The Ballad of Cadillac Dave: A Saga of Journalism, Drugs & Redemption

March 12, 2013

By Rich Bailey via Chattanooga Pulse

If you took all the histories and memoirs ever published about Chattanooga and brought them all together in one hypothetical and impossibly complete library, not only would the “Cadillac Dave” books include one of the only first-hand accounts of 1960’s campus radicalism at the University of Chattanooga (and later UTC), they would surely be the only history or memoir to be cross-referenced in both the “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Religion” categories.

“The ‘Cadillac Dave’ books are a story of redemption,” according to Wheeler. The book covers—there are four volumes, plus a new collected “reader”—show they are authored by Dave Jackson, an alias he used when he was a marijuana and cocaine distributor, but he revealed his identity during book promotions last year.

Wheeler first told his story in the four volumes published in 2011 and 2012. Fearing that four 200-page books might be too much for some, he published a one-volume “Chronicles of Cadillac Dave” this month that comes in it at 500 pages. Much of the original Chattanooga material was abbreviated but can be found in Volume One, which remains in print (all four volumes and the collected chronicles are available at Winder Binder Gallery  & Bookstore).

“They deal with topics ranging from the drug and rock ‘n’ roll counterculture of the late ’60s and the entire 1970s to marijuana smuggling in Arizona and Texas, large-scale marijuana distribution all over the Southeast, and dealings with Colombian cocaine dealers in Miami and L.A.,” he added. “They cover a wide range of experiences. A lot of them are illegal. Some of them aren’t very commendable, but they’re all true.”

Wheeler’s story begins in 1966 when he was in high school sniffing glue, doing small burglaries and roaring around Chattanooga in a black Chevelle SS396 with Maltese crosses on the windows and a “Rebels” license plate up front.

At the University of Chattanooga and then UTC, he was at the center of a small but tumultuous swirl of late-60’s campus protest. Former Chattanooga Times Free Press executive editor Tom Griscom was Wheeler’s editor at The Echo, the UTC student newspaper. He remembers Wheeler as a part of an anti-war group.

“It was a very conspicuous group of people,” Griscom recalled. “Some of them were clearly anti-war. Some were into drug culture, the peace-love type thing. There were some that were just anti-whatever. There were others who I think were looking for a place to fit in, they might have been little bit off the beaten path. John was a great writer. He would sit there out in front of the student center with them and sometimes read poetry, sing with guitars and stuff.”

When UT trustees were meeting in Chattanooga one cold winter day, campus police sprayed Cardiac Hill with water, creating a sheet of ice to keep student protesters away. Wheeler was one of two student observers invited to attend the trustees’ meeting.

Wheeler was the student newspaper’s star columnist and a stringer for the Chattanooga Times. He somehow managed to get a column into print in The Echo that was not only politically radical, but also included an ever-popular but seldom-published four-letter word for carnal congress. That impropriety—unignorable because the newspaper was taxpayer-funded—stirred up far more controversy than his radical politics. Griscom resigned in protest, but came back the following year as editor.

“He looked like somebody you wouldn’t want to tangle with … John really was a badass,” added Griscom. “I’m trying not to say that, but that’s what he was and he wanted to be seen that way.”

Wheeler paints a vivid scene of his buddies spiriting him out the back door of the UTC student center incognito to avoid the campus and city cops staking out his car, which they knew from an informant had dope in its trunk. Despite that narrow escape, expulsion soon followed and Wheeler went on to become a major player in the Southeastern drug trade.

Both Griscom and Wheeler graduated from Chattanooga to conservative national politics. While Wheeler was distributing cocaine, Griscom was serving as press secretary for then-U.S. Sen. Howard Baker and later as communications director for President Ronald Reagan. Wheeler eventually made it to conservative D.C., too, after detouring through three jail terms, more than a few years as a wanted fugitive and an unfinished assignment as ghost writer for a self-described “mafia whore.”

Looking back in print 30 years later, Wheeler doesn’t exactly wallow in what he has now left behind. From the first page it’s clear that he’s putting some distance into his you-are-there retelling. But there’s not a bit of preaching while he’s telling tales on his earlier self. He takes the reader vividly through some harrowing experiences, as seen from his catbird seat at the epicenter of late-70’s drug culture—and in the cross hairs of every level of law enforcement.

After many recounted episodes of dealing, doping and carnal congress, Wheeler’s bumpy road to Damascus begins with some spontaneous and heartfelt appeals to God, even while he remained deeply embedded in a drug-fueled career as a bigtime coke dealer. This nascent religious awakening helps him make it through—barely—what he sees even 30 years later as a satanic encounter, even though he admits there was a lot of “rocket fuel” (25 percent PCP, 75 percent cocaine) in his system at the time. Were the neighbors at his safe house trying to kill him? Was he trying to throw his girlfriend off a bridge, or was she really the devil?

His final conversion comes a few weeks later. He’s gotten out of the mental hospital he checked himself into to avoid an involuntary commitment after the bridge episode, but he’s still in “the life.”

“I got saved down in Miami in a biker’s duplex with a chopper sittin’ in the living room and a naked go-go girl on the couch beside me, all the drugs spread out on the table, and a picture of the devil on the wall. That was March 18, 1981,” Wheeler said.

After his conversion, facing federal gun charges, he stares down the temptation to let his Colombian cartel amigos make the legal problems go away. Instead he stays clean and argues his case in court.

“Thanksgiving 1982, I was standing before a federal judge in Norfolk [Va.]. Every lawyer had told me. ‘It’s impossible; you’re going to federal prison.’ The judge stopped the witness on the way to the [witness] stand, halted the proceedings and said, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I’m going to let you go. I’m going to give you probation.’ If that’s not God, I don’t know what is.”

Ten years later Wheeler made it to Washington, D.C.

“Flash forward to 1992, August. I’m driving my own car through Secret Service security clearance at the White House to walk inside and interview Vice President Dan Quayle” as the founding editor of the Christian American, a national newspaper published by Pat Robertson of The 700 Club. “God did that, I didn’t,” he said.

“What happened to put me in that mental hospital and what happened as a result of that—which brought me to that deliverance moment in Miami—that’s the whole reason the books were written. Everything else is back story,” he said.

“It’s a long story. Some of it is degenerate. A lot of it makes me look kind of foolish,” Wheeler said. “If I were going to portray myself as a hero, I probably didn’t do a very good job, because I did a lot of stupid things. Most of them are right there in the book.”

He’s been gratified by response to the books at book-signings last year and at his 45th reunions at the three high schools he attended: Baylor, Brainerd and Central.

“Some people think it’s reprehensible, some people are scandalized,” he said. “One pastor told me that it was a celebration of carnality and I should repent and take the books off the market. Four of five pastors that I’ve talked to about it disagreed with that.”

For more information or to purchase Wheeler’s books, visit cadillac-dave.com.

Photo: Bixentro