Old Taylor Distillery, Frankfort, Kentucky

Following is an excerpt from the book I’m working on about one of my ancestors,  James G. Crutcher. The details I’ve learned about his life growing up in Frankfort,

Kentucky, as a Confederate soldier in the Civil War, and as a husband and father who walked away from his family have been a tremendous inspiration in helping me chisel away at the soul of his story. Whenever possible, I use the real names of people who were members of his family, as well as members of the community at the time. Here is an experience I imagine he may have had as a boy…

One night, Mr. Blanton came over to visit with Daddy. They liked to talk about horses and whiskey. Mr. Blanton especially liked to come after he’d finished creating his latest batch of bourbon. Daddy said it was because he liked to compete. Daddy and Mr. Blanton were always in the business of one-upmanship. Every chance they got, they swapped whiskey and tall tales. Since we knew they could sit up all night talking and drinking, they never noticed when John and I snuck out to Daddy’s still to sample his latest batch for ourselves. I figured if they had known, they shoulda felt honored, seeing as how they inspired us so much.

On some level we knew it was wrong, but we justified our whiskey tasting by remembering all those times Mamma and Daddy made us drink it when we had a fever, a toothache, a sore throat, or just to warm us from the cold. Grandma Crutcher called it her “tonic” and kept a flask of it in the pocket of her apron. She claimed its effects at reviving her were nothing short of miraculous, but sometimes, after a swig or two, we caught her snoring and she woke up meaner than a hornet stuck in a jar. That wasn’t really so different from her sober personality though. She was mean either way.

At first, the fiery liquid burned its way down, making us cough and sputter, tears running down our faces. John whined, “I don’t wanna drink no more!” I set the bottle down on a stump and smacked my brother on the back. “Be a man! You think Daddy cries when he drinks this stuff? It’s good for you. You drink enough, you won’t never get sick again!”

After a few more sniffles and a couple more sips, we were imbibing like a couple of seasoned drunks. Just to prove my point, I told him the story of Lexington’s William “King” Solomon, the beloved vagrant and town drunk who’d pickled himself so completely, he’d been rendered impervious to the cholera epidemic and stayed behind to dig the graves of the scores of dead when everyone else fled the city. Because of this, he was honored as a hero and given a special ceremony by the people of Lexington. Before that, he’d just been known for getting drunk, climbing a tree, falling out, and landing on the constable, who promptly had him arrested and sold as a slave to a free black woman— even though he was a white man.

“That ain’t true,” said John.

I was indignant. “Yes it is!”

“How do you know?”

“Mr. Blanton told me. He’s a growed man. He ain’t gonna lie to a kid.”

“Oh.” John accepted this. Apparently, it made perfect sense to a drunk six-year-old.

The house was dark and quiet when we snuck back in. All the lanterns were out and the only sounds to be heard were crickets and frogs. We made it to our room and changed into our night clothes, slipping into bed. I was feeling victorious at our success in remaining undetected. We closed our eyes and soon drifted off to slumber.

Unfortunately, at some point in the night, John rolled out of bed and landed on the floor, waking Mamma. She came into the room all alarmed but still disheveled from sleep. “What happened? What’s wrong?” John, who was still lying on the floor, started to cry. “I’m gonna be sick…”

Mamma lit the lamp. “What’s wrong, baby?” she cooed to my brother. Poor traitorous little mite. I looked on with dread. His freckles stood out against skin that had gone pale and when he opened his mouth to cry, you could see he was missing one of his front baby teeth. His blue eyes were watery and red as Mamma ran a hand across his forehead. “You don’t have a fever, but you sure don’t look good. Let’s get you back into bed.”

As Mamma bent down to help John from the floor, she wrinkled her nose, saying, “Lord, Johnny, you smell like your daddy.” Mamma then leaned over me and inhaled deeply, recoiling from the fumes. I ain’t never seen her so mad— before or since. “You boys been in the still,” she said, her face turning red with anger. We froze, drunk as we were at the tender ages of eight and six, guilty looks on our faces. She plopped John roughly onto the mattress, sitting him upright. “You wait here.” She gave us the evil eye. “Both of you.”

John started crying again. “I don’t feel good.” I covered his mouth, shushing him. “Be quiet or they’ll really get mad!”

She came back a moment later with Daddy, who was three sheets to the wind himself. She stood in the doorway, her arms crossed tightly as she glared at the three of us. “Well?” she said to my father, clearly expecting him to give us a proper dressing down. Daddy tottered unsteadily on his feet, looking confused. “What?” he asked.

She whipped one of her arms in our direction, causing us to shrink back. “These boys have been up at your still.”

Daddy blinked at us. He appeared to have some difficulty focusing. “Huh.” He said.

Mamma was furious. “That’s it? Lord! All I need is three drunks in this house!”

He tried to mollify her. “Now, now, Sarah Jane. Me and Mr. Blanton were talkin’ ‘bout the horses and—“

“I don’t care if you were chattin’ with the devil hisself! I don’t want my boys drinkin’ whiskey! They’re just babies!”

“It ain’t all that big’a deal. My daddy gave me my first taste of bourbon whiskey when I was about John’s age.”

Mamma leveled him a withering look and handed him a bucket. “You can clean them up when they get sick.” She turned and left the room, slamming the door behind her.

Daddy ran a hand through his hair, sinking next to us on the bed. “Lord, boys, you getting’ me in a heap’a trouble. Maybe you should lay off the hooch ‘til you’re a little older. What do you say?”

We quickly agreed, not willing to risk that kinda wrath from Mamma again. “Sure, Daddy.”

And we kept our word. John never touched another drop in his life and the next time I drank anything stronger than water, I was half froze to death somewhere in the fields of Georgia, wishing with all my heart I was back home where my mamma could give me a proper dressing down.