Quod Erat Demonstrandum
This happened in 1972.
I had finished my military service in 1970. Not so much finished as quit. I came later to believe that I made one of the more serious mistakes of my life by not staying in the army long enough to retire. But I did not. I quit after one hitch.
So did Ed Parsch, one of my army buddies. His hitch was up in 1971. Some time after that, at my invitation, he came to my place in Dunlap for an extended visit, bringing along this Sally somebody he had gathered along the way. Ed, in turn, with my approval, advised a few folks he knew that our place was open for their visits.
Thus it was that we were honored with a visit of a few days by a Greek chap from Brooklyn named Roman Tatchyn.
I don’t recall Roman saying much about himself, but my impression was that he was a highly intelligent, literate man. A quick glance at the internet finds a Roman Tatchyn who translates Ukrainian literature into English. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were the Roman I knew. In any case, Roman had never visited the South, nor Appalachia. Wanting to see as much of the local culture as possible, in a concentrated dose, Roman told me the main thing he wanted to see was a real redneck beer joint. I took him to the Mill.
* * *
Old Doc Standefer had kept a dairy herd on land lying along Coop’s Creek where the creek passes through the central ridge of the Sequatchie Valley to join the Sequatchie River. A milk house stood in the southwest corner of this acreage. It was at most thirty feet square. It had a slab floor and cinder block walls. There was no ceiling, just the exposed roof trusses. Good enough for cows.
The doctor died in 1956. The herd and land were sold. The milk house ended up in the possession of two Lockhart brothers. They made the little building into a feed mill, calling their business Dunlap Feed Mill, or just “the Mill”.
Agriculture in Dunlap was declining at that time and there was not enough feed demand to support another feed mill. The Lockharts therefore applied for a beer license, and, obtaining it, turned the feed mill into a beer joint. But it retained the name of “the Mill”. They also retained the physical plant with minimal modification. The beer joint still had slab floor and open rafters.
The Mill stood in the middle of a couple of acres of red clay, utterly slippery and sticky when it was wet. A parking area in front of the building had been covered with gravel, as had been a driveway to the nearest street.
The Mill carried a simple inventory. “Light” and other variants did not exist in those days. Brands were not numerous then. The choice was among Budweiser, Falstaff, Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, Sterling, maybe a few others. To keep things simple the Mill stocked only twelve ounce cans. There may have been a few snacks such as peanuts or potato chips. The only snacks I remember were pickled eggs and pickled pigs’ feet, without which a beer joint would hardly qualify as a beer joint, at least in East Tennessee.
The customer area had a few booths, a jukebox, and a couple of pinball machines. Beside the jukebox was a table with an electric skillet, oil, salt, pepper, meal. These were property of the clients, not the management. Many a night the boys would take up a collection, then send someone to buy chicken which would be fried right there in the bar.
Doors in the rear wall were labeled “men” and “women”. Going through the men’s door, one found oneself outdoors, behind the building, where one peed on an old piece of tin leaning against the wall. The women’s door led to a real restroom. I guess; I never went in there. But from the men’s room one at least could see that the women’s door led to a little cubicle of cinder block, about four feet by four, tacked onto the back of the building. On the wall inside, between the doors, was a poster showing a guy in a locker room, searching under the lockers, having turned his pockets inside out and emptied his locker into the floor. The caption: “It’s hell without money.”
Women rarely entered the Mill. It was a man’s place. Men will be men, and they will say a bad word from time to time. On the unusual occasions that a woman was in the bar, a bad word would be met with a sharp reprimand, “There’s a lady in the house.” The warning needed to be given only once. Cussin’ in front of a lady simply was not done.
Fightin’ was also not done in that bar. All the other bars in the county had at least occasional fights and cuttings. Not the Mill. It was understood that one came to the Mill to drink and enjoy the company. The Mill was remarkable, unique, in this aspect. Not that its clients didn’t fight. They did. But not at the Mill. Various tactics were used to avoid fights. One day I got a telephone call from the Mill advising me that a relation of mine was at the Mill, drunk and trying to start a fight. I went down there and just silently stood behind the man. Everybody else got silent too, until the troublemaker was the only one left speaking. Finally he turned and left, without me having spoken a word. I followed him home to be sure he got there, then went back to the Mill for a drink. The incident was never mentioned. But the boys’ increase of respect for me was palpable.
Well, hell, I guess I need to tell you the man was my daddy.
Behind the mill, a stone’s throw to the southeast, was the foot of Standefer Hill, the nearest knob of the ridge. There was a great gash in the side of this hill, maybe thirty feet wide and fifty high, where fill dirt had been excavated. Rising at a slope of something over one hundred per cent, the gash made a dandy ramp for motorcycles. At one time several of the boys had these and would while away an afternoon challenging this slope, trying to reach the flat place at the top, and if they reached it, trying to get back down in one piece.
In those days my rolling stock included a green 1950 Plymouth Deluxe (flathead six engine). It sported, for a front seat, the middle bench seat from a VW bus; the rear seat had been removed to make room for cargo. A rusted out floorboard assured good ventilation. Although I lived only three blocks from the Mill, I usually drove the Plymouth down there. I recall one afternoon when, after a little rain, I entered the Mill grounds on the muddy side and spun round in the mud several times, almost miring down before I straightened out and reached the gravel. To this day I can still see perfectly the happy grins of my audience, seated on a bench outside the door with their beers. As I stepped out of the Plymouth, one boy said, with a solemn nod, “Yuh like to a got sticked!”
The boys occasionally tried to get me to drive my car up the ramp, but I never did. I needed the car.
* * *
Roman, Ed, and I walked into the Mill maybe about seven o’clock, when it was almost dark and the boys had had a couple of hours to drink after getting off work. The bartender that night was Snake Lockhart. His left leg, amputated at the knee, had got to hurting him and, as was his habit, he had got his crutches, removed his prosthesis, and laid it, shoe and all, on the bar. The jukebox was juking, the air soaked with frying chicken.
We stopped in front of the bar and I hollered and said, “Lissen! This here feller is from New York City and he’s come all the way down here and wants to know what a real redneck beer joint is like.”
That’s all it took. Roman was in the center of the crowd for the next two hours. They would not let him buy a beer. They kept thrusting beers to him almost as fast as they thrust questions. For every question he answered Roman shot one back. I’ve never seen another scene like it. Roman was just bursting with questions about this rural, redneck, Appalachian culture he had stepped into. And the good ol’ boys were equally interested in the details of life in Brooklyn, and hung on Roman’s every word. The meeting was close, almost intimate, and serious. Everyone was cheerful, enthusiastic. But there were no jokes. Two fabled cultures had come face to face and each lapped up all the knowledge it could get about the other.
* * *
I left Dunlap a couple of years later and did not return until 1986, after an absence of twelve years. One of the first things I did was to visit the Mill.
But the Mill was not the Mill any more.
Actually, even when I frequented it in the seventies, the official name was “Corner Bar”. I asked Snake why they let go of such a classy name as Dunlap Feed Mill. He said it was because they were tired of receiving mail from mill equipment vendors. Maybe that was the real reason, maybe not. In any case the bar’s clients never dropped the old name.
But the building, the old milk house, was gone. The bar was located across the road in what had once been the farm manager’s house. Snake was gone, too. He had died, I don’t know of what. He was not that old of a man. But he was gone. His brother Lard carried on. A thoroughly decent man, but not Snake. Some of the ambience of the old Mill had depended on Snake, and some on the milk house. And the new Mill was not like the old one. It was not even on a corner any more, though the official name was still Corner Bar.
Snake was gone and the milk house was gone. So were nearly all of the men I used to drink with.
I think of Wheeler Swafford. We drank together often at the Mill.
Wheeler was old enough to be my father and then some. I was still in my twenties when I knew Wheeler. I have always tended to find an element of fatherliness in men say twenty-five years older than myself, just as I have looked to men say ten or fifteen years older as big brothers. For some reason, I don’t know why, I never related with Wheeler that way. We were equals. Always.
There came the night that Wheeler and I had a couple of beers at the Mill and he asked if I might like to come to his house. Said he had some good moonshine up there. We went.
The house was a trailer, nice and well kept on a nice well kept lot. There was a roofed slab porch with a utility room at the far left where Wheeler kept his tools. We went in the front door, got the jug, and then went out to the utility room where we sat down on the steps to drink.
Wheeler was a big man, a strong man. A rough man, one who would fight, or at least did a right smart of fighting when he was young. Even with some years on him he was a rough customer.
But on this night he was subdued. He eventually went into the house and came back with a framed picture. It was a picture of his wife.
Her picture radiated solidity, security, dignity. She had been Wheeler’s security. She had passed away a couple of years before. And Wheeler was alone.
Wheeler cried that night. He cried his heart out. He cried there with me on the steps that night. Thirty years later I feel the sorrow that flooded over that strong man that night, there on the steps with me.
Wheeler grieved until his own death. Everything that had meant life to him was bound up with his wife. He grieved until his strong heart finally lay down to rest.
There were others I missed. One or two had died. A few had toasted their livers. Others had married women who would cut up rough if a man came home drunk. There were new faces in their place. Faces of men I did not know.
Things come to an end. During my absence from Dunlap the Mill as I knew it had come to an end. The camaraderie, the fraternity. It was not there any more. Just as there are so many men I loved, at the Mill and elsewhere, not there any more.
The Mill was the second bar in my life where I had found a special fellowship with men. The first one was Mary Mazzacco’s bar on Halburton Street in Long Branch. I am still looking for the third.
* * *
Roman’s night too came to an end, a happy end. We left the bar about two hours after we arrived.
“Yuh leavin’?” yelled Snake as we approached the door.
“Wait a minnit. I got somethin’ I want tuh show yuh.”
Snake got his crutches and hobbled out, leading us to his old VW van, one of those with the double doors on the right side. He opened the unlocked door, reached in, lifted a rag, and handed Roman a sawed off double barreled 12 gauge shotgun.
“Know what this is?” he said.
Roman: “Well, it’s a gun.”
Snake: “It’s a widow maker.”
Roman: “A widow maker.”
Snake: “A widow maker.”
Roman thought on that a few moments, and then we thanked Snake and bade him goodnight.
As we walked to my car I said to Roman, “Well?”
He: “Q. E. D.”
© 2005 Joseph Mansfield