Column: ‘Someone asked me to deliver this package’

  • Paul Keane. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 1/3/2022 10:10:47 PM
Modified: 1/3/2022 10:10:08 PM

Long before I was a high school English teacher, I may have been a drug trafficker.

The National Geographic TV show How to Catch a Smuggler first alerted me to this possible scandal. All the smugglers caught with packages in their luggage give the same sorry alibi to airport inspectors: “Someone asked me to deliver this package for them.”

That’s exactly what happened to me in 1966, when I was a sophomore at Ithaca College. Only in my case it wasn’t an alibi. It was true.

I visited Mexico City with two classmates on our spring break. To be honest, I couldn’t even spell “marijuana” then, let alone recognize the weed itself. And cocaine? All I knew about cocaine was that it had been an ingredient in the original Coca-Cola.

My college pals Tom and Christia and I stayed at the University of Mexico on the Paseo de la Reforma, where Christia’s mother, Mary Roberts, was writer-in-residence as the author of several children’s books. Her modest, four-room cinder block hacienda on campus had just enough room for the three of us, plus Roberts and her puppy, Tutu.

My classmates and I went on an overnight trip to water ski in Acapulco Bay, where I also discovered rodents the size of cats scuttling around the beach in the dark of night. Yuck. Then we returned to Mexico City to visit the pre-Columbian pyramid at Teotihuacán.

A few days later, after visiting Chapultepec Castle, we missed our bus back to campus and decided to hitchhike in the center of Mexico City amid the cars belching soot.

We must have been an odd trio of hitchhikers: Young, Irish and conspicuously freckled American tourists.

After a few minutes, a shining four-door Nash swerved across two lanes traffic to pick us up. A portly middle-aged Mexican man in a suit and tie, accompanied by his wife and kids, motioned from behind the steering wheel for us to hop in the car. He told us in broken English that he owned a dry cleaning business and was on his way home for lunch.

Would we care to join him?

He said he had a cousin who lived in New York, near the big bridge called Washington, and asked if we “American tourists” would take a package to him. I guess he thought all Americans lived near the big bridge.

I was hungry and wanted lunch, so I naively piped up, promising to drive all three of us 200 miles down from Ithaca to South Nyack, near the big bridge, to deliver the dry cleaner’s package when we got back to school.

Dry cleaning must have been profitable in sooty Mexico City because lunch was served at table by a maid.

A few days later, we bid Mary Roberts and Tutu farewell and flew back to Ithaca with our wealthy lunch host’s package in hand. It was about the size of a small briefcase.

I was determined to keep our promise to our kind Mexican lunch host, and I did.

It took a full four years before it dawned on us: We had no idea what was in that package we had delivered to South Nyack in the spring of 1966. By then it was 1970, a year after Woodstock, and we were no longer naive college kids.

I began to realize our previous ignorance might have been a problem.

A dangerous one.

In offering to be the courier for that package, I ensured it would be untraceable.

We didn’t have the slightest idea who that dry cleaner was. No name. No address.

Like they say on How to Catch a Smuggler: “Someone asked us to deliver this package.” And we could say honestly that we didn’t have the name of that someone.

Had that dry cleaner taken three naive American hitchhikers for a different kind of ride than the one they were looking for on the Reforma?

One of Ernest Hemingway’s most famous short stories is The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber about a hunter in Africa who confronts the danger of the lions. We three sophomores didn’t have a short happy life of danger like Macomber, but we may have had a short, naive life of danger as unwitting drug traffickers.

In our naivete, we may have been taken to the cleaners. Perhaps in more ways than one.

Paul Keane lives in Hartford Village.




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