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October 29, 1938 - Image 6

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1938-10-29

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PaP .i.

lI'C J!F

..by Kervie Haufler

gressed rather peacefully from
one topic to another when
Wally and Frank returned from
a beering party about midnight. Their
state of mind quite naturally led us
into a discussion of drinking, and
Wally, who is pretty sarcastic even
without the stimulus of beer, attacked
the drinking habits of my home state
of Kentucky. He must have gained his
prejudices from such movies as "Ken-
tucky Moonshine," comic strips of the
"Lil Abner stamp and articles of "Es-
quire" magazine; they were as strong
they were false. I had to talk my tongue
almost loose to convince the fellows that
my countryfolk weren't all drunks.
Well, I told them, you do not under-
stand the importance of liquor in the
Kentucky -mountains. It is not simply
a means of getting drunk. It is not
merely a refreshment. In some of the
more remote vallys where doctors and
efficient medical service never penetrate,
draughts of whiskey are still looked
upon as the proper doses for every type
of sickness from the "breast complaint"
to the seven-year itch. Ever since I can
remember, my colds have been treated
by steaming glasses of "hot toddy" that
cause perspiration to pop out on me
like rain, Whiskey is the only nourish-
ment given by midwives to women in
travail; it is fed to babies to cure them
of ricets; it often comprises the Last
Supper of old, worn-out men.
I believe this blind faith in the
medicinal values of liquor is easily ex-
plained. In a world full of pain and
sickness and hardship, it is the only
escape. Whiskey can dull an ache as
quickly and effectively as aspirin; a
little catnip added to liquor makes a
laxative. There are few other drugs and
no anesthetics in the mountains, and
doctors of any sort are often inac-
cessible. Without training, could any
ordinary family meet the emergencies
of pain and sickness much more expert-
ly? Do Carter's Little Liver Pills or
Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound
represent any wiser treatment?
But whiskey may mean more than a
a treatment for ills to the mountaineer.
It may mean life, for when agriculture
prices are low, liquor may be the only
source of income. Mountain corn is of-
ten as coarse and poor as the ground
that nurtured it, and no match for the
full, fat ears of the more fertile low-
lands. If the mountain farmer expects
any reasonable income from his surplus
corn, he will convert it into liquor. Corn
is corn to a still.
Althought the town-dwellers are his
best customers, the mountaineer sells
liquor to them only with misgivings.
Liquor is bad for the "settlements." The
men there look upon liquor differently,
considering it as a plaything. In' the
mountains everyone is familiar with
whiskey from childhood, and no one can
mark his superiority merely by drink-
ing. because virtually everyone drinks.
Drinking is as commonplace as eating.
But in the towns a youth discovers
whiskey suddenly during his growth. He
stands slightly in awe of it. Finally he
drinks to prove his superiority and
virility, for his own ego. He does not
drink for the pleasure that liquor gives
the palate. He drinks to get drunk. He
drinks because there are some of his
companions still in awe of drinking. It
is a great thing for these city youths to
get drunk. They will boast about it for
days and relish the memory of it until
death. Drunkenness is a disgrace in the
mountains because it is a sign of weak-
ness. Anyone can get drunk.
This difference in habits may partly
explain the mountaineer's contempt for
urban society. For the lowly hill-billy
often fleeces the metropolite thoroughly

by taking advantage of his drinking
weaknesses. The mountaineer will buy
an old nag ready for the boneyard,
curry him until his hide glows, file cups
in his teeth to make his mouth look
youthful, rub turpentine on the quicks
of his hooves to make him step lively,
put ginger under his tail to make him
perk it up buoyantly, and then set out
to hook some city sucker. All he needs
is to get the victim looking through the
rose-tinted spectacles of too much
alcohol and the nag will seem as much
a thoroughbred as Man O'War. The city
sucker, even though he lives in an
efficiency apartment, will buy the
Of course, there is a law providing
penalties for the "unauthorized manu-
facture of distilled spirits." But if the
law itself were the only obstacle,
whiskey-making would flourish without
interference. Who would throw the
first stone when the revenue officer and
the prosecuting attorney and the judge
all like their fiery swigs as much as any-
one? The statute would atrophy.
But the law is often applied because
of personal motives. When a revenue
officer is elected, he will immediately
make a series of raids on those who op-
posed him in his campaign. The actual
warfare of the feuds has largely died
out, yet the spirit of them is remember-
ed sufficiently enough that should a
representative of some feuding family
of the old days gain office, the former
enemy knows it will have to walk the
straight line of the law. The battles be-
tween "revenuers a n d moonshiners"
that make such racy copy for the Sun-
day gazettes are more often personal
grudge matches than the law versus the
Mountain whiskey is usually ex-
cellent, although financial expediencies
of the distiller may push it onto the
market incompletely aged. A moun-
taineer takes great pride in his liquor.
He "suckers" his tobacco - removes
the tobacco worms from the plants -
with great care, or else his crop may be
ruined. He is as meticulous in the pre-
paration of his whiskey. I have heard
that a Kentucky governor once ap-
pointed a mountaineer to his prolific
staff of colonels as a reward for the per-
fection of his liquor,
And yet one of the more common rea-
sons for the wars between revenuers and
moonshiners - if the truth behind the
raids were always revealed - is bad
liquor. Men become so desperate for
money with which to feed their families
tl they mix unaged "mash" liquor,
wood alcohol, anything handy, and label
it "liquor." And fools unknowingly drink
it. Let some young fellow be blinded by
whiskey he has drunk and the cry of
"bad hooch" that sweeps the countryside
will be as repellent to the ears as the
rattle of a diamondback. A posse of
deputies will be sworn in posthaste and
justice itself instead of the law will ride
with the revenue officers. And the distill-
er, when he hears them coming, will he
submit to the charge of making "bad
hooch?" Never! He must fight for his
reputation. He must fight to the finish.
Although trails crisscross the mount-
ains, none will ever lead to a still, how-
ever many trips are made to it. The
mountains o f f e r innumerable hiding
places, and the moonshiners open no
passageways to them. I have heard of a
man who couldn't find his still until he
became almost desperately dry. Then he
smelled his way like a hound scenting a
"varmint." A clump of haw trees presents
a thorny shield; some little, lost ravine
may have a still snuggled in its depths;
the limestone hills are drilled with caves.
When one visits a mountain cabin the
supply of liquor never seems to diminish.
It flows and flows and one ne1,er learns

its source. It seems to flow up out of the
hills like some hidden spring.
For a revenue officer to find a still is,
indeed a victory of which the law may be
proud. I have never seen a post-confisca-
tion celebration, but I imagine it is a
rather merry event, probably made mer-
rier by numerous gallons of the con-
fiscated property. In the embittered game
of "I spy" between the officers and
moonshiners, it is not often the law that
wins. A successful quest by the officers
is usually the result of some Machiavel-
lian stroke that transcends the custom-
ary rules of the game.
One of these jewels of skullduggery
which I remember occurred in "Bloody
Breathitt." There, as in most other sec-
tors, the "skimmin's" from the mash
are fed to the hogs. One bright young
revenuer capitalized on this knowledge
by carrying off one of a suspected moon-
shiner's prize razorbacks. The officers
kept the hog penned up for two full days
without food of any sort, then turned
him loose near the mountaineer's home.
As unerringly as a bee the hungry porker
threaded his way through the maze of
woods and stopped only when he had
reached his master's still.
Because of its concentrated taste and
aroma, the disposal of this refuse mash
is a troublesome problem. Formerly the
"skimmin's" were dumped into a nearby
stream, but the revenuers got wise to that
method. They would swim down the
stream until the swimming became de-
licious and then search the banks. And
now that razorbacks have become
traitors, the moonshiners will have to
develop some new trick.
In urban society I have found that
liquor and religion are on opposite ends
of the sociological scale. A pious bac-
chanal, like a saintly prostitute, just
doesn't exist. I suppose that if I told a
city-bred clergyman that the most de-
vout Christian I ever knew drank corn
liquor with his meals, he'd think I was
a miserably poor judge of Christian
But it remains a fact that religion and
moonshine can, and frequently do, go
hand-in-hand in the mountains, and it
is true that old Darley McKim, although
he was never without his bottle, was
kinder, humbler, more pious than any
pastor I've ever met. The intense prayers
that old Darley delivered at the Sunday
services revealed that his piety sprang
from the depths of him. And yet his
most soul-stirring prayers (they stirred
his soul as much as anyone's) came when
his mind was suffused with alcoholic
fumes. They tell me that Catholics do
not pray to their ipmages and crucifixes,

these are only guides to focus their atten-
tion, to inspire them. Well, it seems to
me that Darley's liquor was his crucifix.
Certainly it inspired him.
People like Darley cannot consider the
drinking or making of corn liquor a viola-
tion of the law, the conscience or the
Bible when it is to them a staff of life,
an all-purpose medicine, virtually the
source of income. Mountain preachers
harangue against drunks, but rarely
against drinking. They know how the
nickels in the collection plate were earn-
ed. They know that if, during the excite-
ment of a revival, they induce a man to
"git religion" so ardently that he breaks
up his still and throws the worm in the
river, cooling of the spiritual fervor will
leave a residue of distrust for reigion
that won't be easily polished away.
Mountain people resent even the attacks
of the church on corn liquor because it
is an essential part of their lives. In the
people's opinion, its presence is complete-
ly justified.
Just this past summer I broached the
subject of whiskey and religion with an
old hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher of
the hills. I told him, as a lead to get him
started talking, that I had once read of a
church where a deacon stood guard. at
the church door and tapped with a stick
the hip pockets of every man who enter-
ed. He laughed uproariously and boomed,
"Well, maybe I could convince 'em I was
only carryin' holy water. But don't that
pother they make about whiskey strike
you as kind of hypocritical? That same
deacon'll go right in and piously drink
grape-juice at Communion when he
knows as well as I do that it wasn't
grape-juice Christ drank at his Last
"I supppse those churches feel it's
their duty to fight drunkenness," I
"Drunkenness, yes. I'll fight drunken-
ness anytime, but drinking for the
pleasure it gives, no. Christ drank, but he
didn't get drunk. He could have. if he
hadn't been strong. I look down upon
anyone who is a slave to himself. I
looked down on old Joshua Mullens, good
as he was to everybody, because he
couldn't control the body God gave him.
Old Joshua ate sweets until he swoll up
and busted. The doctors tapped him be-
fore he died and took ten gallons of
syrup out o' his body, I'll swear it on the
Bible. That's the sin, son, bein' weak with
the body God gave you. whether the
weakness is women, liquor or food. That's
what I'll preach against. But drinkin' in
itself is no more sin than eatin'."

Swung far above the crowd in nothingness
The tight-rope dancers dance the sunlit air,
Curtsey and bow, fight duels - What you dare
I dare; outdoing and outdone, no less
Shall I aspire in pride to your finesse -
Stretching their necks, he crowds below them stare--
This skill is all too skillful, Oh beware.
Below you lies the infinite abyss.
We lightly talk of personalities
In abstract; we avoid the you and I.
I was mistaken when I thought to tease;
You looked surprised; I laughed and found my place
In words that give my world of thought the lie:
To dance this airy thread demands much grace.

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