Growing up in the country off Jericho Road in La Grange Kentucky, most of my teen years were spent working on one of my great uncle Johnny’s two farms. He fought a constant battle trying to find enough people to cut tobacco or bale the hay. Often he put ads in the local newspaper and even then he had trouble finding good help though he was paying more than the minimum wage.
During one sultry summer there was an elderly gentleman who showed up to hoe tobacco. When I say elderly, keep in mind he might’ve only been 40 or 50 years old. But to my teenage brain that was border line ancient. During the lunch hour he seemed never to eat and spent most of our breaks napping.
I remember a day he looked terrible. His face was pale despite the sun which turned my skin brown and tremors ran through his hands anytime he stopped to wipe his brow from sweat.
About midway through the afternoon the man was not doing much work and Johnny asked me if I would drive him home. I replied I would. As the day wore on he appeared to be sick and getting worse and I figured the poor guy needed a break.
On the way to town the old man thanked me and asked, “Do you mind if we make a stop to pick up some medicine. “I said sure, but when I started to pull into Heads Rexall drugstore, he said, “No, not here, keep moving.”
His directions led us to a house in what the locals called “The Bottom”, because it sat at the bottom of a hill on highway 53 north of town. This was no ordinary home: this was the home of Betty Lou. Back then, Oldham County was a “dry” county. For those of you who don’t imbibe, this means you couldn’t buy alcohol anywhere in the county. Not legally, anyway. But alcohol could be found if you knew how to get to Betty Lou’s.
An elderly black woman in her late sixties, she kept a stash of beer, bourbon and whatever else you might be thirsty for under the hood of an old truck at the end of the driveway. Not only did the police not shut her down, the sheriff even bought his booze there with a wink and a nod.
When we pulled in the drive, the old man told me to stay in the car while he picked up his “medicine”. Now I knew why he had the shakes; he was suffering from DT’s. I might have been naïve, but I figured out what was going on. I come from a family where alcoholism ran rampant. My father and both brothers have fought the demon of the bottle and made it out the other side. It seemed the old man was battling his own liquid monster.
Betty Lou sat on the front porch with several young men and they watched the old man approach. It was hot enough to bake a cake on the sidewalk and I had the windows down, the radio up and paid little attention to the transaction until I heard shouting. I glanced up in time to see the old man ball up his fists and yell, “Me and my friend will kick all your asses if you don’t give me what I want.”
The group of young men all began to stare my way and I can tell you I rolled out of the car faster than a man running over hot coals, with both hands in the air saying, “We’re not going to kick anybody’s ass and he’s leaving.”
I had to drag the old man away from the house and toss him in the passenger side to keep the two of us from ending up in a hospital. If a fight broke out, the old man would be useless and I didn’t like my chances in a three on one brawl. I threw the car in reverse and hightailed it out of Betty Lou’s and back into town.
The story, as the old man told it once he stopped cussing, was he didn’t have any money and he wanted a bottle on credit. He wanted to know if I’d lend him the money until payday and I told him no. There was no way in Hell I was going to take him on a return trip to Betty Lou’s. I dropped him off at his place and it’s the last I ever saw of him. I now have to guess Johnny was tired of dealing with a drunk and fired him, but I can’t be sure.
What I am sure of is, from that point on, if anyone asked me to take them to pick up medicine, I made sure they were actually sick before agreeing to act as chauffeur.