been abandoned three times by her parents, Luella had now been thrice abandoned by Norman, as well: when he volunteered for the rescue squadrons, when he fell for my mother, and when he fell from the sky.


Luella was not alone, however. She had David and Christy, now 9 and 5, to care for. And soon she had a new love, her husband’s old college friend, Don Reese.

Reese had grown up in Turin, Iowa, and met Norman at the house of a fraternity they both joined at the University of Iowa. Though he did not attend medical school afterward, Don took a pre-med curriculum alongside Angus. It was then that he met Luella through Angus. Meanwhile, he already had a love of his own: a young woman named Nell, whom he’d known since he was a boy. In Don and Angus’s last year at college—the same year Angus married Luella, and perhaps inspired by that union—Nell began to press Don for marriage. Don’s parents objected, and he balked. He and Nell remained at this impasse when Don graduated and took a job in Chicago.

A year later, still at odds, he convinced Nell to move to Chicago for the summer so they could be near each other. She did and found a job at the Bon Air Country Club. Family accounts of that summer are vague. According to one, they spent a lot of time quarreling over Don’s continued fence-sitting. One evening late in August, soon before Nell would have to return to school, Don arranged to pick her up after work. He parked across the street from the Bon Air and waited. After a while, Nell emerged and started across the street. For whatever reason—distraction, tension, emotional confusion, fatigue, the late hour—she failed to notice an oncoming car. As Don watched, the car ran over Nell, killing her instantly.

Three years later, not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Don enlisted in the Navy. For four years, he served as a medical corpsman on landing craft in the Pacific, undersupplied and overwhelmed, struggling to patch together Marines torn to bits in the beach landings. When the war ended, he was discharged and returned to Iowa City. There he learned that Norman had died. Returning to old haunts, he ran into Luella right about the time she received Angus’s footlocker. They married the following October.

According to David and Christy, Don and Luella seemed always haunted by the ghosts of their lovers as well as by things never said or done. Back in 1944, for instance, it was Don to whom Angus had written to tell of his hopes of bringing my mother with him to Gulfport. Did Don ever tell Luella that he had known this? Whether shared with Luella or held close, his knowledge of Norman’s affair, and the complicity it created, had to prove an awkward weight, and only one among many. Don and Luella were, says Christy, an affectionate couple, but they carried burdens and resentments that rose not so much from each other as from the losses they had suffered. “We grew up in anger soup,” Christy later recalled. My mother, of course, was a key ingredient.

In their house, says Christy, the name Norman Zahrt was rarely heard. “We learned,” says Christy, “that you just didn’t bring it up.”

Luella was doing the best she could to forget Norman. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, someone else was trying to dig him up.

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Angus in flight, in one of dozens of photos he sent Evelyn Jane in Hawaii and then Texas

Until They Come Home

Norman was one of tens of thousands of World War II soldiers, sailors, and airmen missing when the fighting stopped. In the months and years after the war ended, a section of the Army quartermaster’s office called the Graves Registration Services began a relentless effort, which continues even today, to locate them. One of the GRS’s first steps was to send crews to Japan to find crash sites. Using local interviews, archeological excavation, forensic exams, medical and dental records, and Missing Air Crew reports, they sought to find and identify the bodies of those missing.

In the early summer of 1946, a GRS team working near Hamana Lake learned that a B-17 had crashed there on July 25 the previous year. Locals said they had buried ten crewmen nearby. The team searched the area and found only a bit of a propeller and a few random parts—enough to know they’d found a B-17 but not to identify it.

A year later, another GRS team returned and found more wreckage, including three engines. The serial numbers conclusively identified the plane as Jukebox 21. They also found ten badly decomposed bodies buried in shallow graves. The bodies showed no bullet holes, blade marks, or other signs of attack. Many had crushed ribs and shattered bones in their hands, feet, and lower legs—injuries common in violent crashes. Locals in the area confirmed that the plane crashed on July 25, 1945, amid heavy anti-aircraft fire. Graves Registration concluded that Jukebox was downed by anti-aircraft fire and that the crash killed all aboard.

But the excruciatingly difficult task of identifying the dead remained. GRS could not simply say that the ten bodies found near Jukebox 21 were those of the ten crewmen listed in the plane’s missing air-crew report. They had to definitively identify each.

By this time, the GRS had established a large cemetery and forensics center in Yokohama. There they examined each of the bodies found near the Jukebox crash site and compared them with medical and other records for the plane’s crew members. They quickly identified six of the ten, but they felt enough doubt about the other four that they left them unidentified; they became Unknown Bodies X-408, X-412, X-415, and X-416. The skeletons of X-408 and X-416 were fairly complete, with a few bones missing from hands, feet, and lower legs. Scavengers or the crash impact had reduced X-412 and X-415 to fragments of skull, jaw, torso, and upper legs.

Graves Registration wrote the families of the six identified airmen and sent their remains home. It did not contact the other four crew members’ families, which included Norman’s. For a year, the four bodies lay buried in Yokohama while the GRS, in triage fashion, worked through more-promising cases.

In autumn 1948, however, the Service reexamined Norman’s file and lit on two pieces of information that the first examiners had either lacked access to or failed to notice. One was a record of distinctive dental work that Norman had received while in Saipan and were thus missing from the dental records made at his military induction. The other was a note in his medical history, probably easy to overlook, that as a boy he had broken his collarbone. With these two bits of information foremost, the GRS reexamined the forensic-exam files of the four unknowns remaining from the Jukebox 21 crash site. The file showed that Unknown X-408’s forensic exam the year before had shown a long-healed break in the left clavicle—and dental work matching that described in Norman’s dental record. A series of double-checks, sign-offs, and bureaucratic confirmations made it official: Unknown X-048 was Captain Norman E. Zahrt.

The letter notifying Luella reached her during her third Christmas with Don, in 1948:

QMGMF 293
Zahrt, Norman E.
SN 01 700 783

20 December 1948

Mrs. Luella Zahrt
617 Rundell
Iowa City, Iowa

Dear Mrs. Zahrt,

We are desirous that you be furnished information concerning the resting place of the remains of your husband, the late Captain Norman E. Zahrt.

The official report of burial has been received and discloses that the remains of your husband were originally buried at Yakute, Arai-Machi, Hamana-Gun, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, but were later disinterred by our American Graves Registration Personnel, properly identified, and reinterred in Plot USAF, Row 23, Grave 1129, United States Armed Forces Cemetery Yokohama #1, Japan, located at Yokohama on the island of Honshu, Japan.

The report further indicates that these remains have now been casketed and are being held at the United States Armed Forces Mausoleum, Yokohama #2, Japan, pending disposition instructions from the next of kin, either for return to the United States or for permanent burial in an overseas cemetery.

There are enclosed informational pamphlets…”

James F. Smith
Major, QMC
Memorial Division

Major Smith asked Luella to promptly complete a Request for Disposition of Remains so the quartermaster could send her the body.

Luella, ignoring the many questions raised by this letter, wrote the quartermaster to ask just one: Given that she had remarried, was she still next of kin? The quartermaster replied that she was not: Her remarriage gave Norman’s parents the sole right to designate his final disposition. She would hear no more from the Army.

Angus’s father, who meantime had moved to Long Beach, California, asked that Angus’s body be sent to Golden Gate National Cemetery for burial. The casket arrived in early July. On July 18, 1949, almost four years after Norman was killed, Norman’s parents stood across from a color guard and a chaplain and buried their son. Perhaps understandably, Don and Luella, once Norman’s best friend and wife, did not attend.

“There were any number of reasons not to go,” said Christy, decades later. “It was a long way from Iowa, of course, and you didn’t just pack up four people and fly in those days. It was probably far beyond our means.

“Besides, my mom was still mad at him. I guess she figured she had already buried him.”

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Herman Dobbs, Evelyn Jane (center), and Jimmie Holland, a friend

Houston

My mother knew nothing of all this. Not being kin, she received nothing from the government, and Norman’s family knew nothing of her identity and likely wouldn’t have told her anything if they had. But she was not sitting around waiting for mail. She was studying medicine.

She had enrolled at San Antonio’s Trinity College in the fall of 1946; she burned through the curriculum in three years and then entered Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine in September 1949. She was a 28-year-old single mother with an 8-year-old and no parental support, but she was a far more focused person than she had been five years before. She had become the woman that both her Baylor classmates and everyone who met her later knew: smart, funny, and charming, as always, but also immensely disciplined and not one to cross.

She met my father during her first year at Baylor, where he was one class ahead of her. He came from Hempstead, Texas, a small town west of Houston, and was seven years younger than she. He was tall, handsome, shyly funny, and one of Baylor’s sharpest students. They fell in together a year after she graduated, in 1953, when they were both interning in St. Louis. They married three years later and soon had Allen, the first of five children. For a time they must have seemed a couple blessed—two smart, attractive, agreeable young doctors spawning a passel of bright kids. Yet somewhere my mother’s second shot at happiness went awry. My father, while enormously talented and beloved by many of his patients, lacked any knack for self-promotion or pricing. He stayed busy but was only modestly prosperous compared with his more mercenary peers. My mother, meanwhile, reveled in her rise through Houston’s medical culture. She was elated to make the Who’s Who one year and kept that dark blue volume prominently shelved among her counseling-room reference books. She began to resent my father’s seeming lack of ambition even as he grew uneasy with her own excess of it. Their fights grew more frequent. Over time and with each battle she grew louder and he quieter. Finally, he fell silent: His long work days mashed together so thoroughly that when he moved out, we were so used to not seeing him that my mother actually got away with waiting several days to tell us. They divorced in their 17th year.

My mother tried to take this stoically, but it showed. She often looked tired, and she was more likely to cry if one of us acted stubborn or mean. If I raised my voice, she would either lay into me with trembling jaw or, worse, sit down and wipe her eyes with her fingertips and say in a cracked voice, “Oh, Davey, I don’t see why you insist on being so … so … hateful about things. Why are you so angry at me?” Once, furious at my brother and me for some adolescent idiocy, she hollered us into the car, backed it squealing onto the street, slammed it into gear, and floored it. A few seconds later, we reminded her that she had forgotten something—I don’t remember what, but it was essential to her mission. She hit the brakes so hard, we did a one-eighty. Around us rose the smell of burnt rubber. My brother and I faked smiles of thrilled, cocky pleasure. But we did not speak, lest our voices crack with fear.

Amid all this, there’s a danger of missing how much fun my mother was and how much love she created. She played the piano (moderately well), played bridge (gleefully), punned (ruthlessly), and sang, exuberantly, in the church choir, the kitchen, the shower, the car—at every excuse. She liked to garden. She didn’t do it often, but on those occasions when as a boy I would seek her out and find her standing out front pruning the rose bushes or sitting in the backyard planting monkey grass, she seemed at peace. Some of this was the warm relaxation brought by working outside. But as a father now myself, I suspect that some of the happiness I sensed at these moments was the incomparable pleasure of being sought and found by one’s children. I had first to search the big house, nine rooms on two floors, then yell out the back door. On hearing her distant response, I am running. I let the screen door slam and fly through magnolia shade until the bright sun along the driveway slows me and I find her sitting at the edge of her rose garden. She wears old jeans, a green smock, and pale blue gardening gloves. The pruning shears, laid aside, bend but do not flatten the stiff blades of the Saint Augustine grass. She looks up, and with the back of her sleeve she pushes her black curls from her forehead and gives me a wondrous smile. She delightedly says my name. This smile will embarrass me at other times. But now it completely drives from my head whatever inspired this search only moments before. She smiles that radiant smile, and when she asks me what brings her the pleasure of this visit, I can’t recall what I’ve come to her for. Clearly this.

My mother’s romance with Angus formed a pivot on which her life turned. She credited him with inspiring her to pursue medicine, and with this new focus she moved from a self-destructive course to a life more disciplined, elevated, and rewarding. Her affair with him, even as it indulged her mother’s brand of impropriety, lifted her from the gravity of Clara Lee’s example. But it took an enormous toll. It undermined the lives of Angus’s widow and children for decades. And to my mother, Angus—the one love she lost to bad luck rather than failed effort—remained forever the idealized lost chance. His death took from her not just any happiness she might have found with him but also the ability to find peace with someone as gentle as my father. Angus had opened a door to happiness that, once closed, shut her out forever. The sound of it slamming echoed a long time.

And not just for her. Christy Zahrt once visited me in Vermont, driving all the way from Nevada to do so, and after a long afternoon at my backyard picnic table, excavating our past, she said, “Sometimes it’s hard to get your head around this. Everybody ended up married to somebody they wished was somebody else. Don married Luella but wished he was married to Nell. Luella married Don but wished she was married to Norman. Your mom married your dad but wished she was married to Norman. And your dad was the only one who didn’t know about any of this, and he ended up wishing he’d married someone else anyway.”

When I stopped laughing, Christy said, “We’re obviously not siblings—we can’t be, because Norman died way before you were born. Yet I feel as if somehow we are.”

I said I’d been thinking the same thing.

“Except, of course, if Norman and Jane had stayed together,” she said, “you wouldn’t be here.”

I had thought of that, too.

Given how different my parents were, their marriage would almost certainly have failed even without Angus in my mother’s past. Yet I believe my mother resisted that failure more ferociously and took it more bitterly, and blamed my father all the more, simply because my father was not Angus. My father was kind, smart, funny, strong, generous, and handsome. But he was not restless, daring, or self-absorbed. He did not exude the narcissist’s glow. After he left, my mother hinted at her resentment by telling us the fragment of the Angus story we possessed at her death. Her tale boiled down to this: She’d known real love once, by God, but lost it.

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My mother and me

Finding Angus

One afternoon a few weeks ago, when I was scrolling through the photographs for this story, my 9-year-old son, looking over my shoulder at pictures of Evelyn and Angus in their youth, asked me if I thought that telling this story would be OK with my mom. I told him I thought it would. I had once asked David Zahrt how he felt about this story going public. “The past is approved,” he said, “and the future is open”—another way of saying we must own our scars rather than wish them away. And to my mind, my mother had told us twice that she was finally ready to release her past, and thereby own it.

The first tell was her request that we put her in the Pacific. She had to know this amounted to a public declaration. I think that’s why she looked so relieved when she asked us to take her to Angus. It’s work, hiding these things.j

The other tell was the locket—the one holding the picture of her grandparents. About a year before she died, my mother sent the locket to her cousin. Betty Lou found it unsettling. The locket seemed a fitting thing to share, yet the timing made Betty Lou worry that my mother was declining and that this gift represented a good-bye.

That locket had held the same picture for almost a century. Yet when Betty Lou pressed the button and the locket popped open, she did not see the photograph of her grandparents. She saw a photograph of Angus.

Had my mother kept Angus’s picture behind that of her grandparents all those years? We agreed she must have. It’s not as if she would cut out his picture and put it there just to send to Betty Lou.

So it appears she had carried Angus with her all that time. It had been there when as a boy on her lap I tugged it up from between her breasts so I could look at it. Instead of Angus, of course, I had seen my mother’s grandparents. She had put them there because she loved them. But she had also put them there to cover and protect Angus’s memory: one past to cover another, just as she built one life to encase an earlier one.


A decade ago, I began chasing Angus as a way to better know my mother. A year ago, I went to see him. I did this partly as a way of once more visiting my mother, of drawing from her, in my mind at least, the smile she had once given me in the garden. To make sure Angus did not slip away yet again, I carried all the information needed to find him: the name of the cemetery, his grid, row, and plot number. I had built an empty half-day into the end of a Bay Area business trip. When I finished my work, I got out my phone, opened Google Maps, and found the big national cemetery at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. It would be a two-hour walk across the San Francisco hills.

For April it was warm. Sometimes I would reach the top of a hill and see the bridge shimmering in the heat and distance, bigger each time. As I walked, feeling myself growing both excited and tense, I told myself that I was excited to finally meet Angus and tense because I had not yet worked out what I wanted to say.

I found the cemetery down by the water, just as the map showed, along one shore of the lovely old fort called the Presidio, and walked through the stone gates. To my right rose the bridge. Before me opened a broad rolling landscape of precisely laid rows of white headstones. A couple hundred yards up the driveway stood a visitor center. Attached to the building, right next to the door, was a little box that said “Grave Finder.” You turned a ratcheted wheel to the last name you were looking for and it would give you the grave location. I turned it to Z—but found no Zahrt. I checked everything and did it again. No Zahrt. I stood there like an idiot, alone and dumb amid thousands of silent headstones, and tried to figure out what was amiss. Either the Grave Finder had the wrong information or I did. I walked back so I was among the gravestones and again opened Google Maps on my phone. Again I checked my entry for the grave information. And then, knowing what was coming, I Googled “Golden Gate National Cemetery.” And I found that, behold, the Golden Gate National Cemetery is not the national cemetery that lies at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. That cemetery is the San Francisco National Cemetery. The Golden Gate Cemetery is eight miles south, in a place called San Bruno.

I looked at my watch. My plane was leaving in three hours. I would have to visit Angus another time. For now, surrounded by dead strangers, I could only sit in the grass and laugh. My sister Cynthia laughed, too, when I called her later and told her the story.

“That man,” she said, “is simply not to be found.”

A month later, contriving another business trip and taking another long, warm walk, I finally found Angus, on a bright slope in San Bruno. The Golden Gate National Cemetery sits surrounded by strip malls and big-box stores and six-lane suburban boulevards. Yet its gentle rolling expanse and the well-kept severity of its close-mown grass offer dignity and peace. Norman’s stone stands near an oak tree among the graves of others buried in 1949, none of them killed in the war. Many of the stones designated these men as “Son of” or “Husband of.” Some had the names of wives, buried there, too, carved into the reverse side. Norman’s contains no mention of family.

I sat for an hour, thinking of him lying here for 50 years while my mother thought he was still in the Pacific. When we granted her wish and flew her to Hawaii to join him, we instead left him far behind. Now she was slowly dispersing in the Pacific while he lay buried neat and deep in San Bruno; it would take a lot of time and rain to bring them together. If we had saved some ashes, I could have sprinkled some on his grave. But we had not, and I did not want to leave a picture that would just get thrown away. My mother would not have liked that. So I took some photographs and walked past a few thousand headstones and past the big-box stores and back to the train.

Later, at home, I made a two-inch-square print of Angus’s resting place. I found the photograph my brother had emailed me from Maui years before, showing our leis floating over my mother’s ashes, and I made a two-inch-square print of that. Then I opened my mother’s crumbling photo album and slipped the pictures into the two remaining empty sets of corner mounts. I considered pulling those mounts off and pasting the photos closer to one another. But I thought, No: My mom had glued those holders in that way, and I shouldn’t change it. This was as close as I could get them.

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My mother’s long-kept photo album

Piano Demon

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Piano Demon

The globetrotting, gin-soaked, too-short life of Teddy Weatherford, the Chicago jazzman who conquered Asia.

By Brendan I. Koerner

The Atavist Magazine, No. 01


Brendan I. Koerner is an award-winning journalist and the author of Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier’s Flight From the Greatest Manhunt of World War II (Penguin, 2008), which he is currently adapting for Spike Lee. He is also a contributing editor at Wired whose work regularly appears in The New York Times, Slate, and many other publications. Find him at www.microkhan.com or on Twitter @brendankoerner.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Special Thanks: Susheel Kurien, who is currently working on a documentary about the Calcutta jazz scene; Naresh Fernandes, author of a forthcoming book about jazz and Bollywood; Jehangir Dalal, who generously shared his Weatherford-related correspondence; Amba Kak, our Calcutta correspondent; Bradley Shope of the University of North Texas; Peter Darke and Ralph Gulliver of Storyville; the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; the University of Missouri-Kansas City Library; the Chicago Public Library; the William P. Gottlieb Collection at the Library of Congress; and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Published in January 2011. Design updated in 2021.

1. Calcutta, 1945

The man they called the Seagull was lost in a thunderous solo, his vast hands skipping across the piano keys as his rhythm section strained to keep pace. Sweat pooled around the collar of his white sharkskin suit, but Asia’s greatest jazz star was too juiced on highballs to mind the monsoon broil. He just rocked back and forth on his three-legged stool, attacking the tune.

Beneath the unadorned stage at the Winter Garden, an open-air nightclub at Calcutta’s Grand Hotel, hundreds of young bodies moved to the music. There were American GIs in crisp tan uniforms, British Tommies blotto on gin, and Anglo-Indian girls looking for love, all illuminated by lanterns strung from the columns and arches that ringed the dance floor. Waiters in starched red jackets darted between the whirling patrons, carting off the remnants of chicken dinners and baked Alaskas.

But one American soldier wasn’t joining in the mirth. He stood motionless at the foot of the stage,  snarling. By his side was his unusual pet, recently liberated from the forests of Assam, more than 500 miles to the northeast: a young sloth bear the size of a Siberian husky, with a heavy chain draped around its neck.

The soldier had a problem with the color of the pianist’s skin. And he decided to make his opinion known by turning his pet into a missile.

“Here, Teddy!” he shouted as he chucked the bear toward the stage. “Here’s your brother!”

The bear slammed into Teddy “Seagull” Weatherford and, startled by its sudden flight, sank its claws into the pianist’s coat. Scraps of fabric flew about the stage like confetti as the dancers froze and gawked.

The bear continued tearing its way through Weatherford’s clothes until the thickset pianist finally cast off his ursine assailant. Weatherford was tempted to leap into the crowd and pummel the jerk who’d tossed the poor beast, but he kept his cool. Such loutish behavior would be unbecoming for a man of his status.

And so despite his tattered coat and lacerated flesh, Weatherford sat back down at his piano and resumed playing. Dancers grabbed their partners and trays of drinks made the rounds as if the bear attack had only been a dream. No racist son of a bitch was going to make Weatherford look the fool in Calcutta.

This was his town. Calcutta belonged to Teddy.

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Teddy Weatherford (right) aboard the SS President Hoover with violinist Joe McCutchin.

2. The Count Basie of the Far East

The Lower Circular Road Cemetery in Calcutta, where esteemed British soldiers and diplomats were once laid to rest, is in appalling shape. Cracked tombstones lie hidden beneath clumps of scraggly vines, and piles of pulverized red brick litter the muddy ground. Genealogists who scour the plots for an ancestor’s grave often discover that it has vanished entirely, lost to decades of neglect.

In one of the cemetery’s most forsaken corners, a large crypt shows traces of having been ransacked by thieves. Its granite lid has been pried loose, allowing armies of insects free passage in and out of the vessel. The marble headstone is overgrown with weeds, which must be hacked away in order to read the inscription:

In loving remembrance of TEDDY WEATHERFORD Died 25th April 1945 A WONDERFUL PIANIST AND FRIEND. May his soul rest in peace.

Weatherford usually receives no more than a skeletal paragraph in jazz histories. His Wikipedia entry is thinly sourced and error-ridden; his music is almost entirely absent from the Internet. He is the sort of figure whom scholars typically dismiss with a single, damning noun: footnote.

But in his heyday, Weatherford was a giant of American music, a singular artist who was revered on both sides of the Pacific even before the advent of jet travel. When he died in the waning days of World War II, 40,000 grieving Calcuttans lined the city’s streets to watch his flower-strewn casket pass. Back in the U.S., the nation’s leading black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, mourned the untimely demise of the man they called the Count Basie of the Far East:

Well known throughout the Far East where he had spent the last 20 years, Teddy came to Calcutta from Shanghai, China shortly after the Jap invasion there. Since the outbreak of the Pacific war, resulting in thousands of American troops being stationed here, Weatherford had become a byword among GIs. Nightly both white and colored soldiers accompanied by the Anglo-Indian version of the bobby socks girls crowded the dance floor at the Wintergardens, for Teddy’s band produced the best jitterbug music out here. Tall, dark with a thick head of bushy hair he also presented one of the most colorful spectacles in this city of many races as he and his attractive Anglo-Indian wife moved from place to place.

Weatherford was more than just a romantic troubadour. He was the quintessential embodiment of the American dream: Born into desperate circumstances, Weatherford leveraged an innate talent and an appetite for risk into a kind of success that his forebears could never have imagined. But to find it, he would have to abandon his native land and seek his fortune a world away.

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3. Millionaire Town

In the earliest years of the 20th century, there were few places in America more outwardly prosperous than Pocahontas, Virginia. The town’s streets were lined with elegant homes boasting ornate metal facades custom-manufactured in the foundries of St. Louis. An opera house played host to traveling Broadway productions and the very best in vaudeville entertainment. A few miles away, just across the West Virginia state line, lay the Victorian mansions of Bramwell, an enclave so affluent that it was known nationwide as Millionaire Town.

The money flowed thanks to the abundance of coal, mined in Pocahontas and hauled off to power the textile mills of the Carolinas, the steel plants of Ohio, and the giant excavating machines just beginning to dig through the Isthmus of Panama. The local mine had opened in 1882 and was purchased in 1891 by the Norfolk & Western Railway, of which the Pocahontas Coal and Coke Company was a subsidiary. The company specialized in a strong-arm business tactic: purchasing coal from the region’s other mines at heavily discounted prices. Mines that refused to play along were denied access to the Norfolk & Western’s routes to key markets such as Cincinnati; Durham, North Carolina; and the bustling ports of eastern Virginia. It was a supremely profitable racket for the men atop the railway’s hierarchy.

The men who actually liberated the coal from the earth, by contrast, risked life and limb for the slimmest rewards. Central European immigrants and African-Americans worked side by side in the Pocahontas mines, harvesting fuel with pickaxes and sticks of dynamite. They were paid in scrip redeemable only at the overpriced company store and treated to a single communal bath each week. Their homes were wooden hovels located on the town’s rural outskirts, where hungry panthers occasionally preyed on small children.

To transport the coal from the mine’s bowels to the surface, miners piled it onto tramcars that wobbled toward the iron doors separating the pitch-black tunnels from the outside world. Stationed just inside these doors were trapper boys, sometimes just four or five years old. Their job was to open the doors to let the trams pass, as well as bring some much-needed ventilation into the mines. They worked 12-hour shifts in near total darkness for roughly seven cents a day. Among their ranks was an African-American boy named Theodore Weatherford.

Weatherford was born in Pocahontas in 1902 or 1903, in the kitchen of the shack owned by his father, Jack, a veteran miner and the son of slaves. Sent to work as a trapper boy when he was barely old enough to speak in full sentences, Teddy exhibited early affinities for both music and mischief. “He was musically inclined from the start, and he wouldn’t stay at home,” one of his brothers, Sam Weatherford, would recall years later. “We never knew where he was. He worked on the tramway up to the mine, all the boys did, but he got the boys in a band to play music. Then he started playing himself.”

The Pocahontas mines where the Weatherford males toiled were notoriously lethal. In 1884 the town was the site of what remains one of America’s worst mining disasters, an explosion that claimed the lives of all 114 men on duty. Despite the ensuing cry for stricter safety measures, fatal accidents occurred with alarming regularity. In one 1901 incident, at least 13 men were killed and 25 severely injured by fire and poisonous fumes. Eight of the dead were mine officials who rushed into the tunnels to assist with the rescues, only to be overcome by blackdamp gas and then eaten by giant rats. Five years later, another 21 men were incinerated in a massive explosion that caused the earth to tremble miles away.

A similar tragedy, though, may actually have saved Teddy from a life belowground. In 1907, Jack Weatherford was nearly killed in a mine explosion. The accident left him blind and deaf, unable to provide for his family. So young Teddy was sent across the state line to Bluefield, West Virginia, to live with his much older sister, Lovie Poindexter. Fortunately for Teddy, Lovie’s husband was not a miner but a train brakeman for the Norfolk & Western—a relatively lucrative job for African-Americans at the time—which meant that Teddy could be spared further labor in the mines. His new home, located near the Bluefield rail station, contained an upright piano, and Lovie gave him his first formal lessons. It didn’t take long for the pupil to eclipse the teacher; Teddy, as it turned out, was blessed with the ability to play by ear.

Weatherford sharpened his skills by striking up a friendship with an older boy named Maceo Pinkard, with whom he spent countless hours trading piano riffs. (Pinkard would later move to New York and become famous for penning the classic tune “Sweet Georgia Brown.”) In his teens, Weatherford also briefly attended the Bluefield Colored Institute, where he learned the basics of music theory before dropping out and joining a popular Bluefield dance band. Playing gigs above a local pharmacy, the band developed a following among the town’s ragtime lovers, who thrilled to the percussive style of play Weatherford had developed. “Teddy didn’t have to have no band around him,” recalled one of the pianist’s childhood friends. “He could make as much music with just a drummer or a saxophone player as any 12- or 15-piece band.”

Weatherford soon earned a promotion to a traveling band headed by a saxophonist named Ben Harris. The group was a so-called territory band, an outfit whose circuit primarily consisted of minor and midsize towns starved for decent music. Weatherford’s first foray out of Virginia’s coal country took him west, to the banks of the Illinois River, as the band wended its way north through the dance halls of Peoria—and, in 1920 up to the cultural mecca of Chicago.

There, the budding pianist’s fortunes took another unexpected turn. Harris took gravely ill upon hitting town, and his band disintegrated. At 17, Teddy Weatherford suddenly found himself in America’s second largest city, unemployed, friendless, and 500 miles from home.

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A young Teddy Weatherford. “Teddy didn’t need to have no band around him,” a friend recalled.

4. Chicago

Chicagoans who concerned themselves with matters of moral hygiene believed that Prohibition would kill the city’s jazz scene, thereby saving countless young girls from the scourges of psychosis and sexual degeneracy. In 1921 an organization called the Illinois Vigilance Association reported that no fewer than 1,000 Chicago girls had been driven to prostitution through their exposure to jazz music. The group highlighted one particularly sordid tale of an innocent girl gone wrong:

She was born in Chicago of good parents who exhausted every resource on her behalf. Although but 18 years old when brought into court, she had been frequenting jazz dances for over three years. Beginning when less than 15 years of age in the more expensive dance palaces of the north side she gradually drifted down to rougher ones on the west side. The same type of music was played in all the halls. This sex-infuriating music, combined with other conditions, led to her first indiscretion. This was followed by a life of promiscuity, the act often taking place in the halls and corridor of the building in which the dance was held. She finally met a man at a certain hall, ran away with him, and was subsequently deserted. When arrested she was living in a disorderly flat with Negroes.

Other anti-jazz activists characterized the music as Bolshevik in nature, likely to expose Chicago’s youth to the toxic ideals of Communism. But once the clubs were deprived of their ability to profit from the sale of booze, the moralists hoped, the jazz fad would be replaced by more wholesome entertainments. “The brainless messes of jazz which have so frequently been served up to us in the past could only, as we have always felt, appeal to jagged [drunk] patrons,” declared a Chicago Daily Tribune editorial in August 1920. “There is a connection stronger than alliteration between jag and jazz. If the producers have come to a realization of the fact, we can look forward to the theatrical future with a stronger hope than ever before.”

Yet the moral renaissance was not to be, as Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson ceded the city’s nightlife to the rum-dealing underworld in exchange for bribes. The Republican mayor also enjoyed cozy relations with Chicago’s growing African-American community, which had helped him win election in 1919, after the city had been scarred by a bloody race riot. Thompson had every reason to avoid upsetting his electoral base, so he turned a blind eye to the rapid proliferation of Prohibition-bending jazz clubs around State Street, Washington Park, and other South Side neighborhoods.

As a result, when Teddy Weatherford was cut loose in Chicago, he had no trouble finding piano work in a series of seedy cabarets. Drunken patrons sometimes lunged at each other with butcher knives, but the teenage Weatherford got the chance to earn some money and hone his skills. He quickly gained minor renown not only for his playing, but also for his oversize personality; an inveterate prankster with a love for hooch, Weatherford was a magnet for attention. He soon caught the eye of the trumpeter Jimmy Wade, who was putting together an orchestra to play the recently opened Moulin Rouge Café on South Wabash Avenue, and who had already recruited a star violinist named Eddie South. Located in an old chop-suey joint and owned by a mobbed-up Frenchman, the Moulin Rouge evoked the bordello feel of its Parisian namesake: walls lined with red velvet wallpaper, balconies flecked with gold leaf. Its tuxedoed staff was known for its tolerance of hip flasks and for generously providing covert tipplers with glasses of soda or tonic.

Though located in a decidedly white part of town, the Moulin Rouge was eager to hire black musicians, the better to attract a large mixed-race crowd. Weatherford was soon hailed as one of Chicago’s top pianists, alongside Earl Hines and a mysterious virtuoso who went only by the name Toothpick. When the legendary Jelly Roll Morton arrived in town in 1923, he was said to be floored by the young Weatherford’s skill.

The fortunes of Wade’s band were tied to those of the Moulin Rouge, which often made for rough times. The café was temporarily shuttered after a raid by federal liquor agents in 1922. Two years later, its facade was destroyed in a firebombing blamed on a rivalry with competing clubs. So when a bandleader named Erskine Tate came to poach Weatherford in 1925, the pianist was happy to shake free of the troubled joint.

Tate’s orchestra had a steady gig at a 1,300-seat movie palace called the Vendome Theater. It was the city’s foremost black cinema, having been installed in a former German-American cultural center for the exorbitant sum of $250,000. The Vendome anchored a four-block stretch of  State Street known as the Negro Great White Way for its surfeit of popular clubs, the fame of which spread so far that many Southern blacks arriving in the Great Migration were convinced that, as one put it, “State Street would be heaven itself.”

Unlike the raucous clubs where Weatherford had made his name, the Vendome catered to an upscale black clientele—doctors, lawyers, and businessmen who were guided to their private boxes by finely attired usherettes and who puffed on Cuban stogies inside the theater’s oak-lined smoking room. As the Vendome’s house orchestra, Tate’s group was responsible for providing live accompaniment for the theater’s silent movies and for keeping the patrons entertained during intermission. The 10-piece orchestra was considered among Chicago’s best. Weatherford had been chosen right around the same time as an equally lauded up-and-comer, a young New Orleans–born cornetist named Louis Armstrong.

Weatherford and Armstrong played together under Tate’s direction for a year, during which the orchestra cut two sides for an early jazz label called Vocalion Records: “Static Strut” and “Stomp Off, Let’s Go.” The former includes a hard-driving solo by Weatherford that, even at a mere 15 seconds, is enough to reveal his prodigious talent.

Things were moving fast for the pianist, who had yet to celebrate his 23rd birthday. Weatherford even tried his hand at songwriting, usually opting for tunes that revealed his bawdy sense of humor: One of his best-known songs was titled “Oh Gee, Oh Gosh, I’m Married But I’m Loving Some Other Girl.”

Still, Weatherford was getting restless. Armstrong, growing in musical stature, soon left the Tate band for a spot at the Sunset Café, one of Al Capone’s main joints. And Weatherford, for all his success in the competitive world of Chicago jazz, began to feel he wasn’t receiving his proper due. As his bandmate Preston Jackson would later recall, Weatherford had a powerful thirst for recognition, one that could never be sated until he was considered a pianist without peer. He also possessed a curiosity about the world, and he was envious of his friend Earl Hines’s travels out to Los Angeles as part of a barnstorming Dixieland band.

So when Weatherford met a smooth-talking bandleader named Jack Carter in 1926, he was open to suggestions for an alternate career path. And Carter offered up an option that Weatherford had probably never imagined: the Far East.

Since 1924, Carter had been leading a cabaret show in Shanghai—a mixture of song, dance, and comedy, all performed by African-Americans like himself. The Shanghai audiences loved it, and now Carter was preparing to take the show on the road to Southeast Asia. He had come to Chicago in search of fresh talent. Carter assured Weatherford that he would be treated like a king as the band sailed from port to port throughout the South China Sea.

To the chagrin of Chicago jazz fans, the former child coal miner decided to indulge his taste for adventure. “Teddy Weatherford has flown the Vendome nest and his destination is China,” the Chicago Defender’s music columnist announced in September 1926. “Teddy, old boy, you fronted us, but they all come back.”

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Weatherford (at piano) playing with Jimmy Wade’s Syncopators, the house band at Chicago’s Moulin Rouge Café.

5. Piano Demon

Critics and compatriots rarely stinted on superlatives when describing Weatherford’s talent. “A hell of a pianist… I hear Fats Waller and I tell you it’s Weatherford,” raved the New York Amsterdam News. The Chicago Defender dubbed him “the piano demon,” while Louis Armstrong lauded his former bandmate as “awful good.” Others described him with phrases like “Champ of the ivories,” “an immediate sensation,” or “the world’s greatest jazz pianist.”

Any discussion of Weatherford’s much-admired musicianship began with his most valuable asset: his gargantuan hands, which earned him the nickname Seagull owing to their winglike dimensions. Big hands can be a jazzman’s curse. While it is obviously beneficial to be able to stretch across a great many keys, meaty fingers tend to be clumsy fingers. But Weatherford combined reach with precision; even when sprinting across the entire keyboard, he never got sloppy. Each note rang full and true.

Those mammoth hands also enabled Weatherford to develop a uniquely physical style of playing. When he first hit Chicago, stride piano was just beginning to supplant ragtime. Stride relied on the left hand to alternate between a walking bass and chords, leaving the right hand free to dazzle with melodic flourishes copped from multiple genres: the rapid arpeggios of classical, the soulful licks of blues. Weatherford was an early master of stride, and he used his powerful hands to lean into the tunes, pounding the keys with a nimble ferocity normally reserved for drummers. The result was a sound often mistaken for the work of two pianists playing in tandem. Legions of admirers tried to imitate Weatherford’s aggressiveness, with mixed results—it was his particular genius to play with both gusto and grace.

Weatherford was also a showman, having cultivated a flair for drama while playing small-time joints in Bluefield. Those territorial audiences expected to hear standards they knew and loved, so it was up to each band to make popular songs like “Memphis Blues” and “King Porter Stomp” its own without messing up the good-time vibe. Over six feet tall and built like a tank, Weatherford was a commanding presence. He could lay back in the cut and build a little tension before bursting forth with a Paganini-like display of virtuosity. Whether playing alongside scantily clad cabaret dancers or in front of swanky diners eating by candlelight, he always made the crowd feel as if it had gotten its money’s worth. That gift for performance would soon turn Weatherford into an international star.

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Teddy Weatherford at the keys.

6. The Imperial Circuit

When Weatherford finally landed in Shanghai in the autumn of 1926, having sailed across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco aboard the SS Tango Maru, the Chinese metropolis was on the verge of a bloodbath. Chiang Kai-shek, head of the military forces of China’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT), was attempting to solidify his control of the nation by laying siege to Shanghai, then under the rule of the warlord Sun Chuan-fang. At the behest of Communist Party officials, the city’s trade unionists had decided to support the KMT, which they believed was interested in ridding China of foreign influence and bettering the peasantry’s sad lot. 

Desperate to hang on to the jewel of their small realm, Sun and his generals resorted to a campaign of terror against Shanghai residents suspected of KMT sympathies. “The executions have been terrifyingly informal,” an English journalist wrote. “Pickets and agitators, including ignorant coolies and spectacled students, are quickly beheaded wherever they are found intimidating shopkeepers or scattering Cantonese leaflets. A runner is sent to summon the execution patrol, which comes up with the headsman swinging his bared blade. The culprit is forced to his knees as the soldiers keep the crowd back. A moment later his head is being fastened to a wooden cage, which always is ready, and nailed to a pole for the contemplation of the populace.”

When the city’s defenses finally broke in the spring of 1927, Chiang wasted no time betraying the trade unionists. Paramilitaries allied with the KMT massacred thousands of civilians suspected of Communist ties, and strikers were gunned down indiscriminately as they took to the streets. Shanghai became a police state, and political rabble-rousers frequently disappeared.

Yet the tens of thousands of foreigners who called the city home—and for whose entertainment the Jack Carter Orchestra, with Teddy Weatherford on piano, had been imported—caroused right through the violence. Cloistered in sections of the city reserved for non-Chinese and protected by thousands of American and British troops, these American and European expatriates enjoyed lives of supreme comfort, awash not in blood but in money generated by any number of shadowy schemes, notably the burgeoning opium trade.

Shanghai abounded with leisure opportunities for the fortunate denizens of the international precincts. Elegant dinners and dances were a nightly ritual, often followed by bouts of slumming. An American journalist with a racist streak and a taste for vice described some of the entertainments available to the foreign residents, commonly known as Shanghailanders:

You drifted into one of those cabarets, an hour or so before midnight, you chose your table not too far from the floor, and you looked them over: the pretty Chinese girls in their slit silk dresses and with too much rouge on their soft cheeks; the glorious Russians with their décoletté evening gowns—Chanel and Molineux models, if you did not look too closely…. And you bought your ticket and danced with them, and if you invited one of them to your table, you had to pay something extra and the girl had apple cider that turned into champagne on your chit. But if you wanted to go home with her, she would have to ask the management first…. And you might wind up in “Blood Alley,” where you went to get as much local color as possible, among the drunken soldiers and sailors of the armies and navies of the world.

Obsessed with hipness and style, the Shanghailanders fetishized black jazz musicians. The Jack Carter Orchestra thus commanded a handsome price for its show, which provided a slickly packaged taste of African-American culture—or, more accurately, what foreigners expected African-American culture to be. The show’s star attraction was Valaida Snow, a 22-year-old Tennessean trumpeter and singer who was widely considered the female Louis Armstrong. After belting out a version of “Ol’ Man River,” she would be joined onstage by a comedian named Bo Diddly, who would sling jokes before dueting with Snow on a song called “Black Bottom.” Snow would then cap the evening with an early version of crowd surfing: at the end of a manic tap-dancing number, she would leap onto the dance floor, fall to her knees, and wriggle her way through the stunned audience. The routine rarely failed to bring down the house.

Teddy Weatherford was supposed to be a minor player in the revue, but music aficionados couldn’t ignore the tall, powerfully built young man who elicited such full-throated chords from his instrument. Fellow musicians were enraptured by his skill at the ivories, even though he had but a single solo in the Jack Carter show. Word of Weatherford’s prowess quickly spread.

The band’s Shanghai engagement was scheduled to last just ten weeks, but it wound up stretching well into 1927. Then the ensemble set off for Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, where they’d booked a stand at the Oost Java Restaurant, an open-air club on the city’s main square. It was the first time an African-American group had played Batavia, to the immense delight of the city’s young Dutch jazz fans, who had previously had to make do by playing scratchy ceramic cylinders on beat-up Victrolas. They descended on the Oost Java for the Jack Carter show only to discover that, for the first time ever, the club would be charging a hefty cover fee. To add salt to the wound, the club erected a bamboo fence along its perimeter to prevent nonpaying spectators from catching a glimpse of the Americans.

But some brave fans would not be denied their first exposure to authentic live jazz. They clambered up the square’s trees and watched Weatherford’s piano magic from afar. They swung so hard to the band’s hot sound that several nearly tumbled to their deaths.

After rocking the Dutch youth, the Jack Carter Orchestra sailed north to Singapore, where it headlined at the fortress-like Adelphi Hotel. Wealthy British merchants and the women who loved them went bonkers over the show, leading the local English-language newspaper to ponder the band’s appeal:

What is the secret of these coloured artists’ success? Surely it is that they are entirely un-selfconscious. While white performers may be worrying as to whether they are “getting over,” the originators of jazz just let themselves go. It is said that these artists never offer a dance in just the same way two nights running.

The Jack Carter Orchestra traveled up the Malay Peninsula and finally wrapped up its Southeast Asian barnstorming in 1929. Carter and Snow decided to return to the United States, but Weatherford declined a ticket home. There was still money to be made in China.

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The Canidrome, a large dog track and casino in Shanghai, where Weatherford played to crowds of international revelers.

7. Paris of the Orient

By the time he arrived in Shanghai in the summer of 1933, Langston Hughes was already a seasoned traveler. The esteemed writer had spent much of the previous year trekking across Central Asia after an ill-fated attempt to make a movie in Moscow. He had spent nights in sheepskin yurts on the Eurasian steppe, communed with Jewish poets in the Uzbek city of Bukhara, and gotten tipsy on cognac with oversexed Tajik soldiers. If nothing else, Hughes was certainly a fair bit tougher than the typical man of letters.

But the chaos of Depression-era Shanghai startled Hughes. He was shocked by the degradation and vice on display at every turn—the haggard streetwalkers angling for johns, the beggars mutilating themselves to bolster their earning power, the heavy carts pulled by coolies in lieu of oxen, the constant kidnappings of anyone who looked capable of shelling out a few yuan for ransom. Yet amid all the criminality flourished an artistic culture like no other in the world, one that embraced both ancient opera and the hottest jazz.

Hughes needed a Virgil to guide him through the highs and lows of Shanghai. Teddy Weatherford was more than happy to oblige.

The Seagull’s star had risen considerably in the four years since the Jack Carter Orchestra disbanded. “Stiff-necked Britishers and Old China Hands from Bombay to the Yellow river swore by his music,” the starry-eyed Hughes would later write. “A big, genial, dark man, something of a clown, Teddy could walk into almost any public place in the Orient and folks would break into applause.”

At the time of Hughes’s visit, Weatherford was the main attraction at the Canidrome, a colossal dog track and casino located in the French-controlled quadrant of Shanghai’s International Settlement. The Shanghai police had cracked down on the import and sale of opium in the early 1920s, a move that only pushed the enterprise into the French Concession, where Chinese authorities held little sway. The city’s Mafia, the powerful Green Gang, controlled this narcotics trade through a front business called the Three Prosperities Company. The gang’s head honchos, Pockmarked Huang and Big-Eared Du, split the company’s $50 million annual revenues with the various foreigners who helped smuggle and store their addictive merchandise.

The Canidrome, the main attraction in the French Concession, was owned by the Tung Vong Company, a partnership between the millionaires Mr. Tung (the fat one) and Mr. Vong (the skinny one). The ruling KMT had long maneuvered to shutter the place as an affront to Chinese morals, since so many native-born gamblers blew their meager savings on the Canidrome’s greyhound races and nightly lottery. But the Green Gang made sure that vice remained on offer in their territory, to the joy of jazz fans, who flocked to the Canidrome’s baroque ballroom to hear Weatherford play.

Weatherford drove Hughes around Shanghai in his car to let him see for himself why the city was known as the Paris of the Orient. They cruised up and down the Bund, the bustling district along the Huangpu River where European-style edifices loomed over stately waterfront parks. Hughes would occasionally jump out to explore the grimy alleys that echoed with the sounds of clattering mah-jongg tiles and caged fighting crickets.

But Hughes seemed less impressed with Shanghai than with his chauffeur. “Sitting beside the big, dark, hulking musician in the car, I thought how fascinating it must be to be a band leader like Weatherford, making music all around the world,” he would later recall. “If I were a performer, I thought, and could play or sing or dance my way to Hong Kong and Singapore and Calcutta and Bombay, I would never go home at all.

“But I was not a performer,” Hughes lamented, “only a writer.”

Hughes also caught a glimpse of Weatherford’s sybaritic lifestyle, with its deluge of alcohol and gorgeous groupies of various races. Among Shanghai’s biggest jazz fans were young White Russians who’d fled their homeland a decade earlier after the Bolshevik revolution. Occupying the bottom rung of Shanghai’s expatriate pecking order, these exiles took the jobs no other whites would. The women, in particular, often wound up staffing the city’s numerous houses of ill repute, where 8,000 Russians provided sexual services for paying clients. But a few girls avoided this fate by latching onto the American jazzmen they worshipped. Weatherford collected Russian girlfriends with ease, as did various other musicians who passed through his Canidrome band. Their sexual abandon had predictable consequences: Band members paid frequent visits to one Dr. Borovika, a former German fighter pilot turned physician who was a master of treating venereal diseases.

The musicians and their women, both wives and groupies, formed a bohemian community amid the colonial elegance of 1930s Shanghai. Hughes recounted the typically boisterous scene at the house of one of Weatherford’s sidemen, which he visited just four hours before he was scheduled to depart for Japan:

It was eleven o’clock when we got there. Other musicians with their White Russian girls or Japanese wives were gathered by that time, having highballs and awaiting us. The one Negro woman in the group, wife of one of the bandboys from Harlem, said that fried chicken wouldn’t amount to anything without hot biscuits, so she went into the kitchen to make some.…

I could smell the chicken cooking in the kitchen where the colored wife was busy with the biscuits, and assorted Japanese and White Russian females were all cooking too, drinking and chattering away like mad. Everyone was in high spirits, so it took quite a little time to get anything done. Anyhow, the chicken certainly did smell good! But I looked at the clock and both hands were past high noon.…

“Teddy, man, I’m gonna have to go.”


“Asaki, how about that bird?” Teddy bawled. “Shenshi, Kiki, Tamara, what you-all doing out there? This man is hungry!”

The girls started setting tables—a big table and two or three smaller ones in the front rooms, as there were more than a dozen people. Said Teddy, “If I had me a piano, I would beat out some blues.” But there was no piano, so Teddy and the rest of the folks just kept on mixing highballs and um-ummmm-mm-m-ing at the wonderful smells of chicken frying in the kitchen….

At half past one there on the far edge of Shanghai, Teddy and I were climbing into his car, each of us with a sizzling drumstick and a buttered biscuit, on the way to my hotel, miles off near the Bund.… With greasy hands I rushed up the stairs of the hotel and started throwing things into my bags. Teddy gathered up my typewriter, books and such items and took them down to the car, then came rocking jovially back to see if he could be of further help. It was then about two-thirty P.M. I still had to pay my bill! When I stumbled panting into the car with a string of ties and two pairs of shoes in my hands, and we headed at top speed for the pier, I just barely caught the last lighter going out to the ship anchored offshore in the Huangpoo, flags flying and steam up for sailing. I left Teddy waving on the docks with the whole backdrop of Shanghai behind him.

A few months after Hughes departed, Mr. Tung and Mr. Vong sent Weatherford on a recruiting mission to America. Like Jack Carter before him, Weatherford was charged with finding more black musicians willing to satiate the Shanghailanders’ appetite for African-American culture.

Weatherford arrived in Los Angeles on January 6, 1934, where he met a trumpeter named Buck Clayton, leader of a crackerjack band that was desperate for work. (They had recently concluded a disastrous gig at Club Ebony, during which their crooked manager had gambled away all of their wages.) Sweetening the pot was Clayton’s girlfriend, Derby, a beautiful dancer who’d appeared in such Hollywood musicals as Roman Scandals and Murder at the Vanities. She was eager to come to China and join the show.

Weatherford signed up Buck Clayton and His Harlem Gentlemen for the Canidrome and booked passage back to China on the SS President Hoover. Days before the ship set sail, Buck and Derby married at a ceremony hosted by Duke Ellington and held on the Paramount Studios lot.

Clayton’s band was an instant hit in Shanghai, attracting Madame Chiang Kai-shek and her entourage of silk-clad beauties on opening night. (Madame Chiang’s sister later insisted on taking tap-dance lessons from the group’s trombonist.) The show began as patrons wrapped up a 17-course meal, and it included Derby’s interpretation of a traditional Russian peasant dance.

Weatherford, meanwhile, took clever advantage of his new situation. “Teddy was playing four different nightclubs each night, so he could only play with us on one number before he would have to leave for another club to be in time for his show there,” Clayton would later recall. “He would play one half hour in each club, running from one club to the next, but at the end of the week he had four salaries coming to him.”

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Weatherford depicted in his trademark white suit.

8. Harlem Gentlemen

One night in November 1934, as Clayton milled about the Canidrome between sets, a Russian girl approached him for an autograph. As he leaned down to sign her piece of paper, she grabbed the monogrammed handkerchief from his coat pocket and ran off. Clayton thought nothing of the matter until the following evening, when he spied the girl at one of the ballroom’s tables. She was accompanied by a large, rough-looking American who refused to sit down as the show began. As he led his band through its first number, Clayton couldn’t help but glance at the standing man.

“Turn your eyes the other way, you black son of a bitch!” the American yelled over the swelling music.

Clayton descended from the stage to confront the man. Moments later, the bandleader was on the floor, having been sucker-punched in the face. A melee ensued as the rest of the band converged on the American instigator, a Marine- turned- gangster named Jack Riley. The plumpest of the Harlem Gentlemen sat on Riley’s chest while the rest of the band rained down blows. All the while, the band’s pianist remained onstage and kept playing, making some in the audience think that the brawl was part of the show.

The Harlem Gentlemen’s beat-down of Riley turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory: The next morning, Mr. Tung and Mr. Vong received a telegram from a contingent of American expats threatening to attack the Canidrome with machine guns if Buck Clayton and His Harlem Gentlemen were allowed to return. Neither they nor their patron Weatherford would ever play the ballroom again.

The Canidrome brouhaha occurred just as Shanghai’s freewheeling Jazz Age began drawing to a close. The Japanese had bombed the city in 1932, allegedly in response to anti-Japanese rioting. Tens of thousands of Chinese had been killed, and the ensuing cease-fire, brokered by the League of Nations, allowed several Japanese army units to be stationed in the city. Those units had since kept busy harassing Shanghai’s Chinese residents, and everyone knew that the Japanese were angling for a casus belli. The Japanese in the city frequently complained about minor slights to their national honor, such as stones tossed at Japanese schoolchildren. It was only a matter of time before they hit upon an excuse to invade.

How a Japanese conquest might affect the city’s nightlife was anyone’s guess, so American musicians were faced with a tough choice: Stay and risk imprisonment or worse once hostilities commenced, or abandon the city they’d come to love.

Harlem-bred trombonist Ernest “Slick” Clark, a frequent Weatherford sideman, elected to stick it out. He went on to become a bandleader at the Paramount Club, a job he held onto even after the Japanese assumed control of the city in 1937. But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese decided to send Shanghai’s American residents to internment camps. Clark spent the next two years subsisting on cracked wheat and enduring regular beatings, until he was allowed to sail home aboard a Swedish passenger ship.

The Seagull, however, glimpsed the clouds on Shanghai’s horizon. Soon after the Canidrome fight, he packed up and left China for good.

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Weatherford in Paris, where he dazzled attendees at the 1937 International Exposition.

9. Springtime in Paris

Weatherford may have lost his cushy Shanghai gig and his White Russian groupies, but as an artist and a showman, he was just approaching his peak. He’d had a taste of celebrity in China, and now he was looking for a new place that would appreciate his sizeable talents. His first stop was Singapore, where he crossed paths with a saxophonist named Roy “the Reverend” Butler.

A teetotaling Chicagoan who had also been globetrotting for years—first through Brazil and Argentina, then to Paris—Butler had eventually settled in Bombay, where he played in a band called Crickett Smith’s Symphonians. The band was touring through Singapore in the summer of 1935 when its pianist suddenly quit. Desperate for a replacement, Butler followed up on a bit of local gossip regarding a spectacular pianist who was wowing crowds at the palatial Raffles Hotel. When Butler went to check out the show, he was elated to discover that Weatherford, an old friend from Chicago, was the buzzed-about musician.  Butler asked his acquaintance to join the Symphonians on their forthcoming trip to the Dutch East Indies. Lured by the promise of higher wages, Weatherford readily agreed. The reconfigured Symphonians did a brief stint in Java and then returned to Bombay with Weatherford in tow to begin a fresh season at the jewel of the city’s nightlife: the Taj Mahal Hotel, located by the temple-like Gateway of India arch on the waterfront.

The Taj had two venues where patrons could hear live music: the upstairs ballroom, where tuxedoed orchestras entertained diners who consumed dishes like Filet de Beckti Cecil Rhodes, and the downstairs Harbour Bar, which attracted a rougher clientele hungry for hot jazz. Always keen to earn multiple paychecks, the inexhaustible Weatherford shuttled between the two, playing with the Symphonians in the early evening and closing out the bar at night. Before long, he was packing the house wherever he played.

Weatherford honed his showmanship in the Harbour Bar, entertaining British soldiers and sailors who craved good times before they set off for distant malarial outposts. To impress these men, Weatherford would sip a drink with one hand while playing with the other, never skipping a beat or losing a decibel’s worth of volume. Such were the benefits of having been blessed with hands the size of gull wings.

Weatherford also adopted a uniform that would become his trademark: a white sharkskin suit, usually accompanied by a broad-brimmed hat. It was a dandy look, one that might seem ill-advised for a man of Weatherford’s considerable girth, but it turned out to have an odd charm.

Weatherford was once again a star attraction, and word of his talent crossed continents. In early 1937, he was invited to perform at the International Exposition, to be held in Paris that spring and summer. He set sail for Marseilles in April, taking with him one of his most prized possessions: a piano accordion that had set him back a reported $1,000.

Parisians had fallen madly in love with jazz in the ’20s, and numerous African-American musicians had since settled in the bohemian Montmartre neighborhood. The expo brought over scores more jazzmen, enough to fill the city’s clubs with joyous sound for weeks on end. “I have just spent a week in Harlem—but it only took me a few hours to get there and back,” the British jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote that summer in the jazz fanzine Melody Maker. “Lenox Avenue was called the Rue Pigalle and the bands worked for francs instead of dollars.”

When Weatherford arrived in town, he was whisked from party to party, playing his accordion for the likes of the fabulously wealthy Rothschild clan. He met a cartoonishly rotund jazz lover named Hugues Panassié who owned a small record label called Swing. A longtime champion of Weatherford’s old bandmate Louis Armstrong, Panassié was instantly smitten with the pianist’s skill and begged him to record some sides for Swing. Weatherford, momentarily abandoning his entrepreneurial instincts, agreed to do so for free and spent two summer days in the studio with Panassié, playing solo.

The resulting cuts, a selection of standards like “My Blue Heaven” and “Tea for Two,” reveal an artist in top form. Weatherford plays with his typically heavy touch, yanking out a torrent of sound from his piano—it occasionally seems as if Panassié had added a second piano track. But there is also something undeniably mournful about those Swing recordings, as if Weatherford had developed a pensive streak after so many years as a highly paid vagabond.

Not content to simply commit Weatherford’s genius to wax, Panassié also used his clout as founder of a jazz appreciation society, the Hot Club de France, to secure his hero a solo concert at the prestigious École Normale de Musique de Paris:

Smiling in his characteristically modest manner Weatherford seated himself before the keyboard and my what a delightful treat the capacity crowd of 800 music lovers were in for. Weatherford’s ease and grace, skill, technique and versatility is extraordinary. His superb executions of classics, of the old masters, and modern jazz music was simply divine. His attentive and appreciative audience was spellbound while he played and prolonged applause rocked the auditorium at the termination of each composition.

When Weatherford returned to Bombay, his international stardom was too great to be wasted on a mere sideman. And so Crickett Smith’s Symphonians was transformed into Teddy Weatherford and His Band, featuring exactly the same personnel.

10. The Wizard We All Know

Weatherford was accorded the royal treatment in Bombay. He was given lavish quarters at the Taj Mahal, with all meals included, and the considerable money he earned performing could be spent on whatever luxuries struck his fancy. Maids and butlers could be hired for a pittance, and expert tailors created exquisite garments for next to nothing. Roy Butler referred to the band’s life in Bombay as “a millionaire’s vacation with pay and passage.”

Weatherford was prepared to live it up for as long as he could. But a saintly Indian hero was about to ruin his fun: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

In 1935, in response to the strengthening Indian independence movement, the British Parliament passed the Government of India Act. The act gave India’s individual provinces much greater political autonomy than ever before. Unfortunately for Bombay’s tipplers, the provincial government that ran the city was deeply sympathetic to Gandhi’s dim view of liquor: “Those who take to drinking ruin themselves and ruin their people,” the Mahatma had written. By 1939, prohibition had descended upon Bombay, to the great detriment of the Taj Mahal’s coffers.

Unlike the Moulin Rouge during Prohibition, Bombay’s most venerable hot spots abided by the liquor ban. With the Harbour Bar dry and the ballroom’s meals stripped of their accompanying claret and scotch, Weatherford decided to take his act on the road. The band headed down to Colombo, the capital of the island of  Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), to play a long engagement at the Galle Face Hotel.

Ceylon’s leisure class had a deeply chauvinistic vision of African-American culture, which visiting black musicians were expected to live up to. Weatherford was already accustomed to tingeing his band’s show with racial stereotypes: At the Taj, the musicians’ stage patter was patterned after the exaggerated slang of Stepin Fetchit. But the Colombo audiences wanted Weatherford to provide even more minstrelsy. And so the opening-night party at the Galle Face Hotel, held on July 29, 1939, was called Plantation Night; the invitation featured Sambo-style caricatures wearing overalls and picking banjos. To flesh out the show’s racist theme, Weatherford led a number in which he and three bandmates dressed like those caricatures and sang spirituals as the Plantation Quartet. It was an undignified venture for a man whose music had recently enthralled the cream of Parisian society, but Weatherford didn’t seem to care as long as the hotel paid him on time. The love of money had always been his major weakness as an artist; he usually chose pleasing crowds over taking risks.

Weatherford returned to Bombay and the Taj Mahal Hotel in January 1940, to tremendous acclaim. The evening’s program for his comeback concert lauded him as “The Wizard we all know,” and the kitchen honored the man by adding Poires Glace Weatherford to the menu. The Taj Mahal’s owners seemed to hope that Weatherford would see the wisdom in sticking close to Bombay, which appeared to be safe from Japanese attack.

But the band decamped for Colombo once again, though this time its stay was brief. While performing at the Galle Face Hotel, Weatherford received a telegram containing an irresistible job offer: a slot as musical director of Calcutta’s Grand Hotel.

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Weatherford and the “Deep South Boys,” a routine he felt compelled to develop in Ceylon. 

11. The Winter Garden

Passengers arriving at Calcutta’s main train station in 1943 often witnessed a disturbing sight: hordes of emaciated men, women, and children stooped over at the waist, carefully inspecting the ground alongside the tracks. Every now and then, one of these gleaners would reach down to pluck a few errant grains of rice from the mud. With great luck, a person could find just enough food to sustain himself for another day. But such luck was hard to come by in the midst of the Bengal famine of 1943, which would eventually claim 3 million lives.

Like so many famines throughout history, the catastrophe in Bengal was largely man-made. Prior to the start of World War II, the vast majority of the Indian province’s food came from Burma, one of the breadbaskets of the British Raj. But when the Japanese conquered Burma in 1942, eliminating Bengal’s grain supply, the British had no emergency plan in place.

The inhabitants of rural villages perished in droves, and the survivors were often too weak to bury the dead. Those with the strength to flee headed for Calcutta in the hope of finding relief. But anyone expecting salvation in the big city was quickly disappointed. There were few government handouts to be had, and the rice available on the black market had been marked up 500 percent. All the newcomers could do was forage, beg, or steal. Otherwise they died on the Calcutta sidewalks, their rotting bodies an ever-present obstacle for pedestrians throughout 1943.

Yet for the city’s elite, for whom life revolved around whiskey and cricket, the famine had little impact. The American journalist Eric Sevareid, who passed through Calcutta as a war correspondent, was disgusted by the great disparity between the city’s haves and have-nots:

In the Calcutta stock exchange, enormously fat brokers dozed in their deep leather chairs, surfeited with their heavy lunches; they sprawled out with their feet apart, their snoring mouths wide open. You went down the stairs and sidestepped to avoid a totally naked Hindu who was foraging with his head in the garbage pail. You stepped over the frail, white-swathed bodies of women who lay on the sidewalk in front of your hotel, dying quietly with their babies clutched to their breasts.

From his penthouse suite at the Grand Hotel, Teddy Weatherford was one of those comfortably isolated from the horrors of Calcuttan street life. He regularly held court in his lavish quarters, where he kept a piano to entertain guests who were served highball after highball by a coterie of hangers-on.

The years were starting to catch up with Weatherford, however: He was nearing 40 when he first arrived in Calcutta. He had spent most of his adult life chasing pretty young things and romancing the various female singers who passed through his band. Soon after he came to Calcutta, though, he finally met a woman he wanted to settle down with: an olive-skinned Anglo-Indian beauty named Pansy Hill.

She might have been a patron at the Grand Hotel’s Winter Garden club one night and found herself smitten by the large black man in the white sharkskin suit. Or maybe they met at one of the elegant teas or cocktail parties that dotted the city’s social calendar—Hill’s father was a prominent university professor, and so his offspring would have been expected to make the rounds from parlor to parlor. Whatever the story behind the crossing of Weatherford’s and Hill’s paths, however, their courtship was brief. On April 9, 1942, the two were wed at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Dharmatala Street. Weatherford had only been in the city for about six months.

Back in the U.S., such a marriage would likely have been a legal impossibility, given the prevalence of anti-miscegenation laws. But interracial couplings were the norm in Calcutta, where Englishmen often took up with Bengali women. Beyond that, the city’s music scene was dominated by artists with biracial ancestries—Anglo-Indians, of course, but also Goans, who typically carry large dollops of Portuguese blood. In such an environment, no one batted an eye at Weatherford’s blackness—he was simply an American. When asked whether his Calcuttan hosts ever exhibited racial prejudice, Weatherford replied with a quip: “They treat us white folks fine.”

Weatherford returned the favor by employing a multiracial band. The war had curtailed the supply of African-American musicians, so Weatherford started hiring from the city’s pool of Asian talent. His best sideman at the Grand Hotel was a Burmese guitarist named Cedric West, who had escaped from Rangoon just before the Japanese took the city in March 1942. He hired a Nepalese trumpeter named Pushkar Bahadur Buddhaprithi; to spare audiences the embarrassment of trying to pronounce that name, Weatherford had the young man play under the pseudonym George Banks.

Weatherford also tapped passing American servicemen to sit in with the band. Roughly 15,000 African-American GIs had been sent to South Asia to build the Ledo Road, a 465-mile military highway that stretched from Assam to the China-Burma border town of Wanting. When these soldiers wanted to go on leave, their only option was to head for Calcutta: Though there were 11 American R&R camps throughout India, the Calcutta complex was the single one set aside for blacks. It was located in Howrah, just across the Hooghly River from Calcutta proper, and it was an absolute dump—a collection of canvas tents perched atop mud, within spitting distance of the bloated corpses that regularly floated down the river during the famine. Black soldiers did everything they could to avoid spending time there, and that meant passing their vacation hours at the Winter Garden.

Those who could sing or play were welcome to come onstage with Weatherford, and occasionally the Seagull would unearth a future star. The great blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon got his start in this manner, filling the open-air club with his melancholy baritone. And the saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, who would later become a mainstay of Duke Ellington’s band, recorded several numbers with Weatherford while serving in the Army.

But the scene at the Winter Garden wasn’t always pleasant. Unlike in Bombay, cheap liquor was everywhere in Calcutta, and soldiers had few compunctions about getting blind drunk while on leave. Bloody dance-floor fights were commonplace, as the Goan saxophonist Ruben Solomon recalled:

Americans had more money to spend on the girls, so all the girls would be with the American soldiers and none with the British tommies. As soon as a set of Americans would come in the British would watch them, then suddenly, for no apparent reason, there would be a free-for-all, bottles, chairs, the lot. We would be ducking and Teddy would stand and shout, “Okay boys, fighting music!” And we would go into something very two-beat—tarah, tarah, crash, bang—as long as we could. Suddenly you would hear the MP’s’ whistles and everyone would converge on the dance floor. A few bodies would be taken out.

The Grand Hotel band played constantly, and not just at the Winter Garden. It was also featured on regular broadcasts hosted by the Armed Forces Radio Service, which transmitted Weatherford’s music to listeners throughout India. In towns and villages hundreds of miles west of Calcutta, many residents heard their first strains of jazz thanks to Weatherford’s radio work. Many who fell in love with the genre would always credit the Seagull.

Yet as he basked in the limelight, Weatherford’s music took a turn for the worse. Happily married, handsomely paid, and frequently inebriated, he found his creative energy flagging. The crowds of soldiers and party girls who packed the Winter Garden each night demanded feel-good hits, and Weatherford obliged by having his band deliver faithful renditions of mainstream fare: Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller. At the same time, Weatherford and his band produced dozens of records for an Indian label that had a manufacturing plant just outside Calcutta. To critics, these songs sounded lazy and uninspired—nothing more than quick cash-ins on Weatherford’s fame. Jazz connoisseurs who were familiar with Weatherford’s earlier recordings passed harsh judgment on these lackluster sides: Where the Seagull had once sounded like a man ahead of his time, they remarked, he now sounded years behind.

Perhaps the drop in creativity could be attributed to mere fatigue: Weatherford was now more than a decade older than the new generation of jazz trailblazers back in the U.S. Sensing that he couldn’t keep playing forever, he had started making plans to fade away gracefully. Despite having been a star in Asia for nearly two decades, Weatherford intended to return home one day. He told one of his trumpeters that he planned on saving some money to open up a snack bar. At the rate he was raking it in at the Grand Hotel, it wouldn’t take long.

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Calcutta’s Grand Hotel

12. Home

Weatherford had certainly done plenty to earn an early retirement. More than just a musical talent, he was a brilliant entrepreneur, an artist who cleverly capitalized on the world’s first crush on African-American culture. Time and again, he had uprooted his life for a chance at better pay and greater renown. In that way, Weatherford was a forerunner not just of the global march of Americana, but also of the millions of highly skilled knowledge workers of today who bounce between capitals as if borders scarcely exist. Back in the States, his old pals Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines had shaped the future of American music, paving the way for budding jazz giants like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. But Weatherford had opted for a life of adventure abroad rather than one of influence at home.

Though he was born into abject poverty, the Seagull traveled the world inside a cocoon of utmost privilege. He entertained a colonial elite that retreated into decadence as Asia disintegrated around them. Holed up in ballrooms packed with gin-soaked Brits in ascots or white satin gloves, Weatherford was largely shielded from the suffering of the continent’s masses—people with whom he’d once had much in common. He provided the soundtrack for the last gasp of empire.

Now that the colonial era was finally coming to its inevitable end, it was time for Weatherford to reinvent himself again—as a family man and restaurateur back in his native land. But carelessness would doom those idyllic plans.

Though the Grand Hotel was a high-class establishment, guidebooks warned visitors not to consume the tap water in the hotel’s rooms. Weatherford was apt to ignore those instructions when drunk, however. And he was drunk quite often.

On April 20, 1945, Weatherford complained of feeling ill with abdominal pains and diarrhea. He was immediately rushed to Presidency General Hospital, where his symptoms worsened over the ensuing days. As he fought for his life, news emerged that Calcutta was in the early stages of a cholera epidemic, rumored to have been caused by the disposal of diseased cats in the Hooghly River. Antibiotics had entered the medical arsenal a few years earlier, but Presidency apparently had none on hand. Without them, Weatherford stood little chance: He passed away on the morning of April 25, 1945.

The funeral procession for Asia’s most beloved jazzman took place the next day. Tens of thousands of Calcuttans of all races turned out to watch Weatherford’s funeral cortege as the Seagull’s body was transported from the hospital to Lower Circular Road Cemetery. His death pushed the war news off the front pages of Indian newspapers.

Yet, for all the adulation Weatherford received in death, it didn’t take long for his legacy to fade. The piano from his Grand Hotel suite was allegedly passed between Calcuttan musicians, who considered the instrument a sacred reminder of the man who had spread the gospel of jazz. But it eventually disappeared, and it may well have ended up as kindling.

Shanghai’s jazz scene, meanwhile, was virtually extinguished during the Japanese occupation, and the Red Army’s 1949 triumph guaranteed that it would never be revived. And as the European colonial empires crumbled, so too did the decadent expatriate culture that had embraced Weatherford and his music. Jazz survived in Colombo, Calcutta, and Bombay, but American musicians essentially disappeared from those cities’ club scenes. They were succeeded by the Goans and Anglo-Indians who’d learned their craft from Weatherford and his cohorts. Many of these artists would eventually ply their trade in Bollywood, infusing the Indian film industry’s soundtracks with the subtle strains of American jazz.

As for Pansy Weatherford, there were rumors that Teddy had left her some property in Bluefield, West Virginia, and that she moved there after the war, along with her sister and brother-in-law, a former American soldier. But no one could say for sure what had become of her.

In 1970, an Indian jazz lover named Jehangir Dalal set about trying to piece together part of Weatherford’s fading legacy. He placed a classified ad in the Calcutta Statesman:

Teddy Weatherford—Would friends of Teddy’s and musicians associated with him please urgently contact Jehangir Dalal, c/o M.N. Dastur, 12/3 Ballygunge Park Road, Calcutta-19.

Dalal received numerous letters from acquaintances of Weatherford’s, though few were able to provide meaningful details about the Seagull’s career in India. Many wrote just to express the love and admiration they had felt for “good ol’ Teddy.”

A month after placing the ad, however, Dalal received a brief letter from the northwest London neighborhood of Harlesden. “Dear sir,” it read:

I have just received a letter from a friend of mine enclosing a cutting of yours from the Statesman regarding my late husband Teddy Weatherford.

Will you please let me know what you want to know about my late husband.… I would be very much obliged if you would reply to me as I am anxious to know what you want to know.

Yours faithfully,

Mrs. Pansy Weatherford

Dalal wrote back immediately, explaining that he was a historian keen to ensure that Teddy’s story would not be forgotten by future generations of jazz fans. He simply wished to know more about Weatherford’s travels throughout Asia, about the various musicians, both minor and famous, who had passed through the Seagull’s bands. Would she be so kind as to share her recollections of the great man—and perhaps shed some light on how she had spent the past quarter century?

Pansy Weatherford never replied. 

The Instigators

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The Instigators

Retracing the forces behind the Egyptian revolution.

By David Wolman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 04


Award-winning journalist and author David Wolman is a contributing editor at Wired, a former Fulbright journalism fellow and a winner of the 2011 Oregon Arts Commission individual artists fellowship. He is the author of two works of nonfiction. His third book, The End of Money, will be published in February.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara
Illustrators: Ben Gibson and Jason Oldak
Portrait Photographer: Julia Gillard
Infographics: Erik Steiner, Spatial History Project at Stanford University
Translators: Wiam El-Tamami, Mandi Fahmy, and Sharaf Kamal Al-Hourani
Inline Extras, Additional Reporting, and Video Editing: Olivia Koski
Music: Jefferson Rabb
Special thanks: Sysomos, who provided crucial data for the Visual History infographic.


Published in May 2011. Design updated in 2021.

1.

At around 11 o’clock on the chilly morning of February 10, Ahmed Maher was walking toward Tahrir Square in Cairo. Egypt’s revolution had been raging for more than two weeks, and the 31-year-old civil engineer was at the center of it. Maher, a founder of the activist group , had joined forces with other opposition parties to urge tens of thousands of everyday Egyptians into the streets. They had flooded the square on January 25, been pushed back by police, and then retaken the ground on January 28, demanding an end to the 30-year regime of . Two weeks later, they were still waiting for it.

Maher’s phone rang. It was a fellow activist. “My friend,” the caller said. “You must come and meet me. You must come and meet me now!”

“OK,” Maher replied calmly. “Where?”

The man told Maher to get in a taxi and head east. As the car wove through downtown and out past dense neighborhoods capped by minarets, Maher received further instructions: was an office of the Ministry of Transportation, near Cairo International Airport. He also learned the alleged purpose of the rendezvous, which he relayed to an acquaintance in a text message:

I’m now going to a meeting with ministers, talking with them about how Mubarak will go. But it’s top secret.

Maher’s caller was a man named Wael Ghonim. A Google executive who had played a key role in mobilizing turnout for the protests, Ghonim had been thrust into the center of the revolution a few days earlier. Detained by police on January 27, blindfolded, and denied communication with the outside world, Ghonim was finally released 12 days later. Hours after he was freed, he had given a heartfelt television interview that inspired thousands more Egyptians to pour into the streets for the first time in their lives.

The revolution seemed reinvigorated. As quiet replaced the state-sponsored violence inflicted on demonstrators at the beginning of the protests, many prominent Egyptians called for the activists to vacate Tahrir Square so the economy could get moving again. Even the international media were eager to nudge the narrative, looking for signs of Cairo’s return to normalcy: traffic jams, ATMs dispensing cash, cargo-laden street vendors. Ghonim’s release, and the outpouring in response to his interview, changed that.

Still, Maher needed to be careful. As long as Mubarak hung on, there was no telling what the regime—or even one cold-blooded member of the secret police—might do. Maher had been a target of the state security apparatus for the past three years, forced underground before and after protests organized by April 6 Youth, or A6Y. He’d been arrested and tortured, as had many of his peers. “I need to be able to move fast,” he told his wife, Reham, explaining his regular absences from family life. “If you want me to be safe, you must leave me alone.” He slept at a rotating collection of locations: inside his beige 1986 Fiat, on a couch his parents kept in storage, on the of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights.

Now he was alone as he stepped out of the taxi and entered the Ministry of Transportation building. Everyone was waiting for him. On one side of the table sat Ghonim, a coordinator with the National Coalition for Change (the political group led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei), and a friend of Ghonim’s whom Maher didn’t know. On the other side sat three men. He recognized only one: Ahmed Shafik, the former Air Force Commander whom Mubarak had named prime minister on January 29 in an attempt to placate the protestors.

The man beside Shafik extended his hand toward Maher. “Mahmoud Wagdy,” he said flatly. Maher froze, then aborted the handshake. As Cairo’s former head of prisons and criminal investigations, had overseen the incarceration of Maher, hundreds of bloggers, opposition political candidates, and activists.

The third person, a burly man dressed in a black suit, didn’t introduce himself but kept his eyes fixed on Maher.

Ghonim’s default bearing is amicably chatty, and this day was no exception. When Maher arrived, Ghonim was already delivering broad-stroke statements about how all citizens must work together to protect Egypt and build a brighter future. Shafik responded with a string of similar sentiments, absent specifics. He mentioned nothing about Mubarak leaving power.

Maher suddenly realized that this was not a meeting to arrange for Mubarak’s departure. , together with other opposition groups and the protesters in Tahrir Square, had refused to negotiate with the government until Mubarak was gone. Now Maher found himself at the negotiating table. Was it a trap? Even if Wagdy didn’t have henchmen waiting outside for Maher, word that he had met with the government could decimate A6Y’s credibility with protestors—and possibly undercut the revolution itself.

Maher sat silently with his arms crossed, avoiding eye contact with Wagdy. Finally, Shafik addressed him directly.

“Why aren’t you smiling?”

“There is nothing to smile about,” he replied.

Shafik tried to warm him up with small talk, joking about Maher’s shaved head. It was a subject Maher himself often laughed about. During the protests, he wore a ski hat. “My head can be quite shiny,” he had told a friend with a wink. “That doesn’t exactly help when you’re trying to go unnoticed.” But the joke didn’t work here. Maher sat expressionless.

Wagdy also tried to warm him up. “Why are you so quiet? I hear that you are this wild revolutionary!” he said, turning to the man in the black suit. Maher would later learn that this man was the chief scorpion himself: General Hassan Abdel Rahman, director of the State Security Investigative Service, the organization that directed the arbitrary monitoring, detentions, and torture of opposition-group members.

When the meeting concluded, Maher shook hands only with Shafik. “This isn’t what we came here for,” he said to Ghonim before turning for the exit.

Maher jumped in a taxi and headed back downtown. He was frustrated but hopeful. It was clear from the meeting that Shafik was acting independently of Mubarak, a sign that the regime was fracturing. The military, he realized, might already be readying for a formal takeover of the government. This hypothesis gelled with a tip Maher had received just hours prior; a midlevel army official had told him Mubarak was on his way out. That prediction hadn’t come to pass at the meeting, but Maher could tell things were getting close. After the meeting, he sent me this text message:

Mubarak will go now. LOL.

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2.

I first met Maher in 2008, when I traveled to Egypt to see firsthand how the country’s young political activists were using Facebook. At the center of that movement were Maher and A6Y, a then newly established opposition group that was using online organizing to gain members and jump-start small protests. I wrote about their efforts for Wired magazine, but not long afterward a kind of opinion backlash began to form in the West. Pundits declared that the success of would be fleeting and that technologists had inflated the importance of social media in the world of political activism. A6Y’s brand of activism was mere slacktivism, they chided; changing the world is about more than accumulating “friends” and “fans” online. The idea that the tiny buzzing of A6Y on Facebook could loosen Mubarak’s grip on power seemed preposterous.

Back in the States, I followed the tribulations of April 6 Youth through press releases about the latest arrests of bloggers and protesters. But Maher and his colleagues pressed on, gathering supporters and waiting for the conditions that might spur them, and Egyptians in general, into action.

Then, on January 25, 2011, the revolution began.

Through the weeks of protests, violence, and triumph, I, like many people captivated by the Arab Spring, was glued to my television and computer monitor. But I was also following on my phone, through the occasional bulletins from Maher and others on the scene who were pulling strings imperceptible to the rest of the world.

After Mubarak’s ouster, it would become almost hackneyed to call the revolution a leaderless one. “All of Egypt was as one hand,” people on the streets of Cairo would tell me later. “There was no one, two, three, or five individuals. There was everyone.” One investment banker sounded more like a flower-power peacenik: “It was every class, every religion, every age. It was truly incredible.” There were martyrs, of course: More than 800 people were killed during the uprising, primarily by baltagiya, the regime’s hired thugs, with blows from truncheons, sniper fire, or random shots into crowds. But there weren’t leaders. “No one was a hero because everyone was a hero,” Wael Ghonim tweeted just after the revolution.

The Egyptian revolt lacked a figurehead like a Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The uprising, however, was not nearly as spontaneous as it might have seemed. Resentment against had been building for years, even decades, and the country’s well-organized labor movement gained strength, power, and influence as the protests continued. But the revolt was also the culmination of years of plotting and daring and experimentation by activists organizing in the virtual world. Most Egyptians don’t have access to the Internet, and a third of the people in the country can’t even read. Yet the very idea of a leaderless, politically neutral uprising was conceived, nurtured, and brought to fruition by young activists using the new digital tools suddenly at their disposal.

Ahmed Maher was one of the engineers behind the tectonic events in Egypt. In mid-March, I caught a plane back to Cairo to find out what, exactly, he and A6Y had done.

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Ahmed Maher, April 2011 (Photo by Julia Gillard)

3.

Maher grew up in a humble apartment in a rundown area of Maadi, a suburb of Cairo. He is the eldest of three children. His father worked for the state-owned El Nasr Automotive Manufacturing Company, and his mother worked at a nearby school.

Young Ahmed rarely played soccer outside in the streets with other kids. His world was books. On trips to  to visit his mother’s family, he would spend hours in the print shop run by his grandfather, not far from where the new Library of Alexandria now stands. He loved comic books, science fiction, The Adventures of Tintin, and a popular series for preteens called The Five Adventurers, about a group of adolescent detectives who race around Egypt cracking cases the police can’t solve. Maher’s mother recalls a doctor suggesting that she limit her son’s reading, to give his eyes a respite. At night, Maher would read under the covers with a flashlight.

As a young student, when  failed to rank first in a subject, he would attempt to hide his report card from his parents, even though his mother worked at the same school. He was a sensitive boy, she says, and although he is quiet and rarely talks about emotions, he is very much that same person today. “When he speaks passionately about something, you can see his eyes well up with tears,” she says.

The family got their first PC in 1998, when Maher was attending a local university, studying engineering. He had wanted to be a doctor, but when his high school exit exams fell just shy of the scores needed to go into medicine, he turned to engineering. “I was disappointed at first because I didn’t really like math, but I reshaped my mindset,” he said. “If I am going to be an engineer, I thought, then I will learn to like it.” Doctors, he concluded, just read information and act on standard practices. Engineers get to read, organize, and innovate.

By now, Maher had begun frequenting cybercafes, playing online games and visiting chat rooms under the alias Ghosty, a nod to his reputation for quiet. He eventually stumbled on the blogs of outspoken political activists like Wael Abbas and Shahinaz Abdel Salam. But there was no eureka moment. His political awakening was more akin to the mixing of ingredients that, due to their chemical makeup, become volatile. His father was openly critical of Mubarak: The regime had closed the plant where he worked, forcing him to take an early retirement. When Ahmed opened his own engineering business, he quickly saw that his prospects were determined not by the marketplace or talent but by connections (which he lacked) and bribes (which he could not and would not pay). He was also disheartened by simple statistics: A quarter of Egypt’s young people were unemployed, in a poor country managed by one of the world’s most corrupt governments. As he thought about engineering, he realized that bridges, buildings, tunnels, and schools—no matter how well designed—don’t get built without a government that invests on behalf of its citizenry. A civil-liberties attorney in Cairo named Gamal Eid told me that Maher was just “a regular guy who became fed up with corruption and gained the courage to act against it.”

In the fall of 2004, Maher began logging onto Yahoo Groups and other forums to read about the anti-Mubarak group Kefaya, Arabic for “enough.” He started attending weekly demonstrations and was soon volunteering for the secular, liberal El Ghad party, led by Ayman Nour. Nour won about 7 percent of the vote in the 2005 presidential “election,” whereupon Mubarak had him imprisoned on trumped-up charges.

In April of 2006, Maher was arrested during a sit-in supporting a group of judges who were calling for a more independent judiciary. He was imprisoned for two months. “If you’ve never been arrested, the fear of arrest persists,” he later recalled. Once it had finally happened, though, the fear vanished. His mother, however, burst into tears when she learned of her son’s incarceration while watching television, and she urged her husband to convince Ahmed to tone down his activism. Maher’s father listened attentively but did nothing of the sort. Soon, when his mother realized there was no sense in trying to change her son’s mind, both parents quietly lent him whatever support and financial assistance they could.

During his two-month incarceration, Maher sometimes slept 20 hours a day, waking only to eat, use the restroom, and read Mickey Mouse comic books. He says he can fall asleep almost instantly, even if he’s sitting in a chair or curled up sideways on floor tiles in a dilapidated office. The joke among fellow detainees at Cairo’s Torah Prison was that Maher landed himself in jail so that he could catch up on his sleep.

The following winter, Egypt’s national soccer team reached the finals of the continental championships, and a Facebook fan page for the team grew to 45,000 people. Maher and his fellow activist Egyptians suddenly saw the social network’s potential as a tool for mobilization. He was captivated by the idea that a Facebook group is inclusive and egalitarian. It gives participants the power to reach out to all other members at any moment, from anywhere.

But then what? Could a virtual gathering on Facebook influence real-world events? Or would it only lead to talking in circles? Maher decided to find out.

In March of 2008, Maher and a woman named Israa Abdel-Fattah created a Facebook page called April 6 Youth to support an upcoming workers’ strike in the Nile River delta city of El-Mahalla el-Kubra. They sent out emails inviting people to join, urged participants to change their profile pictures to the A6Y logo, and inundated Facebook news feeds with protest-related information. In virtual space, they conjured a new reality: The strike was not a one-time expression of grievance; it was a movement. Within three weeks, the Facebook group had grown to more than 70,000 people. When the day of the strike finally came, the A6Y mobilization helped build turnout in both Mahalla and Cairo. What was destined to be an unnoticed workers’ strike—in a town no one outside Egypt had ever heard of—became an explosive street riot that attracted international media attention and embarrassed the regime.

Soon after, government officials announced that Mubarak was considering blocking Facebook. At the time, damming access to a popular website looked like the typical paranoia of an authoritarian state; none of the activists imagined that a government would (or even could) completely sever Internet access and silence cellular networks. Eventually, the regime backed off its threat.

Buoyed by the success of the strike, Maher and his fellow organizers tried to hold a follow-up rally in May in downtown Cairo. This time the security police were ready. The street where the activists planned to gather was cordoned off, and the tiny trickle of protesters were picked up one by one. Agents of the regime had also taken extra steps to cripple the demonstration in advance. Telecoms were told not to connect calls between anonymous subscribers, essentially eliminating communication between activists who made a habit of switching their SIM cards. The government also temporarily raised wages, hoping to neutralize one of the primary grievances that had fueled the riots in Mahalla. Meanwhile, security officers had been prowling online, joining the Facebook group under fake names and creating bogus pages to slander Maher.

Three days later, Maher was driving to work in his blocky Fiat, which he had nicknamed . As he neared his office, a crew of police officers ambushed him and surrounded the car. Maher tried to gun the accelerator, sending one of the men jumping back and wincing, but Zazua was pinned between too many vehicles. The officers pulled him out, blindfolded and handcuffed him, and threw him into the back of a van. At the New Cairo police station, one of the officers began punching him, yelling “This is for what you did to my arm, you fucking bastard!” Maher figured he must have been the one he’d hit with the car. Way to go Zazua, he thought.

Maher was then transferred to a state security facility at Lazoghly. The torture lasted about a day and a half. The agents stripped him and covered him with oil—a method for dulling the visible impact of blows—punched and slapped him, dragged him across the floor, and threatened him with electrocution and rape.

When he was released, Maher went to his . They didn’t know that he had been arrested, and he would have preferred to return to his own apartment to sleep. But his mother had been sick with cancer, and it was her birthday. After climbing the stairs to the eighth-floor apartment, he sat stiffly in the corner on an orange couch, head cocked to the side, wearing a turtleneck sweater to hide the bruises on his neck.

“Are you OK?” his mother asked.

“Yes. I just slept funny.”

4.

Since A6Y had formed in 2008, Egypt’s security police had been monitoring the activists’ Facebook pages, trying to glean intelligence or even sabotage dissidents’ anytime-anywhere assembly. Maher took to calling Facebook the “underground headquarters of the resistance.” The government’s infiltration efforts occasionally created confusion, but in most cases they were laughably transparent. The giveaway was that the saboteurs’ Facebook profiles were nearly blank: few friends, no photos, no wall posts. They had created ciphers, not people. Activists also put plans to a vote within Facebook, which served as a filter on the fake activist’ contributions to the discussion. The ideas voiced by saboteurs would quickly become outliers, forgotten along with other, more pedestrian bad ideas.

Maher and other core members of A6Y’s inner circle called themselves El Matbakh, the Kitchen. They would sometimes take their communications outside the visible Facebook discussion areas and wall postings into cloistered online chat spaces or smaller Facebook groups. Offline, a small inner circle, referred to as “the coordinators,” began meeting monthly at clandestine locations or on the Cairo Metro. In June of 2008, I read a news item about the group and began corresponding with Maher. A few weeks later, I was making plans to meet up with him in Cairo and shadow the group during a protest attempt on the beach in Alexandria.

They chose July 23, the public holiday marking the nation’s 1952 revolution and an end, of sorts, to monarchical rule. Crammed into one of two minivans with the protesters, I watched Maher hurriedly type and send text messages to scouts  who were looking for a location that wasn’t already crawling with police. We eventually unloaded, and the rabble-rousers, many wearing matching A6Y T-shirts, began assembling a kite decorated to look like the Egyptian flag.

But the seaside demonstration was over as quickly as it started. Plainclothes security officers quickly descended on the small gathering and, speaking calmly at first, worked to disperse it. Before long, they were shouting and shoving. One of Maher’s closest confidants, an animated English-speaking banker named , turned to me. “Those trucks,” Rashed said, pointing to two army green vehicles speeding past us on the road. “They are coming for us. It is a U-turn there,” he said, pointing to the north. “You must go now.” When I saw the trucks slow to make the looping left turn and head back down to our spot on the beach, I walked away.

That night I learned that some members of the group were later tackled in the street, the police yelling, “Where is Ahmed Maher?” A handful of members were detained, including Maher’s younger brother, Mostafa. The next day, they grabbed Ahmed as well.

The Mahers’ mother, coincidentally, was already in Alexandria. Her younger sister had recently died; now she learned that her sons had been arrested. (She had not even known they were in Alexandria. No one had. The morning Ahmed left Cairo, he had told his wife he was going to work as usual.)

Maher’s mother went to the police station, wearing all black as if in mourning.

“My sons are here in Alexandria for my sister’s funeral, and you have arrested them!” she shouted at the officer, demanding that they be released.

“Who are your sons, ma’am?”

“Ahmed and Mostafa Maher.”

“Ahmed Maher? He is the leader! The leader of a bunch of criminals! We have all kinds of files on him!”

The officer refused to let her see or contact her sons. She finally managed to find a sympathetic prosecutor, who told her he would do his best to ensure they were treated well. Quietly, he also told her that Ahmed and Mostafa were heroes. “Egypt needs more like them,” he said.

The Maher boys were released within days. Neither had been tortured. I returned to the U.S. to write about the quashed protest. I admired their courage, but the whole thing felt like a prank. At that point, it was hard to imagine Maher and A6Y toppling much of anything.

5.

After the crushed Alexandria protest, Maher and his cohorts regrouped. By the fall of 2008,  was becoming fairly well known in Egypt, at least among the young. Much of that success traced to Maher’s quiet leadership and organizational acumen, combined with the magnetic force of some of A6Y’s more vocal personalities, like Waleed Rashed and a tech-savvy 19-year-old blogger named Mohamed Adel. But it was Maher’s vision that propelled them forward. “He made the bridge from online to offline organizing,” says Sherif Mansour, a senior program officer with Freedom House, a human-rights group in Washington, D.C.

In person,  displays a soft-spokenness that can be mistaken for shyness, until you notice how closely he’s concentrating on a conversation. To spend an afternoon, or even a few days, with Maher is to watch him listening. “Everyone says I am so calm, but it’s not that way to me. It’s not calm inside my head,” he told me. “But I make things happen suddenly, so many people are surprised by what I do—that this quiet person did these things.” The Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas told me that Maher “is a velvet fist in a velvet glove. He always avoids clashes with people.” His aura of decency, coupled with his regular-guy street cred, only increased after he was tortured, drawing more young people into A6Y.

Yet while the group’s eagerness for regime change crystallized in online conversations, it was clear to everyone in the Kitchen that they needed to learn more about effective street organizing. So A6Y’s leaders turned again to the Internet, this time for a crash course in the history of nonviolent opposition. The April 6 crew read about the U.S. civil rights movement, studied the writings of Gandhi, and, most critically, connected with the organizers of Serbia’s Otpor student movement.

In 2000, Otpor had helped overthrow the government of Slobodan Miloševic with adroit application of nonviolent protest strategies. The campaign had worked so well that Otpor organizers launched a training program for toppling, or at least upsetting, incumbent governments. It is called Canvas, for Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies. Foreign Policy magazine dubbed it “Revolution U.” In the summer of 2009, A6Y’s Mohamed Adel flew to Belgrade for a Canvas session. Slightly pudgy and disheveled but quick-witted, Adel had been blogging about politics and government corruption since he was 16. “I had to tell people about what I saw in my village,” he told me. In Belgrade, Adel met activists from all over the globe, building relationships with like-minded organizers in Tunisia, Algeria, and  in the Arab world.

Back in Cairo,  shared what he had learned: Design demonstrations that put the authorities on notice in unexpected ways. Use art and humor, and stay focused on issues that resonate with the masses. Plan events on public holidays. When you do take to the streets, bring water so you don’t pass out; carry a flower to symbolize peace and the lid of a pot or garbage bin to protect against batons; wear comfortable shoes for standing and running, a scarf to shield against tear gas, and leather gloves to protect hands from tear-gas canisters. Wash tear gas from your eyes with soda. Most important of all, don’t treat the police like enemies, because they are not enemies. If any of your fellow protesters look like they might be losing their cool, or if they commit acts of violence, surround and isolate them.

Just as A6Y was establishing itself as a political force and expanding its demonstration tactics, however, the organization faced internal chaos. Maher kept getting fired from jobs: employers would get a visit from state security soon after hiring him and decide that the risks weren’t worth it. At one firm, agents seized Maher’s desktop computer. At home, Maher faced pressure from Reham, who did not like the fact that whenever her husband wasn’t working, he was off at meetings, hiding, or in jail.

That summer a few of the group’s newer members began showing up at  meetings, commandeering the conversation with moronic arguments about how using technologies like Google and Facebook was wrong because they were built by American companies. (Despite the billions of dollars in aid from Washington, Egyptians—like many people in the Arab world—have reactions ranging from skeptical to resentful toward U.S. involvement in their affairs.)

Maher, Adel, and others quickly identified the newcomers as state security plants. “They were just foolish kids,” says Maher. But before the organizers could weed them out, these foolish kids managed to hack into many Kitchen members’ email accounts, which they then made public. They even dug deep enough into Maher’s inbox to find my correspondences. In one tabloid article that Maher remembers, he was accused of collaborating with a Mossad agent identified as David Wolman.

The Kitchen responded with a counter-hack. Adel put together a dummy Facebook page that appeared to contain scandalous information about Maher and A6Y. In fact it was a data trap: To view the information, users had to input their email addresses and passwords. Adel collected their logins and showed them to A6Y’s followers. Maher realized that this kind of online threat was arguably more dangerous than the security forces breaking up street protests or throwing people in jail. Foiled protests could serve to reinforce peoples’ anti-regime convictions, whereas sowing doubt on the Internet about A6Y’s authenticity could undercut support from its base. Much of the battle between state security and activists had moved online.

In the fall of 2009, Maher and his crew began sketching plans for a demonstration against police brutality to take place on January 25, a holiday that honors Egypt’s police. Opposition groups and young activists considered the holiday something of a sick joke, as if Mubarak was making it mandatory that they celebrate state-sponsored torture, intimidation, and graft. But January 25 also offered an optimal occasion for protest: Instead of enjoying a day off, the cops would have to deal with demonstrators. This meant the activists could force the police into what the people at Revolution U called a “dilemma action.” If the regime aggressively thwarted the protest, it would underscore the message of the protesters. If it gave the activists a generous berth, they’d be free to transmit their message.

The activists gathered at a meeting place announced online: the Journalists’ Syndicate. They would do the same a year later, meeting at the General Prosecutor’s building. Both times the result was the same: the January 25 protest fizzled, broken up by police at the gathering point before it could gain momentum. They drew barely a flicker of coverage from domestic and international media. Nevertheless, the A6Y activists decided to make Police Day protests an annual event. Maybe next year, Maher thought, they could attract more people. “You need the perfect conditions,” he had once told me, “a time when people are receptive to being active.”

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6.

On June 6, 2010, a 28-year-old businessman named Khalid Mohamed Said was seated in a cybercafe in his hometown of Alexandria. According to witness accounts, two local detectives entered the second-floor establishment and began beating him. They slammed his head on a table before the owner told them to take the fighting outside. They pulled Said out to a building entryway where they kicked him and smashed his head against an iron gate until his body went limp.

Official reports of the incident alleged that Said was a drug dealer wanted by police for weapons possession. He died, the authorities claimed, after resisting arrest and trying to swallow a bag of marijuana. But activists were quickly convinced that Said was killed for posting a video showing local police divvying up marijuana they had recently seized. It wasn’t just activists, though. People all over the country, many of whom had no interest in politics, were appalled with official explanations they believed to be lies.

After Said’s family was called to the morgue to identify his body, a photograph of his horrifically mangled face was posted online. The image was too shocking for young Egyptians not to share. Mohammad Al-Anwar, a 22-year-old medical student from the city of Zagazig, later told me that Said’s murder was somehow different from other episodes of torture or murder at the hands of the regime. “Maybe it was because he was a well-known and educated guy with many friends. And the picture. I mean, he was so completely disfigured. I don’t know what it was exactly, but it spread like fire.” A 24-year-old woman I spoke with in Cairo welled up as she recounted what happened to this man she’d never met. “He was this good-looking guy who by all accounts was liked by everyone.” It was painful, another woman told me, to think that Egyptians had let their country devolve into the kind of place where this could happen.

It wasn’t the photo alone that was spreading but also a Facebook page erected in  honor. A number of online memorials were posted, including one created by members of A6Y, but one in particular became a meeting place for tens of thousands, and soon hundreds of thousands, of Egyptians. A month after the murder, the page had 180,000 fans. They convened to vent, connect, pay tribute, and, although they may not have realized it at the time, unite. The page was called We Are All Khalid Said, and the title alone spoke to the sense among Egypt’s educated (but often unemployed) youth that the corrupt state of the State was now everyone’s business.

The person who created We Are All Khalid Said chose to go by the moniker El Shaheed, the Martyr. The page’s content was welcoming and interactive, with emotionally forthright conversations and a seemingly limitless string of thought-provoking comments and links. It encouraged visitors to share news, videos, and photographs about injustices suffered at the hands of Mubarak’s security forces. And its creator took pains to keep the page as casual and unpolitical as possible, using, for example, the Egyptian Arabic of the streets rather than the classical Arabic usually reserved for writing. The posts were drenched in earnestness:

We will triumph because we have no agendas, because we don’t understand politics and negotiations and the dirty games of give-and-take. We will triumph because our tears are heartfelt, because our love is instinctive, because our dreams are legitimate … and because hope has now possessed every one of us. We will triumph because Egypt is above all.

A few weeks after the murder, people organized vigils to honor Said. Dressed in black, they gathered by the corniche in Alexandria, facing the Mediterranean, and on the banks of the Nile in Cairo, to observe an hour-long “silent stand.” Under a Mubarak-era law, any unsanctioned gathering of more than five people could lead to police custody or jail time. By standing at least 10 feet apart and staring out at the sea, the participants were not, technically, assembling.

Just after midnight on July 8, the mysterious man behind We Are All Khalid Said sent an email to Ahmed Maher using the alias Khalid Said. He began by praising the work of the A6Y:

You and Kefaya were the first people in Egypt to wake up and hopefully, God willing, this awakening will continue and we can do something to change this country because we all have the same goal.

He then complained about a newspaper report crediting A6Y with organizing the silent stands. His objection, he said, arose from the fact that he’d worked hard to use We Are All Khalid Said to “attract many non-political people who do not want to feel that I am a political person, or that this community is part of a political organization.” But then he offered the hint of a pledge:

If you would like to, consider me someone who is preparing a generation of young people to join you or anyone else afterwards… I want us to be one hand and to continue each other’s work, so that we don’t get into conflicts and our positive efforts to change Egypt end up turning negative.

 responded immediately, praising “Said” for his mobilization efforts and apologizing for the misinformation in the papers, adding that the error was not the fault of anyone within . (Egypt’s media, at the time, tended to tie any activities conducted by young people to the A6Y.) But Maher also pointed out that A6Y’s involvement had helped magnify the demonstrations. And because members of the group had been studying up on strategies for nonviolent protest, they were able to help direct the crowds to minimize conflict with the police. Then he added:

This leads us to an important point: maybe we can have a declaration between us, agreeing to consult, collaborate, and coordinate together, so that young people will not be so scattered and afraid anymore during these protests.

Without coordination, Maher explained, people brave enough to head into the streets often have to return home just as fast, having achieved nothing “because one dumb officer shooed them away like flies.”

At 3:13 a.m., “Said” sent a reply. “I can’t begin to describe how happy I was when I read your e-mail,” he wrote. He appreciated that Maher was sensitive to the tone he was striking with the Facebook page. Police brutality, human dignity, freedom—these are universal issues, not political issues. “Said” did not want the agendaless brand of We Are All Khalid Said to be contaminated by an open connection to a political group. Still, Said pointed out,

You have probably noticed how [on the Facebook page] I am gradually moving them away from this fear [of politics] and subtly inserting some political subjects.

The two activists would trade a few more brief emails; Maher then suggested they continue the dialogue via either Gmail or Yahoo chat. “Said” closed out the exchange:

Anyway, I think we can really help each other and benefit from one another. Our goal is one.

I’ll try to be online around midnight.

But I only have Gmail.

While Maher and the pseudonymous organizer continued chatting for months in the online world, offline Maher had found an employer willing to serve as a kind a benefactor. Mamdouh Hamza was a well-known liberal activist in Cairo and the owner of Hamza Associates, a major architecture and engineering firm behind famous projects like the new Library of Alexandria. A friend had told Hamza about Maher’s job troubles. “I hired him without an interview,” Hamza told me later. “I was determined to protect this young man.”

The steady paycheck meant Maher could focus on plotting. On December 30, 2010, “Said” wrote Maher in a chat session, suggesting that they “collaborate on a crazy idea”:

Maher: Oh really? Crazy people are the ones that create change.

Said: January 25th is “Police Day.” We want to celebrate it.

Maher: Cool.

Said: [Showcasing] positive examples and negative examples of police behavior.

Maher: We celebrated it last year.

Said: Really? Send me any links so I can see what you did.

They conferred about what kind of demonstration to conduct, and Maher reiterated the idea that the police were especially “pissed off” to have to work on Police Day. Said wrote back, “I can energize people to participate.” But he needed Maher’s expertise with information dissemination, publicity, and details about how to evade the police. It was soon settled: We Are All Khalid Said would endorse and advertise a January 25 event, while A6Y would coordinate the logistics.

In the first weeks of 2011, emotions in Egypt were smoldering. On January 1, a bombing of a church in Alexandria killed 21 people and injured almost 100 more. Many Egyptians believed the attack was launched by the regime to incite anger between Muslims and Christians. (An investigation is still under way.) Regime change was also fresh in people’s minds because of speculation that Nobel laureate, and local hero, Mohamed ElBaradei might run for office. Next was Tunisia, where protesters had successfully ended the 23-year reign of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Ahead of the January 25 event, A6Y set up a control room in an apartment owned by Maher’s boss, Hamza, in an old building downtown. As news of the revolution in Tunisia spread, a public discussion emerged on We Are All Khalid Said about giving a Tunisian-style gift to the Egyptian regime.

By January 14, Egypt’s Twittersphere began to fill with chatter about the uprising. One microblogger wrote, “Dear people watching Arabs Got Talent. There’s a better show going on called Tunisia’s Got Freedom. Watch that.” Two days later, another popular microblogger, 24-year-old Gigi Ibrahim, posted this: “The black and white days are coming, there is no grey.” Others kept directing and redirecting followers, friends, and digital passersby to “a Facebook event page for a revolution in Egypt: http://on.fb.me/hqioSl. Don’t forget to RSVP…” On the 17th, Ibrahim again: “A MAN IN #EGYPT SET HIMSELF ON FIRE CHANTING AGAINST STATE SECURITY IN FRONT OF PARLIAMENT AT 9:00 AM TODAY # #Revolution attempt?”

That same day, Maher sent “Said” a note after a meeting with other opposition groups:

There have been some suggestions for a protest at the Journalists’ Syndicate, but I’m not convinced. But in today’s meetings to coordinate for January 25, the idea of marches was widely accepted. They will begin in local areas, culminating with a central event in Cairo.

The problem is how to gather when they [state security] can strike any place that we announce. If the organizers started gathering by surprise—and that’s easy enough to do—how do we gather people and continue marching?

There is also a disagreement on the gathering point: Tahrir Square or the Ministry of Interior. Tahrir is easy for the police to lock down, and would be hard to storm if we had less than 5,000 people with us.

Maher detailed how protests in Tahrir over the past few years had been stifled by police who were able to “scatter” people before they could get there.

Two days later, Maher wrote “Said” with another update. “Imagine this,” he wrote. On January 25, various groups of protesters would gather in local areas and then converge on Tahrir. Different opposition groups—ElBaradei supporters, Ayman Nour’s El Ghad party, etc.—would be responsible for the different parts of the city. They would invite people from the neighborhoods to march with them; they would maintain contact with the command center; ; they would make masks with Said’s face on them; and they would not carry banners associated with political parties—only the Egyptian flag. Their demands: better wages, resignation of the Interior Minister, and an end to the emergency law that gave police free rein to terrorize without consequence. They would also flood Facebook with simple explanations of the protesters’ demands and guides to nonviolent protest tactics—a how-to straight out of the Canvas playbook.

A week before Police Day, a 21-year-old Cairo University student named Alya El Hosseiny was at home, sitting on her bed with her notebook computer, reading about Tunisia’s toppled dictator. She happened upon the Facebook event page for the January 25 demonstrations and decided to post on Twitter about it. “I looked around and couldn’t find an existing hashtag,” she told me later via email, referring to the handles that allow Twitter users to follow every post about a topic. “So I just made up something short and sweet. I thought it was temporary, until I found out everyone was using it”:

#jan25

7.

On the morning of January 25, 2011, Maher was driving around the Cairo neighborhood of Mohandessin. He had been in hiding for days. When he left his apartment a few days prior, Reham asked where he would be heading for the protests. Maher shrugged and said they were still sorting out details.

Maher was wearing a thick pullover sweatshirt with gray patches, a raincoat, a scarf, and a ski hat. Zazua, Maher’s car, has black trim, a thick coating of dust, and a broken triangular window by the driver-side mirror. The car is decorated with two small black fists, the emblem of A6Y and of just about every other solidarity group of the past 100 years: one on the rear windshield, the other on the fuel-tank door. At around 11 a.m., Maher headed toward the square in front of , which sits almost in the middle of one of the area’s widest and busiest thoroughfares, Gameat Al Dowal Al Arabia, or Arab League Street. An array of smaller streets shoot off from it like spokes.

The coalition of anti-Mubarak groups had chosen Mostafa Mahmoud as one of four major landmarks in the city that would serve as initial gathering places. From each, the respective groups would march to Tahrir Square. “It was just like in the movie V for Vendetta,” Maher recalled, referring to the moment in the film when thousands of Londoners march on Parliament.

It was a little after 11:30 when Maher drove past the front of the mosque. Peering out the window of his car, he could see that it was crawling with plainclothes security officers, as well as a lineup of black-clad riot police.

Good, they’re here, he thought, before driving away.

A few days prior, A6Y operatives had announced on Facebook and in newspaper advertisements that a rally would take place outside the mosque after midday prayer, at around 2 p.m., on January 25. Located in a well-to-do neighborhood, Mostafa Mahmoud was exactly the kind of place the police would expect middle-class kids playing around on Facebook to congregate for a demonstration.

The mosque was indeed the protest location, but for the  protestors and the crowds they hoped to rally, it was merely the end point of a larger plan. Shortly after noon, eight groups of about 20 A6Y veterans were dispatched into the back alleys of the shaabi, or working-class neighborhoods, not far from the mosque. From there they would lead, and grow, a series of disparate marches that would converge and arrive en masse at Mostafa Mahmoud. This time it would be impossible for the authorities to pick protesters off individually as they turned out for the main event.

To execute the plan, each unit would linger in the area of Mohandessin until the unit leader received a call with instructions about a precise starting point. The fewer people who knew the exact geography, the less chance state security agents had to intercept or disrupt them. Only Maher and the march coordinator overseeing the eight units knew the starting places. The A6Y team had examined Google Earth images of the city in advance and  routes. Eventually, the narrower streams through the back alleys would meet up and make their way down Arab League Street before arriving at Mustafa Mahmoud.

At 12:30, Maher made three calls. The first was to the operation coordinator, who then dispatched the eight units to their starting points in the shaabi neighborhoods. Then Maher called the protest coordinators in  and Port Said.

“How’s it going over there? Are you ready? OK. Let’s go.”

As they moved through the narrow alleys, the protestors chanted slogans—“Long Live Egypt! Long Live Egypt!” and “Bread, Freedom, Human Dignity!”—and cheerfully urged people standing in shops and doorways and looking down from balconies to join in.

Just after one o’clock, Maher drove back to the mosque to find hundreds of people gathered. They appeared to be everyday Egyptians from off the streets, responding to the newspaper announcements or word-of-mouth invitations from friends and neighbors. Within an hour, their numbers had swelled to a few thousand. It was fast turning into one of the biggest rallies in Cairo’s recent history, and it hadn’t technically started yet. The scene was electrifying but chaotic. None of the people gathered had been versed in the tactics of nonviolent protest. The crowd was eager to take action, or at least to go somewhere.

Maher jumped up on the railing of a fence and began shouting.

“Just wait! My friends are coming! More people are coming!”

A few people in the crowd recognized him and began repeating the message. To his relief, Rashed, the ebullient spokesman of A6Y, was also there. Maher and Rashed managed to convince everyone to sit down. At one point, Maher guessed that there were as many as 7,000 people surrounding the mosque and spilling out onto Arab League Street. Then he got a call from one of the A6Y leaders guiding the streams of marchers through the shaabi. The eight units had converged and were nearing the overpass that would deliver them to Arab League Street and the mosque.

“Maher!” he heard shouted into his phone. “We have 10,000 people!”

Maher couldn’t believe it. A few minutes later, he got another call from another of the group leaders. Maher covered one ear to block the noise of the crowd.

“We must be 15,000 people! We are nearing the !”

It was 2:20 before the marchers began arriving at the square in front of the mosque. From his perch on the fence, Maher looked out at an almost incomprehensible scene: A ribbon of humanity stretching down Arab League Street as far as he could see.

People began shouting, “Akheeran! Akheeran!” At last! At last! Maher wandered among them, slapping hands and hugging friends. But triumph was usurped by concern: The crowd could splinter at any moment. Maher, Rashed, and other members of A6Y knew that the protest would have the greatest impact if the massive gathering stuck to the plan and headed to the heart of the city, combining forces with the other protest battalions. They locked arms to make a perimeter around the marchers, trying to keep people on course. Periodically, they broke off and sprinted to the front of the pack. Their goal was to keep everyone pointed toward what would soon affectionately become known as the Republic of Tahrir.

8.

By evening there were tens of thousands of people in the square. The police eventually blocked bridges across the Nile, preventing additional protesters from the west from entering . But critical mass had already been achieved. By that time, says Rashed, it was “like a war zone.” Members of A6Y and other activists groups that had helped choreograph the march were running through the side streets of downtown, trying to escape the rubber bullets, police batons, and tear gas. On Twitter, there were strobelike reports of pandemonium: “Tear gas!!” “Eyes burning fuck.” “Police is throwing rocks at us.” “Someone badly injured in his leg.”

By nightfall, after protesters had taken up positions in Tahrir for what would become a kind of siege in reverse, Maher and other members of the Kitchen were back in the control room. Their careful planning had paid off. No one had predicted such enormous turnout, but they knew their next steps. January 25 was a Tuesday, and by the next morning they were hurriedly making plans for an even bigger demonstration on Friday, using social media to spread the message but also getting taxi drivers to talk about it, jotting down details on banknotes, and telling anyone who would listen that this giant event was about to take place. They even branded it: the Day of Rage.

Much as they had for the Police Day “celebration,” they advertised the January 28 protest by using event pages on Facebook. Maher and “Said” also put together a document titled “Everything You Need to Know about the Day of Rage.” They wrote it in Google Docs so that once it was up it could be edited by the masses, much like a Wikipedia entry. “Who We Are,” the document begins. “We are Egypt’s young people on the Internet.” It then runs through the basics: why they were protesting, their demands, demonstration places and times, and, perhaps most critical, demonstration instructions emphasizing calm, unity, and level-headedness. “If you’ve never been in a protest before, don’t stand in the front,” the document instructed. “Leave the front lines for those who are more experienced in leading protests and marches so there is no confusion in decision-making.” The guide was appended to the Facebook event page for January 28, which, of course, was administered by We Are All Khalid Said.

By the 28th, the campaign of violence orchestrated by the regime was coming to a head. The young blogger was grabbed on the street and beaten up. Maher, meanwhile, was racing around the neighborhood of Imbaba, a poor area in Giza, again trying to keep thousands of marchers on course. Microblogger Mahmoud Salem tweeted that afternoon: “I am ok. I got out. I was ambushed & beaten by the police, my phone confiscated, my car ripped apar& [sic] supplies taken #jan25.”

And then, just before 6 p.m., Egyptians were cut off from the world and from each other. The country’s major Internet service providers were ordered to shut off their networks, rendering websites hosted in-country inaccessible and preventing Egyptians from using email, Facebook, Twitter, and other social-networking services. Mobile-phone networks also went dark, except for anonymous, pro-Mubarak messages sent by the regime.

For many Egyptians, blocking Internet and cellular communications was the last straw. If they had been reluctant to step out into the streets, now they were compelled to—it was the only way to be in contact with one another. For the protest architects, though, the outage meant hurried contingency plans and workarounds. Someone from the Kitchen ventured out to purchase a satellite television for the control room so the group could receive news from beyond. A few locations had also escaped the blackout because of obscure ISPs or international dial-up numbers. Local blogger Sarah Carr found herself with an intact connection, and her apartment quickly filled with friends, and friends of friends, eager to get word out to friends and family.

The Internet blackout was matched by more intimidation, detentions, and beatings. On February 3, after representatives from various opposition groups dispersed following a meeting at Mohamed ElBaradei’s villa, all of the A6Y members who attended the meeting were picked up by police. That same night, security police came the closest they would come to grabbing Maher. Two minibuses pulled onto El Tawfikia Street and stopped in front of building No. 1, which houses the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, one of the bases of operations for opposition organizers outside of Tahrir. Hamza, Maher’s boss, was in the crowd standing across the street when it happened.

Plainclothes officers entered the building and climbed the stairs. They apprehended about 10 people, including the Center’s director, and ushered them downstairs and into the minibuses. According to Hamza, the authorities were also shouting rumors that the people being arrested were from Hamas “and that they have come to burn Cairo. They were kicking [the activists] and hitting them.” A6Y had been using an office just one floor down from the Law Center. Al Jazeera reporter Elizabeth Jones, who had embedded with the A6Y organizers for a documentary, was also briefly detained and then released. Later, her television footage would provide a window into how the group had managed to continue coordinating their part of the revolution from the control room amidst the chaos.   

Maher had just returned from his one respite from the revolution: a small party to celebrate his daughter’s third birthday. As he walked around the corner onto El Tawfikia, he saw soldiers standing post at the entrance to the Law Center and a few people walking out of the building, their hands bound. “Some young people standing downstairs signaled to me to leave quickly, but I didn’t understand. Suddenly, the soldiers noticed me and started running to try and arrest me,” he said. “I ran from them through the . I went home to Tahrir Square to spend the night there because it was the safest place in Egypt.”

9.

Meanwhile, Wael Ghonim was missing. Based in Dubai, Ghonim had arrived in Cairo before January 25 to participate in the protests. He wasn’t just any Egyptian citizen returning home to join his people, however. He was also the mastermind of We Are All Khalid Said. On January 28, he disappeared. The regime may have been after him because he had been openly running the fan page for Mohamed ElBaradei or because the secret police had uncovered his other identity. Ghonim had a contingency plan in place so that if he were detained, one of the few people who knew he was the administrator of the Facebook page would go public with his secret. It was by way of this plan that Maher learned the identity of his co-conspirator. He thought back to a conference about blogging that he and Ghonim had attended in Qatar. During the sessions, Maher had been trading live chat messages with the man he knew only as “Said,” not knowing that he was seated just a few feet away. At one point during a break, Ghonim had casually asked Maher what A6Y had in store for Police Day.

Now Amnesty International, opposition leaders in Egypt, and executives at one of the richest companies in the galaxy were negotiating for Ghonim’s release. When he was finally freed on February 7, he agreed to a television interview on the popular Dream TV program 10 O’clock. When the host asked him to respond to accusations that it was the protesters, not iron-fisted government ministers, who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of activists throughout Egypt, Ghonim broke down. “I want to say to every mother and father who lost their son: I am so sorry, but it’s not our fault,” he said, fighting back sobs. “I swear to God it is not our fault. It’s the fault of everybody who was holding on to power and refusing to let it go.”

Maher was happy to see his collaborator released but worried about the consequences of a misstep from the newly famous Ghonim. The revolution had been in a precarious lull: By now, Mubarak had made nontrivial concessions, the public was getting tired of revolution-induced economic paralysis, and high-profile people like billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris were saying that the protesters had underestimated their achievements. “They should declare victory,” Sawiris told The New York Times, and go home.

Ghonim’s release reinvigorated the protesters and the general public alike, but his stardom, not to mention the shock of his time in captivity, made the situation fragile: What if he lost his head? If Ghonim had been coerced or somehow convinced to renounce the protests, or if he even made a comment significantly out of sync with the coalition’s public statements, the movement could be fatally crippled. Maher had to reach him.

Through a professor whom both men knew, Maher conveyed a simple plea to Ghonim, the man who had been his invisible collaborator for months: Stay on message. Mubarak had to go, and the protestors wouldn’t leave Tahrir until he did. Ghonim agreed.

The next day, a Tuesday, Ghonim spoke to the crowds at Tahrir. The media had its new narrative thrust, and demonstrators nationwide were galvanized. Maher, meanwhile, was tapping away on his smartphone and his white notebook computer in the control room. A6Y’s leaders were churning out press releases, taking interviews with journalists, and coordinating with activists in , Port Said, Suez, and elsewhere. That day, Maher sent me another text message:

We will organize a great demonstration on Friday in all of Egypt.

They called it the Friday of Departure. That Thursday, Maher got the call from Ghonim to join the secret meeting at the Ministry of Transportation, where he had to face down some of the very men who had hunted him.

The next day, Maher parked Zazua downtown and started walking toward Tahrir. As he passed an electronics shop, he looked in and saw Vice President Omar Suleiman giving a live address. Maher popped into the store just in time to catch the crux of the message: Mubarak was gone.

10.

Saturday, March 19. Maher and Reham walk hand in hand past the elementary school in Maadi where earlier in the day they had cast their ballots. Maher wears a black T-shirt and Reham a pink headscarf. She is eight and a half months pregnant. (Her doctor gave her a due date of April 6.) Today’s referendum is a vote for amending the constitution or scrapping it entirely. The lines extending out of the polling station are long, but the atmosphere is festive. Young people snap photographs with their cell phones, and voters exiting the school building inspect the ink on their fingers. A few people recognize Maher but not many. “More women than men,” he says, a fact that Reham affirms with a teasing nod.

Since the revolution, Maher has been busy. Yesterday he smoked cigars with the Cuban ambassador and tried to sit still for a photographer from The Washington Post. He has also had meetings recently with British Prime Minister David Cameron, the head of the British Parliament, officials from the European Union, and ambassadors from more than half a dozen countries. He had to turn down an invitation to the U.S. embassy because of exhaustion. Recently, when he showed up at the swanky Cairo Marriott for a meeting wearing his typical long-sleeve T-shirt, sneakers, and cargo pants still stained with mud from Tahrir Square, a hotel staffer looked him over and asked what he was doing there. Maher took some satisfaction in saying that he had a meeting with Ahmed Zewail, the revered Egyptian scientist and Nobel laureate. Soon Maher will fly to Spain, where he will speak about his experiences, and, after that, to Qatar, New York, and the salons of Paris. “Do you tweet?” one Western journalist recently asked him. “Do you blog?” “Are you Moses?” (Answers: Yes. Yes. No.) For other members of A6Y, the situation is similar: a whirlwind of travel, queries from publishers, speaking gigs, and discussions with academics and activists from Athens to Boston, all eager to put together a postmortem of events that to most of the world appear to have sprung from nowhere.

The night before the referendum, Maher and a handful of people from the Kitchen gathered at an  near Cairo’s stock exchange. Maher sat with his briefcase resting on his lap, doing more listening than talking. Someone had a laptop that was passed from person to person every few minutes. Rashed, the boisterous A6Y spokesman, started teasing Maher. A woman had told Rashed that she wanted to marry a man like Maher. Standing up for theatrical effect, Rashed asked, “What do the rest of us have to do? Is it the bald head? Is that the secret?” he said, prompting laughter from the group.

At one point, I asked Rashed if he ever thought they would be here, celebrating the end of the regime. When we had met in 2008, during the brief protest on the beach that day in Alexandria, things hadn’t exactly gone so well.

“That was a great day. The greatest day,” Rashed said.

I asked him what he meant, but he was simultaneously looking at the A6Y Facebook page on the laptop, smoking shisha, and chiming in to two other conversations. So I asked again. How exactly does a demonstration that attracts almost no curious passersby, ends within minutes, and results in beatings and arrests for a handful of participants qualify as a great day?

“Because of this day, we know we are an important group. They came for us right away. Why? Because we are a real problem for them. Thanks to that day, people all over Egypt and outside of Egypt—they know us. They know of this group that is against the government and that we are dangerous to the regime.” That fierce crackdown, said Rashed, provided invaluable advertising and showed the activists that they were powerful. He paused for a moment before repeating his conclusion. “It was a great day.”

Maher agreed. It wasn’t merely that the regime had revealed how worried it was about A6Y and about activities as innocuous as flying a kite-flag. That day in Alexandria, Maher told me, showed that A6Y was “a political force to be reckoned with, just like any party or political organization in Egypt.” Before, he said, A6Y was seen as just a bunch of kids playing around online. What had looked to the outside world like a failed protest was in fact a crystallizing moment that transformed A6Y from small-time protesters into full-fledged insurrectionaries.

A little before midnight, the Kitchen dispersed; there was still a curfew on in Cairo between 12 and 6 a.m. Even today the political situation in Egypt remains unstable. Protests continued well into April, often relating to wages or objections to figures from the old regime who’d retained power or had not been charged with any crimes. A standoff at Cairo University between students and administrators appointed by the former ruling party has yet to be resolved, and on April 9, the military used force to break up a protest in Tahrir, killing two people and injuring dozens. “We have much work to do,” said Maher.

The day after the referendum, Maher’s plan was to go to work and try to be a civil engineer for at least part of the day before leaving for a series of meetings in the evening. After that he had to take Zazua to the mechanic. The car needed a new muffler and replacement glass for the broken window. This was no time to run into car trouble.  The baby was due any day.