The transcript that follows requires something of an introduction in order to minimize the shock of reading. Following 6 weeks of Basic Training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, which began on April 24, 1972, I was assigned to the artillery school at Fort Bliss located in El Paso, Texas. My original orders had been to report for training at Fort Sill, OK. However, someone must have noticed the high test scores my personnel file contained and the orders were changed after I received and acquiesced to an offer of the more technical training. This belied the advice heard around the induction station, that one should do "as lousy as possible on all the tests so they don't screw with you." Being one who liked to pretend I was an above average citizen, I tried my best to ace the examinations. This decision bore fruit in the chance to escape certain travel in the hostile world called Vietnam, which was still a dangerous place to be in early 1972.
El Paso is a small border town located in the extreme west corner of Texas. With a population of around 340,000 at the time, it lies on the north bank of Rio Grande River opposite even the smaller town of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The two places shared cultural and economic ties the past couple centuries, as well as abounding in legends that grew into songs and movies and myth. It was a hot cowboy town at the foot of the Franklin Mountains which served as a pass for north or southbound travelers. It is home to the Sun Bowl, of football championship fame, appropriately labeled, as it seems clouds rarely visit the area. In fact there was a small block of news on the front page of the local paper reporting daily how many days the sun had failed to shine in the past one or two hundred-odd days. The number of such days could usually be counted using the fingers of one or both hands.
My arrival into El Paso would be an introduction to a strange new world. I had not before been farther west than Chicago. But on this warm July midnight a small group of us landed in that border town and were taken to the base. I was delighted to see the mountains that loomed so close when I awoke the next morning, the first time seeing any such formation lacking almost completely in vegetation. It was hot and dry, but for me, enjoying this dramatically new environment, if still not quite accepting what I considered my "imprisonment" in service to Uncle Sam, the change was all right. Maybe being drafted was not the unforgivably horrible thing I thought it might be.
The drama unfolded one warm December night, 1972, in a north El Paso neighborhood. Two "friends" of mine, TR (a.k.a. Terry Ramsey), Blue (a.k.a. William "Bill" McEwin), and I left the base on some "business" of TR's. Blue and I were along for the ride so to speak, even though Blue was driving. Blue provided the ride being the only one among us who owned a car on post. My purpose was less functional, I was there because we three amigos usually hung out together.
Each of us shared a common element of enjoying getting high on marihuana, not to mention the use, or more correctly abuse, of other "mind altering substances." Blue was a lanky twenty-year old, quite friendly and good-natured, but occasional slurred speech gave one the impression of having sniffed one too many aerosol cans. TR was a short, slight, feisty fellow who liked to act as if he was big time stuff. On this evening he had arranged to purchase 2 kilos of pot, 2.2 pounds. This was a money-making scheme of his and also served the purpose to provide a more predictable supply for our own habit. Neither Blue nor I contributed any cash but we were certain to reap some rewards for accompanying TR. Around 9:30 that night, the 8th of December, 1972, after sundown, we found out more precisely just what rewards are possible in this kind of venture.
The purchase was accomplished uneventfully while driving around and the seller was let out of the car at the side of a dark dimly lit residential street of his choosing. We all noticed the police cruiser coming toward us as we slowed down to let the seller out and we came to a stop only after it passed us by. Trying to restart our hearts we proceeded in motion again after depositing our guest at the curb. Moments later we watch the explosion of blue and red flashing lights invade our world, the kind of light show every dope head dreads. Blue again pulled his car over to the curb and stopped. What follows next is a little hazy and not for merely the long reach of memory. Blue got out of the car to talk with the officer who was now walking over to meet him. Leaving his door open, admittedly not the wisest of moves, Blue offered him his driver's license. It didn't take long for the officer to absorb the situation, by sight and scent. TR and I were ordered from the car and I got out of the front passenger seat, TR from the back passenger side. Blue was requested to furnish the officer his keys so he could look in the trunk, and he demurely complied without comment. In there was a grocery bag containing 2 tightly compacted bricks of pot. Paydirt! We were handcuffed as the rest of the car was searched, and were hauled down to the El Paso County Jail where we spent the night. After being quickly processed and our "portraits" taken we were escorted to a darkened cell and each of us tried our best to find an empty bunk on a night that was obviously a busy one for the EPPD. I eventually managed to find an empty top bunk where I fitfully passed the rest of the night with not a little fear I might be molested in some manner by one of El Paso's more undesirable elements, among which, of course, I did not consider myself.
The next morning we were released to the Military authorities and were transferred to the Fort Bliss stockade, only a little more comfortably furnished than the county calaboose. We were eventually processed for the indictment and released to our respective commands, TR and Blue belonged to the company across the parking lot from my 3rd Enlisted Student Battery, where I formerly had been in school to learn to be a Nike Hercules Electronic mechanic. For the next few months we wouldn't have much contact, mainly because we were confined to barracks under house arrest. This meant that I wouldn't be able to go home for Christmas. I say "I" because on account of the lax way in which we were secured and confined Blue and TR both drove home for the holiday. They only had to travel the roughly 900 miles or so to Norman Oklahoma and Fort Smith Arkansas. I on the other hand would have had to fly home to Detroit. The ugly implication of this meant I had to finally admit to my parents that I was in some trouble.
From the day of the arrest until shortly before Christmas I had kept it secret from my family that I was about to be court-martialled. I wanted to spare them the pain. I wanted to spare me the pain too since I was a little scared to tell them. The $500 I asked for in the following weeks I had explained that a repair for Blue's car was needed, not the more accurate "I need to make bail." As close friends as Blue and I were he asked me if he could borrow the money from me, $250 per person, and I had no problem with that, though to this day he still has not paid me back. I knew mom and dad would wire me the money, if I could just figure out a good reason for requiring such a large sum. In other words, shamefully, I had to lie. A car repair sounded plausible, and it worked. But now that it was getting close to the holiday and my homecoming was expected and, indeed, greatly anticipated by everyone. But I couldn't come and I could lie no longer. What fabrications could I devise that anyone would believe for me not coming home for Christmas? So I dropped the bomb on my parents. I will leave it for you to imagine the anguish this caused. I'm sure you can.
The holidays were tough on us all. I did have one moment of pleasure when a friend and I drove north out of Texas into New Mexico on New Years day. We were still confined to barracks, but as I mentioned, security was often quite lax; the barrack was still just a dormitory for students studying surface to air missile stuff. On the desert floor the air was hot and humid with temps in the upper 90's. Heading north-bound on route 54 along the desert floor we then turned east on route 82 into the mountains towards Cloudcroft. Climbing higher and higher the temperature dropped slowly and comfortably. In the distance what we thought was approaching fog turned out to be a raging blizzard. Before we stopped and turned around we were in over a foot of snow. It was remarkable!
The trial was held at the end of January 1973. My mother mustered all of the courage she had and flew down to be with me in the courtroom. When I picked her up at the airport I borrowed Blue's car, a hardly well maintained Pontiac Firebird, and not realizing that with all the pot that had been burned in there for so many days there might be some tell-tale evidence to a non-smoker. Believe it or not I was able to keep my drug life private from my folks until recently. Even my arrest walking back over the border from Juarez, Mexico earlier in the year was not well publicized. But then I was only carrying 2 cigarettes I thought were craftily hidden, but it was near midnight at the time and I was wearing sunglasses to hide my reddened eyes so the Border Guard wouldn't suspect in which state I was, and merely received an Article 15 which amounts to getting fined and losing a pay grade. It was not enough to alter my behavior nor force me to evaluate the potential pitfalls of drug use. When mom sat in the car at the airport I should have wondered how she could continue breathing. Pot has an atrocious stench to it, but It's something the user gets used to, much like regular cigarettes. Remarkably she didn't say a word to me and it never occurred to me that she would think anything was unusual, even as I drove her briefly around town for a little sightseeing before dropping her off at her motel. I'm sure all she wanted to do was just get to her room for a good shower and lung cleaning!
The trial started the next morning and I'll let you read it to complete the story. Of the 3 of us charged my trial came first. The others would stand or fall on it. Mom did sit behind me the entire time in court, which may or may not have had any effect on the Judge. I had opted for a non-jury trial on the advice of my attorney, Captain Cook, who was a very honorable man. I mean, how can one defend someone who was so obviously guilty but for the honor due the law itself? Anyway, he felt we'd have a better chance trying to convince 1 individual than 12. Probably around 9:00 a.m. the court opened. I had never even attended a trial before much less be the center of one. One note about reading the transcript, the stenographer reported the testimony of the witnesses but not the questions asked of them. That is why the testimony may sound a bit stilted. There were many questions offered the witnesses and each was answered as reported in the document. You may be able to surmise what those questions may have been, but the proceeding really wasn't a lecture by the witnesses, it was a give and take examination.
As a final word, my CO was gracious enough to allow me to go home right after the trial ended, something he probably shouldn't have done considering the severity of the circumstance. One thing that may have influenced him was the presence of my mother who I brought back to the Orderly Room after court and introduced to my Commanding Officer. The Orderly Room was where I worked while awaiting orders for a new assignment ever since my first brush with the law on the border. I had violated my security clearance and was removed from school where I was getting excellent grades. I worked for the First Sergeant who was a marvelous old Army man. "Top" was the office manager of the 3rd Enlisted Student Battery for whom I worked. My working relationship with the Captain may have also lent some influence in permitting me to accompany mom back home for a delayed Christmas celebration. I wish I could say that this very regretful experience was enough to bring me to my senses regarding drug abuse and my misguided and distant relationship with my parents and family. Alas, it would be 3 more insufferable years before that breakthrough. And that is discussed in my "memoirs," a chapter called The Meeting.
Next: The Court-Martial Transcript