John Wheeler’s “Cadillac Dave” books must be unique in the annals of Chattanooga nonfiction.
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.”