“Well, between Scotch and nothing, I suppose I’d take Scotch. It’s the nearest thing to good moonshine I can find.” William Faulkner
Easing slowly and quietly up the side of the mountain in a slight fall mist seemed like a good way to fill a bag with squirrels.
Squirrels had become an inexpensive way to add flavor to about every other evening meal of Ramen Noodles.
Cheap food was paramount in that particular period and a box of 22 shells were considerably cheaper way to dispatch a potential meal. Squirrels were a plentiful alternative to hamburger helper if you could manage to get past the chore of cleaning them. When you get hungry enough, you can skin most anything, I guess.
The slow drizzle of an October mist made the mountain quiet. The slipping up on squirrels feeding in the trees, not yet cleaned of wet leaves, was ideal for stealth. The squirrels appeared somewhat oblivious to any dangerous predators; as they were intent on filling their late fall stores with the abundance of hickory nuts on this mountain.
The silence of the fall mountain suddenly gave way to something headed my way that sounded much larger than any squirrel. I braced for a potential encounter with a bear, trying to decide if there was a climbable tree nearby, or just how big a bear could handle a firestorm of 22 rounds before it got really irritated.
As the clatter slowly closed the distance in the leafy understory; I began to make out a pair of ragged and worn overalls, flashes of a long gray beard and a stumbling old drunk having a difficult time navigating the wet rocks and damp undergrowth.
I was pretty well hidden. I watched what was now an old man pick himself up after a pretty serious fall; that included him bouncing his melon off of a boulder. He then managed to lean his wobbly frame on a nearby oak and drop his web belt and three GI canteens. I watched while he fumbled around with his overalls in order to relive himself of some of, what I figured to be, his newly minted product.
He was so close at this point, that I figured if he was able to spot me. If I became evident, I figured he would inevitably be shocked, scared and his first reflex would to be to pull his pistol out of one of those overall pockets. We would, at that juncture, be in some kind of strange confrontation that neither of us had adequately expected.
I crouched behind a big rock trying to figure out how to deal with this unfolding drama. After watching this strange scene for a minute or so; I let out a slow hen quail whistle. There were no quail on this mountain that I knew of. It seemed to make sense at the time.
Sure enough, the pistol he had been carrying was rapidly made ready. What had been a stumbling drunk just seconds before; was now a man on full alert looking for some kind of target even before he had finished doing any other kind of necessary chores.
“Don’t shoot mister! I’m just squirrel hunting.”
I gave away my position out of curiosity more than anything. Looking back on it: this was a pretty rookie move. Stupid may be a more accurate adverb, but the old man slowly lowered his handgun and slurred;
“Come on out and show yourself, I ain’t gonna shoot no squirrel hunter.”
I wasn’t quite convinced at this point. The old man still hadn’t exactly pinpointed the rock I was hiding behind so I decided this was a good time as any for a little more dialog.
“Put that pistol away. And I’ll be on my way out here and you can go in peace.”
I watched him intently as he slowly put the gun in his pocket. I worried that I had just put a lot of trust and faith in a man that could be blind running drunk, armed and worried about doing serious time in prison. I gambled that his moral code about not shooting squirrel hunters would soon change on the turn of a dime.
He said, “You got any squirrels?”
I replied, “Well, I guess I got enough for the both of us.”
He answered, “I’ve been craving a mess of squirrel brains and gravy for sometime now.”
I had never gone so far in my limited culinary endeavors to clean out the brains of a squirrel for addition to Ramen noodles.
“You can have all the brains from this bunch, if you want.” I thought a little charity was called for here.
I watched warily as the unsteady old moonshiner deftly pulled one of the dented canteens from his web belt and chugged down the fresh liquid like it was spring water.
He then replied, “Come on out and take a pull on this canteen and we’ll make a deal. Like I said, I ain’t gonna shoot no squirrel hunter.”
We sat the rest of the afternoon under the bright turning leaves of that fall mountain side draining the canteen and shared recipes for squirrel delicacies. In between rambling stories of how to build a good still, what type of springs were best for quality liquor, how to prepare mash, and cooking times for each batch, we discussed prison time for making liquor.
The grizzled old moonshiner explained that when he got home from ridding all of Europe of the Nazis; he had dedicated his life and a good portion of his GI bill, to avoiding any steady anything other than making a new cash crop.
I asked why his canteens were so badly dented, expecting to hear stories of battles throughout Germany. He explained that sometimes he got so drunk that he had huge bruises on his hips from falling on his canteens. Falling on mason jars was something he considered to be rather unsafe. Who knew there were so many industrial safety standards in the moonshine industry in this part of East Tennessee?
I never asked how high up on the mountainside his still was. He never volunteered; but he did politely ask that I find a different place to hunt squirrels. I was more than happy to oblige.
He gladly took the squirrels; and I still have that badly dented aluminum canteen that survived the Nazis and that memorable wet fall day on the side of a mountain in East Tennessee.