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The Bootlegger

written by: Frank Geiger

 

A car with an old man and a boy drove along the rural road to Whitehouse, New Jersey, and entered the small town, unremarkable except for a quaint train station, which was built with fieldstone and trimmed with painted green wood around the windows and door frames. The car crossed the tracks, passed by houses on both sides of the street, and continued on out of town towards the woods blanketing the hills in the distance. There were fewer houses now than in town, and between the properties lay swatches of fields and trees that stretched back until they met the sky.
The car followed the road until it came to a second set of railroad tracks in the middle of a plowed field. The tracks had a big black and white striped wooden X on both sides, along with red warning lights, though it was common knowledge the trains no longer used these rails. Nevertheless, the car came to a dead stop and the old man looked both ways before proceeding.
When they came to a particular rutted lane they pulled off the road. Two large concrete pillars the height of a man’s shoulders stood on either side. The pillars were marbled grey and black from the elements, visible only in patches under the tangled thatch of wild grape and honeysuckle vines grown up around them. To the right was an apple tree, its branches gnarled, its bark dappled with age. The old man pulled the car into the field grass, turned off the ignition, and he and the boy got out on their respective sides.
The old man was in his late seventies. He had been through World War II and served in the Navy Air Corps in the Pacific as a navigator and machine gunner on a B-52 bomber. After the war he let his enlistment run out and was discharged. He had served his country and seen enough of war. He took some time off, built a hot rod, and drove it across the country from New Jersey to California and back. Even raced his car on the salt flats of Utah. Once he was home again he married a woman he met on a double date, got a job, and started a family. He still harbored an irrational grudge against the Japanese, though he admitted to himself it was unreasonable. That’s what war did to the survivors. It left scars, often the kind you couldn’t see.
His hair was mostly white now, though still full for a man his age. He was slightly stooped and used a walking stick due to his bad knees and lower back. His knees and back were initially injured inside a B 52 bomber when an explosion of flack burst close to the plane and knocked him out of his seat. He floundered around inside the fuselage as the plane momentarily lost altitude and dropped three hundred feet before it stopped and leveled out again.
After the war, he started his own business, went bankrupt due to a bad choice of partners, passed the written test to become a New Jersey State Trooper, but couldn’t get through boot camp training at the academy in Sea Girt due to his knees. He was a good amateur athlete — swimmer, baseball player —and he excelled in several written classes. But the knees just wouldn’t hold up for the duration of the 18-week boot camp. The academy was sorry, but they had to let him go.
Besides the war injury and the business that went bankrupt, getting discharged from the academy a couple of weeks before graduation was one of the hardest setbacks to overcome. He wanted to be a State Trooper in the worst way. To flunk out because of his bad knees was almost an insult. He had served his country but was not fit to be a police officer. After that, he had no great ambition except to keep his family secure.
To that end he obtained a position with the GSA, a branch of the Federal Government, had four children, often worked a second job to have the things he wanted or thought he needed, and besides his knees and lower back, was relatively free of medical problems, except the usual aches and pains that accompanied growing older. He never got rich, but he provided for his wife and family, and that in itself was an accomplishment.
The boy was the man’s eleven-year-old grandson. He was wiry with light brown hair, kind eyes, and a wry smile. He could read by age four, construct complicated LEGO sets by six, and developed a fine sense of curiosity and humor early on. A couple of adults referred to him as an “old soul.” Most others said he was a really smart kid, or simply mature for his age.
The boy had gone for a ride with his grandfather to get out of the house. His grandfather told him they were going to the place where he had lived as a boy growing up, before he became a young man and went away to war. It piqued the boy’s interest. He didn’t know what to expect, but he was glad to go for a drive and be outside. Anything was better than hanging around the house all day. He could do that anytime.
Across the lane, not too far from where the car was parked, stood a rambling Victorian house with a big, wrap around front porch and a long room built on the side. The house was three stories with two spires and sported several roofs with different angles and pitches to accommodate its gables and porches. The structure was old and badly in need of repair. The paint was mostly peeled from the wood trim, there were splits in the siding where black tar paper stuck out, jagged holes where the glass had been smashed out of a couple of window panes, and worn spots on the roofs.
At the end of the lane squatted a huge barn with a dark, yawning space where the double doors should have been. What remained of the doors lay on either side of the opening, yanked off the overhead rollers by vandals or the wind. All the windows had been smashed out as well. There was a large hole in the roof exposing the support beams where the shingles had caved into the middle of the loft. The entire framework seemed to be slightly off-kilter, as though ready to collapse under natural elements that seemed determined to bring it down. Near the barn was a long shed for storing machinery, open in the front. The frayed wooden roof was primarily intact, though the shingles were long gone, the wood weathered to a rustic silver grey.
Next to the shed stood the remains of an old pig pen, only a couple sections of fence still intact along with a few posts. The rest of the fence lay buried in half-hidden lumps, overgrown with a carpet of weeds and wildflowers.
The entire property was dilapidated, which may have explained the FOR SALE signs, one near the front of the house, the other across the barnyard near the shed. The most valuable asset was the land, not the buildings, which covered almost twenty-one acres. Indeed, there was a surveying crew working in the far field, no doubt to divide up the ground into buildable, salable lots. Their truck was parked far back along the woods.
It was a Saturday morning in early May and the air heavy with the odor of vegetation turning green, bolting back to life after the long winter. The sun was high up in a mostly cloudless sky, except far off above the hills in the west there lingered a low lying bank of grey and white. The boy could feel the heat when he was directly in the sun but didn’t care. The grandfather, however, enjoyed the feel of the sun on his back. It made the minor aches and pains dissipate to some degree.
The grandfather called to the boy to help him with the two wooden crates in the trunk of the car. The boy carried the crates, set them under the apple tree as the grandfather instructed, and they each sat on one. The grandfather also carried a paper bag which he set on the ground next to him.
They watched the surveyors working in the distance for a few moments before the grandfather spoke.
“This is where I used to live.”
The boy looked over the property.
“This is where I grew up.”
“Tell me about when you were a little boy.”
The grandfather smiled. “How old?
The boy thought for a moment. “My age.”
“Let’s see if I can remember something that far back,” the grandfather began. “Well, my father owned all this property back in the day. The place was called The Idle Rest.”
“The Idle Rest?”
“Yes. We lived in that house, but it was also a restaurant and a bar. That long room on the side was the big dining room. There were tables and chairs and a bar in the room next to it.”
“What kind of bar?” asked the boy.
“A place where you serve alcohol—beer, wine, liquor. A place where people go to have a drink, that kind of bar.”
The boy nodded.
“The house had twenty-four rooms. It was big inside. Even bigger than it looks from the outside if that makes any sense. I used to call my father Pop. Most everybody else called him Doc. My father was from Austria. His mother and father owned a restaurant in Vienna. He ran away because the government wanted him to serve four more years in the army. He was more of an artist than a soldier. He played the piano and sketched and painted. He already served four mandatory years and he was done with it. He left Austria and came to the United States.”
“He didn’t want to be in the army?” asked the boy.
“It was mandatory to serve in the army. He was in the Austrian army for four years. They were getting ready for war and they wanted all the young men who were already in to serve four more years. They were going to make him serve whether he liked it or not. Pop didn’t want to be in the army anymore, so he ran away to America.”
“Then what happened?” said the boy.
“Pop got married to my mother and they lived in Newark for a while, then they bought this farm. Pop thought the country would be better for my mother’s health. We had geese, chickens, pigs, a cow, and a horse named Clyde. We also had a German Sheppard named Swifty. The geese chased me around the yard sometimes, biting at my legs. But Swifty would come and save me and chase off the geese. He was a smart dog.”
“Tell me another story about Swifty,” said the boy.
The grandfather thought for a few moments before he spoke. “We used to have a wagon that we took to town. Clyde would pull the wagon, and once we got to town Swifty would sit on the seat next to us holding the reins while Pop and I went in the store.”
“Were you my age then?” asked the boy.
“Almost,” replied the grandfather. “Probably a little younger.”
“Did you have any brothers or sisters?”
“I had six brothers and sisters. Three sets of twins. They all died. I was the only one that wasn’t a twin, and I was the only one that lived.”
“Why did they die?” asked the boy.
The grandfather paused to consider the question. “I don’t really know. They didn’t have the sort of medical advancements they have now. They didn’t really know as much as they know now. Maybe the twins would have lived if they’d been born in this time, but they weren’t. They were born in their own time, like me, and you and everybody else. My mother died when I was just four years old. I didn’t get to know her very well. So there was just me and Pop. That’s all we had, but at least we had each other. Whenever you think you’ve got it tough, just remember, there’s always somebody else worse off than you.”
The boy nodded as if he understood.
“Because of my brothers and sisters and mother dying—she died of bronchial pneumonia —Pop thought it was better for me to sleep outside for my health.”
The boy raised his eyebrows.
“My bedroom was on the second story porch.” He pointed to the house. “Right up there.”
The boy looked up at the small porch with a roof and a warped railing on three sides. “Even in the winter?” he said.
“Winter and summer. In the summer I slept with just a sheet, but in the winter Pop used to heat up bricks, wrap them in towels, and put them in my bed to warm up the mattress. I had flannel sheets, goose down pillows, and a goose down comforter under a thick wool blanket. The goose down kept me warm and the wool kept the dampness and cold from getting to the comforter. I was always warm, even when it was freezing. I liked sleeping outside. In the summer I could hear the people downstairs on the porch drinking and talking. Sometimes I could even smell the food, or men’s cologne and ladies perfume, floating up from below. And I would hear all kinds of things, all kinds of stories, men and women arguing, or getting mushy. In the winter when it was cold I would leap barefoot from inside the door where the floor was warm, to the outside porch, one stride, and then up, and I was under the covers in bed feeling the warmth from the heated bricks. When it was clear with stars visible in the sky, I felt like some, I don’t know, space traveler, cozy and secure, as if I was maybe floating through the universe in a bed, instead of just out on my second story porch. It was a funny sort of feeling I’ll never forget.”
The grandfather paused momentarily, mystified by the memories of his childhood.
“Then what happened?” prompted the boy.
“Well, Pop ran the restaurant and bar and looked after me. He did it all. He also took care of the house and the farm. I remember every so often six or eight brothers, all German, from the Fulton Market in New York City, would travel out to the farm. Willy Hout would come over and he and Pop would kill six or eight pigs. Then they’d all make sausage, hams, bologna, and bratwurst. Pop had a smokehouse on the property. It’s gone now, but it used to be right out there,” he pointed, “past the barn. Brought in a man named Mr. Honeyman to do the smoking. He only used Hickory and Sassafras wood. The big hams got dark. They wrapped them in alfalfa and cheesecloth and hung them in the cellar. Every time I came down to the cellar I could smell the smoked hams. As long as you were down there you couldn’t get away from it. And if you were hungry, it made your stomach rumble.”
“Couldn’t get away from what?” asked the boy.
“The smoked ham smell.”
The boy nodded in understanding.
“Sometimes there were pig roasts outside on the porch. Sometimes Pop would have one, but more often other folks would pay Pop to put on the roast for their family or friends. There was one particular guy named Walter Ike. He owned a bus company. It was called Blue Coaches and his line ran from New York to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He also had a baseball team called The Royal Blues, semi-pro. They played anybody who would play them. Every year Walter Ike had a party for his men and their families at our place. It was always a fun time. One year during a pig roast, six guys from the bus line got a hose and snuck into the cellar and siphoned wine out of one of the barrels Pop kept down there for the restaurant. They got so drunk, when they came upstairs into the heat of the day they got dizzy and passed out. It was obvious to everybody that they had too much to drink. But it took a while to figure out where they got it from. Somebody found the hoses and the jig was up. They carried the men off the porch one by one and lay them next to each other under the apple tree, like stacking cordwood.”
When the grandfather saw the questioning expression on his grandson’s face he added, “They looked like sticks of firewood on the ground.”
The boy nodded.
The grandfather pulled an apple out of the brown paper bag, took a penknife from his pocket, and began peeling the skin. He cut away the skin in a single unified strand which took on a corkscrew configuration. The boy watched him, fascinated with his skill. He was also waiting for him to make a mistake and slice the apple skin too thin so that the corkscrew broke and fell to the ground, though it never did.
When the grandfather was finished, he handed the corkscrew skin to the boy who gently held it between his thumb and forefinger and made the carving bob up and down like hanging a party favor.
The grandfather continued to slice into the apple, first cutting it in half, then in quarters, then in eights, then cutting the core out of each section so that they looked like little white moons. When he was finished he handed two slices to the boy who immediately started eating one. The boy was a bit surprised they tasted so good. His grandfather’s apples were not store bought, and sometimes they could be mottled with brown spots and a bit tart. But this one was as good an apple as he’d ever tasted — crisp, juicy, and sweet.
“I only take the skin off for you,” said the grandfather. “If it was just me I would leave the skin on. You should eat the skin. That’s where all the vitamins and minerals are.”
The boy had heard this lecture before and there was little point in commenting. The slices were already skinless, as he liked them. He wanted to hear more of the story. He spoke with his mouth full of chewed apple. “What happened next?”
The grandfather had lost his train of thought and had to reconsider for a few moments. “Well, I guess what made the Idle Rest really special was Prohibition, 1920 to 1933.”
“What was Prohibition?” asked the boy.
“Prohibition was a time when they made alcohol illegal. People weren’t allowed to drink. Pop had a bar and restaurant business. People liked to relax and have a drink when they went out for dinner. It hurt the business not to be able to serve alcohol. So, Pop made his own alcohol in the basement. He made great Applejack, what some people might call apple brandy today. You take two baskets of red apples and dump them in a large oak barrel. Add water to cover the apples, usually about twelve inches above the level of the fruit. Add about twenty-five to forty pounds of white sugar, and then cover the barrel. Put it in a warm area and allow it to ferment. You have to taste it from time to time to determine the fermentation of the alcohol. When the fermentation is at its peak, dump the entire contents into the still. Heat the still until the fluid alcohol comes out of the pipe into a large, glass, five-gallon container. The result will be 180 proof alcohol. Of course, he had to cut it to about 120 proof using pure distilled water and a proof tester.” When he saw the boy was about to ask a question he added simply, “So you can drink it. After you get the alcohol, you put it in a barrel and age it for as long as you like. Mellow it out and let it get a darker color. The longer it aged, the darker it got, and the higher the price. When he was ready, he’d take it out of the barrel and test it again to make sure it didn’t lose too much of its proof. The ideal proof for consumption is about 86 to 90 proof. The leftover mash you can feed to the hogs, in a reasonable amount. You don’t want a bunch of intoxicated hogs running around the place. Pop used to have a drink that was very popular called a Stone Fence. You put about seven ounces of cold cider into a glass, add one and a half ounces of Applejack, three ice cubes, and serve with a mint sprig. After about two Stone Fences, it didn’t matter about the mint. Pop also made hard cider. It went like this: one gallon of sweet cider without preservatives, add one and a half cups of raisins, two cups of white sugar, and place in a warm area. Allow it to ferment. But don’t seal it tight. It should start to bubble in about seven to ten days. Taste it to see if the alcohol is present and if it’s sweet enough. What you can’t do is let it get sour. When the taste is right, strain the liquid contents into a clean, one-gallon plastic container. Place it in a freezer and allow it to freeze. All the liquid that is not alcohol will freeze solid. The center won’t freeze because it’s pure alcohol. Pour it into a glass bottle and put it in the refrigerator. That’s what they call hard cider.”
The boy munched on the apple slices and listened to his grandfather, although he only understood half of what was being said about the actual making of alcohol.
“Pop also had homemade beer and wine on tap. So you could say Pop was a bootlegger. Though it was only for his own personal use, to be sold in the Idle Rest. But Pop was the big man on campus in those days. Everybody knew him. It was such great times. Even the State Police would stop by in their old v8 Ford canvas top cars. Pop would supply them with Applejack. They’d come in out of the weather, fill their flasks, and leave. They said it kept them warm in the winter when they were sitting in their cars. They knew what Pop was doing but they looked the other way. It was like he was doing the community a favor. And as long as Pop was giving them alcohol, he knew they wouldn’t say anything about his technically illegal operation.” The grandfather paused to poke a slice of apple into this mouth and chew.
The boy waited for the story to continue.
“But sometimes fame and fortune can work against you. Pop’s reputation had spread. One night two strangers came into the place, name of Sal and Carlo. Said they were from Newark. Said they decided to take a ride in the country, just happened to come across the Idle Rest while they were driving around. They had a taste of the product, then they left. The thing was, they liked it so much a week later they came back out with a friend named Vincent. They had a meeting with Pop in the living room and made him an offer. They were Italian mobsters. They wanted Pop to make booze for them to sell in the city. They told him that his product was gold compared to the bathtub gin they were selling in their clubs. Pop said he needed a few days to think it over. He wanted some time to consider both sides. A week later they came out a third time for his decision. Pop told them he couldn’t do it. When they wanted to know why, he said he didn’t have the time to work for somebody else, nor the excess apples. He only had enough apple trees on his property for his own use. To make as much as they wanted he’d have to buy more apples from somebody else. He said he was already breaking the law by making illegal booze. That the local law enforcement overlooked what he was doing because he was small potatoes. Pop was an Austrian immigrant. He spoke broken English with a heavy accent. I actually grew up speaking German with my mother and father. I learned English from hanging around with other kids and the people who visited the Idle Rest. Pop was a legal citizen. He was proud of his citizenship in the United States. But he was still an immigrant and didn’t want any problems with government authorities or the law.”
The boy had been waiting to ask a question and when the grandfather paused for a few seconds he seized the opportunity. “What’s bathtub gin?”
“Bathtub gin is one hundred and eighty proof moonshine, flavored in a bathtub with juniper berry. The bottles they pour your drink from are usually filled right from the tub. It’s not a very clean operation. Unless you consider that the alcohol content would kill any germs anyway.”
The boy nodded as if he understood, though secretly he could have used a little more clarification on the moonshine part.
The grandfather thought back to where he was in the story. “So, Pop thought that was the end of it. But a few nights later the same three guys came back, Sal, Carlo, and Vincent. They said they wanted to use Pop’s barn for storage. They said they would pay him a lump sum up-front of three hundred dollars. Then they would pay him one hundred dollars every month after that. That was a lot of money back then. They had the initial three hundred cash and laid it on the table. Pop decided that maybe this was a better proposition. It didn’t require any of his time or his product, and while it did involve a certain amount of illegal activity, it wasn’t him actually doing it. I used to watch them from the porch. They took it in and out of the barn at night on a six wheel, straight bed truck. Ten-gallon cans stacked on top of each other, neutral grain alcohol, one hundred and eighty proof. What they called bathtub gin. Anything made from grain has fusel oil in it. It’s bad for your stomach. Fruit and vegetables, like apples and potatoes, don’t have that oil. That’s why Pop’s product was so much better. Sometimes if you got a bad batch, people actually poisoned themselves with that stuff made from grain alcohol. Anyway, once those guys started stashing their product in the old barn, the good times got even better. Pop decided to invest in slot machines, five, ten, and twenty-five cents a play. The Italians got them for Pop and took a cut. They had glass fronts so you could actually see how much money was in them before you put your money in. I started sneaking downstairs early in the morning after Pop was asleep from the previous night and checking the machines and floors for spare change. Sometimes people dropped coins when they were drinking. I had the whole place to myself after the customers went home and I would make the rounds. Pop put in some long days and nights because he didn’t have a closing time. He never closed until everybody left. As long as they wanted to eat or drink, he would accommodate them. One day I discovered the 25 cent machine had a crack in the payoff slot. The money would come down and get caught in the crack. Nobody else knew about it. It was my secret. Customers were complaining the machine only paid off three quarters for a dollar win, instead of four. Pop had a guy come out and look it over. Luckily for me, he couldn’t find anything wrong. But he was looking at the mechanism and not the feed. And it didn’t happen every time. Just once in a while. But if the machine had enough play, I could get three or four quarters a week. And that was a lot of money for a kid back then. One morning I went down and found a quarter in the usual spot. But instead of putting it in my pocket, I saw through the glass the machine was nearly full. I put in the quarter, pulled the handle, and hit the jackpot. I didn’t know what to do. I was beside myself. I had more money in my hand than an average working man made in a week. It was the most money I ever had at one time in my short life. I hid it upstairs in my room, but I knew Pop would find it sooner or later when he was cleaning or doing the laundry. So I took an empty Ovaltine can from the kitchen, stuck the money inside, closed the lid, and buried it in the back yard. Then whenever I needed money, I would just go out and dig it up.”
The grandfather offered the boy a couple more slices of apple on the end of his penknife, the boy carefully pulled them off and began eating one. The grandfather stuck another slice of apple between his lips and chewed. The boy watched him, waiting for what was coming next. A honey bee had discovered the apples as well. The bee was hovering over the corkscrew peel, which during the story the boy had finally let fall to the ground between his legs.
The grandfather finished chewing, swallowed, and went on. “Not long after that happened, they replaced the machine. My easy money days were over. When I walked into the restaurant after school it was gone. I couldn’t believe it. As a kid you think things will go on forever. I should have known. I asked Pop what happened. He said they had too many complaints, plus the Italians didn’t think it was working right either. They said it was paying out too much money. They replaced it when they made a delivery to the barn. But it didn’t matter, I had the money from the payout and while it lasted I was the big man in Whitehouse. I would take my pals to town and treat them. Tweet, Herbie, Stan. The other kids had pennies and nickels. I had quarters. That was back when a loaf of bread was 9 cents, a quart of milk was 10 cents, and you got three candies for a penny. That was back when money was still worth something, not like now.” He smiled. “One morning after breakfast I went out to the garden to get some money and the can was gone. I suspected Pop found it, but I was never sure. Neither of us said anything about it to the other. Neither of us ever asked about it. It was like it never happened.”
The grandfather knifed another slice of apple into his mouth and chewed, then handed a couple more slices to the boy. The boy took them and immediately began eating one.
“With the extra money he made, Pop had indoor plumbing installed, one of the first in the area. Until then, people used an outhouse. Then came indoor heating, and soon after, electric. Not everybody had electric back then. It was a new world with those conveniences. There was a hand pump in the kitchen for water and the house had three bathrooms. Two upstairs and one downstairs for the customers. The place was taking on the look of an upscale bar and restaurant. Pop put in those two columns, one on each side back there where we pulled in.” He shifted his seat on the box and considered something long passed.
“What else?” said the boy.
The grandfather pondered. “Pop had an old 1927 four cylinder Chevy out in the backfield. It didn’t have any fenders, it didn’t even have a body or back seats. All it had was a front seat and a steering wheel and an engine. I used to drive it around in the field for fun. I had a circular racetrack in the dirt. That’s how I learned to drive. I was already driving when I was your age.”
The boy believed everything his grandfather had told him thus far, but this last bit of information tested his critical thinking. “You learned to drive when you were eleven?”
The grandfather nodded his head. “Learning to drive when I was ten, driving when I was twelve. It was different back then. People didn’t meddle in other people’s affairs as they do now. They minded their own business. There was more room to roam between one house and the next. Fewer cars, fewer people on the road. Folks didn’t complain about things so much. I had a whole farm to play on. If anybody said anything about it, Pop would have told them to mind their own business. Nowadays a kid can’t even have a scooter without somebody complaining about it because he’s not wearing a helmet. It’s pathetic what people have become. So petty.”
The boy decided he believed the part about driving at eleven after all.
“Every Fourth of July the Italians would bring me a box of fireworks. And I mean there was everything in there—firecrackers, cherry bombs, Roman candles, sky rockets, bottle rockets, pinwheels, pyramids of sparks. All the kids from around town would come over to our farm and we would set them off. It got so the adults would come out on the porch to watch them go off as well. The other kids always wanted to know where they came from, where we got all the fireworks, but I could never tell them. I always said I didn’t know. I told them Pop got them from some guy down south. Funny thing was, Pop didn’t really like the fireworks. He was always afraid they would start a fire. But he put up with it because everybody else liked it and because it was the Fourth of July. Now that he had become a citizen of the USA, he wanted to celebrate Independence Day like other folks. He was very proud to be an American. We had so much stuff, there was always fireworks left over the next day, and pop would always confiscate them. He was worried we would sneak off and set them off, and the brush or a field would catch fire. Or worse, one of them would come down on a roof and burn down the barn or the house.”
The grandfather paused again, lost in memory or thought.
“Then what happened?”
“Late one night the Italians came to the door. Pop went out to see what they wanted. They were making a delivery when they saw Clyde the horse was down in the field. Pop went out. I heard them down below from my second story porch. I got up, went downstairs, and followed them out to the field. Sure enough, Clyde was lying on his side, his stomach distended.”
“What’s distended mean?” asked the boy.
“Fat. His stomach stuck out bigger than usual, all bloated up.”
The boy nodded.
“So, we all tried to get him up but Clyde isn’t helping the cause. It’s like trying to lift a thousand-pound sack. As soon as we got one end up, the other would go down. He just wouldn’t move. We had to call the vet. The vet came out, looked him over carefully, and said Clyde was drunk. Pop couldn’t believe it until he realized he had a barrel of apple jack mash for the pigs outside the barn. He walked over to check on it. Sure enough, Clyde had figured out how to pull the cover off, got into the mash, eaten it all, and was completely intoxicated. The vet said he would stand when he sobered up again, which he did the next day.”
“Did you ever get into a fight at school?” asked the boy.
The grandfather was at first surprised, then pleased by the question. “Not in school. Teachers were pretty strict back then. We were mostly immigrant kids. We didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves. But we fought all the time when we got out.”
“You did?”
The grandfather grinned. “Of course. There was this kid named Red. Red Alpaugh. He would kick my butt every day after school. I’d come home all beat up from scuffling. Finally Pop asked what was going on. Why my clothes were dirty and my face was raw. When I told him I started crying. Pop put his arm around me and said not to worry, everything was going to be all right. He was going to take care of it personally. I thought he meant he was going to go over to Red’s house and confront his Mom and Dad. But that’s not what he had in mind at all. Pop knew a local guy named Paul Dorff. Paul was a local hero in the boxing ring. Up and coming. He’d been fighting in the amateur shows, won the middleweight Golden Gloves Championship, and now he had turned professional. Pop called him Pauly. He came into the Idle Rest sometimes for a beer. Paul had a broken nose, a cauliflower ear, and looked the part of a scrapper. Whitey Bimsteen, a Jew, was his trainer. Paul was still only a middleweight, but he fought light heavyweights and heavyweights because nobody local wanted to fight him at his own weight. He was one hundred sixty pounds, fighting guys that were almost two hundred. Pop put an order in for boxing gloves with the Italians. They brought out gloves, headgear, mouthpieces, protective cups, the works. The best money could buy at the time. Paul said it was better equipment than he worked out with down at the gym in Newark. And I started hanging around with Paul Dorff. It was the summer so there was no school. We would get up at four in the morning, drive to Flemington to the auction market and buy eggs, then drive to the city and sell them. I was thirteen years old. I’d fall asleep on the way home. When we got home, it was still early and Paul would do his road work. I ran along with him. After the road work, he would teach me to box. He showed me how to stand, how to hold my hands, how to protect myself as well as throw punches. He showed me how to throw a left jab, a right cross, a left hook, about footwork and balance. He showed me a lot. And we sparred around some. Well, I sparred. Paul was just taking it easy, working with me. When I went back to school the following fall, Red messed with me on the first day home from school. But this time I turned the tables on him. I beat the stuffing out of him. Lumped him up pretty good. He had it coming for a long time. His mother was so upset, she sent his father over to see Pop. I thought I was in big trouble but Pop invited the guy inside, they had a beer, and Pop and he talked it out. Red’s father left, and Pop never said another word about it. Even funnier, Red and I became friends. On summer nights, we kids would put on the gloves and fight. Rooster Dembensky, Hot Dog Vashletsky, Chipmonk Zankowski. Two guys would fight, then the next two, then the next two, until everybody fought everybody. Kind of like a fight club.”
“A fight club?” repeated the boy.
“Sure. Anybody that wanted to put on the gloves and fight could fight. Everybody fought everybody.”
“What else?” prompted the boy.
The grandfather considered the boy’s request. “Well, I remember one Sunday morning, Pop and I got up to drive to Philadelphia to look at a car. We had a 1928 Buick with a stick shift. We saw Mrs. Barduchi beep her horn and drive across the railroad tracks without stopping and looking both ways, or even slowing down. Pop always thought Mrs. Barduchi was pretty funny, thinking a train was going to stop for her when she beeped her horn. Now the day I’m thinking about, as soon as we got out of town, Pop wanted me to drive. He was tired from the night before, up late, and he wanted to snooze. He put a pillow on the seat so I could see over the dashboard better. I reminded him I never drove on the road, only in the field. He said if I could drive in the field, I could drive on a road. It was easier. Anyway, it was time for me to learn. We got about five miles before we passed a cop. He only got a quick glance at me but it was enough. He turned around, chased me down, and pulled me over. I woke Pop up in the front seat. The officer came up to the side of the car. Turned out he was one of the guys that came into the Idle Rest and filled up his flask every now and then. Pop told him it wasn’t my fault, he told me to drive. The cop started yelling at Pop, giving him a hard time. Like most folks back then he called him Doc. Asked him what the hell he was thinking, letting me drive? After hollering at Pop for about five minutes, Pop said he was sorry, got out, came around to the driver’s side, I slid over, and Pop started driving. We drove about five more miles. Just outside of Flemington, Pop pulled over, got out, and told me to slide over and drive again. We saw about eight cars on the road the whole ride until we got to Philadelphia. Not a lot of people had cars back then, and if they did, they didn’t take them out of town for fear they would break down. It was great times. But like all good times, it didn’t last forever.”
“What happened?” asked the boy.
“Prohibition ended,” answered the grandfather.
“Prohibition ended?”
“Alcohol was legal again. I remember Pop showing me the headlines in the newspaper. I kept reading it over and over, I don’t know why until I committed it to memory. ‘Federal Prohibition Ends Tonight, Tuesday, December 5th, 1933. Legislature Forges the Last Link In State Liquor Control Chain.’ Everywhere you went people were talking about it. Everybody was celebrating, but not Pop. He knew things were going to change. He just didn’t know how much.” The grandfather’s voice trailed off, lost in thought.
“How did they change?”
The grandfather came back to the present. “Well, first of all, Pop and I got a new roommate, Rudy. Rudy was my mother’s sister’s illegitimate child, which made him my cousin. He had nowhere else to go, so Pop took him in and treated him just like his own son. Rudy was about five years older than me. He didn’t seem like a bad sort at first. In the beginning, I looked up to him like a big brother.”
“What about prohibition?” asked the boy.
The grandfather considered the question. “Well, once prohibition ended, the maneuvering and back fighting started. Everybody wanted a liquor license for their restaurant or tavern. It was just good business. It meant more money coming in. But the local government would only allow a certain number of licenses per square mile in the municipality. And they had to be approved, voted on by the local councilmen of the township before they would issue one. The men on the town council were born and raised in the area. They all knew each other. Pop was an outsider, an immigrant. His English was rough around the edges. We still spoke German around the house when there was just the two of us. Pop went to the Township Council meetings to plead his case and find out what he had to do to get a license. But they always jerked him around, never gave him a straight answer. Suddenly there were a lot of new things the council had to consider. It was going to take some time to decide. The usual bureaucratic nonsense. One month lapsed into the next, and the next. Pop went to every meeting and got exactly nowhere. The only thing they would tell him was the license cost six hundred dollars, which was a lot of money back then. They figured he wouldn’t have it and he’d just flake off and go away and leave them alone, let them get on with the business of giving the liquor licenses out to themselves and their friends. But Pop had the money he’d made off the Italians. He’d been spending, renovating, but he’d also been saving for a time that he knew would come. One meeting they began ridiculing him, implying he was wasting his time because he couldn’t afford the license anyway. Pop got so annoyed, he made the mistake of telling them he had the money saved up. And I have to say, to his credit, Pop never lost faith. He believed in the American dream. We already had a piano in the bar. Pop played sometimes, as well as anybody who wanted to give it a try. He built a dance floor in anticipation of getting the license. Then he screened in the entire porch, put out tables and chairs, and made it into an outdoor dining room. One night Red, Rudy, and myself got into the applejack, trying to act like big shots. We crawled under the dance floor, drank it, and got sick as dogs. Anyway, Pop remained optimistic. But he was naïve. He thought things really worked differently in the United States.”
“You got sick?” asked the boy.
“Yes, I did. That’s what happens when you drink too much, when you drink to excess. When you try to act like somebody you’re not.”
“Then what happened?”
“Well, like I said, the four township councilmen already decided what they were going to do with the licenses. They were only going to allow three liquor licenses in the municipality. The Union Hotel in Whitehouse, the Ryland Inn out on route 22, and the Milestone Tavern, which is no longer around. These guys were locals, just like the councilmen. They all knew each other; all drank and played cards together. Pop was the outsider. They nixed him off completely. They knew Pop already had a following from his days running the Idle Rest. Some of them even frequented Pop’s place during prohibition. And they also knew he was a hard worker and would take business away from the other three. They didn’t want any competition, but they especially didn’t want it from him.” The grandfather paused as his eyes shifted to the rambling, dilapidated old house.
The boy glanced at the old house as well, then back to his grandfather.
It took the grandfather a few moments to realize the boy was waiting for him to continue. “Well, Pop didn’t throw in the towel and quit. He decided on another plan. He decided to run for a council seat on the township ticket to change things. He wrote letters, talked to people. Everybody knew him and most people liked him. Half of them frequented the Idle Rest. But the council members collectively drummed up the opposition. Rudy was supposed to help Pop of course, but he ended up hanging out at one of the taverns that the councilmen owned. And just to make double sure Pop wouldn’t be able to buy a liquor license, even if he somehow beat out one of their own and won the election, they actually hired six thugs from Newark to break into the house and steal the six hundred dollars Pop had bragged about having hidden away. They came one night or maybe early morning when it was still dark. Two guys stayed outside while the other four went inside. I was in my bed on the upstairs porch and I heard them. I could see the car down in the yard, lights on, still running. They went into the cellar where Pop had a 12 gauge shotgun and a 16 gauge duck gun. Rudy must have told them about that too. They took them outside and broke the stocks off on the grape arbor. Then they came back inside. I could hear them as they went from room to room, looking for the money. Pop fought them in every room. They would knock him to the floor, go into the next room, and start tearing it apart. Pop would get up, stagger into the next room, and start fighting them again. I just hunkered down and listened to it all, scared as hell. Rudy was suspiciously out for the night, drinking with his friends.” The grandfather smiled. “They never did find the money.”
“Where was the money?” asked the boy.
“It was under the mattress I was sleeping on. They never bothered to search the outside porch where I was in bed. I was sleeping on the money every night and never knew it. But neither did the crooks.”
“What happened with the election?”
“Pop lost by ten or twelve votes, just enough to make it look good. He was too beat up to campaign. He also claimed they stuffed the ballot box.”
“How do you stuff a ballot box?”
“They had some dead people voting.”
The boy considered it. “Zombies were voting?”
The grandfather smiled at the boy’s joke. “In a way they were zombies. What they would do is go to the graveyard and gather names from the tombstones, from dead people, then go back, use their names and vote, or just give them to the guys who counted the ballots after the vote. They stuffed the ballot box with fake votes for their candidate.”
The boy nodded as if he understood.
“Their own people oversaw the whole election process. But Pop could never do anything about it because he had no real proof.”
The boy considered this and was quiet.
“But the story doesn’t end there. Sal and Carlo and Vincent showed up a couple of days after the break-in. They came out one last time to get their cans of grain alcohol and say goodbye to Pop. They didn’t need him anymore. Now that alcohol was legal to sell, they could store their product closer to home. Just like Pop, the Italians also got hurt by the end of prohibition. They were making a fortune on illegal alcohol because they were like a monopoly in the business. Except for small time guys like Pop, they supplied the lion’s share of alcohol to the drinking public in the cities. Now they no longer had that monopoly. Now they were just like everybody else who owned a restaurant or tavern. They were open to competition. They told Pop they heard about what happened to him and they wanted to make sure he was alright. But they could see he was still pretty beat up. They told Pop they were going to take care of the guys who did it, as a favor. Somehow they got hold of one guy and made him tell who else was involved. Once they had the names, the Italians took care of them one at a time. They beat the living hell out of them, broke arms and legs and jaws. When they came back after taking care of things in the city, they wanted to take care of the council members next. The Italians knew who was behind it all because the guys they beat up had squealed. They said it would be no problem, and they’d make sure Pop got a liquor license as well. He would be granted a special permit. They were certain they could arrange it. But Pop said no, he didn’t want any more trouble. Even though the Italians told him not to worry, nobody would screw with him ever again, Pop was a good soul and didn’t want to see anybody else get hurt, or get in any trouble himself in his new country.
“Where was Rudy?” the boy asked. It was a strange and unheard of name until he heard it from his grandfather and he said it as much to hear it pronounced again.
“Rudy was in hiding. He heard about what happened and he was afraid the Italians would come after him as well.” The grandfather ate another slice of apple before he continued. “Pop still didn’t have a liquor license. Now he only had the restaurant. He could still make a little money, but not like before. People liked to have a drink with their meals, or just come in and have a shot and a beer at the bar. Pop couldn’t offer that anymore. Because he didn’t have a liquor license, he couldn’t serve any alcohol. That was the beginning of the end for Pop and the Idle Rest.”
“But why didn’t he make his own alcohol, like he did before?”
“Because now that it was legal, there was stricter enforcement. Before people looked the other way. Pop knew if he made his own alcohol now, they would fine him and close him down. Don’t forget, Pop already had a reputation for good food and drink. He had a following. The other restaurants in the township couldn’t afford to let Pop serve liquor in his place. They couldn’t stand the competition. But neither could Pop operate like before, making his own booze. The town council and the owners of the other taverns had squeezed Pop out.”
Lost in thought, the grandfather looked over at the house as if remembering some particular from the past.
“Then what happened,” said the boy.
“Well, Pop tried to make a go of it, but he wasn’t getting any younger. One Thanksgiving I remember this family ordered a goose for dinner, a few days ahead of time, of course. Well, Pop got the goose and butchered it and basted it and cooked it along with all the fixings— dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, the works — and the family never showed up. Pop was so mad he sat down at the kitchen table and tried to eat the whole thing himself.”
The boy grinned at this.
“But what really happened, eventually, Rudy swindled Pop out of the farm.”
“Swindled?” asked the boy.
“It means to cheat or steal to get something. Rudy told Pop he wanted to borrow some money from the bank to start his own restaurant. He brought Pop the papers and told him he needed to co-sign. So Pop signed the papers. He never even read them. He trusted that Rudy was telling him the truth. What he signed was the deed to the property and the house. Rudy swindled Pop out of everything he owned. Pop tried to fight it in court, but they told him since Rudy had the deed with Pop’s signature, there wasn’t anything they could do. They were all in cahoots with the town fathers. Rudy wanted us out, we had to leave. Pop managed a restaurant for a while called the Blue Danube, which later became the Clinton House. It’s still there in Clinton next to the falls. We slept in the same room, in the same bed. Pop slept during the day while I was at school. Then I slept at night while Pop worked the kitchen or the bar. Eventually, Pop got a job with the railroad and had to move around a lot. I went to live with another family until I graduated from high school. Then I went into the Navy. The draft was on. There was a war. But that’s a story for another time.”
“What happened to Rudy?” asked the boy.
“He got killed crossing the railroad tracks on his way to pick up his wife. A train hit him. The same tracks that Mrs. Barduci beeped her horn and raced across without stopping or even slowing down. The ones we crossed driving here, not the ones in town by the station. The last ones we crossed in the middle of the field. It has lights now, but back in the day, there were no lights. They gathered up Rudy’s remains in a basket.”
“You lived with another family in high school?” asked the boy, fascinated by the idea.
“That’s right, a foster family. And that’s why I always tell you that family is the most important thing there is in the world. I never had a Mom, or any brothers and sisters. All I had was my Dad. And he tried his best to make things work out, and I always knew he loved me and cared about me, just like I love you and care about you.”
A silence ensued. The grandfather and the boy watched as the surveyors piled into their van in the far field. The van slowly traversed the field, bouncing and rocking, before it reached the flat surface near the barn and leveled out. When the van reached the two figures sitting under the old apple tree, the driver pulled up and stopped.
“What are you putting in here?” said the grandfather.
“Lots,” replied the driver. “You from around here?”
“Used to be,” answered the grandfather.
“Story has it this place was a speakeasy at one time,” said the driver.
“I’ve heard that,” replied the grandfather.
“Story has it that back in the day if you put money in the hole in the apple tree at night, the next day you could come back and there would be a bottle of Applejack.”
“Good story,” said the grandfather.
The driver nodded, put the van in gear, the surveying crew pulled out onto the road, and they were gone. The old man and boy stood up, grabbed their boxes, and stuck them in the trunk of the car. Then they got in and the grandfather started the engine.
“Is that true?” asked the boy. “I mean about the apple tree?”
The grandfather winked.
They pulled out between the stone pillars and started down the road. When they came to the railroad tracks where Rudy was killed, the grandfather stopped as he had on his way out, looked both ways before he crossed, then continued on down the road towards the small town of Whitehouse.

Frank Geiger

Frank Geiger

I am a long time resident of New Jersey and am very familiar with many of the small towns and hamlets around the state because of my love of taking the less traveled road. I spent 25 years as a Probation Officer which honed the sense of irony, humor, and compassion permeating the tale.
Frank Geiger

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