Buying Moonshine in the Wilds of Tennessee
I joined the Indiana University Indianapolis Law School, where I first started teaching, in January of 1970 (see “How I Became a Law Professor,” January 27, 2010). That summer two of the members of the faculty, Ronald Polston and Rodric Schoen and I (for reasons I don’t remember—this sort of thing was not in my usual repertoire, not even at age 26) decided to hike the Appalachian Trail from eastern Tennessee through the Great Smokey Mountain Park into North Carolina. I decided to keep a journal of this adventure, and the first entry (marked “Indianapolis 8/23/70, 5:40 a.m.”) simply says “If God had meant us to be awake at this hour he wouldn’t have given us daylight. Ron, our putative leader, promises me the trail will be all downhill in an uphill sort of way. What am I doing?”
We drove to Cosby, Tennessee, left Ron’s van at a small motel there, and then the hike began in earnest. At the motel the night before Ron had snored with the stutter of a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner, but he assured us that this wouldn’t be the case once he was out on the trail. I was suspicious of this. Where are the people he went camping with last year? The year before? Why weren’t they with us? Perhaps I should have made a few phone calls.
Having then walked less than a mile, I was pleased when an older couple in a pickup truck came rumbling slowly by me, stopped, and waved me aboard. Nice people, but they looked and sounded like Ma and Pa Kettle, and they were amused that I was a Yankee. “Lost are you?” Pa Kettle asked with a big satisfied grin. “No,” I replied, “I’m just trying to get to the motel in Cosby.” Pa nodded as if I’d agreed with him. “Always having to rescue you Yankees when you come down here and get lost in the hills.” Glad of the ride, I just smiled and thanked them both for helping me get my bearings. To my surprise, after about a mile, the truck suddenly pulled off the country road and into a little farm, where apparently the Kettles lived. “Just come in and sit awhile,” I was told. Bamboozled, and a bit alarmed, I went into their kitchen and was served a tall glass of ice tea. Not wanting to seem ungrateful, I finally asked if I should resume hitchhiking. “Nah,” Pa told me. "Done resting, I guess. Let’s get going.”
Back in the truck he told me that he went to high school with the woman who owned the motel, and was quite garrulous until I innocently asked him if moonshine was made around here. He slammed on the brakes and, brow lowered, eyes squinting in suspicion, Pa snarled, “You a REVENUER??? Feeling the heat of his concern, I babbled convincingly that I was not. “What are you?” he drawled, still unconvinced. “I’m a . . ." I began, starting to say “law professor” until it occurred to me that the word “law” wouldn’t calm him down one bit, so I simply chose “teacher.” “Not a revenuer, son?” “No, sir.” He nodded to himself for a few seconds, thinking it over. Finally, he said, “Want to buy some moonshine? Just a pint? Ten bucks?”
Now there’s a question. Tell me—what would you say in this situation? “No” might offend him, and with “yes” I risked being branded a federal agent cleverly disguised as a smelly Yankee, with who knows what consequences. I gulped and managed, “I guess I’d like that.” He started the truck, turned onto a better road, but immediately stopped at a general store. Taking my money, he shooed me out, and then drove off, ordering me to stay put, saying he’d be right back. Bamboozled again, I just watched him disappear, hoping he was a man of his word; my backpack was still in the truck.
But Pa Kettle soon did reappear with the promised purchase in a paper bag. It was a clear liquid in a jar, and certainly looked real enough. Then Pa carted me to the motel, where I thanked him and he flirted with the motel owner, to whom I paid a dollar to take a quick shower [AND IT CAME TO PASS THAT I WAS CLEAN!), before driving off to fetch Ron and Rod back in North Carolina.
About a year later, having had a number of other drinks, a friend and I, timidly, tried the moonshine, worried that we’d instantly go blind or grow an extra toe or something. It tasted mildly alcoholic, nothing more. Happy as I am with my existing number of toes, that was fine with me.
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013