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Little Brown Jug
Wild Grape Wine
"Robbie Ford!"( a nickname my Uncle gave to me after seeing a Western movie about Jesse James at the drive-in) "how about you picking those Fox grapes "over yonder" on the bank for me and I will dance at your wedding! Watch out for snakes, mind you!" Well, at the time, I had no inclinations of getting married and even if I did, weren't gonna be no dancing at my "wedding." I didn't have anything against dancing or marriage, heck I was only twelve years old and it all seemed a little foolish to me.
The grapes were Muscadines, growing wild as opposed to the tame varieties you might see in a vineyard that had been planted and garnered for the fruit of the vine. When these grapes began to ripen, they had such a wonderful grape smell, sorta like Welch's Concord grape jelly, only more potent. It was unusual to find grapes growing along the bank in front of Grandpa's house. Most of the wild grapes I knew about were growing along creek banks and the vines had climbed high in the tree entwining many branches making it hard for me to access the fruit without climbing. I assumed these were here because at some point when Grandma had made Fox grape jelly, the seeds and hulls might have been discarded here on the bank and the grape vines that now grew there, were volunteers emanating from those seeds. Raccoon, possums,and other animals loved to eat the grapes which I think might be one reason these wild grapes were called Fox grapes by the older folks.
My mama would make hull jelly from grapes; so naturally I only assumed my Uncle was going to have my Grandma make some of that good jelly to go with those big "cat head" biscuits she made every morning for breakfast. It wasn't until later that I observed another churn sitting behind Grandma's wood cook stove almost hidden behind the wood box and near the churn my Grandma used for churning milk and making butter. The second churn or crock contained the wild grapes I had picked. As a youngster who didn't know much, I had only noticed the second crock in passing without giving too much thought as to why the grapes were now in a crock instead of being squeezed and strained into the usual Mason jar with paraffin wax melted on top. I also wondered why so much sugar had been added to that crock of grapes. It didn't take long for my mind to become infatuated with other more important things and I completely forgot about the crock.
When summer ended and school began, I returned home to the mill village and would only go up to my Grandparents on weekends riding the school bus and staying until after church on Sunday mornings. My dad's youngest brother was only 16 months older than me and didn't really like school. He had a propensity to play hooky and after missing so many days falling behind in his school work had failed several grades and I had passed him before he could enter Junior High. Ultimately at 16, he quit school and did odd jobs. During this time we were very close, almost like brothers, so we would spend lots of our time on weekends roaming the surrounding countryside landscaped with rolling hills and deep hollers looking for chinkapins or hunting squirrels or rabbits during the daytime; maybe coon hunting at night; especially, when the moon was high in the sky and full. The seasons changed and fall arrived, darkness now came all too soon for young boys with little more to do after getting our chores done. The nights would get chilly on the mountain and by morning the heavy frost would look like a young snow. "You can track a rabbit," my Grandpa would say as he looked out the window pane as he looked out over the fields now brown with rye.
Our chores consisted of getting in the evening wood, carrying buckets of water from the spring and miking the cows. Boredom was fought through watching an old black and white television that required constant manipulation of "rabbit ears" to try and find reception. Mostly we would listen to the Saturday night Opry which was live coming from WSM in Nashville, Tennessee. We loved hearing Roy Acuff sing the Wabash Cannonball and make those train whistle noises and the impeccable Dobro and high tenor of Bashful Brother Oswald who my Grandma love to hear sing especially when they sang those great old hymns. Our ears and appetites perked up at the advertisements for Goo Goo Clusters, and we might wonder if Mr Dewey Sherman might have some in the store where Grandma sold her butter and eggs.
My Grandparents were the only other two folks in the house on weekends and they always went to bed very early leaving me and my Uncle to watch television or listen to the radio. Occasionally, I would find and read old newspapers like the Western North Carolina Tribune or outdated magazines that were available and had not found their way to the little outhouse out behind the barn. We would only go to bed when our eyes couldn't remain open any longer.
One Saturday evening my Uncle said to me,"You wanna try something!" I could tell by the excitement in his voice that the"something" he was about to share, might be of a nature that might get us into trouble. He was forever getting the both of us into more trouble than we could possible lie our way out. We knew we weren't allowed to smoke but he managed to find enough cigarette butts in ash trays not quite burned up to relight with a kitchen match and sneak in a few puffs. Should there be a cigar lying around as a token gift to my Grandfather from the announcement of a grandson or granddaughter , we might just steal it and smoke it in the woods or out behind the barn, our safe haven and where we most likely wouldn't get caught. Goodness knows we were only fooling ourselves because the rank smell of tobacco breath cannot be disguised even with sin-sin.
Grandpa smoked Prince Albert and rolled his own smokes. Occasionally, he bought a pack of Pall Malls. Sneaking around taking a drag off those cigarettes later led me to have a smoking habit that I did not quit until I was almost 50 years old. Today, I can't stand the smell of cigarettes. The "something" my Uncle had in mind however was not smoking cigarettes that evening, it was very different. "Sure, I said with a sense of expectation. " what you got in mind." Well, the churn behind the stove has been emptied into a couple of gallon jugs. There's home made grape wine in them now! You want to give it a try?" I did not know anything about wine making but apparently the grapes had gone through a fermentation process, working off as my Uncle called it and the grape juice was now wine,and had been put into jugs. The jugs were not the little brown jugs I had seen in those Snuffy Smith cartoons in those old newspapers but in clear gallon jugs that once held the vinegar my Grandma used for making pickles..
We went into the kitchen and got two snuff glasses out of the cupboard. The wine was in the closet next to the wood stove and would most likely have gone unnoticed by anyone and certainly out of view from the Preacher should he come for Sunday dinner. My uncle got one of the jugs and poured each of us about 2 fingers full in our glasses careful not to spill any. He smiled as he said in his most grown up voice,"Cheers!" We raised our glass in a toast and tasted the contents. My first impression was it tasted like grape juice only with a little bit of a burn that went all the way down to the tummy. We nursed our glasses for a while savoring the after taste of our first wine tasting event knowing we must now be really bad sinners! Drinking was frowned upon by most of the folks who lived in these rural mountains; especially, those who attended Mount Olivet Baptist Church where the Church Covenant was prominently displayed on a wall in the sanctuary for all to see and were admonished to regularly read.The words "abstain from the use or sale of all alcoholic beverages." seemed to come to mind now as I was pricked in my conscience for breaking as sacred covenant of the church. I prayed Grandma wouldn't find us out and that the wine we had taken from the gallon jug would not be missed or make us staggering drunk.
Over the course of time, we visited that jug several times when I would be at my Grandparents. Eventually, the wine jugs mysteriously disappeared. My Grandparents did not use the wine nor did they ever drink any alcoholic beverages other than the cough medicine Grandpa made from corn liquor someone had given him just for that purpose. The concoction was pretty potent and burn like the dickens but was effective for a bad cough. As young boys, we had succumbed to boyish temptations of the forbidden. The wild grape wine probably didn't have very much alcohol content and as I recall we never felt any effects from the small amounts we drank.
I am not proud of the things me or my uncle did as young boys behind our parents and grandparents back. Vices (sinful habits) such as drinking, gambling and others were not to be tolerated. or condoned for Christians. The memories of those escapades will forever live in my mind. The occasional reflections now only bring a smile.Morals and life style are personal choices and for many today, those standards set and lived out in life by role models have been and will forever be the blueprint that made us into what we have become.