How I Got Busted Trying To Smuggle Cash Out of the USSR
…I was a Cold War American teenage oligarch.
by Richard Stockton
(Note: the following account is from the writing a of young man, the 17-year-old Dick Stockton who did these things. At 73, I add my thoughts about that kid parenthetically.)
In 1966 I was one of sixteen kids chosen to represent The United States on a YMCA Goodwill Friendship Tour of the Soviet Union. In conjunction with the US State Department and the Soviet public relations office called Sputnik, the YMCA took us to Leningrad, Moscow and Minsk to meet with Russian kids to improve Cold War relations. It’s bizarre that I was chosen to go to The Soviet Union with the YMCA – my main interest in Christianity was to determine whether I was agnostic or an atheist.
I was the first kid at Rio Americano High School to smoke weed (still proud of that.) I was the quintessential privileged American boy and my cynicism to work the system knew no bounds. Even my mother grilled me, “Dick, some parents say that you do the same things as the bad boys, but you know how not to get caught.”
(Really Mom, they get to be the bad boys because they want to get caught. Not my brand. I’m one of the “good” kids.)
I became friends with a kid on the tour named Bill. Together we would climb out of our hotel window late at night to meet with pro-rock & roll Russian kids. In Moscow, a teenage Russian named Alex latched on to me when he heard I played in a high school rock band in California. Alex had a reel-to-reel, battery operated tape recorder and he played the Beatles and Beach Boys at every opportunity.
Alex said, “Rock and roll is my life.”
I said, “Mine too.”
One night Alex and I were riding a subway through Moscow. The Stones blared out of the tape recorder on his lap. A shadow fell over us. A huge figure wearing a military uniform, grey with red trim, glared down at us with a clenched jaw. With his black leather glove, he pointed at the tape recorder. Alex’s face turned white. He turned the recorder off. We shrunk in size and both stared silently at the floor. We did not look up until the shadow was gone.
I said, “So Alex, where did you get these recordings?”
“I made them from broadcasts of The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.” I did not have to ask if his recordings were legal.
It didn’t take Bill and I long to find Russia’s financial underbelly. When you entered the Soviet Union, you had to declare exactly how much money you had and then declare your money total once again when you left. No one was allowed to make money that the state did not control. The U.S.S.R. controlled every ruble in the country and officially valued their ruble as equal to one dollar US. On the free market one dollar equaled four rubles. Upon arrival we were ushered to a bank where all of us cashed traveler’s checks, getting one ruble per dollar. Bill told me about a Russian he met on a park bench in the city square who was willing to give us four rubles per dollar. We went into business. Bill would meet the guy on the bench and buy his rubles at four to the dollar. Since I would never be suspected of doing anything “bad” by the YMCA counselors, I saved the tour kids a trip to the bank and exchanged their dollars for our rubles, one to one, right in their rooms. Then Bill would go back to his free-market buddy on the bench. We quadrupled our money every day. In a week we had a lot of money.
(OK, OK… capitalism rocks.)
The second week of the tour I announced, “Ladies, it’s time to go shopping.” We bought fur hats and fur coats for all of them. I took them to lunch at a restaurant in downtown Moscow. Then our YMCA counselors began asking where all the money was coming from and we closed down our operation.
After three weeks, our YMCA Goodwill Tour was over and it was time to leave the Soviet Union. I was filled with such good will, “I love these Russians!” Even after buying dinners and furs for the girls, bottles of wine for the guys and literally raining money on a panhandler out of a bus window, I still had hundreds of dollars more than I had entered the country with. I could have given the money away. But no. I carefully filled out the custom forms so it looked like I had spent a modest amount in the U.S.S.R. and put the appropriate amount of cash in my wallet. The extra hundreds went into my suitcase.
(Oh, young Dick Stockton, you naïve child.)
The extra care I took with my currency declaration made me last in line at customs. I smiled when I saw all our kids get waved smoothly through customs, the big military uniforms parting for each kid to walk through the glass and stainless-steel doors, across the tarmac and onto our chartered plane. I handed my papers to the stocky woman in the thick grey uniform trimmed with red. She was bored. She started to wave me through. A man at another desk casually said something over his shoulder. My customs officer sighed, nodded and motioned for me to open my suitcase. I acted like I didn’t understand and tried to walk through. Her hand clamped onto my arm. Now she was not bored. It may have been a formality she’d rather not go through but in the Soviet Union nobody ignored formalities. She looked through my clothes, lifted the envelop and withdrew five one hundred dollar bills US. She counted them. She squinted at my currency declaration. She counted the money again. She stared at my currency declaration. She made a fist and pounded a wide, red button that set off a low-pitched siren and the room filled with big uniforms. Their coats were grey with red trim. The glass doors slammed shut. I could see police push our counselors onto the plane. The plane door shut. A squat, middle-aged woman appeared before me and looked at my currency declaration and the money.
“Where did this money come from?”
“I won it in a poker game.”
“Why didn’t you declare this money?”
“I won it from other kids on the tour. Was I supposed to declare that?”
(I was an ignorant American for sure, but I did show an early talent for improv.)
She talked to the men in the thick grey uniforms. They kept looking at our plane out on the tarmac. The whole room started arguing, voices got louder. There were men in suits arguing with men in military uniforms. My story, “Was I supposed to…” did not seem to work for the guys in the military uniforms. The only word in Russian I could understand was “nyet” and they shouted “nyet” a lot. It was clear that my fate was being decided. The word “Siberia” floated through my mind. Then my mother’s face. I tried to still my panic with my belief that by being American I was universally privileged, and everything would work out OK. This audacious belief in my own immunity turned out to be true. I had done what would have landed a Russian citizen in jail, maybe even a one-way trip to Siberia, but my captors decided that I was not worth an international incident. Being a privileged American kid was my ace in the hole. So cool to be American.
Just as suddenly as I had been surrounded and taken into custody, my money was returned to my suitcase, it was closed, and two huge men in military uniforms led me to the glass doors. The doors parted, they walked me across the pavement to the stairs and the plane door swung open.
(That smug kid who strutted across the tarmac had bet on the invincibility of his American Privilege Teflon suit, and he won. I forgive that kid. He was seventeen years old. He was a virgin. He thought about sex every three seconds. And seventeen-year-old boys dream about what happened next.)
I climbed the steps, and I could hear the kids in the plane cheering. As our YMCA counselor gritted his teeth, I walked up the aisle with eight American girls in fur hats reaching out to touch me.
In the ‘70s, seeds from Santa Cruz County became the basis for a worldwide weed movement. Here’s what happened when I found some of them.
By Richard Stockton
A woman walks towards me on Seabright Avenue in Santa Cruz. She is fastidiously buttoned up and well heeled, she carries a tiny dog, clearly from out of town. She stops me and asks, “Do you live here?”
I say, “Yes I do ma’am, how may I help you?”
“Well, I love Santa Cruz. But I do not understand why everywhere I go in this town I smell skunks. I do not see them, but I smell skunks everywhere here.”
I nod, “They’re shy. They like to stay in the backyard.”
The pungent Skunk strain of cannabis is the legendary genetic building block of thousands of strains produced today. What most folks – even locals – don’t know is that Skunk cannabis was first developed and grown in Santa Cruz County 50 years ago.
I tend to miss the most obvious connections. In the late 70s, long before I heard of Santa Cruz being epicenter of the Skunk cannabis growing world, I briefly served as a singer and guitar player for a country rock band called the Skunk Band. We opened for Larry Hosford.
When I asked the Skunk Band’s leader where they got the band name he handed me a joint. I still didn’t get it. I was all in on being a hippie but was stupidly naïve. While I was too innocent and dense to appreciate the band’s name, I did appreciate how I played my guitar on their pungent weed – it gave me an uncanny ability to focus on detail. I could look at the fret board of my guitar and see all the notes like they were laid out on the keyboard of a piano. Transposing a complex guitar part to a different key was effortless. Man, did their weed smell. My stint with the Skunk Band faded from memory and I forgot about them and their weed for forty years. Then I met Wayne.
The Man with the Seeds
In 2018, I moved to the south Santa Cruz county town of Watsonville when I found a farm out in the vineyards that let me set my Airstream trailer up as a Santa Cruz county crash pad. I became friends with Wayne, who would not stop rattling on about his frozen weed seeds. At first it all sounded like stoner-babble but little by little his ramblings about his seeds and some character he called “Sam The Skunkman” began to form a larger tale. I started researching the story of the legendary Sam The Skunkman. Wayne’s story turned out to be true.
It went like this: In 1978 Wayne bought 100 seeds of Flying Skunk from Sacred Seeds. He paid $1 a seed from a guy named David Watson who developed the cannabis seed strain in Watsonville and later became known as Sam The Skunkman. But life happened and Wayne could not grow out the seeds. He read on the back of the seed package that they would keep much longer if they were frozen and that’s what Wayne did, he froze all one hundred seeds. Like Bilbo Baggins’ obsession with The Ring, Wayne never could stop talking about his frozen seeds.
My All-Encompassing Disclaimer
In researching this story of the first Skunk strain and Sacred Seeds, I spoke with three Santa Cruz seed producers from the seventies about Skunk – and I got three different stories. All I know for certain is that these guys can smoke me under the table.
I have no idea if the controversial Sam The Skunkman is a genetics genius, a marketing genius, a benevolent scientist or a fast talking opportunist. Maybe he is all of those. His story has become legend and while we may each believe different portions of it, I take the legend itself as a tale of folklore for our times. Whether you accept Sam The Skunkman’s story as Johnny Appleweed or not, he did create the first cannabis seed company in the country, called Sacred Seeds. The seeds he sold in 1978 were called Flying Skunk, a strain that became the building block for thousands of strains we grow today. He did escape the clutches of the law and steal back his seeds. And we know that the first strain of Skunk was lost.
Roots of Skunk
The legend goes that before he took his seeds to Amsterdam in 1982 and became Sam the Skunkman, our hero called himself David Watson. (Hmm… a pot head dodging the law to grow a plant that is a felony moves to Watsonville and calls himself Watson. Sure, why not?) His former associate Phil Noland tells me in the mid-seventies, David Watson developed these seeds from Columbian seed mixes, these preceding his Skunk#1 by several years. He developed seeds to bring down the enormous height of his pure sativa plant and mitigate the odor to make it more grower friendly. He also wanted to reduce the long maturation period of the pure Colombian strain. Look at the front of the Flying Skunk seed package from 1978 and notice the thin blue font that says, “Extra Early.”
After a police stakeout and bust of his Watsonville seed operation in 1982 Watson sneaked back onto the crime scene and stole back his seeds from the cops, making off with 250,000 seeds that ultimately changed cannabis history. He took his seeds to Amsterdam to share with Nevil Schoenmakers of The Seed Bank of Holland, which started the development of Skunk based sativa brands that proliferate worldwide today. At that point David Watson became known as Sam The Skunkman.
The Lost Strain
Wayne knows a lot about his seeds, “The intense odor of this first strain led many to call it Roadkill Skunk. During his breeding program at The Amsterdam Seed Bank, Nevil lost the Skunk male. They had to replace that male with a male from another strain. That is one part of the story that is universally agreed upon – while developing and crossbreeding many different strains, Nevil Schoenmakers somehow lost the original Skunk male flower. He had to replace that male with male flowers from a different strain. The first pure Skunk is lost. Gone. Extinct. Unless some crazy hippie had a stroke of cryogenic genius, the first Skunk is no more. That amazing weed I smoked with The Skunk Band forty-three years ago is gone like smoke in the wind, and it would be preposterous to think that some nutso stoner froze the original Skunk seeds. But Santa Cruz is where preposterous happens. Wayne is our nutso.
Why Skunk Matters
What is this strain called Skunk? It is very high in Sativa, which makes you creative, focused, inspired and happy. Skunk is not like the heavy Indica-based dispensary herb that is so popular with young folks. A twenty-something turned me on to cannabis that looked like brown glass, a dab of concentrate. We used a blowtorch to smoke it out of a quartz bowl and I renamed it Flat On My Back On The Floor Weed as I laid on the floor. Sativa will not make you pass out on the floor. Sativa may make you dance on the floor. It may make you paint the floor. It may make you think you are the floor, but it will not knock you out.
I’ve got absolutely nothing against the idea of passing out and if you want to do that, delve deep into Indica. It’ll make your body feel good. But if you are trying to brainstorm what you could say to your wife about last weekend, Skunk is your junk.
Time Capsule Seed
In February of 2020 Wayne gives me forty of his seeds. We don’t know if they will sprout. I felt like Frodo putting on The Ring for the first time as I lay the seeds between damp paper towels on a plate. Are these seeds too old to germinate? I found myself looking at them throughout the day, keeping the towels damp. On the third day one cracked open and a tiny white sprout appeared. Over the next two weeks thirty-eight of the forty seeds sprouted at an incredible germination rate. I put the sprouts in potting soil and in May I re-planted them into a hoop house. They grew so tall I had to cut their tops off four times. The leaves were narrow and dark green, but the thing was the smell. My Airstream is one hundred feet from the hoop house and inside my trailer it smelled like I live with a skunk. If anyone in the neighborhood wondered if I grow pot, they know now.
We’re going for seed production so Wayne shakes the male flowers all over the female flowers. (And this at the height of the #metoo movement!) I kept trimming the tops. In mid-November we hung the plants upside down in a shed. And finally, it was time.
A Long, Slow Toke
My first inhale did not do all that much. I inhaled again. I felt pleasant enough but I wondered if this weed works. Was the legend of the first Skunk strain bullshit? I hit it a third time, deep. Then I looked at my guitar fret board and could see all the notes like I was looking at a piano keyboard. I thought of the Jimi Hendrix Chord (E7 #9) and a way to play it above the 12th fret appeared in relief on the fret board. In euphoria I played with intense focus. Would Aldous Huxley say that I had opened the “doors of perception?”
Wayne loves his seeds so much he has a vision for them, “I found something heritage that people love. So how do I share it?” Wayne’s vision is that everyone who wants to feel great could start by germinating twelve seeds, discard the males and grow their six plants that the state of California allows. Nice vision. He thinks of himself as a holy man. He is a holy man; he has a colostomy bag piped into his gut.
Wayne and I sit on his porch smoking the flowers grown from his time capsule Skunk seeds and I ask him how it makes him feel. “It’s the most creative weed I’ve ever used. You start laughing, talking, it puts you in a good mood. It’s more fun, it’s happy weed. In high doses it gets psychedelic.” Wayne’s Mission is to figure out how to legally distribute these seeds to anyone who wants to grow sativa cannabis. He says, “It’s the kind of weed you can smoke in the daytime.”
The way I encountered this psychoactive strain again and again makes me think that there is something beyond coincidence here. In the end, the story of the Skunk strain is a circle that coheres – a circle of legend, genetics, of a place that believes in it’s own magic and of our desire to open Huxley’s “doors of perception.”
Love At The In & Out Burger
by Richard Stockton
It feels like our divisiveness grows every day. We only speak to expose our differences and come together like a hospital gown. But I have a tale for you of Love At The In & Out Burger.
I’m coming in off the road, trying to make it back home as the winter sun goes down. I feel starved as I pound my little Prius down the freeway. I’m so hungry… and then I see the red and yellow sign of an In & Out Burger!
I get in the drive-thru line and I am right behind a gigantic pickup truck. American flags all over it, it’s got duel exhaust that look like they’re three feet off the ground. These exhaust pipes belch carbon monoxide with a rhythm that sounds like a heavy metal band, blowing over my little car. I can’t breathe so I stop and let the behemoth get way ahead of me. This messes up the operation of the drive-thru; for the windows to work efficiently you’re supposed to keep moving ahead and now I’m slowing the process for everyone. Cars honk behind me, I can’t help it, I gotta breathe.
I begin making up all kinds of stories about the pickup truck driver. I start with what I imagine is his political view (“I bet I know who you voted for!”) and devolve into stereotypes of who I imagine is in the big truck.
“Why all the flags, pal? Got a short-term memory problem about what country you’re in? You think you’re the only one who loves America? What gives you the right to co-opt the symbol of our country? Oh, I bet you are making fun of my Prius right now, a car that you probably think of as a wimpy liberal excuse for transportation. Sorry that I accept the science regarding global warming and that I oppose using catapults to hurl unaccompanied minors back into Mexico and have to deal with you not getting vaccinated because you don’t know exactly what is in the vaccine oh is that a Coca Cola you’re ordering up there? Like you have any idea what is in your drink…”
and yada, yada, yada, until I degenerate into insults about his mother. I turn the air in my little car blue with profanity.
When I get to the pay window the young man says, “Here’s your burger, no charge.”
“The guy in front of you paid for yours…”
“I don’t know, he said something about apologizing for exhaust.”
Now that… humbles me. I was making up stories about a guy who was paying it backwards.