Back in the late 50s my Irish grandmother took my older brother and me for a monthly visit to downtown Boston. We left from her house in Jamaica Plains and rode the trolley into Boylston Street. The El from Forest Hills to Washington Street was quicker, but Nana preferred the trolley. My late grandfather had driven them out of Forest Hills. Once on Washington Street she headed to St. Anthony's Shrine for a ritual of lighting candles. The priest on duty heard her confessions. Her penance was five Hail Mary's and one Our Father. Nana asked if we had been good boys. We nodded yes. At six and seven Frunka and I were too young to have broken any of the serious Commandments, especially since my childhood atheism was a secret to my family and friends.
Next stop was WT Grant for hot dogs and then we went over to the Orpheum Theater.
Nana liked handsome movie stars and she was particularly partial to Robert Mitchum. THUNDER ROAD was a hit in May 1958. The actor played a Korea war veteran running moonshine through the hills of Kentucky. A hot-rodded 1951 Ford, illegal whiskey, hillbilly gangsters, and a rocking title song.
"Don't tell your mother about us seeing this movie." Her accent was pure County Mayo.
Neither of us were brought up to be rat finks.
We sat in the darkened theater and heard the rocking title song.
BALLAD OF THUNDER ROAD
And there was thunder, thunder over Thunder Road
Thunder was his engine, and white lightning was his load
There was moonshine, moonshine to quench the Devil’s thirst
The law they swore they’d get him, but the Devil got him first.
We left the theater singing the chorus. Nana warned us not to sing it in front of my mother.
“She doesn’t like whiskey.”
Years later I heard from my aunt that Nana had brewed whiskey and beer during Prohibition. Our Irish blood was true to our devotion to spirits. My juvenile encounters with alcohol were restricted to beer bought by the town bum, Red Tate, and hard liquor siphoned from our parents’ bottles. My next door neighbor and I rationalized this abasement of vodka saved the adults from drunken misbehavior.
Moonshine remained beyond our reach.
Only white trash drank ‘busthead’.
In 1970 I was attending BC. My college friends from the South extolled the virtues of ‘popskull’. Al Wincent and Hank Watson drove taxi together for Checker Cab in Boston. We were hippies, but liked to finish the night’s work waiting for the go-go dancers from the Combat Zone.
One night a blonde from Tennessee invited us to her apartment in the South End. We drank distilled alcohol from a jug. Its strength content was near-lethal, but Al slurred, “It might kick you in the head, but it doesn’t have the light. I can’t explain something you can’t touch unless it’s in your hands. Once you taste it, nothing else will taste like it."
I accepted his explanation and in the summer of 1971 I hitchhiked to Virginia from Boston. The trip took 7 hours from Mass. Ave. to the Tap o Keg in Georgetown. Al was waiting for me. It was almost 1am, but the bars along Wisconsin Avenue stayed open until 4. The southern girls were friendly to long-hairs. A red-headed coed from hill country knew where to get some ‘shine. Her name was Billy.
Al made a call from the payphone and twenty minutes later we met a thick-tongued grit in a alley. He was standing next to a rusted Ford pick-up.
“You ain’t no revenuer?” His accent was Appalachian. He smelled like his burly body had been dipped in medicine. A .38 was in his waist.
“Jimbo, put away that gun. He ain’t no police.” Billy laughed at his accusation, but I understood his concern. The federal government frowned on the sale of untaxed alcohol.
“$15 for three.” Jimbo pulled a tarp off a crate in the flatbed loaded with clear glass jars. Al cracked one open.
“Smells like good shine. Watch.” Al lit a match to the liquid. A blue flame. “Good color. Won’t make you go blind.”
“That’s right.” Jimbo finished the transaction with the speed of a snake needing to take a piss. He drove away with a rumble. The V-8 under the hood was not stock.
“Here’s to ‘shine.” Al chugged a sip. His face went sour and then his body shuddered with spasms to every muscle. “Now that’s ‘shine.”
He handed me the open jar. I offered some to Billy. She waved it away.
“Ladies don’t drink ‘shine. It makes them crazy. You go right ahead.”
I brought the jar to my lips. Mountain Dew wasn’t made for sipping. I pour a good swallow down my gullet. White lightning splashed down my gullet and flashed against my spine.
“Now I understand.”
“I thought you would.” Al toasted my conversion to ‘shine.
Billy accompanied us through the night. She felt responsible for the two of us. The last thing I remembered was singing the chorus to THUNDER ROAD over and over until it faded to a mumbled lullaby. Morning came ten hours too early. I was in a strange bed in a woman’s room.
Al lay on the floor.
“How you feeling?” Billy lay next to me. She was older than us by a few years. 22 to our 19.
“Okay.” My hangover was survivable and I sat up in bed. There were no spins. “Did we drink it all?”
“Every last drop.” She pointed to the empty jar by Al. He looked comfortable in that position. “Your friend made sure of that. You feel like some breakfast.”
“Yeah, that sounds good.”
How about some bacon, fried eggs, and grits."
A southern wake-up dish.
"Sounds even better."
I was south of the Mason-Dixon line. My breath tasted of ‘shine. Billy’s accent was a drawl. Moonshine was good, then again I always knew it was, because like my Nana I liked Robert Mitchum too and he was a good ole boy.
To hear THUNDER ROAD by Robert Mitchum, please go to this URL;