Arguing With A Six Year-Old Boy Next To A Bait Shop

He stood about three feet tall and weighed no more than 30 pounds. An infection of freckles splatters his face and a gapped haircut rode his semi-red locks. He held a dead wiggler in one hand and a bag of juice in the other. Chocolate smears camouflaged his mouth. At least I hoped it was chocolate. A boy holding a dead worm is suspect in my book, even if he is loitering around the tadpole tanks of a bait shop. But it was his eyes that told the tale. He was an arguer.

“What’s wrong with your truck?” he said. “It stinks.”

I learned a long time ago that once a six year-old starts asking questions, you may as well turn off the engine and put your life in park because you’re going to be there a while.

“I ran over a skunk in Arkansas,” I said.

He curled his lip and held the dead worm over his mouth and mumbled, “That’s awful. Where’s Arkansas? Is that near my grandma’s house?”

“Does your grandma live in Arkansas?” I asked. I knew it was foolish, engaging a rambler like this in a conversation that I might not be able to keep up with.

“No,” he said curtly. “I don’t know what saw she lives in. I think it’s Tennesseesaw.”

I eyed a few cane poles from Boutwell Bamboo Farm down near Opp, Alabama, their shellacked surfaces smelling sweet and reflecting the clabbering late spring sky.

“Well I’ve never been to Tennesseesaw,” I said. “Is your grandma a good cook?”

“Why?” he said. “You hungry?”

“No. Just wanted to know.”

“She cooks good as Golden Corral. A big old pile of food. Whew.”

“What do you like the best?” I asked.

“MoonPies,” he said.

“She doesn’t cook MoonPies,” I assured him. “We make those up in Chattanooga, Tennesseesaw.”

“That’s where she lives,” he said. “And she does too cook MoonPies.”

“I know the people who cook MoonPies,” I said. “And I don’t know your grandma.”

I was stirring up trouble now.

“You callin’ me a liar?” he snapped, twisted his chin up in the air and clinching his fists in front of his chest, the dead worm falling to the ground, the juice bag crushed.

“No, not at all,” I said. “You’re just mistaken. It’s no big deal. People make mistakes all the time.”

“Like when you hit that skunk in Arkansas and dragged his stink all the way here?”

He kind of had me on that one.

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Peanuts in Coca Cola

“I see what you’re doing there,” she said. “That’s the old way of drinking a Coca-Cola.”

Ginny was pushing 90 when I met her down in Arkansas in 1990. She is buried in the dappled shade under a big magnolia next to her husband now. She only called him “Dink.” I assumed it was a nickname, but hard to tell.

Pouring a handful of salted peanuts into a bottle of Coke is something my grandmother showed me how to to back when Lyndon Johnson was president. Ginny did it a lot more than I did. She was doing it when Truman was president, even Roosevelt. She did not just eat a MoonPie with an RC Cola. She dipped it in the RC after pouring it into a chipped old green coffee cup that sat on her cupboard the entire time I knew her. She never ate it any other way.

“The South is a wonderfully awful place,” she once told me after a few sips of rum, which she loved to do on her porch, also shaded by a big old Magnolia tree. Ginny, like many Southerners her age, called it a Bay Tree. And I captalize those two letters to show the reverence she felt for its shade, a reverence that helped convince the cemetery to save her a good spot for eternity.

“People down here are mean to each other and then love each other all at the same time,” she said. “I think it’s a Scottish thing. Maybe Irish. Makes no difference. It’s a complicated mess, I’ll tell you that. We’ve had a history that sets us apart both good and bad. And Lord I’ve lived long enough to see a mighty lot of it.”

The last time I saw her was in her kitchen where she took out a vintage six-ounce Coke bottle, poured some into it from a can and asked me to top it off with some of my Lance peanuts.

“What town is on the bottom there,” I asked her, referring to the old custom of embossing the name of the town on the bottom where the Coke was bottled.

She knew it by heart.

“Andalusia, Alabama,” she said. “Never been there. Have no idea where that is. But that’s the name on the bottom of this bottle. I’ve had it since the 60’s I reckon. Dink brought it home after a fishing trip.”

“Miss Ginny,” I said. “I’ve been to Andalusia and it’s a nice little town down in Lower Alabama next to a National Forest. Has a pretty town square. You have to go through there on the way to the beach.”

“I bet they have some big old Bay Trees down there,” she said, smiling and motioning toward her own tree with her Andalusia bottle, peanuts bobbing in the neck.

“Yes they do.” I said. “I know some of them personally.”

“A Bay Tree is a lifelong friend,” she said.

She is under one right now, and I’m drinking a Coca-Cola from the Andalusia bottle she gave me. Peanuts float inside, but memories float all around it.

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On the Bourbon Trail With Steve and Paul Beam

Last week I was in Kentucky, just outside Louisville, heading towards Lebanon and the heart of Bourbon Country. If you’ve ever had a fine glass of whiskey, it probably came from the hills around here. The Bourbon Trail is a big draw if you’re into iconic American cultural history.

On my way, I passed a grisled biker on a massive Harley, bent over behind his bug-smeared windshield, hair and beard flailing in the wind, trying to light a cigarette at 70 mph. Lord, did it remind me of my younger days when several SEC schools decided it was better that I continue my education elsewhere and helped me find the exit to do just that. Not that such an image has anything to do with this story.

Listening to Siri’s voice guide me through my iPhone maps is a joyous thing. She has become one of my best friends as I roam around the country. On this particular day, I was on my way to see Steve and Paul Beam cook up some moonshine at Limestone Branch, their fairly new micro-distillery.

If you walk into a place for the first time and feel like you’ve known the people there forever, then you know how I felt as I walked in and met Steve and Paul and Jay, Paul’s son. They laughed and made me feel better than most members of my family when I visit. On second thought, considering my family, maybe that is not a compliment to Steve and Paul. Nevertheless.

“Let’s talk about J. W. Dant,” said Paul, pointing to a beautiful display of family distilling tradition that goes back over 200 years. Bottles and receipts and notes by both of their great-great grandfathers on recipes and ingredients and family lore filled the little hallway leading to the serious room where the real business takes place every day. And if you come for a visit, that’s the room you want to see.

“Grandpaw Dant began distilling whiskey in 1836,” said Paul. He gave a little history and told stories of early whiskey making in Kentucky as an art form. Paul knows his stuff.

“Just over in Nelson County,” he said, “our other great-great grandfather, Minor Case Beam was making Old Trump and T.J. Pottinger brands of sour mash and rye whiskeys from recipes passed down from his great grandfather Jacob Boehm, who came through the Cumberland Gap in 1788, changed his name to Beam and started selling whiskey in 1795.”

I was eyeing the door to the back where I could smell moonshine being made.

“Looks like you’re ready to get to it,” said Steve. I nodded.

Steve has the wry look of a man who has lived through more than he’s telling. You first notice his eyes; the squint of honesty and experience and a willingness to crank up a conversation and follow it like a hunting dog on a scent. If you are going to sip some corn whiskey, Steve is the guy you want to be sitting next to when it happens.

He took me back to a 150-gallon hand-hammered copper pot they use to make small batch moonshine and bourbon. As he explained the process, I watched as precious drops fell one-by-one into a shiny vat. Jay moved about checking this gauge and that pipe. Paul made sure things were running as I wasted their time.

“That right there is pure, beautiful 130-proof moonshine,” said Steve, motioning to a pristine vat.

A tiny taste confirmed his claim to being, indeed, fine.

“Those barrels over there will be bourbon, but that takes a few years,” said Paul. “We come from a long line of very authentic whiskey makers, but we’re a small-batch distiller. Our product is as hand crafted as it comes, as you can see.”

I could see. But I wanted to taste more. So they poured some shine fresh from the latest potfull into small glasses.

“Good stuff, huh?” said Steve. But Paul will take you through a whole tasting in a few minutes if you can hang on. So I did. Barely.

After examining everything from Apple Pie Cinnamon to Blackberry and Pumpkin Pie moonshine to Minor’s Revenge and their award-winning T.J. Pottinger’s moonshine Kentucky corn whiskey, I asked if there would ever be a MoonPie Moonshine. Squinty silence.

“Funny you should ask,” said Steve. “We’ve definitely talked with Tory Johnson at MoonPie. A lot of Southern history with these two families.” He just smiled. Paul smiled. Jay smiled. And then I was sworn to secrecy right there next to the beautiful copper pot making some of the finest small batch product in Kentucky.

We left and went just up the road to Maker’s Mark, where everyone knew Steve and Paul and Jay not just because of their famous family heritage, but also because of their deep knowledge and vast tradition of perfect American whiskey. And, quite honestly, because they are three of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, even if you don’t drink a drop. People around here know that.

We walked through the giant distillery and beautiful gift shop, a stark contrast to Steve and Paul’s small, one-on-one Limestone Branch Distillery sitting next to a perfect field of grain and a pristine pond.

“So one day I may get to sip a small-batch MoonPie Moonshine?” I asked, knowing already the answer would have to wait.

Steve just smiled and said, “Mike, let’s all go back to Limestone Branch and sit next to the pond and enjoy this beautiful Kentucky sunset and a few sips.”

When we got there, Paul grinned and walked back into check the latest shine with Jay. Cicadas moaned as the sky turned the color of bourbon above us and Steve laughed and I remember an evening with my father before he died as we sipped bourbon and talked about life.

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Heaven and Helen

“In the summertime when the weather is high, you can chase right up and touch the sky.”

Life has a strange way of treating beautiful people sometimes.

“I was a beauty queen back in the day,” she said. “I traded by beauty for brains.”

I don’t know when “the day” was, but from the looks of it, she should be a genius. Her skin was tanned the texture and color of a worn baseball glove, the catcher’s mitt, not an outfielder. She was missing a few teeth, which can happen when you get in a fight and let your “alligator mouth overload your jaybird butt.” Her phrase, not mine. Working the Gulf boats is a hard life, even when the palms are spry and the weather brings a cool, salt-tinged breeze from out over the water.

“Up in this brackish bog, the wildlife earns its name,” she said, showing me a few scars, one from a snake bite that chewed out a chuck of muscle from her calf the size of a coffee cup, another that appeared to be ripped into her torso in a chainsaw design. “Gator nearly took me right here,” she said rubbing her bent and calloused hands over the ridges and crevices of ivory white tissue that would never tan.

The smell of fried fish, fecund mangrove swamps, and something dead in the distance wafted by now and then. Only a few times in your life will you see a sky so cloudlessly blue.

“My name’s Helen, if you care to know,” she said. “This is Heaven, my dog.”

“What kind of dog is that?” I said. The dog was wearing checked boxer shorts.

“A four-legged one,” she said, smiling, revealing a wad of perma-chew gouged into her jaw. Perma-chew, by the way, is the biological pouch that develops in a person’s jaw after decades of stuffing chewing tobacco in there.

“I’ll take some of those MoonPies for the boat,” she said, motioning towards my truck.

Heaven walked over the crushed oyster shell and sniffed around my tires, anxiously waiting for a bit of MoonPie.

“You know how Heaven got her name, right?” said Helen.

I said that I didn’t know. Helen took a deep breath like someone who had told a story so many times she was trying to think of a way to give it a different spin ­– and she found one.

“Heaven is 24 years old,” said Helen. “You know how old that is in dog years? One hundred and sixty eight years old. That’s why we call her Heaven. Cause she’s gonna live forever. Her name used to be Glenda, like the witch on the Wizard of Oz. When she turned twenty, we changed it. Just seemed like the right thing to do.”

I’d been there for several hours and it was getting late so I bid Helen and Heaven goodbye and walked to my truck across the parking lot to a fish market. On the way I passed an old man who smiled and asked me if Helen had told me the story of her 168 year-old dog. I acknowledged that she had, and he started laughing.

” And you believed her?” he said nodding like he had heard this tale many times, and had corrected it even more times.

“That Dog’s name changes every time somebody comes through here,” he said. “This is how Helen entertains herself. What was the dog’s name today?”

“Heaven,” I said.

He grinned and shook his head. “It’s been Hank, Roosevelt, Nixon, Fidel, Jamison, Schlitz, Earl Grey, I’ve lost track. One Christmas she called him Santa.”

“But it’s a female dog,” I said.

“Sometimes that part changes too,” he said.

Explains the boxer shorts I guess.


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Supporting Our Troops

I must have put 100,000 miles on my old truck last year, going all over the place, meeting people, hearing stories, telling stories and generally trying to appear employed. Now and then, however, all I have to do is open my email. Here’s a really good story I just had to pass on:

“During a discussion with my wife this past Memorial Day, she and I were discussing memorable times we spent deployed to overseas assignments; we are both veterans of the US Army. I recalled the story of my deployment in support of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990 where I contacted your bakery to purchase some MoonPies for me and my combat buddies. The support that your company gave us will never be forgotten. Not only did the MoonPies reach the eagerly awaiting soldiers, your employees also took time to correspond with us. Being from the South, MoonPies are an icon to the region. I would like to take the opportunity to thank you again for your support and for taking the time to remember us soldiers. I would also like to let you know that the kindness and generosity of your employees has not been forgotten.  Thank you.”    - Thomas Quatrini.

Thomas, Thank you for sending that. We try to do our part to support our troops. It’s a tough job and bringing a little piece of home to our soldiers is an honor.

I have to tell you, I just told your story to a friend of mine who spent a lot of time as a helicopter mechanic in Desert Storm. He practically lived in that chopper, getting troops back and forth safely, keeping the machine running in top form. After hearing your story, he grunted, smiled and looked at me.

“Mike, I think you owe me a few MoonPies,” she said, joking. “Could have used some good, Southern memories in all that sand.”

I dropped my head and said, “We owe you a whole lot more than that, my friend.”

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Riding with Elizabeth Campbell

Unlike many of the people I hang out with on a regular basis, Elizabeth Campbell is one of the nicest, well-mannered young Southern women you’ll ever meet. She is also the 5th generation of Campbells to run the Chattanooga Bakery, and therefore has a lot of MoonPie stories from growing up right there in the middle of it all.

I don’t know how many old, rattling F-150’s she rides around in, but she did not seem to mind the smell of fish bait still lingering from the day before when I’d taken Lemuel Earl and Hawky Jones fishing outside Fort Payne, Alabama at a secret creek where we caught absolutely nothing. I’m not sure why it is a secret beyond it being a terrible place to fish. Continue reading

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Riding the Waterpole

Harborfest happens every year at the edge of the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, Virginia. It comes standard with a nice view of Portsmouth just across the water and old school sailing ships and new school yachts snugging the bobbing bleached dock wood. A big crowd poured in like the rain from Tropical Storm Andrea that blew through hard enough to cancel the first day’s events. But on a sunny Saturday, music jammed under canvas covered stages and people sampled barbecue and seafood. I’m not afraid to say I used to be a little hesitant to scarf down a softshell crab served from a tent, but I did, and it was tasty. My sense of adventure has returned.

By the way, giving storms like Andrea names really bothers me. Makes the vagaries of weather seem so personal. A nasty breeze comes through, wrecks my stuff and now I can attach a name to the damage. “Snarls up my gumption,” as my grandmother used to say. Brings out the revenge side of my Southern upbringing. Yet there is nobody to revenge against. It is weather, plain and simple. Like my ex-wife, Andrea just didn’t care.

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MoonPie Saved My Marriage

A while ago, I was in the airport in Atlanta, like most every other human in the America that day, and I stopped to get a sandwich. Next to me was an older woman, alone, eating and flying who-knows-where. So I did what I always do when I find myself in such a situation. I struck up a conversation Pleasantries were exchanged and she found out I work for MoonPie.“Oh my,” she said, smiling through her Mississippi accent,” I have a story for you.” And she proceeded to tell it.

“The day after my wedding,” she said, “and this was many years ago, my new husband and I were driving down the road and we got into a first class disagreement over something. I can’t even remember what it was now. But it was some ugly bickering. The day after our wedding, mind you! Well, I was pretty riled up and exasperated to beat the band and so I told him if this was how marriage was going to be maybe we should rethink this thing.” Continue reading

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Camping with Cows

When I was a kid, my cousins and I used to camp out in my uncle’s cow pasture. Our tent was no fancy Coleman job like you see today. It was a tarp normally used to cover firewood. A couple of sawed off 2×4’s held up the tarp. There was no waterproof floor beneath us. If it started raining and you were awake enough to know it, you stopped camping and started running to the barn.

There were three of us, and we’d build a good-sized fire, roasting wieners and MoonPies on sharpened sticks, chasing them with baked beans and Dr. Pepper.

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Swamp Peppers

The porch to his house was hung heavy with peppers, all kinds of peppers. So many peppers I could smell them as I drove up from the long, crooked road through the swamp, back around a bayou and next to a doublewide mobile home set up about four feet high on cinder blocks. From the lean, it was a job done by a man without a level.

“Dey calls me Mr. Peppers,” said the man with squinty eyes and scalded-complected hands. “While I’m no professional, I consider myself a professional pepper sauce maker.”

“So where can I get some?” I asked.

Continue reading

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