There is a tradition of smuggling and piracy on the central East Coast of Florida. They call it the "Treasure Coast" because of the wrecked Spanish galleons just offshore. Midnight salvage operations existed long before Mel Fisher created Real Eight, gave the state a cut, and got the state cops to enforce his salvage rights. He was only the best-connected pirate treasure hunter in a long line of salty characters. In the 20's and 30's, the coast was alive with boats bringing in rum from the Bahamas. "Captain" Forte and friends used dynamite to dig Sebastian Inlet in order to get their rum-running speedboats to the mainland. Soon, the state began to maintain the inlet. The Captain retired to his Crow's Nest on the sand dune North of the channel, selling bait, telling lies, and sounding the all clear for the runners of that day. In the 60s and 70s, there was a brisk real estate trade in small islets in the Bahamas - just big enough for an airstrip and a dock. The inlet was a common entry point for the product, which was unloaded at fishing docks in Sebastian, Grant, Micco, and all up and down the coast.
Boats were getting boarded all the time. My friend Allan had it happen to him. And besides, we didn't have one. So, we had this idea that we could make fiberglass shells to contain stuff and they would survive being dropped from the plane into the water. We performed a few test runs out at Lake Helen Blazes with Philo as ground crew out in a boat. It seemed to work, so we were off to riches and fame. Using cardboard boxes as molds, we fashioned several crude bale-sized fiberglass shells. If we had been smart, we would have simply scoured the thrift stores for old suitcases. A wrap of duct tape around the seam and again around the middle and you're off. Now importers do not screw with hard cases or shells. The product is simply wrapped with so many layers of plastic wrap just like you see in those kiosks in the airport. They wrap your suitcase for international flights implying that it helps get through customs. That's such a scam. They cocoon your bag in layers of saran wrap which the gullible think gives the suitcase some sort of invincibility. When you get to customs at your destination, the agents make you open it anyway. They probably get a kickback from the plastic wrap kiosks.
Steve rented a plane. It was an old fastback Cessna 172, as I remember, with hand-cranked flaps. This was a workhorse plane of the era. They were abundant, cheap, fuel-efficient and had a decent rated payload of over 2000 pounds. There were tales of pilots loading much more in the cramped cabin and tail compartment and flying back so low they had seaweed on the wheels. We flew that beast into Providence, cleared customs, and met our contact. We were directed to one of the Berry Islands. I recall the crushed coral strip and the beautiful waters at dawn. I went back to the Berry's five years ago but, without Steve, I wasn't sure whether any of the islands we saw was the same one we visited 30 years earlier. Many of these are now private. I understand Bill Gates just bought one. A few are very expensive, exclusive resorts; many are apparently uninhabited. The charter boat captain pointed out a few seemingly deserted islands which he assured us were previously used by the "cowboys." They are low, scrub-filled sandbars with a smattering of palms and Australian pines. From a boat, they are not very distinctive. Many sport crude airstrips, most overgrown, but some with evidence of recent use.
On that trip long ago, though, the airstrip appeared fresh. At the end of the strip was a ramshackle building with corrugated tin roof. Just to the South, a Scarab was beached. We sat in the shade of some palm fronds, smoked a spliff with the guys, and made a deal for 4 bales at $1500 each. This worked out to about $30 a pound. We were responsible for the delivery. If the Jamaicans delivered it, it would be $50-60. While the Jamaicans stood around staring curiously, we took the bales and stuffed them into the shells and bound the halves together with straps. As we began to load the plane, a major problem was apparent. The boxes could only be squeezed into the back with difficulty. With the right seat pushed all the way forward, it was nearly impossible to wrestle the packages up and out the door without nearly falling out myself. If I was in the back seat, I wouldn't be able to exert enough leverage open the copilot door against air pressure. We were stuck. As darkness fell, we realized that we either needed to leave the boxes behind or take a chance of landing with a full plane. We had to placed the excess in the tail compartment and, with the confidence and idiocy of youth, we went for it.
We left at about 2000. We arrived at the airport at almost 2300 and taxied to the parking space just in front of the hangar. No one was around. Steve got out, walked around the plane, opened the copilot door, removed the box onto the tarmac under the plane, and helped me out. Very nervous, I ran over to the office where there was a pay phone by the door.
When I called Philo, he went off. It seems he was sitting out at the shore of the lake all afternoon, expecting us in late afternoon according to our plan. When we didn't show up by dark, he took off, leaving several pints of blood in the care of the mosquitoes. I told him the issue, and could he please come with my van. There then elapsed the longest 25 minutes of my life. Charlie came driving into the parking lot and onto the airstrip with the lights on! I don't know how anyone in the tower missed him, as vehicles were not allowed on the runway. We quickly loaded the boxes from the plane and cleaned the plane as much as possible, swearing as we worked by flashlight. All the while we were more and more anxious and frankly paranoid. As soon as the plane appeared clean inside, we got in the van and split, this time without headlights until we were out of the parking lot. I don't think we could have been more suspicious if we were in a bad movie.
We made it back to the apartment around 2 AM. Steve left as he had class the next day. I left the boxes in the van and crashed there. I was so nervous and exhausted, I couldn't get to sleep until 4.
I was awakened by the phone at 9. Steve told me in a panicked voice that we had left a box in the tail compartment of the rented plane! I headed out to the airport in my van and I saw Steve standing in the shade of the hangar by the parking lot. "Guess what?" "Oh shit!" A student and instructor have already taken the plane out. I cannot describe what I felt. There was no way they could not notice the 50 pound tail load or notice the smell of resin even if the box had not already been discovered by a mechanic earlier as he checked out the plane before returning it to the flight line. Glumly, expecting the cuffs to be slapped on at any moment, Steve and I went into the office to check the plane back in. The flight director called the mechanic and they talked briefly. He then came out a presented us with a bill for the fuel and the rental. As Steve filled out some forms and paid him, they made small talk. We got in late. no problems, the Bahamas were fine, etc. etc. As we left, the manager told us we needed to go over the Customs office to clear back in. That was it. The jig was up. We were actually going to walk in there. The Customs agents and the FBI were probably watching us through the window, laughing their asses off. I was trying to decide whether to run but, as we walked out, we ran into the mechanic.
He was a older guy, probably 40-45. He asked if there were any problems with the plane. No, nothing out of the ordinary. Did we notice the loose seat in the back. I looked at Steve. He answered that there were just two of us and we didn't get into the back. He mentioned nothing of the overpowering smell of fresh resin but seemed, to my increasingly paranoid mind, to look at us curiously. Steve and I went into Customs. There was only one guy at a desk, smoking. I sat on a chair next to the door and tried to look cool, flipping through the pages of some magazine. We answered a few perfunctory questions, filled out a form, and then they actually let us walk out of there. You know, those were simpler times. No one thought that two young kids, students even, would baldly fly a load into an international airport on previously filed VFR flight plan.
We left, but still had the problem of the fourth box. That evening, Steve drove back. He was planning to say that he misplaced his flight case and thought it might be in the plane. Luckily, by 2200, the place was shut up again. About a hour later, he came over to Charlie's apartment and knocked on the door. Charlie opened it and he came in, looking dour. "It was gone!" What! That mechanic must have it. Shit, shit, shit. I thought of where I would have to go to hide out. My sister in Oregon maybe. And Steve looked glum; this could be the end of his career as a pilot. "Man," he said, "let's go out and get a drink." I walked out to his car and there, in the back seat was this hulking fiberglass box. "You bastard. I was about to piss myself!"
You may remember later that month when Roger and I brought some product "from Miami" over to your house to break up and bag - that was one of these boxes. Now days they would call it 'regs' - mixed Jamaican leaf and buds of fair quality. The days of hydroponic dwarf 'sinsemilla' were yet to come. Smuggling in light planes was just not on the radar, no pun intended, like it was even a year later. We were just lucky. A pair of clueless kids who got away with it. Steve became a pilot and got into the trade. He disappeared about three years later. A plane crash, a deal gone bad, a long stay in some Colombian prison, or maybe he made it big, got his score, and retired on the Panama Coast - who knows?