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I CAN’T BELIEVE I: Drank moonshine

Published: Thursday, October 27, 2005

Updated: Monday, January 18, 2010 09:01


And on the eighth day, when God needed to rest, he created liquid evil and trapped it in a Mason jar.

There’s no way to explain, exactly, what possesses someone to stare down at a glass of moonshine – pure corn liquor made in an illegal still – and decide to put it in his body. But, two years ago, I did just that for the first time.

A friend of mine, a giant native Tennessean who never had much trouble drinking his own weight in the hard stuff, had turned 21 a few months earlier. A friend of ours – another Tennessean – brought him a large mason jar of clear liquid to mark the occasion.

“Is that what I think it is?” he asked.

“It’s from my granddaddy’s still,” she said. “Don’t worry – they test it.”

“Test it?” he said.

“Yeah,” she said. “They put a little bit in the lid there and set it on fire. If it turns green, it’s fine. If it turns blue it’ll kill you.”

Now that’s the kind of warning that would keep most anyone from ever opening the jar. Anyone but a giant, mischievous Tennessean, anyway. Still – his first taste was harsh and enough to keep the jar on a shelf for months afterward. By the time he decided to open it again I was a CA and he a Head Resident in another dorm at UNCG. We were celebrating a giant victory at the paper – which wasn’t uncommon. Sometimes just getting through the year at the paper feels like a triumph. But, as we sat in his on-campus apartment laughing at fate and deciding to toast our good fortune, he got that familiar glimmer in his eye. That glimmer that said clearly: “Oh, this is a terrible idea. It must be done.”

“I know what we’re doing!” he cried, leaping up and pulling the mason jar down from its hiding place. “We’re going to take a shot of this!”

Even as I shook my head he placed two large shot glasses down in front of us, loosening the lid of the jar. The sharp stench of ethanol crawled into our nostrils, burning our eyes a bit. After turning 21 myself I’d broken with a long-standing, self-imposed abstinence from all alcohol – but a few beers now and then was still the general rule. How had it suddenly come to this?

“Um…I really don’t know…” I whined.

“Oh come on,” he said. “We’re gonna do this. We’ve got to.”

Sometimes, when two young men are celebrating life’s small victories and feeling their own powers a bit too keenly, they find themselves giving over to recklessness without much of a fight. As champion drinker and borderline psychotic Ernest Hemingway once said: “Sometimes an intelligent man is forced to be drunk in order to be with his fools.”

So we both took up our glasses.

We looked at each other as we lifted them slowly, the way amateur skydivers must steal a glance at the man next to them, trying to figure out why this guy in front of them would do something so wreckless so that they can answer the question for themselves.

And then, suddenly, we were throwing it back.

Thin, dry, inexplicably tasteless – you can barely feel it in your mouth as it slips down your throat. For a moment, after it’s done, you wonder if you drank anything at all. And then, just as that false sense of security settles in the very stomach that moments earlier was alive with butterflies, your entire head catches fire. Your eyes, your nostrils, the very ends of your hair. Nothing so cold has ever burned you so incredibly – and though it lasts only a moment you’re sure, while it’s happening, that you’ll never be sane and whole again.

“This is it,” you think to yourself. “This is why there are so many men half-asleep on New York subway cars, their faces contorted into horrible masks of unimaginable agony as they gently piss themselves. This is how it happened – and I’m about to join them.”

And then, as quickly as it began, it’s over.

Until we took the next shot, of course.

Three shots later we were two very large, very stumbling young men for whom everything was hilarious and beautiful. It hadn’t been pleasant going down – but it was the three-minute equivalent of a night of heavy drinking.

I made my way home very carefully, sliding down stairs that seemed stable on my way up but now seemed to slip from under me each time I let them out from under-foot. I had something of the same problem with the sidewalks – but when I hit my bed it did just what I wanted it to. Laying on top of my sheets in my street clothes I felt like I was in the womb again – one of the best nights of sleep I’d ever had.

Until the next time we opened that jar, anyway… Editor’s note: No matter what color it turns when you set fire to it, moonshine is incredibly dangerous and highly illegal. If you’re underage avoid alcohol completely. If you’re over 21 stick to the legal stuff and drink responsibly.

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