In 1985, the summer before the space shuttle Challenger exploded, my dad picked me up from Wendy’s house and drove us to Clinton, Arkansas. The trip took three or four joints, about eight hours, and we’d pick up groceries in Clinton before driving the final 30 miles down the winding State Route #1 to his cabin. Sometimes we’d watch movies in downtown Clinton’s two-screen theater that played mainstream movies a year or two after they were released in national theater chains. My dad’s cabin was without electricity, so he probably didn’t see Brian Dennehy portray Big Daddy in Blood Feud in the 1983 two part movie, but in 1985 he took me to the Clinton theater to see Big Daddy in Rambo: First Blood, which had also been released in 1983. Of course Big Daddy wasn’t in Rambo, but Brian Dennehy was, but I hadn’t seen Big Daddy since 1980 and everyone had told me that Brian Dennehy was Big Daddy, and all the actors in Blood Feud called him Edward Partin, so I naturally assumed Big Daddy was also an actor portraying the sherif who locked up Rambo, a physically intimidating former Special Forces solder and Vietnam vet with PTSD portrayed by Sylvester Stalone, the famous actor who also portrayed Rocky and other fighters and gangsters, and course Big Daddy was big and rough enough to lock up Rambo.
“Did you see the way he shot up that town?” my dad asked cheerfully and rhetorically, not waiting for me to answer. He imitated Stalone’s famous scene of grabbing an M60 machine gun with one hand and wrapping a long chain of bullets around his other arm and single-handedly taking out the small town’s sheriff department, jerking his hand with every imagined M60 bullet ripping through the small town where Big Daddy was the sheriff.
“It served those assholes right!” he said. Then, as he always did when he wanted to impart a lesson, he knelt beside me and looked me in the eyes and lowered his voice and pointed to me to emphasize what he was about to say, and he reminded me that killing humans was wrong. Fight them, beat them, and teach them to never bother you again, but never kill them. And, if you ever do have to kill someone, don’t do it from afar with a rifle. Look them in the eyes. Let them know you’re not afraid, and give them a chance to back down. I listened intently, learning how to be like my dad and his father, superheroes unafraid of anyone no matter how big and rough they were or how many guns they pointed at you. My dad and aunts had told me about the times Big Daddy had come home with bullet and knife wounds, and yet he still came home and the other people were never heard from again. As Big Daddy said, just remain calm and look them in the eye and smile.
My dad stood up, satisfied by the lesson he imparted, and we walked to the Clinton grocery store and bought some groceries for the first time in a couple of years. Usually, we stopped by the welfare office in Clinton to pick up five pound blocks of cheese and butter and a bag of potatoes – he got extra when I was with him – but that year the office had closed because of “that asshole Reagan” stopping welfare programs to encourage parents to work harder. My dad said that was why he had returned to growing marijuana, and why we now had enough money to buy groceries and see an ocassional movie. As we packed the truck, he kept talking about “that asshole Reagan” and reminded me that even assholes don’t deserve to die at the hands of a coward, especially one so stupid they used a .22 pistol around federal agents.
We drove down State Route #1 until the turnoff to his cabin and drove three more miles to the steep dropoff. We were in his new Ford truck that transformed to four wheel drive with the push of a button instead of us getting out and locking the front wheel hubs, and my dad showed off all the new buttons and said we were in a futuristic vehicle not unlike Batman’s batmobile. He even pulled me onto his lap and allowed me to drive across some of the streams on the final two miles to our cabin.
The cabin looked different, because my dad had spent some of his money from last summer’s crop to buy new cedar precut boards to replace to handcut logs that had been our cabin for five years. He said he had bought the Ford in cash, paying $14,100 instead of the $17,000 cost of a new truck. He was in an exceptionally good mood, and pulled out Big Daddy’s knife and showed it to me and said it would be mine one day. It was the one I remembered, the one Big Daddy pulled on my dad, and it was as big as Rambo’s and also a Bowie-style knife, but without the hollow handle where Rambo kept his fishing line and fire starter and needle to sew up big cuts on his arm. He also showed me a secret compartment he had built into the floor where he kept seeds of the strain of marijuana he had developed over the years.
“If anything ever happens to me,” he said, “this house and everything in it will be yours, and you can use these seeds to take care of yourself without needing to go to school or work for assholes.” I held the oversized Mason jar with both hands and inspected the tightly packed seeds as my dad explained that it was covered in wax to keep out air and kept in a cool, dark hole in the floor so that the seeds should last for many years. He took it back and carefully placed it down in the hole and replaced the floorboards. He was a talented carpenter, and he had made the trap door barely noticeable.
The next day I was helping him rip boards on a new tablesaw powered by a generator that was powered by gas he had brought down the mountain in his truck. Combined, they were deafening, and we didn’t hear the trucks bouncing down the road and crossing our stream and surrounding our cabin, nor did we hear the first few shouts to come out. But when my dad turned off the table saw and we only had the generator running from a small shed outside of the house, we heard a voice shouting at us and my dad told me to wait. He brushed sawdust and wood chips out of his long and scraggly beard and hair that had grown past his shoulders. He brushed a few from the hair on his chest and grabbed a shirt and walked onto the front porch to see who was shouting. He paused, looked back at me and held out his hand and told me to come with him. I walked onto the porch, and as I reached for his hand I saw my first real-life sheriff’s posse.
Five 4X4 trucks were in a semi circle around our cabin, and one had the sirens of a police vehicle. There were three men in uniform, a sheriff and two deputies, and approximately 20 armed locals who had been deputized under an obscure law in Reagan’s War on Drugs. All had shotguns or deer hunting rifles, and a few had side arms. All were larger calibers than a .22, and you wouldn’t have to be an expert to kill someone with any of those pistols, especially from the mere 30 feet away that they had parked their trucks.
The sheriff was standing in front and had been cupping his hands to amplify his shouts at us, but because no one answered, the posse of untrained and undisciplined men had all pointed their guns at our cabin, therefore when we walked out there were almost 20 guns pointed at us. None of the rifles had safeties, and several of the men had their fingers in the trigger and looked nervous, as if they were afraid of the drug dealer they had been recruited to apprehend. My dad walked up to him with my hand in his and the sheriff told the men to lower their guns and he showed my dad a search warrant signed by a Clinton judge, and the posse split into three groups and two searched our property with the deputies while one stayed with the sheriff and guarded us as if we were a threat.
The group that searched our cabin came back first and carried my two backpacks that I still hadn’t unpacked yet. The deputy said they may have found something, and they emptied my backpack onto the hood of the truck with police lights. The two groups of posse gathered around to see what they had risked their lives to obtain, and all were too surprised to say anything. The sheriff slowly held up the contents of my backpack one by one, and I began to explain what he was holding.
The most obvious novelty was the pile of fake fingers, thumb tips and hollow sixth fingers made from plastic and rubber that looked real and could hide small handkerchiefs or fist fulls of sand and make things disappear or appear. I showed them a few small red silk handkerchiefs and held up the magic book I brought that year, Henning Nelm’s “Magic and Showmanship,” and offered to demonstrate, but the sheriff declined and held up the clear plastic baggie of white powder and a similar baggie rolled around a dried green herb that looked identical to the 1/8th bags of marijuana my dad and I used to pack.
I got excited and said the powder was a part of my detective kit, and pointed to the 3×5 index cards and clear scotch tape and small camel hair brush that had been Uncle Bob’s camera lens cleaning brush, and held up my library book on how to be a kid detective. I said that the book taught me to scrape chalk from a teachers chalk board into a bag and brush it on doornobs or anywhere someone would touch, and to use the tape to life the dusted fingerprint and fix it to an index card. Some of the cards had tape and my handwritten notes with the day before’s date and where I found the fingerprint. I reached for the baggie to demonstrate, but the sheriff pulled it away and said they’d have to keep it and have it analyzed. I said ok, someone disappointed that I couldn’t show the posse how to do real police work.
I pointed to the baggie of herbs, and said that was oregeno but that I didn’t have room in my backpack for Granny’s new cookbook, Paul Prudhome’s Louisiana Kitchen, which had just been published the year before and where he talked about the joy of traveling with herbs and spices and learning to cook by trial and error. But, I offered them trivia Granny had told me, that Chef Prudhome was the most famous chef of all time even though he never went to school, and that he had even won France’s chef of the year and cooked dinner for Ronald Reagan and the Russian president, and that I could be anything I wanted to be with practice. They were unimpressed by Chef Paul’s inspiration in me, and the sheriff said he’d have to get the herbs analyzed, too. He kept the two baggies and carefully replaced my books and fake fingers into my backpack with my summer worth of clothes. Fortunately, they didn’t find the small .22 pistol I had stolen in Baton Rouge and snuck into Arkansas and hidden in my own secret floor spot until I could show my dad, and in all of the excitement of being surrounded by an armed posse I had forgotten about it.
The sheriff handed me my backpacks just as the other deputy and group of armed locals came out of the barn, shouting they had found something. The deputy carried over a small bag full of marijuana shake scraped from gaps between floorboards in the barn, where my dad had dried and stored the year before’s crop. It was trash, not worth scraping up, mixed with dead insects and rat turds, and not even my dad would have probably not smoked it except in the most dire of circumstances. He certainly would never have sold it to anyone. But, it was unquestionably marijuana, and the sheriff told my dad he was under arrest and read his Miranda Rights and handcuffed him and put him in the front seat of the truck with police lights, and then picked me up and set me on his lap with my two backpacks and we began the slow two mile trek up the mountain. The sheriff was a much worse driver than my dad, and we bounced over every boulder and my dad asked him to stop and rearrange me in his lap, and I rode between his legs with his handcuffed hands wrapped around me and protecting me from the rough jolts from sudden stops and poor choices in rolling over boulders. We reached the top, and my dad instructed them to a neighbors home a few miles away and the posse dropped me off with barely any explanation and rode off with my dad to the Clinton jail.
I stood beside our neighbor, Bill, and briefly wondered if my dad would be like Rambo and free himself and come back and get me. Bill looked down and asked if he could help me with my backpacks and I handed him the one with clothes and kept the one with my books and fake fingers and rembrants of a detective kit and followed him inside.
Bill was a calm, cheerful man with curly black hair and thick black glasses and Boston accent. He was married to Jean, a delightfully mellow woman with a slow accent I associated with hippies, similar to a popular Muppet character, Janice, the perpetually stoned tamberine player in the Muppet band. They had three children and lived on a 20 acre farm with a well and running water and electricity; rarities in the remote and rural area surrounding Little Archie Creek off State Route #1. I had known them for five years, but saw them rarely, usually only when our five pound blocks of government cheese and butter ran out or when Bill hosted a community party, like his celebrated 4th of July party that would be happening in a week. Sometimes my dad played music with them, but mostly he drank and smoked pot while Bill and the other band members played music and everyone danced and Jean baked pies berries they grew and honey they harvested from their bee hives, or baked muffins using eggs their chickens laid and flavored with legal herbs they grew that tasted like lemon and mint and licorice. Everyone liked them, and though I didn’t understand what they meant I always sensed their awe and reverence that Bill was a “computer scientist” and that he “graduated from MIT” and made money planing trees to replenish what was cut by lumber companies.
“You can stay as long as you like,” Bill told me, discretely empowering me by giving me a choice. Jean chimed in that she had some of the blackberry pie I liked so much, if I wanted some, also giving me freedom to choose. I told them no, thank you – I still spoke like PawPaw to people who weren’t authoritative like teachers and gym coaches – and said I wanted to go home. I had remembered the pistol, and I wanted to find it and I wanted to retrieve Big Daddy’s knife in case my dad and I had to hide from the sheriff in the woods, like Rambo. True to his sentiment, Bill didn’t deny my choice and said they’d prepare a bed for me and I could come back whenever I wanted. Their kids would share one of their mattresses, and I’d have an entire bed to myself, if I wanted it. I repacked my bags and left most of the books and fake fingers with them,
… to be continued
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