When I talk about where and how I grew up, folks, even a bit older than me, assume that not only am I from another state, they imagine I must be from another century.
Case in point.
My home county is dry. I don’t mean that we get little rain, I mean that we have no legal alcohol. This is still the case in several States in the Deep South where the Baptists guard the ballot box against such devilments as gambling, liquor and infrastructure.
Since our county has more Baptists than people, it is as dry as cracker juice. And you can’t imagine the shape these old roads are in. I once tried telling some local pastors that a “Sin Tax” from alcohol revenue could go a long way toward filling in those potholes, but they maintained that the Straight and Narrow was rough by design. I suppose this is to discourage traffic. But I digress.
In other times, our people got around the Blue Laws the old-fashioned way. That is, by ignoring them. Folks just made their own hooch. My great grandmother, for instance, earned what little money she ever had by trading coon pelts, beaver hides, tomato relish, and corn liquor. And she’d grin big as she declared, “Ain’t one soul never went blind from my mash neither.”
By the time I came along, few local stills were in operation. Everyone now looked to another kind of civil servant–the Bootlegger.
I reckon I was 12 or 13 the first time I made a trip to the Bootlegger’s house. “You gone need a paper sack, boy,” Papa said. “Brother Leon ain’t gonna’ sell you nothin’ if’n you don’t have a poke to hide it in.”
Papa wasn’t too peculiar about what kind of liquor I picked up, as long as it was at least a pint of bonded liquor. He never wanted a half pint. “I don’t aim to just get half drunk,” he’d say.
And it had to be bonded liquor, or “bought liquor.” Taxed booze. He once had a bad experience on homemade whiskey, something to do with the neighbor lady that ended with her making threats with garden shears. I don’t rightly know. He didn’t like to talk about it.
So I rustled around under the cabinet and found a little grocery bag and headed the mile and a half to the backside of Carter Cemetery Road. I made pretty good time down that old red dirt road since I wasn’t too keen on the idea of having to pass the graveyard past dusk or after.
Leon Carter, “Brother Leon,” as he was known, was once a Pentecostal preacher. He was also once a deputy sheriff and once reasonably sane. But three churches, two ex wives, and one stray bullet brought on the conditions that necessitated this new occupation. “Brother Leon might still talk in tongues, but he does his cussin’ in English,” Papa said. “But don’t worry. He’s harmless.”
When I turned up Brother Leon’s driveway I remember thinking that the old yellow house was nice for our area. It stood on a foundation and everything. Most homes in our area were either perched on axles, or were built two feet off the ground and had half a dozen hounds living underneath.
But these shutters were new. The yard was freshly mown. And there were even azaleas planted around the porch. It reminded me of Mrs. Whitmore’s house, the president of the garden club up town. It did not look like a den of criminal mischief and vice. Which made sense the longer I thought about it.
I stepped up on the porch to knock on the screen door. But before I could get my fist balled up, a loud, ragged voice shouted at me from inside the house.
“Watchu want, boy?” the voice thundered.
“I’m here to buy some liquor.”
“Say what? They ain’t no liquor here.”
“Aintchu Brother Leon Carter? Aintchu the bootlegger? Papa sa…”
And before I could finish making inquiries, the screen door flung open and a large hand dragged me inside the house by the back of my OshKosh B’gosh overhauls.
“You must ain’t got no damn sense atall,” he thundered. “Out there broadcasting my business on the front porch in front of God and everybody.”
“Well, are you Brother Leon?”
“I am. What business is it of yours?”
“I need a pint of bonded whiskey.”
The erstwhile tent preacher choked out a hoarse laugh thickened by age and Lucky Strikes,
“You’s just a boy. What do you need whiskey fur?”
That’s when I learned how bootleggers go about checking a fella’s ID. He squinted his eyes at me and kind of cocked his head to one side as he spoke from the corner of his mouth,
“Whose boy are you? Who’s your people?” And he held me in his stare for a while.
I told him by Papa’s name and he slapped his knees and laughed again.
“I reckon you’ll be wanton’ a pint of whatever’s cheap then,” he said.
“Yessir. A whole pint. Bonded liquor.”
“You got a sack to put it in?”
“Yessir, got one from the Piggly Wiggly. Will that do?”
“That’s fine. That’ll be ten dollars.”
I gave him the ten dollar bill I had wadded up in my pocket and headed out the door with my contraband.
“Why don’t you come see us at church on Sunday?” said Brother Leon.
“Now, you know we’s Baptist. But I might. Papa says yall waller all over the floor and stuff. I might come watch.”
“You do that. And tell your folks we’re a’prayin’ for em.”
Such was my first encounter with the Bootlegger.