On living life to the fullest, or dying trying

You can still find moonshining going on in every state in the union if you look hard enough, but popular culture will probably always associate the making of white lightning with the South.

In America’s early years, moonshining was a practical enterprise. Farmers could earn extra money by converting excess crops into corn whiskey or apple and peach brandy, and selling it.

Of course, the federal government’s attempt to impose a tax on liquor manufacturing, beginning in the 1790s, didn’t sit well with farmers and other individuals who lived in rural areas where moonshine was considered a commodity. Consider the Whiskey Rebellion.

By the early 20th century, the advent of the automobile gave illegal distillers an effective means to get their product to market. To outrun police and revenuers, moonshiners became adept at souping up their vehicles.

Writer Jack deJarnette grew up in North Georgia and would occasionally ride with a moonshiner named P.J. Puckett on his runs. According to deJarnette, P.J.’s daddy O.J, and his uncles N.J. and M.J. had a moonshine still back in the woods behind their house in Cleveland, Ga., where they produced moonshine of the highest quality possible.

DeJarnette’s recounting of his time running moonshine with P.J. reads like a Hollywood script:

There are roads through the North Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and East Tennessee not on any maps known to man. Most are red clay with an occasional overlay of gravel. P.J. had a beefed up ’49 Ford with special tanks under the seats and between frames with a super stiff suspension. It would run over 100 miles per hour and hug those mountain roads like sorghum syrup sticks to biscuits.

P.J had specific routes that he ran, never using exactly the same route more than once every couple of months. His delivery points were distribution centers where the ‘shine’ was pumped from his tanks into large holding tanks prior to being bottled. Occasionally we would keep a quart or two for ourselves and I have to affirm that it was purer than any mountain stream in which we fished except when the holding tanks had been used for gasoline, then it really packed a whollop. Two good shots were quite enough to give one a healthy buzz and by the fifth shot it was ‘bye, bye, birdie’ except for those with the strongest constitutions.

Once when I was driving, P.J. had been sampling the wares and having finished the fifth shot, he was out like a light. We were in the back woods of South Carolina running about 90 to 100 miles per hour and way behind us, we could see headlights as we topped a hill. Each hill brought the lights closer and closer until topping one hill; we saw red lights beginning to flash. Eventually the state trooper caught up to us. I stopped, pulled over and I got out went back to speak to the trooper.

The trooper looked like he was 75 years old or so. He said, ‘Do you know how long I have been chasing you?’ I answered, ‘Yes sir, I have watched you gaining on us for the last 30 miles or so.’

He said, ‘What are you boys doing in this neck of the woods, nobody but moonshiners come through here.’

I answered, ‘Well, sir, we’re going to Columbia and sorta got lost.’

He said, ‘I ought to put you in jail, I know what you are up to, but if you give me $100 I’ll let you go.’

‘Sir,’ I said, ‘I don’t have $100. Can I go back to the car and see of my buddy does?’

He said, ‘Make it quick, I don’t have all night.’

I went back to the car and after much pushing and jerking I finally roused P.J. from his stupor. ‘P.J,’ I said, ‘The trooper wants $100 or he is going to have us towed and put us in jail.’

P.J. said, ‘What did you say?’

I repeated what I had said and P.J. reached under his seat, pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and said, ‘Like hell he will, I’ll blow his ass away.’ He started to climb out of the car. I was trying to hold him back. Suddenly the state trooper pulled up beside us, tossed me his card and said, ‘Mail it to me and I won’t file a report,’ and off he went.

There was no doubt that he saw the commotion and decided that he would rather run than get in a gun fight.

DeJarnette said that after he left the Atlanta area he lost touch with P.J. for a long time, but not many years ago got a call from his mother.

P.J. had run off a mountain road and crashed some 150 feet into a deep ravine, his mother told him. When P.J. hit the bottom, his car exploded and they had to use his dental work to identify him.

DeJarnette ends his piece with the thought that there are still those diehards in the mountains who believe that moonshining is their “divine right.”

Amen, and may it always be that way.

There’s something to be said for living life on your own terms, even if it means running the risk of plunging off the side of North Georgia mountain.

(Above: Art by Ian Guy, http://www.motoringartist.com)


2 thoughts on “On living life to the fullest, or dying trying

  1. Glad to do so, Ian. When I found the art through Google images, it had no identification, or I would have done so then. My apologies.

    And the work on your site is quite good, by the way. I especially like the image of the ’63 Chevy pickup. My first truck was a ’63 Chevy, painted “Cactus green.” What I wouldn’t give to have that truck back today.

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