I doubt that I have to define this term for anybody locally yet, but I wonder if younger people can appreciate the word “bootlegger” like us older folk. Until perhaps the mid-1980s, bootlegging was a cottage industry locally. I watched my first-ever police liquor raid from the community schoolyard. Later I remember getting a crush on an older girl who “ran block” for one bootlegger, the main reason for my infatuation being that she could out-drive every lawman in the county who tried to catch her. In their day, bootleggers were both loved and maligned, but when we compare them with our modern illegal substance dealers, somehow they seem pretty tame.
But I do not mean to romanticize the “good old days.” Yesteryear’s old-time country physicians, so overwhelmed by cases of then-unknown depressive disorders and other mental conditions in addition to all the physical ailments that they had to treat, often gave out so-called “nerve tonic” indiscriminately simply to cope with their patient workloads. They look good compared to today’s dealers too, but the old doctors’ free-handedness with narcotics probably sowed the seeds of our modern addiction disaster more than the bootleggers ever did. Growing up, I can remember both neighbors and family members who’d never let a drop of whiskey pass their lips literally throw conniptions when they ran out of “nerve medicine” and couldn’t get a refill quick enough. Sadly, the phrase “all things in moderation” has never had much of a fan club around these parts, but one memory of a wry old joke still remains as true as it ever was: any time a local-option election for liquor sales was held, preachers and bootleggers would always vote exactly the same way.
Which brings me to my own career as a bootlegger, which occurred not before but immediately after Paintsville “went wet.” Things had just started to calm down after weeks of hot rhetoric from pulpit and paper, with both sermons and letters to the editor having prophesied drunks passed out on every corner and strip joints lining Main Street if the option passed. None of this occurred either then or after, of course, but at the time resentment locally between “wets” and “drys” was still mighty fresh and hot. And so about this time I met one of the latter, a preacher whom I’d known and worked with for several years, in a local market that had just begun to stock alcoholic beverages. I’ll call him Brother Drye—no reflection on the quality of his sermons, but rather of his views on alcohol.
“Look at that,” Brother Drye observed to me disgustedly as he pointed to the store’s new liquor aisle. “Anybody who works here that calls himself a Christian should quit his job. If I could find one ‘dry’ store in town, I wouldn’t be here either!”
“That’s how the vote went,” I replied, trying to be soothing. “Don’t hold it against the workers.”
“Well, it’s not right,” he retorted. “You know, I’d love to buy one of those little hip flasks to take into the pulpit with me and use it to preach about how bad liquor is. But I don’t dare, because somebody’d see me and say I bought it for myself.”
“Shoot, I’ll go get one of those for you. Wait here,” I offered, never asking how he knew they had hip flasks in stock unless he’d seen them. Maybe he’d heard it secondhand from a sinner.
He looked horrified. “Don’t you know what people will say if they see you in that aisle?” he asked incredulously.
“Maybe ‘Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners’?” I returned.
“And do you remember the fellow it was first said about?” I rejoined. (In case you don’t have your concordance handy, it was Jesus, in Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34.)
“I know,” he conceded with a sigh. “But they might say something else bad.”
Anyway: I finally brazenly walked down the Aisle of Wickedness, bootlegged the hip flask for Brother Drye, paid for it myself because he was afraid to take it through the checkout line too, and then delivered it to him in the parking lot. Of course I let him have the flask at cost, taking no profit, but during the exchange he hunkered down so suspiciously next to his vehicle that any passing lawman who saw us would have had all the probable cause he needed to ask us what we were doing. Still, I do hope that Brother Drye got his money’s worth from that shiny little bootleg trophy, no dry run-of-the-mill discourse but a fiery sermon with not a dry eye in the church house either. And although this incident doesn’t compare with the trouble another preacher friend of mine got into years ago for buying Communion wine from a bootlegger (his congregation wanted him to send a sinner to get it instead), the old Common Tater still likes to rib Brother Drye about it whenever we see each other. After all, a merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones, and that’s Bible too (Proverbs 17:22). Of course, “all things in moderation” isn’t a Bible phrase, but I still keep hoping it’ll eventually catch on.