Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Seventeen Miles to Mannington

The meeting was coming to an end. A panel of a half-dozen academics were arranged around a long oblong table and I stood at the end, behind a portable podium. They had asked me all the usual questions and there I was, uncomfortably waiting the official end of the interview.

“Say,” asked a pudgy guy who was trying to hide his bald head with an impressive comb-over, “what is that thing there that’s attached to your shirt pocket?

I looked down to find the only things there were a pen and pencil set, so I pulled them out to display, saying “uh, well, it’s a pen and pencil set, Lamay brand. To use, uh, for writing?” The room went loudly silent. It was an odd moment.

“Well, do you have any questions for us?” asked Search Committee Chair, a bald guy wearing a bow-tie.

“No, thanks, I think you’ve answered all of my questions.”

The group started to gather their papers and stood to leave. A burly guy at the end of the table then said, in words that would become emblematic of a tortured situation: “And Mannington is just seventeen miles to the South.” Another odd moment, but this one with reverberations.

It was 1988. I was offered and took the job at Madisonville Community College, not knowing that my workplace was situated in what was called a “dry county,” a place where no alcoholic beverages could be sold or purchased. There were no stores where citizens could purchase beer, wine or spirits and restaurants did not sell alcoholic drinks by the bottle or the glass. No matter what the local leaders mandated, I did not plan on being forced into sobriety. As I contemplated spending the next thirty years there, I took a little solace in knowing that Mannington, where booze and brews could be purchased, was only twenty-minutes to the south.

I quickly learned about a thriving business in bootlegged booze—that some of the locals picked up refreshments outside the County and resold them, at an inflated price. I was not fully moved to town yet, so back home in Lexington KY I loaded up on what I was drinking at the time, scotch, and beer, and stocked my abode. I also made it a habit to keep my home fully stocked with scotch and beer; I learned my lesson the hard way that it was an extreme pain to have to drive any distance when the liquor larder was bare.

With a few years after I settled in to my new job and the quirky community where I lived, the temperance issue came up for a vote. It had arisen twice before over the previous twenty years, and each time the preachers gave sermons about the evils of ‘demon rum,’ and cowed the community into leaving things zealously thirsty as was. This time there was a bit more approval from the economic development crowd, the restaurant owners and entrepreneurs who argued that it was difficult to attract new money in our town of under twenty thousand souls because most business people liked the idea of wining and dining clients, and felt they would lose to other ‘wetter’ places.

I thought their arguments were good, but that something different was needed, as the same arguments had been in play before to no avail. I decided to write a letter to the editor, and instead of depending on moral or financial reasoning, I aimed to praise the wonderfulness of drink.

Dear Madisonville Neighbors:

I write this to simply explain why I am in favor of making alcohol legal in our community. I understand the moral and religious objections, though I also recall that Jesus did not turn water into water—but that he gave his followers wine. Nobody wants drunkenness as a constant feature in our society, but an occasional drink does not cause inebriation and is not a ticket to Hell and eternal damnation. I also understand the economic arguments. We can’t attract business. Many people want to be able to have a beer with their burger, and going ‘wet’ would add to the tax coffers. If so, I imagine I will be paying instead of profiting, and I’m okay with that.

No, my argument is that beer is a tasty beverage, and that there is a great and enjoyable variety to sample. There is the nutty-brown ale that remind us of yeasty bread, the more sour pale ale called “bitter” at English pubs, the thick dark beer that is redolent of coffee and molasses, the light effervescent lager so airy and clean, the sweet Belgian style dessert beer, the airy-white wheat ale, the piney Scotch beer, sigh, the list goes on and within each category, exists a range of flavors and finishes to be admired. A good beer can be an aesthetic experience, like visiting a museum or listening to a symphony.

When I was young (too young to legally drink), a friend had managed to score a case of beer. He hid it in the woods that winter, covered with snow at the base of a tree, and when we opened a cold one, it was so freezing that it burned our throats a little, the icy liquid slowly warming our bellies, our ears turning red in the December breeze. When our Physics teacher learned of our transgression, he was only upset that we might have “bruised the beer” by letting it get too cold.

Our Commonwealth of Kentucky is culturally tied to our alcohol. We are world famous for our bourbon. Visit Louisville and one waiter will tell you that if you want to taste what the locals like, you need to tipple a little Old Pogue. If you visit William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak mansion in Oxford, Mississippi, you will see an empty bottle of Kentucky distilled Four Roses on display, one that had been rescued from the few dozen that littered the backyard. In central Kentucky there are a host of distilleries that provide tours. The Woodford Reserve folks hold delicious dinners with bourbon pairings. We are not being good citizens if we do not celebrate what our own people produce.

We have a wealth of wineries dotting the land, producing sweet wonderfulness from locally grown grapes. And of course there are the wines from California’s Napa Valley, as well as imports of Piesporter Michelsberg Qwalatäteswine mit Prädikat. There is Cabernet, both red and white, Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio, oaked and unoaked Chardonnay, Vouvray, Sherry, and Merlot, Zinfandel, and Sangria. Champaign. I want a glass of wine with dinner. Some say that a glass of wine can be good for our health, due to the vitamins and tannins and other fermented chemicals of joy. And moreover, they can taste amazing.

Some people eat (and drink) to live—no more and no less. Seems a sad waste of an opportunity to enjoy life. Maybe they don’t want or need any form of alcohol. For them, there is no great need to pass law making alcohol legal in our city. Do it for me then, because I live to eat, and drink, and can do so much better, can enjoy what God has provided, including wine or beer, if I can get it locally. You can enjoy these beverages, too, if they are more readily available than at present. Vote wet!

I don’t know how most of the newspaper’s readers reacted to my letter, but one of my colleagues took me aside and told me “oh, man, that letter made me thirsty!” Surprisingly, nobody hinted that I was a bad influence and was destined for Hell.

That year, 1992, the city voted to go ‘wet.’ I’m certain my letter did not make all the difference, but I like to think it influenced a few to see beer-wine-and-liquor in a more positive light. The ensuing regulations stipulated that alcohol couldn’t be sold within a hundred yards of a church or school, which severely limited where a store could be located. Initially, the local Police were hot on the lookout for drunk drivers, but that faded pretty quickly when it became clear that the problem was worse before the law had change. Back when desperately thirsty people got brewskies out of County, and drained them while driving home. Yep, making booze available locally actually reduced the problem of drunk driving. Moreover, it made life a little more tolerable for those of us who enjoy the array of flavors from fermented and distilled thirst-quenchers.

Like the rest of the state, we still contend with ‘blue laws’ which prohibit sale of all alcoholic beverages on Sundays. On the Sabbath He rested, but forgot to pour Himself a stiff one? The city recently began to loosen these restrictions, too.

I had a pretty good history of sampling single-malt scotches, having graduated from the peaty varieties to more subtle and balanced options, but since I was living in Kentucky it seemed fated that I would become more familiar with bourbons, and so have developed a very boozy habit of discriminating among them. I'm enjoying a new one right now. It’s infused with a subtle espresso-coffee flavor. I purchased it our local liquor store.

Scott D. Vander Ploeg, Ph. D., is an early-retired professor of English/Humanities, who was named Kentucky College Teacher-Of-The-Year in 2009.  He recorded 120 essays for a regional NPR affiliate in one decade, and later wrote a 100-article column about the arts and letters for a small-town newspaper.  He has published scholarly articles on Donne (dissertation subject), Milton, Shakespeare, Stoker, Mason, and the physics of fantasy magic, et al.  He was the Executive Director of the Kentucky Philological Association.  In his spare-time he is an amateur thespian, a jazz drummer, and a Sifu in Tai Chi.