Thursday, May 05, 2005

SEARCY ’46 – ’56 - Part 17

Chapter Twelve

Tom Pry

Characters - #1

His name was Benny. Let’s just leave it at that, since he still has kin livin’ ‘round these parts.

Lean, weathered, wrinkled, if Benny had a mean bone in his body, I never saw any evidence of it. Benny was “laid back” before it ever occurred to the 60s generation to give that name to a super-relaxed attitude.

This is not to say that Benny was lazy. He was one of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever met; it’s just that I never saw him get his guts in an uproar when things got tight or went woefully wrong.

I always think of Benny as the quintessential Arkansan (or “Arkansawyer,” if you’re a native), with all the good AND bad characteristics of the breed. Fortunately, Benny’s good points FAR outweighed any negatives you might find if you dug deep enough.

For a writer, he was a Godsend, because he was interesting.

Benny, for instance, almost always wore rubber boots – what we used to call “gum” boots – all winter. They were eminently suitable down here in the wet clay and shale. He also possessed an absolutely infallible sense of when spring had REALLY arrived, when cold days were truly over for a few months. At that moment of realization, the boots would come off and be dropped wherever he happened to be. They’d be replaced the following fall, when that same sense told him his toes were about to get cold.

We have found Benny’s boots at the side of the road, in the middle of a field .. wherever Benny happened to be when his seasonal epiphany occurred.

During the cotton season, Benny was out in the field on his tractor from the time the early sun made its first tentative appearance on the eastern horizon until it was finally time to eat supper and go to bed.

It’s when there WASN’T cotton to be made that Benny could be a bit of a trial.

At one point, my folks were running a honky-tonk called The Oasis just outside Bald Knob. Closing at 1:00 a.m., then cleaning up the joint before heading home, meant a 3:00 a.m. bedtime. More than once, I heard Benny come in the always-unlocked front door and loudly ask, “Hey, Bob! You up?” as he walked into their bedroom – at 7:00 a.m.

Even when my father tried escaping to the privy, if Benny felt like talking, there was no excusing yourself: Benny would just follow you down the path to the can, companionably drop his bib overalls and take the other seat, his mouth never stopping.

My father could have cheerfully killed him at those moments, except that Benny was such an exuberantly good-natured, nonprejudiced sort (even where y**k**s were concerned) that you just couldn’t stay mad at him for over about 30 seconds.

Benny provided well, if not extravagantly, for his family. He was frugal without being “cheap” (his old International Harvester Cub tractor is still usable), and was the first person on the scene if you needed help.

He was the classic Good Neighbor, notwithstanding his early morning visiting habits.

To me, one of the most fascinating things about Benny was that he was also a Moonshiner.

Now, Benny made his money by farming. He always thought of his manufacture of illicit hooch as kind of a self-financing hobby. His favorite form of liquid spirits was corn liquor and, with good cause, he didn’t completely trust that manufactured by other people. If, for instance, they’d used an old automobile radiator for a condenser, as opposed to clean copper tubing, that innocent-looking stuff would leach lead out of the radiator on its way through, leaving you permanently blind, if not dead.

That being the case, Benny would make his own, then he’d KNOW what he was drinking.

Now, making booze has its labor and supplies-intensive moments, and Benny figured that if he were going to all that trouble to make his own supply of corn, he might as well make enough more to sell and at least cover his expenses, plus a little for his time and trouble.

Benny’s white lightning (or brown beer) was to be cherished: it was tasty AND safe.

It was also made all over the valley over the years, and my grandfather certainly had no objections when he’d come across Benny’s latest still somewhere on his property (we had more trees than had Benny, and they were farther from the road, too), a small, tidy, fenced area with barrels of fermenting mash, and the still itself. They created no problems – except once, when Grandad’s cows broke down Benny’s quickly-constructed fence, and proceeded to dump a barrel of mash (fermented cracked corn, sugar, yeast, and water) that was about ready to be run through the still; the cows thereupon ate the mash and drank the beer.

Have you ever seen 20 drunk cows and one bull in the same inebriated state? That’s what I found when I went up to chase them in for the evening milking one day. Getting them home was a chore, it ruined the milk for about three days, and the hogs thought they’d died and gone to hog heaven: a plentiful supply of Brandy Alexanders!

The laughs we got out of watching the critters trying to cope with intoxication far outweighed the financial loss of the milk supply. The bull, a purebred Hereford (“whiteface” to you flatland furriners) with a name three miles long, ending with “Beau Brummel” and called simply “Papa,” decided he was even more of a lothario than usual. Trouble was keeping his feet coordinated: he kept ending up on his back in the mud after his hind feet would slide out from under him while he was trying to do his perceived business.

The show, in other words, was worth the price of admission.

Grandad apologized to Benny for his cows breaking down Benny’s fence, and Benny apologized (between laughs) for not doing a better job of putting the fence up in the first place and, except for a number of bovine hangovers, that ended the matter … but not the memory.

Everyone who mattered KNEW Benny made moon (“Nobody reads a smalltown paper to find out who’s doing what; they already know that. They read the paper to find out who got CAUGHT at it”). Despite this, to the best of my knowledge, Benny took a fall only once, when he was visiting a friend’s still, and the revenooers came over in a light plane, and got a photograph of his license tag.

He always felt that was rather cheating.

HOW did Benny keep from getting nailed? By fast thinking, by not getting greedy, and liberal applications of what my Jewish friends in Chicago would’ve called “chutzpah” (once illustrated as the guy who murdered his parents, then went to court to plead for mercy on the grounds that he was an orphan).

For instance, Benny had a fresh gallon of white lightning sitting on the floorboard of his pickup truck (moonshine was almost always fresh; “aged” was two weeks old, and “aged in the keg” was a null concept. You made it, you sold it). He had just parked it on Arch Street, right next to the Searcy Bank, had gotten out, dropping a penny in the parking meter … just as he spotted the Chief of Police walking toward him down the sidewalk.

Now, Benny knew his own reputation, both in his own mind and in the minds of others. Thus, he knew the Chief would regard it as highly suspicious that a frugal gent like Benny would park, drop money in a meter, then immediately climb back in and leave with unused time on the meter.

Benny’s choice? He pulled out the jug of clear liquid and, holding it out towards the Chief, hollered, “Hey, Dick, want a swaller?” His reward was the Chief dismissively telling him, “Now, Benny, if you think I’m going to give you a good laugh by taking a drink of kerosene (also a colorless liquid), you’ve got another think coming.”

They shared a laugh, and went about their business.

Crisis averted.

Story over.

The world has too few Bennys in it. I miss them and, especially, I miss Benny.

Things have gotten boring since he went to his justly-earned reward.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).


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