Life as a Bootlegger's Son reveals murder and adultery that existed in the family. It also addresses personal survival when confronted with abject poverty and the challenges of growing up largely without parental supervision.
The book also has humorous moments that the reader is sure to enjoy. Be sure to read the squirrel story!
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Life as a Moonshiner's SonAdversity, danger, occasional humor
By James A. Smith
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2009 James A. Smith
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBootlegging A Reality
In the 1940s and 1950s, when I was growing up, illegal whiskey flowed freely in southeastern North Carolina (as well as much of the south). It was the cheap way of getting drunk, which seemed to be a popular objective of many people in the area who sought their "fix" almost daily. This brew, commonly called "white lightning" was a popular and clandestine way of avoiding payment of revenue to the government. The making of the whiskey was illegal, but not nearly as important to the government as selling it without the payment of appropriate tax. Tax revenue to the government dropped significantly.
But let's go back to an earlier time - to Prohibition - to fully understand moonshine manufacturing and sale. Prohibition went into effect in the U.S. in 1920 and ended in 1933. The 18th Amendment made the manufacture, importing and sale of liquor illegal. The Volstead Act put into place a police system to enforce the ban. Suddenly, the sale of alcohol went underground - speakeasys were born - and secret drinking places were now widespread.
Prohibition ended upon approval of the 21st amendment in 1933. Michigan was thefirst state to approve the 21st Amendment in April 1933. The 21st Amendment was put over the top six months later, by Utah, an indication of just how wide and deep the national disdain for prohibition had become.
Prohibition was referred to as "The Great Experiment." Temperance advocates argued prohibition would usher in an era of sober moral rectitude. Unfortunately, prohibition did not achieve the desired success. Public opinion began to turn against the government. Alcohol use did not go away. In fact, alcohol use during the 13 years of the prohibition actually increased, and would never return to pre-1920 levels. The moonshiner established a firm hold on the manufacture and sale of illegal alcohol.
During the Great Experiment people suffered; organized crime grew; and the police and courts became increasingly corrupt. Before prohibition, reputable women didn't step into saloons. But once liquor went underground, more and more women visited secret speakeasys. It was said that a woman never knew what she was drinking or who she slept with.
America was never really "dry" even in the prohibition period. Liquor was illegally transported from Canada and Mexico, and imported by ship from Europe. Moonshiners were now more prominent, especially in the south. To escape the law, these bootleggers made whiskey at night, under the moon. Alcohol made in this way was called "moonshine."
Making good moonshine was a time - tested process. The good moonshine came from bootleggers who really understood the intricate process. The right equipment was critical. The still should be made completely of copper, including the condenser, which was a large vat where steam was generated, later forming into drops of liquor through cooling in the coils. Unfortunately, some bootleggers preferred to use cheaper galvanized components or perhaps were unable to obtain the necessary copper material. Although this did not happen very often, the results could be devastating. The thirsty consumer, not being very discriminating, could suffer blindness or even death because of poisons leached out of the galvanized piping. Unfortunately, there was no way the drinker could distinguish between moonshine made from copper stills or from galvanized stills. Drinking moonshine could be a very risky business.
There were a number of reasons why moonshine was successful as the alcoholic drink of choice. One was economic. Moonshine was simply cost effective. Next, moonshine was generally readily available - not just in North Carolina but throughout the South. This occurred simply because local taxing authorities ruled that whiskey - even government taxed liquor - was not welcomed in their jurisdictions. Of course, during the thirteen years of the Prohibition, alcohol was not allowed nationally, and the country allegedly went "dry." The unavailability of legal alcohol gave rise to a sharp increase in the number of moonshiners, especially in the South. The escalation in illegal liquor manufacturing during prohibition carried over into the years following termination of prohibition.
My father was a moonshiner. He made whiskey, distributed it throughout much of Southeastern North Carolina to other bootleggers and also sold to his trusted customers. Yes, he worked for the furniture mill, but at night he became a moonshiner. His "office" was deep in the woods, always near the Big Coharie River. The river provided water necessary in the distilling process. According to his customers, he made quality moonshine. I thought it tasted like rubbing alcohol, and it was just as strong.
He was never caught by federal agents searching for illegal whiskey, although they tried on numerous occasions to put him out of business. He had a "souped up" Ford that was faster than cars used by the feds. Also, he beefed up the rear springs of his car so it would not sag under the weight of the moonshine in the trunk. A sagging rear end was a sure giveaway to the feds that a heavy load of whiskey was likely on board. He often would carry more than 50 gallons of liquor in his car, which weighed a minimum of 500 pounds.
Sugar was a major ingredient in the manufacture of illegal whiskey, along with corn or wheat. Getting these items to a still, always buried deep in the woods, was a significant challenge. My father got around this logistical problem by using me to transport material to his still.
One afternoon after school, he directed me to take a load of sugar upstream to help his still. I would use the skiff for that purpose, paddling upstream with 400 pounds of sugar on board. He told me to leave around midnight.
At dusk, he loaded the sugar on board the skiff. The 100 pound bags were too heavy for me to lift - I was 13 years old and not very big. Father left for the woods immediately after loading the sugar.
My father was smart when it came to federal agents. He always approached the still from different directions to confuse the feds. Also, he strung small threads throughout the woods near his perimeter. Feds walking to the woods would likely break the string, thereby notifying father not to go to the still. Additionally, he would not go to the still if the underbrush had been disturbed.
At midnight, I boarded the skiff, pushed away from the landing, and started my trek up river. The moon was obstructed by clouds, but light from the stars permitted me to stay in the middle of the river - away from submerged debris near the river banks. I tried to be very quiet to avoid alerting any federal agents who were lurking about. I had no specific knowledge of my father's whereabouts, but hoped for a signal from the bank.
After paddling about two hours, just as I rounded a sharp bend in the river, I heard a bird-like sound from the river bank. Was this my dad? How could I be sure? I dare not approach the bank with the heavy load, for fear of capsizing, unless the bank was unobstructed. I heard the sound again, and decided to paddle toward the direction of the sound. I cautiously beached the skiff on a sand bar and was immediately met by my father. He secured the boat to a cypress knee.
Dad immediately removed the four bags from the skiff and carried them - one at a time - through the dense undergrowth. I followed him into a clearing, and there before me was a real whiskey still. A fire was burning under the kettle, and moonshine was running out of circular copper tubing into a gallon jug. Nearby were several cases of empty one gallon jars that would be filled with this liquor. Wood was stacked to keep the fire going.
That night, I saw my first operational whiskey still. Over the coming months, my father would introduce me to more whiskey stills and get me more involved in the distilling process I would make this trip up river by skiff - with sugar or other material on board - on a number of occasions.
Making illegal whiskey was only part of the process. Once made, it had to be distributed.
Chapter TwoSpecial Delivery
Some of the most prestigious citizens of the local community were my father's best moonshine customers. The mayor came to my house frequently to buy liquor. He would always park behind the barn to avoid detection, and meet Dad in back out of sight. After all, he had a political career to uphold.
I suppose the availability of moonshine from my father was common knowledge through the county. Of course, this included the parents of the kids who went to school. Occasionally, my classmates would make fun of the "bootleggers" son. But I grew accustomed to this talk.
One evening, my father told me that he must deliver some moonshine to a favorite buyer that evening. Actually, the customer was a large distributor who sold quite a lot of my dad's moonshine to smaller customers, and he was about to run out. Dad informed me that I would accompany him on this delivery, which would be through the woods to the distributor. This trek through the woods was the only way to make the delivery because the federal agents were watching dad's car. If he made the delivery by car, the feds would likely set up a road block to stop and arrest Dad with moonshine in the car. The "heat" from the feds would likely disappear in a couple weeks, as they moved on to a new moonshiner, and my father could resume delivery via his car.
At dusk, Dad brought six gallons of moonshine from the barn. He gave me two gallons in a burlap bag, and he loaded the remaining four gallons in another burlap bag.
When the moon began to raise above the trees, Dad told me that it was time to go. We left the house, traveling down a path by the river. Soon, we crossed the bridge that spanned the river, being careful that oncoming drivers would not pick us up in their headlights. After crossing, dad searched for an old logging trail that had not been used for more than 25 years. Finally, he found the trail, and we were on our way into the deep woods. The destination was about 2 miles away. The temperature hovered around 10 degrees.
After walking for two hours, we stopped for a quick break and a drink of water from the Pepsi bottle that Dad carried in his coat pocket. Then we were on our way again. As we walked through the woods, Dad said that I should be careful not to step on a poisonous snake. I wondered.... how were we to avoid a snake in the darkness?
Suddenly, we were confronted with a canal. We might have fallen into it had the stars provided less illumination. How were we to cross this big ditch? It was about six feet wide and appeared to be quite deep. We put our burlap bags on the ground. Dad told me to wait, that he was going to look for some way to cross. He left the path and disappeared into the thick under brush adjacent to the canal. After about 15 minutes, he returned. He said we could cross on a tree that had fallen across this ditch during a hurricane.
Soon we were at the log. The tree bark had long since worn away, leaving a semi-slick surface. Dad crossed first, being careful to avoid slipping off the log. He left his burlap bag and returned and took my bag and went across again. Then it was my time to cross.
I started out slowly and cautiously, aware that the water below the felled tree was very cold. At the half way point, I stopped, aware that my feet were slipping on the glassy surface of the tree. I looked down to reassure myself that my feet were appropriately placed on the tree surface. "Don't look down!" my dad shouted. Suddenly my feet started slipping and I struggled to maintain my balance! I fell forward with my arms and legs wrapped around the upper side of the tree. My body was now slowly slipping off the trunk and there was nothing I could do to stop the plunge to the bitter cold water! When I hit the water, my breath was suddenly taken away from the intense cold. I fell below the surface of the water, and found myself struggling for air as I moved toward the top. The canal was much deeper than it appeared from the high bank.
In a moment, dad climbed down the bank and reached for my hand. It was a long reach and my hand slipped repeatedly from his hand until he could get a firm grip, I slowly climbed out of the water and followed Dad to the top of the bank. He told me to remove my coat, and he offered his coat to me. According to Dad, we were only a couple hundred yards from the drop point, so we would continue. He promised to make the sale quickly so we could immediately return home. By this time I was shaking with cold from the wet clothing. My teeth were chattering loudly.
Dad was correct. Almost immediately I came upon a clearing where we stopped. He told me to wait in the underbrush as he took the two bags around the edge of the field toward a dim light in the distance. He was concerned that the feds could be watching the house. If he was apprehended by the authorities, I would not be detected by remaining behind. I crouched in the brush, unsure of what awaited my father as he cautiously make his way toward the light. The moon was now high in the sky and it was easy to follow his movements across the open field. But that also meant it was easy for the feds to spot dad moving toward the house.
I vigorously rubbed my hands together in an almost futile attempt to provide some warmth to my bitterly cold fingers. My toes were now numb. I wondered aloud ... how much longer could I endure the cold?
About 20 minutes later, Dad returned, informing me that he completed the delivery of whiskey to his customer. We immediately departed for home, rushing through the woods toward the warmth of the pot belly stove. I'm convinced that body heat generated from rapidly moving through the woods saved me.
That was to be the last time dad asked me to haul his whiskey through the woods. However, he was a hot tempered, mean fisted man, and I remember beatings at his hands. Therefore, if he asked me again, I would go.
Chapter ThreeThe River Speaks
The Big Coharie River has many stories to tell. This river was the source of baptisms, devastating floods that wiped out crops and damaged homes, water artery for transporting liquor from whiskey still to a distributor - death for Union forces during the Civil War and so much more. If it could speak, we would be astonished at the significant events that have occurred on the river. I address two such events in this chapter.
My sisters and I often enjoyed swimming in back of our home at a place known as the whirlpool. I suppose you could say the whirlpool was "uncharted" because no one knew just how deep the water really was. It was rumored that General Sherman, when he marched his troops through this part of the North Carolina in early l865, sustained a mishap at the whirlpool. The story goes that a raft with two cannons and ten troops capsized at the whirlpool while crossing the river. Sadly, no one survived. The bodies - as well as the cannons - were never recovered.
When my parents were drunk - as they often were - my sisters and I would venture down to the whirlpool, alone, and swim in the cool water. Jean was 9, Judy was 12 and I was 13. Needless to say, we were not good swimmers. In fact, what we knew about swimming we taught ourselves in the absence of parental assistance. To compensate for our inability to swim well, we would often take a board into the water and hold onto it to remain afloat.
One summer day, while swimming in the river at the whirlpool, my sister Carol nearly drowned. She lost her grasp on her board and suddenly found herself in trouble. I was close when she screamed for help, and managed to reach her as she went under water the last time. I pulled her back to the surface by grasping her hair, and then helped her climb up on my board. No one ever knew about the near tragedy that occurred that day, or none of us would be allowed to swim again.
CONSEQUENCE OF MINDLESS THINKING
Dad was expert at making fish traps from chicken mesh. They were about three feet square, made from chicken wire, with a funnel placed in one end. A brick was placed inside the trap so that the current would not wash it away. Fish normally swim against the current; therefore, the trap was set with the funnel opening pointed downstream. Fish would enter the funnel, moving to the inside, but could not escape via the narrow opening. The traps were especially effective for perch and catfish, and were usually left overnight. Fish caught in the traps were sold to customers coming to the house to buy liquor, or served at home.
Excerpted from Life as a Moonshiner's Son by James A. Smith Copyright © 2009 by James A. Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
1 Bootlegging a reality First whiskey still....................1
2 Special delivery Hand delivery of white lightning....................9
3 The river speaks Moonshine, lockup, terror....................15
4 A stormy night Hostage taking....................22
5 Runaway Escape into the wilderness....................27
6 Frigid night on the river Staring death in the face....................35
7 Terrible storm Hurricane Hazel....................46
8 The mulberry bush Death on a snowy night....................52
9 Christmas remembered Feeling of sorrow....................59
10 Treasured companion From the woods....................64
11 Fish stories Developing skills at an early age....................71
12 The flood Attempt to kill?....................81
13 Sly surprise Steel trap yield....................87
14 Growing up Facts of life....................91
15 Death arrives Short life....................94
16 Living off the land Living by our wits....................97
17 A time of finality Hidden death....................105
18 A change of life Explore the world....................110