EDITOR’S NOTE: Don’t publish this book, Carlson’s agent said. It will ruin your career.
This is a true story. Even the preposterous parts are factual. I’ve changed all the names to protect the guilty from embarrassment--and myself from lawsuits--but this really happened. I’ll admit that some of the details are a little fuzzy in my mind and the dialogue is not exactly verbatim. Memories fade in 50 years, particularly when many of the events occurred while the protagonists were high on industrial-strength Jamaican ganja. But events that scare the hell out of you are etched a little deeper into the brain and tend to stay put. So I remember my Jamaican misadventures pretty clearly. Besides, I was a compulsive scribbler even then and I wrote several accounts of my adventure shortly after it ended. I’ve saved those accounts for five decades and now I’ve used them to jump-start these memories.
I’ve also done some research on the subject, if the word “research” can be stretched to include sitting around with Nick, who is still one of my best friends, and reminiscing about the whole ridiculous affair. He remembers some events that have slipped through the cracks of my memory. He’s a great comic storyteller and we laughed a lot as we recalled our adventure. It was terrifying when it happened, but it all seems funny now. Were we really that young and stupid? Yes, we were.
Unfortunately, the hero of this story--my father-- is long dead and thus unavailable for consultation. But Nick and I both remember his daring deeds very clearly. How could we forget?
It all happened in 1972. I was 19 years old, a sophomore at Boston University. I was a typically sophomoric sophomore, afflicted with an excess of romantic idealism and a paucity of common sense. I wasn’t much of a physical specimen —a gawky, skinny, scraggily-haired, baby-faced kid still plagued by occasional outbreaks of acne. Nor was my mind very impressive, cluttered with half-baked, half-digested, half-assed ideas cribbed from rock lyrics, Lenny Bruce monologues, Zap Comix and other counter-cultural folderol, plus a few stray thoughts encountered during my half-hearted forays into required reading lists.
In short, I was a teenage knucklehead.
I grew up in deepest, darkest suburbia--in Syosset, Long Island, in a development of cheap houses constructed during the early Fifties and sold to guys who won World War II and then came home and got married and started making babies. The houses all looked the same, which caused snobs to sneer at them, singing along with Pete Seeger: “They’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.” But what Seeger failed to mention was that the owners quickly picked up hammers and saws and started building garages, porches, patios, new rooms, new wings and second stories. Within a decade, a stranger would never guess that those houses were once identical.
My father was among those eternal home-improvers. He was always building something: new rooms, storage sheds and two bars—one in the basement and one on the patio in the backyard. He couldn’t do this alone so he conscripted his children--me and my three sisters, Bobbie, Judy and Kathy--into forced labor. My sisters were older and smarter than me and they soon mastered the art of being elsewhere when the Old Man got a hankering for home-improvement, but I usually got roped into helping him. If I’d paid attention to what he was doing instead of daydreaming, I’d be a handy guy today. But I didn’t, so I’m not. He used to watch me screw up some simple task, and shake his head in bemused disappointment.
“You know, Pete,” he’d say, “you’re about as handy as a bushel full of assholes.”
He had a way with words. At the time, I grumbled that my father worked me like a slave, but actually I spent most of my time playing. This was an era before the advent of “play dates” and “helicopter parenting,” and kids routinely wandered off after breakfast and were gone all day, having unsupervised fun, until their stomachs growled that it was time to go home. My friends and I played baseball, football, kickball and stickball. We staged elaborate war games with toy guns, fighting armies of Nazis and “Japs,” just like our fathers had done in the real war. And when we got tired of civilization and its discontents, we’d wander off, past the edge of the development and into the woods that the relentless bulldozers of suburbia hadn’t yet flattened. We had good clean fun there, building tree houses, blowing stuff up with firecrackers and throwing rocks at the rats that lived in the piles of trash that people dumped in the woods, near the signs that read, “No Dumping.” Later, when we became junior-high sophisticates, we abandoned such childish pursuits and moved on to more mature activities in the woods, such as drinking booze we swiped from home and leering at the Playboy magazines we swiped from Weintraub’s candy store by hiding them inside a newspaper and purchasing both publications for a nickel. It was a Tom Sawyer childhood, Baby Boomer style.
Unlike many memoir writers—who apparently spent their tender years getting beaten or browbeaten by psychotic mothers, sadistic fathers and creepy uncles—I had the kind of happy childhood that can pretty much ruin your chances of ever writing a highbrow literary memoir. My parents were good, hard-working people who loved each other and their kids, and they can’t be blamed for my inept career as an inadvertent international drug trafficker. They are the heroes, not the villains, of this story.
My mother, Eleanor Rennert Carlson, was a tall, slender woman who liked to swim, read books and play Scrabble, solitaire and bridge. She did the New York Times crossword puzzle every morning in about twenty minutes. She smoked a pack of Kent cigarettes a day, drank a couple Manhattans before dinner and occasionally broke into song, usually something from the Harry Belafonte songbook: Day-o, Day-ay-ay-o. When I was four years old, she went to college. She’d bring me to school with her and leave me with the man who ran the college stable, so I got to play with horses while she attended classes. Although she had four kids at home, she graduated first in her class—a feat so unusual for a “housewife” in those days that The Long Island Press published a story about her, illustrated with a picture of our whole family posed on the couch in our Sunday clothes, looking nervous and dorky.
She earned a master’s degree and got a job teaching American History at Plainview-Old Bethpage High School. At home, she taught the traditional American values to her kids—values like fighting for your rights and refusing to quit. She helped organize a teacher’s union and when the school board refused to bargain with it, she helped lead a strike. I was about ten years old at the time and I remember answering the doorbell one Sunday and receiving the only telegram I’d ever seen. It was written in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, and it informed my mother that if she persisted in leading this illegal strike, she could be sent to prison for five years. That terrified me: I didn’t want my mom to go to jail.
“Does this mean you’re going back to work?” I asked.
“Hell, no,” she said. She stayed on strike until the union won. She was one tough mother.
On the first day of the strike, my father, a die-hard union man, showed his solidarity by visiting the picket line outside the school. One of the strikers was a teacher whose husband was an administrator at the same school. As this administrator crossed his wife’s picket line to go to work, my father hollered, “Hey, buddy, I guess you won’t be getting any tonight!”
He liked to needle people—or, as he would put it, “give people shit.”
My father, John “Scotty” Carlson, was what was known, in those days, as “a character.” He was a bald guy with a pot belly and a mischievous gleam in his eye. He liked to do things his own way. He shoveled snow with no shirt on. He beat out a syncopated rhythm on the little leather punching bag he hung in the garage. He sprawled across the living room couch after work, reading comic strips aloud to anybody within earshot. He drove a pre-war Ford woodie station wagon, then traded it in for a bright red early 60s Austin Healy Sprite convertible.
He called bars “gin mills” and women “dolls” and “dames” and he used colorful expressions I’ve never heard anybody else utter. In the winter, he’d say, “It’s colder than a whore’s heart.” In the summer, he’d say, “It’s hotter than two old maids picking cucumbers.” Leaving for work, he’d announce, “I’m off to the salt mines.” He indicated that somebody was rich by saying, “That guy is farting through silk.”
He worked as an “emergency serviceman” for the Long Island Lighting Company, which meant that when people’s lights went out, he’d fix them, which usually involved climbing up a telephone pole and working with high-voltage wires. It was a tough, dangerous job, and he worked the swing shift—8 to 4 one week, 4 to 12 the next, then midnight to 8. He frequently brought his co-workers home at odd hours to drink beer and whiskey and tell stories. They were large men with strange nicknames. One was called “Rotten Socks” because he never changed his filthy work socks. Another was called “Shot in the Head” because…well, he’d been shot in the head during the war, and had a steel plate in his skull. Naturally, his sensitive male co-workers thought it was amusing to call him “Shot in the Head” or simply “Shot.”
One day, my father fell off the top of a pole and smashed his right hip. After a complex operation, he came home from the hospital encased in a plaster cast that went from all the way from the top of his chest to his right foot. Needless to say, it was extremely uncomfortable. After a few days of grumbling, he devised a plan to ease his suffering.
“Hey, Pete,” he said, “go downstairs to my tool box and get my hacksaw.”
Already a veteran tool-fetcher at age six, I brought him the hacksaw. Then he instructed my mother to saw a couple inches off the top of the cast. She told him he was crazy and refused to do it. He begged. He pleaded. He cajoled and cursed. But she wouldn’t budge.
“Okay, if you won’t do it, I’ll have Pete do it,” he said. “Pete, take the hacksaw and slowly saw through the plaster, right about here.” He pointed to his chest.
“Don’t you do anything of the kind!” my mother told me.
But she was defeated and she knew it. If her husband was desperate enough to trust his chest to the inept hands of the “bushel full of assholes,” he obviously needed help. So she took the hacksaw and slowly, carefully sawed through the plaster that lay an inch or two above her husband’s heart, muttering all the while. “Oh, for God’s sake, Scotty, this is crazy!” My sisters and I watched, transfixed. It was like those stage shows where a magician saws a lady in half, except that my father was no lady and my mother was no magician. Somehow, it worked. She sliced a couple inches off the cast without shedding any blood, then she brushed the plaster dust out of his chest hair. And he really was more comfortable. A week later, he had her slice another couple inches off.
He recovered, although he was left with a permanent limp and permanent pain. For a while, he went on “light duty,” working in the office, answering phone calls from angry customers. He hated it because the bosses worked in the office, and they didn’t appreciate his sense of humor or his anarchic attitude. So he joined a local gym and spent hours there, working his bad leg back into shape. Soon he was climbing poles again, far from the bosses and their ridiculous rules and regulations.
Growing up under the tutelage of these delightful characters, I learned to appreciate odd people and bizarre behavior. When I got to high school, I naturally gravitated toward the oddballs and the misfits, which led me to the school newspaper, always a haven for the disgruntled, the opinionated, and the vaguely creative. This was the late Sixties, the much-hyped “Age of Aquarius,” so the oddballs tended to be hippies and freaks, folkies and rockers, would-be radicals and aspiring Beatnik poets. They were kids who touted books by Alan Watts and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and insisted that you drop everything immediately and listen to this record of Howling Wolf, or Captain Beefheart,. These wonderful weirdos were more interesting than most of my teachers, and they opened my mind to new worlds. I was soon riding the Long Island Railroad to Manhattan to see Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore East, going door-to-door for Gene McCarthy’s 1968 anti-war presidential campaign, and picketing grocery stores to support striking farmworkers in California.
I also “experimented with marijuana,” as Baby Boomer politicians like to put it when asked about their youthful hijinks. My experiments were successful at producing the desired results and were therefore repeated often.
All of it —the pot, the protests, the music and the books—were great fun, and I hoped to continue that fun in college. I applied to schools that seemed to be hotbeds of freaks and radicals, and ended up at Boston University, which fit the bill. I joined the student newspaper and started hanging out with an assortment of bohemians, anarchists, dorm-room philosophers and psychedelic voyagers. It was heaven. I even found a girlfriend, the lovely Rachel from Maine, who, much to my amazement and delight, actually consented to mate with me—repeatedly!--despite the fact that this mating frequently occurred in my narrow dorm bed, which was located approximately six feet from the bed of my roommate, Tom, who politely pretended to be asleep.
Ah, love! Ah, youth!
Most nights we all gathered down the hall, in Nick’s room. He was an upperclassman, a Greek-American with an impressive moustache. Nick was older and wiser in the ways of the world and willing to tutor naïve freshmen about the baffling mysteries of the fair sex. He was also one of the funniest people on the planet. Born in Brooklyn, he could mimic the voices of every ethnic, social, economic and sexual group in America, and he illustrated these verbal riffs with a hilarious array of physical gestures—popping eyes, bobbing eyebrows, shrugging shoulders and goofy dance steps. And sometimes he’d do The Note.
“Do The Note,” we’d beg him at the end of a long, stoned night of rock music and rambling conversation. “Come on, man, do The Note.”
He’d grumble that he was too tired, but if we begged enough, he’d relent. He’d crank up the volume on his stereo and turn on his strobe light. He’d step into his closet and emerge holding The Note—a three-foot-high, black wooden replica of a musical note. Then, as the music blared and the strobe flickered, he’d get happy feet and dance around the room, waving The Note in our faces, as we howled with laughter.
It sounds idiotic—and it was idiotic—but we laughed until we could barely breathe. Today, it’s impossible to explain the comedic appeal of The Note. You had to be there. And be young and foolish and very high. Fortunately, I was.
Obviously, Nick was a sagacious elder who knew how to have fun. So I was thrilled when he recruited me for an adventure in Jamaica.
It was early December of 1971, when Nick was a senior and I was a sophomore. Winter break was coming and Nick informed me that his hometown friend Christopher had found a dirt-cheap flight to Jamaica, an island famous among potheads for its legendary ganja. And Christopher was going to meet a woman there, who knew about a beach where we could all stay in a treehouse for free. And this woman was bringing two other women with her!“You wanna come?” Nick asked me.
I carefully weighed my options: I could spend the month-long winter break back home in Syosset, shoveling snow and helping my Old Man with home-improvement projects. Or I could fly off to a tropical paradise where there would be three girls and three guys in a treehouse on the beach.
“Count me in, man. When do we leave?”
Peter Carlson is an American journalist and historian. After 22 years as a Washington Post, reporter, he is now a columnist for American History magazine. He is the author of three books-- "K Blows Top," a non-fiction comedy about Nikita Khrushchev's 1959 trip across America; "Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy," the true story of two Yankee reporters who were captured during the Civil War and escaped from a Confederate prison; and "Roughneck," a biography of Big Bill Haywood, the radical American labor leader.