Three years ago I began writing down my memories and experiences in the American south as advised by my colleagues at Ch12 WDEF News in Chattanooga, as well as close friends.
I knew my time was ending; visa issues, a dividing America, protests, and uprisings, the beginning of the Trump campaign for president all contributing, coupled with a sadness that, as an immigrant, I only got to come home once a year to Galway and see my parents.
The US I came to live in back in 2012 changed rapidly until I bid farewell in October 2015. It both intrigued and concerned me as a journalist, an immigrant and an Irishman overseas.
On my return to Ireland, I met with Dr. Niall McElwee of Book Hub Publishing from Athenry and he explained that the memories alone could make an interesting publication.
Over the next month, I will publish the final three excerpts from the book, it is called "Through Irish Eyes, a Personal and Journalistic Journey" and welcome your views, comments and input.
This segment is about a record-breaking Marijuana bust I covered while in Tennessee.
Excerpt from "Through Irish Eyes":
Sometimes news breaks and you by choice, luck or misfortune are the first one there.
It's 8am on a warm July morning. My alarm goes off at 8:44 and again at 8:55. It’s that morning phase where you are deciding on returning to sleep or just lie there semi-conscious. Your bladder is hammering away, demanding you get up and visit the toilet, yet you roll around wrapping yourself into a blanketed cocoon and pretend the morning is yours and the toilet can wait.
A wandering hiker inside a forest in middle Tennessee discovers 50 miles away 37,000 marijuana plants.
Your toilet break morphs into a shower; shave and a snatch of a banana and off you go down to the woods because we are in for a big surprise. Driving at speed, in large vehicles with good visibility fueled by adrenaline leaves road a black and grey blur, time reaches that odd point where it neither slows or speeds up but exists and you and it are one, moving, roving, floating and gone.
Read more: Crossing The Mason-Dixon
Trees and trees and trees, dark, green all around intermeshing, traffic non-existent and climbing and climbing, revving and then hard revving, fighting gravity as your tires devour the tarmac beneath, searching across a mountain for this remote destination.
Google Maps can be your friend in a tornado disaster zone but in a forest, can be your enemy. Roads merged into each other to be replaced by dirt tracks and finally, a small metal gate festooned in sinewy branches popped into view. Some had broken off and lay on the dirt road, to the left of the gate was a tiny little white house.
It was old maybe a hundred years in age, in need of paint and had darkened dirty black windows. Slowly I stepped out of the jeep and waved at the house, I felt silly but I often used this technique, I opened the back doors and took out my camera and microphone waving them at the battered closed front door.
I placed the camera slowly on the ground with its lens facing away from the house. Carefully I raised the microphone in front of me like a small dagger and waved it back and forth at the door and then placed it slowly on the ground to the left of the camera and jeep. Step by step, my heart beating, I made my way to the door and knocked. Children’s cries filtered from the grimy mailbox flap.
The grating sound of a sliding bolt and the jangle of an extra chain and standing right in front of me was a huge woman. She must have been 6ft 5. Long dirty black hair, tanned skin, almost native American looking, a ripped apron and barefoot. Her dark brown eyes looked sad and lost, wrinkles on her forehead and dirty fingernails making her look much older than her 30 something years of age. Three small children all young girls, barefoot, fearfully clung to her apron and she looked me up and down her lower lip trembling.
“Hi, ahm, yea, we don’t get many visitors.”
“That’s fine, sorry to bother you, I am looking for a forest with almost 40
million dollars worth of pot.”
“Yea it’s meant to be near here, are there any isolated wooded areas or
have you seen anything strange round here recently?”
“Ah ah ah, well if you keep going down that road, you come to a gate, there are cameras on the gate, hidden high up in the trees, we pick black berries there, we never knew why there were cameras”.
Before she finished the last syllable, I had glanced back and reviewed the gate, eyes trailing the trees for wires and reflections off camera lenses. I snatched the camera and microphone from behind me, flung them both into the back seat and kicked the back door closed.
I reversed straight back down the driveway and yanked the steering wheel to my left and spun back on to the dirt road. I drove straight towards the old gates, tapping them slowly with my front bumper, they eased open, creaking eerily. I couldn’t see the damn cameras.
Behind the gate was a grass road with pine trees lined up on either side with high grasses blocking your view. Rolling down the road, I could, see, hear or smell nothing.
Then it all changed. As I eased around a small bend, a low flying helicopter zoomed across right in front of me, just feet off the ground, dragging a net of marijuana plants, huge dark green military dump trucks, cops everywhere, torches, and forklifts, vans and Dodge Chargers in a giant circle with a huge pile of marijuana lying in front of them.
Pairs of sheriff’s deputies and investigators wandering around with pitchforks while others zipped between them on ATV’s. Surrounding us were pine trees and wilderness. I pulled in slowly behind a van whose back doors were bulging open with marijuana plants, some stuck out at the bottom, more were left in the passenger seat leaving just enough room for a driver. The helicopter bobbed down its net dragging more and more plants into the giant pile in the center of this colossal operation.
Millions of dollars of pot plants were laying in front of me, as I staggered across the grass to the pile, I slipped falling into a ditch and thousands of dollars more worth of buds and branches. A drug enforcement agent offered his hand, pulling me up. The smell was intoxicating.
“We don’t have enough vehicles to take it all it in,” he said as a gruff-looking deputy passed by with a wry smile on his face.
I shot video, close-ups, wide shots, tracking the helicopter, the diggers, the trucks, and the vans as plant after plant stacked up. An hour must have gone by and I was still on my own in this marijuana forest, miles from a main road, shop or petrol station.
“The whole place is wired you know,” the same deputy glanced over at
me muttering under his breath, his gloves stained green.
“Cameras everywhere, remote controlled watering systems, computer
servers covered with canopies, this is insane.”
Hidden away from the world in Grundy County Tennessee, the
seizure broke records and bemused even more. Surely someone
maintained these plants, someone had to own the property. How long
was this going on for?
Through Irish Eyes is available in Kindle form on Amazon.
It is available for international order from Book Hub Publishing.
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