I was young. I was getting drunk in a dive in old Baja Oklahoma. It was so long ago the jukebox was wailing “Mendocino.” It was so long ago the dancers all wore tassels and thongs. A strobe light throbbed like the end of sex so even if you stared you could only see about half of what all was going on.
Big Betty danced on a tiny stage across from the bar. Big Betty’s best dance was when her feet stayed still. She leaned forward, put her hands on her knees and made her big, world famous breasts spin circles in opposite directions just like the rotors on a Chinook helicopter. Every strobe flash was a snapshot. Between flashes, the light behind the bar made her silver tassels blur. Big Betty would lean right over her audience and the audience would lean back so close that if they opened their mouths they could taste Big Betty’s sweat.
One romantic offered Big Betty a drink from his bottle of beer. She took the bottle from his hand. Then disdaining a drink, just as she straightened to step back and dance with her feet again, Big Betty broke that bottle right across that romantic’s head. The romantic staggered back heartbroken but he did not fall. Somebody caught him and pushed him toward the front door. He stumbled out blinded by his own blood. He left a trail to follow but no one bothered. Some other dance aficionado stole that romantic’s space near the edge of the stage. Throughout the night, boots and work shoes ground the pieces of that bottle back down to sand.
Her Name Was Lynn
A Kiowa named Lynn danced for me, just for me, that night on my table while I pretended not to give a damn. I had been subtly admiring Lynn the Kiowa for at least weeks. She was little, beautiful and brown. When she shook her head in the flashing light her hair would explode like a startled murder of crows. Then it would all magically fall back to exactly the way it had been. Even in her stripper shoes she couldn’t have been much more than five-foot-two. I don’t know, maybe she was eighteen. She leered at me while she danced. She was flexible as a gymnast. She bent all the way over from the waist and put her face a foot from mine. She looked right through my eyes down to the Faustian depths of my soul. She wore that wanton look a woman wears when she tells you, “You can do anything you want.”
And, she asked me, “Do you have any crystal meth?”
That was the very first time I ever heard it called that. Now, I have heard it called speed, ice, amp, glass, new school, crunch, whizz, fatch, rocket fuel and of course crank; because in the old days men used to smuggle it in motorcycle crankcases. I know at least a dozen more names. Bikers have names for methamphetamine like Eskimos have names for snow. There are different names when it is almost clear, pale yellow, tinged with violet or when it is brown and crunchy like peanut butter.
And, what I saw that night makes more sense when you understand that Big Betty and Lynn and some fraction of the rest of the people there that night were making the most of their lives through the magic of meth.
What Is Meth
Psychoactive drugs resemble chemicals for which evolution has already reserved a place, or receptor, in the human brain. Amphetamines resemble adrenaline. They were isolated in Japan and issued to Japanese soldiers during the Russo-Japanese War. Twenty-five years later a Philadelphia pharmaceutical firm named Smith, Kline and French (SKF) pirated the Japanese research, patented the chemicals and started marketing a Benzedrine inhaler “for quick relief of cold symptoms.” College students discovered what else amphetamines could do and in the late 30s SKF started marketing benzedrine as a treatment for fatigue, narcolepsy and obesity. During World War II SKF sold 180 million Benzedrine tablets to the U.S. Army and the tablets were also routinely fed to American troops in Korea and Vietnam.
Benzedrine is the most common brand name for the molecule 1-phenyl-2-aminopropane. A molecule with the same atomic components that assembles those atoms a little differently is brand named Dexedrine. If you methylate the final nitrogen atom in Dexedrine you make a molecule that was originally branded as Methedrine. The methylation makes methamphetamine harder to metabolize than Dexedrine, which means that meth has a longer half-life, which means it provides a longer, fuller, more satisfying high.
After SKF’s patents expired in 1949 there was an explosion of amphetamine production and use. A scholar named David Courtwright called post-war America an “amphetamine democracy” because truck drivers, factory workers, students, housewives, politicians and celebrities all took amphetamines to help them lead better and more productive lives.
Cool Kids Do It
A New York society doctor named Max Jacobson got rich selling Dexedrine and methamphetamine to celebrities. His clients included Johnny Mathis, Yul Brenner, Truman Capote, Cecil B. DeMille, Eddie Fisher, Otto Preminger, Anthony Quinn, Tennessee Williams and dozens of politicians including John F. Kennedy. Jacobson injected Jack Kennedy with either Methedrine or Dexedrine before at least two of Kennedy’s debates with Richard Nixon in 1960. So while the very straight Nixon was obviously nervous and tentative under the hot lights in front of the television cameras Kennedy was focused, collected and supremely confidant.
American mommies got so hooked on amphetamine diet pills that early in 1973 the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and the Food and Drug Administration began tighter regulation of the drugs. Coincidentally, around the same time, Smith Kline and French discovered a new disease among children. SKF found a surprisingly large number of American children suffered from a “complex and little-understood learning and behavior disorder called,” at first, “minimal brain dysfunction.”
The disease quickly became known as Attention Deficit Disorder. SKF scientists found that 69 percent of all hyperkinetic children who were fed “moderate doses” of Benzedrine and Dexedrine “improved.” A very important man named Dr. Leon Eisenberg, Chief of Psychiatric Services at Massachusetts General Hospital, was trotted out to testify to the press that there was “no indication of addiction or other drug induced emotional or psychological damage” found in hyperactive children treated with amphetamine.
Amphetamines were marketed as “the penicillin of children with learning disabilities.” An amphetamine named methylphenidate was branded as “Ritalin” and the healing began.
White Trash Drug
In the 70s cocaine, (a brand name coined by the Bayer Drug Company the same year Bayer coined the brand names Aspirin and Heroin) replaced amphetamines as a cure for celebrities’ insecurity and housewives’ chubbiness. But bennies, dex and meth remained firmly entrenched in the aspirations of the white working class. For decades in America, upward mobility and prosperity were connected, rightly or wrongly, with working longer and harder. Truck drivers, for example, were paid by the load. A trucker who drove 20 hours a day could make more money than one who only drove ten hours.
Piece work on a punch press machine is really only possible with the aid of some amphetamine. Grab a piece of metal from a box on your right, slip it into one of three dies, tap your right foot, flip the partially finished part into a second die, tap, slide it into a third die with your left hand, tap, toss the finished, or partially finished, piece into a box on your left and repeat 6,000 times. Don’t screw up. You might lose a hand. Concentrate. Concentrate. Go home. Live your real life. Try to sleep. Get up. Repeat.
Or take the truck batteries off the pallet one by one and set them on the roller line. Drag the empty pallet to the other end of the line and restack the finished batteries. And, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. Don’t think.
Or, the pre-eminent blue collar job, the job you had to know somebody to get. Scamper in front of a slowly moving line of cars and bolt on 52, or 56, or 61 bumpers an hour depending on how fast somebody a thousand miles away has decided the line must move that day. Do it hour after hour, day after day. Ask for overtime.
That was the seventies and the eighties. Those were the good, old days. Those were the jobs you could get before America became a “knowledge worker economy” and all the good, blue collar were assigned to slaves in China who live in dormitories.
After the jobs went away only the crank remained. Only the feeling of self-confidence and power methamphetamine promotes remained. And that is where Nick Reding picks up the story in his book Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town.
After methamphetamine use was increasingly criminalized in the early 1970s, after the flow of amphetamine from Mexico was interrupted, after the introduction of Sudafed made it comparatively easy to cook crank at home, after cocaine made powders chic, after freebase and crack, crank became a part of post-industrial American life. Crank became a get rich quick scheme. Crank became a cheap high. The line between buyers and sellers blurred. Motorcycle clubs in California and New Jersey competed for market share. The lingering effects of that competition persist today. Within the last five years even the New York Times and Newsweek have heard of crank.
Reding’s book is full of defects and it is still the best thing yet written on the subject because Nick Reding may be the first insider writer to actually notice the connection between methamphetamine abuse and the shattering of the American dream. Reding started looking at Oelwein, Iowa (it is pronounced Ol’ Wine) in 2005. Oelwein has a population of about 6,000 and before its disillusionment it was a quintessential American town. Most of Reding’s book is a sympathetic portrait of the people he met there.
Reding, who knows nothing about motorcycle clubs, still tries to be kind to a Sons of Silence patch holder named “Major.” Major worries about what his crank abuse might do or have done to his toddler son.
Reding tries to meet the county prosecutor, a man named Nathan Lein, halfway. The leading physician in Oelwein is a chain-smoking alcoholic named Clay Hallberg. A man named Roland Jarvis is such a grotesquely depraved crank fiend that the government should pay him to appear in anti-drug public service announcements.
The local Police Chief is a nut case named Jeremy Logan who intends to save Oelwein by telling his cops to “Assume everyone is guilty, and put the screws to them.”
Reding’s best source is a 45-year-old federal prisoner named Lori Arnold. Lori was born in the nearby town of Ottumwa and she is the sister of the character actor and comedian Tom Arnold. Tom Arnold might be best known as one of Roseanne Barr’s ex-husbands.
Lori Arnold started selling pharmaceutical grade methamphetamine in the 1970s and she is the former wife of a man named Floyd Stockdall. Stockdall was a former President of the Grim Reapers Motorcycle Club, from whom the Sons of Anarchy have borrowed their patch.
And the Grim Reapers, according to Reding, had a connection to a fairly well known meth lab in Southern California back in the 80s. Lori tried crystal, liked it, and gave some away to her friends. Her friends liked crank, too and within a month Lori was buying four ounces of meth in Long Beach for $2,500 and selling it for $10,000 in Iowa. Her business grew from there and by 1987 Lori, who dropped out of school in the 10th grade, owned a bar, a car dealership, 14 houses, 52 racehorses and a 144 acre horse farm. That was the same year most of the other farms in that part of Iowa were foreclosed and most of the railroad and meatpacking jobs disappeared.
Lori Arnold was an inspiration to her neighbors. But she liked her own product too much to get out. The feds caught her in 1990 and she wound up doing nine years.
By the time Lori Arnold got out of prison in 1999 most of the straight jobs had disappeared, the average wage had dropped to five dollars an hour and 80 percent of the jobs still left were held by undocumented Mexican immigrants. She went to work for Cargill, slicing up hogs in a room so cold she had to pour hot water over her rubber boots to keep her feet from going numb. And, since she was bright and desperate, Lori Arnold couldn’t help but notice that there was a racial divide between the high quality crank the Mexican workers used and the kitchen crank the white locals used. So like all good workers in the new knowledge worker economy, Lori Arnold used her mind.
By 2001, two years after she was sprung, Lori was selling so much Mexican crank to poor Iowa whites that she had to open another nightclub to launder all the money. Her success did not last long. On October 25th of that year she sold four ounces of meth to a local Iowa cop and returned to the penitentiary.
Trickle Down Economy
Since Methland was published last summer the reviews have been very mixed. Most of the critical reviews have scolded Reding for trying to do what this review has tried to do, which is to try to hint at “a unified theory of ‘the meaning of meth.'”
Scott Martelle for example, a journalism instructor at Chapman University who wrote the review for the Los Angeles Times, cannot bring himself to believe that methamphetamine abuse might be in any way connected to the shattering of the American dream. Martelle writes: “At first, Reding argues, meth was viewed as a crutch by local workers looking for a little boost to get through long double shifts. It’s not a persuasive argument. Substance abuse – from alcohol to pot to coke and now meth – in rural America has a lot of contributing factors, but the drive to work harder doesn’t seem likely to rank high among them.”
I think Reding’s argument is persuasive and I think it is about time somebody who can actually get a book published said it. Nick Reding has gone and looked and tried to sympathize so he understands that crank abuse is not the disease. Crank abuse, like Gin abuse in Dickens’ London, is a symptom of a disease that most cops, lawyers, judges, politicians, authors and, apparently, journalism instructors refuse to see. Reding sees what I see and so I think Methland deserves to be read.
You can get a copy on Amazon for $16.50.