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BILL LANE: Transformed Transporter

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Bill Lane: Transformed Transporter
By  Will Laughlin  | Tuesday, January 5, 2010 5:00 AM ET

Editor's Note:

About a year and a half ago, writer Will Laughlin decided to abandon his 15-year career as a mental health executive to see if he could cobble together a less structured, more creative career featuring his passions for adventure, writing and philanthropy. He didn't want to just work for a living or to pay the mortgage, he wanted to live for a living. Laughlin describes it as a terrifying leap — would he succeed or fail at the things he cared about most? Was it foolish and selfish to abandon his career during a recession?

Laughlin decided he needed help for the journey. He started interviewing other people who were living unconventionally, people who were making changes or sacrifices in order to do what they loved.

This week, Tonic presents the "Living for a Living" series. It's a personal exploration for Laughlin as well as a writing project (he may turn this into a separate blog and book), but also an inspiring look at a handful of people around the world who have left something behind for something different, something they love doing. Their stories are wildly different but share a common thread. Who couldn't use a little motivation in this New Year?

Bill Lane wears a crisp white dress shirt with cufflinks, Brooks Brothers' blue blazer, tasseled Cole Haans, slacks, and his signature Bulgari fashion eyewear. He would never go to work in blue jeans or a wrinkled shirt. And he never wears short sleeves. The elegance of this 67-year-old belies his profession. Is he a banker? A wealthy retiree? An accountant, perhaps. No.

Bill Lane is a kidnapper.

The dapper Lane makes his living picking up troubled or addicted teenagers and stealing them off to treatment centers across the country at their parents' desperate behest. Lane is part of a small industry of mental health professionals who call themselves "escorts," or "youth transporters."

"Our job is to get troubled kids from their home to a treatment facility safely, and to prepare them along the way for their treatment experience," Lane says in his quick, staccato Brooklyn accent — still thick after 30-plus years living in southern California.

Underneath Lane's long cuff-linked sleeves is the story — permanently scribed into his arms in tattoo ink and track marks — of how he got into this strange line of work. It's a story of addiction and incarceration and violence — he lived through the early days of drug treatment and experiment programs; what we think of today as "rehab." Lane's story also tells of his mother who wouldn't give up on her wayward son, and of an unlikely salvation followed by a lifelong commitment to help others.

The benevolent form of kidnapping Lane practices is his preferred method of offering the same kind of unbidden help that he himself received over 35 years ago when he convulsed his way through heroin withdrawals on a couch in Santa Monica under the watchful eye of compassionate strangers.

Lane has been clean for decades since joining a then popular southern California drug-treatment center, Synanon, which would later become a notorious cult. One day, after Lane had been sober for more than a year, the center's founder, Charles Dederich, Sr., walked by and made a simple comment that started a fire within Lane to help others.

"I can't believe you're still here," he said.

Just a few years later, Dederich and his Synanon followers would be accused of refusing to let people out, not encouraging them to leave.

Taken aback by the comment, Lane says that he immediately determined to show Dederich what he was made of by completing the treatment program and going on to help other young addicts get sober. His transformation from self-absorbed junkie to adolescent mental health worker was a long one, but he hasn't looked back since.

The Transporter

Lane is called in when parents and mental-health providers feel that a teen desperately needs help but is likely to run away, hurt him or herself, or become violent over the prospect of going to a treatment center. Lane, who has been in the mental health industry for over 30 years, describes his work as equal parts therapist, cop, and crisis counselor.

"Hey," he says in a husky whisper, grabbing my elbow, and leaning in like he has a secret to tell, "we're in the business of saving lives here, you know. That's just what we do."

So at 4:00 a.m. on any given day, Lane and one of his associates is likely to be nudging a teenager awake, telling him or her to get up and get dressed quickly because they have a plane to catch. Sometimes the kid is so sleepy — or still so high from the night before — that he or she automatically complies with these instructions from a stranger. Other times, there is a moment of dazed silence, some eye rubbing, then a broad question — usually "what the f*#k?!" — followed by yelling, cursing, crying, attempts to flee and, occasionally, flying fists.

Lane has been spat on, kicked, bitten, and called names he'd never even heard in prison. One kid broke his arm. But no matter how hard a kid makes it for Lane, his job is to provide safety, protection and care. By the end of a transport, Lane says, "the kids usually thank me. Some hug me. They know they need help and finally someone's helping them." Bill gets friend invitations on Facebook from kids he's transported. He attends their high school graduations. When he visits programs he's often mobbed by thankful kids who want to hug him. "I can't even make it down the hallway sometimes."

School of Hard Knocks, Without the School

We're sitting in a Starbucks in a Safeway in Boulder, Colo., where Lane is nursing a black cup of coffee. "I love cawfee," he says, accentuating his accent for comic effect, "don't you? I just love it!" As always, he keeps the conversation moving, funny, light. We talk about the weather, about the people who walk by our small round table, about the blessed ubiquity of Starbucks to feed his coffee habit everywhere he goes. We talk, superficially at first, about his work, "Oh I love it. It's the best."

I continue to pry, gently but stubbornly, "Why really do you do this work? Do you actually enjoy it? Don't you get tired of the drama and the danger?" I'm attempting to unlock this man's story so that I can understand the fascinating incongruities I see — his dapper and charismatic presentation, his intentionally comic cufflink adjustments, his San Diego tan, the husky Brooklyn accent punctuated by frequent "badda bings" and "badda booms," and his passion for this unusual and, one would think, unpleasant work. Finally, Lane stops talking for a moment. He swirls his coffee and takes a deep breath; I don't dare say a word.

"I was an addict," he says. "I mean, we're talkin' the real deal here. This was back in the heyday of heroin, man, I mean, whoa! 1955. Brooklyn. I had my first fix when I was 13 and boom, I was a junkie. Can you believe it? 13. It was ugly, man. Ugly."

Lane was something of a latchkey kid growing up. His father, an injured WWII veteran, traded his family responsibilities for the bottle, leaving his wife alone to support and raise their three children while he slowly killed himself through cirrhosis of the liver. "She worked in the Federal Reserve seven nights a week to support us," says Lane. "Unbelievable woman. You know why I'm alive? One reason: That woman never gave up on me."

She must have been sorely tempted, however. Largely unsupervised, Lane became a desperate addict. He remembers coming to his younger siblings' dance recitals "all twisted up" on heroin, cocaine, and barbiturates, making a scene and publicly embarrassing them. He routinely broke into their piggy banks to steal drug money.

Lane would spend days at a time in drug dens, fixing with shared needles — from which he eventually contracted hepatitis C — and then passing out. If he couldn't find a hypodermic needle, he'd make one by filing down the tip of a thick basketball needle — the kind used to pump the balls up with air — to a point sharp enough to jam into a vein. "If I could even find one," he recalls. "I ran out of places to shoot so I'd stick that thing between my toes, between my fingers, wherever I could; my arms are still scarred with tracks after all these years."

Lane's addiction landed him in prison three times — six months at Rikers Island penitentiary where his jaw was broken in a fight, then 90 days of hard labor on Hart Island and finally six months at Lexington federal prison in Kentucky.

In exchange for a shorter sentence, Lane volunteered for a program at Lexington — the prison was the federal government's first drug treatment facility, and a controversial one at that — designed for addicts and research. But he quickly discovered that the program was more focused on drug-based experiments than on treatments.

"They called our ward 'The Shooting Gallery,'" he remembers, "because they'd shoot us up with drugs constantly. They'd addict you to a drug — heroin, morphine, whatevah — then they'd take you off it cold turkey to see what would happen. They'd give us new drugs — in my case experimental dolophine (methadone) — and take notes on our reactions."

In the same ward just down the hall, Lane remembers a laboratory where the same experiments were conducted on monkeys and other animals. Prison, he says, just made his addiction worse and his drug connections better. The very day after his discharge from Lexington, he remembers, "I scored, fixed, boom!"

Unlikely Salvation

In 1963, after three incarcerations and an escalating addiction, Lane's mother had still not given up on her son. She heard about a new program called Synanon, located in Santa Monica, Calif., that was building a reputation for "curing" addicts—notably musicians and celebrities. "At that time, there weren't any programs for addicts; no treatment centers, nothing. Synanon was the only thing going."

Housed in an old armory building, between 30 and 60 residents at a time were enrolled in the two-year program, which was part art colony, part commune, and part treatment center. When Lane's mother first heard about Synanon from a segment on The Steve Allen Show, Lane was at her home healing from a broken leg. "I was loaded and a car ran over me," he remembers. Lane's mother bought her son an airline ticket the next day, escorted him to the airport, and kissed him goodbye.

Even before the plane even took off, Lane had already fixed in the airplane's cramped bathroom and hobbled back to his seat where he promptly passed out from a severe overdose. When the plane landed hours later in LA, Lane was still unconscious, but his mother had had the foresight to pin a note to his sweater. "Can you believe it?" Lane remembers with a laugh. "A note on my sweater! Like a little boy. She was unbelievable." The note gave instructions to deliver Lane to the armory at 1351 Ocean Front, Santa Monica.

As with all new Synanon residents, Lane's first task was to convulse his way through withdrawals on a couch in the common area, while other residents held him, wiped vomit from his mouth and nursed him to shaky sobriety.

Once clean, Lane chose to stay at Synanon. He successfully completed the two-year program and then stayed on as a resident, unpaid staff member to help other addicts for 10 more years. The group enjoyed a good run of celebrity attention and positive press as a groundbreaking institution, but eventually shut down in 1991. Synanon declared itself a religion in 1974 and would later spend years dealing with legal problems, alleged criminal activity and intimidation tactics against former members and critics. (See a timeline of the group here.) Lane has never been implicated in any of the group's misdeeds.

"Synanon is what turned me around," he says. "At the start it was hip, full of celebrities and musicians; they did a movie about it and it was featured in all kinds of magazines."

Over time, however, Synanon's founder Charles Dederich became more and more controlling, so Lane and his wife Carol — whom he'd met at a Synanon jazz concert — chose to leave. "The place saved lives at first," says Lane, "but then it got cultish. It got to where they didn't want you to ever leave. People who joined later, it was like they fell in a manhole."

By the time Lane left Synanon, the drug and alcohol treatment industry had evolved considerably. He worked for the following 30 years as a counselor, manager, and director of various treatment programs, eventually founding his own "therapeutic transportation" company, Bill Lane and Associates.

The Superhero

Lane is showing me photos of his kids. His daughter Cathy is a blonde bombshell, married with two children of her own. His son, Bill Lane III, is an actor and a musician. They're beautiful people. He lives near his kids, near the brother he was separated from for some time, and near the beach in San Diego. Business is good. Life is good. He's sitting across the table, gripping his cardboard cup with both hands, smiling straight at me.

"There's nothing greater," he tells me, "than being able to help someone. Nothing." At any moment he could get a call from a desperate parent or a psychologist and have to jump into motion like an on-call E.R. doc or a 67-year-old hawk-nosed superhero. I've seen it happen before — he answers his phone and then disappears. But for now he's perfectly relaxed, perfectly present.

"You know, it's funny," he says, "I was just talking to my wife yesterday on our way to my daughter's house. I say to her, 'I can't believe I was a drug addict! Can you believe I was drug addict?' She just laughed."

But the next moment betrays a different sentiment. He leans forward to whisper something, a rare look of concern darkening his face, his sleeves pulling back just enough to show a hint of faded ink.

"You know. Some people might be put off by my story. That's why I never wear short sleeves; I'm embarrassed. It's not who I am anymore."

Only when necessary will Lane share bits of his story — perhaps with a scared teen to reassure him that things get better or with an ambivalent mother to encourage her to follow through on a plan to help her child. But like any superhero, Lane does his best to hide his identity when he can, to shield others from his unbelievable story, to obscure it with a costume of pedestrian normalcy.

Now that I've heard it, though, that line of ink poking out of his Brooks Brothers sleeve is reassuring. It's like a big "S" on his chest, or a cape, only better because his can't ever take it off. As if reading my mind, Lane sits back a bit, his arms retreating into his sleeves once again.

"I'm a very lucky guy," he tells me quietly, fiddling with one of his cufflinks, "and I never forget that. I never forget that I'm … alive."

All photos courtesy of Bill Lane.

About the Author
Will Laughlin lives in Boulder, Colo., where he trains for ultra-marathons and writes. Will has degrees from UC Berkeley and Stanford University, and has spent much of his career starting or troubleshooting education and mental health companies.

© Copyright 2010 Tonic. All rights reserved


--- Quote from: "Eliscu2" ---I suppose there is no chance that this writer will be telling the "other side of the story" ::)
--- End quote ---
You got it. Amazingly, neither the author nor his subject mention their years as staff at CEDU, not to mention the influence of Mel Wasserman. Bill Lane and Wasserman were allegedly good friends, "back in the day"...

See also the Bill Lane interview titled, "BIGGER THAN LIFE: A personal journey into the history of CEDU," posted in the 'synanon cedu and the seed' thread.


--- Quote ---About the Author
Will Laughlin lives in Boulder, Colo., where he trains for ultra-marathons and writes. Will has degrees from UC Berkeley and Stanford University, and has spent much of his career starting or troubleshooting education and mental health companies.[/list]
--- End quote ---
More on Will Laughlin's "education and mental health" companies:

Seen N' Heard JANUARY 2009

(November 21, 2008) Director and co-founder of Impossible2Possible (I2P), Will Laughlin, 919-428-0050, is excited about I2P's latest expedition, a 700 mile record setting run to the South Pole which will be gathering data for three research projects. Will Laughlin has worked in both traditional and special needs education for 20 years, including Vive!, CEDU and a number of other programs. Impossible2Possible guides young adults and youth in learning adventures that highlight critical environmental issues in the areas where these adventures take place. For more information on I2P and this expedition or future expeditions, contact Will Laughlin.[/list]

Will Laughlin
Joined Thursday, March 19, 2009 1:07 AM

Will Laughlin lives in Boulder, Colo., where he trains for ultra-marathons and writes. Will has degrees from UC Berkeley and Stanford University, and has spent much of his career starting or troubleshooting education and mental health companies. For the past few years, he has left executive leadership to focus on his passions for adventure, writing, and social enterprise. He is the co-founder of impossible2Possible, or i2P, a non-profit that hosts extreme sporting events to educate youth about sustainability issues and their most promising solutions. His next big run for i2P will be across the entire country of Kenya. Will also writes on a variety of topics and is a branding, copy-writing, and strategic planning consultant.

Son Of Serbia:

--- Quote from: "Ursus" ---
--- Quote from: "Eliscu2" ---I suppose there is no chance that this writer will be telling the "other side of the story" ::)
--- End quote ---
You got it. Amazingly, neither the author nor his subject mention their years as staff at CEDU, not to mention the influence of Mel Wasserman. Bill Lane and Wasserman were allegedly good friends, "back in the day"...

See also the Bill Lane interview titled, "BIGGER THAN LIFE: A personal journey into the history of CEDU," posted in the 'synanon cedu and the seed' thread.
--- End quote ---

He wasn't just another Cedu staff.  Bill Lane was President of Cedu Running Springs while I was there during the early nineties. After Bill left in 1992, another Synanon Lifer: Jim Powell took over as President of CEDU-RS.  

Another interesting fact that the article doesn't mention : Bill Lane only wears long sleeve shirts - because both of his arms are covered with jail-house tatoos.  Bill is very ashamed of this, which is why he never wears a t-shirt or short sleeves out in public.


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