In July of 1984, seventeen armed men surrounded our partially completed cabin, and demanded our surrender. My dad and I heard them after turning off the table saw, and we surrendered peacefully. They allowed my dad to put on a shirt that was draped across the porch, near the door. I was fully clothed, which is a good thing to do when operating a table saw, I had I had thought, especially after making an “A” on safety protocols in my woodshop class in middle school earlier that year.
My dad always had done things his own way.
The leader of the gang showed us an arrest warrant, signed by a judge, and some paperwork saying that all of the men had been deputized, authorized to carry firearms and act as law enforcement in the remote hills of Arkansas.
They were a sheriff’s posse, by every literal sense of the expression, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I was being arrested by a good ol’ fashioned sheriff’s posse, just like in the Wild West movies and on that TV show about back home, The Dukes of Hazzard. I smiled as I looked around. My dad didn’t see the humor in it – his head was hung low – but I couldn’t help but imagine all of these men as actors in Hazzard County, men who were otherwise unemployed on a weekday morning, and had nothing better to do than to convoy together in a small parade of 4×4 trucks and jeeps with paperwork letting them carry their hunting rifles into battle against a 31 year old drug dealing hippie and his 12 year old son. We were like Bo and Luke Duke, just two good ol’ boys, never meanin’ no harm; and the sheriff had assembled another posse to take us in.
I stood in front of my dad, and he kept his arms draped over me, not holding me tightly, but shielding me. He seemed scared, and I assumed he was scared for me and was trying to protect me, and that’s when I realized that our situation was serious. Nothing other than Big Daddy had scared my dad, and I began to pay attention to everyone surrounding us and going through our cabin.
The posse was, just like my first impression, a group of local men loosely assembled and without structure or guidance from the sheriff from Clinton and his two regular deputies. Two carried .12 gauge shotguns – one was a double barrel and one was a pump – and the rest carried rifles chambered with rounds ranging from a .22, like my rifle, to a .308, my dad’s favorite cartridge for deer. Only the sherif and his two deputies had sidearms, that I saw. I kept loosing count of how many were in the posse, because the men kept moving back and forth between the house and barn and surrounding us, and many had dressed similarly in hunting camoflaged hunting clothes and I kept mistaking them for each other. I counted 17 men at least twice, and that’s the number I recall, and that’s the number of armed deputies I’d claim, later in high school, that it took to to take us down.
I stood by my dad and watched the posse ransack our home and barn, and I became concerned when one walked out of the cabin with my backpack from Louisiana and a second bag I had put together just for that summer. It had my small plastic bag rolled around dried oregeno and a few spices, and a black bag that contained a plastic bag partially full of fine white powder, a mirror, a magnifying glass, a roll of clear Scotch tape, 3×5 note cards, two pens, and Uncle Bob’s camel hair lens cleaning brush with the squeeze-tube end that puffed air through the camel hairs. They laid their evidence across the hood of one of their 4×4 farm trucks, and opened my backpack and removed another small black bag and all of my clothes, and two books.
One of the deputies with a sidearm slowly opened the small black bag and peered inside. He looked surprised, looked up at the men looking at him, and looked back into the bag and began removing items one by one, beginning with the fake finger, then the fake thumb, then a finger chopping machine from a local magic shop – the blade retracted as you chopped, and I thought it would have been funny to palm a fake finger and make it seem, for a brief moment, that my finger actually had been chopped off. Then they removed my Kennedy half dollars, deck of cards, and three pieces of string for “The Professor’s Nightmare” rope trick.
They asked what that was, and so I told them. I even pointed to the two books, Henning Nelm’s “Magic and Showmanship,” and a how-to book on becoming a police detective that I don’t recall. I explained that the white powder was from dust from my classroom chalk board, and that the camel hair brush gently blew the chalk out of grooves on fingerprints, and that the tape would lift up the chalk left on the print, and I’d put it on the index cards and label where and when I found each fingerprint. I said all of that, and pointed to the pages in the book that said to do all of that. I felt pretty good about knowing more than seventeen men on a sheriff’s posse, and when I finally stopped explaining everything, including the bag of oregeno and spices were for cooking, and that I didn’t have enough room in my backpack for a cookbook, I sat back and watched them debate what to do about me and the goods from my backpack that were spread across the hood of the farm truck.
They decided to keep it all and have it analyzed back in their Clinton headquarters, or wherever one analyzed chalk and oregeno back then. They confiscated my dad’s guns, scales, and, surprisingly, a rather large bucket of marijuana. One of the posse had scraped it out of cracks in the barn floor, and it was mixed with dead insects and rat turds, but it was definitely marijuana, the posse man said, even though even I knew that even my dad wouldn’t smoke dirty shake with that many rat turds in it.
The sheriff weighed the bucket on my dad’s scale, estimated the weight of the bucket, and said it was almost two pounds of marijuana, a felony, and that my dad was under arrest for possession of illegal drugs with an intent to distribute. I never learned if they included the dead insects and rat turds in the official weight when they analyzed that bucket, but it would be used as evidence in his trial as exactly two pounds of illegally grown cannabis. He was handcuffed. I was not.
They loaded us into the sheriff’s truck, the only one with lights that weren’t necessary that day. My dad sat in the front seat so that I could ride in his lap, and one of the deputies picked me up and placed me onto his lap and allowed him to wrap his handcuffed arms around me to protect me on the slow and bumpy 4×4 ride up the mountain. Along the way, the sheriff asked what they should do with me, and he told them to drop me off at his neighbors, Bill and Jean, another three miles up the dirt road past the turnoff to the blacktop. They dropped me off with few words, and turned around in a convoy of 4X4 farm trucks, and drove off toward toe blacktop.
Bill and Jean waited with me until the dust settled, and, for lack of anything more pressing to ask, asked me if I would like to come inside and have something to eat or drink. I, for lack of anything else to respond, said yes, thank you.
I sat quietly and ate and thought about what had happened, and decided I should go back and make sure the .22 pistol was still hidden. And, though I didn’t know what the feeling was, I wanted to see the spot where we had been arrested again. I felt as if I may have dreamed the entire thing, and I wanted to stand in that same spot again, not surprised this time, and understand what had happened. I told Bill that I’d like to go back home and spend the night there, maybe stay a few days. He said he couldn’t stop me, but that he hoped I’d stay the night there, and that he could walk down with me tomorrow. I said I was sure I wanted to go and that I’d be fine, that I camped alone all the time down there. Bill said ok, but to remember that I was always welcome back there, and they hope I came back and stayed until they learned more about what happened to my dad. I thanked him, accepted the small bag of food and canteen of water that Jill offered, and said goodbye and walked five miles back down the mountain to my dad’s cabin.
I instantly found the .22, still hidden under the big rock near the outhouse that no one used any more. I put it in my pocket, and walked back to the picnic table in front of the house and looked through the piles of evidence that the posse had decided to leave there for reasons I didn’t understand. They had left my backpack and books, but had taken my oregeno and finger printing powder. I put Jean’s bag of food into my backpack, and rummaged through the boxes and saw Big Daddy’s hunting knife. Not the folding one he had pulled on my dad, but his large, nice, Bowie-style fixed blade knife in a real leather holster. My dad had always said it would be mine one day, so I figured that was the day, and I strapped it to a belt I still had in my backpack, and wore it around my hip like a sword on a little soldier. I put on my backpack, and walked into the woods.
The first thing I did was hide the .22 pistol off our property. I hid it well in an old, abandoned and rickety cabin upstream a bit. Satisfied, I wondered what to do. In my mind, I imagined that one of my dad’s conspiracy theories had come true, and that evil forces were encroaching upon our land. I’d seek them out, learn what I could, and tell my dad about it later. To be faster on the draw, I unclipped the retaining snap on Big Daddy’s hunting knife. I tested my speed at pulling it out, and, satisfied, began a light jog to find out what I could find out.
I went down old familiar paths, but diverged closer to old pot patches out of habit, never using or leaving a trail. I crept upon the patch, resting my hand on the knife, and peered around for trebble fishhooks dangling from invisible fishing string hanging at eye level, just like my dad had told me he had read could happen. I saw nothing, and creeped closer. I saw no footprints, and no broken branches, like I had read about tracking in a book the previous summer, Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival. I was pleased that I recalled that detail: a broken branch leaking sap would tell you someone had been there recently enough that the branch hadn’t stopped bleeding yet.
I looked up, towards the sky, and listened for an airplane. I didn’t hear one, but they could be too high. I strained my eyes, looking for the spy plane that could see pot plants, like my dad said. He said it saw heat, like a rattlesnake sees a rat at night, and they could see pot plants even in the dark; but, they couldn’t identify our heat signature, so that’s why we came at night. It was daytime, but I figured I didn’t have a choice, and I crept closer. I paused, and saw that the patch was empty. They must have been there already; whomever they were. I crept backwards, turned around, and ran downhill to get away.
I began going too fast, loosing control, and I tried to slow my descent by grasping tree saplings and letting them bend behind me and then letting them go and grabbing another in front of me. I slid on loose leaves, and tripped and tumbled forward, half running and half falling, and ran into an old, tangled barbed wire fence that had been partially overgrown with briars and practically invisible. Barbs sliced through my shirt and cut my chest in a red dot-dot-dot pattern, and sliced my inner right arm badly enough to soak my shirt in blood. But I had stopped. I was satisfied with that, and I was pretty sure they hadn’t followed me.
I slowly peeled myself out of the twisted barbed wire and walked a few steps away and sat on a moss covered bolder and looked at my inner arm. It oozed dark red blood, slowly, which meant it wasn’t carrying oxygen and wasn’t life-threatening, according to Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival.
I looked around the boulder and reached down and collected a thick bunch of spider web that didn’t seem to have dead bugs in it, and packed it onto my bleeding arm. I had read to do that two summers ago, in a book about a Native American boy who’s lost in the woods and remembers his grandmother’s folk remedies, like using spider webs to clot cuts. It worked, and I was pleasantly pleased with myself. Had I miraculously discovered a bee hive, I may have tried to cover the cut in honey to keep it from becoming infected. But, I had never seen a honey bee hive in these woods, so I looked around, got my bearings, and walked back down the mountain and picked up a trail and found my way back to our cabin.
I arrived at the cabin and felt that I should feel something more, but I didn’t. I was physically and mentally exhausted, and recognized my foolishness, and realized that, if I wanted to go back to Bill and Jeans I still had a five mile hike uphill.
I decided to stay, and reached for my knife to shave some kindling off of firewood to make dinner. It was gone, and I flicked the open snap in disgust at myself. It must have fallen out on my tumble down the mountain. And, because I never went the same way twice, it would practically be impossible to find. I’d have to hope that I recognized the barbed wire fence. I looked back up the mountain, and felt that I wanted that knife. It had been my father’s, and his father’s before him. I wanted it back.
I trudged back along the trail, and found my way back to the old fence easily enough. I just followed the broken tree branches that still had sap bleeding from them, and the fresh footprints that hand’t yet seen rain or falling leaves. But I couldn’t find Big Daddy’s knife. I had hoped the shiny silver steel blade would show, but I grew to suspect that the blade had been buried in dirt or under leaves, and that only the leather-wrapped brown handle would be above ground, and that would be practically invisible in the brown leaves and branches blanketing the mountainside. I sat on the boulder and, for some unknown reason, began to feel sad. I had lost Big Daddy/s knife, and I was upset at that, but I felt sad, too.
I distracted myself by inspecting my cut, and was almost disappointed that it had stopped bleeding. I had hoped for a big scar. I looked around and up into the trees, and I saw birds flying and a squirrel darting behind a branch, and I saw through the tree branches and leaves and saw clouds drifting across the sky. It was just like any other day visiting my dad in Arkansas.
I walked back to the cabin, no longer feeling sad, but still upset about loosing the knife. And, I knew my dad would miss it; he always talked about it, but used his knife. I realized that his knife would still be in the pile on the picnic table, and I rummaged around and found it and held it up, and decided that I didn’t want to lose it, too. I put it back in the box of unused evidence. Looked at the sun passing behind the mountain to the west, and decided to walk back up the dirt road to Bill and Jean’s house.
That night, Bill and I chatted. He said I was mistaken, that he wasn’t a physicist. That was his brother in New Orleans. He was a computer scientist. I had never heard of a computer, much less a computer scientist. He said he learned how to make machines do a lot of work for us. I asked him why he worked on his farm instead of making machines do it. He smiled and snatched a bite of food with his chopsticks, and chuckled while chewing and said that they enjoyed their farm and the time they have to enjoy it as a family. I looked down at my bowl and at my spoon – the chopsticks lay unused beside my bowl – and I felt comfortable. No sadness, no regret at having lost the knife. I smiled and finished my bowl of curried vegetables using only my spoon. The kids went to bed in their shared bedroom, and I went to sleep on the couch. Bill and Jean sat up in their kitchen breakfast nook at held hands the light of a kerosene lamp, holding hands and chatting with words I couldn’t understand, but they sounded calm and even happy.
For the next two weeks, Bill and Jean and their son and two daughters were kind to me. Attentive but not overbearing, listening but not inquiring, welcoming but not pressuring. Bill would drive into Clinton and return with news, and make a few phone calls to collect bail. Jean, as usual, cooked and cleaned and worked in the garden. The kids helped, and I joined them in tending the bee hives and milking the goats and simply playing games with any ball and stick lying around their farm. I was having fun, and felt that I should be more worried, but told myself that my dad was fine, that he was always strong and fierce and resourceful. He’d come out unscathed, just like his father had all the time.
One day, Jean answered their phone and told me that Bill was on his way home with my dad, that they had paid his bail in Clinton, and he was riding home with Bill. He’d be there in an hour. I thanked her and went outside and waited. Their oldest daughter, who was my age, waited with me. We had become friends on my stay there, and I appreciated the company. I told her how my dad must have told the police what to do with themselves, and that they had no choice but to let him go. I didn’t understand the concept of bail back then.
Bill’s car kicked up dust as they approached, and we stood out of the way to let them park. My dad got out, and I ran up to him and was shocked to see him crying. I stopped and stared, and he dropped to a knee and reached out and pulled me into a tight hug. He sobbed as he squeezed me, then pushed me back and said he was sorry. I didn’t know what to say, so I said that I loved him no matter if he blew up the world, and he started bawling and yanked me close and squeezed me and cried out through his tears that he wasn’t that type of man. I didn’t know what to do. I looked around at Bill’s daughter, embarrassed that my friend was seeing my dad act like a baby. I looked at him, and he looked back up and began spewing forth a list of facts that I didn’t quite follow. They were charging him with a felony, drug possession with an intent to distribute, and that he could go to prison for four or five years. They were confiscating his truck and the property, but Bill would lend him his car to drive me back to Wendy’s. I barely listened, because I was still so shocked by his childish behavior. He was acting just like he had taught me not to. And I was still embarassed that my friend witnessed it, especially after seeing how calm and happy their family was each and every day. I listened to my dad ramble on and complain and whine, and I wondered if I really would love him no matter what.
He called Wendy and told her we had to come home early, but didn’t tell her why. We drove me back to Louisiana, and he dropped me off and told Wendy that he had been arrested and had to return for court, and that he would fight it and win. She didn’t seem surprised. He went back to Arkansas, and, somehow, managed to get arrested for some reason again. He was placed in a Clinton jail cell without a window, and years later I’d learn that no one collected enough bail money. He sat there for six months until he was sentenced to a federal prison for one an a half more years for “cultivation of a controlled substance with intent to distribute.” The prosecuting district attorney never said how many rat turds were included in the two pounds of shake they used as evidence or how much money tax payers spent to send a drug dealer to prison, but it was portrayed in Clinton newspapers as a victory in President Reagan’s war on drugs. Some townsfolk thought members of the posse were heroes – they had read how many guns were confiscated, and saw the photos of my scraggly dad and his angry dark eyes peering above his bushy beard. Those heroes never returned my detective kit or spices. I didn’t learn what the analysts had to say about it, and Wendy never asked what happened to her oregano, and we never talked about it again.
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