Sunday, December 18, 2022

Person of Interest


Nick Jackson at 82.

With apologies to Jonathon Goldsmith Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World from 2006 to 2018, Nick Jackson was the real-life man of mystery. In the Sixties Nick was a serial entrepreneur with a legacy of near misses. But after a couple of failed restaurants, a stint as a bail bondsman and a monster truck impresario he pivoted to smuggling plane loads of good Mexican weed from the jungles of Chiapas into the States.

When I flew to Phoenix for my 20th high school reunion in 1979 Nick picked me up. We got into his pick-up, he lit a joint and said, “Remember when I visited you in Massachusetts in 1975? I told you I was selling Navajo jewelry and turquoise at trade shows on the East Coast. I think I gave you a couple of pieces. Well, I lied to you, pal. I was really dealing grass on an industrial scale. Trucks, planes. A big deal.”  

He continued, “When I closed Puebla, my restaurant in Jerome, I lost everything I’d worked for. Then Carolina died of cancer. Now I’m trying to raise the twins, but I don't have the parenting gene. I'm terrible at it. And to tell the truth I didn’t care after she passed. When I had an chance to make easy bucks south of the border I became a smuggler and a dealer. Jesus, it's exciting. I love every minute of it.”

When we met in September of 2022 Nick recalled with gripping detail crashing three airplanes and numerous arrests by the Federales and the Polícía. I told him he should write a book about those times. He said he'd thought about it but knew he wouldn't do it. He'd already folded his cards. He was waiting in his recliner with a stack of books in front of the big screen TV for the end.

His stories of narrow escapes and calm under pressure are the stuff of true crime novels and film noir. And true to noir everybody in Nick's movie lost everything. Money, family, and robust health all gone. A life that promised wealth, love and laughter had come to paucity and regret.

As to those close calls Nick told me, “You can never panic. You stay cool no matter what. You have to make your adversaries like you. Then you talk yourself out of your predicament.”

His pilot crashed their empty plane on the beach in in La Pesca, Tamaulipas on their way to the Guatemalan border for a new load of grass. They had barely entered Mexican airspace when the engine sputtered and they landed on the packed sand near the surf line. They got on the phone in La Pesca and found a small airfield on the way to Ciudad Victoria, the state capitol. While they walked the fifteen miles to the airfield to find a mechanic to repair their aircraft the locals stripped the plane and reported them to the police in Victoria. Before they could reach the field, they were arrested and taken to the police station for questioning. The pilot was taken to a holding cell while Nick was taken to an interrogation room where he was circled by five dead eyed cops and surly Captain Naranjo. Nick explained that he was heading for San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas to buy Tzotzil artifacts for his import business in Flagstaff. It was a plausible invention but one that didn’t register with illiterate cops who spoke no English. Nick, ever the storyteller, was embellishing his tale when a well-dressed gentleman in his late thirties entered the room. The room went quiet in deference to the imposing new arrival. The tall man in a blue suit, a starched white button down and a rep tie introduced himself as Major Guillermo Duran with the Tamaulipas State Police. He told the cops to leave the room. He’d interrogate Señor Jackson by himself.

In perfect American vernacular English Major Duran began, “Let me get this straight. You’re telling me you’re flying from Phoenix to Chiapas to buy native crafts to resell in the States. I don't buy it. Flying 2,000 miles to buy cheap pottery and weavings seems, shall we say, implausible. What are you really buying, Señor Jackson? I want the truth. My job is to get the truth. And I will get it." He smiled and waited.

Nick took a breath. “That’s all I'm buying Major Duran. That is the truth. I trade in indigenous artifacts of all kinds. I also buy and sell Navajo and Hopi jewelry and weavings at my store in Flagstaff. And there's a growing market for Tzotzil crafts especially the weavings. It’s a remarkably lucrative business and I need more work. It's that simple.”

Duran exclaimed, “You’re from Flagstaff? I know it well. I lived there for four years. I graduated from Northern Arizona.”

"What a coincidence. What are the chances? Not only that," Nick responded  "I also owned and operated Puebla, a Mexican restaurant in Jerome. Maybe you remember it.”

“You owned Puebla? That was my favorite Mexican restaurant when I was in college. You made real Puebla moles and your own tortillas on the comal in the entrance. We went there all the time on weekends. You had Negra Modelo on tap, didn't you? And you served it in chilled mugs with a lime wedge.”

Nick responded enthusiastically, “That's the place. I’m so glad you liked my restaurant. It was a real labor of love. My late wife Carolina was from Puebla. That's how we knew real Puebla cooking.”

“I’m sorry you lost your wife. Nick. That’s a great tragedy. May I ask what happened? She must have been very young.

“Yes, she was only 33. It was pancreatic cancer. A terrible way to go. I still miss her every day. She was the glue of our family. I haven’t been the same since she passed. You know, Major Duran, I have 5,000 pesos hidden on my plane. If I had a friend who could help me continue my journey it would be worth the 5,000 pesos to be able to continue to Chiapas, buy my goods, and get back to my boys in Flag.

“I’ll be your friend, Nick.

The major opened the door to the interrogation room and announced that “El Señor Jackson esta diciendo la verdad. Puedo responder por él. Él era dueño de Puebla. Mí restaurante favorito en Arizona! Lo llevaré al aeropuerto para que le reparen su avión y pueda continuar su viaje a Chiapas sin demora.”

“Mr. Jackson is telling the truth. I can vouch for him. He owned Puebla, my favorite restaurant in Arizona! I will take him to the airport so he can have his plane repaired so he can continue his journey to Chiapas without delay.”

“I’ve been a felon since 1989.” Nick tossed me that nugget in September. I thought he'd given up the narco-bucks a decade earlier.

He told me he was caught in a DEA roadblock north of Douglas with only enough Mary Jane for his personal use. He describes the episode as “Stupid. I did a lot of stupid shit in those days.”

When he describes his smuggling saga you know that he’s transported to his glory days. They were the highlights of his life. He had a fleet of trucks, a boatload of cash and enough excitement to last three lifetimes. 

But he lost the love of his life when they were still young and his two sons both died five years ago. Nickie had been in and out of the hospital. He came back to his dad’s house in Cardiff, Texas one last time and died in his sleep. His younger brother Art overdosed a few weeks later. It's an unimaginable tragedy.


Blacks Crossing said...

A page turner, indeed, Steve! Whether or not it is the solid and complete truth or embellished by either you or Nick, it is a jewel. Great photograph of the epitome of American entrepreneurship. A wonderful holiday story in so many ways. Perfect blog. Muchas gracias y espero para mas!

Steve Immel said...

I'm not sure it's holiday reading, Daryl. But I appreciate your comments. It's essentially what what "Nick" told me, some of it verbatim or as best I recall. I have since posting made a couple of corrections and added considerable text.

John said...

Helluva story well told, Estevan!

Steve Immel said...

Thanks Juanito. Some of it's actually true. The best to you and Thea.