The jurors who tried the 14-year-old black boy who shot and killed three widows last year, one of them my own dear neighbor, found him guilty and gave him several life terms. By law, he got the maximum. He is too young for the death penalty. It is beyond me. If you are old enough to murder, you are old enough to pay the ultimate price.
As it stands, this sentence did not settle matters. Three Christian women are dead, and nobody really believes his punishment will deter a future case. Death, quickly and publicly inflicted, might have. But not a lifetime of living at taxpayer expense in the prison community. A year after the ghastly incident, the local newspaper finally printed the full story. The boy walked into the indoor flea market, demanded money from the owner behind the register, then shot her. He did the same to a shopper, and another shopper ran out the front. My neighbor, the only other person in the store still alive, turned toward the boy and said: “You’re doing the Devil’s work; stop in the name of Jesus!” He shot her in the head. She stumbled to the back of the store where she lay until the ambulance came. She died on the way to the hospital.
The boy had excuses. He lost his cool. He needed some money. When his friends asked if he had ever killed anyone, he was embarrassed to say no. No, a life in prison is not justice.
Tragedy has been central to Southern history for 135 years, so people have learned how to face it squarely while containing its repercussions. Downtown Opelika, for example, where the old railroad station still stands, was the scene of this massacre. It might have driven down property values and led to dilapidation. But last year it was the location of the most impressive Christmas celebration in many decades.
The ladies who organized the seasonal events—including the Victorian Christmas porch tour, the luminaries on Collinwood Drive, and tours of homes and shops—have successfully fought evil with acts of courage and goodness. Several new shops have even opened, Haney’s Drug Store (established 1890) was renovated to reflect a 1940’s style, and property values are now rising. Still, visitors sometimes say that downtown Opelika looks lonely and deserted. It is not really true, but I think I have figured out why people say this. Not a single franchise operates here. No yellow M, Baskin Robbins, or any chain. Even the grocery and hardware stores are locally owned and run. It is strange. How sad that we become so used to commercial homogeneity that anything else appears either unsettled or obsolete.
But some things are never obsolete. Like moonshine. Grady McWhiney wrote that Southerners used to make as much liquor as they bought. It may still be true. Last fiscal year, the state government confiscated more than 634 gallons of unapproved homemade liquor. The state government says that is more than six times the amount captured in 1994. Forty-three stills were found and destroyed. A candidate for the Montgomery City Council, Mutt Herring, had to drop out after being arrested for possessing homemade hooch.
This trend has seriously alarmed the New South elites, who are always trying to supplant indigenous culture with an outside “culture” that has no room for bootlegging. But with the highest liquor taxes in the country, the Alabama market for the stuff is irrepressible. Mountain dew is one-fourth the price of official, high-tax whiskey, so “them that refuse it are few.”
But it is not just the price that makes “ruckus juice” so appealing; it is also the fun that comes with disobeying the government. Making and drinking white lightning is the ultimate in political incorrectness. It is a private declaration of independence and a micro-secession. With every swig, you are thumbing your nose at the modern world and all its corruptions and failures. If the boom keeps up, Janet Reno and David Kessler will have their next excuse for invading us with tanks.
The Establishment, of course, warns that the stuff leads to blindness, poisoning, and death. But that only becomes a problem when the government cracks down on informal distilleries. Mainstream distillers are squeezed out, and only the marginal producers (who are much less careful, and, due to the speed under which they operate, will even use an old shoe for flavor) remain. The way to reduce risk, then, is either to eliminate taxes on the official stuff or let 1,000 stills bubble.
The lack of competition is also the key to understanding the chronic biscuit shortage at the Loachapoka Syrup Soppin’ Festival here in Lee County. In the old days, bakers from all over would try their hand at biscuits—at a handsome profit. Last year someone had the bright idea of establishing an exclusive Official Biscuit Making Team, which paid the Loachapoka government for the privilege. The team could not keep up, and was at least 5,000 biscuits short.
The problem was “solved” last year by allowing the unthinkable. A fast-food chain, Hardees, touting its industrial ovens and extensive experience, was given the exclusive right to bake and sell biscuits at the festival. The chain set up shop right next to the horse-pulled syrup press. What an outrage. People were rightly shocked by the hideous sight. Then injury was added to insult: Hardees could not keep up, and was at least 5,000 biscuits short.
The solution for the festival, it seems to me, is to free the market for biscuit making and impose strict rules against all commercial providers. And if the market for informal-sector liquor keeps growing at the current level, Lee County may need another festival, this one to give micro- distillers a place to market their unique products. As for the poison made with radiators and old shoes, it can be used for crime control in lieu of the death penalty.