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Liquor, knives and holiday cheer

This is a true story. My grandfather, Charlie Grooms, was a South Carolina mill worker and house painter who never had much money. He was largely uneducated, but was smart and resourceful, always sharply dressed and carried himself with grace in the company of others. At least most of the time. If you messed with him, it could be a different story.

Charlie and my grandmother, Ollie, married young; he was 19, she 15. They grew up, as did everyone they knew, in a world of precious few ambiguities, where a man was either good or bad, and a woman was sweet or "mean as a snake" -- a hard, no-nonsense world in which the knife was as good a friend as the Bible, depending on the fight.

During the Depression, Charlie sometimes made extra cash working for Foster Short, Ollie's half-brother who had begun making bootleg whiskey after an injury forced him out of the mill. A week or so before Christmas 1933, Foster asked Charlie to deliver four jars of holiday moonshine to one of the town's leading doctors at the physician's downtown office. With his jars tucked into a paper bag, Charlie was a few blocks from the doctor's when he ran into Buck Ledford, a big, bad-tempered neighbor who, as always, was unshaven and sported a filthy black coat that had been gray years ago.

"Hey there, Charlie, where you headed?"

"I'm kind of in a hurry, Buck. Going over to Doc Clary's."

Ledford pointed to the bag under Charlie's arm. "Liquor?"


"Let's have a taste of it; Doc'll never know the difference."

"No, you know I can't do it. It ain't my liquor."

"Hell, he won't know. Let's take a little drink of it, Charlie."

"You don't know nothing about little drinks, Buck -- you guzzle, and you ain't guzzling this."

Ledford, a head taller than Charlie, became more threatening, moving in closer. "Dammit, Charlie, give me that liquor."

Ledford's fist hit my grandfather flush on his left temple, then struck the right.

"It felt like a mule's kick," Charlie explained years later, "but I needed the money from that delivery, or else it'd be a pretty sorry Christmas."

He carefully rested the bag on the grass. While fending off the bigger man's blows with his left arm, he reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a sharp pocketknife, opened it with a flick of a fingernail, and quickly cut a long gash under Ledford's chin, nearly ear to ear.

The big man recoiled, grabbing his wet neck. "You've killed me, Charlie, you've killed me!"

"Ah, it ain't that bad, I didn't cut the windpipe." Charlie grabbed Ledford by the arm and turned him around. "Come on."

"Where we goin'?" asked the bleeding man.

"I'm going to Dr. Clary's, and if I was you I'd go too. Here, take this handkerchief."

The two men moved quickly, Charlie cradling his jars of moonshine and Ledford, at Charlie's urging, holding the handkerchief to the front of his scarlet neck "to keep your jaw from just hanging there."

By the time the two men walked the four remaining blocks to Dr. Clary's office, Buck Ledford's shirt was a brilliant sheet of deep red. They climbed the front steps, opened the French doors, and walked through the sleepy waiting room. Heads turned, elbows nudged neighbors and mouths gasped, but the patients said nothing as the two men passed through. They walked up to the nurse's desk, but she had bolted to fetch the doctor as soon as she had seen them come in.

Dr. Clary, a thin, distinguished man of about 50, eased his way into the reception area. His eyebrows shot up.

"Godalmighty, Charlie, what's going on?"

Charlie kept his voice low. "You better fix up Ledford here," he said, almost whispering. "He tried to take your whiskey." He glanced at Buck and handed the doctor the paper bag holding the jars. Dr. Clary looked up at the staring patients in the waiting room, glanced into the bag, placed it on a shelf behind him, and told his nurse, "Mae, take this man to the second room and clean him up; I'll be there in a minute."

The nurse disappeared down the hall with Ledford, the doctor motioned to Charlie, and the two men stepped onto a glassed-in side porch. "Nobody needs to know about any of this, Charlie."

"I figured as much, Doc. I don't think Ledford'll say nothing, either, 'less he wants to go to jail for hitting me and trying to steal that liquor."

Both men chuckled. "Funny how things work out sometimes, isn't it?"

"I guess so."

"Well, I better get back to my patients." The doctor handed Charlie a few bills. "There's a little extra in there for you. I appreciate your discretion."

"OK, Doc, thank you. You want the usual in a couple of weeks?"

"Yeah, but maybe without the bloodshed next time." Both men chuckled again. The doctor turned to go, then looked back and said, "Tell Ollie and Floyd I said Merry Christmas, now."

"Same to you, Doc."

Charlie stepped down off the porch, into the fresh air, and started walking home, happy about the extra money, even though Ollie would probably give him hell for the bloodstains on his shirt.

Excerpted from a memoir the author has been working on forever.

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