No one would have believed what happened to fledgling author Robert Mason, 42, had he written it rather than lived it. A few weeks ago, after five years of rejection and struggle, Mason saw his first book, Chickenhawk—a haunting, wry memoir about his days as a Vietnam combat helicopter pilot—published to extraordinary critical acclaim. Some 25,000 copies have been ordered, and a third printing is planned. He appeared on NBC’s Today show, the high point in a heavy schedule of radio and TV publicity appearances for the book. Then he had one day to savor with his family his newfound prosperity and celebrity—before entering federal prison at the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to begin a five-year sentence for smuggling marijuana. The minimum-security facility has no walls, but “it’s still a prison,” he says. “They own you. You can’t walk out.”
Mason says desperation forced him into the smuggling attempt in January 1981. Three years earlier Mason, then a successful businessman, had sold his company to satisfy his lifelong urge to write. He moved from New York with Patience, his wife of 20 years, and son Jack, now 19, into a rough-hewn cabin he had built on the Santa Fe River near High Springs, Fla. But while trying to finish Chickenhawk, he had run through all his savings. He was eking out a meager living by delivering newspapers at night in his 1954 VW, while writing during the day; then the car broke down irreparably. “At that moment a guy said how would I like to make a year’s salary for a month’s work. From my point of view, he was offering the only way out.”
It sounded like a cinch: Mason and his two partners, James Helms (now serving a seven-year sentence) and Robert Ihle (six years), would sail a 35-foot sailboat from Jacksonville, Fla., to the desolate Guajira Peninsula in northern Colombia, pick up two tons of marijuana and drop off the load in South Carolina. A one-shot deal, a quick ten thousand dollars, then back to the book. “I regarded it as a combat mission,” says Mason. “My gut told me that I was doing the wrong thing, but I lost myself in the sailing and the sea.”
After a three-week journey to the South American coast, his boat was surrounded by dugout canoes manned by Indians, who wordlessly tossed aboard bales of pot marked “Product of Colombia.” On January 21, 1981 they cruised into South Carolina waters near Charleston for the arranged drop-off. “As we turned into the creek, we slid right up to a U.S. Customs boat,” recalls Mason. “They asked us what we were doing there at 3 a.m. Then they came aboard. And there it was. Soon I was sitting on the dock in handcuffs—busted.” The decorated veteran of more than 1,000 Vietnam combat missions had finally run out of luck.
Out on bail a month later, Mason learned that Viking Press had purchased rights to his uncompleted manuscript for $7,500. He finished the book during his trial and appeal. Named for the alternating “chicken” fear and “hawkish” combat euphoria felt by Mason and other pilots of HU-1 Iroquois (Huey Slick) troop transporters during the heavy fighting of 1965 and 1966, Chickenhawk is filled with vivid, terrifying war stories. Publishers Weekly praised it as “a stunning memoir,” and the New York Times hailed its “hypnotic narrative.”
Most of all, Chickenhawk is the story of one man’s journey from youthful innocence to war-weary disillusionment. As a farm boy growing up in New Jersey and Florida, Mason daydreamed about flying and earned his private pilot’s license before his high school graduation. In 1962 he dropped out of the University of Florida after two years and spent the next two years “auditing life” as an oil rigger, bookbinder and common laborer in various parts of the country. He met and married Patience Cincotti—a University of Pennsylvania graduate, now teaching remedial writing—during a stopover in Philadelphia in 1963. The next year he enlisted in the Army, filled with romantic visions of flying.
When Mason came home from an exhausting combat tour, including some days when he flew 20 hours out of 24, he was almost totally dependent on tranquilizers. Suffering from posttraumatic stress, he began drinking a quart of whiskey a day. With the help of psychiatrists he dried himself out (still under treatment, he has been granted a 50-percent disability pension of less than $400 a month). He moved to Brooklyn and began a business manufacturing bar mirrors. “I was super straight and making good money,” he recalls, “but what Patience and I both really wanted was to write.” In New York he met best-selling author Martin Cruz (Gorky Park) Smith, who encouraged his ambitions. Mason soon left to try his literary wings in Florida.
Nearly five years later chain-smoker Mason spends his days cleaning bathrooms and clipping hedges in prison. “I can’t believe it,” he says. “I’m a straight guy. I’ve never done anything illegal in my life—with this one exception. But at that one particular moment of my life,” he says, shaking his head, “I found out I could be bought.”