Saturday, August 06, 2005

It's okay so long as you know it's wrong . . .

When I was a kid back in the Ozarks, buying a certain length of copper tubing was cause for suspicion.

Unless you happened to be an electrician -- and you weren't -- you were probably going to twist it into a coil, put it into a cooling barrel, and attach it to a still to condense distilled moonshine.

If you've been reading my blog entries (and paying attention), you'll recall McDougall's remarks about 'moonshine' in Freedom Just Around the Corner:

Scots and Irish carried with them their thirst for the wee dram, or pint as the case may be. Even children at table were given a glass of whiskey sweetened with sugar. Over time, their experimentation with local marshes, stills, and the aging of liquors in various casks perfected those backwoods masterpieces called Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee sippin' whiskey. (153-154)

Well, in moving on from Kentucky and Tennessee to the Arkansas Ozarks, those Scotch-Irish brought their perfected masterpieces with them.

Not that there wasn't local opposition among those same Scotch-Irish. Recall also McDougall's description of 'getting religion' among the Scotch-Irish:

"Repent, ye sinner, and be saved" -- especially when cried at dusk in a torchlit meadow littered with jugs -- was a simple message that blamed the frontiersman alone for his sordid condition and put the future entirely in his own hands. (154)

Those jug-littered fields, over time, came to be seen by preachers as part of the frontiersman's sordid condition. A competition of spirits -- demon whiskey versus the Lord's sober drunkenness, an old dichotomy in a new context. The preaching was effective enough that the Scotch-Irish of northern Arkansas kept the Ozarks legally dry. But the whiskey was good enough that they drank anyway.

Some might call this hypocrisy, but I consider it a pragmatic solution to the moral dilemma of having to choose between the good Lord and good whiskey. Cognitive dissonance was reduced by this formula:

It's okay to drink so long as you know it's wrong.

So . . . folks voted dry but drank wet. And that might have worked if there hadn't been those damned revenoors breakin' and takin' stills.

On the positive side, the revenue agents did 'provide' a job for one of my paternal uncles. One of the local moonshining families whose surname "Hiram" was pronounced "Harm" offered my 13-year-old uncle a job keeping an eye out for the law. He must have done a good job because he was promoted to run moonshine as soon as he was old enough to get a driver's license.

That was about as far as he got in the business, however, because one time he was running some moonshine along an unpaved back road when he saw the sheriff's car coming up from behind. Ordinarily, he would have kept his wits about him, but because he had a pistol on the seat, he panicked and sped off in a cloud of dust. The sheriff gave chase.

My uncle could see the sheriff gaining on him and decided that he'd better get rid of the gun if he wanted to avoid prison, so as he was crossing a low-water bridge, he tossed his pistol into the water.

That, at least, was his intention, but the pistol hit a rock and bounced back up onto the bridge, where it caught the sheriff's eye. As the sheriff stopped to confiscate that evidence, my uncle eluded capture.

But his narrow escape made him think about his life and what he wanted from it. He told himself, "If I go on like this, I'll end up dead or in prison."

Figuring that the law was coming for him, he left home the next day, signed up for the army, and was off to boot camp. Six months later, he had leave to visit his Ozark home. All dressed up in his uniform, he went downtown to impress the girls. As he was flirting with them on the town square, the sheriff noticed and called out to him from across the courtyard:

"Cleo," he said, "I've got your gun if you want it."

"No thanks," my uncle called back, "they gave me another one."


At 8:39 AM, Blogger The Root said...

I have family in northern Arkansas. I'm happy to say that all the counties are still dry, the churches are on every corner with high attendance every sunday, but everyone still drinks anyway.
I have a quick anecdote for you. My grandfather, an old Ozark man himself, said that there is some sort of "runoff" or "extra" whiskey that comes out of the distilling process for moonshine that is a much higher proof than the moonshine itself (like 120-130 proof) that is not intended to be drunk. He told me that it was put on the shelf next to the regular moonshine just in case an unpleasant visitor showed up and asked for a wee dram. You'd give him the "runoff" moonshine and he'd pass out. Although he told me that he only did that to one person and never did it again. He said it terrified him because the guy who drank it went blind for over an hour. Heh. Crazy Arkansans. :)

At 2:55 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Your grandfather knows a lot more about making moonshine than I do.

Based on what little I do know, I think that he might be referring to the first whiskey that comes out of the still, which is high in alcohol. From my understanding, you're supposed to mix that with the last whiskey coming out, which is low in alcohol.

I guess if you saved that first portion and gave it to someone unsuspecting, it could deliver quite a kick.

One of my cousins was once given some high-proof moonshine. He was sitting on the high bank of a large pond when he took the first swig and woke up when he rolled into the water.

At 9:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff. Nice moonshine story. I once drank some supposed moonshine that was given to me by Herschel Ducker. I say supposed because Herschel, as you know, was a notorious prankster (read liar). Anyway, I drank a bit (it tasted like a combination of sour milk and corn) but failed to become drunk--I did feel a bit queasy and threw the rest away.

I've started a blog (see Ozark JazzFly).


At 9:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Pat, I've added your blog to my blog list. It's under "Literary Blogs" because you intend to write about the Kinsey Milhone mystery series written by Sue Grafton.

Have you ever read Dorothy Sayers? I blogged about her on May 9, 2005:

But you may prefer the hardbitten American style of mystery story to the more upscale British sort.

At 6:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Scots-Irish Baptist members don't dance.

The Scots-Irish Jehovah's Witnesses members don't take transfusions.

And the Scots-Irish Church of Christ members don't recognize each other at the liquor store.

Herschel Ducker

At 8:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Herschel, that's because the C of C folks are already blind drunk.

Jeffery Hodges

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