To start: a mea culpa. It might be said, and often is by as wise and knowledgeable a person as my own sister, that I was a sinner in my youth.
Loathe as I am to admit it, it is so: I have sinned, I was a sinner, and as surely as I sit here today, I know that the devil has cleared a space for me in his infernal basement. Unluckily for him, dear reader, I've changed my unwholesome ways, and have since devoted my life to the unceasing pursuit of goodness and decency.
I will therefore relate this tale in the hopes that any younger people reading it will be edified by the experience. I have mellowed and softened (in the case of my midsection, quite literally) in my old age.
And, of course, I would no longer even consider committing such atrocities as I'm about to describe. And I would invite the reader to remember that the key to forgiveness is realizing you need it, and that asking for forgiveness, as I'm now doing, is it's own kind of holiness.
As I grew up, I bent the law a few times. For one, I delivered my newspapers on my motorcycle every morning for years without a driver's license. Brazenly, I even delivered a morning paper to the chief of police regularly. One day, on my sixteenth birthday, in fact, he met me that morning at his door. I handed him his paper, with an unctuously polite "good morning sir." He handed me a ticket.
And though it may go against the spirit of a mea culpa to appeal to genetics, I'll blame some of it on Pops.
My dear old dad was born in Canada to American parents. They never had prohibition in Canada, where any attempt to do so would surely have resulted in the complete overthrow of the government. They were altogether too wise for that. So on a few weekends of his own raucous adolescence, Pops would take a rickety truck along what came to be called the "Bootlegger Trail," delivering excellent Canadian Whisky from Lethbridge, Alberta to Great Falls, the latter being a city well-known for its own population of contemptible sinners.
In short, the Shelton family blood contains a strong entrepreneurial streak, and there's no denying biology. Like Pop, I saw the need, recognized the need, and filled the need.
As for me, I reckoned there was very little difference between THE Prohibition, the one that you capitalize, and the prohibition against drinking until the age of 21. Naturally, I was wrong about that, and I've since concluded that they should change the drinking age from 21 to 65.
At that time, though, I became known as the guy you asked if you and your friends needed a wee dram to stay warm of a winter's night. You see, I was the head salesman and parts manager at a motorcycle shop, and one of the mechanics was a rail-thin and pock-marked kid we called Schroeder because he hated his first name, Daryl. He was just the other side of 21, and I asked him if he'd be inclined to make a buck or two.
Here, then, was my dastardly plan: I'd slip him a twenty or so, tell him what to get, and he'd go to the store and get it. I tipped him handsomely, over and above his out-of-pocket expenses, and then cut him a key to the trunk of my car. He'd simply retrieve the Mogen David, Boons Farm, Hams, Olympia, or, God help me, Old Grand-Dad or Whaler's rum, and then, after rendezvousing at a pre-arranged and suitably discrete meeting place, pop the trunk of my car and set the ill-gotten goods inside. As I became more and more brazen, that meeting place would increasingly be the driveway of our house in town.
The supply was steady, secure, and always discreetly placed in my car. He kept receipts for my books. And thus, I had a trunk full of assorted (not so) fine spirits for each and every weekend. Not as well-stocked, perhaps, as say the local liquor store, but sure as hell good enough for the undiscerning 17-year-olds of Lewistown.
In those days, teens cruised the drag. This bizarre pubescent ritual seems to harken from the early days of the automobile - it involved carfuls of kids performing an endless circuit of the small town's main streets. I drove it too, though it was not, for me, a mere joy ride - I was there to do my dirty deeds - my "two-stop shop," as I glibly called it.
In a town that small, all of the cruisers knew all the other cruisers' rides by heart, and my old Rambler was a well-known fixture on Lewistown black-top.
Eventually, a car full of unrepentants would flag me down. I would flash my lights in acknowledgment and then drive to the parking lot of Buttrey's. They'd park alongside me, asking if I knew where they could get a bottle, say rum, or vodka, perhaps wine or a six-pack. This was stop one.
The answer was inevitably, invariably: no.
I would sigh deeply and tell them, wouldn't you know it, my buyer was out of town for the weekend, and though an alternate arrangement might be arrived at, it would be expensive, time-consuming, and risky. Not necessarily impossible, mind, but costly.
"How expensive," they would ask? I would cry about my increased costs because I would have to bribe some mysterious town official to make it happen, an utter falsehood unless you considered Daryl Schroeder as an official.
Somehow a fair price was settled on. The law of supply and demand always finds a fair price.
"If I flash my turn signal twice next time we pass on the drag, that means I've got something," I would tell them. Again I would reinforce the difficulty and the danger I was undertaking for their benefit.
I would disappear for 12-15 minutes, retrieve the order or something like it from the convenient cache stored in my trunk, and flash on the next pass. They would surreptitiously follow me, most likely back to Buttrey's. This was stop two of my two-stop shop.
It didn't take long to acquire clients.
The charges were high, given my assumption of the risk. They might garner a lesser charge if an order was placed early in the week, or considerably higher if I was flagged down on a Saturday night.
"Oh I don't know if I can find any this late at night... And it's a bear market afterall," I would say, having no idea what it meant but assuming it sounded impressive.
When that excuse was used, it always foretold a little premium on the price. But I wasn't unreasonably greedy; the amounts were always based on what the market would support. If you are speculative type, I trust you follow the eddies and whirlpools of my drift.
Example: A 6-pack of beer cost an average of $1.67 and sold for 10 bucks. Rum might fetch $15 etc. Back then a gallon of gas was 28 cents.
Somehow I never got caught. Well, until I did.
One Winter evening, as my family had just finished supper, my dad was settling back in his chair with a cigar and the day's paper. The dessert course (jello with bigs of pineapple and banana, if I remember correctly) was over, and my sister and I were arguing over whether James Arness or John Wayne would win in a shoot-out. I favored the Duke, myself.
A car drove up out front of our house, which I recognized immediately as Daryl Schroeder's 1952 Ford Mercury. All six feet and 130 pounds of Daryl, enrobed in a parka much too large for him, unfolded from his beat-up car and snuck up to the back of my Rambler, arms laden with boxes marked "Jim Beam."
Normally I parked my car on the other street. We lived on a corner lot, and if I had been in my regular spot, Pops would have been none the wiser. But on this particular day, Daryl opened up my trunk, placed a couple of large cardboard boxes inside, and shut it again in full view of Pops. Pop's mouth opened and his cigar fell out, rolling around on the linoleum for a moment while he stared out the window in disbelief.
"Did that little twerp just put boxes in your car? Why the hell does he have a key to your trunk?"
Busted at last! Thinking I'd fare better with Pops than with Mom, since she less likely to be swayed by what a well-designed grift I was running, I ushered him out the door.
As he peered into the trunk, trying to wrap his greying head around why my Rambler was full of Old Forester and Milwaukee beer, I fired the only salvo I had that might keep me from getting whupped.
I just casually said, "I'm only running the ole' bootlegger's trail, Pop."
He shook his head, but I thought I could detect the ghost of a grin on his face. "I guess the apple don't fall far from the tree."
When we went inside, Mom was already doing the dishes at the other window. She looked up and, blissfully unaware of the depths of iniquity to which the Shelton men were prey, asked, "what was that, Earl?"
"Nothing, dear," Dad said, fixing his cigar back between his teeth and returning to his newspaper with a chuckle.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.