The Life We're Handed

Alex Pittock didn't ask for a forklift to practically amputate his hand, he didn't ask for the money he got in a settlement, and he certainly didn't ask for his family to fall apart around him

The boy stands in his father's kitchen, dark eyes flashing, arguing his case for a red motorcycle. Not far from where the youth stands, a neighbor in this middle-class suburb is throwing a garage sale like no other seen in Coral Springs. Among the household pickings: the red motorcycle, offered at a mere $140.

The father hesitates. His son is only 13 years old, though tall for his age. Through the open French doors beyond the kitchen, a cool blue swimming pool wells up to greet the eye. But the five-bedroom house itself is warm beyond comfort. The father has shut off the air conditioning to save money. The $1300 mortgage payment is three months in arrears, a fact unknown to the boy. These days, $140 means something.

The father, an airline pilot, is broke, or nearly so.
The son, by dint of fate, is a teenage millionaire.
Rising in the hot air of the kitchen, the boy's right hand reaches out to rev an imaginary throttle. Now is when a stranger, standing across the room, might notice for the first time that the hand is not a normal hand. Not normal, but appearing to be scalded red, the fingers curled over at half the length of normal fingers, the whole appendage shrunken from the wrist down.

A claw as much as a hand.

A warm wind blew across a beach 20 years ago and 1200 miles to the south. In his dreams Robbin Pittock still feels it. But in the daylight world, he only recalls the scene when pressed to do so.

The scene: Robbin coming out of the surf and up the beach with Brad Haylock, his copilot. The fishing boat that brought them seven hours up the Colombian coast from Cienaga is leaving the cove fast, its four-cylinder flathead diesel going pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. The prison and the prison break already a midnight memory.

There on the beach, waiting for them at sunrise beside the cove: Raul Campos with two other Colombians, guns in their waistbands, and Rafael, the translator. And Jean, the woman Robbin Pittock would soon marry, wearing tight denim pants and a plaid shirt.

"It was beautiful," Pittock remembers. "White sandy beach, palm trees all over. It had been a while since we had been out. One place we were down under the ground, and there was nothing but bare light bulbs and a dirt floor with one little hole in it where you could take a crap. We were sicker than pigs. I was down to 113 pounds."

That morning the most beautiful thing was Jean.
"It was unbelievable that she was there, but there she was," Pittock recalls. "I hugged her. I kissed her. Then she says, 'Guess what? Now that you're out of jail, we're kidnapped.'"

In 1977, before cocaine turned the smuggling business bloody, Robbin Pittock was one of a legion of young men with a pilot's license, a taste for adventure, and a growing blank spot on his resume. That December he topped off a DC-3 cargo plane and left Miami. When he landed on a jungle airstrip in Colombia to pick up a load of marijuana, the military arrested him and Haylock, and the pair spent until Easter and beyond in a series of jails.

As Pittock tells it, Jean flew down from Miami with enough money wrapped around her waist to bribe guards and arrange for the fishing boat to show up near the prison south of Cienaga. The person doing the arranging was Campos, a long-time smuggling connection. The problem was that Pittock had double-crossed Campos on a previous 5000-pound dope deal.

"Raul wanted $300,000," Pittock says, explaining why exaltation turned to fear that morning on the beach. Before long, Pittock says, Campos stuck a gun down Jean's throat. It was the first of several very tense moments in what turned into a monthlong camping trip at the cove.

Eventually Pittock talked Campos into letting Jean go back to the United States to arrange the $300,000 payment. When no money came back, Pittock persuaded Campos to let him travel to the nearest town, Santa Marta, to use the telephone. Then he made a break for it, turned himself in to police, and wound up in the hands of a friendly Interpol agent who protected him.

With the help of an airplane provided by another smuggler, Pittock made it back to the Bahamas and on to Boca Raton, arriving in time to surrender himself on separate pot-smuggling charges he faced in the United States. The result was five years' probation, a $10,000 fine, and a felony record.

There would be other arrests related to contraband -- one in Guatemala, another in Aruba. But by then, Pittock says, he was merely a casualty of circumstance. He was out of the business.

In April 1978 in Las Vegas, he and Jean got married. By 1979 she was pregnant with their first daughter, Mandy. Alexander followed, then Jaclyn.

The lesson Pittock learned from his late twenties, he says, is that the world is full enough of danger without looking for it. Often enough, it finds you.

"En route we stopped at a gas station," Robbin Pittock says. "I said, 'Hey bud, come back here, I'll let you pump the gas.'" It was his son's first try at a new skill. "He pumped it with his right hand, of course."

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