I was extremely blessed to hear the stories from the old men of the community where I grew up. Stories of flaws, stories of moral failures, stories of squabbling and stupidity, those beautiful tales that confirm what wonderfully flawed creations we are. Gypsies, Indians, bear cages, hobos, strange people who kept to themselves who lived out in the woods, farmers trying to make their mortgage playing cards on the train from Garden City to Chicago, affairs, practical jokes, a doctor who died in prison, and a murder at local hotel and another in the Chinese laundry — the stories they told were the kind we seemingly don’t have time for in our modern 140-character, selfie social media age. They were always narratives told with a little homespun wisdom and a great deal of humor.
After hearing enough of these stories, the listener realizes that the only change is our mode of transportation. Over the years, I have particularly enjoyed hearing Prohibition stories. Prohibition was a 13-year period between 1920 and 1933 when the production, importation and transportation and sale of alcohol were illegal in the United States. It was a time when otherwise upstanding citizens routinely broke the law.
I remember the elderly woman telling of her husband coming home one evening and mentioning to her that he just saw the darnedest thing. A local man in his Model A came flying down the main street of town, followed a few blocks behind by county law enforcement officials in pursuit. The car had a few cases of hooch in the back.
Out of nowhere, the man dove out of the vehicle, right at his feet, and the car kept moving straight down the road. The man got up, dusted off his overalls, looked at her husband, shrugged his shoulders, and started running as fast as he could down one of the side streets. The police following him slammed on their breaks, stretching their vehicles to a halt, and then got a puzzled look on their faces, not knowing whether they should chase the young man or the driverless vehicle ahead of them.
I could tell stories about how the upstanding citizens of the community could not figure out how a local establishment’s god-awful barley soup for a nickel suddenly became extremely popular. It turns out it was basically a bowl of beer with some oats sprinkled on top.
Two of my favorite stories involve youngsters. It seems that even when parents or adults are engaged in tomfoolery, there are still kids that have the wherewithal to find entertainment and humor in it all and remain kids.
The first story. It seems one day two local residents decided it would a good idea to have a barrel of “medicinal tonic” shipped to them at the post office. The law enforcement officials that accompanied the train and sat inside the post office waiting to arrest whoever claimed the barrels would probably have disagreed with them.
After a couple of days, a couple of the local boys noticed two men lurking across the street from the post office. Secrets are almost impossible to keep in a small town. So, the kids put two and two together and figured out what was happening. The youngsters finally approached the two gentlemen, trying to remain inconspicuous. The oldest boy, who might have been 10 or 11, asked the two gentlemen how much would they give him if he got them the contents of their barrels.
The two men looked at the kids with disbelief. In their minds, there was no way possible anyone was going to get to those barrels. As long as the post office was open, the law enforcement officials were in the back of the building, trying to remain hidden, just waiting for the unlucky soul dumb enough to walk in the front door. At closing time, the doors were locked and the lawmen went to the nearby hotel to retire for the evening. There was no way they were ever going to see their “tonic.”
The boys repeated their proposition and asked for what they considered the outlandish sum of $7 a barrel. With a shot of rum or whiskey going for a quarter, this seemed like a good price to the men, especially because they doubted the two boys could outsmart the police or move the barrels by themselves. The oldest boy told them to meet behind main street the next morning and to have their money ready.
The boys then ran into the post office. As the older boy made small talk with the postmaster, he asked his brother to note where the barrels were precisely located, to count the footsteps off in his head. The lawmen paid no heed to the younger boy, as he appeared to be acting like any other kid would.
Borrowing their father’s woodworking hand drill and a couple of buckets, after their parents had gone to bed, the two boys snuck out of the house. Arriving at the post office, right near the watering trough for the horse, they crawled under the building. Thumping on the floor above them, they quickly found the barrels.
Asking his younger brother to have the first bucket ready, the older boy drilled through the floor right up into the bottom of the first barrel. The moment the contents began to drip through the hole in the floor planks the boy put the first bucket in place to catch the flow. When the bucket filled, the second bucket was put in its place and the younger brother was ordered to dump the alcohol into the nearby empty horse trough. This operation was done over and over again until barrels were emptied.
They spent the rest of the evening relaying the illegal liquid, bucket by bucket, into a couple of rain barrels in the alley. The next morning the two gentlemen were shocked to find that the two boys had lived up to their part of the bargain. They were so happy with the situation that they gladly handed the two boys their money.
Upon hearing the story, I remarked, “That could not have been hygienic. Did the boys ever feel bad about what they had done?” The old man who told me this story shook his head and remarked, “No, a lot of people must have gotten sick, because church that Sunday was overflowing with individuals that had not been seen there in years. They both figured they did something good for the Lord.”
The second story. It seems that people used to hide their liquor underneath bridges during the summer. It would have been a spot where the booze could have remained cool in the heat and hidden from prying eyes.
It seems one year that the local high school senior class decided to have a big party. As is the case in almost every era, older boys are often mean to younger boys. A few of the teenagers had been particularly hard on some kids in the younger grades.
Upon hearing about the upcoming party that was off-limits to them, a few of the younger boys went searching for their bullies’ liquor stash. After a bit of searching around, they found what they had been looking for under one of the bridges.
Pooling what little money they had, the youngsters ran to the general store and bought as many tins of Ex-Lax as they could. Returning to the bridge, the boys opened each and every bottle, dumped the laxative powder inside, resealed them, and placed the stockpile back where they found them, making sure it looked like they had never been disturbed.
That night, just as the party started, those younger boys went around and quietly nailed shut every outhouse door in the neighborhood. They then sat in the darkness and waited. You can probably surmise what happened next. All that is known for sure is the seniors never picked on the younger boys again.
Trevor Soderstrum is a Story City native who has been writing columns for about 10 years or so. He’s been all over the world, and attended the summer session of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He loves to share his stories.