It’s 1925 Missouri, and Prohibition is in full swing. For nearly fourteen years of our history here in the United States, from 1920-1933, the manufacture, sale, and transportation of liquor was, by constitutional amendment, a criminal offense. But that didn’t stop folks from manufacturing, selling, and transporting liquor. In fact, the manufacture, sale and transportation of liquor was a booming business – underground, in city speakeasies. In caves, in the backwoods, in the hollows.
When I researched the manufacture of whiskey – or moonshine – for a subplot of my book Whistle in the Dark, I was charmed by the language of the liquor, the music of the mash, the whiskey words. Call it squirrel whiskey, stagger soup, tonsil varnish, ‘shine. Call it sweet-spirit- of-cats-a-fighting. The whiskey was sold in secret—at the bell-tree, the speakeasy, the back of the Model T Ford. And for those who took too much of the too strong stuff? Well they were leathered, jugged, tangle-footed, trucked, trousered and wiggity-whacked. Tub-thumped. Say it five times, fast.
Clem, in the book, is just thirteen, but he works down the deep dark, in the lead mines, like his Pap and Grampy, who’s sick with miner’s consumption. The men and boys have their own language for the work, and that, too, has its own particular beat. Adit, sledge, clean-and-change, mucker, grinder, hoisterman, cage. Carbide, cap-lamp, hip flask. And there’s the miner’s greeting, Glückauf—good luck!—and at end of day, they say To grass.
To grass! For Clem, the phrase uttered by the miners as they end their shift each day holds such a longing! For the air and the sun, for growing things and living things, for change. It’s hope. It’s lovely thing to say, I think. The dark work for now is over, and there are better things ahead. To grass!
photos courtesy of the Library of Congress photo archives
Susan Hill Long
Whistle in the Dark coming September 2013