( – promoted by buhdydharma )
Note: I got a little out of sequence with this series and published Part IV – Love and Death in Colombia before this Part III. This one gets me back on track sequence-wise and sets the stage for Part V.
Links to the other parts of this series:
This is my story – I hope that it finds you (Part I)
Wear Your Love Like Heaven (My Story – Part II)
Love and Death in Colombia (My Story – Part IV)
First, so as to set the mood, I present to you a tender love ballad by John Prine and sung here with Iris DeMent called In Spite of Ourselves.
Those of you who read Part II of this series may recall that Little Dutch is one of the convicts I talked out of jumping from the Draper water tower and that Big Dutch was his father.
To catch you up…
Little Dutch had given me an address for his father in Phoenix City. I wrote him requesting information on his son’s case, and went about my Alabama Prison Project business trying to get people to give enough of a damn about their fellow human beings to try and improve conditions in Alabama’s godawful prisons. It was strictly up hill all the way. About the only ones who wanted to hear it were those who already gave a damn, and they were the precious few.
One day as I was going over some notes I had written for an anti-death penalty speech I was to give soon, I became aware of someone standing over me. I looked up to see a big square man, maybe 5′ 6″, four feet across the shoulders and a good 250, 300 pounds. He was built like a refrigerator and had a nose that you’ve seen before on boxers. He had ‘gangster’ written all over him.
“I’m Big Dutch,” he said in a deep gravelly voice. “Pleased ta meet cha.”
Under one arm he carried a tattered manila folder bulging with papers and xeroxed copies of documents and letters all related to his son’s case. I immediately surmised that these people were career criminals of the DNA variety, which I filed away for future reference. Still, being a criminal doesn’t exempt you from a right to justice. That’s what those civil rights, that we still had back then, were all about. The question wasn’t whether Little Dutch was a criminal but whether he was guilty of the crime for which he was serving a life sentence. The documents Big Dutch laid on my desk suggested that there was more than a little doubt about that.
I spent the rest of that day going over those documents with Big Dutch and ended up inviting him home for dinner. I knew my activist GF would be cool with it. Turns out she enjoyed meeting Big Dutch as much as I did . He was pretty damned interesting, a professional gambler and a bit of a fast-talking wise guy who, sure enough, had done some pretty serious boxing…mostly in prison.
We had a nice meal, smoked a joint, and drank some beer as Big Dutch continued unwinding the story of Little Dutch. I won’t go deeply into those details as memory fades, and because opening that can of worms the first time nearly got me killed. What follows are the broad strokes of how that all transpired.
The Dutches, Big and Little, were from Phenix City, a town with a notorious history that sits just across the Chattahootchie River from Colombus, GA home of the massive US Army base known as Ft. Benning (which is, coincidently, the place of my birth).
A documentary on public television tells about the transformation of an Alabama city so wicked that Gen. George S. Patton threatened to roll his tanks across the river from Ft. Benning and destroy it.
“Up From the Ashes: The Rebirth of Phenix City” shows how the National Guard crushed a crime syndicate here in 1954, radically changing the course of this historic river town.
Located in Russell County, Phenix City is on the Chattahoochee River, opposite Columbus, Ga. Most of the area’s jobs have always been in Georgia at the mills and at Ft. Benning. Since Phenix City lacked the revenue that jobs bring in, the city fathers took an unusual step.
“They voted to authorize gambling to come in, illegally, of course, and they collected revenue in the form of licenses of illegal gambling operations,” explains former governor John Patterson. “This was a conscious decision that the city fathers made.”
During WWII, many of the 100,000 soldiers who were stationed at Ft. Benning visited the clubs, gambling halls, and houses of prostitution in Phenix City. They often got into trouble with the owners of these establishments.
“They would completely take advantage of these soldiers,” says Margaret Anne Barnes, author of “The Tragedy and Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama.” “They would get them drunk or get them to gamble and take all of a man’s money, and if he objected about being ill-treated, then he was beat up and sometimes killed.”
But some of Phenix City’s citizens, led by local merchant Hugh Bentley, were ashamed of the city’s tarnished reputation and organized to bring an end to the crime. Bentley’s house was bombed, which made him only more determined to root out the criminals. When Bentley ally Albert Patterson ran for attorney general on an anti-crime platform, the syndicate tried fixing the election and buying votes. Patterson, a Phenix City attorney, won the election but was gunned down on the street before he could clean up the town.
“The end result of my father’s murder is that the people of Alabama had had enough,” says John Patterson, who followed in his father’s footsteps and became attorney general and governor. “They insisted something be done about it. So they sent the National Guard in, put it under martial law, and busted up the gambling joints, burned all the equipment, and prosecuted about six or seven hundred people, and, in the course of the next year, cleaned it up.”
The ‘cleanup’ was only skin-deep. The black heart of the little town known as “Sin City USA” and “the wickedest city in America” beat on while everyone marveled over the king’s new clothes. The better-known ringleaders of the Dixie Mafia had to relocate for a time to McNairy County, Tennessee where they famously tangled with a guy named Buford Pusser, but most of their cohorts remained, and very little changed beneath the surface of things in Phenix City, Alabama. This was the nest of vipers I unwittingly sailed into the day I took it upon myself to look into the case of Little Dutch.
In the case of Little Dutch, there had been a murder and a theft. Something of great value was stolen. It might have been a coin collection or something of that nature. The victim was elderly.
Little Dutch, who was a 17 or 18-year-old junior grifter at the time, was arrested immediately and charged with the crime, the only problem being that there was no physical evidence against him. All the evidence presented at his trial consisted of the testimony of a series of street-level criminals. He was nevertheless quickly convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Big Dutch slept at our place that night in Montgomery and in the morning we all piled into the car and headed for Phenix City. Big Dutch took us around to half a dozen people’s homes who had pertinent knowledge of Little Dutch’s case. At each location, I interviewed the individuals and recorded the conversation. I don’t know that anything I heard proved anything one way or another but it certainly raised a slew of questions.
Back in Montgomery some few days later there came a loud knock at the door of my apartment. Answering the door, I was surprised to find one of Montgomery’s leading television news anchors. He confirmed my name then asked to come in, said he had some important information for me. He was a disabled Vietnam veteran and had to limp slowly up the steep stairs of our subdivided apartment.
Sitting down, he said, “Look, I don’t want to scare you but you need to take this very seriously.”
“Take what?” I wanted to know.
He looked me straight in the eye and said, “They’re going to kill you.”
Mind you, I knew who this guy was, everybody in Montgomery did, but we had never met and had no mutual acquaintances that I knew of. This was all coming straight out of left field.
He went on to explain that he had received information through his network that some Dixie Mafia types in, you guessed it, Phenix City had contracted with hitmen from Detroit to take me out.
My first response was why Detroit? It’s not like we didn’t have hitmen in Alabama. It was a way of distancing themselves from the killing he said. He went on to advise me to get the hell out of town, to keep a low profile and to never go back to Phenix City if I could help it. The boys from Detroit were driving to Montgomery and were already on the road he said. With that he limped slowly back down the stairs and was gone, and I have never seen him again.
My GF was freaking out. We hurriedly packed a few bags, then she and I and a dog named Jackson Browne piled into her little Chevy Nova (figured driving my car would be a mistake) and headed for the hills.
I had a brother who also happened to be living in Montgomery at that time. On the way out of town I stopped by his place to explain what was going on and that I’d be out of pocket for a while. He loaned me a little cash and a nickel-plated snub-nosed .38. We put it in the wind.
We wandered aimlessly staying in small motels under her name. As money grew short we found ourselves meandering toward my old hometown of Hunstville. I knew better than to show up at my parents’ home. I eventually got the idea to call my old friend from the Civil Rights movement, a very cool cat known far and wide as Doctor Jack.
Doctor Jack was from a very prominent African-American family, and being a few years older than I, was smack in the middle of the Civil Rights struggle. He knew all the great leaders and was himself greatly loved by the African-American community and all the liberals, progressives and lefty white kids I knew. He said sure he’d help me out.
He owned several old houses he’d inherited from his famous ancestors. He was letting a bunch of college kids live in one of them for free. “You remember JimmyD don’t you?” he asked.
“He’s sort of in charge there, I’ll call him and tell him to be watching for you.”
He gave me the address and directions and we headed for a reunion with my old friend JimmyD with whom I had once collaborated on a film project, back when I was still locked up. He was a great guy, sort of a crazy genius. When we got there we drove down a long gravel driveway and pulled up in front of a huge white Victorian style house with the sort of deep wrap-around porch that was much favored in the pre-air-conditioning South. A pair of large porch swings hanging from chains framed the massive front door, which stood wide open.
We entered and found JimmyD who gave us a tour. There was a large open office area crammed with desks, tables stacked with papers and file cabinets. The University of Alabama in Huntsville’s speaker’s bureau and several film projects were being run from here. He introduced us around and showed us to our bedroom upstairs. “You picked a hell of a time to hit town,” he said. “Our full moon party is tonight and Hunter S. Thompson, who we have speaking at UAH tonight, is expected to show.”
I was psyched. I had long been a huge HST fan. I have encountered few writers who wrote with such power. It would be a trip to meet him.
We went to UAH that evening to hear him speak. He came on stage drunk and still drinking. Sensing a hostile crowd he quickly grew quarrelsome. He taunted his hecklers back and insulted everybody up to and including God, which fed right into the crowd’s dimwitted hostility. Hunter was funny and interesting, but in the end, and largely because of where he was, it wasn’t very pretty.
When Hunter left UAH, it was with JimmyD and Doctor Jack. Hours later they showed up at a loud and raucous full moon party that was in full swing. They moved through the party schmoozing with this one and that one. Everyone had to touch Hunter, perhaps hoping for some of his divine madness to rub off on them…I know that’s the way I felt.
Doctor Jack pulled me aside and said they were going to take Hunter up to Monte Sano to howl at the moon and did I want to go? I looked at him like he was insane. “Fuckin’ A I want to go!”
So Doctor Jack drove me JimmyD and HST up to Monte Sano where we piled out of the car and swilled whiskey, smoked pot, snorted cocaine and howled at the full fuckin’ moon in all our drunken glory.
Hunter was seriously drunk. Not surprising since he’d been swilling straight Kentucky bourbon for hours before I met him. He had walked on stage earlier at UAH with a fifth of Jack Daniels, which he chugged from like a man with an obsessive-compulsive thirst. All the drinking (and what not) didn’t seem to affect him the way it would a human but sadly, it caused him to slur his speech, and he was given to mumbling anyway, so it was hard to make heads or tails of his rambling discourse. All night long I strained to hear what he was saying but he was so wasted and unintelligible that he might as well have been Elmer Phudd on Quaaludes. It didn’t help that I was semi-sort of trying to keep up with him, Doctor Jack and JimmyD inebriation-wise…which was a terrible mistake as it turned out.
I ended up sleeping on the lawn back at the big white house after spending an eternity clinging desperately to the earth to keep from falling off. When I woke up…Hunter was gone.
I suppose it’s just as well. I was probably never cut out to hang with Hunter. While I have wrangled with madness in my own way, I never had the deep-running love affair with it that he did. He was remarkably unlike anyone I ever knew. I think he is best described using his own words.
“There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production.”
Hunter S. Thompson
Eventually my GF and I said goodbye and she returned to Montgomery. I never did. All that had happened had given me much to think about. My becoming involved in the case of Little Dutch had angered some in the Southern Coalition on Prisons and Jails with whom my Alabama Prison Project was associated. They wanted to saddle me with a co-director whose purpose was presumably to keep me on track. While I saw their point, I did not relish the idea. I’d had way more than a bellyful of being told what to do. Did I want to give up on Little Dutch – or ramp up the battle with those who signed my paychecks (such as they were)? I knew that realistically my chances of being able to do anything substantial to help Little Dutch were very snowball-in-hell-like…but I sure hated to give up on him. There were many other factors as well. Did I want to continue to risk my life and my sanity on work that seemed like little more than pissing on a forest fire? Did I have what it would take to continue to pay the steep emotional price of the seemingly hopeless and thankless tasks I had set for myself?
I wrestled with all of these questions and more. I wrestle with some of them still, wondering if I did the right thing. In the end though, I decided I needed a break. It was only when I reached that decision that I felt fully free, like I had finally gotten out of prison – once I had no further plans to go marching right back into one.
I will write about Love and Death in Colombia in Part IV. Correction, I wrote about Love and Death in Colombia in Part IV.
In closing I would like to recall that GF I lived with in Montgomery. She was a community organizer for the American Friends Service Committee and one of the most real people I have ever known. I think of her and this episode whenever I hear John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery.
In Part V, I will write about how I got involved with Colombian contrabandistas, my trip into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains to see a marijuana farm, and the sordid and twisted tale of fifteen thousand pounds of Santa Marta Gold.