Growing up in the country, you can almost taste the changing of the seasons. Especially from spring to summer. All the fragrances seem to blend together. As the nights get warmer, they have a liquefying effect on your senses. June starts off tasting like honeysuckle cider and transcends to watermelon wine by late July.
As summer approached, there were things you could count on happening in the little Middle Tennessee country town in which I lived in my childhood years. Corn gets cut. Catfish start biting. And a legendary bootlegger was open for business. He cooked and sold the best "goes down smooth" moonshine ever chugged by mankind. He was black and blind. They called him Blind Remus. I called him Mr. Remus.
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- Southern Folks: Scrapbooks, pictures and memories
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- Southern Folks: Lessons at the table with Miz Lena
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- Southern Folks: Blind Remus
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- Southern Folks: Miz Lena had a remedy and an answer for everything
- Southern Folks: Tap dancing straight to a refund
As soon as school let out for the summer, I worked weekends for Mr. Remus. I was his one and only employee. He trusted me. Back then, in the 1950s, it took a lot for a black person to trust white people. Even white children.
Remus wasn't his real name. Everybody called him that because he looked so much like the Uncle Remus in the Disney movie "Song of the South." He was short and stocky, bald on top with curly white hair around the sides and a stubble of a beard, like he hadn't shaved for a week. He wore green, frost-lensed glasses. His voice was husky, and his laugh was big and genuinely jovial until you started talking about money.
That's when his serious side kicked in. All odds were stacked against Mr. Remus making the money that he did. But he did. Blind and black were tough obstacles to overcome, especially in those days. That, and him living not more than 12 miles down the road from the little town where the Ku Klux Klan originated.
He often sat me down and lectured me on the ways of the world. He'd look up, sway a little bit, and say to me, "Boy, yuh best be watchin' yo' money. Peoples be wantin' what you's got. Dey try all which a ways to take it away from yuh - all at once, or dey chip away at yuh. Don't let nobody get away wid da lil' stuff. Dem lil' things, dey adds up."
I first met Mr. Remus down at the creek, just under the bridge directly behind his little house. It was really more like a shack. His grandparents had lived there, and it was the house in which his parents had been raised and the birthplace of Mr. Remus. Due to an unsavory farmer's greed, Mr. Remus' mom and dad spent the rest of their lives working in the fields, trying to pay off their "accumulated debts" to the farmer. They never did.
Their debts were wiped clean by the farmer's sole surviving daughter. She gave Mr. Remus a signed, paid-in-full deed that he kept in the same drawer as his loaded pistol and a box of bullets.
They said that when Mr. Remus was a little boy, his father whipped him so bad, it made him go blind. Mr. Remus had just started school, and they had to pull him out. He worked in the fields alongside his parents until they died.
Mr. Remus' first words to me were, "Somebody better git up from my fishin' hole! Whoever you is. Out here makin' a racket. You is gonna scare off all my sun perch." I turned around and saw him coming at me! He moved pretty fast for a blind man. He had his hand around a rope that he had tied from his back porch all the way down to a huge sycamore that hung over the creek.
It was just me and my dog, Prince. I didn't see how we were making that much noise. I might have whooped a couple of times when I pulled one in. When you snag a big one, it's hard not to whoop. Prince may have barked. That was about it.
When he got close, he asked me my name. He knew who I was and that my mother taught at the school. He stopped his ranting, and we sat out there by the creek and talked for a while. He'd talk real fast and then slow way down and then speed up again. Kind of like an old person drives a car. We got to know one another. He liked Prince.
In the following weeks, Mr. Remus allowed me to fish out back, provided that I gave him half my catch. He'd say, "And don't be thinkin' I'm not gonna count how many fishes you is takin' wich yuh." It was a fair deal. We bonded.
I spent a fair amount of time around Mr. Remus. He never had visitors. No sign of any personal relationships. I think I was his only friend.
Mr. Remus asked me to come to work for him. He paid me 50 cents an hour for four hours of my time on Friday and Saturday nights. Not bad for a 10-year-old. He insisted that we split my tips 50-50. Every time we made a deal, he'd spit in his right hand and say, "You got yo'self a deal. Let's shake on it." I spit in my hand, and we shook.
Mr. Remus used to tell me, referring to his patrons, "Boy, wid all dat stuff you throws at dem peoples and dem givin' you all dat tip money, you's makin' too much tips for a young boy. You tell dem yo stories and make us dat money." Then, he'd lean back, laugh big and slap his knee.
Mr. Remus' thirsty and faithful clientele would start pulling up out front just before sundown. Sometimes there was a line.
I was an important component to Mr. Remus' operation. I ran up the bank right outside his front door and took the orders from the men. Then I ran the order and money back to Mr. Remus. He'd set up shop at a table just off the kitchen. In the dark. He lit a candle so I could see.
All purchases were made with coins only. That way, Mr. Remus could count the money. He'd hand me the jars, and I'd run them back up to the customers. Sometimes, I'd have to make more than one trip.
Mr. Remus would clap his hands and hustle me along with, "Les' go, boy! Go up there and tell dem yo' stories and come on back wid our tip money! Go do yo' sweet talkin', boy". Then, he'd grab his stomach, bend over in his chair and laugh out loud.
Mr. Remus' customers were all kinds. Criminal-looking, Klan-card-carrying, older white men. A few high school boys. Young couples from a county over making a fast stop on their way to a dance at the school gym. They kept coming throughout the night.
When it got good and dark, a couple of good ol' boys from the sheriff's office would come by. Mr. Remus always gave them a couple of extra jars "on da house." The deputies used to ask me how old I was, and I'd tell them I was 21. They'd laugh.
They say that when you lose one of your five senses, the other four become more acute. I figured that had to be the case with Mr. Remus. He usually had the customer's order on the table before I got back inside the house.
I thought that he had heard their order from all the way back in his kitchen. Turns out, he could distinguish the sounds of the motors of the customers' cars and trucks. They pretty much ordered the same number of jars of hooch every week.
I worked for Mr. Remus for the better part of two summers. I never really felt that I understood him that well. Out of habit and survival, he kept his cards close to the vest. Everybody said that I knew him better than did most of the town folk.
I was sad when I came to tell him that we were moving and that I would no longer be able to work for him. He swayed back and forth in his chair a little and looked down. He chuckled, "Boy, you is a good worker. But you is a better talker. You keep talkin' and tellin' dem' stories, and you is gonna' be jus' fine." Then he looked up and in my direction. His lip was quivering. In a much quieter tone, he said to me, "I'll be seein' yuh."
I loved Mr. Remus. And here I am, telling them stories.
I sure appreciate all the very nice comments I receive from so many of you out there. Thanks for taking the time to read my stories.
Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Contact him at email@example.com or through Facebook.