The First Stop on My Road to Ruin

​Coming of Age     |     The Hollow Man Series, International Espionage

The Setting:

It was 1955. In rural Alabama we lived hand-to-mouth. We made creative dinners from whatever grew that summer or was not fast enough to outrun a bullet. Our clothes were homemade. There were hand-me-downs and hand-me-ups. There was no work; side hustles ran the economy.

Moonshine was the hustle of all hustles. Liquid gold was distilled, bought, sold, and traded. I won’t burden you with the distillation process because there are far better recipes out there these days. Let’s just say, the conversion of starches (if used) to sugars to fermentation is a natural process, accelerated by cooking and perhaps a little battery acid for those more impatient cooks among us. Sometimes corn and fruit were included mostly for flavor. The resulting clear liquid was a type of ethanol, which gave shine its powerful trademark zing.

The Story:

Homemade liquor was much sought after by more than the thirsty. Law enforcement agencies acted like jealous lovers, and their oversight greatly complicated connecting supply with demand. As a result, it was rock dumb to bring customers to your operating premises, while driving around with a truck full of unlicensed alcohol added another layer of trouble that nobody wanted.

Since moonshine was ethanol based and equated to 110+ octane gasoline, my father decided to un-complicate supply chain worries by using his proprietary formula to reach customers. No tangible product, no foul, he thought. The only downside was pulling the engine head to reseat the valves every few weeks because rocket fuel tended to burn up an automobile engine pretty fast. So he became a traveling one-man-band peddler of damned near poisoned snake oil.

His customers didn’t seem to mind or didn’t put two and two together. All across a dry county they waited for his car with more anticipation than an ice cream truck full of free soft serve cones. And, they were not disappointed. He would pop the trunk lid open and pull a few empty Mason jars from an assortment of cardboard boxes.

“Don’t crowd around,” he would say. “Give us some room to work. You boys line up over there. Now, which size ya want?” Or, he might ask. “Or… how much money ya got?”

Each customer pointed to their favorite jar or showed their quarters, and dad was open for business. At six years old, I was still about the size of an underfed raccoon, so it was my job to crawl under the car to the gas tank with the selected Mason jar. I released the shuttlecock to let the moonshine flow.

Occasionally customers brought personal containers; anything from coffee cans to kerosene buckets. To paraphrase a cat’s thinking, if it fits, it sits, under the gas tank. My dad would determine price by hand weight in those cases.

Business was always good, especially in the winter. That moonshine burn really warmed a gizzard, I suppose. Most would drink their purchases before we left their yard. I remember one older gentleman emptied a quart jar between two breaths like he was trying to cure hiccups or something worse. He stumbled and passed out before hitting the dirt. A few of the grownups carried him inside the house.

“I was in a sort of coma for three days and when I woke, I was blind for maybe two more weeks,” He said the next time we saw him. “Do you have any left over from that same batch? I could sure use another slug of it right ‘bout now.”

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