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The rusted gray Toyota suddenly crosses two lanes and lurches into an illegal left turn, ignoring the beeping horns. Its driver, a 66-year-old Sean Connery look-alike wearing a tie-dye shirt, purple cammo pants, and bright red argyle socks, whips the mufflerless car to the curb in front of Vesuvio on Columbus Avenue and kills the engine. He gestures to the three-story building across the street.
"I put in big ventilator fans, blowing out the top," says Waldron Vorhees. "We'd do the reactions at heavy traffic time -- morning and evening."
Vorhees is enjoying another flashback, telling the oft-repeated story of the "Clearlight" LSD manufacturing operation, for which he worked. From 1970 to 1972, the acid laboratory he helped build occupied the top-floor offices in the heart of North Beach, serving up millions of hits of windowpane to the gaping hippie maw.
Some things never change.
Since the '60s explosion, the Bay Area has remained the epicenter of the world's acid production. And the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has never stopped setting up undercover operations, trying to nail the kingpins and dismantle their labs. With negligible results. According to a 1995 DEA internal document, "LSD remains tightly controlled by relatively small, fraternal California-based organizations that have evaded drug law enforcement operations successfully for over two decades."
Five years ago the feds thought they had cracked that inner sanctum, thanks largely to the loose lips of Vorhees. He'd already been busted twice for acid, including a '77 sweep that broke up the Clearlight operation. And in the early '90s he had begun talking the talk one more time, giving DEAagents hope that they'd finally found acid's Holy Grail
Once again, however, a costly undercover sting has yielded a mere morsel. After a lot of talk, a ton of money spent by the DEA, and the nabbing of a grand total of two father-son acid dealers who weren't major players at all, the big LSD manufacturers are quietly going about their business, same as before.
It's no surprise Vorhees was targeted again. He can't help talking about the old days. Clearlight is his Achilles' heel. Hubris has made him a natural magnet for narcs. Old acid acquaintances avoid him like the plague, one saying simply, "He's too hot." His name is as familiar as a box of doughnuts to the local DEA office, and is increasingly popular in the federal penal system.
Indeed, next week he is expected at a prison in Oregon.
A regular fixture at Rainbow Gatherings and other hippie events, Vorhees lives on a communal ranch near Ukiah, repairing cars and running endless errands for friends and ex-girlfriends. Like many of society's runaways who end up in the Bay Area, Vorhees has come to believe his own persona, drowning the shame by embracing the illusion. He's not a restless, job-changing guy from Kansas anymore, he's Captain Clearlight, the acid cowboy who "made 250 million hits."
The life of Waldron Vorhees has been a whirlwind of reinvention. A former Korean War military engineer, he has had four children from three wives, and held a bewildering series of occupations, including electrician and cowhand, charter boat captain and insurance salesman, computer circuit assemblyman and porn film actor.
"I really was never able to get the financial thing together," he admits. "I was never successful in my life at anything, except for Clearlight."
At the time he met the Clearlight group -- at Enrico's one night in 1968 -- they had been making small quantities of acid in Santa Cruz. They hired him to charter them a sailboat for an evening cruise on the bay, and soon realized he possessed a variety of odd-job skills. The young entrepreneurs were planning on moving to San Francisco and increasing production; the friendly 38-year-old Vorhees seemed exactly what they needed, so they hired him. He would order supplies, deliver suitcases of cash to hotel rooms, and help design and construct their lab equipment. Clearlight's acid appeared on the street as tiny, clear "windowpane" gelatin squares, hefty 250-microgram doses as compared to today's 50- to 100-microgram "disco hits." Vorhees says he took it every day for five years. It saturated the Bay Area and was distributed around the world.
"Very aesthetic, very pleasing," remembers a veteran tripper of the Clearlight experience. "No other acid had that quality."
Vorhees and eight others were ultimately convicted in 1977 for conspiracy to manufacture, distribute, and possess LSD; Vorhees received five years probation. Two years later he would be busted again, the result of an undercover sting targeting his son Greg, who had been dealing acid in Montana. Vorhees told the narcs he was the "LSD King," and negotiated a deal for them to buy acid from his friends. He was convicted and sentenced to three years at Lompoc.
In 1987, an article appeared in the Berkeley magazine High Frontiers, titled "The Adventures of Captain Clearlight." Vorhees trotted out the tales about a lucrative lifestyle of fake IDs, fancy cars, flights to Vegas, fucking in piles of money, turning on the world with a cosmic giggle. His stories had become wrapped in his catchy, mythical acid-hero persona. And if anybody needed proof, out came the photo of Vorhees right there with Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who first tripped on LSD.