an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Clean and sober and 66. That’s Eddy Franklin today. He was out of the office for a short errand, heading back to his state job as a paperwork wrangler. He was looking at bumper stickers on the car ahead of him while waiting for a green light. “Keep Austin Weird” Oh, man. That one always made him grimace. He didn’t see much in Austin that was exceptionally weird these days. Then he saw “The Study Butte Store”. Holy crap! His mind rushed back to 1973. It was the name of THAT store!
Eddy remembered his state of mind in 1973. His life had not gone as planned. Not even close. He had grown up in privilege. He was surrounded by opportunity. If he had played his cards right, he could have been ANYTHING. He was smarter than he realized. He was beautiful and didn’t know it. But he drank a lot. And his pal Lyndon wanted to send him to Viet Nam. “Where the hell is that?” he said at age 18. Then he married a psycho instead of a debutante. None of that really mattered when his sister was hit and killed by a bus.
He and his sister had shared a wild streak. Where it came from they did not know. It was just there. Now she was gone and he felt twice as wild. He was hurting and would do anything to kill the pain.
So Eddy loaded up his 1966 VW beetle with a cooler, a bag of weed, and a Hudson Bay blanket. It was a beautiful early Spring day. He headed off for New Mexico. His mission was to find peyote cactus and eat it. He wanted to break free. He was a little bit out of his mind. He had a craving for weirdness. He wanted a mission to occupy his mind and body. He had never seen peyote and did not have the first clue how to find it. He wanted to be the savage he had read about in Brave New World.
He poked around Lordsburg. He didn’t find much even though the desert around seemed a likely place. He looked at his map. Mescalero looked promising. Just the name alone drew him in. He was just grabbing at straws anyway, so why not? Maybe he would find a clue. The 1300cc motor ran like clockwork as the beetle ate up back roads and dirt roads and mile after mile. The sound of it lifted his spirits and put distance between him and heartbreak. He stayed in the moment. The random tumbleweed ran across the road. The sun warmed his little world, beer in the cooler, half-smoked joint in the ashtray, eyes on the horizon. He was feeling better already. He was high, the sunrise was spectacular and the tank was full.
* * *
What Eddy found in Mescalero was the most magnificent little church he had ever seen. It was a Catholic church decorated by the Mescalero Apaches. He had a habit of dropping into random churches, but this one was something very special. It was as close to eating peyote that he would get on this trip, but it was enough. He could feel the spirit. He could see it all around him. It lifted him just knowing now that such a place existed and he was here alone to grok it. He stayed a long time and then he continued his mission to weirdness. But where would he go now?
* * *
A few years before, he had gone to school in Portales. He decided to see if any of his friends were still there. Yes, indeed they were. Portales has a university and fields of peanuts. It is flat and small. The wind can sometimes blow for days and drive people crazy. The streets are strangely skewed in the middle of town. It is in a dry county. A beer run requires a trip to Clovis. But people get used to it. It was an easy-going little place in 1973. Eddy scored a couch for sleeping and got some food stamps. He wanted to settle in for the healing hands of time, but his money was already low and he wasn’t quite sure what to do next. He went to the library and found out that peyote grows way the hell down in south Texas. He wasn’t even close to finding any. He didn’t mind so much. He got to be in that church in Mescalero. The Mountain Spirit dancers still whirled in his mind and kept him a little distracted.
It’s an odd place, Portales. It’s a tiny town, but a lot of people come there to attend the university and they come from places far away. Some of them stick around after school is over, just like in a lot of college towns. The guy he was crashing with was from Virginia. There were Virginia plates still on his car. His father worked for the CIA.
One friend from school days there turned out to be quite interesting… Michael from New Jersey. Michael was a really good natured guy who wore glasses. He always seemed to be enjoying a private joke. Portales being a small town, it wasn’t long before Eddy ran into Michael. It turned out that Michael was living just down the street. “Come on over any time.” Michael told him. “We’ll smoke a doob.” So, that’s exactly what Eddy did one balmy afternoon. He walked over. The front door was open, so he knocked on the screen door. Michael came to the door and let Eddy in. Eddy followed Michael into the kitchen where Michael was sweeping and smiling.
* * *
Eddy looked around the kitchen. He noticed a 10-gauge pump shotgun propped in the corner. He noticed scales on the table. Then he saw that Michael was sweeping pot seeds and stems into a little pile on the floor. Head down and sweeping, he said, “We just weighed in 100 pounds.” Michael looked up from his sweeping, obviously amused with the expression on Eddy’s face. He laughed. Some joke! Eddy tried to play it cool, but inside he was thinking WHAT THE FUCK? Usually this sort of activity is covered in caution and secrecy, even outright paranoia. It was just plain weird to see someone so jolly and casual about it. But that was Michael. What now? Well, Michael was done with his chores, so they sat down in the living room and smoked a doob, as promised. Eddy had almost forgotten about his problems by the time he wandered down the street to his couch.
It was only about two weeks later that Michael came to Eddy with a proposition. “How would you like to make $500?”
* * *
The light turned green and Eddy Franklin was back at age 66. What happened 38 years ago had faded from his memory until he had seen that reminder. The car with the bumper sticker from the Study Butte Store was gone. He was back at work. He reflected on his thinking about how prayer really works. He thought back to that church in Juarez where he stopped to pray most sincerely. What he said then was, “Dear God, please help me. See me safely through this.” Maybe it worked.
* * *
It’s fairly easy to guess how he was supposed to earn $500 in 1973. Michael showed up one day with some very detailed U. S. Geological Survey maps of the Big Bend area.
All Eddy had to do was drive down and pick up the next load. What else was a wild streak for? He agreed without hesitation.
His own little beetle was too small to conceal 46 kilos of marijuana. Besides that, his license plate had expired. So, he had been provided with a blue Ford Fairlane and some gas money. They told him, “Don’t go in the park. It’s hot.” He said OK. They told him when and where to meet the contact. “Show up at the Study Butte Store, high noon.” He said OK.
There was a guy named “Bee” in charge of the expedition, Michael was down a level, and the guy who provided the car was just an old frat buddy. Eddy was the driver, considered the bottom of the totem pole. Risky business.
So, that’s what he did. He drove. He went straight down to El Paso, crossed the river to Juarez, and located that big church downtown. He went in and knelt down to pray. It was a different deal altogether from getting that high in Mescalero. He was about to commit a serious felony. He also had a flair for the dramatic. So, why not a scene in a church? And as we know by now, he was a little crazy. Prayers for help finished and really hoping that his prayers were heard, he located the nearest liquor store. It was a little hole in the wall named El Maguey. He bought a half liter of mescal. If he couldn’t have peyote, at least he could have cactus to drink. He put the full bottle in his bag. It was for the celebration at the end of this run.
* * *
He came back across the Rio Grande and headed for Terlingua, arriving after dark. He slept in a ghost town. With a little time to kill the next morning, he wandered around. There was nobody in sight. He spied a pile of dried cactus sitting on a porch. He walked closer. It sort of looked like peyote, but he wasn’t sure. He had seen some dried up peyote in an Anthropology display once. He wasn’t about to start experimenting with this stuff right now. He had an important meeting at noon. He threw the cactus in his traveling bag. There was a tiny ghost church nearby up the hill. He walked up and went inside to read the graffiti and think about what he might find at noon. He scratched out a little graffiti and then went to his appointment.
* * *
He pulled up to the Study Butte Store. There was only one vehicle there. It was a shiny new pickup. He walked in the door and saw a well-heeled Mexican cowboy and a young man sitting at one of the square metal tables. There were no other customers. It was a small restaurant/supply store. The only other person in the room was the cook. Eddy walked over and met Raul and his son. They chatted about the weather. The cook brought some iced tea and snacks, then disappeared. Raul cut right to the chase after a little small talk. He explained to Eddy that he should park his car in the dry creek behind the Study Butte Store at one o’clock in the morning, in about 13 hours. He was to wait for a Mexican from Blue Mountain. Raul pointed out the window at the mountain right across the border. This man would be riding a horse trailed by a donkey laden with pot. He would whistle like so. Raul gave the whistle. Eddy was to whistle back just so. Raul demonstrated again. That was the end of the conversation in the Study Butte Store. It was all so casual. Eddy went back out into the bright sun and got into his blue Ford Fairlane.
* * *
He had 13 hours to wait. He started thinking. What had he gotten into? He didn’t want to think about it, so he drove over to Lajitas and checked out the general store. That burned up a little time. He wandered back towards the Big Bend Park. He knew he had been told, “Don’t go in the park. It’s hot.” Well, certainly he wouldn’t be going into a federal park with a trunk full of weed. He knew better than that! But he’d never been there before. He looked at the map and saw Santa Elena Canyon. He just drove right into the park and down to that canyon. He was there all alone. He waded into the river to a little island where he had spied a cooler washed up on the sand. It had sun tan lotion, soft drinks, a beer or two and ice long ago turned to water. Somebody let it float away maybe? He didn’t care. He just thought his luck was never going to end. What a great day! He popped open a soft drink and soaked up a little sun while gazing at Mexico a few feet away. The canyon was gorgeous.
* * *
He was some distance from his car by now. He was looking south down the canyon and dwelling in another world when he heard a voice from the shore behind him.
“Senor!” he heard someone shout. He turned around to see two federal park agents standing next to his car in the distance. Eddy came back to earth, but he wasn’t too worried. He wasn’t doing anything illegal… yet. He hadn’t heard them drive up. He had been totally lost in his daydreams, looking South. He waded back through the Rio Grande mud to the USA.
* * *
“Is this your car?” they wanted to know. Eddy explained that he borrowed to car from a fellow student for a Spring Break trip. He gave them the owner’s name, which he assumed they had already found out by radio. “Is it okay if we have a look inside?” they asked (as if he could say no). Eddy realized that he had never looked in the ashtray. Oh shit. What if there’s a roach…? The feds opened his travel bag and asked him about the cactus.
“What’s this?” one asked. Eddy explained that he thought that dried up cactus might be peyote and he planned to take it back to the Anthropology department for their display of American Indian artifacts. They didn’t look in the ashtray. They simply said that they would have to take him to the Ranger Station for further questioning. Oh, crap. And it was such a beautiful day! “You mean that stuff is illegal?” he asked them.
* * *
Eddy found himself a passenger in the Ranger station wagon while the other Ranger drove the blue Fairlane. It was a long drive. Eddy noticed the hollow-point bullets in the Ranger’s gunbelt. “Is it legal for you to use those hollow-points?” Eddy asked. They reply came back, “The other guys have machine guns.” It dawned on Eddy that there was a bit more activity between the feds and smugglers than he had assumed from the sleepy, empty little towns and stores and the lone Post Office in Terlingua and so on. He certainly hadn’t seen any gun fights or even a hint of trouble. He just met some guy in the Study Butte store and it sounded like a cake-walk. That’s all.
* * *
They arrived at the ranger station. The clerk got his driver’s license and emptied his pockets and took away his pocket knife. Then they chatted some at the Ranger station. They asked, “Do you know a guy named Bee?” Holy fuck. They knew exactly what that blue Fairlane was doing down there. They just named the guy who organized this gig! Oh, crap, crap, crap. Eddy kept a straight face and lied. But then… nothing! They wrote him a ticket for $13. The charge? Possessing animal, vegetable, or mineral matter in a federal park. It was for the dried up star cactus which they had identified for him. Eddy made them show him the law, as if in offended disbelief. It was just a touch of chutzpah to disguise great relief. Sure enough, it’s one of those catch-all laws to prohibit people from taking anything at all from our federal parks.
They let him go! He drove straight out of the park, stopped the car and inspected it for tracking devices. Jesus God! What now?
He had a really large decision to make. Should he pick up the load knowing that he was probably being watched from afar by now, or should he just return to Portales with an empty trunk and face his fate there? This would require some thought or maybe no thought. The first order of business was to immediately leave Study Butte far behind.
* * *
He headed up Farm to Market 170 towards Ojinaga. He pulled out the mescal. He hit it a few times. He drove a considerable distance and parked at a small but very nicely built roadside shelter and picnic table. It was made of stone from the area and looked across the river to Mexico. He waited. While he was waiting, he noticed a hand-operated cable car that stretched across the river canyon between the US and Mexico. “Who in the hell uses that?” he asked himself. He wondered why there were borders anyway. He felt like a citizen of the world when he was young. It shocked him to learn that people couldn’t just wander the world without hassling at borders and without passports and permissions. Yeah, fuck all that. He pulled at the bottle again.
Eddy still couldn’t think about his choice, so he kept driving towards Ojinaga. Eventually, he came to a dirt airstrip by the road. “Who the hell uses that?” he asked himself again “and what for?” He wheeled the car off the road and onto the airstrip.
He was pretty buzzed and worn down by the day. So, he cut a few donuts in the airstrip, said “fuck it” and ended up facing Study Butte. And that’s where he went back to. Slowly, thoughtfully, observing his surroundings and half drunk, he stopped short of the area and waited for 12:30am to roll around.
* * *
Dogs barking, stars twinkling, the random car in the distance going home late… He was sitting in the dry creek bed waiting, wondering if anyone could see him sitting there in the starlight.
Would some citizen or local cop get curious? He remembered that Raul had told him to leave immediately and go straight North after he got the load, but WHEN was that going to be? It was way past 1am.
Eddy didn’t have any trouble staying awake. He sat there until about 3am reviewing the day. He was in cosmic overdrive with the feds and the mescal and the crazy donuts on someone’s landing stip. He had the fleeting thought that someone would be mighty pissed when they landed on his handiwork there. He kinda messed up the smooth surface….Then came a whistle. He did his best to wet his mouth and whistle back. It wasn’t that easy. He was a bit on edge. Soon he heard the clip-clop of a slow moving horse and the stuttering little steps of a donkey. Out of the dark appeared an old man on horseback. The donkey was carrying burlap bags… about 100 pounds worth. Eddy said “Buenas Noches.” The reply came back with some sarcasm, “Buenas Tardes.” Hell, it was pushing Madraguda. The first thing Eddy noticed was the overwhelming ODOR of POT. Lord, this stuff wasn’t even wrapped in plastic. It was a bunch of kilos wrapped in red paper and loaded into burlap bags. Oh, God. Eddy laughed at the hand he had been dealt and thanked the old man who went back home to Blue Mountain. He closed the trunk lid. He could still smell it. In fact, the distinctive odor was inescapable. All he had to do was get too close to the wrong car and it was prison!
* * *
As instructed, he hit the road. It wasn’t long before he saw a green and white trailer ahead by the road. This was an immigration check point. No lights. No cars. Closed.
In 1973, there was only that one little shack on the side of the road.
* * *
Just try doing this today. No way. Eddy Franklin was back in the present day, driving home from work and thinking about all of the gizmos and agents at the airport and all of the checkpoints on all of the highways anywhere near the border and drones…. Jesus. He remarked to himself that he was totally alone in so many places in 1973. Not today. We live in a totally different world today. It’s wired. It’s heavily policed. You are likely to get a bag over your head for telling the truth. He headed back to 1973 just to quit thinking how much his country had come to resemble an over-crowded Nazi Germany.
* * *
So, there he was driving a car that reeked of marijuana. Ignoring the hazard of it all for a second, he allowed that it smelled like pretty good stuff. He took all of the back roads he could manage and prayed a lot during his trips through small towns with a traffic light or two. He tried his best to time the lights so that he never had to stop anywhere and have someone could pull up next to him. It was pretty damned nerve-wracking, but he finally made it back the 400 miles to Portales. He was out of his mind tired but he wasn’t going to show up at the assigned house until he had a chance to check it out first on foot, just in case.
He didn’t trust those feds. Maybe they just wanted him to lead them to Bee. Who knew?
Eddy parked the car at an apartment building and walked across the small campus to Michael’s house. He walked around it from a few blocks away, looking for any trouble. He found none. He walked in Michael’s door and noticed that Michael was not smiling as usual. “Where is the shipment?” he said leaning forward. Eddy told him where it was and said he would go get it.
It was lovely weather in Portales and not a bad day for a walk, but by the time Eddy had fired up the Fairlane for the last little trip over to Michael’s he was spent. He eyed the bottle of mescal and thought about a hot bath and a bed and a mission accomplished.
* * *
Michael and Bee weighed the delivery while Eddy bathed and relaxed. He was ready to return to Austin with his $500. They finished up fairly soon and this was the story. They said the load wasn’t quite 100 pounds. For that reason, he would be paid a kilo of pot instead. Jeez, he had no cash. He certainly wasn’t going to set up shop and sell weed in Portales. Besides, it’s not his fault if the shipment dried and lost some weight. Hell, steam it! Well, those are the cards he got.
So, Eddy Franklin put the kilo in his backpack and walked a few blocks the place where he was crashing and did just that. He crashed. The next morning he started thinking about his expired Texas license plates. He remembered that his host had some expired Virginia tags. He reasoned that a Virginia tag would be less familiar to the officers of the law between Portales and Austin. He had to alter the sticker somewhat, you see. He did this with a razor blade and some nail polish. It was not slick close up, but this was 1973 and there was a LOT less law enforcement back then with not much in the way of technology compared to the present day. It looked okay if you didn’t look too close.
* * *
Then, he needed gas money. Michael provided him with a couple of nervous customers who wanted buy a lid apiece. They each had $10. They each got an ounce of pot. Twenty dollars was plenty of gas money to make it from Portales to Austin. 1973.
* * *
Eddy drove back towards Austin. He stopped in the middle of nowhere and rolled himself a joint. It really was pretty good mersh. The open red brick was sitting on the floorboard behind the driver’s seat. Call it bravado. Eddy made no attempt to hide it.
He had an altered and mismatched license plate on his car and two pounds of pot sitting behind him in plain sight and he felt no fear. This seems like risky behavior, but he had just been through a nightmare of a smuggling trip without a scratch. He was feeling bullet-proof. He was feeling wired to the cosmos. His beetle hummed the way home.
It was a wonderful trip.
* * *
Eddy pulled into a familiar parking lot near 24th and Rio Grande in Austin at 3am. He saw a few cars parked and lights on upstairs. His good friend, a musician, lived there. He knew he could crash there until he got settled back in Austin. What he didn’t expect was a party in full swing at 3am. Bill the drummer introduced him to the new band that he had just put together. Bill even had a patron in attendance, a friend with money.
Eddy knew half the band already and got introduced to the rest over a beer. Someone asked him if he wanted a snort of cocaine. Eddy looked a bit worried. He had never seen coke, let alone snorted any. One and all assured him that it was great stuff and not dangerous at all, so he had a snort. Wow. The cosmos snapped into place he was one with it. He listened to everyone rave on about their bright futures.
* * *
It wasn’t long before someone lamented the fact that it had been just damned impossible to find pot in Austin for the last two weeks. “God, I wish we had some pot!” said one of the band members. “Yeah!” everyone said at once.
“Wait right here” said Eddy Franklin. Then he flew down the stairs to his beetle and returned with a brick of pot wrapped in red paper. Cosmic.
The rest is history.
* * *
Clean and sober Eddy Franklin pulled his car into his driveway after another day at work.
“I can’t believe that actually happened. What a time.” he said out loud to himself and turned off the ignition, smiling. The world can change a lot in 40 years. So can a person.
Mack Royal was born on Ground Hog’s Day in 1947. He moved to Austin in 1957 where his father, Darrell K. Royal, coached the UT Longhorn football team for 20 years. He now resides in Austin, but is far from retired, having spent his youth enjoying the company of those who made Austin weird. He is presently employed as a paperwork wrangler by the State of Texas. His web presence can be found here.