February 2018


From The Pages of
"The Last Gentleman Smuggler":
A Book By Steven M. Kalish and Nikki Palomino


“When you’ve hired the vest…you’ve hired the best.”

Don Nichols, Max Wade, Bubba

The night came. The Jason Lee was closing in on the Texas coastline through the Beaumont channel. Time for the Vest Brothers to get all the men in position, make last checks of the radios, assignments and the plans in motion. The tensest moment hit when talk and practice went live. If someone was going to crack, it was then while I was stuck in a hotel room pacing the worn carpet to threads while glued to the radio I’d set-up.

All the veterans watched the rookie off-loaders closely. They all watched the core crew for any signs of weakness or fear or apprehension. At no time during an offload could the crew see anything but confidence from the men in charge. Don and I were the best at staying strong. We were so sure of ourselves that it oozed from our pours from day one when we smuggled our first sixty-buck pound of pot. Self-assurance was contagious. Had to be. Just no other way for success.

While the crew headed to the offload site to wait in the warehouse, security personnel took their positions and Don swept the ICW by boat coming in after the load boat to make sure no one followed behind. Don passed the load boat at the twenty-mile mark. No need for radio contact or signaling because all looked good.

Don hung back as Arky pulled the Jason Lee into the slip, swinging her up against the bulkhead. Nothing for “Smooth Mouth” to swing the 85-foot steel hull shrimper with twin 671 jimmies right up against the bulkhead with the precision of van Gogh’s brush against stretched canvas. Don pulled the speedboat up against the bulkhead in front of him and jumped onto the dock. As Don walked amidst the ships, Arky leaned out of the wheel house with a huge toothless smile.

“Hey pal, we workin’ tonight?”

Don and Max climbed aboard and after a few big hugs, pulled back the cover exposing 75,000 pounds of prime Colombian weed loaded in the hold of the boat.

The human chain of off-loaders climbed onto the boat as the box trucks pulled into position. The ninety-pound bales started coming up and out as quickly as the rain started when the first truck was loaded and ready to head to the Jasper Farm. A cold front storm of blinding rain blew in, and everyone was feeling good about the idea of being the only ones out that night. The sad fact was the Vest Brothers were wrong.

The loaded second truck turned around to head down the road when the driver backed into a soft muddy spot, and the truck got stuck. What concerned Don most was to get Arky on his way out of the offload site toward Galveston. Main criteria; get rid of the load boat pronto. Send away the off-load crew, leaving behind the truck driver, Lanny, Max, the two Colombians, Bud and Don. Bubba was still squatting on the ICW watching boat traffic, monitoring the radios and police scanners. After an hour trying to free the truck, a new plan was needed.

Bud jumped in one of the pickups, drove off to get a heavy-duty wrecker. We had done this when our first truck on another load got stuck. If you offer a wrecker driver enough money, and he’ll haul a tank to the North Pole. Bud returned with an eager wrecker and the box truck full of primo weed was hauled to the farm for storing product. Still raining like a mutha and cold enough to freeze a man’s balls. The truck had left the offload site. The crew cleaned up before heading out when Bubba, Peach, called Don on the handheld Icom radio.

“Hold everything right now! Lights out. No talking. Everyone down.”

I found myself locked in the stupid hotel room, dissecting what I knew my core crew had already chosen to do.

Don asked Bubba, “What is it?”

He said a car pulled to the side of the road fifty yards from our gate on the highway. “I can’t make the car out with the headlights on.”

“Sit tight. Let’s see what he does.”

Ten minutes later, Bubba radioed Don. “Six cop cars just drove up to the top of the ICW bridge. They fucking stopped. They don’t look like they’re going anywhere!”

Don told Max to gather the men and get into the speedboat.

“What about Bubba?” Max asked knowing there wasn’t time to wait.

“We’ll pick him up on the way out.”

In five minutes, the men were in the boat with the engine running. Don called Bubba one more time for the last update.

“You got three cars in the boat ramp parking lot on the south of the bridge to the west. Another three past the gate to the water’s edge on the mainland side of the bridge to your west. They have headlights and spot lights pointing at the ICW. Two more at the gate and looks like they’re cutting the lock. They’re coming in. I’m outta here,” Bubba said as Don told him they’d pick him up.

But there was no time. Bubba would swim to the other side and make his way to safety. The north wind blew the rain in sheets as the temperature dropped forty degrees. Don pulled the speedboat out to the ICW opening from the offload site into the converging Coast Guard and Sheriff boats racing toward them. No way to head toward Beaumont. The ex-fill plan and route was to head west towards Galveston.

Don took one last look at the men, Max, Lanny and the two Colombians. “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine. I’m not stopping. They’ll shoot at us so I’m racing through there as fast as I can.”

No one said a word.

"The Last Gentleman Smuggler" By Steven Kalish & Nikki Palomino is about the largest smuggling operation in U.S. history. Coming 2018-2019 Print and TV series.

PBS brings 6 episodes on Dictators currently in production with Toronto, Canada's Cream Productions known for its documentaries and television. At the end of November, Cream shot Steven M. Kalish in Washington D.C., journalist John Dinges, "Our Man in Panama" and interviewed Steven in late 80s, but at the time and still incarcerated, Steven didn't reveal much. The reason Noriega was chosen to feature for one PBS episode was his connection with the U.S., having been on the CIA payroll since 1976. Director Mark Stevenson was compelled by Steven Kalish's story and how a white boy from Texas could rise to Manuel Noriega's right-hand man. Steven talked about "The Last Gentleman Smuggler" by Steven M. Kalish and Nikki Palomino. Cream Productions PBS series will air in Spring/Summer 2018.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

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