Near the end

Harlon Copeland poster
Harlon Copeland poster
Harlon Copeland, Bexar County Sheriff

My drinking was in full bloom during my last years with the Express and News. This was during the early 1970s when I was nearing my alcoholic rock bottom.

A typical workday found me arriving for work around 11 a.m. after a full night of heavy drinking. When I was a general assignments reporter for the morning Express, this was the customary time for my shift to start. After I started writing a daily column with hours of my own choosing, I continued to arrive around the same time at the Express and News building at San Antonio’s Avenue E at Third Street.

Across from the newspaper plant, and a block west on Third Street, sat my second late morning home, a grubby beer joint known as The Melody Room Lounge. The Melody Room is mentioned on earlier pages of this work. For medicinal reasons known by every chronic alcoholic, I swung into the Melody for my customary two and sometimes three bottles of beer to quell my morning jitters. Josie the day bartender had the cap popped on the first one before I got settled on the bar stool. She understood my needs, and the second beer was open and sitting on the bar as I finished the first.

I chugged these beers fast before heading for the third-floor city room on the newspaper building to pick up a reporting assignment or to start writing either news articles or my general interest column. Sometimes I failed to keep the first beers down. There would come the usual dry heaves which I would stop with another beer. In those days, I worked on a manual Royal typewriter with an inked ribbon, a vital instrument that transferred my thoughts to copy paper when my hands didn’t shake. That is where the beer came into play. Without the sudden infusion of alcohol, the shakes made it impossible for me to type readable copy. A real alcoholic knows this debilitating condition. Trembling hands are a visible part of the shakes known by every true alcoholic, but the internal shakes are far worse. The nervous system seems to short out; armpits drip sweat, it’s too early in the day to start on the hard liquor, and no real practicing alcoholic will recognize the horror for what it is. Denial is not a river in Egypt, and those screaming internal shakes are real. I always called them the gut jerks. The only way to make them subside, is to add more alcohol.

I never drank on the newspaper property, although I grabbed an occasional beer while on a reporting assignment. The heavy daytime drinking started when I began writing the daily column.

Title of the column was Offbeat, and many of the characters I wrote about were regular denizens of San Antonio’s nightclub scene. The newspaper editors didn’t question my whereabouts so long as I turned in the column by a late evening deadline.

While working on the column I was working my way toward the hard booze which I usually started a few hours after sundown. Before I could eat something and get on to bourbon, vodka, or gin, the dry heaves were a part of my day. I did eat on a regular basis, and a doctor told me this was the reason I never developed liver cirrhosis. When I started spitting up blood, I went to a doctor for treatment of what I thought were bleeding ulcers, but there was no internal bleeding. I had dry heaved so hard that blood vessels in my neck were ruptured and leaking profusely.

Drinking during early nighttime hours was done in various San Antonio saloons and nightclubs such as the old Flamingo Lounge, Black Fox Tap Room, The Burnt Orange Club, Blue Room, San Jacinto Club, Papa Jack’s, The Satin Doll, and others too numerous to list on these pages. Then, after the legal closing time of 2 a.m. for Texas bars, I headed for the after-hours nightclubs owned and operated by the Sfair brothers. Elder brother Phil Sfair owned the Navy Club on Pecan Street while younger brothers Mike and George Sfair held forth a few blocks distance at the Commanders Room on Main Avenue. It wasn’t unusual for these clubs to stay open until almost daylight. Technically, they were in violation of Texas liquor laws, but the Sfairs had political connections which allowed them to operate with impunity. A number of cops and newspaper reporters drank free, ensuring the safety of these nightclubs.

After drinking in other clubs which closed at 2 a.m., I usually wound up in the Commanders Room, drunk but still mobile. When I left, many times with the first light of day starting to break, I was in an ossified stupor but somehow able to drive to my home on Harriett Street. If I stayed in the Commanders Room until after daylight, my custom was to stop for one last drink at Wynn Little’s Blue Room on San Pedro Avenue, about six blocks from my home.

The after-hours clubs operated Mondays through Saturdays. I rested up on weekends, drinking beer at home before venturing out to neighborhood drinking joints where I tried to lay off the hard stuff, sticking with beer in the belief that my body would somehow recoup before the coming Monday. A gallon jug of water always rested within arm’s length of my bed. The alcohol kept me in a near-constant state of dehydration, and I guzzled prodigious amounts of water during night and early morning hours.

Then came Monday and the Melody Room Lounge. Josie would have my medicine ready. The cycle was continuous.

The morning after my firing at the Express and News, I knew that I had to quit drinking alcohol or die. I quit drinking, and as mentioned earlier, I transitioned to cocaine and eventually methamphetamine. My musician friend Ray Wylie Hubbard said it for the both of us. We thought coke would be the answer to our drinking problem. It was not, of course, and the irony of it was that I would eventually find salvation in a God-based recovery program known worldwide. But not before I was near death and on the veritable doorstep of the state penitentiary.

My years in full-blown drug addiction were the blackest, most humiliating, and soul-smashing times of my life. I was destroying my career, my marriage to wife Vicky who never did anything to deserve the humiliation and neglect she got from me, my childrens’ right to a father they might be proud of, and what fell just short of my freedom to walk on Texas soil without chain shackles on my ankles and steel cuffs on my wrists.

My first and last arrests on felony drug charges made headlines in both San Antonio newspapers. The San Antonio Express, the newspaper for which I once wrote a daily column and garnered a Pulitzer nomination for excellence in breaking news coverage, ran my drug busts on the metro section front. The rival San Antonio Light delivered a page-one gut punch after one of the drug busts which I felt certain was designed to deprive me of little reason to keep on living in the San Antonio area. Accompanying that article was a photograph of me in a circuit-riding preacher attire which I had worn in the filming of a failed comedy film titled The Adventures of Jody Shannon.

My role in the movie which never made it past the cutting room floor was that of Preacher Sam, a hypocritical whiskey-drinking dice-shooting, whore-chasing minister who rode a jug-headed mule. The old movie promo shot featured me in flat-brim hat, arms raised in facetious supplication to a deity that didn’t exist in a heaven of acrimonious scorn for Junction hicks who dared, and failed, to hack it on the big city stage.

When that unholy scene assaulted my senses from the front page of the San Antonio Light, my reaction was short and unforgettable:

Fuck! A sense of indescribable pain and the emptiness of total loss. I have never found words to adequately recreate this awful portrait of self-doom. And I have never understood what kept this godawful image from striking me dead in my tracks. I remember saying the first real prayer that ever escaped my lips: God help me. Lord, please help me.

My transition from alcohol to drugs started with speed pill use, a practice that was rampant at the time within the music community. I purchased my dope from two renegade ex-physicians, Steven Pollock and Ted Norris. Pollock grew psilocybin mushrooms and sold them from his north San Antonio home. He died late one night when burglars ransacked his home and shot him between the eyes. There were two strong suspects, but no one was ever convicted of the crime.

Ted Norris would write prescriptions for any drug his customers ordered. When I told him I wanted 100 preludin pills, he wrote the prescription, then asked me how well the super speed worked.

“I’ve never tried those,” he told me. “Save me a pill from your prescription. I might get a script of my own.”

I graduated from pills to powdered cocaine and methamphetamine with someone offering me a line of coke which had been chopped with a razor blade and arranged on a pocket mirror. As was customary in the drug world I was entering, I snorted the line of cocaine with a tightly rolled dollar bill, eschewing any thought of shooting cocaine and later methamphetamine with a hypodermic needle, a practice known as “running the dope,” and a drug culture habit which brought with it the filthy debilitating term which all proper society has come to loathe: “Junkie.”

I was no damn junkie, I told myself. I was a snorter and not a shooter, a user and not an abuser, despite the fact that I was inhaling near the end of my drug addiction career (snorting) in powdered form enough high-grade methamphetamine to kill a moose. The high cost of cocaine soon drove me to the less expensive but equally damaging man-made killer known on the streets as “meth.” And snorting large quantities of cocaine had resulted in geyser-like nose bleeds that progressed to my filling a handkerchief with pieces of nasal tissue I called “coke meat.” Strangely enough, the meth that threatened to wreck my brain had little noticeable effect on my sinus passages. It just burned like hell. By this time, I was escalating my withdrawal from the human race.

There are 3.5 grams in an eighth of an ounce of powdered drug, known on the streets as an 8-ball, and I was consuming almost an eighth of an ounce of meth every two days and sometimes daily when my drug world ended in handcuffs and total demoralization.

Harlon Copeland was the Bexar County sheriff when I was first arrested and jailed on felony possession of methamphetamine charges. A conviction on this charge could result in a prison sentence of from 10 to 99 years. My office was in a strip center on San Antonio’s Wurzbach Road. Just across the street was a topless club known as Baby Dolls.

Sheriff Copeland and his troops hit my office late one morning. The memory of that drug bust is still a surreal media circus which included reporters from what seemed like every TV and radio station in San Antonio. To spice up the morning show was a gaggle of titty bar dancers who drifted over from Baby Dolls.

After deputies came crashing through my office door, Sheriff Copeland appeared in person to oversee all details of what he obviously viewed as a prestigious feather in the cap of Bexar County law enforcement. Copeland kept me handcuffed for almost two hours as two of his deputies called what seemed like every TV and radio station in Texas, plus both the San Antonio Express and News and the San Antonio Light.

“You have written some really bad things about the sheriff’s department for a number of years,” Copeland reminded me. “But we have got you now.”

As his deputies wound up their telephone calls to local media, Copeland stood in front of a large wall mirror I had in my office. When he had his hair combed to satisfaction, the sheriff turned to me and said, “Well, Sam, it’s time for us to go meet the press.”

The parking lot was filled with reporters and camera crews, many of whom I knew personally.

My mood was worse than foul.

A WOAI TV cameraman shoved a microphone in my face and really let me have it.

“You are live on Channel 4,” he said. “What do you have to say?”

It came out before my brain really registered.

“Fuck Harlon Copeland,” I said.

The cameraman recoiled as if from some horrible odor. I don’t know what he said to his live audience.

“Enough of that,” Copeland said. “Now you are going to jail.”

The sheriff escorted me to his personal car. One of his deputies drove while Copeland and I occupied the back seat.

“How do you feel now?” the sheriff asked.

I recall my answer as if it were yesterday.

“I feel like jumping into a big dark hole and dragging you right in behind me.”

This evoked a short laugh.

After that, and as we completed the ride to jail and a booking procedure, Copeland was almost jovial. He told me that he felt sure I would have a good lawyer. He did everything but wish me well.

The circus was over. Copeland got what he wanted.

As I was unloaded at the jail, I will swear that Harlon Copeland gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze.

I never knew what he was thinking.

It is hard to believe, but I escaped from this arrest with a 10-year probated sentence, thanks to high-powered attorney friends like Alan Brown and A.L. Hernden.

Less than a year went by before I was busted again on felony drug charges, this time in Action Magazine offices I occupied on the main street of Castle Hills. There was no fanfare or media hoopla with this bust. It came at night by members of the Alamo Area Narcotics Task Force, headed by New Braunfels Sheriff’s Department officer Sumner Bowen.

This arrest, I was convinced, would be the end of my life in the free world. My 10-year probated sentence from the Copeland arrest would be revoked, I was almost positive. Sumner Bowen, the task force leader also knew the stakes I was facing when he offered me the chance to turn informant. I will never forget the soul torture generated by the option Bowen offered.

The narcotics cop was folksy and congenial when he laid out his pitch. The other officers had left the room. I sat handcuffed with Bowen on another chair directly in front of me.

I will never forget what transpired next. Bowen’s every words were seared into my consciousness like the Ten Commandments Moses received from God.

“I have been reading you for years,” Bowen said. “And I have been a fan of yours for years. I don’t know how you got tangled up with people in the dope world, but I do know one thing. None of those people would do anything to help you. They would never get down for you when it counted. I think it’s about time you got down for yourself. And that is exactly what I am prepared to offer, a chance for you to do something for yourself.”

I knew what was coming next. It was like my mind and body were encased in a steel coffin that I couldn’t open. I had been around the criminal element long enough to know what happens to the informants known as “snitches.” Some die violent deaths, some don’t. Nothing is lower than a scumbag who will send another man to prison just to save his own ass.

“You have a choice here tonight,” Sumner Bowen said. “You can go to jail and then on to prison with your record, or we can go down to Maggie’s for breakfast and coffee, and then you will be free to go on about your life.”

Bowen paused long and hard before he said it: “Just give me the name of the person with the lab.”

He wanted me to give up the individual who manufactured the drugs found in my office.

The so-called “lab” was a small mom-and-pop operation when compared with most meth mills, but it was big enough to warrant the trade-out Bowen was offering.

Strange as it may seem, the image and words of Willie Nelson drummer Paul English were flashing before my eyes and playing through my mind.

Paul was a Fort Worth gangster before he straightened out and joined the Nelson band. He was what they called a “police character” in that day and time.

“The cops didn’t name us police characters,” Paul told me. “We named ourselves characters because we had character. We never ratted on our fellow man.”

I wondered about my own sanity when I rejected Bowen’s officer.

“I can’t do it,” I said. “You can take me on to jail.”

I was loaded into an unmarked police car when Sumner Bowen leaned in an open window to say, “I think you are nuts, but I respect you for the decision.”