Monday, March 21, 2011

Close to Home-brew.

Grinning with glee, the old man ushered us into his house. Aside from a table and four chairs and an old, tattered easy chair, there was another furnishing that caught my eye and held it. Against the north wall stood a gleaming white refrigerator.

"Well Uncle Ben," Poppa said, as gay as I had ever seen him, "did it come?"
"It sho did! It sho did!"

And the old man hobbled to the refrigerator and opened it. It was literally packed full of beer bottles. But these bottles didn't contain beer. They were capped by the kind of plain, white caps that you can buy in the hardware store, and there were no labels on the bottles.

Uncle Ben uncapped five bottles and, bidding us to sit down (while Poppa brought another chair from the little lean-to kitchen), he poured the amber liquid into five glasses.

When we were all seated, Uncle Ben between Poppa and the Colonel, the three older men held their glasses up and touched them in the middle of the table. At a gesture from the Colonel, Billy Joe and I held our glasses up too.

"It finally came!" said Uncle Ben, Poppa and the Colonel in unison.

And we drank. It was better than beer, smoother, stronger and it left a pleasant fizzy feeling in my throat.

"What is it, Poppa?"
"You like it, huh?"
"Yessir, what is it?"

Home-brew. I had heard of it all my life--Billy Joe and I had tried to make some last fall--but this was the first I had tasted. Since that day I have had my share of Uncle Ben's home-brew and I have drunk a goodly number of the mixtures various bartenders have concocted, but home-brew was and will remain the best drink ever made.

A passage from The Day The Century Ended by Francis Irby Gwaltney, published in 1955.

Francis Irby Gwaltney (1921-1981) was my grandfather on my mother's side. I never knew him though, he died a couple of months before I was born, and I have never known that much about him to be honest. For reasons unknown to me and my siblings, my mom has never been very candid about her dad, neither was my grandmother about her husband when she was alive. I did know that he was an author however, and that he had written several books, but growing up I was always more impressed by the fact that he had written screenplays for the Alfred Hitchcock Show and I never really cared about his novels. I do remember once, when I was 13 or 14 years old, finding a book of his in my grandmother's study and trying to read it, but the first few pages bored me and I never tried again, until a few days ago.

On a recent trip to New Orleans to visit my parents, while going through a bunch of family photos, I happen to come across a picture of him and his young wife on the front porch of their house. He stood cooly, leaning against the rail with one hand, the other in his pocket, one foot crossed over the other in turn. And next to him, barefoot, wearing short shorts and a tank top, looking like a movie star, stood my grandmother Emma Carolyn (I knew her as Ecey and we were very close, truly a beautiful person). The image has stuck with me ever since for some reason. I think the reason is that deep down, I want to know the man in the picture, he's part of why I'm alive...I figured the best way to get to know him was to read what he wrote when he was alive as well.

So the other day I bought The Day the Century Ended, a book about a southern boy coming to terms with fighting in World World II, because not only was it his most famous (it was made into a movie), but also supposedly his most intimate. He had written it shortly after returning from the war himself (during which he befriended Norman Mailer come to find out) and the main character was widely thought to be based on him.

It was with this in mind I came across the above passage about the main character's first taste of home-brewed beer. I couldn't help but think it was, in some way, the retelling of my grandfather's first time tasting it. And for the first time I felt connected to my Grandfather Francis. I wholeheartedly agree with him when he says "...home-brew was and will remain the best drink ever made" and I will raise my glass to him every time I drink it from now on...

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