Someone must have put a snake on a fence, because it’s raining for the first time in weeks. Jerry the Barber knows what causes weather changes, and if you are fortunate enough to count yourself among his clientele, he’ll explain it. For example, Jerry knows a woman in Waverly, Alabama, who can break a storm. She stands on the porch and shakes an axe handle at the offending cloud. It splits and floats away. She learned how to do this after her neighbor put a snake on the fence without asking others if they wanted rain, that’s considered rude.
Jerry seems to know everything, but sometimes his advice is only half usable. He gave me his moonshine recipe, but warned me not to cook it too long. At some point, he said, it turns to “gasoline.” How long is too long? It depends on many things (the weather, the mixture, the cooking temperature), and you have to get the hang of it. Also, Jerry failed to tell me that the reason moonshiners work in the woods, away from other people and houses, is that you can smell the stuff brewing a half-mile away. That’s how they’re caught.
At least one person in Lee County, Alabama, is getting away with it. The local liquor control board fined several bars and restaurants for violations. They found drinking under age, drinking on Sunday, drinking with a fake ID, drinking too late, and some place selling moonshine. My regret: the local paper did not list the bar.
Inspired by the moonshiners, models of rugged individualism, Ward Allen (a student of agrarian Donald Davidson in literature and life) and I decided to recover the lost art of making hams. The hams you buy at the store, it turns out, have been pumped up with a salt-water syringe. According to one book I found, this method cannot create a real ham.
I told Andy Barnett of our plans to moonshine a ham. A distinguished economist and a rooted Confederate patriot, Andy remembered rubbing hams as a boy, and so called his dad in South Carolina to find out more. Within seconds, Andy’s dad was reading from his 1952 Department of Agriculture pamphlet on raising and eating hogs. It was just sittin’ by the phone.
A real ham is periodically handrubbed for several weeks with sugar, salt, black and red pepper, and saltpeter. (A newer book says to drop the saltpeter “for health reasons,” advice we rejected.) Then it’s smoked (sadly we had to use a modern smoker—this time) and then aged for several months up to a year. As we rubbed our fresh hams early one Saturday morning, Mr. Allen wondered if the ancient Egyptians used this method as they preserved bodies. Who knows, but if so, I asked, how are bodies preserved today? “Do you suppose,” he asked, “they pump them up with a saltwater syringe?”
Mr. Allen gets his hair cut more often than I do, and so he gets to see Jerry more. This is useful, because Jerry is right on in all matters of politics, from the New Deal to Newt Gingrich. The social science professors at the university could learn a lot from him. Jerry’s welfare reform plan is straightforward: take all them bums on welfare in New York, throw ’em in Alabama swamps, and let the snakes eat their eyes and lips.
Of course he approves of the new chain-gang law in Alabama, which the New York Times recoils from in horror. Instead of lounging around prison, criminals clean up the roads, linked with thick and unbreakable cords. It keeps the highways clean, provides proximate social restitution, and the humiliating sight itself deters future criminals. What’s wrong with that? Right on cue, liberals denounced it as cruel, reactionary, unworkable, and all the rest. But according to real people in Alabama, serious crime deserves a swift and serious response.
In Auburn’s neighboring town of Opelika, there are some gang problems in the high schools and petty theft, but mostly people live in security. Local tranquillity was shattered earlier this year, however, with what folks are calling the worst crime since Reconstruction. A boy of 15 shot and killed three widow women as they were strolling through an indoor flea market in Opelika. He then took their purses. One victim was my neighbor, and she was a saint.
I expected an uproar. Surely, a crime this appalling will get some attention outside of Lee County, probably even from the New York Times. It didn’t. Apparently, it’s considered too sensitive a subject when a black boy (who is too young to be eligible for the death penalty) kills three older white women. People might get upset. Three days after the triple murder, even the local newspaper stopped reporting the details.
Receiving extensive coverage instead, thanks to roving reporters from the Associated Press, were the latest goings on in Wedowee, Alabama. A former high school principal accused of being impolite to a mixed-race girl was hired for an administrative job by the school district, over the objections of outsiders demanding ever more minority “rights.”
The events in Wedowee have been covered in the New York Times for more than a year. Ward Allen says I’d be generally happier if I put off reading that paper until late in the afternoon. In the mornings, I should visit Jerry. Or maybe I’ll go see that woman in Waverly to see if she can shake an axe handle at the media and make them float away.