Lumber City Bootleggers

Sitting in a jail cell for 3 days in Hazelhurst.  Most of the time the only inhabitants were just me and my son.  I had plenty of time to think.  How did we get here?  More importantly, how am I going to get us out?

The only time we got to see anybody was when the trusty came by every evening and asked if we wanted anything from Burger King.  That was our only outside contact, except for one or two other prisoners that came and went.  As long as we had the money, we could eat.  If not, we had to do without.

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My granny had just passed away, only a few days before.  She and her twin sister had been residents of the Lyon’s County Nursing Home for the past 16 years.  We had celebrated her 100th birthday only a few years before.  Both she and her sisiter Anne Sue suffered from Alzheimer’s since before they ever took up residence.  Mom had 4 brothers and 3 sisters.  The ones that were still alive shared the responsibility of taking care of them, if not every day, every weekend.

Aunts Evelyn, Irma and Alice kept the trail to the nursing home wore out.  Meanwhile,  Uncle Ray’s wife, Aunt Jane worked at the  Hazelhurst Nursing Home, where Aunt Lena resided.  That is, until Aunt Lena and Aunt Jane both passed away.  Before she passed, Aunt Lena left Uncle Ray her property.  Instead of living in her old house, he put a new 14 by 70 mobile home next door.

Uncle Ray’s was a gathering place for visiting kinfolk.  Aunt Evelyn and her husband Bob, lived nearby in Alston.  When Granny’s 100th birthday came around the nursing home was packed full of family members that gathered from near and far for the celebration.

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Granny Sharpe passed away on a Friday.  By Saturday Uncle Ray’s yard was slam full of cars and trucks with out of town and out of state tags.  Granny was over a hundred years old when she passed.  She had eight children and plenty of offspring.  When we gathered, we celebrated her life.  It didn’t take long to run the local liquor store out of beer and booze.  Even the conveience store ran out of beer.

Back in those days, most of south Georgia was dry.  Some places had recently opened up to sell alcohol but there wasn’t any place opened to buy alcohol, on a Sunday.  To say that my Uncle Ray was tore up about his momma’s passing is putting it mildly.  He told me that if I would drive him in his Cadillac, he would take me to a bootleggers where we could buy more beer and booze.

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Uncle Ray knew everybody in the surrounding area.  He knew every trail and how to avoid the places where the cops would put their road blocks, a common practice in south Georgia.  When we left his house to re-up on the beverages, we left a houseful of people anxiously awaiting our return.  If Uncle Ray had an addiction, it was gambling.  We couldn’t pass a store with out him wanting to stop to get a scratch off ticket or if he saw a road sign with a number on it, he had to play that number on the three digit lotto, I forget what they call it, “pick three” I guess.  I wasn’t much of a gambler.  When we drove down highway 52, he had to get a ticket on 052 or 520.  When we got to 319, he just had to stop at the next store to play it, just in case.

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In those days the Amish community was in full force.  It seemed like everywhere we went, we would have to drive slow to go around a horse and buggy.  The driver would always have a beard so it was hard to recognize them.  Their buggies were always black, with a black cover.  Their horses were undistinguishable because they were usually solid brown, no blaze and no stockings.  Every buggy would have a large orange triangle on the back.  The same as used by farmers when moving their equipment on the highway.

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On this day we passed a black buggy heading in the same direction as us, we slowed, waved as we passed and proceeded along the river until we came to a place on the right that had a big white sign in the yard.  In large red letters on a white sign were painted the words “Madam Rubys.”  My guess, she was a gypsy fortune teller.  We had to hunt for a place to park because the yard was packed full of Cadillacs, big Buicks and Oldsmobiles and a few high dollar trucks.  I noticed a large sattelite dish in the side yard.

I felt a little uncomfortable when Uncle Ray said to me, “Get out, let’s stretch our legs.”  I felt even more so when we opened the screen door and entered the house.  It was dimly lit, smoke, loud music and voices came from everywhere and unless my eyes deceived me, all the occupants were black.

“Good Lord Ray, I thought, what have you got me into?”

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We were soon greeted by a large black woman with a big toothy smile.  Uncle Ray said, “Let me introduce you to your cousin Ruby.”  I could have been knocked over with a feather.  Is this a joke?

Ms. Ruby gave Uncle Ray a big hug then asked, “Who’s this Ray?”

He answered her with, “This is Christine’s boy, Mike.”

Hearing this Ms. Ruby smiled all the more, if that was possible.  She said “Lord have mercy, this is little Mike?  Child, I haven’t seen you in ages, not since you use to stay with me when your Mom sang on the radio.”   Now I can remember quite a ways back, but them days were news to me.

Uncle Ray filled me in later.  He said that mom and her sisters had a gospel quartet that sang on the radio in Vidalia after I was first born.  One of the songs she sung was “Take an Old Cold Tater and Wait,” with Little Jimmy Dickens way back in the day.  Jimmy’s wife was from Baxley.

Then he added, “Ms. Ruby is my second cousin.  We were all raised together, went to school together and even went to church together.  Her family lived on Daddy’s (my Grandpa’s) farm.”

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Ms. Ruby hugged my neck too and welcomed us in. Everyone in attendence already knew Uncle Ray but she made sure to introduce me to everyone.  There were several TV’s with football games playing on each one.  Several card games were going on, even a crap game.  I heard a noise in the back and looked out the window and saw a group of men ranting and raving at two roosters wearing gaffs, going at it, tooth and nail.

I heard someone say, “What’s up Ray, you got me a number?”

To this Uncle Ray replied, “I sure do, I got your number when I walked in the door.”

Uncle Ray focussed his attention back to Ruby and told her under his breath, that he “was looking for some alcohol, whatchu got?”

Ms. Ruby just laughed and said, “I shoulda known, the only time you come to see me is on Sunday when you want something to drink.  Well, you just gonna have to wait a few minutes, it’s on the way.”

It wasn’t long after that, while I was trying to watch a football game, being careful with my words so that I wouldn’t accidentally place a bet, I noticed that Amish guy with his horse and buggy pull in the yard and drive to the rear of the house.  At least I think it was the same guy.

It wasn’t long after that, Ms. Ruby came into the room with two 12 packs of tall Budweisers amd a fifth of Smirnoffs.  Uncle Ray played a couple hands of “Bid Whisk,” lost his money and needed my help to stand up.  It took a couple of minutes but we made it to the car.  I hadn’t been drinking yet that morning so I was okay to drive.

Ms. Ruby came out to the car and told me that, “She was sorry to hear about my Mom and my Granny passing and for to come back and see her sometime.”

As we made our way back to Uvalda, I had to slow down to pass that same Amish guy and his horse and buggy.  I waved but he didn’t return my wave.  Those Amish folks sure liked to keep to themselves.

When we got back to Aunt Lena’s old place the front yard was packed with even more cars and people.  Kids running everywhere, taking turns on the riding lawnmower where Aunt Lena used to raise dandelions and goats.

 

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I think everyone stayed up all night talking and laughing but me.  I fell out.  I got up at the crack of dawn to make coffee and survey the damage.  There was a mess everywhere.  I made my way around the house with plastic bags, emptying ashtrays, solo cups and picking up half empty beer cans.  My oldest son Michael was home on leave, he was an early riser too.  He helped me clean up.  The funeral was supposed to be at 2 pm.  That didn’t leave us much time, both of us were scheduled to be my granny’s pall bearers.

Rural Georgia doesn’t have door to door garbage service like they do in the big cities.  Instead, they have dumpsters spread out actoss the county.  After loading up four large trash bags of empty beer cans and liquor bottles in the back of my truck, Michael and I set out to find a garbage bin and take out the trash.

We drove in the direction Of Hazelhurst, thinking that there should be a dumpster before we reached the county line.  As we drove down the high way, I saw a sign that read, “Junction 319.”  I wondered if any of Uncle Ray’s numbers hit.  He might wake up rich if 319 came in.  I had to slow down to pass another black buggy.  I couldn’t tell if it was our bearded bootlegger or not, but they sure did favor.

Driving up to the county line I could tell that the dumpster was full, overloaded with trash spread out on the ground.  I kept going, crossing the Altamaha River Bridge.  From the top of the bridge, I spotted a dumpster next to the boat landing.  After braking and turning in to approach the boat landing I saw a sign that read, “Now entering Altamaha River Basin Game Preserve, No Alcoholic Beverages Allowed.”

Since we weren’t drinking, I didn’t pay that much attention to the sign.  I parked the truck.  My son and I walked down to the river.  I don’t know if it was just looking at all that water or what, but we were both ready to drain some of that coffee and stepped behind a tree to do so.

As we were leaving the boat ramp, I pulled the truck up to the dumpster and got out and started tossing the trash bags into the dumpster, also throwing in one or two loose cans that had been rolling around in the back of the truck.

No sooner did I do that, than a guy wearing a camouflage uniform stepped up out of the trash bin and hollers, “Stop, you’re under arrest.”  Then out of the woods came a swarm of  GWC deputies, including the Hazelhurst Sheriff.

I guess you can say it was a baited field.  As they handcuffed us and started searching the truck for contraband, they told us that a law had been passed six months before about bringing alcoholic beverages on state property.  That law had gone into effect, today.  We told them that we didn’t have any alcohol, we were just using the dumpster.  In response to that, they said that an empty beer can or liquor bottle represented an open container, in violation of the law.

My son Michael had been trying to quit smoking.  He tried smoking Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco in a cigarette form.  He had heard aboard ship that the raunchy taste was a good way to quit smoking.  When The GWC officers found his cigarette butts in the ashtray, they wrote us up on a couple more charges.  Possesion of an illegal substance, introducing an illegal sunstance to state property.  We told them it was tobacco.  They told us they didn’t have a means to do a field test.  It had to be sent off to a lab.

I kept thinking they were joking with us, maybe this is a nightmare or something.  They took us to the county jail in Hazelhurst.  They just locked us up without reading us our rights, checking our pockets or removing our valuables.  We didn’t even get a phone call.

For three days we sat in that cell.  We didn’t see the first officer, except for head count around midnight.  The only other prisoners were trustees.  We didn’t get fed.  Usually, around dinner time, the trustees would come by and ask us if we wanted anything from Burger King.  If we had any money they would get it for us.

On the third day we were surprised by the arrival of a new prisoner.  He looked mighty familiar.  A tall fellow with a beard and wearing a suit of dark clothes.  At first our new companion didn’t talk much.  When the trustees came in to get the money for our supper, we gave them money for him too.  Afterwards Mr. Amish gave a long, lengthy prayer.  While we were eating, he told us that he had stopped at the same dumpster that we did by the river, searching for aluminum cans.  The same goon squad that accosted us, got him too.  He had a few smashed up beer cans in the back of his buggy.  When they searched his buggy further, they found unopened cans of beer and a couple jars of unlicensed booze.

Those Amish people must be tight with a quarter.  After we ate, an officer came in to take the Amish guy to be booked.  The jail wasn’t much bigger than a Cracker Jack box.  We could hear them talking as they finger printed him and took charge of his money.  That Skeezer.  He had hundreds of dollars on him.  I bought his meal because his clothers were threadbare and his boots were scuffed up, he looked broke.

My son and I were never officially booked.  We weren’t charged with a crime.  After seventy two hours, they let us go.  When we got home, everyone was upset with us.  The people that we had bribed to make a phone call, never did.  Our folks had no idea were we were at. We missed my Granny’s funeral.  They had to get someone else to step in to be pall bearers.

I try to avoid Hazelhurst these days.  When I have to cross the river, I take the back way through Lumber City on that old ricketity  bridge.  Even though I don’t stop, when I drive past my cousin Ruby’s, I honk the horn and wave.  When I see a three digit number on a gas sign or a highway marker, I think of my Uncle Ray.  The Amish have moved on from the Altamaha River Basin.  Except for family funerals, so have I.

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