surfing the stardust

MELILLA, North Africa

Jack Albert Kramer, the World # 1 Tennis player between 1947 and 1953, was born in 1921.  He is called the father of “the Big Game”, father of the Pro Tour, and one of the greatest tennis players of all time. My first tennis racquet was a green colored “Jack Kramer”, bought at the Ft. Eustis, Va. PX . It cost about $ 9 bought with quarter tips from bagging groceries.


I met David Kramer, Jack’s son, in 1969 in Almeria, a  beach town on the eastern end of the Costa Del Sol, 80 miles up the Med shore from Malaga.  David was a uniquely different person, with a background like no-one that I had ever met.  The son of a great man who was famous around the world, David had run in circles that I would never experience.  He had grown up in the middle of the “Hollywood movie crowd”.  He was different from the “brat pack” folk however.  At age 23 or so he was committed to Transcendental Meditation, was a follower of the Maharishi, and had worked at his Iowa university.  Dave has a good beard and always talked with his hands; he had an expressive face and plenty of funny stories to tell, especially about people whose names I recognized immediately.  He had little ego out front, which was interesting considering the folks he ran with in Bel Air.  He was an excellent tennis player in his own right and had coached Arthur Ashe on how to improve his game thru meditation.

In May 1969 Dave and I made a run across the sea to North Africa and came back to Spain on the overnight ferry with 2 pounds of illegal marijuana.

We had been hanging out in Almeria grabbing bit-parts in the movies that rolled through the town, drinking cheap beer on the beach, and floating on the blue Mediterranean.  We were frustrated in the small amounts of pot that came and went and decided to assume responsibility and go get some.  Not the brightest thing that we had ever done.  Francisco Franco, the “Claudillo”, Spanish dictator for 36 years had imposed a culture of fear on the country. There was heavy student repression by the Guardia Civil.  There were stories of secret police and hitchhiking “hipsters” being shot. Women were not allowed to have their own bank accounts or teach in universities.  Almeria had been the last republican city to surrender to the Franco’s Fascist army so there were lots of Guardia around, all the time.

It was an old fashioned place – all the months I lived there none of us guys ever had even a conversation with one of the beautiful young Spanish ladies who walked with their chaperones each evening on El Paseo de Almeria.  We movie hanger-on’s kept our friendships to the few dozens expat, 20-something guys and girls who had trickled into town for the jobs.   The folks who had gathered here included Americans, Brits, Australians, Argentinians, and Canadians.  If you had a reasonably fair complexion you were able to go to Estudio Espania that ran the nuts and bolts for the big production companies like Sergio Leoni or David Lean and find out when the next casting call would result in the morning line up and selection by the casting manager of that months spaghetti western.

My pal Lou Branson had first met Dave in one of the cafes or watering holes in which we hung.  Lou and I had been sharing rooms in pensions in the old town and a few days later I too met Dave.  We had landed a few parts in “Patton” which was being filmed in Almeria.  Dave had actually been hired in California as part of the “core company” actors and was on a weekly salary.  He’d been with the company for weeks before we came, filming the winter battle scenes in northern Spain, and also down in Rabat for Moroccan army scenes.  He had been in a number of roles and is the guard saluting George C Scott at the door as he assumes his african command of the II Corps.

As the work in Patton wound down Dave made a decision to leave the company.  He felt that this was “good duty” – hanging around the narrow atmospheric streets of this old Andalusian fishing and mining town, whitewashed stucco town houses, Moorish castle on the hill, cobbled streets, wrought iron lamps glowing in the soft evening air.  We’d eat in the cheap bistros at the Mercado Central – for 30 pesetas we’d be offered a slug from the patrons jug along with a dinner of half a roast chicken, french fries, and all the bread and white wine we wanted – that was about 40 cents.  Tapas in the bars and seafood Paella on Thursday evening… Dave thought “why leave all this?”

Louie and I had come into town on a late night train from Granada and got a room on Rambla Obera – 2 blocks down hill from the market.  As we started to work, we moved to a sweet place called the Pension Oriental.  We had our own rooms at 25 pesetas a night.  It was in the old center of town where the alleys and lanes could take no cars and presented a maze to the uninitiated.  I had a corner room on the 1st floor, with 8 foot double french doors on each side with wrought iron grills. I’d sleep with my windows open to the warm spring night and listen to murmured spanish conversations as couples strolled through the late evening shadows.  The pension housekeeper was Encarna; she had a small ensuite room on the flat roof  where we’d go and sit and smoke in the hot sun or moonlight.   I couple of times, when I was between parts and out of money, Encarna brought me a loaf of bread and a can of sardines.  I ended up living here for 5 months, until June when I left and went up to Madrid.

the beach by Dave’s and my house

As David left the Patton crew we got jobs in a James Garner movie called “A Men Called Sledge”.   We had a couple of friends who were English girls who had been playing around the Costa Del Sol and had been dating some of the actors who came and went with the movies.  We all decided to rent a house out at the beach called Playa Luminoso.  Louie had decided to move on but I was having pretty good luck with jobs  This was a nice idea so we got a place which was 8 to 10 blocks from the Gran Hotel Almeria which was the heart of the movie social action.  The little house was just off the sand and gave us a place to have some parties and chillout when not working.  I still liked the atmosphere at the Oriental so I kept that room and slept there half the time.

So that was pretty much the situation when David and I decided we needed some pot.

Melilla Harbor

Melilla is a small Spanish town that sits on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa.  It is 50 miles or so west of the border between Morocco and Algeria, on the edge of the area called the “Rif”.  Most people would be amazed to hear it is part of Spain – it is about all that is left of what was once  “Spanish Morocco”.  There have been several heavy battles over it between the Spanish Army and local Berbers militias from the Rif mountains.  The townspeople are mainly Spanish, army troops who loved it and stayed, but there are Berbers too and it “feels” North African.   In 1969 it was a rather big village with the Moroccan border a mere mile west of the Spanish harbor.

Dave and I got off the overnight ferry from Almeria at 0700.  We asked directions to the market and headed west, up the single main street, in the direction of the Moroccan border.  The 2-3 story stucco buildings were a wash of pastels, a mix of Mediterranean and Moorish style circa the 1930’s.  We stopped in a cafe for croissants and several coffees.  I noticed a few bottles of Absinthe, a storied drink, illegal in most places.  Different.

As the caffein woke us up after the 11 hours nap on the boat’s deck we began the mission.

Here’s what we had to do over the next 11 hours – in this order more or less:

    • find a hotel open and ready to rent us a room
    • a room private enough to allow us to pack and hide the pot
    • find the marketplace
    • find someone to sell us the pot
    • score the pot
    • buy some tape and scissors ( not thinking ahead on that one)
    • get back to the hotel room and hide the grass on our bodies
    • go catch the 6 pm ferry back to Almeria…

…to say nothing of clearing the Spanish customs and Guardia when we got there.

The road ran up from the harbor  for 6 or 8 blocks and we found a good room in a small hotel on a side lane. It was on the top floor and had a good size window that opened out onto a slanted, tile roof with no other places overlooking it – very private.  From there we strolled up thru the colonial buildings towards the open market, five or six blocks west.

The ground of the market was damp packed dirt, uneven levels, as if a dozer had pushed it around. Rickety wooden and canvas stands were laid out in rough concentric squares of a couple of lanes each. The stalls didn’t seem very full and the vegetables and fruits weren’t beautiful.  Piles of squash and oranges were strewn on rough blankets in the dirt.  A hundred or so vendors and shoppers milled slowly around.  We approached some boys here, some men there, looking in their eyes and asking “Kief?” with an questioning lift of the chin.

We had been wandering around for 20 minutes or so and were beginning to feel disappointment creeping in.  Then two youngsters of ten or twelve came up and asked “Kief?”.  We said “Si. Si.” and began to follow them across to the south side  and down a packed dirt street between some apartments.  There on a corner stood a large, broad fellow of about our age.  Brown with muscular shoulders and short clipped hair he looked like a boxer, not at all like the slight spaniards and arabs who we usually saw.  He greeted us in arabic.

The discussion didn’t take long even with the 12 year olds doing the translation between arabic and spanish/english.  In broken spanish/english they told him we wanted a kilo of grass and needed it in the next 3-4 hours.  They said we’d have to go with him pointing up into the scraggily fields and woods towards the border.  They said it would cost us 1500 pesetas which was about $20.  This, plus ferry fare and money for the room, was getting close to all we had.  If this didn’t work then – BOOM – failed  mission.  We realized we had no way of telling if this guy was on the level. Dave and I had a short sidebar and agreed to give it a try.  We exchanged names – his was muslim, maybe Hamal, the Ram – as I remember that’s what he looked like.  With that we headed towards the defile of a dry riverbed and wound our way along the banks under the tree line.

Melilla, the map

We walked for 30 minutes out into the mid-morning heat of the African coast.  We were in a semi-forest of scrub bush and thin trees, the riverbed on our left, skirting occasional small grain fields.  Hamal had let three of the pipsqueaks go with us.  They were clearly on an adventure and yacked incessantly.  After a time we pulled into a thicket under some light pine trees and the youngsters said we were all to wait there while Hamal went further south.  He would have to sneak across the fenced border and off into Morocco where he’d get the grass.  We jawed a bit, thru the kids, to try and assess the danger – he seemed to say not to worry – he did this frequently.  He didn’t seem concerned so we agreed and sat down to relax.

To put this junket in perspective, there was a story going around in those parts about an american guy who was in jail.  About six months before our trip he’d bought $100 worth of hash one evening in Tetuan (also in the Rif).  Then he went back to his hotel room before heading out of town.  Shortly thereafter his room was crashed by a bunch of  cops and he was busted.  The sellers had turned around and turned him into the cops, getting some reward money in the form of part of the hash returned to sell to the next naive foreigners.  As far as the story went this cat was still cooling off in a mountain prison.  Who knows how true it was?

Moroccan dry riverbed

We pulled out some oranges – morocco had great oranges – and some biscuits and snacked for a while.   Then Dave walked out into the river bed and did a reconnoissance.  I walked around in the sparse wood and thicker bushes, observing we were next to a field of thick, deep grasses, about ready to be baled. The youngsters moved out and back into the scrub as well – just checking it out. All was quiet, no one around.  The sun climbed and the time slipped by.  We chatted with the boys – all the usual questions and answers.  Dave and I would check each other’s eye every so often – our nerves were getting tense as the minutes passed into hours.  Dave went out into the middle of the dry sand river and sat down and began to build sand castles.  I saw his never quiet hand shaping the sand piles, his long fingers moving like a music director, smoothing the walls and towers. I lay down, pulled my hat over my head and closed my eyes, listened to the crickets.  Soon we’d been waiting over two hours.  The grommets asked if we were nervous?  I said no, but that was a fib. One of the boys went off in the direction of the border.  We were just hanging – considering the possibility that we’d never see our smuggler or 20 Dollars again.

With a crash and a yell the pastoral scene exploded in yelps and jumps as the 12 year old who’d gone after Hamal came running back, jabbering in arabic to his buddies who were jumping around, grabbing shoulders, and spinning like young dervish’s.  Dave and I looked at each other with shock – “what the hell?” we cried.  The kid started unwinding a story that said Hamal had had some big trouble and was on his way back but that he’d lost the grass AND the money.

At that Hamal broke into the thicket, breathing hard and with a wild look in his eye. He flopped onto the ground, trying to catch his breath.  We squatted around him.  He and the the boys began a babble.  In the broken languages the story was told like some wild roundelay, everyone talking in loud voices, repeating each line that Hamal threw out between gasps and swallows like a bizarre repetitive chorus with theme and variation in 3 languages.

Dave and I managed to quiet things down a bit – we sat around Hamal.  He was angry – he was cursing the police and looking hard at Dave and me with angry, pained eyes.  The chorus went something like this:

(us)    What the hell Hamal, you’ve lost our grass? and our money?

(him)    Yes man that’s it…and I am ripshit about it…

(us)      Wait a minute man, we need our money!

(him)    What about me guys..are you kidding – I am lucky I’m not in jail

( the kids)    Yeah he could be in big trouble!

( us)    You said this was no sweat!

(him)    It’s those bastard border guards – they grabbed me on the way back!

(the kids)    Yeah those police are nasty!

(us)    Are you giving us a line of bullshit?

(him)    No man! are you kidding – I could be in deep shit!

(the kids)    How could you accuse him of bullshit man?? He’s probably in big trouble!

At that point we were very close to the edge of panic

(us)    Do we need to get outta here? Are the police coming?

(him)    I don’t know.  I think you are alright.  But I’ve lost everything

I looked at one of the two kids who had been hanging with us sharing oranges and cookies, chatting about america.  I stared him in the eye

(us)    Is he bullshitting us – don’t lie – tell me the truth.

(the kid)    No, No it’s all true.

(Hamal)    What are you saying? don’t talk to the gringo.

With that Hamal smacked the 12 year old kid hard across the back off his head; telling him again

(Hamal)   don’t you talk to this gringo!

Things were getting violent.

Dave looked hard at me, standing up to his full 6 foot 1 over the group –

    “Do you think we need to get out of here?  Cut our losses? This is getting a bit too tense man”

Well, at his point we had to fish or cut bait as the saying goes.

I said to Dave “These guys are putting us on” and turned to Hamal

(me to Hamal)    You are putting us on aren’t you?

(him)    No way man

With that I turned back to the kid and grabbed him with a stare: 

    “Ok kid, the joke’s over. Let’s just have a good laugh.  Come on, we get it.” 

With that the kid broke into a big, big smile and looked at Hamal – and Hamal started to laugh, Dave began to chuckle, Hamal rubbed the head of the slapped kid fondly, and before you knew it we were all rolling on the ground in one big laugh party.

Hamal said “sorry” they were just fooling around.  He hoped we didn’t mind the joshing.  It was all in good fun.  We were obviously good guys and they were our friends…

We asked where the grass was and he sent one of the boys off to get it.  We had to get moving, we had a boat to catch in a few hours.

Now when you bought a kilo of grass in those days in San Francisco it came power pressed and wrapped into a large brick a bit bigger than a ream of writing paper.  We hadn’t expected that quality service but we were more than a bit surprised when the boys came into the thicket staggering under six enormous pot plants, chopped off at the roots. “Holy Crap” we thought.  We believed it went without saying that we wanted it cleaned – now what?  We jabbered a bit with the crew but slowly realized we had what we had. The guys help us pull the plants into the grass field where we sat down in the deep grain and pulled out the plastic bags that we’d brought.  As we pulled the branches from the thick stalks we realized why hemp made such good rope – this stuff was stringy, tough, and, by the way, full of goopy, sticky resin.

It took the better part of an hour to get the plants stripped down to branches that could be bent in two and roughly stuffed into the bags.  By then it was about two o’clock, the guys had left, we were baking in the hot sun, and we were running out of time.  We had to speed up.  We felt the eyes of the world were on these two nutcases walking back through the town with torn bags showing strange green branches poking our all through the tears.  Nevertheless, we slipped back into the hotel and up to our room without a problem.  Dave went out to buy scissors and adhesive tape while I continued to field strip the pot.

As we stripped the leaves and buds we packed them in the remaining plastic bags.  Then we stepped and sat on them to try and get the unruly twigs to squash down.  It seemed we cleaned it, cleaned it again, and then cleaned it some more.  Twigs kept popping up, we’d chase them down and root ‘em out…endlessly.  All the time we are getting more and more resin on our hands and legs and the rich inhale was getting to us.  Finally we began the process of strapping the bags to our thighs and back with the adhesive tape.

the airline bag

I think the layout was something like this.  We had four bags that were maybe a third of a pound each.  Dave had a bag on one leg and a bag strapped to his back.  I had the same.  We had an old beat up “airplane bag” whose zipper didn’t close and a backpack.  We put one remaining bag of about a half pound in the bottom of the flight bag and stuffed old socks, books, and oranges on top of it.  This large bag weighed maybe 8 ounces or so – not too big except that we could sure have used a vacuum packer..the bags were light but bulky.  It added up to just under 2 pounds – after final cleaning in Almeria probably one and a half pounds.  In one ounce baggies we’d get 25 or so and could sell ’em for $15 a bag or so – a nice $300-400.  We could easily lived on $1 a day: room, food, latte’s, and beer. So had a couple of months of living in those bags.  We checked around the room and saw the stack of stripped stalks.  We had planned to take them and dump them but by now it was after 6 pm and the boat was going at 7.  Thanking our stars for the luck on the room, Dave crawled out and hid the stalks under a roof overhang.  We were ready for the home run and the big chill – getting past the immigration and customs police, and headed down the main street for the harbor.

There were two ferry boats, each running a round trip each day, early morning and early evening.  Dave and I settled in for the 120 mile voyage on a couple of deck chairs.  Despite our nervousness we managed to sleep – a godsend really.  We got up from the deck about 45 minutes before docking.  We spent it going over simple stuff to do as we would face the Aduanas officials.  Have the passports out, proffer them-don’t wait to be asked, look them softly in the eye, shirts tucked in, wait towards the end, don’t stand in line too long, etc, etc..actually that’s about all we could think of.    I know we discussed it a lot, but, I can’t recall if we went up together or separately but I think separately because I seem to remember agreeing to split up as we walked thru the town. I don’t know that we were frightened, per se, the adrenalin had kicked in so we just wanted to do it.

The immigration and customs tent was one.  There was a small folding table about 8 feet long and three or four different uniforms, including a couple of Guardia Civil, on the six or eight men checking passports and bags simultaneously.  Over to one side I think there were other officials inspecting bigger bags and large bundles and boxes.  I stepped up – handing over the passport and putting the bag down, zipper wide open as if welcoming inspection.  As he looked at the passport, I looked at my guy with an open face I asked him “Que hora esta?” I stuck my hand put for the passport as he looked at his watch.  As he handed me the passport he said “Siete y veinte” and looked me in the eye.  I thanked him graciously, said a Dios and picked up the flight bag at the same time. I turned without looking at Dave and strolled off.

We met up for a minute on the other side of the lovely park that runs along the Almeria waterfront.  There was absolutely no sign of trouble – David had glided through as well.  So we abandoned the split-up plan and walked together, full of excitement and relief, through the old city streets.  Past the Cathedral steps where a few weeks before we had played our roles in the British marching band while George C Scott welcomed the embarrassed Michael Bates playing Field Marshall Montgomery.  We got back to the Pension Oriental, ripped the bags off, put the stash on the bed, and looked at it glowingly.

I said    “Well what do you want to do?”

Dave said     “Go back to the house and change and shower then come back here and finish cleaning our stuff.”

I said “ Right on!”.

And so it went.

POSTSCRIPT:  In September 2012 I contacted David after 40+ years.  He has had a very successful life with a close family, international living and travel, and a fine career in sports management – which is, of course, all natural and blessed.  I was nervous that I had published this tale without his permission, (he had been with his son all summer playing golf in the British Isles while the lad worked on making the tour).  When we talked on the phone he said “Well it was my life so I guess I have to stand up for it”.  After he read the story he wrote:

“Just read The Midnight Express caper. Will read the others shortly.  Very good memory and very accurate.
 We’ll talk again soon, after Bandon.  So have another great time”
Thanks my friend, gg

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One thought on “MELILLA, North Africa

  1. look forward with great pleasure to meeting you and hearing the Tangier’s Tango. Me wife and I live at 12th & Marshall..need a beer together later on in October.


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