I’m not much of a card player. I only know two card games, Tonk and Crazy Eights, and I’m not particularly good at either one.
However, the last few months have given my wife, Brenda, and me more time to play cards and board games.
Scrabble is my game. To make the games more interesting, Brenda and I wager a small amount on each game. I was leading a game last week when Brenda said she didn’t know how to use the letter “S” with the remaining letters she had.
Then, out of the blue, she put down “sthenia.” I appealed at once but discovered the dictionary defined sthenia as “a condition of abnormal strength or vitality.” Fortunately, while looking up the word in the dictionary, I noticed one could add the letter “A” to make “asthenia,” the loss of strength.
So that’s exactly what I did on my next move. Brenda glared at me.
“I’m tired of Scrabble,” she said. “Let’s play ‘Things You Don’t Know About Me.’”
Scrabble is safe. Things You Don’t Know About Me is not.
I sat back on the sofa and thought for a few minutes. “Do you remember when I first watched ‘Hee Haw’ with my dad, and told him I thought it was the silliest show I had ever seen?” I asked. “Anyway, years later I attended a taping of the show in Nashville at the Opryland Complex. I was there when everyone shouted to Grandpa Jones, “Hey, Grandpa, what’s for supper?”
“What did he say?” Brenda asked.
He looked right at me through the windowpane facade and said, “I cooked a pork roast and mmmm is it good! Taters and carrots in the oven fired with wood, collard greens, speckled butter beans, and fried corn bread, too.” Grandpa smiled at me, and I laughed.
I went on to tell Brenda that during the taping, “Hee Haw Honey” Misty Rowe saw me sitting in the front row. She motioned that she wanted to talk to me. I jumped up, walked over to her and said hello, trying not to look down.
“What time is it?” Misty asked.
“It’s 11:30,” I replied.
“OK, thanks,” she said as she turned away and I slowly walked back to my seat.
Deciding to change the subject, I asked Brenda to tell me something I didn’t know about her. I have known her for nearly 38 years, and didn’t think there were many unknowns left between us.
But I was wrong. I was surprised when she told me her dad used to be a moonshiner in Virginia and Kentucky. Brenda went on to say the mountains of southwest Virginia are beautiful, but there wasn’t much to do except work in the coal mines, which her dad did full-time for 15 years.
Needing extra money to support his growing family of seven, like many mountain folks at that time, he was a moonshiner on the side.
To battle the backwoods operators of whiskey stills — as well as to confiscate the loss of tax revenue from the sale of the illegal spirits — agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, known as “revenuers,” tracked down the backwoods entrepreneurs.
“Dad periodically would move the location of the still when he felt they were hot on his trail. My mother certainly didn’t approve of this, but Dad kept doing it,” Brenda said simply.
“Mother and us five kids were at home when one day there was a knock at the door. It was the revenuers. They asked for Dad. “He isn’t home,” Mother snapped. Then they asked her about his moonshine operation.
Brenda said her mother conveyed to them she knew nothing about moonshine, or stills, and surely wouldn’t approve of it if he was doing it! A few hours later, Dad returned home, somehow knowing the revenuers had been there. Unbeknownst to Mother, he waited until dark, went outside, and pried up several wooden boards on their freshly painted front porch and unearthed his moonshine still in the crawl space underneath the porch.
“When Mother later found out about it from Dad, she was furious,” Brenda said. “She couldn’t believe he’d hid a still right under their home.”
One of the most well-known revenuers of that era was Eliot Ness, famous for heading an anti-bootlegger strike force during Prohibition in Chicago.
“I can tell you something you didn’t know about me and Eliot Ness,” I told Brenda. “I had worked with John Hall, director at the Ohio Department of Liquor Control. As a young liquor agent, John worked with Ness in Cleveland for a few years.”
“I think my story is better,” I said. “What do you think?” Once again, Brenda only glared at me.
Without saying another word, I handed her a crisp, $5 bill, and poured a Pepsi into one of the Mason jars her dad had given her years ago.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County native and former county commissioner and sheriff. His recently published book, “Around the Fire: Stories from Here and There” — comprised of his nonfiction stories through the years — is available through the Clinton County History Center in Wilmington, or you can reach Pat directly at 937-205-7844 or via email at [email protected] to purchase a copy.