I craved homebound warmth on a chilly night last winter, and our friends at Garden & Gun—the hip magazine of the New South—satisfied: they recently paid homage to southern apple brandy. It lit a mellow fire.
Is apple brandy, better known in some parts as Applejack, such a novelty? Not in my backwoods world. More than 25 years ago, my father went on a quest for North Georgia applejack. A dying patient longed for a sip, and Dad determined to fill that final script.
Applejack once was the king of drinks in early America, dating from the late 17th century. George Washington sipped it before the Battle of Monmouth, and Abe Lincoln served half-pints in his Springfield, Illinois, tavern.
If you believe Johnny Appleseed traipsed the frontier to share apples with sweet children, think again. Adult settlers were imbibing applejack for their own good time—up to 40% alcohol. (It was safer than water.)
That year, our family held our Christmas reunions near Amicalola Falls, Georgia, the highest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi. Known as “tumbling waters” in Cherokee, it rushes white over 729 feet of rough-hewn rock framed by stark trees. Dad wisely dispatched Herbert, my uncle, to seek applejack. Apples abound in North Georgia. Ellijay, the heart (or capital) of apple country, holds a festival every autumn to celebrate the crisp, cool harvest. Herbert, the postmaster general of the nearby hamlet Talking Rock, knew every nook and cranny of the mountains, including local stashes of bootleg apple brandy.
Within and without our family, Herbert was a legend. As a young man, he jounced the back roads in an old Army jeep. Years later, he cruised in a dusty-brown VW bug, with the black silhouette of a rearing horse artfully embellishing the driver’s door.
Herbert was quite the horseman. Almost every afternoon he looped his muddy riding ring on Dixie, the Tennessee walking horse who retired from championship fame at State 4-H Shows after my cousin Melvina headed to college. This horse was a clever gal. On entering the barn, you could whistle Dixie, and she would butt open her stall door and whinny a greeting. However, Dixie was in her element with Herbert astride. His wiry, 130-pound body slightly hunched as he and Dixie flashed by in a running walk. They moved as one and never missed a beat.
Hanging out at Bonnie (Dad’s sister) and Herbert’s place was pure delight. Their backyard was a gnarly apple orchard. You could scoop up softly bruised fruit and place it in your flattened palm to entice the quarter horses to a nibble. I can still feel their lips brushing my skin in velvet greed.
Every summer, Herbert’s VW (or Bonnie’s station wagon) bounced us from one relative’s house to another for fried chicken suppers and afternoon-into-nightfall yard games with cousins. Herbert was not always at the helm. Sometimes pre-teen Melvina ruled the road. (She rode roughshod over pastures, too.) She never got a ticket. The local law, from the head Mountie on down, took an unparalleled liking to Herbert.
Life with my uncle was an adventure. From the neck down, he looked like Barney Fife. From the neck up, he was the one and only Herbert—and a heck of a lot smarter. His black hair waved in carefully combed bumps across the top of his head. His Adam’s apple bobbed rhythmically as he talked. His clear blue eyes gleamed, just before we lit out on quarter horses to gallop riding trails and dirt roads and splash across creeks. Herbert herded along, idling in the VW.
At overpopulated family reunions, who sat at the “kids’ table”? Herbert. “You’re just a child, Herbert, just a child,” Bonnie declared repeatedly and laughed, trademark, from the back of her throat and through her nose: “Ah-hunh-hunh-hunh-hunh.”
True, Herbert merged work and play. We spent hours at the post office, tattooing one another with rubber ink stamps in a rainbow of colors. We poked around in cubbies and pulled out magazines from readers’ boxes. Herbert said little about pass-along readership except to comment, “Don’t bend the covers, and be sure you put back the right one in the right box.”
By my last year in college, collecting folklore had become a Deep South rage, ignited by the 12-volume Foxfire series. The books centered on oral histories and folklife in Rabun Gap, Georgia. Perhaps hungry for his boyhood home, my father devoured each book. They whetted my appetite as well. For my senior English project, I shunned Victorian novelists and spent one month in Georgia, gathering legends, superstition, and sayings gone by. I adapted a system and recorded information on 3×5 index cards tucked in a recipe box. I stayed with my grandmother, Mama Hattie, and Herbert hauled me around to drop in on folks who would not otherwise allow me across their threshold.
First stop: Heavily settled on a popped-up, nub-stubble-fabric recliner, a retired sheriff bragged that he had wiped out bootleg spirits in that territory. He crossed his arms, puffed up, and said defiantly, “Not a drop in years.” Herbert stood behind him, crossed his skinny arms, mockingly postured, and winked.
Second stop: I insisted on meeting moonshiners. “They’ll never talk to a stranger,” Herbert said. “But I’ll take you by a place where some nice moonshiners raise the roof. That’s all you’ll get.”
Then we wound around bumpy dirt roads swallowed by trees, their scraggly branches swiping the sides of Herbert’s truck. I glanced around nervously. Was I disappearing into a scary movie script?
We careened around several bends, hitting rocks, and turned up in a bare yard with a small white frame house turning sallow. Herbert shouted a greeting, and a huge, redheaded fellow poked his head out the door. He waved us in after he recognized Herbert, who went straight to the purpose: “Cathy here wants to record your music. She’s writing a school paper.” I held up my tape recorder respectfully.
The man’s head brushed the ceiling, and he was suited up in XXX L overalls. I took a step back. He stared out a window, thinking it over. I had learned not to rush people when poking into their personal lives. After a while, he yelled at a back room. “Hey, y’all, some lady wants to hear us play.”
He picked a bright red bass, and two sons ambled in with their guitars, plugged in, and crashed into “Bury Me under the Weeping Willow Tree.” The bass rhythmically shook the walls, and twang harmonies hit the roof. I thought we would all blow up. But it was a tune to die for—Maybelle Carter was toe-tapping in heaven.
They thumped through familiar ballads until they paused for a swig of Coca-Cola (spiked with something else?). Herbert slyly jumped in. “How about a ghost story?”
The head of the clan launched into a tale about an uppity revenuer who met mountain justice. His headless ghost wandered the hills, forever lost. I froze a smile on my face and nodded. All I could think about was that long drive back in the dark Georgia night.
Third stop: We pulled up to a cabin, a rustic throwback to another century. The porch swing dangled at a slant. The door cracked open. Herbert stuck in his nose and requested an interview. The conversation seesawed back and forth; the crack never widened. No tape recorder allowed. Finally, I got one foot in the door and went dizzy. A man with a thatch of black hair and calloused hands cradling a massive Bible asked me to swear up and down that I was a baptized Christian. (I faithfully promised but skipped the detail that I was a Methodist who had no memory of my sprinkling as a baby—maybe he expected at least a holy dunk in a creek.)
I sat up straight on a ladder-back chair, poised with my ballpoint pen and yellow legal pad, eager to transcribe some sharing of the gospel in quaint 19th-century phrasing. The devil, you say! Yes, every tale was about a devil sighting. Shivers ran up and down my bones and prickled my scalp. I scribbled nonsense. I tore out of the house after our host told of a devil that came right down his chimney—”a fast movin’ midnight-black fuzzy thing that ran ’round and ’round the braided rug, roarin’ as loud as a train, until it shot back up the chimney.”
It was all hoot and holler to Herbert. Nevertheless, I trembled all the way back to Mama Hattie’s house. My life as a fatal movie script seemed even more plausible.
Between nightmares, I half-slept every night and never doused the bedside lamp. “Now, Cathy, no need to get spooked,” Mama Hattie gently fussed. “Those folks are telling you nothing but tall tales and superstition.” She motioned at her bedside table. “I got a pistol, and I’ll shoot anything or anybody that comes through my door.”
The notion of my frail, 79-year-old grandmother—the queen of sweet, golden-fried apple turnovers—wielding a gun stunned.
My observations of The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and other creepy TV fare concluded that bullets whizzed right through ghosts and devils. Night after night, I lay under heaped quilts, chattering, “It’s fiction. It’s fiction.”
On one occasion, my grandmother’s mythic mountain past overran her rural electricity present. While loading the dryer, she called me into the kitchen. “I have an old saying for you.” I pulled out a ready index card and pen.
“If a pregnant woman ducks under a horse’s head, left to right, she will carry her baby 11 months.”
“That’s a new one on me.”
Clutching a wad of wet hand towels, she cocked her head, “Come to think of it, that happened to me. I believe I carried your father 10 months or more.”
Well, shut my mouth. Nobody argued with the mama of my daddy.
In fact, nobody argued with Dad once he stubbornly re-planted his feet on back-home turf. While Herbert combed the area for season-ready applejack (with my brother-in-law Rusty riding shotgun), my teetolaling mother fretted. Driving back to Birmingham, my father always cut through country roads to avoid Atlanta. Collision was a-comin’: Dad’s lead foot, small-town speedtraps, and a trunkful of home-brew. However, Dad shot Mom the Archie-to-Edith-Bunker look that said, “Stifle yourself.”
My uncle stopped by the home of a friendly farmer, who provided his daughter’s address. When Herbert and Rusty turned up on her doorstep, she tensed up suspiciously. No, she never sold apple brandy. Undeterred, grinning Herbert asked that she call her dad as a reference.
After confirmation, the woman admitted to running a liquor store out in the pasture. She cautiously led them to a huge haystack. They dug out 1-gallon plastic milk jugs filled to the tiptop with applejack.
Rusty’s eyeballs almost rolled out of his head when Herbert casually wrote a personal check for contraband that soon would become illegal interstate commerce.
The postmaster general of Talking Rock, Georgia, always delivered.
Brandy snifter courtesy of Evan Swigart, https://www.flickr.com/photos/72949902@N00
VW bug courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker, https://www.flickr.com/people/29233640@N07
Tennessee walking horse courtesy of Jean, https://www.flickr.com/photos/7326810@N08
Sheriff’s badge courtesy of luigi diamanti and FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Cabin courtesy of Brian Stansberry
Apples courtesy of Harald Bischoff