In the riverbed between Edgefield County, South Carolina, and Lincoln County, Georgia, a copper still sleeps in the ooze gluing two states together. That still belonged to my grandfather.
Every family—some will admit it—shuns some relative from its past. Growing up, I heard shadowy references to my grandfather’s past. He wasn’t the clichéd kindly old grandfather. We did few things together, save drive up cattle come lightning bug time, he calling them through cupped hands with a word I can only approximate as “quoey.” To this day he remains an enigma, the man who fathered my father but otherwise moved through my life unknown, a silhouette on a scrim.
He had linguistic talent. He was the “finest cusser” in the county as one gray-headed field hand told me and he had a wandering eye. My grandmother, having caught wind of his assignations, lowered a 12-gauge shotgun on him. He leaped the banister of a 15-foot porch and hit the ground running as a load of #8 birdshot flew over his head. He didn’t come back for four days.
I best see him chopping hog meat with a hatchet on a thick oak table. Each chop cut slightly past and across the last yielding a fine crosshatched layer of BBQ. He wore overalls, a felt hat as men did in his day, and in winter a brown leather jacket. He had money but you wouldn’t have known it. I don’t recall him ever buying a new car. He owned a large farm with eleven fishponds that infused my boyhood with bream-bed joy. He raised white-faced cattle and grew cotton, and light green watermelons run over with dark green, zigzagged stripes. In the summer he girdled oaks and in winter felled the dried-out trees and burnt yellow logs with red hearts in a black wood stove. The fragrant wood smelled sweet and sour at the same time. He would spit at the stove with its cherry-red stovepipe, each glob of phlegm landing with a hiss. When one landed atop the stove it rolled around sibilating like a ball bearing from Hell.
At its zenith, his farm sprawled across 5,000 acres along the Georgia side of the Savannah River. That was before the US Army Corps of Engineers built Clark Hill Dam, penning up the mighty Savannah and inundating more red clay than it projected. In short, the federal government stole 1,000 acres of fully timbered land from my grandfather for $1 an acre. Maybe that was the government’s way of extracting revenge from Mr. Johnny, as grandfather was known, for Mr. Johnny, you see, made moonshine.
My grandfather was eighteen when Prohibition arrived. He was thirty-one when Prohibition and its documented ills ended, proving that the road to hell is, indeed, paved with good intentions. During those years of parched throats Mr. Johnny perfected his moonshine, “the best liquor in the county” as one farmhand told me. He didn’t kill or blind people by using radiators and lead solder. He made quality white lightning and parlayed corn liquor into land. Otherwise, I know little about the man and his black market Prohibition days. One tale, however, made it through family censors.
Granddad and his charismatic brother, Thomas Carey, “Carey,” who sashayed around with two women on his arm, were working a still by the Savannah River. Perhaps they stayed in one spot too long. Maybe some fellow jealous of Carey ratted them out. Perchance the revenuers saw smoke. However they found his still, they raided it while Granddad alone was working it. Granddad broke and ran through briars and brambles, through thorns and thickets, through woods, and over barbed wire and when he could run no more and had lost every stitch of clothing, they caught him.
The agents escorted him, naked as the proverbial jaybird, home where my grandmother met them on the front porch. With an agent holding him by each elbow, Granddad spoke. “Thelma, I have to do some business for a few days in Augusta with these gentlemen. I’ll be back.”
Word of the raid got back to Carey. Women loved him. His sister, Nanny, said, “That Carey. He always had dolls.” Carey partied a lot and after a night of revelry he got ill. A doctor’s injection reacted with the alcohol … so the family believed, and at the age of 37 he was no more.
I like to think that Carey loved my grandfather very much, and I will write here that he did. Carey, hearing of his older brother’s plight, gathered up some farmhands and put the still, barrels, and all on a barge. They poled it to the middle of the Savannah and sunk it. When the revenuers returned to get their evidence there was none. They freed Granddad.
Down here moonshine put some jingle in pockets, food on the table, and in Granddad’s case land on the courthouse tax rolls. I’m not sure but I believe he ended his days of shine after his brush with the law and turned to full-time farming.
Were he alive today he’d be 113. Were he younger and alive today things would be different for dear old granddad. Thanks to recent micro-distillery laws it’s legal to distill liquor as an individual. You pay taxes on it, of course. Granddad could set up shop and make some shine with no worries about running naked through the woods. He’d have a plethora of regulations and requirements to meet but his experience with the government would serve him well.
As for Granddad, suffering chest pains on a Sunday evening, he died July 23, 1972, sitting in his car. Thelma had driven him to the little clinic where a doctor was substituting for the county’s vacationing physician. “Yeah, you’re having a heart attack,” said the substitute. “Get to the hospital,” and with that he went back inside.
There was no hospital.
Granddad died on the spot, done in by years of homegrown steaks, eggs, and bacon. That night I tried to comfort my grandmother who gruffly retorted, “Go on. I’ll be all right.”
Moonshine money and missionaries make a good mix. At Granddad’s funeral it surfaced that he had long donated a lot of money to his church, though he never attended. Field hands, however, did attend his service, the first time to my knowledge the little Baptist church down by the creek was integrated.
As for granddad, well, my mother never said one good thing about him, but the moonshine money that bought the land my late father inherited and sold sustains her. No complaints about that.
September 4, 1972, forty-three days after Granddad passed, my daughter, Beth, came into this world in the little clinic 30 feet from where Granddad sought salvation of another kind. As the Russian proverb goes, “One wedge knocks out another.”
Beth never speaks of her great-grandfather’s fine heritage but she probably knows more about him than anyone. Her spirit followed his not far from the mighty Savannah, family keeper of moonshine memories, and spirits have ways of communing what we mortals cannot.