By Robert Prochaska
Bud sat soaking his gout-ridden feet in warm water. The purple flesh that had ballooned to three times its size at his ankle made me flinch. As I turned away from looking at the stumpy mass, he bid me to grab some more Epsom salts from the bathroom while he watched the last few minutes of The Untouchables on television. He put the salts into the warm tub of water and related a story that quickly brought him back to a star-filled night in some anonymous cornfield. It must have been some way to ease the pain of the Feds coming down on him during the past year for illegal gambling.
As a young man he was given a job running bootleg liquor across state lines during the Great Depression. A pall of poverty was hanging over the land and he was riding high, with a crew of four driving contraband liquor from one place to the next. He didn’t know who made it, but the barrels of malt syrup, corn sugar and other ingredients were loaded onto a truck and driven across Route 66, sometimes into Missouri and beyond. The money earned from distribution of this “bathtub gin” served as a welcome additional income to his taxicab earnings. He was doing better than most of the populace.
I had heard this story before without ever feeling I should get involved. I was just a boy who needed to study his books and listen to what his teachers had to say. But I was in awe of what pain my father could go through, and I wanted to help him in some way. The lumps that protruded from his legs as he scrolled up his pantlegs were at least two inches thick, and his entire foot ballooned from instep to toe in a grotesque fashion. I was listening with renewed interest.
The truck driver hauling this boozy load was well aware of how lucky he was, given the fact he could be out there begging for meals. Al was a part-time wrestler, the kind that put on shows at local gyms. The 1930’s was going to be a long decade out of the wilderness, that much was for sure. But there was talk it might not be dry for long. Yet how could they end Prohibition? It could happen with Roosevelt, a progressive politician and not like Mr. Hoover, an upright Quaker who cared not a whit for the people’s general well-being when it came to booze.
Bud sat shotgun on the ride with the cargo clattering in the truck’s harnesses. This load was going to Peoria, and Bud’s brother and another man sat in the back seat as the car cruised along the empty road going east. Bud had made connections in Chicago and now he was getting rewarded for being in the right business at the right time. If all the barrels were delivered as promised, the crew would make a cool $10,000 for the night. Babe Ruth was the only guy who could beat those numbers, I thought.
Then Bud leaned forward and grimaced. The inflammation stabbed at him like a thousand needles, his face reddened, and he asked for more hot water. I retrieved it and poured it into the tub.
Bud eyed me to see if I was still paying attention. They had stopped at a gas station halfway to their destination to have the tank filled. I imagined a few pieces of errant Dust Bowl residue hit their faces. The warm sizzle of an August night penetrated the air. The crickets’ chirps echoed through the vast plains. Then a man pulled into the station driving one of those roadsters, some guy who had knowledge of this deal. There were a couple other passengers, but they looked tame enough. Wiping his face with a handkerchief, he sidled up to Bud. Calmly and quietly he asked for the keys to the truck. “Can’t do it,” was the answer, but the man pulled a revolver from his vest. He pointed it at Al and released the safety on the gun.
“Give em’ over,” said the man, who was now joined by two other men, both with guns drawn. Maybe they just needed some cash, so Bud offered him $50, which didn’t work, then a crisp hundred-dollar bill. But all they wanted was the liquor. Al handed the keys over as the gun metal flicked against his cheek. The gas station owner ran for his life toward the cornfields.
Then the gunman calmly walked across the roadway and threw the car keys into the endless prairie void. In the meantime another truck had pulled alongside and Bud and Al were asked to load it with the barrels from their truck. The perpetrators got in their car and shot off down the road, the truck right behind them.
Now Bud and his crew had to get back home and call the boys in Peoria. But the keys, where were the keys? The cornstalks were hard to navigate, and at two in the morning with no lights only the black night and a lot of parched throats was what they had to face. For more than two hours they canvassed the road and adjacent field, until the sky lightened and Al spied a shiny object in a shallow ravine. They all made it home but I never asked if there was another liquor run after that episode.
Bud had a wistful smile on his face as he struggled to rise from his chair. I realized this was his way to bring me closer to him, to see him for what he did, for what he tried to do as a man making his way in the world. The distance I had experienced from my father as a child had melted away. The reality was that his income was less now than during the Depression. I brought him a towel to dry his feet and helped lift him up, each step taken gingerly but producing a wince of pain as he limped to bed. Soon he would be serving legal whiskey in his tavern, knowing that he would be lucky to have more than a few customers for the day. I tried to give him his slippers but he waved me away. I poured all those dark memories into the sink, including the 98-proof alcohol that oozed out of his sighing breaths.