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George Wienbarg

George Wienbarg: I Went Undercover For The Cheyenne Police Dept When I Was 17

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By George Wienbarg, guest columnist

When we were growing up pot grew by the acre in the barrow ditches along Old US Hiway 30. Anyone with a pickup who knew what the stuff looked like could pick as much as they wanted and bring it to town to sell or give away

Actually, this was hemp which is another type kind of cannabis farmed for rope-making during World War II and the plant grew like the weed it is, tangled under the barbed wire fields and standing with the Burma-Shave signs from Cheyenne to Omaha. 

Today hemp has other uses. As most people know it is refined into CBD for various health extracts, foods and cosmetics. And though the efficacy of these concoctions remains debatable, a hue and cry would go up if you tried telling that to the industry people who sold $6.8 billion in CBD -derived products in the last year. 

Hemp is also used today in composites, building materials, plastics, industrial oils, paper and textiles—all now manufactured from the same weeds we picked out of the barrow ditches in the 60s. 

During those hyper-vigilant, drug riddled 60s, cannabis sativa in any form was considered a deadly Schedule I narcotic. Even now the Federal Government has deemed the hallucinogenic component of cannabis, THC,  illegal in all fifty states; even though most of everybody knows there is a gray area between state and federal marijuana laws. Nineteen states have legalized recreational marijuana, the Feds have not. And even though fully thirty-seven states have legalized the use of medical marijuana, the federal government still considers possessing, buying, or selling marijuana a crime.

Hemp—the rope-making kind of marijuana—has about the same narcotic effect as puffing on a rolled up brown paper bag, like we used to do in Boy Scouts. (We were a fringe troop!) Or sitting on a haystack, looking at the moon, smoking a lit up alfalfa straw. All that didn’t matter to us. We just wanted to smoke whether it was cigarettes, cigars, cigarillos, pipes, candy cigarettes—anything! But for me and countless others from Charlie Parker on down to Bill Clinton and Barak Obama, pot was a definite focal point of curiosity mid 20th Century. The jury is out on George Bush, by the way, but everybody assumes the 43rd president blazed up as well.

For me pot was beguiling, especially after seeing it vilified in the 1936 antidrug film Reefer Madness as an eighth-grader at Carey Junior High. Nothing, I thought, could be that preposterous; drinking out of broken Coke bottles, manslaughter and murder,  “…the burning weed with its roots in hell!”      

Return to the Straight and Narrow

As a tour guide on harbor boats here in New York, I work under the auspices of the U.S. Coast Guard, in the same harbor where the 9-11 terrorist attacks took place. I’ve gotten used to being randomly drug tested when my number comes up. As such my pot days are behind me in a cloud of smoke (ahem) as even hemp or CBD can  show up in a Coast Guard—or any other—drug test. 

Don’t Mess Around with Slim

Back in the ditch-weed days, there was a diligent, almost psychotic anti-drug enforcement campaign world wide. Every government agency from the White House down wanted to arrest and prosecute anyone who had the slightest bit to do with the evil weed. Repressive governments worldwide still use drugs as an excuse to crack heads; to wit, Brittany Griner vs Russia. 

For most of us it’s a matter of job security to stay clean and sober. Because the fact is, one literally cannot function while under the influence of Pink Cush or Shishkaberry, not to mention the fact that this type of pot is traceable for at least a month; longer in hair follicles. 

The effects of THC today are exponentially more intoxicating and infinitely more debilitating than marijuana strains a half century ago. 

A New Part-Time Job

It was around the time of free love—and free hemp in 1968 that I was hired by the Cheyenne Police Department to be a freelance undercover narcotics agent. It was the same year Mod Squad came on the scene starring Peggy Lipton—(Rashida Jones’s mom, for the media savvy), Michael Cole and Clarence Williams, as three young reprobates forced to become police officers for the LAPD.

The award-winning ABC crime drama ran for five years with a storyline exactly like the one I’m about to describe. Only this one really happened! To me!

Just a Normal Kid

I had been enjoying an otherwise fine Cheyenne autumn when I accidentally left two marijuana cigarette butts, “roaches,” in my best friend’s red, 1967 Mustang convertible. His mom borrowed said convertible one day and found those damn roaches to do what any self respecting Wyoming mom of a high schooler in the sixties would do: turned us into the police. My career as narc for the Cheyenne police department was about to begin. 

To avoid what chief of detectives  Rudy Restivo told my parents would surely be a stint in the Worland Boys Detention Center, with a very good chance of doing time making license plates in Rawlins, rimrocked, I agreed to his ultimatum. Anyone who’s ever done any amount of climbing will know what “rimrocked” means. You can’t climb up, and you can’t get down. 

Until that moment, sitting in my parents living room, with Rudy’s cigar tinged breath only feet from us, I had led what could be termed a very respectable life for a teenager.

I was a DJ at KRAE playing The Beatles and Creedence Clearwater with chances to produce a few bands on my own at the Cheyenne Pavillion. I ran hurdles at East making it to the State meet and somehow even voted onto student council.

I had never considered myself to be especially wild but knew there had always been those who were. In fact, I had it upon good authority that Rudy and his cronies Jim Backus and Wally Lemke, my “handlers,” at the CPD had been known to kick up their heels upon occasion. Every generation from Butch Cassidy to Buffalo Bill were hell-raisers generations before us. We come from a long line of partiers in Old Wyo!

Most straightened out. The difference was that previous generations of teen angst were alcohol-fueled, whereas ours/mine was blazin’ joints on Make-out Hill. After marijuana it was LSD, psilocybin, cocaine, opioids, speed and every Schedule I narcotic in between. Most of these compounds today considered, or actually now employed, for medicinal use. 

My buddy and I got $45 a day to go around buying whatever we could from the kids who were selling, or “holding.” A few were imprisoned, others got turned by Rudy and his crew, to save their own skins. 

The CPD had even sanctioned firearms for us. Mr. Jensen, our high school principal had acquiesced to our undercover work—including the weaponry — as did Tom Bauman my boss at KRAE, and my poor, dear beleaguered, parents who were sure I would either be thrown in jail or killed without a gun. 

We carried our weapons to high school in shoulder holsters hidden under our East High letter sweaters. For me, it was a S&W Chief’s Special .38 with a 2-inch barrel, and a WWII-era, .45 semi-automatic for my friend. A local doctor had lent them to us — with police approval.

I still worked at the radio station, promoted my concerts, went to school, and competed at track meets by day. By night, pretending to be drug pushers and stoners, busting kids from the other high school and the South Side. I had just turned seventeen. 

By the way, most of my friends at East knew about this lunacy. Those we hadn’t told, suspected. But the narrative of drug abuse, propounded by — literally everyone, had America hornswoggled. 

On the night of the big “drug kingpin” roundup, we agreed to be handcuffed and taken off to city jail to make everything look kosher. My friend and me were responsible for thirty-seven arrests and seventeen convictions, so I was told. I still feel guilty. And I am sorry.  On behalf of myself, the City of Cheyenne and the Great State of Wyoming. I am so very sorry.

My friend went off to Vietnam and I never saw him again. I went off to other levels of “accomplishment,” such as selling the Hollywood Sign, and helping build the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. But nothing topped what I felt by being coerced into duplicitousness by the people I trusted most. 

And in answer to know-nothings like Ferris Bueller: We all may have a little something to hide. As for me, a few things things to fear. Maybe the best reason of all for leaving. 

“But we were older then,” as Dylan sang, “we’re younger than that now.”

—George Wienbarg

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George Wienbarg: Why I Moved Back To Wyoming And Then Moved Back To New York Again

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By George Wienbarg, guest columnist

It all started 3 months ago in The Summer of ‘22. After years of waffling, I had decided to drive a U-Haul truck back home to Wyoming. In it: everything I owned.  I left on July 4th, the same day I’d arrived. It was Cheyenne’s 155th anniversary. 

After arriving with $35 in my pocket, two suitcases, and a guitar in 1981, I had now been considering my escape from New York City for well over a decade. 

Being a great-great nephew of William Frederick Cody I think Wyoming may have called out louder to me than most.

And though every Wyomingite has a reason for being here, whether from the military, a tourist who came back after seeing our outdoors, someone stopping off from an I-80 or I-25 detour, or anyone else who’s seen the grandeur of the state in a movie or visited someone who’d already been smitten—for whatever the reason, we came. 

On previous trips, a week or so would be all the time I’d have needed to visit relatives and friends, get a breath of fresh prairie air and head back into the fray; the honking horns, constant construction, people yelling, subways rattling and hundreds of museums, educational institutions and media outlets of New York.

This time, however, in the Summer of ‘22, I put my four decades of “winnings” into that rental rig and headed over the mighty Mississippi, west to the Magic City of the Plains—for good. Or so I thought. 

When I got back “home” around July 5th, the Cheyenne Transit Program immediately hired me to drive one of their a PARA transit jitneys. It was simple. Since our family had a farm, and I had driven the church bus at First Baptist, so it was easy.

Besides, in the Summer of ‘22 Cheyenne weather was exquisite, and it gave me a chance to see how my town’s cup had started to run all over Laramie County. Talk about a growth spurt! Also, there was no wind and only the afternoon rains that come during Frontier Days. 

But when the other CTP drivers, 3 ex-police officers and an ex-airman, found out I was from New York all bets were off. The reason, illogically, was that being from New York already signaled I was liberal.

I made the mistake of bringing up Liz, who was just about to be expelled, and  nobody much wanted to discuss why with me.

After working in news for so many years in New York City I simply had to broach the subject of politics, gauche or not. I lasted at CTP for 2 weeks. Was that the existential version of being tarred and feathered?

A few other little things caused me to start glancing over my shoulder Eastward. 

Folks with guns were a surprising aspect of my homecoming. Though it’s something I might be seeing more of here in New York.

Wyoming has always espoused 2nd Amendment rights and we may have led the way in promoting broader acceptance since the recent Supreme Court decision recently allowing guns outside the home here in NYC.

I was still somewhat unnerved at a family gathering where one guest arrived at the Olive Garden dinner wearing a Glock on his hip like the county sheriff or an off-duty armored car driver.

That surely wasn’t the way I remembered gun manners in the 80s when I left Cheyenne, even though open carry has been legal for a hundred years or more. A few times people actually felt compelled to hand me their loaded weapons to inspect like we were in an elementary school show and tell or a trust ritual of some kind. 

Things change. Yes they sure do!

A predominant local view of the outside world was poignantly illustrated to me at the Donny Sands car show in August when I overheard a lady near me say, “I don’t read books.”

Since I’d just come from the publishing capital of the world, and am a writer, that glib statement stopped me short. Other people I met in my travels say they don’t do Facebook, use email, text or even voicemail—much less the Internet—at all! “Don’t call me, I won’t call you, but drop over anytime!”

I view much of this as the result of social pushback. The incredible onslaught of newspaper, radio, television, magazine and Internet influence that emanates from New York is rammed down our throats there and can result in an emotional disconnect.

Kind of like, “It barks over here and bites over there.” Or, instead of a gun, it’s the media, talking in New York, and influencing the rest of the country. 

I learned Wyoming’s newspaper and television outlets are now homogenized as in many other smaller communities around the country. This made fortunes for small town operators after FCC deregulation over the years.

Researchers get an average pulse of the cities, states and regions they target, then deliver a statistically palatable, familiar and relatable version of their content to that target average. In the end, consumers are left to digest views that are not only alien—but anathema.

Hateful or not, people in entire communities remain alienated by the floodgates of information delivered by vast networks—think iHeart, and Audible, Fox, CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN,—over which we have little input and no control.

Our now marginalized personal views are forced to crystallize into the basic precepts we already know we can comfortably hang onto. Politicians then pander to this “groupthink” and legislate according to what research dictates. A vicious cycle. 

I got a pretty good taste of our Wyoming media on this last sojourn home. The excellent Cowboy State Daily is, by the way, a worthy stand-in for our poor deceased local newspapers. 

I was honored to be featured in an article in the CSD when I first arrived back home in July and was consequently offered an on-air position at the local television station, which I declined.

Both of these experiences gave me a taste of the current state of news gathering and dissemination in Cheyenne and the Great State of Wyoming.

Exiting Cheyenne at the end of August, leaving all of the “baggage,” i.e., notebooks, furniture, clothes, kitchen stuff, broadcasting equipment, etc. behind in one of Cheyenne’s many storage units, I arrived back in New York at the beginning of September after two months of proving true Thomas Wolfe’s adage that “you can’t go home again.”

I had something more with me this time than I had when I arrived in New York City four decades ago. It was this adage: The leaving is easy; it’s the coming back that’s hard. This goes for both for the coming and going. 

—George Wienbarg III

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