True story-I was eight years old the first time I got falling-down drunk. A neighbor brought my great-grandfather a quart jar full of homemade muscadine wine, and nearly blind and brittle-boned, he’d been absolutely forbidden by his wife, children, and grandchildren to imbibe even a thimble full of alcohol. By today’s standards, he would’ve been considered a bit of an alcoholic, probably, but in the 1920’s Alabama he came to adulthood in, with no air conditioning and a steady, humid ninety degrees in the shade more often than not, the only question that people had about day drinking in those times was whether you preferred bourbon or scotch. Needless to say, their moral compass was a little different from ours.
In 1906, Granddaddy was a five-year-old boy on a dusty, rural farm, milking cows, tending fields, and churning butter with a lit corn cob pipe between his teeth. If all that hard work and nicotine made him sick, his mother bought cocaine drops from the Sears & Roebuck catalog to heal him. Back then, a little kid getting drunk every now and then may have been frowned upon by the little old ladies at church, but legalities were of little concern when the local law enforcement, if there was one at all, would have consisted of one or two apathetic, overweight middle-aged white men who had their own farms to tend to.
So, when eight-year-old me saw the jar of dark purple liquid that looked an awful lot like grape kool-aid, and asked if I could have a taste, Granddaddy simply gave me an impish grin and unscrewed the lid. Twenty minutes later, my mother was furiously scolding her grandfather, who was laughing hard enough to bust a gut, and I was an inebriated, giggling heap in the middle of the old braided rug on the living room floor. My main recollection of the event was that muscadine wine is fucking delicious.
My grandfather wasn’t much better than his father-in-law, born and raised with that same backwoods disregard for propriety. He’d take us to some trailer out in the middle of nowhere and buy us two grocery sacks full of cheap little red and white firecrackers, which he taught us to light with cigarettes right before going back in the house to sit in his recliner and watch old Westerns. At ten, I was the oldest and therefore left in charge of the cigarettes. When I asked him how to keep it lit, he simply said, ” Just puff on it a few times every now and then.” At 14, when my best friend hauled me out to the chicken house to partake of some purloined Virginia Slims, she was very impressed that I already knew how to blow smoke rings.
All in all, I can’t really say that I regret my practically feral upbringing. Would I let my own child drink homemade wine, smoke cigarettes, and light badly made firecrackers unsupervised? Hell no, but even then, I have to quietly admit to myself that he truly is missing out in some respects.
I try to spin them as cautionary tales when I tell him about the past, and I’m not exaggerating, even as I omit how much we loved it. My fond memory of watching a childhood friend catch baby water moccasins with his bare hands becomes the reason I don’t let him wander around country back roads with his friends. ” No son, you may not drive through the middle of town on a four-wheeler with no brakes. The world is not what it once was.”
The truth is, it never was, or not in my lifetime, anyway. It’s a constant, active choice on my part, every day, to not be the wild thing that I was raised to be. Those crazy-ass white people you see on shows like COPS, falling-down drunk, alternately spitting at police officers and openly weeping as they’re dragged to the ground in handcuffs for shoplifting at Wal-Mart?Those are my people.
I’ve looked on as my dad engaged in an honest-to-God knife fight with a stranger, that only ended when my uncle Jimmy Ray went and got his shot-gun out of the truck, prompting another onlooker to call the cops. That’s right, Jimmy Ray. Luckily, no one was seriously injured, but after that little incident, Uncle Jimmy Ray took all of us kids out back, made a homemade boxing ring with a few fallen branches, and made damn sure we knew how to fist fight. Just in case.
On the surface, a grown man in his fifties with Elvis hair and a hula girl tattoo teaching street-fighting to a bunch of children seems a little ridiculously violent and ludicrous. I have to admit, though, the man taught me a valuable lesson about overcoming fear by pitting me against my much larger male cousin, who puffed up like a peacock at the prospect of beating me down, but who then crumpled into the swing set like a broken doll at the first hit from my tiny hand. Would I organize and encourage an all-out brawl between my son and his cousins? Hell no, but some part of me will always wonder if they wouldn’t be just a tiny bit better for the experience. I don’t condone fighting, or violence of any kind, but sometimes, every now and then, it comes in handy in this world full of bullies to know what it feels like to take the hits and get back up again, swinging.