by Kyle K. Mann
You have to realize that the late 1970’s were a time so different from our current benighted era as to be incomprehensible, even to those who lived through it and are still alive.
No cell phones or iPads, no computers. No AIDS! TV’s were big ugly boxes spitting radiation, though the content was possibly less banal. Health care wasn’t a life or death proposition, and prescription drugs were reasonably priced. A university education and degree were free, at least in California.
Perhaps most importantly, the U.S.A. was at peace, the draft a fleeting memory after the ghastly Vietnam disaster, and the sixties survivors were somewhat pleased about that. True, Nixon had been pardoned, and walked free. That he was allowed that privilege has led to the current mess we are in, but we didn’t know that then. We had stopped the war, and we partied.
It’s perhaps understandable then that some of us chose alternative means of livelihoods. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I sold pot. Not just any old ragweed, but the finest in the land at the time, Kona Gold. I had grown it in the early 70’s on the Big Island, a rip-roaring era that deserves its own novel. By 1979 I’d graduated to middling the occasional pound. Hellishly illegal, but good karma, I figured, would see me through.
I look back at that young man that I was in considerable wonder. I took crazy risks that could have landed me in hot water for the rest of my miserable life. What on earth was I thinking? If I could have a conversation with that lad that was, at what point would we begin yelling at each other?
That me of 1979 had read everything Hunter S. Thompson had written. Moreover, I wrote a journal daily, virtually all of it unpublishable gibberish. But it pleased me. It was what I did, and I was proud to do it. To those who didn’t like it, or me, I lifted a cheerful middle finger.
The notice that HST would be speaking in public hit me like cast iron safe dropping on my head. I believe it was at Freeborn Hall at UC Davis, and I came early, and I was prepared. The venue held a couple thousand people and was sold out, with numerous stern-looking officers patrolling the aisles.
I noticed a microphone being set up in the center. I knew that meant questions from the audience, and ran over to get in line. My place was third.
HST was greeted with a standing ovation as he walked onstage with his trademark look including the cigarette holder and shades. He greeted the audience cautiously, noting “I have nothing to sell, no statement to make, and will take questions from the audience.”
The first two questions were unmemorable, but warmed up the crowd. HST used his usual rhetoric, calling the college students “doomed” and warning them that the man seated next to him was his attorney. We all ate it up as the absurdist theater that it was, with reverent gusto.
My turn. Using the resonant voice that later led to a fabulous decade of work in radio broadcasting, I intoned “Dr. Thompson, any opportunity to ask you a question is a tremendous challenge to my perspicacity.” Mild laughter from the crowd. HST looked at me with interest, and at once began digging an elbow into his attorney’s side, perhaps warning him to be alert.
“Nevertheless, I have come up with the single most important question I can ask you. And that question is…” I paused, milking the moment. Absolute silence.
“Would you like to buy a great pound of Hawaiian pot for under a thousand dollars?”
There was instant pandemonium. Hoots, catcalls, roars of laughter. HST played it deadpan, not moving, staring at me seriously. The security police looked incredulous at first, but then began smiling, figuring me for a shill, a paid plant hired for a big laugh.
And indeed, it was some moments until the hilarity died down. I stood at the mic, grinning with the inane certainty that I would somehow actually pull this off, and make a drug sales connection to one of the most famous living authors in front of thousands of his paying admirers
I say again I look back at that person I was in both wonder and horror. Arguably I’m not exactly normal to this day, as evinced by this grotesque memoir, but to actually do this… No, at age 63 I am honestly flabbergasted by the maniacal chutzpah of my younger self.
As the noise wound down HST nodded slightly, and he spoke with deliberate emphasis. “I don’t know. Got a sample?”
Another big laugh, the crowd really getting into it. “Sure,” I exclaimed into the microphone, brandishing a plastic film canister.
“Bring it up,” HST said, still deadpan but beckoning. Another wave of laughter as I strode quickly forward from the center of the auditorium to the stairs leading up to the table where HST sat with his attorney, microphones in front of them. A pair of security cops were up there about 25 feet away, but I paid them no mind. Their smirks told me they knew it was all an act.
However, they were utterly wrong. The canister contained a carefully selected golden seedless bud, rich with crusty bracts that extruded dark red hairs. As HST popped open the plastic lid, a pungent waft was evident at once: the smell of ultra-strong ganja. “Hmm,” he grunted, and pinching the bud lightly, held it to his nose, eyebrows raised slightly.
Once again the audience chortled and guffawed. They were too far to see the item, but HST began nodding and mumbling. As for me, I was in bliss at seeing my hero up close, but not so much that I forgot to pitch. “The whole pound is like this,” I muttered. “I’ve got it out in the car. It’s yours for nine fifty.”
Through with his inspection, he went back to business. “Come see me afterward,” he said, just loud enough to be on mic. I left the bud and container with him and walked away to applause. The questions resumed but I could barely hear them. Soon I would make the most meaningful connection of my life, and have fun and make money!
But afterwards, backstage, a mass of well-wishers and autograph seekers washed over the beleaguered and obviously distressed man of the hour. “Dr. Thompson,” I yelled over the din. He waved at me helplessly.
“Nothing I can do,” he called, and was carried off by literally dozens of fans. I stood watching, crestfallen. But I returned to my own party of people, now elevated to reflected and actual glory, and soon resumed my usual fine spirits. After all, I had interacted nobly with my hero, in high good humor, and in some ways there was a purity to leaving it at that.
So now, a decade after HST’s death, I browse his works with lingering appreciation. The “Vegas Book,” as I understand he referred to it, is never far from my desk. There has been no one to replace the man, and many of his warnings have come true, or are in the process of it.
I look back with good humor at my luck, and honor the memory of Hunter S. Thompson, and those who would do so using pixels instead of ink. The price of survival is to watch those we love drop by the wayside, and we must pay homage as we may and when we can, and all remain just sick enough to be totally confident.
Kyle K. Mann
(Republished in Gonzo Today 12/21/2017, with thanks to original editor David Pratt. All rights reserved. Photo: R. Sexton via Wikimedia Commons)