Mule Kick Moon­shine

Carl drove a flatbed truck through the woods to the dump on a Sat­ur­day after­noon. I rode shot­gun. He was the trash col­lec­tor for Acme Vis­i­ble Records. I was his assis­tant, work­ing a sum­mer job before return­ing to UVA.

We had already clocked four hours of over­time that morn­ing when Carl said we had to make the trip to the dump. Strange­ly, he insist­ed that we punch our time cards before we climbed in the truck.

Why clock out?” I said. “We’re still work­ing.”

In his six­ties, black hair swirled with gray, smile lines crin­kling around his crys­tal blue eyes, he pat­ted me on the shoul­der. “Just do like I say,” he said. I fol­lowed Carl’s direc­tion, but I wasn’t hap­py about it.

At the dump, Carl backed the truck up to a pit and we wres­tled bar­rels of trash to the rear of the flatbed to emp­ty them out. When we got back inside the cab, he reached under the seat and lift­ed a mason jar into his lap.

You ever had shine?” he asked me.

Look­ing at the jar war­i­ly, I under­stood then why we were off the clock. “No,” I said.

Fig­ured as much, you bein a preacher’s boy.” He unscrewed the lid, took a sip, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and hand­ed me the jar. “Mule Kick,” he said.

Clear as water, it gave off a faint sweet scent. I hes­i­tat­ed, wor­ried it wasn’t safe to drink.

Go ahead,” Carl said. “I made it. It’s good shine.”

I trust­ed Carl. I lift­ed the jar to my lips.

Go easy,” he said. “It’s pow­er­ful strong.”

I swal­lowed a tea­spoon­ful. It scorched my throat like hot can­dle wax and splashed fire in my bel­ly. At the cen­ter of my chin I felt a sting­ing sen­sa­tion. It divid­ed in two, rolled up the sides of both jaws, and explod­ed above my ears like twin mal­let blows to my tem­ples. I saw stars. When I could breathe again, I blew out hard.

Carl chuck­led. “That’s why I call it Mule Kick, boy.”

We each took anoth­er sip. It went down eas­i­er the sec­ond time, but not by much.

The trick with shine,” Carl said, “is to know when to stop. Best set her down now.” He screwed the lid on the jar and slid it under the seat.

You be care­ful next time you drink shine,” Carl said, as he drove us back to the plant. “A bad batch can kill you. Watch the man who made it. Make sure he sips it before you have a taste. He don’t drink it, you don’t drink it.”

Acme Vis­i­ble Records, Crozet

How to drink moon­shine wasn’t all I learned that sum­mer. Locat­ed on 60 acres along Three Notch’d Road in Crozet, Vir­ginia, Acme Vis­i­ble Records’ 600 work­ers made file cab­i­nets and print­ed busi­ness records. The Main­te­nance Depart­ment Man­ag­er was the best boss I ever had. A straight­for­ward plain-talk­er, he told me what he want­ed me to do and how he want­ed me to do it. When I screwed up, he was firm, but fair. I always knew where I stood. The exec­u­tives I worked with over the years that fol­lowed could have learned a lot from him.

He rotat­ed me through the depart­ment as a pinch hit­ter for employ­ees on vaca­tion. My last assign­ment was assist­ing the trash man, Carl. In the main room of the plant the press­es clacked away, print­ing cus­tomized busi­ness records. The press oper­a­tors dis­card­ed a lot of paper from bad runs. Carl and I had to clear it out of the way so the press­es could keep rolling. We tossed it into wheeled bins, rolled it back to a machine that scrunched it into bales, then hauled the bales out to the dock for recy­cling.

Slow it down, boy,” Carl said to me fifty times a day. “You’re workin us out of a job, run­nin around here like a race­horse.” Carl tar­ried at every press, social­iz­ing with the oper­a­tors, josh­ing with the men, flirt­ing with the women. “Good peo­ple work here,” he told me. “Friends and neigh­bors. We got time to say a few kind words. The trash ain’t goin nowhere.”

I wasn’t good at slow. I thought we were wast­ing time, and I won­dered why man­age­ment didn’t force Carl to move along. Years lat­er, I came to under­stand it. Carl’s job was one of the few that required inter­ac­tion with every­one. His social­iz­ing was part of the glue hold­ing the net­work of employ­ees togeth­er. Work­ing with large orga­ni­za­tions over the years, I learned the val­ue of glue, espe­cial­ly when times were tough and work pres­sures mount­ed. Man­age­ment at Acme Vis­i­ble knew Carl was good for morale. Besides, despite his mean­der­ing pace, he always got every­thing done by the end of his shift.

Way before the Zen phi­los­o­phy caught hold in the U.S., Carl was big on liv­ing in the moment. I was for­ev­er look­ing for­ward to the week­end, wish­ing it was Fri­day. Carl would shake his head and smile. “You’re wishin your life away, boy. Best to get the most out of what’s goin on right here, right now. Before you know it, you’ll be old like me, and you’ll wish you was back here on a Mon­day mornin, balin paper.” I didn’t believe him then. I do now.

Carl spent a lot of time school­ing me on how to get girls. Most of what he said can’t be repeat­ed in polite com­pa­ny, but one of his G‑rated lec­tures stuck with me. “Every girl’s got some­thin spe­cial,” he said, “pret­ty eyes or silky hair, a nice smile or how smart she is. Look for that part and tell her how spe­cial it is. You’ll be sur­prised how good it makes her feel because you might be the only one who ever told her.”

I put those words in Bil­ly Kirby’s mouth in my nov­el, Old Wounds to the Heart. By then, Carl’s max­im had proved to be true count­less times, not just for girls, but for every­one. Every­one has some­thing spe­cial, and all too often it goes unrec­og­nized and unmen­tioned. It helps to hear about it once in a while, and because of Carl, some­times I made some­one feel bet­ter with a few words of well-deserved praise.

Carl and I worked togeth­er fifty years ago. He’s passed on by now. Sad­ly, Acme Vis­i­ble Records has passed on, too. The com­put­er age ren­dered its hard-copy records obso­lete.

After the com­pa­ny closed its doors, the EPA found soil and ground-water con­t­a­m­i­nants in a lagoon where the plant had rout­ed its indus­tri­al waste­water. Site reme­di­a­tion began in 2011. The clean-up was still on-going last year.

I hope the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion is resolved suc­cess­ful­ly and that it doesn’t com­plete­ly over­shad­ow the company’s his­to­ry. It was a great place to work, and it pro­vid­ed a mid­dle class stan­dard of liv­ing to hun­dreds of peo­ple in the hol­lows and coves around Crozet and White Hall for a half cen­tu­ry.

Plant Demo­li­tion

Sum­mer jobs for stu­dents have all but died out now, too, I’m told. This is a shame. I learned more from sum­mer jobs than I did at UVA, invalu­able life lessons from peo­ple like Carl, one of the wis­est men I ever met.

On my last day at Acme Vis­i­ble, Carl and I walked out to the park­ing lot togeth­er. Stand­ing beside his pick­up truck, we shook hands. Those gen­tle blue eyes smiled. “Don’t ever for­get where you come from, boy.” He squeezed my shoul­der, climbed in his pick­up, and drove away.

Our paths nev­er crossed again, but Carl’s sage advice stayed with me. And I nev­er for­got.


Post Script: I changed Carl’s name for this piece, but some of my Vir­ginia friends may rec­og­nize him any­way. He was one of a kind.