FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS -- A SAVAGE JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
by Hunter S. Thompson, © 1971 by Hunter S. Thompson
Chapter 10: Heavy Duty at the Airport ... Ugly Peruvian Flashback ... 'No! It's Too Late! Don't Try It!"
My attorney left at dawn. We almost missed the first flight to L.A. because I couldn't find the airport. It was less than thirty minutes from the hotel. I was sure of that. So we left the Flamingo at exactly seven-thirty ... but for some reason we failed to make the turnoff at the stoplight in front of the Tropicana. We kept going straight ahead on the freeway, which parallels the main airport runway, but on the opposite side from the terminal ... and there is no way to get across egally.
"Goddamnit! We're lost!" my attorney was shouting. "What are we doing out here on this godforsaken road? The airport is right over there!" He pointed hysterically across the tundra.
"Don't worry," I said. "I've never missed a plane yet." I smiled as the memory came back. "Except once in Peru," I added. "I was already checked out of the country, through customs, but I went back to the bar to chat with this Bolivian cocaine dealer ... and all of a sudden I heard those big 707 engines starting up, so I ran out to the runway and tried to get aboard, but the door was right behind the engines and they'd already rolled the ladder away. Shit, those afterburners would have fried me like bacon ... but I was completely out of my head: I was desperate to get aboard.
"The airport cops saw me coming, and they gathered into a knot at the gate. I was running like a bastard, straight at them. The guy with me was screaming: 'No! It's too late! Don't try it!'
"I saw the cops waiting for me, so I slowed down like maybe I'd changed my mind ... but when I saw them relax, I did a quick change of pace and tried to run right over the bastards." I laughed. "Jesus, it was like running full bore into a closet full of gila monsters. The fuckers almost killed me. All I remember is seeing five or six billyclubs coming down on me at the same time, and a lot of voices screaming: 'No! No! It's suicide! Stop the crazy gringo!'
"I woke up about two hours later in a bar in downtown Lima. They'd stretched me out in one of those half- moon leather booths. My luggage was all stacked beside me. Nobody had opened it ... so I went back to sleep and caught the first flight out, the next morning."
My attorney was only half listening. "Look," he said, "I'd really like to hear more about your adventures in Peru, but not now. Right now all I care about is getting across that goddamn runway."
We were flashing along at good speed. I was looking for an opening, some kind of access road, some lane across the runway to the terminal. We were five miles past the last stop light and there wasn't enough time to turn around and go back to it.
There was only one way to make it on time. I hit the brakes and eased the Whale down into the grassy moat between the two freeway lanes. The ditch was too deep for a head-on run, so I took it at an angle. The Whale almost rolled, but I kept the wheels churning and we careened up the opposite bank and into the oncoming lane. Fortunately, it was empty. We came out of the moat with the nose of the car up in the air like a hydroplane ... then bounced on the freeway and kept right on going into the cactus field on the other side. I recall running over a fence of some kind and dragging it a few hundred yards, but by the time we got to the runway we were fully under control ... screaming along about 60 miles an hour in low gear, and it looked like a wide-open run all the way to the terminal.
My only worry was the chance of getting crushed like a roach by an incoming DC-8, which we probably wouldn't see until it was right on top of us. I wondered if they could see us from the tower. Probably so, but why worry? I kept the thing floored. There was no point in turning back now.
My attorney was hanging onto the dashboard with both hands. I glanced over and saw fear in his eyes. His face appeared to be grey, and I sensed he was not happy with this move, but we were going so fast across the runway -- then cactus, then runway again -- that I knew he understood our position: We were past the point of debating the wisdom of this move; it was already done, and our only hope was to get to the other side.
I looked at my skeleton-face Accutron and saw that we had three minutes and fifteen seconds before takeoff. "Plenty of time," I said. "Get your stuff together. I'll drop you right next to the plane." I could see the big red and silver Western jetliner about 1000 yards ahead of us ... and by this time we were skimming across smooth asphalt, past the incoming runway.
"No!" he shouted. "I can't get out! They'll crucify me. I'll have to take the blame!"
"Ridiculous," I said. "Just say you were hitchhiking to the airport and I picked you up. You never saw me before. Shit, this town is full of white Cadillac convertibles ... and I plan to go through there so fast that nobody will even glimpse the goddamn license plate."
We were approaching the plane. I could see passengers boarding, but so far nobody had noticed us ... approaching from this unlikely direction. "Are you ready?" I said.
He groaned. "Why not? But for Christ's sake, let's do it fast!" He was scanning the loading area, then he pointed: "Over there!" he said. "Drop me behind that big van. Just pull in behind it and I'll jump out where they can't see me, then you can make a run for it."
I nodded. So far, we had all the room we needed. No sign of alarm or pursuit. I wondered if maybe this kind of thing happened all the time in Vegas -- cars full of late-arriving passengers screeching desperately across the runway, dropping off wild-eyed Samoans clutching mysterious canvas bags who would sprint onto planes at the last possible second and then roar off into the sunrise.
Maybe so, I thought. Maybe this kind of thing is standard procedure in this town ...
I swung in behind the van and hit the brakes just long enough for my attorney to jump out. "Don't take any guff from these swine," I yelled. "Remember, if you have any trouble you can always send a telegram to the Right People."
He grinned. "Yeah ... Explaining my Position," he said. "Some asshole wrote a poem about that once. It's probably good advice, if you have shit for brains." He waved me off.
"Right," I said, moving out. I'd already spotted a break in the big hurricane fence -- and now, with the Whale in low gear, I went for it. Nobody seemed to be chasing me. I couldn't understand it. I glanced in the mirror and saw my attorney climbing into the plane, no sign of a struggle ... and then I was through the gate and out into the early morning traffic on Paradise Road.
I took a fast right on Russell, then a left onto Maryland Parkway ... and suddenly I was cruising in warm anonymity past the campus of the University of Las Vegas ... no tension on these faces; I stopped at a red light and got lost, for a moment, in a sunburst of flesh in the crosswalk: fine sinewy thighs, pink mini-skirts, ripe young nipples, sleeveless blouses, long sweeps of blonde hair, pink lips and blue eyes -- all the hallmarks of a dangerously innocent culture.
I was tempted to pull over and start mumbling obscene entreaties: "Hey, Sweetie, let's you and me get weird. Jump into this hotdog Caddy and we'll flash over to my suite at the Flamingo, load up on ether and behave like wild animals in my private, kidney-shaped pool ..."
Sure we will, I thought. But by this time I was far down the parkway, easing into the turn lane for a left at Flamingo Road. Back to the hotel, to take stock. There was every reason to believe I was heading for trouble, that I'd pushed my luck a bit far. I'd abused every rule Vegas lived by -- burning the locals, abusing the tourists, terrifying the help.
The only hope now, I felt, was the possibility that we'd gone to such excess, with our gig, that nobody in a position to bring the hammer down on us could possibly believe it. Particularly not since we'd signed in with the Police Conference. When you bring an act into this town, you want to bring it in heavy. Don't waste any time with cheap shucks and misdemeanors. Go straight for the jugular. Get right into felonies.
The mentality of Las Vegas is so grossly atavistic that a really massive crime often slips by unrecognized. One of my neighbors recently spent a week in the Vegas jail for "vagrancy." He's about twenty years old: Long hair, Levi jacket, knapsack -- an out-front drifter, a straight Road Person. Totally harmless; he just wanders around the country looking for whatever it was that we all thought we'd nailed down in the Sixties -- sort of an early Bob Zimmerman trip.
On a trip from Chicago to L.A., he got curious about Vegas and decided to have a look at it. Just passing through, strolling along and digging the sights on the Strip ... no hurry, why rush? He was standing on a street-corner near the Circus-Circus, watching the multi-colored fountain, when the cop-cruiser pulled up.
Wham. Straight to jail. No phone call, no lawyer, no charge. "They put me in the car and took me down to the station," he said. "They took me into a big room full of people and told me to take off all my clothes before they booked me. I was standing in front of a big desk, about six feet tall, with a cop sitting behind it and looking down at me like some kind of medieval judge.
"The room was full of people. Maybe a dozen prisoners; twice that many cops, and about ten policewomen. You had to walk out in the middle of the room, then take everything out of your pockets and put it up on the desk and then strip naked -- with everybody watching you.
"I only had about twenty bucks, and the fine for vagrancy was twenty-five, so they put me over on a bench with the people who were going to jail. Nobody hassled me. It was like an assembly line.
"The two guys right behind me were longhairs. Acid people. They'd been picked up for vagrancy, too. But when they started emptying their pockets, the whole room freaked. Between them, they had $130,000, mostly in big bills. The cops couldn't believe it. These guys just kept pulling out wads of money and dumping it up there on the desk -- both of them naked and kind of hunched over, not saying anything.
"The cops went crazy when they saw all that money. They started whispering to each other; shit, there was no way they could hold these guys for 'vagrancy.'" He laughed. "So they charged them with 'suspicion of evasion of income taxes.'
"They took us all to jail, and these two guys were just about nuts. They were dealers, of course, and they had their stash back in their hotel room -- so they had to get out before the cops found out where they were staying.
"They offered one of the guards a hundred bucks to go out and get the best lawyer in town ... and about twenty minutes later there he was, yelling about habeas corpus and that kind of shit ... hell, I tried to talk to him myself, but this guy had a one-track mind. I told him I could make bail and even pay him something if they'd let me call my father in Chicago, but he was too busy hustling for these other guys.
"About two hours later he came back with a guard and said 'Let's go.' They were out. One of the guys had told me, while they were waiting, that it was going to cost them $30,000 ... and I guess it did, but what the hell? That's cheap, compared to what would have happened if they hadn't got themselves sprung.
"They finally let me send a telegram to my old man and he wired me 125 bucks ... but it took seven or eight days; I'm not sure how long I was in there, because the place didn't have any windows and they fed us every twelve hours ... you lose track of time when you can't see the sun.
"They had seventy-five guys in each cell -- big rooms with a toilet bowl out in the middle. They gave you a pallet when you came in, and you slept wherever you wanted. The guy next to me had been in there for thirty years, for robbing a gas station.
"When I finally got out, the cop on the desk took another twenty-five bucks out of what my father sent me, on top of what I owed for the vagrancy fine. What could I say? He just took it. Then he gave me the other $75 and said they had a taxi waiting for me outside, for the ride to the airport ... and when I got in the cab the driver said, 'We're not making any stops, fella, and you'd better not move until we get to the terminal.'
"I didn't move a goddamn muscle. He'd have shot me. I'm sure of that. I went straight to the plane and I didn't say a word to anybody until I knew we were out of Nevada. Man, that's one place I'll never go back to."