Nervous Times in the 1970s
“Those were nervous times,” Art said, gnawing on the stem of his reading glasses and peering at me above stacks of legal documents on his desk. “We didn’t know if he was going to make it.”
I had stepped around the corner from my office to talk to our senior assistant attorney general about the impending seizure of a semi-load of bootleg liquor, bound for an Indian reservation outside Seattle. The operation was being run out of our Tacoma office, and Art was talking about the man heading it up, who had been gunned down in front of his family before I went to work for the Liquor Control Board.
The man himself had described that day to me: backing his state car out of the garage, two men walking swiftly toward him, the gunfire almost before he registered their presence. He absorbed several hits from a .32 in his left shoulder after the slugs penetrated the door paneling. But the guy with the sawed-off shotgun missed the whole car, taking out window glass across the street. He had curled down into a ball on the floorboards, his James Bond Walther belatedly in his hand and cocked, trying to peer up at the windows, hoping to fight back if they came in close for a kill shot. It seemed to take a long time to realize they weren’t coming and that he was hearing a siren in the street. The last thing he remembered for a good while was carefully uncocking the PPK.
He had been lucky that day in so many ways. He was a big guy, almost my size, and in good health for starters. A .32 is a pipsqueak round, number two, and the rounds peeled off a lot of velocity in the door. The bullet that reached his heart stopped there, barely nudging without penetrating. The shotgunner who couldn’t shoot straight missed him altogether. But luckiest of all, an ambulance had been in the next block on a heart-attack call, the attendants heard the shooting and came racing over, there in minutes.
Recovery took a long time — real people don’t shake off gunshot wounds like they do in the movies — he lost a lot of weight, and he still didn’t have full strength back in his left arm by the time he was back at work. The shooters were long gone, but it had clearly been a hit, and suspicion centered on the hoodlums warring for control of the topless-tavern business. There had been tavern arsons and mysterious deaths — a man found drowned in a salt-water estuary with no salt water in his lungs, for one.
That’s about where things stood the autumn I left one of the best jobs I ever had, in Arizona with the state wildlife agency, and moved back to Washington State to take over public relations for the Liquor Board, which had been created the year they repealed Prohibition. It was my first PR job for an agency viewed with such hostility by the press, and that included the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War.
Two of the sitting board members and a retired former chairman still were fighting an indictment for misuse of government funds involving vast private gifts of cases of liquor that predated my arrival. Large corporate interests periodically attempted to “take the state out of the business” of selling liquor, so grocery stores and the like could make that money instead of the state treasury. A lot of accusations floated around about favoritism in granting of liquor licenses. Then there was the topless-tavern war.
The Indian tribes joined the fun almost as soon as I took the job, selling untaxed liquor on the reservations. We’d had agents in Oklahoma investigating the companies that sold to the tribes, developing intelligence that would lead to shipment seizures before they made it to the reservation. Art, our staff attorney general, had been there for it all and was reminiscing.
“Nervous times,” he said again. In his tweed sport coat, with his graying hair brushed back neatly, hunched in a perennial desk man’s stoop above his papers, he resembled nothing so much as a benevolent college professor you would reasonably expect to be nervous about attempted assassinations.
It took a little imagination to envision an Army Air Force cap with a fifty-mission crush perched on his younger head, or Art in the left seat of a B-24, flying through the flak above the Ploesti oil wells. They lost two engines on the same side on one mission, and he had to get them home, essentially dangling sideways from the other two, and figure out some pilot’s trick to level it off for landing, and he did. Not the kind of guy to get nervous easily.
“Every time I walked out to my car,” he told me, “I would start thinking about things. And I’d pop the hood and check around a little. The mob tends to like car bombs, you realize.”
I was wondering what I had gotten myself into this time. We discussed what to tell the media once we had the bootleg Indian shipment in hand, and agreed that our agent who had been wounded should take the lead when the cameras showed up — the media already knew him well from before. I would brief him on what he could and couldn’t say.
It was late afternoon when I got the call that the truck had been seized and the liquor was being inventoried. Everything had gone very smoothly and our guy was feeling good. He told me to go ahead and notify the media, and he would be standing by for sound bites. I began my notification of assignment desks. The second or third TV station that I called, I was well into my spiel when I noticed the silence emanating from the other end of the phone.
“You still there?” I said.
“You do realize, don’t you, that the Sheriff of Pierce County was just arrested tonight by federal agents?” was the surprising answer.
“Why would I know that?” I said.
“Are you serious? He’s being charged with hiring the hit on your guy, the guy you’re sending us to see right now.” He was getting excited now. “Did you know the Feds interviewed your guy last night?”
I was still trying to catch up. I admitted I didn’t know that.
“They read him his rights first. You know what that means don’t you?”
“Wait — read who his rights?”
“Your guy! They must have thought he was dirty.”
Jesus H. Christ on a tricycle — Arizona’s uncontroversial desert looked pretty good just then. The TV assignments editor rang off, but not before I heard him yelling to someone to get a crew rolling toward our Seattle warehouse, where we were unloading the seized liquor.
I called the warehouse and got our guy on the line. He had been informed of the sheriff’s arrest, he said, but not that the media was looking at him as dirty; hell, he was the victim! He didn’t really want his clean seizure of the Indian liquor to be lost in leading questions about all that. Neither did I. I told him you have just been reassigned to investigate information you have received of another truckload on the way in.
‘You have,” I said. ”I just informed you. Get the hell out of there and let your second-in-command deal with the media.”
That’s the way it went down. The media didn’t like it much. I was on the phone half the night fielding squawks of outrage because they couldn’t find our guy. I had my self-righteous reply down pat after the first couple calls: liquor enforcement couldn’t just stop because the media wanted an interview. Seizure of untaxed liquor by the truck load was a big deal. I wasn’t here when that other stuff was happening, so you’ll just have to cool your heels.
We got the coverage we wanted on the liquor seizure. The chairman of the board told me to go to Tacoma the next day and run interference, and I did. The story about the bent Sheriff was heating up, and it was an interesting morning. When it finally came time for lunch, several of us loaded into one of the official sedans and sneaked off to a restaurant not frequented by the media. It happened that I was seated to the left of our wounded warrior in the back seat, with a beefy liquor agent on his other side, and two more up front. He examined the seating arrangements with satisfaction.
“Thanks,” he said. “They’ll have to throw a lot of lead to get through you guys before they get me.” The other guys chuckled. I was the only unarmed one.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I said.
“Well, the Feds told me I’m their star witness now,” he said. “The bad boys won’t like that.”
Jesus H. Christ on a motorcycle. Why had I ever left Arizona?
We talked it over during lunch. Nervous times, Art said the day before, and nervous times they still were. These guys, for all their chuckles, were nervous. I was nervous. The man of the hour was trying to put a macho face on it, but he was more nervous than any of us. No damn wonder.
When we got back to the office, we stood around in the parking lot while he got in his car, which he had backed in. He said he even backed it into his garage now — he never was going to back out into the street or out of a parking space again. Who could blame him?
He left for a spot he thought was safe, where his family waited; we all agreed he should. When the Tacoma office closed for the day, the media was just getting into full cry as they uncovered more about the Sheriff’s involvement in the topless-tavern war. Everybody wanted comments from the Liquor Control Board. When the last armed enforcement officer left for the day, I went out to my pickup truck and got my own gun from behind the seat.
In Arizona, you could carry a pistol openly just about anywhere. My sidearm of choice was a Ruger single-action .45 with a 7 1/2 –inch barrel, a cowboy pistol. Back in Washington, I found a generic Mexican steer-hide shoulder rig. I couldn’t afford Bianchi Leather. I was big enough to tuck the big pistol under my arm without anybody noticing, and Max Brand always had written that the draw from a shoulder holster was faster than from the belt. Firearms experts disagreed, but I was a Western fan and I went with Max Brand.
The night wore on in repeated interviews until I was getting hoarse. The office coffee smelled burned and tasted worse. I found myself reared back in a chair with my feet on the desk, rattling off my answers on automatic pilot.
Until somebody bashed in the door so hard it slammed against the wall.
I was on my feet facing the door with the Ruger at full-cock, in less time than it takes to tell it.
The janitor — who had slammed the door open with his back because his hands were full of cleaning supplies — damn near fainted dead away. Stuff hit the floor, spilling cleanser, and his hands shot up. Over the Ruger’s sights, his face was damn near as pale as the soap powder on the floor.
“Sorry!” I said.
But I walked to the door and looked out, just to be sure. Then I uncocked the Ruger and put it away under my arm, pulled in his wheeled mop bucket, and helped him clean up — after I made sure the door was locked behind us. Meanwhile I was mentally thanking my long-dead grandfather for the rigid firearms discipline he instilled: never shoot until you’re sure of your target.
Nervous times indeed.