Escargot A Go-Go

Gene Weaver always had a big idea. Selling snail dreams was to have been his last hurrah.

The problem, says Weaver, was that Can of Worms didn't come out until November, when it should have been out in August to catch the Christmas demand. The problem, said authorities, was that he used money from Can of Worms to pay the debts of Worm Enterprises, with no apparent plan to repay the investors of Can of Worms. The prosecutor offered him two years, he said, but for once Weaver refused to make a deal. On March 11, 1980, he was found guilty of securities fraud and sentenced to seven years in prison. Just a bad business decision, he explains.

"Can I say something about the law? Intent is part of the law. I've never intended to rip anyone off in any deal I've ever been in."

When he was asked the name of someone who knows him well, he mentioned Frank Machock. This bewildered Machock. Back in the '70s, he and Weaver used to play golf together, but until just before the arrest, Machock hadn't seen Weaver in ten years.

"That's funny," Machock said. "Maybe I'm the most presentable, I don't know."

He looked something like G. Gordon Liddy. His hair was slicked back, and he wore a black windbreaker over a black turtleneck. With little to say about Weaver, Machock poked at his lunch and talked business.

"I get bored pretty easily," he explained. "About every two years, I have to start something new."

It was Frank Machock who manufactured the only real-fur golf-club cover ever available, he said proudly. He dyed it orange and sold it to UT fans -- made some nice change, until synthetic fur came out. After that, Machock dabbled in Houston nightclubs, scooter rentals in Cozumel, Indian casinos in California. He was thinking about investing in this snail thing, but after Gene's arrest, he began thinking other things. He settled down as the inventor and manufacturer of a gun holster that fits on the side of the bed.

"Know what our slogan is?" Machock asked. " 'Don't Come up Groping, Come up Smoking.' It just came to me!"

How 'bout that -- you and Gene are real birds of a feather, huh?
"Nah, Houston is full of people like us," he said. "Houston is full of businessmen."

Weaver was out of jail by December 1981, and pretty soon, he was back in Houston, selling work-at-home deals under the name Bill Jackson. It was storm windows and ceramic plates this time. He would appear with bits of aluminum and glass, the molds and the paints, and he would tell the nice people he would be back to buy the completed items. They would give him money and never see him again.

The problem, he says, was a misunderstanding about his parole that led to a violation, see, that led him to make a panicked getaway, leaving the nice people in the lurch. The prosecutor offered him 12 years, he says, but for the second time, he wouldn't deal with the prosecutor, and the jury wouldn't buy what he sold. On April 10, 1986, it was back to the clink, then, supposedly for 45 years.

Weaver says no one bothered him in prison, because he used to be a Golden Gloves boxer. He punched the air a few times to demonstrate, but his grin seemed more formidable than his fists. He seems to be able to grin through anything. And unless they came to him with a question, "like how to spell virgin," his fellow inmates largely stuck to their cartoons, he said, and left him to his self-improvement.

He spent much time in the library, writing his own appeals. When the appeals were rejected, he stayed in the library, reading about the outer world. It was in this way that Gene Weaver came upon his latest big idea. It all began with the meltdown at Chernobyl, he explains with a straight face. He read of the disastrous effect on European livestock and agriculture, and then he read of the enormous French appetite for snails.

"Boom! It hit me," he recalls. "Why not grow these snails over here!"
His path since then has been marked by clippings, receipts and brochures, and he has saved them all -- an advertisement from Opportunity magazine for a snail-shelling tool, the business card of a food distributor with a phone to each ear, even the sheets of prison scratch paper on which he calculated his imagined profits. All this amounts to wreckage, mostly, the sort of stuff you'd find floating in the captain's cabin after the ship went down, but Weaver displays it as evidence of honest intentions.

"This wasn't just something that popped up," he says. "It's something I researched for years."

His work made him a peaceful inmate, and if there is any luck in Gene Weaver's story, it is that he was convicted of peaceful crimes. By January 4, 1990, when he was released to make room for more dangerous men, Weaver had served less than five years of the 52 to which he had been sentenced.

Not too long afterward, at the end of a long chain of transactions, he found himself in an Abilene furniture store, bemoaning a rainy day to a comrade in sales. She gave him a little pep talk over the telephone that he'll never forget.

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