I first met Sheriff Ralph Baker while looking down the barrel of his nickel-plated, .45 caliber, Smith & Wesson pistol.
I awoke that summer morning to the prosperous future of a modern-day moonshiner, and more percisely, a marijuana moonshiner. Then by a simple twist of fate, I was face to face in the forest with the most notorious sheriff in the state of Arkansas. Madison County Sheriff Ralph Baker, high sheriff of the rugged Ozark Mountain backwater known to locals as Booger County.
Gun in hand, he ordered me to put my hands on my head, and kneel on the ground. Suddenly, the often quoted words of another desperate, would-be king rang through my mind. Yet, to be or not to be was not the question at hand. Actually, to run or not to run, that was the question. Was it nobler in the outlaw’s mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous legal fortune, or take flight against that sea of troubles, and by running from them, end them? Should I cry havoc and surrender to the dogs of the drug war? Or take flight into the nearby, tree filled hollow? Was it my comrade in arms, my partner in crime, George, sprawled on the forest floor and held hostage to my surrender, and the outlaw code to never leave wounded on the battlefield; or, was it the fear of the Smith & Wesson pointed at my heart?
Regardless, my arms, feeling heavy as the lead in that chambered bullet, slowly rose. As surrender is not part of the outlaw code, the feeling of shame filled my body, as my hands slowly moved towards my head. When the hollow feeling reached my knees, they could no longer support my weight. I wanted to run, but instead, I slowly melted to the ground before the oncoming sheriff who would one day become my partner in crime.
Led by the lawman through the woods while handcuffed to George, scenes of the long journey, and how I came, at only twenty-six years old, to be arrested for growing marijuana, flashed across the picture screen of my mind. The sweat, the ticks, the countless hours digging and planting to prepare for a marijuana harvest in a place as foreign to a Michigan boy like me as the Amazon jungle, all seemed futile in that quiet, dark moment. I pondered, in that instant, where I’d taken the wrong fork in the road, a fork that in due time, led to courtrooms and jail cells, a half million-dollar IRS tax lien, and ostracism from a society of which I never really felt a part. It was a twisted outlaw path, and one that I never imagined I’d travel.
Cuffed together like captured soldiers, humiliated, we walked slowly through the woods towards our futures. My senses intensified to savor the fragrant summer smells, the carefree sounds of birds, and the feel of the forest floor crunching beneath my feet. At that moment, I was convinced it would be a long time before I would again sense the simple pleasures freedom offered in this world.
My running mate, George, and I were no strangers to a jailhouse. Just a few short years before, we’d shared a dirt-floored cell in El Cadones, Mexico, busted for, of all things, a joint. We’d tasted life in a third world jail, and surly, I thought as I attempted to mentally adjust to our unexpected predicament, even the jail of this third world county must have wooden floors by now.
I knew the consequences of being arrested when I planted marijuana, yet I’d ignored the warnings given by those that knew the sheriff’s reputation as a no-nonsense lawman. While we walked in the forest that fateful day, my mind conjured up the true tales of Arkansas inmates killed and buried on the back forty by prison officials as depicted in the movie Brubaker, a recent film in 1980, and still fresh in my mind. A couple of Yankees from Michigan, for all we knew, growing marijuana was a capital offence in a county where alcohol was illegal to sell.