My mother was, if nothing else, unfailingly appropriate in manners and charm. The Canadian equivalent of an old fashioned southern belle playing hostess, is how my aunt described it. Whatever the case, that charm would prove itself an asset on more than a few occasions. For example, successfully convincing my ninth grade teachers that six weeks touring Europe, The Middle East and Southeast Asia would be a good thing for my growing cultural awareness. Besides, she said. “I’ll make sure he does his lessons”. Luckily, they bought it. Unfortunately for me, she stuck to her word.
In the fall of 1982 it would have been more than fair, as well as accurate, to say that my father had written the book on basketball. Literally. As an experienced Olympic referee and referee instructor, he had authored the rule books that the game would be officiated on through most of the 70’s and 80’s. As such, he was always being asked to give clinics in foreign countries. For a 14 year old kid, this translated to an extended summer vacation that often allowed one to miss school and see the world. This time it involved an extended trip to the Middle East, then on to several countries in South East Asia. Including six weeks where Dad was busy with basketball, Mom would no doubt be with him or busy shopping … Yeah, hell I was in. My plan, of course, would be to escape to the pool or elsewhere, preferably alone. Because really, basketball bored the hell out of me. Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be bored for long.
At 14, I suppose I would have been considered fairly well traveled. I had already seen the six continents once, a couple of them several times, and I probably could have listed off, without error, the various aircraft each of the worlds major airlines flew. It was one of those skills that sounded impressive, but in reality just annoyed the hell out of anyone who had the misfortune to hear me recite it. Yet, still, at the age of 14 I was in some ways hopelessly naive. And while I had never actually seen cocaine in person, I most certainly could have told you what it looked like. Since one doesn’t necessarily require visual confirmation of a thing to recall the experience of being almost executed for it. And yes, I mean executed in the literal, barrel pressed against temple sense.
This requires a lead up. Three weeks into the trip had seen us spend a few typically touristy days in London, a long time favorite destination of my parents. Those enjoyable and typically cool British Isle days were followed up by two weeks of an oppressively hot experience in Dubai, the capital of the gulf state United Arab Emirates. While it served as my first introduction to the middle East, and though it proved to be less jarring culturally than would be my intro to Saudi Arabia, dealing with temperatures that at nine am would typically be over one hundred and twenty degrees, didn’t really allow anything beyond swimming, sleeping, and eating.
At that point in my early teens I was already on our provincial swim team, so water sports of any kind could occupy me all day long. I was in my own little utopia, when, each day after usually failing to weasel out of doing school work in the morning, I spent the majority of my days at the hotel pool or the ocean. Where the beaches fronting the Gulf of Arabia had that rare and unique blistering white quality to the sand. However, after two weeks of that game, let’s just say no one needed to tell me twice when the British Airways L-10–11 to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was boarding.
Well, truthfully they did need to tell me, and it was actually more than twice. Being an only child, specifically a 14 year old one with a trait best described as “impatient”, I also possessed an uncanny ability to ensure a rising annoyance in both my parents. Especially when lingering at duty free instead of boarding the flight. Twelve hours later on arrival in Malaysia, and of course being over tired, I suppose the stage was set for what happened next.
If my current ability at predicting negative experiences would have been even remotely seasoned then, it would have required a heavily armed swat team to pry me from inside that plane. No luck. So I think I first knew something was not quite right when the customs agent seemed to be taking an unusually lengthy time examining my carry on backpack, or what had also served as my beach bag. My parents, having already been cleared, stood a few feet away, smiling politely in that deferential, touristy way; which I clearly read as a not so subtle code suggesting “just go with it”. Which is exactly what I did until the agent reached into my bag, pulling out several small kernels of that uniquely white Middle Eastern sand.
I recall trying to contain nervous laughter, as the agent actually put a few kernels on his tongue, his furrowed brow suggesting he might have even known what he was tasting for. Out of what, I think, was largely nervousness and fear, and an atypically assertive personal presence for my age, I stupidly sealed my fate with a louder than intended flip comment. Because for some strange reason, saying to a customs agent, teenage snark in high gear “I think you’re supposed to snort it”, sounds in person much worse than it does when reading it off a page. And in Malaysia, that is a statement that will swing open the gates of hell.
What couldn’t have been more than a few seconds later, there ensued much official sounding yelling in a foreign language, and I was quickly and unexpectedly tackled by a guy dressed in way too official looking police garb. From my new vantage point, face down on the airport floor, and hands painfully cuffed behind my head, I was able to see quite clearly the barrels of several machine guns pointed directly at my face. Still not really grasping what was occurring, I had a clear sense that any chance of a successful outcome would be based on me shutting the fuck up and methodically following direction. I think my ability to actually keep it together was due in part to an overwhelming desire that they not have the satisfaction of seeing my cry. Though whatever reason, it worked. For the period that mattered anyway.
Some two hours later, and after a general confirmation that the kernels were in fact nothing more than garden variety beach sand, we were allowed to leave the customs office. Of course that was after many haltingly translated, and oh so awkward apologies to the “nice family and the blond boy”. Of course to better experience their deeply felt concern over causing us distress, it was insisted we be driven to the Kuala Lumpur Intercontinental hotel, where a suite would be booked, courtesy of the recently hospitable customs department. Or as I still prefer to call them, the humorless fuckers who were more than ready to blow my head all over the airport, because of some beach sand.