Saturday, November 18, 2006

Bootlegging Butts

Veedub heads need new guides now & then, especially for the exhaust valves. If you’re tooled up for it pulling the old guides is a piecea cake. Core-drill the buttery soft bronze guide, slide the heads into the oven, heat slowly to 450 degrees Fahrenheit then pop out the cored guides with a properly sized drift and one well-aimed blow of the hammer.

Putting in the new guides is a bit more difficult. Volkswagen used a 500 degree interference fit, chilling the guides a lot and heating the heads just a little so as not to stress the cast aluminum. You can do the whole job at home if you chill the guides with liquid propane (outside the shop, please; just turn the tank upside-down and open the valve. Liquid propane! [It would be a good idea to dress for the occasion] ). But a slurry of dry ice is handier, especially when you’re doing more than one pair of heads and I was doing four. Pairs. Meaning eight heads. Which is thirty-two guides.

I don’t have any means of storing dry ice but it’s available less than ten miles away in Oceanside, California. I gave them a call to make sure they’d have some on hand the next morning then arranged things so that once I got back to the shop I could do the guides without wasting any time.

The next morning I loaded the first batch of heads in the oven, tossed the ice chest in my ‘65 VW bus and motored off toward Oceanside.

No DRY ice. (But lots of the other kind.) Sorry. Come back in an hour.

So much for calling ahead.

The ice plant is just down the road from Oceanside Airport so I moseyed over to the local pilot’s hang-out for a cuppa coffee. And ran into D-Day. Not the date, the person.

D-Day and I go back to the late sixties when we were involved in dropping slurripy silvery-red shit on what came to be known as the Sweetwater Fire. D-Day is about twenty years older than me and drove a B-24 for the Fifteenth Air Force during doubleyew-doubleyew-two, after which he did a stint with Matson (the airline, not the steam-ship company) and ended up with Pan-Am, back when there was a Pan-Am, from which he eventually retired, moved to Alaska and drove airplanes for Eskimos. Until his wife got cancer.

D-Day usta be pretty well off, financially, being a Certified Hero, retired ATR and all the other Good Stuff. But the cancer took better than five years to kill his wife and when it was done, so was D-Day, financially speaking. That’s when he got into running Bulk Cargo, as in bales of America’s Favorite Herb. Alas, when it comes to smuggling, private enterprise simply can’t compete with the U. S. Government so D-Day bid farewell to Mina and dropped out of the game.

D-Day was over in the corner with some guys I don’t know but he spots me and his face lights up and we’re banging shoulders and shaking hands and telling each other we’d heard they were dead and laughing about it. But not the other guys. Until D-Day introduces me as the Other Bob Hoover and proceeds to tell them about my famous Eight-Point Roll Done Wrong at Merced back during the Johnson Administration (not Andrew, the other one) and ends up with: “He’s okay,” lasering the group with a Significant Glance. Which makes me feel pretty good, seeing as how D-Day helped God invent air and really knows how to drive an aeroplane.

So we’re sitting there playing ‘Remember When’ and the other fellows thaw out a bit and begin talking amongst themselves and it takes me about two seconds to realize the subject is Bulk Cargo, Transport of, and D-Day is sitting-in as a kind of Technical Advisor at which point I take a scalding gulp of coffee, squeak, ‘Is that the right time?’ and I’m, like, GONE!

D-Day follows me out, his frown turning into a smile when he sees my old bus and sez, “You still driving that thing?” Which is what’s called a rhetorical question, meaning I just keep jingling my keys and trying to look late. He peers into the bus and says, “It’s not what you think.”

I join him in peermanship. We’re both gazing through a side window at a .50 cal. ammo can in my cargo bay, right next to the ice chest. “What’s that?” I says, as if I’ve never seen an ammo can before.

“It’s tobacco, not Mary Jane,” he says.

Mary Jane? I haven’t heard that in years. But I’ve heard of tobacco. Tobacco is not a controlled substance in the accepted sense, nor is its transport illegal if you’ve got the right paperwork in hand. Or even a reasonable facsimile there of. Then the penny drops.

California is about to join the other Idiot States by imposing a rapacious four-dollar a pack tax on cigarettes. I look him straight in the eye. “Walk away from it.” He gives me a strange look that makes me think HE thinks I’m a nark. Which makes me laugh. “Seriously,” I said, “You’re dealing with a bunch of morons. Walk AWAY.” The look of suspicion vanishes, replaced by earnestness. And I realize he’s going to educate me, mebbe cut me in on his sure-thing. I want to laugh but don’t.

“The new tax is going to be about four bucks a pack,” he explains. “That’s forty bucks a carton! That means sixteen hundred a case and that’s more than for a key of grass. It weighs more but...”

“Two grand,” I interrupt him. He’s gotta be close to ninety but he is so totally green when it comes to bootlegging butts that I can’t help but laugh.

He frowns. “What’s two grand?”

“The tax on a case of butts. It’s fifty cartons to a case, not forty.” He starts to say something but I’m still having fun. “And a case is about two and a half cubic feet. Fifteen kilos; about thirty-three pounds.” I give him a big shit-eatin’ grin as I open the door of the bus and climb in. Engine fires; purrs. We appreciate the sound for a minute.

“You already into this?” D-Day asks me.

“Nope. But everybody else is, from the Lavender Hill Mob to the Mexican Mafia.” I nod toward the diner, “They’ll eat your pals for lunch. Maybe literally. Dime them, at the very least.”

“They’ve thought of that,” he said. “With flying...”

“D-Day, it’s dumb,” I interrupt. “When they bust you, which your supplier will see to, if you’re not connected, they’ll take the plane too.” The last shot struck home. I can see he’s coming around but still has doubts, so I forge ahead. “The bad boys use trailers. U-hauls. One-way stuff. The only thing they might need a plane for is flying the drivers back to the warehouse. You’re on the wrong end of the system. You’re just mules and even then, you can’t carry enough to make it worth while; you’ll only see mebbe half a buck a carton if you’re lucky. You’d do better flipping burgers.”

Over his head I can see that forty dollar bubble shrink to four-bits. “That can’t be right,” he sez.

“Maybe not,” I shrug. “But close. There’s counterfeit tax-stamps to be printed and applied, and once the butts are delivered there’s the local warehousing and distribution with lotsa phoney paperwork along the way to ensure deniability. Mules are at the bottom of the pile. And the supply of mules is virtually unlimited. Hell, even the penny-anti players can move more butts than you guys ever will by just stuffing them into tourist’s RV’s in return for picking up their gas bill.”

That brings back the frown. “Howz that work?”

“Gas station, truck stop or what-ever. Out of a truck and into the RV. Same routine once they’re across the state-line.”

“I’ve never heard of that,” he admitted.

“Not just RV’s. Even campers are good for a couple of cases. North Carolina to Michigan...” I shut my door. “They been doing it ever since Michigan brought in their three dollar tax. And not just there. Bootlegging butts is old news. New York, New Jersey... any State dumb enough to pass a law that guarantees a big profit from a little crime, kinda like the Eighteenth Amendment. They’ll probably spend more trying to enforce the law than they collect in new taxes. Even when they pop someone the courts are so overloaded that first-offenders usually get off with a warning, especially when it’s a serviceman or some retired couple who thought they were just helping out the nice man at the gas station.”

He’s starting to smile. “You sonofabitch!” The sun was rising, truth about to break. “You’ve BEEN there!”

“Something like that.” Free weekends in the Big Apple just for delivering a truck for the friend of a friend. Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, back when I was stationed at the Pentagon. Come to think of it, I was pretty green myself back then. I smiled back. “I gotta go get some ice. Come by the shop; we’ll talk.”

I left him there, an old man with a thoughtful look on his face.

I got my dry ice, fumed my way home, did the heads, went back to work on the prop I’m carving. D-Day called just after supper. “Whatcha know about RV’s?” he asks in a cheerful voice. “Not Van’s; the kind with a bathroom.”


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