Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

A moonshiner, a merciful grandmother, a lesson in grace

It was the perfect summer.

My cousin Lila and I were teenagers, staying at the place we loved best, our grandmother's house in the mountains. We had just climbed to the top of the one-room schoolhouse on Devil's Fork Road where my grandmother taught for years. Now, Lila and I lay stretched out on the roof, surveying the world around us.

From our perch, we had the advantage of both sight and sound — a clear view of the looming mountains and of Devil's Fork Road beneath. We also had the advantage of sound echoing off the rocks — for suddenly we heard the noise of racing motors. So, we waited.

Soon, in the distance, we saw them — the lead car, riding low to the ground, coming on fast. Behind it a jeep, rocking slightly, trying to catch up — the revenuer chasing J.R., the local bootlegger.

Like others who made and sold corn whiskey, J.R. had beefed up his car's engine and suspension system so he could carry a load of moonshine and outrun the Feds. It was an endless game of cat and mouse that, at the moment, J.R. seemed to be winning.

Word was that people who lived near Devil's Fork were targeted for J.R.'s "business" — and might find a still hidden on their land. As it happened, my cousin Lila and I stumbled onto one while hiking in the woods. The man sitting there — a guard, we supposed — waved us away with his shotgun and said, "Git!" He didn't have to tell us twice.

We told my grandmother, who wasted no time in sending a message to J.R. She was giving him "fair warning," she said. If he ever put a still on any of her land, she'd report him "quick as a flash." Lila and I exchanged glances. This sounded like Adventure.

Days later, the unexpected happened. Word spread that J.R.'s little boy was gravely ill with lockjaw and not expected to live through the night.

My grandmother went into action. Gathering a few supplies — gauze, alcohol, flannel cloths — she called a neighbor to drive her to J.R's place, and within the hour was knocking at his door.

Back then remedies for lockjaw were few. It was difficult to treat and often fatal, affecting the muscles and nerves, even sending toxins to the brain or spinal cord. A person with lockjaw suffers pain and muscle spasms, or stiffness in the neck or jaw. The infection may spread, making it difficult to breathe or swallow, causing high fever and even convulsions — risks extremely common to children.

J.R.'s son was burning up with fever, so the first thing my grandmother did was to repeatedly sponge his arms, legs and chest with alcohol. Now and then she sang to him. After about an hour, the child began to sweat profusely — signs that the fever was breaking. But he still couldn't open his mouth enough to take medicine.

Now, my grandmother began sponging his mouth with warm water — and praying. She continued the sponging and the prayers all night — and along about dawn, when the first pinkish streak lit the sky, something wonderful happened.

The little boy looked up at her, opened his mouth — enough to take his medicine — and smiled. "The sweetest smile ever," said my grandmother, giving credit to the Lord for his recovery.

On that summer of long ago, what my cousin Lila and I saw as Adventure was really a lesson in grace. For whenever a need arose, my grandmother's natural inclination was simply to try to fill it. She had lived long enough to know that adversity had to be faced, not dodged. And though her choices were often hard choices, they reflected a personal code. Foremost, she had learned to give thanks in difficult circumstances — to recognize and be grateful for unexpected gifts. By her lights you treated everyone with kindness, with a severe mercy — even bootleggers like J.R. — whether deserved or no.

We forget sometimes how fragile our lives are, and how easily shattered, until something comes along to remind us. Until, perhaps, a grandmother steps in, or a little boy smiles.

As far as I know, J.R. stayed in the moonshine "business." But he always gave my grandmother's land a wide berth.

Lila and I would have other summers perched atop the schoolhouse, looking down on Devil's Fork Road, remembering this particular year and its unexpected gifts. And yes, remembering to give thanks.

Tampa Bay area resident Faith Barnebey spends her summers in Blowing Rock, N.C.

A moonshiner, a merciful grandmother, a lesson in grace 08/24/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 24, 2009 4:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. St. Petersburg's ballooning sewage debt could threaten credit rating (but there's a Hail Mary plan to avoid that)

    Local Government

    ST. PETERSBURG — The city needs a lot of money — $435 million over the next five years — most of it to fix its leaky sewer pipes and aging sewer plants.

    In September 2016, signs at St. Petersburg's North Shore Park warned people to stay out of the water due to contamination from sewage released by the city's overwhelmed sewer system. The City Council on Thursday learned that the very expensive fix for its sewage woes could hamper the city's credit rating. [LARA CERRI   |   Times]
  2. Pinellas County receives $30 million for beach renourishment

    Local Government

    CLEARWATER –– While Pinellas beaches continually rank among the best in America, they need help to stay that way.

    The Army Corps of Engineers has allocated $30 million to help with beach renourishment at several Pinellas locations, including including Sand Key, Treasure Island and Upham Beach. This photo from 2014 shows how waves from high tides caused beach erosion at Sunset Beach near Mansions by the Sea condominium complex SCOTT KEELER   |   Times

  3. Straz Center parking squeeze infuriates patrons, motivates search for solutions


    TAMPA — When the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts opened 30 years ago, it welcomed just 30,000 patrons its first year.

    Fireworks shoot into the sky over the David A. Straz Jr. Center For The Performing Arts. [SCOTT MCINTYRE, Times]
  4. Video shows naked man who stole swan sculpture in Lakeland, deputies say


    The Polk County Sheriff's Office is searching for a large swan sculpture that was stolen from a Lakeland cold storage facility last weekend, possibly by a naked man.

    The Polk County Sheriff's Office says this naked man stole a large black and white swan sculpture, upper right, from a Lakeland storage facility last weekend. Surveillance video showed the man walking into Lakeland Cold Storage. [Polk County Sheriff's Office]
  5. Fennelly: Dirk Koetter's apology no way to keep this fidget spinning


    TAMPA — It all began with a fidget spinner.

    This tweet from the Bucs, mocking the Falcons' 28-3 lead they lost in the Super Bowl against the Falcons, prompted a public apology from head coach Dirk Koetter, who called it "unprofessional and not smart."