Whiskey, Snakes and Voltaire

See the introduction to this series of posts: Writing on Things Southern and Past


By Joe Bageant

I called the old man Grandpap. But most of my mother’s family called him a son of a bitch. Which never bothered me. I still liked him.

During the summers when I visited him in North Carolina I’d sit with the old man on the front porch of his cabin and plink away with a .22 rifle at whatever critters crawled out of the swamp. Sometimes if I got lucky it was a water moccasin snake. But more often it was a feral cat, a plain old housecat gone wild in the swamp — which the old man pronounced to rhyme with stamp. Swaaamp.

The swamp was a nearly supernatural place wherein the water turned a different color each morning. Some days it was blood red. Others it was electric green or cobalt blue because the nearby textile mill dumped it waste dyes upriver.

Grandpap Miles’ kids called him a son of a bitch because he ran off to live with the Seminole Indians after the ninth one, my mother, was born. Then at age 70 came back and bought a shack conveniently located between the swamp and the edge-of-town grocery/liquor store to sip cheap whiskey and read for the rest of his life.

Which is why I loved spending summers with him. The reading. I remember one summer when I was 13 he read much of Voltaire to me while I plinked away with that “cat rifle,” as he called it. Around dusk he’d wash up in a basin, put on his white cotton dress jacket and Panama hat and hobble down the gravel road to the store, where he’d mumble back and forth with the other old men who came there every evening for the same reason he did. An hour later return home with his bottle, plus a new box of .22 cartridges and we’d watch the sun go down together. After that he’d light the kerosene lanterns, cook some hominy and pork, then read silently until we both fell asleep.

Once he’d been an overseer on a big cotton plantation, owned a smart looking white Ford coupe and made a good living for his family, even during the Depression. He was fast and wild and knew how to turn a dollar when he bothered to. But after the drunken night he spit tobacco juice up against the woodstove and left for Florida, Grandmaw and all those kids had to move into a two-room pine board shack you could see daylight through.

Worse yet, they had to pick cotton, every able-bodied one of them, for a penny a pound. If you’ve never torn up your hands on the rough pod of a cotton bol under the unforgiving Dixie sun, you ain’t missed much, no matter how romantic it looks in the movies with all the black folks singing “Go Down Old Hannah.” It takes a damned lot of cotton to fill a 100-pound sack and when Old Hannah does go down behind the tight, flat line of the horizon, you’re ready to sing out of pure gratitude you didn’t drop dead in that cruel red dirt. So it’s no wonder my mama always said “Maybe I ain’t give my kids much, but by God they never picked cotton.”

You can see why they hated Grandpap Miles. Of course by the time the old man came back “just so we’d have to bury his sorry ass” as uncle Garland put it, there weren’t as many of his kids left to hate him. Two got killed in WW II’s South Pacific campaign, one froze to death in Korea and Uncle Frankie — who was as wild and fast as Grandaddy Miles — got his head snapped off as clean when he ran his Indian motorcycle under an oncoming truck in 1949. Once I asked Pappy Miles why he went to live with the Seminole Indians and left Grandmaw with all those kids. He said: “Folks left behind can only see a man running off. If they ain’t willing to run alongside they cain’t see what he’s running toward, which might be something finer than their tiny minds can imagine.”

This touched me somewhere inside because he always called me his “little running buddy.” I liked the old man even more after that. And I like his memory especially now, when I stop to consider that I stayed away from my family for more than ten years after leaving home at age 18. A couple of wives, thousands of books and a cotton sack full of troubles later, I suspect I got a little of his blood somewhere in the deal.

When Old Miles died he shook the ground. He got hit by a car on his dusky walk to the liquor store. I was 13. He was deader than a saw log. He was so mean he never even bled. But the whiskey ran from the broken bottle in the brown paper sack alongside the road. Cops came. Relatives came. Thankfully I was overlooked in the first few minutes of confusion. So I left with the newest box of .22 cartridges in my pocket.

Before he was even on the cooling board, folks were saying how shameful it was, the way he died. But as I sat on his porch and knocked that cottonmouth off a cypress limb with the cat rifle, his way of dying seemed fit enough to me.

And someday when I don’t have a boss riding my back and a woman riding my heart I’ll have time on my hands just like he did. Time to pour two slugs of whiskey. One for me and one for him. Then I’ll drink them both.

Maybe even read a little Voltaire.

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