By Ethan Weinstein
When I first met Oke, he rolled up to the Mountain Times in his 90s Saab. I thought the sedan was a Porsche, black and angular. It looked like the past’s version of the future.
Oke walked inside dressed in his usual: the straw hat he dons and doffs with neurotic regularity, a safari shirt unbuttoned to expose wispy hairs surrounding a necklace made with an Indian hide-scraping stone. Dual croakies dangled from his neck, one gripping sunglasses with wrap-around glare blockers, the other, glasses, wire-framed. And then there were his bare feet, gnarled and scaly like a chicken’s from constant exposure to all elements.
He walked in as though known. I, though, did not know him. Moving to leave, he walked to my desk, his hand fiddling in his pocket. Out he pulled a small gold vessel, its domed cap unscrewed. From inside he plucked a thin filtered joint, one of many. “Want one?” he asked, hand outstretched. Uh huh. And with that, he walked back to the Saab.
We began running Oke an ad. “Ain’t dead yet,” it read. “Oke needs ‘electricity.’”
“I have enjoyed living in ‘Chateuguay’ [Barnard – 1980-2003, Bridgewater 2003-2021] with propane only, but it is time for me to move to electricity. I am looking for an unfurnished small cabin, or a small house, or a quiet apartment in the Killington area.
“I am a ‘Mature Hippie’ in my 70s. I’m single with no pets, only a smoker of marijuana and not fussy. Willing to barter, be a caretaker, pay cash rent, etc.”
Then, his contact info, and the soles of two cartoon feet.
With each visit, Oke unloaded more of his life history, either verbally or in the form of carefully kept records. The event that sped up his full-time life in Killington he liked best to tell. Nothing else from the past seemed to occupy so much space in his mind.
In January 1970, Oke (James ‘Oke’ O’Brien Jr.) was busted for pot possession by Paul Lawrence (what an end to the ‘60s?!). Lawrence, as Oke likes to say, was one very bad cop. A crooked cop, who busted roughly 600 people before he was finally himself busted in 1976. Lawrence’s story has been immortalized in the New York Times, Time, and Hamilton Davis’s book, “Mocking Justice.” Seventy-six of the people Lawrence busted, including Oke, received pardons.
Oke’s bust wasn’t too serious — he spent a night in jail, and got off with a fine. But now a criminal, the event changed the course of his life. He could no longer work for Heublein, an alcoholic beverage producer and distributor. In fact, he found he could no longer work in the straight world at all. He’d been an accountant in charge of government work — a “three-piece, briefcase accountant,” as Oke never fails to specify. He was in his mid-20s at the time, a fact Oke always points to, as if astounded to deduce his past intelligence. He must have been smart, he figures, for he had so much responsibility at such a young age. But he can hardly identify with that man now — a boy, really — who lived straight and worked for the man, only visiting Killington on the weekends.
His job involved handling Heublein’s state and federal taxes. This meant dealing with anywhere from $6 to $14 million a month, processing thousands of forms, accounting for every dollar and cent, every gallon of wine and ounce of booze. In the last three days of the month, Oke had to ensure everything was in order, every ‘I’ dotted and ‘T’ crossed. He proved himself a reliable employee and was soon promoted to be supervisor of the government accounting department.
When Oke first started coming to Killington, he had the sense he’d be able to make “straight” money here. As he saw it, there were three potential sources: the “old” money of Woodstock, the “foreign” money of Pittsfield/Hawk Mountain, and the “new” money of Killington. He didn’t know in the ‘60s how exactly he’d tap into these various pockets of wealth for his advantage, but he could smell a goldmine.
In the ‘70s, Oke grew into Killington. He began his new occupation, which would sustain him for the rest of his life: drug dealer and mule — weed to pay the bills, cocaine to support his own blow habit. (Oke stopped selling coke after he learned that a loyal customer had pissed his life away buying the stuff. He didn’t want to have that effect on people.) And a single deal, early on, laid the groundwork for all the decades to come.
It’s hard to get the exact info out of Oke. His stroke stripped him of linguistic coherence. Numbers in particular are difficult. You can see his mind — some part of it — moving faster than he can now form words. He reaches for one word and pulls out another. Frustrated, his processing slows; he curses; I find the word, or he does, or together we agree to move on. This repeats.
But the story goes something like this, plus or minus some miscommunication and hyperbole. Oke knew a group of men scattered around the country involved in marijuana importation. He’d met them partying in Killington before his bust. Now, they proved useful acquaintances: he earned a roll processing a particularly big load.
One day, an 18-wheeler croaked into Killington, into Oke’s driveway. It would take many months to deal with. He and some buddies opened it up, weighed the bags of marijuana inside, weighed the bills inside (when you deal with a lot of money, you don’t have time to count; you weigh.) The 10- and 20-dollar bills hit the scales, the 50s and 100s were double checked. Pot was packaged in 50-pound bundles.
The weed — according to Oke — was reggie, mids, take your pick of sub-par slang, the stuff you sell, not the stuff you smoke. Inside the burlap sacks packed by Colombian farmers someone had added baseball-sized stones to increase the import weight — somewhere along the way, someone got paid by weight, a hurried transaction it must have been.
So, with Oke’s place as home base, he and his friends sold the weed, keeping pounds of seeds for later grow projects, then moving marijuana in all quantities.
This one 18-wheeler deal was the largest of Oke’s life. He was a mere middleman, an accountant, not needing to move the stuff himself though pocketing some to sell. He proved himself reliable to this cadre of importers. From then on, he had as much work as he wanted.
The 70s were high times, mustaches, hookers, cocaine, powder days. Oke captured them with his camera. As he tells it, his days post-bust involved hours — at least four, often more — driving within a 33 mile radius of Killington. He tried to hit every single road twice a year, just to enjoy them and photographing the whole way. Radio tuned to VPR, typically in a Saab — his favorite — Oke chugged on. He stopped at any yard sale he passed, and these sales, he says, account for nearly all his possessions. He harbors a fondness for all things Native American — a relic of the hippie days, no doubt, though Oke himself does not, besides the lack of electricity, live the life of Romanticized indigeneity.
Toward the end of the ’70s, Oke got a bit more serious about dealing. The work brought him south, to Florida, shuttling car-loads of pot from Miami to various locations across the Eastern seaboard.
Here, the details are few, but around 1980, the scene got scary. Oke could see some powerful international folks getting involved in the drug trade, Cubans, Oke said. They were all over the news, killing middlemen, causing a panic. They had guns. And with that, the operation had evolved beyond his interest, and the man called Oke, barefoot all the while, migrated north once more, to Barnard, his home for the next two decades.
Thus began a period of projects. Each opportunity seemed destined to make the man rich, yet every endeavor proved a bust nonetheless. There were still those three pots of money — the old, foreign and new — within his radius in Killington. The windfall always felt within reach, always attainable with the next endeavor. Oke kept trying to make his fortune, but pot was the only steady stream of income.
Based in the Barnard section of Chateuguay — 100 square miles of wilderness encompassing the corners of Killington, Bridgewater, Barnard and Stockbridge, Oke worked as a housesitter for a man of old money, who spent most of his days at sea, surrounded by as few folks as possible. In exchange for a place to live and a stipend that covered basic expenses, Oke made sure the building stayed standing. Wanting for naught besides the amorphous glow of “riches,” Oke played the role of mogul, of snakeoil salesman, promoter.
Because words come to him only sporadically, misshapen, Oke has taught me most about himself by handing over his archive, the dusty, dirty binders of yellow documents he has kept with stimulant-induced attention. And so, in abbreviated form, here are some of the highlights.
Beginning a favorite rabbit hole:
Supreme Court docket no. 85-526
In re Club 107
October term, 1987
The order of the Liquor Control Board is reversed and vacated.
Huh? Read on. From highlighted news clippings — from the Rutland Herald, the Bennington Banner, Seven Days, from 1985-1991 — the story pieced itself together. And a yellow flier featuring Oke’s logo, a man wearing a Native American-styled feathered cap, operating a camera on a tripod. “No men before 10,” it read. Ladies’ night.
Unclear? Oke was doing some promotional work for a nightclub, Club 107. The shrewd, lust-ridden man he is, an idea came to him: ladies’ night, cleverly rebranded “no men ‘till 10.” A topless affair, all estrogen and a giddy Oke. He made sure his paperwork was thorough, his permitting official.
It drew a willing crowd, more than 150 women, scantily clad or worse — topless — cheering on a select few male strippers themselves working into their birthday suits. The scantily clad scene was a legal one, but the authorities didn’t seem to care. Unbeknownst to all in attendance, two members of the state liquor control board lurked outside. They caught wind of the stripping, the nudity, and decided to shut the place down.
The moment clear in his mind, Oke recalled confronting the two men outside the club. They demanded everyone leave, and they were prepared to enforce this order.
“Too much buttocks, too much buttocks,” Oke recalls the men saying of the male strippers. He can’t help but howl — his laughs burst open, and he leans back, mouth wide, wider.
Ultimately, the lawmen decided to let Oke handle shutting the place down for the night, saving themselves the embarrassment of chastising a roomful of nude humans.
Club 107’s case went all the way to the state’s highest court. And, just has he expected, Oke was victorious; he’d arranged for the strippers legally. Much to his surprise, cops thanked him for his work. No longer did they have to bust strip club after strip club, wasting time on a petty crime. The papers were filled with instances of busted clubs, and no one, not even the police, thought the cause worthwhile. Well, Oke brought an end to all that.
Oke’s archive portrays a man driven to make life fun. Fake IDs, all sorts of facial hair, season passes to Killington, the occasional topless woman. There’s his correspondence with High Times in 1975, a magazine that, at the time, served a niche and served it well, documenting the American underground. He sent them joints of his best homegrown. They responded with gratitude: “Thank you for your most impressive gift. You are definitely the most appreciative reader High Times has ever corresponded with.” This, of course, Oke highlighted with glee.
Shoved into the back pocket of a binder is a 1970s survey of cocaine users, which Oke filled out with both precision and self-satisfaction. Daily use was the box he checked. He was sometimes jittery, developed a tolerance, but for the most part the drug did not inhibit his life. He mixed it mostly with marijuana, dabbled little in the harder stuff, downers.
But it’s not all drugs and parties. The archive belies the diligence of documentation that must have been necessary to the accountant Oke. The man put on festivals, and he documented the planning process, the permitting process, in all its bureaucratic mundanity. Every letter to the state of Vermont, messages to and from band managers, vendors. There’s Oke’s Magical Vermont Gathering, the Vermont Blues and Jazz Festival, events catered toward sustainability, to hippies, to music lovers, many hosted at the Tunbridge World Fair grounds.
While not fortune-making, these events were successful in their own right. Oke also gave me binders upon binders for business ventures never to be. He lobbied for hemp legalization — which Vermont eventually followed through with — but he never pivoted the effort into money making. He tried to sell some flame-retardant spray under the guise of Vermont Safety Products (a label adorned on many of Oke’s belongings) constructing fear of fire to potential clients so that he could save the day with the magic spray.
There are quotes, many with date and time recorded, “Oke thoughts,” they’re labelled, most not-quite Yogi Berra-isms. “I’ve got nothing to do — and lots of time to do it.” “It gets late early sometimes.” “I need everybody, but I don’t need anybody.”
A sticky note marveling at the fact that he bought his 1950s “Willy” Jeep from Vermont Supreme Court Judge Franklin Billings. “From a judge to a pot head,” it reads, “life’s fun.”
The Jeep: Oke revels in its slowness, pushing 30 on Route 4, a trail of frustrated flatlanders growing behind him. He drives along the shoulder, flipping them off as they pass. He has nowhere to be.
Fun. He did it all for fun. He will keep doing it for fun. He’s moving out of the woods now, in with an old friend. Temporary, maybe — Oke hopes to get back to Chateauguay after the winter. His days are numbered, he knows, but he’s not scared. He’s working more at The Inn at Long Trail — where he’s held a job for 19 years. He enjoys talking to people, working to get his language back.
He’s gotta learn to use electricity, he jokes, to flip switches. He’ll have a microwave, which he sorely needs. Hot food, a novelty. He’ll make it fun. He always has.