From Moonshiner’s grandson to preacher


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I wrote this for a presentation, but they cancelled on me. Enjoy.

From Moonshiner’s grandson to preacher
By Bobby Neal Winters

Before I start talking, I recon it is only fair to let you know I am a United Methodist Lay Preacher. Notice that I say lay preacher instead of lay minister because if you say lay minister too fast it becomes lame minister, and while that might be true in my particular case, I don’t want to own up to it.

In any case, I am not here in that capacity. If I were, we’d have to stop at some point and pass around a plate, and I’m not going to do that. If one of you wants to, you can and I won’t stop you, but that’s just strictly up to you.

I am here in my capacity as a writer. A writer is not something I’d ever thought I’d be. I am a math teacher during the day, and it surprises a lot of folks that a math teacher could write, but in my particular case it all goes back to my up bringing. So if I tell you my story, it might help you understand.

The Keys to the Kingdom
The stories that we tell are links in a chain that connects us all the way back to the beginning of the world. If you are familiar with the Bible you can understand this better. When the authors of the Bible wanted you to understand something, they took you all the way back to the beginning. There were colorful people like Noah they talked about for a while, and then there were begetters that just pretty much lay around begetting.

There are a lot more of us begetters than there are of the colorful people.

When I tell my story, I’ve got to go back to Grampa Sam. His wife, my Grandma Winters, was the youngest of twelve children, only eight of whom survived to adulthood. Her family lived in Atoka County, Oklahoma, where they had moved from Arkansas some time after the War Between the States. She had married my Grampa Sam when she was only fifteen years old back in 1917. Her family always referred to this event as, “When Sam stole Lora,” and marked time by it.

Ray Ladd was one of Grandma’s brothers. He had children who were about the same age as hers were, and so the two families were close.

My Uncle Ray was deeply involved in Atoka County politics because he was a custodian at the County Courthouse.

Not everyone understands the power that a custodian has. They hold “the keys to the kingdom” as it were, and so must be trustworthy individuals, as Ray Ladd truly was, contrary to whatever you might think about what I am about to say.

Even though my Grampa Sam had stolen his little sister, Ray Ladd was still Sam’s friend. It was difficult not to be Grampa’s friend because he was a man of remarkable charm.

Had Grampa Sam been an educated man, he might have very have become a Senator, a Statesman, or a diplomat, because he was an affable fellow who had an easy way of working with people and could form a consensus within a diverse group.

Grampa also had a knack for “thinking out of the box,” as they would put it these days, and was not a person to be constrained by the limits of society. He was a man who had a dream, and that dream was to start a moonshine operation. In order to achieve this, he assembled a team of experts like in The Great Escape or Ocean’s Eleven.

He got his brother, whose name was Tunce, to be in charge of production since Tunce knew how to make good whiskey, and he recruited a number of other members of the family and trusted family friends for various other positions in the operation, until everything was ready except for one major item. They had no still.

While it is possible to make your own still, it was not in my Grampa’s nature to do something himself when it could be obtained as a favor from a relative.

They say that the Chinese ideogram for “problem” also means “opportunity.” I’ve got to wonder if it also stands for “kinfolks.” Whatever the case, Grampa’s solution was to call upon Ray Ladd.

As I have said, Ray had the keys to the courthouse. Those keys opened every door in the building including the door to the basement wherein were kept the whiskey stills that had be confiscated by the County Sheriff.

Ray arranged it so Grampa could borrow the still for an extended period of time. This was done in the middle of the night so as not to unnecessarily disturb any of the diligent folks—like the sheriff or his deputies—who also worked at the courthouse.

It would have been wrong to bother our hard working public servants.

With the still secured, the production of moonshine could commence, and it would have commenced except for another problem.

In operations such as these, I am sure you understand that secrecy is of paramount importance. Grampa was counting on secrecy being maintained through what the sociologist call Close-knit, family networks.

The problem was that Grampa’s brother, Tunce, had shown up on the night when production was to begin, with a friend of his that no one else knew.

It turned out that “Tunce” didn’t know him all that well either. While making friends is usually a good thing, establishing and nurturing close relationships takes time, and in this case there was no time, because the stranger had some friends of his own that showed up later in the evening and appropriated the “borrowed” still for themselves.

This would have been a devastating mental blow for most men, but not for Grampa Sam, and it is what happened next that marks my grandfather as having had the makings of greatness. Rather than resorting to violence or just giving up, Grampa Sam had the sheriff arrest these folks.

“I bet you didn’t think I could do that, did you, boys,” he said through the bars when he visited them in jail.

There is a word for what my Grampa had, and that word is “brass.” Subsequent generations of my family have not been as gifted with this attribute as he was. We are all begetters, but I make no apology, because there was only one Sam Winters.

The Battle of Grampa’s Barn
Sam did not limit his contact with whiskey to simply making it. He did like to have a taste now and then. This wasn’t a problem when he was off working in the oilfield, but when he retired, there was a complication.

Grandma Winters did not allow any alcoholic beverages into her house. That is absolutely essential to understanding that which follows.

Grandma had walked the aisle and was saved when she was the seventeen-year-old mother of one-year-old twins and after that time was as loyal a Baptist as ever could be. That meant no alcohol. While she had not always been able to enforce the “no alcohol” rule in her home, by the time I came along that power had grown whiskers on it.

Though Grandma did share the house with my Grampa Sam, “share” would be the strongest word that I would want to use. Some word that had the barest scent of “tolerate” about it would be better.

It was her house, and Sam was allotted a room called the Front Porch. It had originally been a porch when the two oilfield shacks that constituted the house were nailed together, but it had at some point been made into a room. Three walls had been added to seal it off from the elements, and two of those walls were full of windows from the middle all the way to the ceiling. It was a bright and airy room as they say.

Half of the room was a breakfast nook though nobody in the family knew what a breakfast nook was. It held a table and Grampa’s snuff cabinet. The other half was a visiting area that had chairs and a twin bed. This was where my Grampa Sam slept. The significance of that fact eluded me as a child.

Grampa’s access to the rest of the house was strictly limited to the bathroom and a gun cabinet that was kept in one of the interior bedrooms; however most of the outdoors were ceded to him. The garden was sort of a DMZ. He tilled it, and Grandma gathered what grew. On the other hand, the lawn was an area of forced labor, but the shade under the pecan tree there in the lawn was what you might call a peace village.

In those days much of our lives during the summer were spent in the out-of-doors. As difficult as it might be to imagine during this time of air-conditioning, being outdoors when there was breeze was much more pleasant than sweltering inside. Grampa’s pecan tree was a place where he entertained during the summer. He sat there and visited the various local characters that came by; there was no shortage of those.

He shared iced water, iced tea, and iced milk with them. If a guest ever wanted anything stronger, a trip to the barn was required. Grandma had the house, but the barn was all Grampa’s.

Even though it was in the outdoors and undeniably Grampa’s territory, Grandma’s prohibition theoretically extended over the barn as well as the house. Theoretically, that is. Sometimes enforcement can be a problem. Andrew Jackson is quoted as saying in reference to a Supreme Court decision that he didn’t like, “The court has made its decision. Now let them enforce it.” Grampa was cut from the same cloth as the late President Jackson.

As we know, skirting authority requires stealth, and Grampa had learned that art in that earlier portion of his life when he had briefly been the CEO of a moonshine still. Recall I said his younger brother Tunce made good whiskey, and Tunce’s premature death from hepatitis would seem to attest to this. We may speculate that Grampa possibly acquired a trick or two from him, by osmosis, if nothing else.

Once my cousin Jim Burnett was down at the barn, when Grampa asked him, “Would you like a drink?”

Jim understood drink to mean whiskey and answered, “Yes.”

Grampa reached into a sack of Sevin dust, which Sam used to keep bugs off the tomatoes, fished out a fifth of whiskey, blew most of the dust from it, took a swig, and then offered the bottle to Jim.

Jim, who was well aware that Sevin dust is an effective insecticide, asked, “Isn’t that stuff poison, Granddad?”

“Aw, it won’t hurt a man,” was the reply.

A life worth living is not without certain risks.

Grampa Sam passed quietly away on September 3, 1971 at the age of 77. After the funeral, the sons, sons-in-law, and older grandsons gathered at the barn to share memories. They found a huge pile of Coors cans, concealed under a pile of brush.

The truth dawned upon them that Grampa drank hot Coors. As one who has no great fondness for Coors, even when it is ice-cold, the thought of drinking it hot makes me shudder. It would be much more similar to a liquid after the kidneys have processed it than before. A man capable of drinking hot Coors is capable of much, both Good and Evil. Maybe we are lucky he was never a Senator or diplomat.

A few years ago, my brother was digging through the barn and found a half-full bottle of bourbon. It has to be at least thirty years old, but whether it has aged well is unknown. It has too many mysterious precipitates in it for any of Grampa’s much less adventuresome grandsons to chance a sip.

Perhaps in another time, Grampa Sam could have been a great military leader like Andrew Jackson, but instead of winning the Battle of New Orleans, Grampa spent his time fighting the Battle of the Barn.
Running from big dogs
By the time I came along, Grampa was getting older, and Grandma’s point of view was gaining more sway. She kept us all in line on the religious end.

So it is no secret, nor should it be, that I was raised as a Southern Baptist. It is a part of what I am, and I am proud of it, but now I am a member of the United Methodist Church.

My move was not caused by any great theological epiphany but by marriage to a Presbyterian. Those of you who are theologically savvy know that Southern Baptist and Presbyterian do not average out to United Methodist, but these things rarely make theological or mathematical sense.

I suspect that my wife and I chose the United Methodist Church because there was a Methodist Church in my hometown, and I was comfortable with the idea.

In any case, finding all of the differences between my former tradition and my new one has required a number of years. One of the big differences has been that of focus.

The Southern Baptists focus on evangelism, the spreading of the Good News, while the United Methodists focus on outreach, the spreading of Good Works. These are each noble aims, and yet I think that all parties would agree that neither should be practiced to the complete exclusion of the other.

As Methodists, my children are involved in projects that emphasize the importance of service to one’s fellow man, but as a boy I was involved the down-and-dirty business of evangelism.

My family’s church, the Fittstown Baptist Church, had revivals just like every other Baptist Church in existence. In my opinion, we had them with alarming frequency, but in fact, there were only a couple of them a year. Every member of the church was encouraged to invite friends, and there were organized efforts to invite people we didn’t even know. This included, of course, people from other churches.

On one occasion the youth group was mobilized to go around to houses and hand out tracts. These awkward, occasionally pious young people from the backwoods were divided into teams, and each team was assigned a different portion of the Fittstown community in order to seek out those who might need to be revived.

To understand the process fully, one must know that our community was very rural. Fittstown itself could only boast a couple of hundred souls, but there were hundreds of others out in the outlying rural areas in ranch houses or trailers who were ripe to receive the Good News.

Fittstown is an old oilfield town and is located in what is known to geologists as the Fittstown Graben. In case you don’t know, a graben is a geological feature that is bounded by faults. The Fittstown Graben was bounded by faults on both the north and the south.

The much larger town of Ada is a few miles north of the northern fault, and the churches in Ada are able offer services that a small town church cannot, and consequently the Baptists there could attract the folks who lived north of that boundary better than the Fittstown Baptists could. On the other hand the only towns in close proximity to the southern fault are Pontotoc and Connerville, and they are small even in comparison to Fittstown. Fittstown Baptist had a shot at attracting those people.

My faction of the youth group was assigned to canvas the houses to the south and east of Fittstown and hand out our literature to the residents.

The pastor drove the car. The usual routine was to pull into the driveway, whereupon one of us youth would hop out, run to the front door, knock, and when it was open say, “I hope that you can come to our ree-Vive-vall!” We would then handout the tract that contained all of the pertinent information and run back to the car.

We took turns at this. In that neck of the woods, people think nothing of driving up to your house unannounced and knocking on your door. If you didn’t want to be disturbed, people figure that you would just get a bad dog, a shotgun, or something.

Our evangelizing took us farther and farther a field, and we continued south until we crossed over the southern boundary of the graben. This took us up what folks around there call “The Mountain.”

The Mountain is not easily recognized as such by anyone who has been to the Rockies, but there is a bona fide fault line there, and the elevation does rise about two hundred feet. The first home on the other side of the mountain belonged to the Wigglys. It was my turn, and I was anxious to do my bit to spread the Good News.

The Wigglys were well known and respected within the community, but they were Methodists and, in hindsight, perhaps not prime targets for evangelism. However, as I said before, we did not discriminate on account of religion. Besides, the local Methodists liked coming to our revivals for some reason, perhaps because they didn’t have any of their own.

When we pulled into the Wigglys’ drive, I jumped out of the car, ran down the walk, but I did not get to knock on the door or say my line because I was greeted by a humongous, black dog who ran around from the back of the house barking ferociously.

As you might imagine, this took me somewhat by surprise. I had no time for fight or flight and resolved the dilemma by bursting into tears.

The dog was not affected by my show of emotion and began to eat me, beginning with the wrist. Before the beast could actually break the skin, Mr. Wiggly ran out from behind the house—he was back there doing Good Works, I suppose—and pulled his dog off me. At which point I handed him the tract, which was dripping with dog drool by now, and sputtered out between sobs, “I hope you can come to our ree-Vive-vall!” I then ran back to the car.

The dog did not follow. It must have taken him a while to get the taste of young Baptist out of his mouth.

I seem to recall that the Wigglys did come to that revival. I hope that they enjoyed it. For my part, I was a martyr for the Lord and stored up some treasure in heaven, no doubt.
Parking lot of the damned
My days as a Baptist are behind me now, although anytime I get a little carried away with my preaching some of my Methodist brothers and sisters will accuse of being a Baptist. I’ve been certified as a United Methodist Lay Preacher and take part in Methodist activities. For instance, there was a United Methodist Men’s day up a the ballpark in Kansas City.

Let me begin my account of that by apologizing. The following narrative is confused in certain points of detail and order, but that, as you will see, is more appropriate than a well organized account would be. Lest you at some point become apprehensive, be assured that it does end happily and in good humor because of the tremendous amount of grace bestowed by all of the parties involved.


On the other hand, in spite of the harmonious conclusion, the events serve more as an object lesson than as a pattern to be followed.

As I said, the story begins with my church’s plans to attend United Methodists’ Night at the Kansas City Royals. This is an event sponsored by the United Methodist Men. Included in the package was a tailgate party that featured free hotdogs, pop, and chips.

This is a stroke of genius on the part of the Methodist Men, as it is well-known that a Methodist will willingly wade fire to get a free hotdog.

Having been raised as a Southern Baptist, I am perhaps more attuned to differences in theology than others would be. When I switched from being a Baptist, I had to get used to the notion of baptism by sprinkling of infants instead of the total immersion of adults.

And as I said before, the Methodists also put more emphasis on good works rather than seeking out the lost and saving souls and are much more soft sell in their evangelism than are the Baptist. A free hotdog is about as bold as it gets.

Because of traffic, we arrived at the tailgate party a bit later than we might have and only had a half hour in which to luxuriate in the nearly mystical pleasure of free food. Then the time came to make our way to the game. At this point, a couple of events happen that are important to that which comes later, and the story will be confusing enough when we get there.

It was remarked that there appeared to be some parking spaces that were closer than those which were so thoughtfully procured for us by the United Methodists Men, and since out of the ten people in our van there were six that were over the age of sixty, it was suggested that we should try for a closer spot.

This made an incredible amount of sense at the time, as there seemed to be plenty of spots that were closer. However, one of the retired couples—Harold and Alice, remember their names—that was riding with us had finished their hotdogs a bit early and decided that they should go get their seats in time for the national anthem. I remember thinking at the time that someone should have told them that we had moved the car; however, I never quite grasped the notion that the someone should be me.

We arrived at the new parking spot that was a quarter of a mile from the original one and perhaps ten feet closer to the ballpark and trekked to our seats. Upon coming to the appropriate level of the ballpark, there was a seemingly minor occurrence that played, I believe, and important part in the sequel. We had entered on the west side of the stadium and had oriented ourselves with respect to our new parking spot from there. However, upon entering the stadium we discovered that our seats were on the south side of the stadium and had to move away from the point where we had entered the stadium.

The entire game was played with only one event occurring that is important to the rest of the story, and that is an explosion of ketchup. I was sitting in my seat, enjoying the game, when I was splattered with ketchup from behind. I do not know that it was an accident, but I would hate to think that one of my fellow Methodists, who filled the section in which we were seated, would have splattered me with ketchup on purpose. Perhaps some Satanists had infiltrated our ranks. In any case, I was marked on my back, and there was glob in my hair that was too big to remove completely.

The game ended, there was a firework show, and when it was over, we all began to pour out of the ballpark. Almost immediately, there was a loud crack of lightening, and rain began to fall. The raindrops were approximately the size of ping-pong balls and soon the occasional piece of hail joined them. By this point, the crush of the crowd had separated four of us from the rest of the group.

As I pointed out earlier, we came out of the stadium on a different side than we had entered and so were somewhat disoriented. This was compounded by the fact that the ramp on which we exited the stadium spiraled. In short, it took us a while to get our bearings. In the meantime, the rain had soaked us, and the ketchup in my hair was beginning to run down my forehead and into my eyes. The result was that I decided to let the folks who weren’t with us take care of themselves. The fact I had done the driving on the way up and still had the keys to the van undoubtedly played a part in this decision.

The parking lot was the scene of much confusion. Thirty thousand people were trying to make an exit at the same time. Hail was bouncing off cars, the ground, and baseball fans. The parking lot was littered with brown paper sacks filled with empty beer bottles; here and there wandering around were the people who emptied them. In short, it was like something out of the Book of Revelation or Dante’s Inferno. There was much incentive to push toward the van, so we oriented ourselves and did just that.

At this point, I was a man with hope—but not much faith or charity. This hope was that we would find someone else at the van when we got there. Mainly I hoped that a married couple from our group named Ted and Patsy would be there. I had good reason to nurture this hope because Ted and Patsy are retirees who have been involved with the Explorer Scouts for many, many years and have also been in charge of my church’s Appalachian Service Project as long as anyone can remember.

However, this hope proved to be in vain because we four were the first to arrive. Those to be saved from the darkness of the parking lot consisted of my 15-year-old daughter, my daughter’s friend, her friend’s aunt, and me.

I had a lot of things on my mind that needed sorting out. One of these was the emergence from memory of the fact that I had never told Harold and Alice that we had changed our parking spot. In addition a fantasy born of hope began to fill my mind.

While our group was walking from the van to the ballpark, one of the security people had noticed that one of us—Chet—was walking with a cane and suggested that we could pick him up at the curb on the way out. Pastor Tom had said that was a good idea, and I had agreed.

Upon this airy foundation, I erected the idea that Pastor Tom had gathered all of the remaining members of the group together under his pastoral wings, and they were waiting at the exact spot where the security man had made the suggestion.

I shared this fantasy with the group. At this point, Trish, who is the daughter’s-friend’s-aunt, made an incredibly intelligent suggestion, “Let’s wait until Ted and Patsy get here.”

However, when the traffic cleared out somewhat, the Baptist came out in me. I asked Trish if we had given Ted and Patsy long enough to find us, she agreed, and we set off in the pursuit of my fantasy.

At that very moment, unknown to me, Ted and Patsy had drawn into visual range of the vehicle. They were not only as astute as we had believed, but even more so as they had stopped to avail themselves of the public restrooms before leaving the ballpark. (The rain was beginning to have an effect on some of us who’d had less foresight.)

So just as their salvation was in sight, it began moving away from them. They began pursuing the van like a pair of Neolithic hunters would a wounded mammoth. Whenever they drew close enough to yell, the traffic would allow us to move forward. With complete ignorance, we were running away from two of the lost people we wished to save.

We were at the point of leaving the section of the lot in which we were parked, when I looked out and saw Alice—without Harold—riding on a golf cart with a security man. I screamed, “Alice!” out the window. She stopped the cart and entered into the Noah’s arc of our van.

I imagine that Ted and Patsy were getting pretty winded by now, so much so that they couldn’t yell. And it breaks my heart to imagine their disappointment when our van grew smaller and smaller and disappeared into the darkness where Alice had informed us that Harold was still waiting.

We picked up Harold, and I modified my fantasy in which now Pastor Tom, Chet, Ted, and Patsy would be standing at the very spot where the security man had made his remark.

Little did I know that Ted and Patsy were now working their way back toward the stadium in the dark, having lost hope in ever catching us, and probably making plans to build a fire and spend the night.

We made for the stadium and came to the point where, in my fantasy, there would be our four lost comrades patiently waiting for their salvation. Indeed, there was a group of exactly four there, and they seemed to be waiting quite patiently. They seemed to not even be moving. Indeed, it would have been shocking if they had been moving because they were in fact statues. Given the earlier density of humans around the ballpark, there was a shocking lack of real people anywhere near that corner.

My fantasy shattered like a stained-glass window that just had a wrecking ball go through it. However, hope was not dead. Here and there were groups of humans who where huddled together against the storm. We began seeking for our lost sheep amongst them, but they were not there to be found.

What had already been a long night was beginning to look as if it might be a very long night when a security man stopped us.

“Are you looking for some church people?” he asked.

“Yes, yes we are,” I said. My emotions are difficult to describe at this point. A hope that has been squashed does not so readily present itself for squashing again.

“Well, we’ve got a couple for you that are waiting by the glassed in area,” he said.

At that point, I heard a voice call out, “There’s Patsy!”

Sure enough I looked up, and there she came. I suppose we had paused in our travels long enough for her to find us. When she got into the van, she told us that she had been pursuing us for some time. Ted was back at a tent that had been left over from someone’s tailgate party. Therefore, presumably, the church people by the glassed-in area were our remaining two lost brethren. We picked up Ted and doubled back toward the glassed-in area.

Before we got there, we saw Pastor Tom coming toward us. After we picked him up, he directed us to where Chet was waiting. After we picked him up, all of the lost had been found, and so we made our way home.

(Bobby Winters is a professor of mathematics, writer, and lay speaker. You may visit his website a .)
What a story! I'm glad I'm not the only one comfortable with metabilizing warm beer, and thinking nothing of it (my poison is Stroh's from Detroit).

Ya know, moonshiners and preachers aren't that far off from eachother. Both take a kind of pride in their work (reputations are at stake, county wide). Both know what works and what doesn't. Both figure out how to keep 'em coming back for more, and both insist that what they sell is pure as gold...

Usually, both keep it "honest". ;)

But I will tell you, your writing is smartly done. My English teacher once told me "If you want an audience, you must catch their attention within the first ten seconds of their reading, or you've lost them..."

You caught my attention within about eight...:D