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 US Air Defense school at Fort Bliss located in El Paso, Texas. I would be schooled as a Nike Hercules Electronics Mechanic. My original orders had been to report for field artillery training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. However, someone must have noticed the high test scores that my personnel file contained and the orders were changed after I received and agreed 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 was a small border town located in the extreme west corner of Texas. With a population of around 400,000 at the time, it lay on the Rio Grande River opposite even the smaller town of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The two places shared cultural and economic ties for over 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 paper everyday reporting how many days the sun had failed to shine in the past one hundred or two hundred-odd days. The number of such days could usually be counted using the fingers of both hands
My flight into the 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 night in a north El Paso neighborhood. Terry Ramsey (a.k.a. TR), Blue (a.k.a. William "Bill") McEwin and I left the base on some business of Terry's. Blue and I were along for the ride. 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 had the 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 sniffing one too many aerosol cans. TR was a short, slight, feisty fellow who liked to play the big shot. On this evening he had arranged to purchase 2 kilos of pot, (2.2 pounds per kilo). 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 precisely just what rewards are possible in this kind of venture.
The purchase was accomplished and the seller was let out of the car at the side of a dark, dimly lit residential street of his choice. We all noticed the police cruiser drifting toward us as we slowed down to let our passenger out and we came to a stop shortly 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 not for merely one reason. Blue got out of the car to talk with the officer 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 aroma. 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, concluding a long list of lapsed judgements! In the trunk was a grocery bag containing 2 tightly compacted bricks of pot. Paydirt! We were handcuffed, the rest of the car was searched resulting in the collction of a variety of contraband, and we were hauled down to the El Paso County Jail where we were to spend the night. After being processed 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 remainder of the night, with not a little fear I might be molested in some manner by one of El Paso's more undesirable elements, a member of which I certainly didn't consider myself.
The next morning we were released to the Military authorities and were transferred to the Fort Bliss stockade, only a little more comfortable 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 own 3rd Enlisted Student Battery. 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 Fort Smith Arkansas and Norman Oklahoma. 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 serious 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-martialed. 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. The car repair sounded plausible, and was successful. But now that it was getting close to the holiday and my homecoming was expected if not greatly anticipated by everyone, I had a decision to make. I couldn't come home 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 holiday's 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 Year's day. We were still confined to barracks, but as I mentioned, security was often quite lax. On the desert floor the air was hot and humid with temperatures in the upper 90's. Leaving north-bound Route 54 and the desert floor we headed east on Route 82 rising 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 our climb 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, not realizing that with all the pot that had been burned in there for so many days there might be some tell-tale evidence. Believe it or not I was able to keep my drug life private from my folks until these events. 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 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 such a life-style. When mom sat in the car at the airport I should have wondered how she continued 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 the following transcript to complete the story. Of the 3 of us charged my trial came first. The others would stand or fall on its result. 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 one 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 transcript may read 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 might 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 Commanding Officer was gracious enough to allow me to go home the day the trial ended, something he probably shouldn't have done considering the severity of the circumstance. One thing that may have influenced his decision was the presence of my mother whom I brought back to the Orderly Room after court and introduced to my CO. 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 had been removed from school. I worked for the First Sergeant in the office who was a marvelous old Army man. "Top," as his rank is frequently referred, was the office manager for the Battery. My working relationship to the Captain may have also lent some influence in allowing 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 chapter Finding an Altered State.
The following document is The Court-Martial Transcript
followed by an Afterword