Ed recently wrote about some of his ancestors got me thinking about some of mine. The photo to the left is a copy of a copy of a photograph taken in the 1930s. D is holding the mule and his father (my great-grandfather) is in the back. With them are two helpers. For those of you who don't recognize it, they are in a tobacco field. I took the second photo taken in 1981.
Was it the winter of 1981? Or was it ’82? The years seem to run together when I don’t have a specific event to which to tag things. It had to be winter for there were no leaves on the trees and the air was cool. Uncle D and his two yippy dogs had been living with my grandma, his sister, ever since he had been released from the hospital. Finally able to get out, the two of us along with his two dogs hiked down to Joe’s Fork, in the swamps behind grandma's house. We followed the creek downstream by a series of beaver dams to the place where the old mill had once been, then followed the ridge back to grandmas.
I don’t remember much about this hike, except that it was the first time Uncle D talked to me as an adult. My grandmother wasn’t around to censure his stories, so he could be quite frank. I should have made notes. He told about leaving the tobacco fields in the late 30s and heading up to Norfolk where he worked in the shipyards. They were busy as the world prepared for war. He told me about signing up with the Navy after Pearl Harbor and spending time at Great Lakes, learning to be a corpsman, and about buying a ’34 Ford Coup and, once he had leave, driving home down through the West Virginia Mountains. Then he told me about his service upon a banana boat converted to supply ship for use in the Pacific. After the war, he wandered around a bit, but as he got older, he became more settled and seldom left Moore County. And finally, he told me how to make good moonshine.
Although we always called him as Uncle D, he was really my great-uncle. My earliest memory is of him in a neck brace, after one of his accidents. I assume he was living with his parents, my great-grandparents, just down the road from us. My parents were remodeling a house and he’d come down and help out. I also have vague recollections of him and my Dad working on the copper clad steeple that went up on the new church building in Eastwood. When the crane placed the steeple on the roof, we were all there to watch. My first fishing experiences at fishing was in D’s pond. D loved to fish.
Shortly after the new church was completed, right before I started the first grade, we moved from the Sandhills. Over the next dozen years, whenever we came back, seeing D was always a treat. When he saw us (my brother, sister and me) they’d be a sparkle in his eyes. He always got us Christmas presents, generally handkerchiefs. We always got him something, often candy or cookies. D was a favorite uncle even though I knew he had problems and not all my memories were positive. Once, when I was about ten or eleven, my grandma picked up him and brought him over to her house. He was sitting at the table, slurring his words and, as was evident to all, quite ashamed of his condition. My grandma poured black coffee down him trying to get him sobered up enough to visit. On another occasion, my dad, brother and I went over to D’s place one Saturday afternoon. Uncle D and several other men were there. The place was in shambles, they were all drunk. We didn’t go in, but from standing on the back porch I could see men passed out the couch in the sitting room. Again, I could tell that D was ashamed to be seen in such a condition and we didn’t stay long.
It’s an understatement to say that D. had a hard life. But he always seemed to recover. Twice he’d broken his back in a car accident, I assume while under the influence. Right before moving in with my grandma, he’d been severely burned. Planning on doing some grilling, D poured gasoline on coals that weren’t turning white quick enough. He was in the hospital for several weeks with the doctors not giving him much of a chance to survive. However, once again Uncle D seemed indestructible. He rallied and after a few weeks was released from the hospital and, upon taking a temperance pledge, moved in with my grandma.
D’s last quarter of century would be significantly different. My grandmother didn’t cut him much slack and he mostly remained sober, only occasionally falling off the wagon. He started attending church more regularly. It should have been in his blood as his daddy, granddaddy and great-granddaddy had each served a long tenure as an Elder. For well over a century, someone from the family was in a leadership position there. He stayed with my grandma until she, his older sister, couldn’t take care of him anymore; then spent his last year and a half in a nursing home.
A year or so ago, I asked a distant and older cousin if he knew anything about D’s moonshining activities. He told me about a time around 1960, just after my cousin had finished school. D had gone out squirrel hunting that morning and when he came back, asked my cousin to grab a couple jugs and to come with him. While hunting, D had discovered someone still. Fearlessly, D and his nephew went out and ran off a gallon or so of liquor, using someone else’s still, mash and firewood. D didn’t think they had to worry because it wasn’t likely that they would be calling the law to report the missing mash. D got away with running someone else’s still without getting shot. He always seemed to have good luck.
My uncle D passed away this past November. I think he was 84 years old.