Badass: Max Hardberger
Soldier of Fortune is proud to announce that we are teaming up with Ben Thompson of Badass of the Week to bring you stories of some of the greatest badasses of yore. Stay tuned for regular Badass updates and original articles from Ben in the future!
Max Hardberger is a trained professional whose job routinely involves going to hellacious third-world countries, breaking into heavily-fortified ports in the middle of the night, stealing full-sized cargo ships from hardened pirates, brutal mob bosses, and other organized criminals/bastards, and then sneaking the cruise ship-sized boats out from under the noses of the local port authorities, the coast guard, and that country's navy. In terms of safe working conditions, this guy's 9-to-5 job ganking $10 million ships from violent gangsters is somewhere between "amateur fire-sword swallower" and "guy who disarms IEDs by tap-dancing on them" on the OSHA Safety List, and this borderline-suicidal occupation is only made that much more risky considering that his work is pretty much completely illegal in every country in which he practices it.
Oh, and his name also contains the words Max, Hard, and Burger, which is freakin tremendous in and of itself.
To the untrained eye, it looks like Hardberger is just standing there looking badass.
In reality, he's actually in the process of stealing this ship out from right in front of you.
Maximum Overdrive Hardberger (I assume this is his full given name, though I wasn't able to confirm this at the time this story went to press) didn't exactly start off his career of death-defying awesomeness quite in the manner you might expect. Before the nautical Sam Fisher was Rock Punchgroin-ing criminal douchebags in the cockparts and stealing their ships under cover of darkness, Hardberger was kicking back in a hammock reading Joyce, penning sonnets, and receiving an MFA in Fiction and Poetry from the University of Iowa (?!). A native of New Orleans, Hardberger's early post-graduate years were spent teaching world history and English to high school kids, but when discussing the subtle intricacies of Iambic Pentameter finally became too soul-crushing to bear this guy quit his teaching gig and took a job flying medical research cadavers around the United States in a single-seat prop plane. While I guess there's not much of a difference between a dead body and a high school student sitting in a classroom where he's being taught about the rhythm of the verses in the winter of our discontent, I think most folks would agree that this is a pretty strange job transition nonetheless. At least you don't have to grade research papers, I guess.
Well dressing a dead body up and pretending he's your co-pilot gets boring after a while, so eventually Hardberger decided to quit his part-time cropdusting, part-time cadaver transport work and get involved in the maritime shipping business. Max Hard had worked on oil rig supply ships in the Gulf as a kid, but once he got full-on into freighter shipping, he immediately realized that this was the most badass shit he'd ever done in his life. And it didn't hurt that he was good at it – before long, this guy went from a lowly Greenhorn to the salty, grizzled Captain of multi-million dollar freighters delivering hundreds of tons of cargo to ports across the world.
Like a boss.
But everything changed one fateful day in 1987. It was immediately after Hardberger had dropped off his cargo in an obscure Haitian port when shit suddenly got screwed in a hurry. No sooner had the last crane pulled the shipping container off the deck then out of nowhere a buttload of guys with pistols and submachine guns came up the boarding ramp holding bullshit, court-approved papers claiming the Hardberger's vessel hadn't paid its debts – papers claiming that Max was ordered by the government of Haiti to get his crew off the boat so that these nice dudes with the automatic weapons could assume control of it until the situation could be resolved.
This was seriously boned.
Apparently, this sort of thing is pretty routine in backwater Mos Eisley seaports across the darkest and most lawless corners of the world – some wealthy scumbag "businessman" sees a totally sweet cargo ship roll into the harbor, so he bribes a judge a couple hundred bucks to write up a Search & Seize order. Once the papers are in hand, this guy sends his henchmen to take possession of the boat on behalf of the court. Once they have the boat, these criminal jerkwads kick off the crew, and then immediately sell the ship at auction, usually for a profit of somewhere between half a million and twenty million dollars. What's worse is that according to maritime law, once a boat is sold at auction, its history is completely erased – so even if the thing was seized via heinous douchebaggery, the only thing you can do about it is whine like a punk bitch and cry into your beer. It's like modern-day piracy, only without all the parrots or the eyepatches or anything else that makes pirates cool and not total dickheads.
Well, bugger this – guys sweet 'staches and names like MAXIMUM HARDBERGER do not back down just because a dozen heavily-armed thugs are waving guns in their faces. Hardberger, knowing that his time was short, immediately proceeded to do something daring.
He gave them booze. Like, a shitload of booze.
When the guards passed out from their epic rum party (pirates will be pirates, you know...), Hardberger had his engineer lock them into their quarters, and then he and his crew immediately hauled ass for international waters. Once they were clear of Haitian jurisdiction (where the illicitly-attained judge's order was nonetheless legally binding), he tossed the pirates out on a lifeboat and made them row back home.
Max became something of a hero among the shipping community almost immediately, and before long he started offering his "get the f*ck out of dodge before your ten-million-dollar ship gets sold out from under you" services to anyone with $100,000 and a ship locked down by corrupt officials. Nowadays, all you need to do is call Max, and regardless of what backwater hellhole your ship is stuck at, he'll go into these lawless ports with a team of specialists and steal the boat back.
Hardberger doesn't like to use straight-up violence. It's too messy. In fact, he claims that in a quarter-century of Robin Hooding ships, he's never killed a single person. Instead, he prefers to show up at the port, blend in, recon the area, and put together a clever, precise, airtight plan for getting the boat and himself out in one piece. Usually he likes to play the part of the drunk, grizzled, salty old out-of-work American ship captain (which is a badass archetype in and of itself), and while it looks to outsiders like he's just doing shots of whiskey and talking about "the good old days of the one that got away from the Old Man and the Sea", he's actually doping out the surroundings and preparing a badass Oceans 11 style aquatic ship heist. Then, when the timing is right, he goes in, takes control of the ship, and hauls out of there before the cops and the feds arrive.
In 25 years as the world's only professional cargo ship repo man, Max Hardberger has never failed to recover a boat – something you can easily determine based on the fact that he's not rotting in a South American jail somewhere or feeding fishes at the bottom of a harbor in the Caribbean. As you can imagine, the stories he has to tell will rock your face off. Rather than try to discuss them in a narrative fashion, I'm just going to list them here. Be warned: The next couple of paragraphs might kick you in the solarplexus like a mule, so be prepared to take some breaks so you can catch your breath.
Hardberger once repoed a freighter from the Russian Mafiya in the ice-covered Baltic port of Vladivostok, Russia. One time he captured a ship in Central America by hiring a prostitute to flirt with the guards and give them shots of booze lined with Hardberger's-homemade handy-dandy insta-sedatives. During the Haitian Revolution of 2004, Hardberger sailed into the battle-torn hive of destruction in the middle of a warzone, boarded a ship pretending to be a potential buyer, and got his men to distract the guards while he snuck off, repaired a damaged engine, and cut the anchor chains with a blowtorch. Another time in Haiti, he used a Voodoo witch doctor to freak out a crew of AK-47 slinging pirates and send them running from the ship. In Venezuela he straight-up convinced the guards that the damn ship was sinking, and he did such a good job of it that the entire crew of bad guys all ran to the life boats and rowed back to shore, leaving Max and his buddies plenty of time to leisurely pull the ship out of dock. He also snuck a boat out of Greece by buying the Coast Guard a case of Ouzo on Greek Easter and sailing out right under their noses. More recently, he's hired a team of ex-Special Forces operatives to help him extract ships from Somali pirates armed with assault rifles and RPGs, but by this point it was about as routine as filing a TPS report.
During his adventures, Hardberger has been chased by pirates, shot at by Mafia bosses, accosted by Coast Guard officials, and pursued by god-knows-who-else. He once eluded INTERPOL agents by grinding the ship's name and serial number of its hull mid-transit and painting a fake new name over top of it. In the Dominican Republic he was being pursued by a goddamned naval cruiser, but even a friggin' warship couldn't slow this moustachioed madman down – during his recon, Hardberger had noticed that the Dominican navy was using outdated radar gear, so he sailed his ship right into the middle of a horrible thunderstorm because he knew it would screw with their detection equipment.
Oh yeah, and on one mission that was not in any way at all related to any of this, Max Hardberger hired a crew of German pilots and led a sortie of 47 single-seat aircraft that flew out of Berlin and traveled under the radar across Soviet-controlled Europe before landing at Rostock, disassembling the planes, loading them into cargo containers, and shipping them to Venezuela aboard his boat.
At the age of 62, Max Hardberger continues to do more badass shit in one weekend that most of us will do in our entire lives. He received his JD in maritime law, makes a fucking assload of money, and wrote a bunch of action-packed adventures books that are all sort-of related to his actual real life work. I really have nothing more to add to this.
Ben Thompson is the writer and creator of badassoftheweek.com and author of the books Badass, Badass: Birth of a Legend, and Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch. He has written for Cracked, Fangoria, Penthouse, and The American Mustache Institute, and can occasionally beat the Star Wars Trilogy arcade game with one quarter.