Skydiving and drug smuggling pioneer Roger Nelson lives life out of the box. Fueled by a love for adrenaline and adventure, Roger goes after everything he wants with gusto. But now Roger is ready to retire from smuggling. With a parachute center to run and a family to raise, Roger knows it is time to stop the cat-and-mouse games he has been playing with the authorities for years.
He and his longtime partner, Hanoi, plan one final run to Belize, where they intend to fill their Douglas DC-3 with enough cannabis to set them up for life. But then Hanoi dies in a plane crash in an attempt to make some "legitimate bucks" flying fish in Alaska while they wait for the growing season to end.
Left without a partner or plane, Roger remains determined to return to his family for good. To do so, he decides to stay true to himself and follow through with his retirement run. Roger must rely on a colorful cast of characters and the most unlikely airplane for a gig ever-Sugar Alpha, the legendary DC-3 with the secret fuel tanks and not-so-secret paint job-to help him complete the most daring run in the history of smuggling.
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The Life and Times of Señor Huevos Grandes
By ROGER NELSON, MELISSA NELSON
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Roger and Melissa Nelson
All rights reserved.
The Freak Brothers
Green water rippled around Carl Nelson Sr. as he paddled his canoe down the Fox River, steering from the rear so he could more easily navigate around rocks and snags in the meandering watercourse 75 miles southwest of Chicago. His eldest son, Carl Jr., paddled from the front; youngest son Roger paddled from the middle. Carl Jr. concentrated on paddling and helping his father steer the cleanest course down the river. Roger's attention alternated between the river, his paddling, his brother's developing muscles, and getting away with "accidentally" splashing him.
Carl Nelson Sr. was a war hero, though he wouldn't admit it and he didn't talk about it. Like many of those in The Greatest Generation, he knew that too many young men lay in foreign graves for those still living to make hay about what they did and lived through in World War II. The dead and their sacrifice deserved respect and gratitude, not grandstanding.
To that end, Carl proudly wore his 82nd Airborne Division pins and patches and his airborne wings on his hats and jackets, including the baseball cap perched on his head now. His fellow Americans instantly recognized these emblems of his service in the "All American" division, and that was enough.
Yet no word other than hero can sufficiently describe a man who willingly parachuted from an airplane into the dark night above occupied France, behind enemy lines, through enemy fire, carrying 100 pounds of gear, to fight the world's most feared military machine with no backup expected for days—and then only if the largest sea invasion ever launched succeeded against the most formidable coastal fortifications ever built. That's exactly what Carl Sr. and thousands of his similarly heroic buddies did—and several thousand of them still rest in peace in quiet fields near the Normandy coast.
Carl's wife, sons, and daughter knew nothing first-hand about the horror of war, and this suited Carl just fine; he knew there was no glory in killing young men torn away from their youthful dreams to kill other young men just like themselves. Killing in war was a bloody necessity forced on a man by his government and he did it to save his buddies and himself more than "for duty and country."
At the same time, Carl knew there was something glorious and manly in facing down an enemy and conquering fear. If more such men existed, monsters such as Hitler could never have risen to power. People would rise up and say, "Enough!" More practically, such men would never live under the boot of life's ordinary bullies and bigots. This was the legacy Carl wished to pass on to his children before they reached adulthood. He just hoped there could be a way to do it without war and killing.
Then, as the boys alternated between paddling and splashing, Carl Sr. heard a sound and saw a sight that stirred his soul and reawakened long-dormant memories; three round military parachutes popping open in the sky.
They seemed to appear from nowhere, but Carl Sr. heard the faint sound of an aircraft and searched the sky until he found it, descending now, but still almost two miles above them.
"Would ya look at that!" he called out to his boys and pointed with his paddle.
"Cool!" they exclaimed. "Wow!"
The canoe drifted in the current as the Nelsons watched the parachutists descend and then disappear behind the treeline along the river."
Wanna go check them out?" asked the father of his sons—but he'd already made up his mind as he dug his paddle into the water.
"No way!" snorted Carl Jr.
"Really?" said Roger. "Can we?"
Carl Sr. nodded.
"Can we jump?" Carl Jr. asked slyly, thinking he knew the answer.
"Maybe," came his father's unexpected reply.
"Cool!" shouted Roger. "Then let's go!"
And with that they all dug their paddles into the water, and flew down the river toward their pickup point, all horseplay forgotten, all splashing truly accidental.
Carl Sr., was at the wheel of the family car as they approached the grass strip and small hangar grandiosely labeled with a hand-lettered wooden "airport" sign. The boys peppered their father with questions.
"How much does it cost?" Carl Jr. wanted to know.
"Don't know yet, son."
"How do we learn what to do?" asked Roger.
"Not sure, but if they do it the way I did, they'll make sure you're in shape to do it, then teach you how to land and fall down without hurting yourself—it's called a PLF, a parachute landing fall. Then they'll teach you how to steer the parachute and what to do if the main doesn't open."
"But then what?" Roger persisted. "How do we actually jump?"
"With a main chute and an emergency chute and, for at least the first few times, you'll be attached to the plane by a 10-foot line that automatically opens the parachute when you hit the end of it. Pretty simple, really."
"And you did this, Dad?" asked Carl.
Carl Sr. parked next to the hangar and turned off the engine.
"A few times," he said simply.
"What happens if neither parachute works?" asked Roger.
"Then you have nothing to worry about. Just enjoy the rest of your life."
His father laughed. After a moment, Roger and his brother did too. Nervously.
When they got out of the truck, they saw three jumpers preparing to board a small, noisy, high-wing aircraft.
"You're just in time to see a jump," bellowed one jumper over the engine noise, a big guy past his prime but still plenty beefy. He looked like he might be in charge; at least he sounded that way.
"We usually charge for the show," he grinned, "but if you promise to pick up anyone who lands off the airport, we'll let you watch for free."
Carl Sr. grinned back and gave him a thumbs up.
"Doing these fellows a favor'll help us get in good with them," he said to his boys. Roger nodded knowingly. Carl was busy watching the jumpers.
The jumpers boarded. Big green military rigs and billowy jumpsuits filled the single-engine plane's passenger windows. The pilot waved, the engine roared, and the plane bounced down the grass runway building speed until with one last bounce it hurtled into the sky and turned almost graceful.
"Well," said Carl Sr., "let's find a good place to watch and see if we can spot them as they come out."
They laid down in the grass on the shady side of the hangar and watched the plane climb higher and higher until they could barely see or hear it. After a while, Carl Sr. shaded his eyes with one hand and pointed with the other.
"Okay, they're on jump run. Listen carefully and you'll hear the pilot cut the power so they can get out easier. Then watch for them."
The boys held their breath and, moments later, even the faint engine sound stopped.
"He cut it, Dad!" said Roger excitedly.
"There they go!" chimed in Carl Jr.
They watched three spots separate from the plane and plummet earthward faster and faster. Soon, the dots turned into tiny human shapes.
"Wow," Roger said quietly, enthralled by the spectacle.
"Too cool," added his big brother.
Carl Sr. just smiled, remembering old adventures and enjoying the new one he was having with his sons.
The parachutes cracked open, and true to the old paratrooper's expectations, none of the jumpers landed on target. One man had to pick his way through the bean field; Carl Sr. sent his older son out in the pickup to get the other two down the road.
When they returned, Carl Jr. nearly flew out of the truck.
"Dad! Dad!" he shouted. "They said I can jump! I can jump! I just need some money for lessons, and they'll let me use their parachutes and everything! I can start tomorrow!"
Summers would never be the same. The first few were the most fascinating and frustrating of Roger's young life. While his brother earned his "wings," as his father called them, Roger stayed grounded. The "club" had its rules, though the excuses varied.
"It's against the rules," the airplane's owner said flatly.
"But it's your plane," countered Roger. "You can change the rules."
"Sorry, you ain't old enough, kid," said one old veteran patronizingly.
"Our insurance don't cover you," said another—even though Roger knew that, while the plane was insured, it wasn't covered for jump operations.
"We'd have to stuff your pockets with rocks," laughed another, "or you'd land in Indiana."
"Get a haircut and we'll think about it!" he heard more than once.
So Roger ran errands in town, picked up jumpers who missed the landing area, fueled the airplane, and, eager for anything skydiving-related, learned to pack their parachutes. He learned the jargon and the gear and earned some money, but he never earned "a slot on the next load" no matter how hard he tried.
"Rules is rules, kid," they'd all laugh over beers at the end of the jump day.
And it wasn't just this club. On fair weather weekends, Roger, now old enough to at least drive, would drop his brother off at the "drop zone" or DZ, then explore the local area to find a club that would let him jump. By this time he already knew the training by heart, and he could pack as well as any jumper. He even lied about his age, but no one would give the skinny, long-haired jeans-clad kid a chance.
So Roger settled into a routine. On jump weekends, he'd pack and help around the DZ, making a few bucks and sometimes scoring a plane ride. If he was lucky, the pilot would let him take the controls for a while. In his first summer, Roger learned more about skydiving gear and aircraft than many of the jumpers in the club.
He also added to his earnings by selling bags of pot to the rule-keeping hypocrites who wouldn't let him jump for his age, "ditch weed" dope he found growing wild in the Illinois countryside, dope he swore to them came from exotic places like California, Mexico, or Hawaii, dope they believed came from just such places because Roger wore his hair long and his jeans flared at the bottom, and wanted the Vietnam war to end before he was forced to fight for something nobody believed in anymore.
He sold pot in the evenings around a BBQ grill while the jumpers told jump stories. From those Saturday night jump stories he learned about "style and accuracy," and "the Nationals" and the legendary DC-3, a plane these jumpers dreamed of, but hadn't ever jumped. And he learned about "relative work"—or "RW"—and how only damned fools risked freefall collisions trying to "fly" together in mid-air to make patterns in the sky.
He learned how the military would make a man out of him when he got his ass drafted. He learned about killing dinks and slopes and gooks—and what bullets, grenades, napalm, claymores did to human flesh, bone, and brains. And "Willy Pete," especially Willy Pete, the white phosphorous that burned when exposed to air, that burned underwater, that burned into flesh and all the way through it, and kept on burning until it burned itself out and not before.
And he learned how men burned up and worn out by war would smoke too much and drink too much, then vomit, pass out, and piss themselves in their nightmare-torn sleep. And as he learned, he wondered about a country that could turn youngsters like himself into men like them.
And thus Roger came to realize that only the air and ground and gravity were pure—and that he wanted to live his life there. And to get there, he would consort with these men, and learn from them, so that he could ultimately escape them and achieve his dreams.
And so it was that after an adolescent lifetime of waiting there came the day when Roger could finally jump. He had found a place nestled in cornfields close to his home and far from the hypocrites and their stringent, silly rules. He jumped and he loved it. He embraced it, he lived it exactly the way he knew he would, and then he never looked back.
As soon as he passed through his basic training jumps, he did what he had ached to do since that first day at the first airport; jump with his brother. They became inseparable at the DZ, jumping, packing and partying together.
And learning. They learned from the former military men, from the pilots, and from each other too. Questioning authority came natural to them in the early '70s; they never wanted to just know "how" to do something; they also wanted to know "why do we do it that way?"
Parachute gear was one of their first areas of inquiry. They knew the mostly surplus military gear they jumped was heavy and unwieldy because the military always made gear to last for a long time in the worst conditions. And they knew the openings were rough because the military never planned for people to make more than a few jumps a year—not several every day.
So Roger and his brother experimented with ways to lighten their gear, make it safer and less prone to malfunction, make it easier on their bodies when it opened.
They also experimented in the air. They tried to fall slower, faster, move farther horizontally. They even tried something unheard of; maneuvering on their backs.
The "old guard" told them it was impossible—until they did it, eliciting more catcalls about their "freaky" behavior. So, naturally, they called their new skill "Freak flying."
The military jumpers who had created sport parachuting in the '50s and '60s found it hard to accept the new kids and their new ideas and new ways of doing things. As paratroopers, they jumped the gear they were given, jumped the way they were trained, and they were discouraged from asking the question that came so naturally to Roger and Carl: "Why?" As veterans, these men knew only one way, and they didn't try to change. They jumped old, heavy gear. They fell through the air "flat, dumb and happy" on their bellies. Sometimes the openings wrecked their backs. Sometimes they got hurt. Once in a while, one of them died. That's the way it was and if you don't like it, take up bowling.
Thus the more Roger and Carl experimented, the more new stuff they did, the more alienated they became from the "old school" boys. They didn't jump like typical skydivers, they didn't respect established, skydiving authorities, and they sure didn't look like typical skydivers.
Moreover, they didn't care much for jump stories about the old days; they listened instead for word about innovations and ideas coming from California, America's skydiving Mecca, and so they searched for a DZ with at least a few jumpers like themselves.
They finally found it, in Hinckley, Illinois, not too far from where they lived. They found new mentors there, too, a new breed of "sky god" after their own hearts: long haired, with a disregard for authority and no fondness for the military way of doing things.
They were the notorious members of the Midwest's only challenge to California's skydiving dominance, the exuberant, outrageous outlaws known as "The James Gang."
And there at Hinckley the legend began, on a fine blue-sky afternoon, when "Pops" Connor offered to provide Carl and Roger, and their buddy Cicero with some tips and then coach them through a jump. The young men were honored and supremely excited, but as they got ready, an old sky god named "Pirate" limped by on his prosthetic leg and invited Pops to round out a hot 10-way jump he was organizing.
"Thanks, but I'm already on a load," said Pops.
"Don't waste a jump on those freaky brothers," sneered Pirate.
"I won't," Pops assured him, then turned to his long-haired, wavy-haired, just plain strange companions and said with a grin:
"All right, Freak Brothers, let's do it."
Roger looked away from the window and sat up in his chair. Yes, the tricky part was over, but at what cost?
He hadn't wanted to do the run from Colombia through the islands. First off, there was a lot of heat because of the television drug war waged around Florida by Vice President George H.W. Bush. Second, his well-honed sixth sense had given him a weird feeling about it. Finally, the whole trip was pretty much senseless because Roger had already shifted his farming operations from South America to the small Central American backwater of Belize, a peaceful, English-speaking nation 500 miles closer than Colombia. There, he'd taught his growers how to grow the much more potent sinsemilla—seedless—pot. It resulted in a stellar product that cost him a fourth of what he paid for Colombian and he sold it for twice as much at wholesale.
But his chief pilot, H.R. "Hanoi" Gibson, had set up a final trip to collect a debt owed to him by his Colombian associates, a trip that was delayed because it was late in the season and quality product was scarce. The Colombians had to go deep into the mountains to find the required quality, so during the wait, Hanoi went to Alaska to make a few legitimate bucks hauling salmon. Unfortunately, he died there when workers overloaded his airplane and it crashed on takeoff, leading Roger to use the inexperienced Billy for the run—and the resulting head-to-head with The Man had broken his multi-year streak of good planning and good luck.
Excerpted from SUGAR ALPHA by ROGER NELSON, MELISSA NELSON. Copyright © 2013 Roger and Melissa Nelson. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Advisories And Acknowledgements.................... ix
Prologue: The Rule of Three.................... xix
Chapter one: The Freak Brothers.................... 1
Chapter Two: Debrief.................... 9
Chapter Three: Sandwich.................... 16
Chapter Four: Jamaica.................... 31
Chapter Five: Sugar Alpha.................... 48
Chapter Six: Regroup.................... 65
Chapter Seven: Nationals.................... 79
Chapter eight: Billy "Bob".................... 109
Chapter nine: B-Ville.................... 133
Chapter Ten: The Convention.................... 171
Chapter eleven: Sugar Time.................... 190
Chapter Twelve: Burned Out.................... 221
Chapter Thirteen: Desperados.................... 255
Chapter Fourteen: The Razor.................... 284
Chapter Fifteen: The Retirement Party.................... 321