One of the men involved in the Oklahoma City bombing took a handgun off the metal desk at the so-called "embassy" of the secessionist Republic of Texas at Fort Davis. He pointed it toward me. "You know what this is?"
A .45-caliber, I said. He put it back on the desk.
The Exalted Cyclops of the Vidor, Texas, Ku Klux Klan told me to pop the trunk on my rental car. He then laid a sawed-off shotgun inside.
"Case we need it," he drawled.
Later that night, after a Klan barbecue, we sat drinking Shiner beer in a waterfront bar in Port Arthur where Janis Joplin got one of her many starts.
"Y'know, Buck (my nickname), I could kill you and nobody know'd you ever come in here," he said. He didn't, and we went black-powder squirrel hunting the next morning before his mama fixed us breakfast.
One of the Montana Freemen met me on his porch, wearing a pistol and carrying a rifle. Two weeks before, he and his fellow Freemen had hijacked a national TV crew and stolen all their gear. Carrying two six-packs of beer and two of soda, I told him who I was and what I wanted. Wound up staying for lunch.
Seven months later, six FBI Hostage Rescue Team SUVs, pulled into a chevron formation, stopped me on a dirt road outside Jordan, Mont., where I'd just made an unauthorized visit to the Freemen during their 81-day standoff.
Aiming their M16s over the open doors of their rigs, the feebies ordered me out of the car, had me pull my coat up, take off my cowboy hat, turn around, and then one frisked me while another checked my trunk. I later swapped information with the team leader.
A Forest Service policeman palmed his holstered weapon and told me I was under arrest for not moving fast enough to get back behind yellow police tape. They were investigating ecoterrorists in rural Oregon. I told him he knew what I was doing. He let me go.
One of the founders of the Militia of Montana showed me their weapons cache in the kitchen of his home in Noxon, near the Idaho border. Didn't leave a lot of room for canned goods.
These all happened during the eight years I covered what my news magazine editors called "the fear and loathing beat" -- the antigovernment movement in the western U.S. in the 1990s which led to such tragedies as Ruby Ridge, Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing.
These and other episodes helped me learn about both the movement and the law enforcement response to it -- from covering the 1993 Randy Weaver trial (stemming from the fatal confrontation between his family and the feds on an isolated Idaho ridge) to the June 2001 execution of Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing.
(The guy who waved the .45 at me was neither McVeigh nor the only other person convicted in the bombing, Terry Nichols. He was one of three or four other men who, after years of reporting in several states, I concluded were also involved but never charged.)
The bombing case showed how government overreach and tunnel vision warped the Constitution. With guidance from three well-informed sources, in early May 2001 I faxed a two-page questionnaire to the central FBI public information office.
It listed a dozen or so questions linked to FBI 302s -- raw field interrogation reports I had copies of. After each question I asked whether the results of any of those interviews or leads had been turned over to the McVeigh defense team.
I never got a formal response.
But McVeigh's scheduled May 16 execution was stayed when the FBI admitted it had withheld 4,449 pages of documents from McVeigh's defense team.