A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 1
by Jake Rohrer, April 22, 2011
At sixty a man has passed most of the reefs and whirl-pools.
Excepting only death, he has no enemies left to meet...
That man has awakened to a new youth...
Ergo, he is young.
— George Luks
September has come and gone and arrival of the October I've allotted to this lifetime has been noted. I find in that both a chill and a comfort. A chill because I'm closing in on December and comforting because I have made it this far, braved a lot of shit along the way (as we all do), and find myself reasonably healthy and stable, even happy. Octobers for me have perennially turned out to be a favorite month, no small thanks to the World Series and weather, for the most part, that suits my clothes. And in certain places it comes with colors that dazzle. I'll be in October for about seven real time years and it is my intention to enjoy each of them. I'll explain.
The function of the calendar has always been to keep me apprised of what's going down today, what went down in days past and what's coming down in days ahead. A reminder of where I am, where I've been and where I'll be. I've always considered the calendar a friend, a simple device that when used properly becomes instrumental in keeping my mind at ease. Lapsing into daydream one day, I thought about my entire life crammed into one calendar of 12 months, an intriguing thought that has stayed with me. I'll call it the life calendar, present, past and future, laid out in linear fashion over a single year, an uncomplicated and familiar document, noting the high and low points of existence so far, where I am today and what time I am afforded yet to live. Like an hour glass, the days and months pour through the aperture until there's nothing left, a reminder of lifetime's brevity. I like the idea and borrow for my ambitions Kinky Freidman's Texas Gubernatorial campaign slogan: “Why the hell not?” Here's how it might work:
Well it won't work at all if I don't know an unknowable. How long will I live, or in other words when will I die? On the life calendar it's a given that I was born in the first nanoseconds of January 1 and I will cease to live in the final nanoseconds of December 31, neatly boxed parameters. There is no year of record on this calendar. It is the record in its entirety. But how do I rectify and fold into the equation the real time date of my death? Until I've done that how can I say with any probability that I now find myself in October? I am reminded that this is not science. On one level it's entertainment, and there might be something of a positive nature to be gained from it. So what makes sense?
I look at my life and lifestyle, the state of my health and family health history. I take into account all the bad shit I've done so far, measure my ability to eat and drink sensibly while conducting myself with reasonable caution. I take a peek at the studied averages of lifespan in our country. Right now we're averaging something just under 82 years. It gets better in the state in which I live. I become an actuary like the Jack Nicholson character in the Schmidt movie. Give him a few statistics and he can determine within a very narrow window a person's likely lifespan. The insurance companies are no different than the casinos and the bookies, they play only with the odds in their favor. We, of course, are the chumps.
Hah! I am confident I will live to be 84 years old in real time which now seems both enough and reasonably old. A number I am comfortable with, and further, in light of this life calendar I am constructing, it is easily divisible by 12. Convenient. No telling how I might feel about it when I hit 83. I might add some years to that had I not smoked cigarettes from the time I was 14 to age 40, a year or two off here and there. Damn. Ted Williams smoked 'em. Like a poster boy for drug lords, Ronald Reagan hawked them. In my day everyone used them, excepting those few enlightened souls who seemed to know better. That I also dabbled in and experimented with every illicit drug that came my way does not, in my opinion, affect my lifespan as might the pernicious cigarette.
So what happens to my life calendar if I live beyond 84? Nothing. Time then becomes bonus weeks or months, added to the calendar. A little math and event dates can be adjusted back into the 12-month calendar should anyone care. And if some freak accident takes me out tomorrow or I succumb to disease, gun shot or highway carnage prior to the assumed expiration date? These would be years stolen from what should have been. Even though thus robbed, chances are I might never know about it. Either the life calendar is rearranged to a new December 31, or people might say, .”..he only lived to November 13,” and so forth. The life calendar merely represents my best guess and becomes a friendly guide that helps me keep a finger on life's probable pulse.
If you've followed me so far, you're already on board with real time/calendar time. Each month on my life calendar represents about seven years of real time. Because it's not science, you can make up your own rules. In my rule book generalization is allowed, even applying the seasons to where you might find yourself. As I write this I am in the glorious fall of life, closing in on winter. You might also note that I arrived on the scene the previous winter. You cannot expect to be born into springtime on the life calendar; here we all share the same birthday. Each day on my life calendar represents about 84 real time days, a week just over a year and a half. It serves curiosity and purpose to keep things uncomplicated with the 12 month, 365-day year. We're talking “ballpark” here, and when you consider you are mapping out your own deathbed, a little give and take might be a good thing. In the end, it all comes out close enough for me and the girl I go with.
While there is joy and purpose in life, I believe it should be lived fully, even if quietly, until such time that all worthwhile is no longer there. When it comes to ending life, I am pro-choice. In my view, Jack Kevorkian was a saint who came up against “authorities” who disagreed with his view of compassion. As I read it, so was Jesus. Whether from our system of criminal justice or self-appointed social and civil authority, I have always been aware of authoritarians who seem to insist that I live my life on their terms. I have few kind words for any of them. Prosecute me when I break the law; don't tell me how to dress, how to vote, or who I must pray to. And no phone solicitation, please.
* * *
I loved books as a child. I loved the written word. Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. — Harper Lee, 2006, from a letter to Oprah Winfrey
When it's late in the day of December 31 on my life calendar, I intend to have options at hand. With any luck, I'll be able to choose my own road out of town. Based on the several sad, life-ending episodes I have so far observed, the key criteria for me will be the ability to read and enjoy a book. If this simple joy becomes no longer possible, then I'd like to check out on my own terms. I make it a practice to hold on to those books that have moved and affected me, fond memories I can visit from time to time. Some books I read again, years, even decades later, with undimmed enthusiasm. I find a comfort in having a library of literary friends on hand to keep me company, whether a sunny afternoon or a cold, lonely night. Film is not for me as personal an experience as a book, where the author engages the reader to combine imaginations, but a good movie, too, can be like hanging with old friends. Though I recognize certain advantages, I do not easily warm to the idea of electronic books or digital downloads in music. I find both impersonal, lacking emotion and affection; whatever the advantage, I have a dim view of the trade-off. I hold on to my records, tapes and CDs like I do my books. i-Tunes and the rest of them can take their shitty sounding mP3 downloads and shove them up their ass where they'll be in good company. Quantity is no replacement for quality.
A few words on assuming the role of a fortunate son, for me a simple reality: I am my mother's and father's son. The great fortune in my so being has always been apparent to me. It is a different view than that of John Fogerty's protest song, “Fortunate Son,” which points a finger at the negative aspects of fortune spawned by wealth and political and military vantage. A broader view of fortune is recognition of the good fortune to have been born into this country, and broader yet, at the time I was, and still even broader, without physical or medical deficits. I think I have a lot going for me. Just think of the tens of millions of poor unfortunates on this planet who drop from the womb into a lifetime of poverty and wretchedness. Whose hand is at work there? The answer is no one's. Maybe they exist as a signpost for mankind to someday rise above the predatory state. Who among us, born into this country of loving parentage and good health, can say they are not a fortunate one? It ain't me.
A brief glance at my life calendar tells me I entered high school about March 1 and was soon taken advantage of, my virginity slipping away like a rainbow trout from the hand, a day or two later. I got my driver's license on March 9 and first married on March 16, the same day I graduated from high school; our first child was born two and a half days later in the early evening of March 18, a telling statistic. A second child arrived about four and a half days later on March 23. My father was killed in a hunting accident on March 25 and John Kennedy was killed late in the afternoon of the following day, March 26. By March 27 I had abandoned college classes, and with my mother, was running my father's struggling auto business with 17 employees to keep employed. March 31 tolled my 21st birthday. It was a busy month for such a young man.
Leafing through the months, I see that Mom moved to Maui on April 20 and by April 23 I had sold my interest in the auto business and went to work for an enormously popular rock and roll band where I experienced the world beyond our borders and remained until May 24, after which I became an outlaw in the world of illegal drugs, resulting in Federal incarceration June 22 through about July 7, only 16 days on the life calendar but nearly four years in real time. July 7 to August 16 I worked as an investigator and paralegal at a law firm and July 9 saw my second and current marriage. My Federal parole was completed on July 29, followed by a move to Maui on August 17 where on August 31 we started a small recording studio and record company that still survives today, October 10. Or so. My mother died in the early hours of October 6.
Of course there's more to tell, but editorial discretion is advised. Jim Harrison, a fine, well read author and poet, wrote that your own life is your truest story and it blinds you unless heavily edited.
You first get rid of the unremarkable and everyday routines, right away dismissing about 90% of it. That people might find the remains interesting enough to read is a crap shoot, but the prize for me is in the telling, re-living the joys, coming to terms with the sorrows. I look at life as I do a cherished book, worth another read. Harrison says he reads for aesthetic reasons and if the writing isn't artful he stops at the end of page one. If not artful, maybe you will find it entertaining, and you are invited to stick around for the telling, at least in part, of my truest story. Chronology is somewhat askew because some things make others more interesting when presented out of turn.
Never let your head hang down. Never give up and sit down and grieve. Find another way. And don't pray when it rains if you don't pray when the sun shines. — Satchel Paige
Guard towers and a chain link fence topped with circular razor wire came into view through the windshield of Ed's Cadillac. As we crested the hill, dull concrete buildings without windows stood out against a bleak background, stark and naked. I didn't imagine it would be otherwise. This is what prisons look like.
“Aw, shit,” groaned Ed, apparently expecting some-thing a little more welcoming.
My good friend was delivering me to the Federal Correctional Institute at Terminal Island, a gritty industrial section of the Long Beach harbor, just south of Los Angeles where I was to begin a 15-year sentence. Self made, successful and wealthy, Ed was used to having things only his way. When he was conducting business we called him “War Horse,” at other times, “Uncle Eddie,” and sometimes just plain “Olson.” He blamed my lawyers for my plight.
“Those assholes took your money and didn't deliver,” he fumed. He of course never had to deal with criminal lawyers. In his world you paid huge sums to civil practitioners who did the things you told them to do and got the results you expected. Result was the only measure of competency and heaven help the lawyer who didn't deliver.
My result couldn't have been worse. A maximum sentence and a maximum fine. There were no weapons or violence involved, and heretofore I had a clean record. Ed felt certain his lawyers would have provided a far better result than the celebrated J. Tony Serra, my counsel at trial. How could he have fucked things up so badly?
At this point it was a little late to consider what might have gone wrong. One thing that had gone wrong was the idea that it was okay to participate in the commerce of the cocaine trade. I have always maintained that I learn things the hard way, but having to learn them only once was my saving grace. Unfortunately, that idea held no appeal with Judge Robert Schnacke, grand old man of the Federal bench. His was a gruff exterior, but he was soft spoken and kind to witnesses whom he seemed to view as innocent and lesser animals than the other players. His control of the courtroom was complete, maintaining decorum with a mean-spirited edge, occasionally smoothed over by a highly honed sense of humor. Tony didn't like him personally, but respected his intellect. He was smart as they come. Tony Serra was and is a rogue criminal attorney, a renowned orator, brilliant in cross-examination, fiery and unrelenting, possessor of great confidence and personal mana. Highly principled, he had served prison time for refusal to pay income taxes (and would so again) and he openly smoked marijuana before it was medically okay to do so. He was eager to defend the underdog and those subject to racial injustice. Any individual whose opponent happened to be “The United States of America” qualified as an underdog. The Hollywood movie “True Believer” was to some extent based on Tony Serra. He keeps no attachable possessions and drove near-derelict vehicles that would simply be abandoned when unpaid parking citations commanded the vehicle be impounded. He is also a skilled poet and writer with an enviable command of the English language. Personally, I found him fascinating and very likable, but I think he may have presented an intellectual enigma to the jury of sheep selected to decide our case.
When Tony was eloquently pleading for a probationary sentence, I could sense the tempest building in Schnacke, restless and shifting in his chair, scowling and incredulous while Tony did his best on my behalf. I imagined a low, guttural growl emitting from Schnacke's bowels, a carnivorous beast impatient for his turn at the carcass. He didn't like Tony Serra, his pony-tail, his courtroom demeanor, his rapier-like undoing of prosecution witnesses or the way he dressed, a little too bohemian, barely meeting bench standards. The required necktie looked out of place on him. He also didn't like the numerous people and letters that had come forward on my behalf, attesting to my good character. He accused them all of “turning a blind eye” to my activities. (Actually, your Honor, rather than a blind eye, most turned an appreciative eye to the pure, uncut cocaine I could supply them with.)
On pronouncing sentence, the rising wind of Schnacke's furious vent and judgment thundered into me, rocking me back on my heels. In my mind I saw the characters from “The Wizard of Oz,” quaking in front of Oz, the Great and Powerful (“silence, whippersnapper!”). I, too, wanted to dive headfirst through the nearest window, but I was 21 floors up in San Francisco's Federal Building. I vowed then and there I would one day find where he lie and piss on his grave, a vow I later recanted.
“Bail on appeal is denied,” roared Schnacke.
“Could you at least recommend a camp setting?” pleaded Tony. A camp is a low security prison camp reserved for non-violent offenders who mostly committed white-collar crimes and were not viewed as a flight risk. Tax cheats, informants, senators, even judges, could be found there, along with “short-timers” and others who had earned their way through good behavior. The recommendation of a Federal Judge is not lost on prison authorities.
“I prefer to leave that to the Bureau of Prisons,” huffed Schnacke.
I sensed I was about to be remanded to custody and trundled off by the US Marshalls, but was struck dumb-founded when Schnacke finished up by granting me two weeks' freedom to get my affairs in order before self-surrender to prison authorities. I was not viewed as a flight risk, but I sure gave it some thought.
In the two weeks granted, I replaced Tony with Doron Weinberg, a man of towering intellect and greatly respected throughout the legal community. Doron was more to Schnacke's liking. Just like magic, Schnacke reversed himself and bail on appeal was granted, and I spent nearly two years rather than two weeks getting my affairs in order, recklessly hustling more cocaine to pay legal expenses and putting together some cash to see my family through what I knew would be a long and hard winter up ahead.
* * *
The American system of justice is built on the foundation of not telling “the whole truth.”— Alan Dershowitz
The evidence against me at trial consisted of the testimony of a one-time associate-turned-informant, Stephen J. Green, engaged in the process of saving his own skin. Tony of course tore into him like a thresher through a wheat field, but I did not testify on my own behalf because I am a bad liar. In general, juries like to hear from the defendant. We nonetheless felt we had a chance of winning at trial because the Government had scant little else against me and was giving the informant, the man at the top of the pyramid, his freedom for informing on his associates, prosecuting those farther down the ladder. It hadn't been done before. It was like letting Bernard Madoff go free while prosecuting his lieutenants. That didn't make me any the less culpable, but it might piss the jury off enough to turn the table on the government's case if we could get them to see what was going on.
We were prevented by rules of evidence from putting the bulk of this truth in front of the jury, including the fact that others of lesser role would be subjected to far more prison time than the informant. Much of this idea had to be presented as innuendo and we had to rely on the jury's intellect to see through this aspect of the government's case to understand what was truly going on, which they did not. When later polled, most thought I was guilty because I hired an expensive attorney like Tony Serra (whose fees were considerably less than any of the other attorneys involved in the trial stage). All were aghast learning that my prison time would far exceed that of the informant who would serve about 18 months of his 20-year sentence, most of it in tight security helping the government build their case.
If the government had caught me at what I was doing, rather than trade me and a few others for the likes of Stephen Green, I would never have challenged them. Green was a boastful, self-absorbed, whiny little shit who had been caught with the goods in hand, set up by one of his own. All of his wealth was illegitimate and he used it to buy Ferraris and Porsches, and needed to prove his place in the world—above the likes of you or me—with a San Francisco penthouse, a butler, and fine watches and jewelry, and a cellar of fine wines, and walls covered with fine art. He would strut and articulate the code of the honorable outlaw, taking your own medicine while maintaining silence in the face adversity, pointing at others who he claimed would “turn rat” at the drop of a badge. Additionally, he was a racist, paranoid and particularly anti-black. To let this motherfucker go free, trading him for people who were unpretentious and honorable, albeit cocaine merchants, did not sit well with me. I was angry at the time, but have since accepted that I earned my fate, “karma” if you will, for doing what I did and letting my guard down enough to do business with such a remarkable swine as Green. His karma is called the Federal Witness Protection Program, a lifetime of federal supervision and looking over his shoulder.
I never counted on winning the appeal; I was just buying time. True to character, this turned out to be the hard way to do things. Fear of the unknown dictated that I keep prison at bay as long as possible. How was I to know that it would turn out for me to be a salvation, providing valuable life experience and something I can today look back on with a weird sort of fondness? Following my conviction, others who were facing the same prosecution either made deals for far less time, or fled the country. Among those who plead to lesser time was my brother, Robbin, formerly Robert or Bob, the person closest to me on the planet. Though younger than me, he is in some ways my father incarnate, possessing many of dad's personality traits. Somehow, though, I don't think dad would have dealt dope. It wasn't his generation's thing.
To my immeasurable delight while I was incarcerated, Schnacke, certainly a man of high standing in the community, was rounded up in a vice squad raid on a Mitchell Brothers porn theater in San Francisco, creating scandalous headlines. Both the District Attorney and the defense attorneys wanted the Judge as a witness for their cases and he would hire my lawyer, Doron Weinberg, to get him out of this damning public spectacle. Getting the inside story from Doron, I allowed myself a great deal of satisfaction at Schnacke's shame and discomfort. Even though exceedingly bright, I thought Schnacke was a bully, drunk on the power of his robes. There you go, Judge. What goes around comes around.
This was later followed by another stroke of what I considered to be karma's irrevocable momentum and certainty. The Assistant United States Attorney who prosecuted me, Eric Swenson, was caught red-handed in numerous misrepresentations of material fact that amounted to evidence tampering in a case against some Chinese heroin smugglers. It was his practice to stand on a Sunday-school teacher soapbox, pointing to immoral conduct in others while ludicrously claiming that the mind-breaking sentence he was seeking would send a message to the criminal element, bullshit in its most self-serving embodiment. Swenson's conduct was astounding for an AUSA, like a lowlife, crooked cop sticking a gram in some pimp's pocket. He wasn't an evil person, nor was I, but my guilt was no more than his, that of bad judgment. You might argue that being a provider of cocaine was a more heinous crime than, Nazi-like, intentionally subverting someone's rights from a position of power, but I would take issue with that scenario. He was hounded from office under the blackest of clouds, but not without his pension which angered many. I thought he should have been jailed, but I understood that the elitist clubs belonging to this particular branch of our society rarely eat their own kind. Thus, the posturing officials who from their appointed high ground had painted me a moral outcast could now deal with their own legacies.
To expect federal authorities to “play hard, but always play fair” is to be naive, like buying into the agent-as-superman image promulgated by the psychopathic J. Edgar Hoover. I personally caught DEA agents in the act of frantically riffling the contents of my desk without a warrant, thinking they would be unobserved; they hated the idea of not having the right to search my home. FBI agents harassed and threatened a witness who was to appear on my behalf. “No one can out-lie a cop on the stand,” is a well-earned manifestation I heard many times during the years I worked with criminal defense attorneys. But it is not my intention to paint all law enforcement with the same brush. Sometimes it's the good guys against the bad guys, sometimes the bad guys are the cops, at other times the divide is the thinnest of lines.
The DEA agent in charge of my case, Lowery Leong, would nearly 30 years later turn up on Maui, in charge of TSA at the airport, no doubt “double-dipping” at the public trough in search of two retirements. Even though dual retirements seems a common pursuit, at least among feds, based on my observation, a lifetime spent working for the feds is its own punishment; a more rigid, anal and dull existence is hard for me to imagine. But I don't wish Mr. Leong ill tidings. I didn't know him well enough to be mad at him; possibly he finds working as a fed rewarding; someone's got to do it. Our only conversation was brief, as I declined his invitation to also become an informant in exchange for a light sentence. Where does it end? Play this to its conclusion and all they would have is informants informing on themselves.
Those tricky DEA bastards, though, did have an underhanded way of making themselves look good in the press (.”..with a street value exceeding nine hundred thousand dollars, blah, blah”), while somehow managing to get a booking photo that made me look like Jack the Ripper. When I saw it in the paper, I couldn't even recognize myself. I was again reminded of Hoover and the importance he placed on image and public manipulation.
I am not angry with Stephen Green, Judge Schnacke, Eric Swenson or anyone else involved in this episode of my life. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord and He will get His due. I don't want any part of it. I believe revenge to be an unnecessary and spiritually draining pursuit. To a great extent, we all make our own beds and then we must lie in them.
“Keep your eyes open,” advised Ed. “And watch your back. If there's anything I can do for you, let me know.” He gave me a wink and a weak smile as we said our farewells, .”..if you're looking for me,” said Ed, “I'll be at the table,” meaning that's where you could find him, negotiating business deals and acquisitions. Ed lives at the table, it's what keeps him going. Friends like him are hard to come by. He hated the idea of delivering me to the dragon's lair, but I knew then as I know now, if in need, I can count on uncle Eddie.
The hollow feeling inside of me seemed to expand as he drove off. I hadn't felt so all alone and insecure since mom dropped me off for my first day at kindergarten. One last deep breath of free, fresh air.