The Bootlegging, Womanizing, Truck-Driving Man I Called Grandpa
I saw his big rig approaching from a distance, driving up the white caliche road in a cloud of white dust to the double wide trailer where he and grandma lived. He parked alongside the fence separating the yard from the dirt driveway and paused, eyeing his dashboard like a conductor surveys the orchestra before the symphony begins.
The engine idled, a throttling beat like the pounding of kettle drums. As if on cue, the air brakes hissed, a high-pitched cymbal crash introducing a new movement. From under the hood a low buzz crept into the piece like a cello playing a melancholy solo before being joined by a series of clicks, the plucking of violins. The music faded quickly, dissolving into diminuendo until the conductor emerged from the door, one old cowboy boot at a time swinging onto the truck’s shiny steps.
Grandpa’s head dipped as he stooped to exit, his thinning silver hair pressed to his forehead and his face below lined with the innumerable routes he’d traveled. His eyes maintained the distant stare of someone watching miles of highway unfold before them, nestled on top of cheekbones still looking strong after 62 years. He held his straw cowboy hat in his right hand and was wearing his company-issued, blue shirt with a name patch over the left side of his chest reading ‘Woody.’ I marveled at him standing there in his hat and boots. With his chiseled jaw and squinty-eyed gaze, he looked every bit the part of a mythic western hero.
He was Woody to his colleagues. He was a legend to me.
He turned back toward his truck, his eyes caressing the custom paint job as he walked around the engine to the front. He always stopped at the chrome radiator grille to read the name etched in red across the top. Peterbilt. Grandpa only drove Peterbilts because he said they were the best.
After inspecting his truck, Grandpa moseyed toward me. Many people think moseying died off in the days of Wyatt Earp, but grandpa always moseyed. I eagerly welcomed him back, and he nodded. Grandpa never smiled or said hello when he came home. As he walked, he fished out the pack of Marlboro Reds he carried in his shirt pocket and removed a cigarette, his muscle memory carrying it to his lips without thought.
Grandpa was a laconic man who often smelled of grease and oil. He only drove Peterbilts and he only smoked Marlboro Reds.
Once he’d showered off the miles of his latest long haul, he’d sit down at the kitchen table, light a cigarette, and wait for supper. That table was grandpa’s stage, and after the plates were cleared, he’d roll out an extravaganza of history, memories, slight exaggerations, and a magical touch of bullshit.
I hung on his every word, partly out of enchantment and partly out of the need to understand what he was saying. The most teeth I ever remember him having was two, and by the time I was ten he had none. With no teeth, his words mushed within the rolling gravel of his 2-pack a day voice as he shared tales of bootlegging, fistfights, police chases, and love at first sight.
He packed a lot of living into his 87 years.
Grandpa was born Rayphered Wood in Leake County, Mississippi in 1922, to ne’er-do-well father, Curtis Wood, and a hard-working mother, Clara, who put up with her husband’s shit because that’s what women did in Leake County in 1922. They put up with a lot of men’s shit.
I never met, Curtis Wood, my great-grandpa but I know from the many stories and the many court records he was a mischievous schemer. He always had a get-rich-quick idea brewing, and most of them were illegal. From the photos I saw of him, he looked like my grandpa — square jaw, high cheekbones, prominent nose, intense eyes, and a slim but powerful build. He didn’t have much hair in the photos and his face bore the deep creases of a man who’d lived enough for several lifetimes. He was a womanizer, a heavy drinker, a bootlegger, a degenerate gambler, and a terrible husband and father. He would pass most of these traits on to his son except for the drinking. Grandpa never touched a drop of booze.
After childhood, of course.
Raypherd’s daddy was not a successful bootlegger. He built a still out in the swamp, hidden amongst the trees, but he drank more of his supply than he sold.
Great-grandpa had hiding places for his hooch all around their home and the surrounding woods. There were moonshine bottles sitting under rocks, hidden under floorboards, and tucked into trees and old stumps. This was his private collection he hid from my great-grandmother. He’d wander out of their home on ‘legitimate business,’ only to make his way to a tree, retrieve his bottle, and get moonshine drunk.
Moonshine is not for sipping. It’s for forgetting. Completely. And the following morning brings a hangover requiring either a little hair of the dog or a doctor, possibly a mortician. It takes years off your life, which makes it incredible my great-grandpa lived to be almost 90.
Curtis Wood didn’t mind the firewater taste or the wretched hangovers, and he was a terrible example for his son. Little Raypherd followed Curtis everywhere, idolizing the old man. He’d sneak around and watch his dad gamble on the docks or surreptitiously trail behind him when the old man went to visit the widow up the road.
Raypherd was precocious in a time and a place where it might warrant a slap to a kid’s annoying face instead of a proud pat on their precocious head. He was skinny, freckled, and full of energy, with a mop of light brown hair that was always sticking up on one side. His clothes were worn and patched, and the patches themselves often had holes. He was usually seen running around their Delta community barefoot. Despite a lack of formal education, he had an innate talent for mathematics and was equally gifted at finding trouble. Trouble-finding ran in the family and Raypherd knew every place he could find it because he’d seen his daddy hide moonshine there.
To impress his friends, Raypherd would magically pull bottles of moonshine out of a tree or a hole in the ground. He and his little drinking buddies would take a couple of sips, pretending it was good but hating it the entire time. They kept doing it though because that’s what they saw the men do. The boys did this regularly until one day great-grandpa discovered Raypherd and his friend Joseph sipping from his hidden stash. Ever the responsible father, Curtis forced the two boys to keep drinking until they were throwing up in the grass.
That was it for Raypherd and booze. He got sober at the age of nine.
The first story I remember grandpa telling me was about his school and his father’s gambling, and why the two were forever linked. Before he began, he rested his cigarette on his orange, porcelain ashtray sitting on the kitchen table in front of him. The shallow circular cup with four grooves for holding cigarettes was the ever-present accompanist to his stories. He’d changed his blue work shirt for one of his dark western shirts and a pair of red suspenders. He’d put on a fresh pair of the navy work trousers he always wore, and instead of boots, he donned an old pair of slippers. He rolled his shirt sleeves up to his elbows. His skin was a shade darker than mine and leathered up like his boots from his years working out in the sun as a boy.
Most of his stories began with him setting his cigarette onto his ashtray and saying, “Now, Brian ….”
From there the story might land anywhere from the American Dust Bowl to the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion. He’d open with the setting and then wait, his mouth slightly agape in a toothless grin, his hazel eyes shimmering. He had to make sure his audience was listening.
Raypherd was seven years old in 1929 when he was told he was no longer welcome at school. Most of the local people were familiar with the antics of his daddy. That ‘terrible man’ was the popular subject of appalled condemnations and breathless whispers. In between their incessant gossiping about Curtis Wood’s sinful ways, the God-fearing folks of Leake County would take a moment to express pity for the man’s beleaguered wife and his neglected, slightly feral children. Despite all gossip and reprovals, a sweet, young woman who taught at the local school convinced Raypherd to attend. She was hoping to save him from the kind of life his daddy was shamelessly living. Raypherd’s education didn’t last long.
During his first week, the students were asked to draw a picture of their home. Grandpa drew his house, including details particular to the Wood family traditions. When the young teacher looked at his drawing she was confused. What was happening on the front porch?
Raypherd included his daddy in his drawing. There on the front porch stood the notorious Curtis Wood, with a bottle of moonshine in his hand, peeing off the side into great-grandma’s garden. When Raypherd explained the drawing, the nice teacher suggested he no longer attend class.
Having completed his education, Raypherd ran from the schoolhouse and tracked down his best friend. Joseph was a year younger than Raypherd and several inches shorter with a shock of black hair. His clothes looked only slightly less worn than Raypherd’s, but like Joseph himself, they were always covered with dirt. With no mother and an alcoholic father to watch over him, Joseph had never bothered with school. The two boys were free to do whatever they wanted and mischief was at the top of their list.
Clara, my overly forgiving great-grandmother, had three standing rules for her wayward husband:
- Don’t get drunk.
- Don’t go gambling.
- If you are going to get drunk or go gambling, make sure Raypherd doesn’t follow you.
Curtis broke all three rules daily. Perhaps it was his impatience to get on with the drinking and the gambling that fostered his inability to shake his seven-year-old tail. Raypherd followed him everywhere.
The old man liked to go down to the docks and shoot craps with his friends. This motley group of derelicts and reprobates would clear off a little spot on the planks of wood for their piles of money and start tossing dice. Most anything Curtis made selling hooch was lost to his shiftless companions on those docks.
On the other side of the men, Raypherd noticed another opening between the crates, a slim one but big enough for a nine-year-old. He had a brilliant idea — the kind of idea that turns a boy into a childhood icon.
Raypherd spotted his father sneaking away from the house down the dirt path toward the river. He knew where the old man was going. Raypherd and Joseph kept their distance, never letting the old man know he was being followed. As they suspected, Curtis walked onto the docks and slipped behind a large stack of wooden crates that blocked the view from the road.
The boys crept quietly around the crates and cargo, staying far enough away so the gamblers wouldn’t notice them. Raypherd and Joseph looped behind the men who were already enthralled by the dice and the bottle of hooch they passed amongst them. The boys then inched up slowly, finding an opening between two tall stacks of shipping crates from where they could spy on the game. They saw great-grandpa and his friends gathered in a small circle with a pile of money in the middle.
On the other side of the men, Raypherd noticed another opening between the crates, a slim one but big enough for a nine-year-old. He had a brilliant idea — the kind of idea that turns a boy into a childhood icon. There was a straight shot from where they were hiding to the opening on the other side. At full sprint they might make it through and back to the road.
When they were creeping around the dock, Raypherd had noticed a barrel of molasses with its lid sitting loosely on top. Raypherd shared with Joseph his idea for a sticky-footed robbery. The boys took turns dipping their feet into the molasses and then stealthily made their way back to their hidden vantage point.
The plan was simple. The two would run through the circle of men, gathering up bills and coins with the molasses on their feet as they ran, and they would make a fast exit through the stacks of crates. They’d have to keep running once they made it to the road, and then go in different directions. The rendezvous point was the general store where phase two of their plan would kick into action.
Buy a ton of candy.
It was risky agitating a group of drunk miscreants, but Raypherd felt with the element of surprise and the inebriated state of the gamblers, they could get away without a scratch.
The boys didn’t have time to dawdle once they dipped their feet into the molasses, so they each took a deep breath and ran like the devil toward the pile of money. Raypherd brushed against one drunk man as he sprinted by who gave out a holler, yet the boys made it clear through to the other side of the gambling circle before anyone realized what happened. The boys slipped through the crates and kept running to the road as a few of the gamblers hobbled after them in chase. Raypherd and Joseph split up, leaving their pursuers cursing under their breath but with little else to do than grumble and laugh before returning to their game.
Raypherd met Joseph a few minutes later in front of the general store. They had a few bills and coins stuck to the bottoms of their feet, which they carefully removed and cleaned as well as they could before entering to exchange their entire score for sweets. They didn’t think of buying anything else. They didn’t think of saving the money for another day. They bought as much candy as they could and went into the swamp, gorging themselves until every piece was gone.
Several hours later Raypherd walked through the front door of his house. He was sick from their candy orgy and green in the face. He’d likely had an empty belly all day, which he then filled with taffy, chocolate, and sugar-coated gumdrops. He looked around their one-room shack, worried the old man was already waiting with a switch in his hand to tan the boy’s hide. He sighed with relief to see Curtis was still out and immediately told his mom he had a stomach ache.
An hour later, the old man arrived home furious and drunk. He stormed through the front door and glared at his son who was wrapped in a blanket and sitting in the one comfortable chair the family owned, sipping hot tea. His eyes narrowed as he began removing his belt from his trousers so he could whip Raypherd for the boy’s thievery, but then he noticed his wife glowering at him before she stepped between him and the boy.
“What are you doing, Curtis? Have you been drinking?”
The old man’s hand fell from his belt to his side. He smiled at his wife.
Clara’s face twisted into a scowl. “You better not been gambling again!”
Curtis’s face went pale, “No, Clara. I ain’t been gambling.”
He looked past his suspicious wife to Raypherd as the boy peered back at him over his teacup. He eyed his son for a moment before breaking into a wheeze-filled laugh. Clara stared at Curtis as if he’d lost his mind before dismissing the man with a dramatic shake of her head. He continued laughing until the laughs pushed tears out of his eyes. There wasn’t a damn thing he could do to the boy that wouldn’t alert his wife to the fact he’d spent the day gambling. Again.
Raypherd smiled back at the old man. He’d gotten away clean with the money and scored a bellyache’s worth of candy. To top things off, he’d sleep in the comfortable chair next to the warm fireplace, and he wouldn’t get the spanking he’d worried about in the swamp between bites of his sugary feast.
Grandpa finished his story and stared across the table at me, waiting for my reaction. I fell into peals of laughter as he picked up his cigarette and relit it.
After a thoughtful draw of smoke, he looked at me and said, “That might have been the best day of my life.”
He turned to my grandma who removed her cigarette from her lips and frowned at him. He then looked back at me.
“Maybe,” he said with a subtle shrug of his shoulders. He stared off into space for a minute before asking if I wanted to hear another story.
This is the first in a series of stories I’m writing chronicling the many tales my grandfather shared with me over coffee and cigarettes throughout my youth. If you enjoyed it, please let me know and check back for the next almost-tall tale.