Pubdate: Sun, 11 Dec 2005
Source: Winston-Salem Journal (NC)
Copyright: 2005 Piedmont Publishing Co. Inc.
Author: John Railey, Journal columist
Note: Letters from newspaper's circulation area receive publishing priority


They're still drinking moonshine. I don't mean they're still drinking
it right now, on Sunday morning, having never called an end to
Saturday night - although some folks might be.

But what I mean to say is that there are folks around here who never
quit making, selling and drinking moonshine, even now as suburbs and
asphalt cover acre after acre of tobacco fields and woods, and as
rural deputies spend more and more of their time chasing
methamphetamine makers.

You get a "moonshine reminder" every now and then if you read the Fire
and Police Briefs in the Journal. As on Nov. 18, when an item noted
that Troy Odell McElrath of the Tyro area of Davidson County had been
charged with possession of more than 24 gallons of "nontaxpaid
alcohol" - the legal term for moonshine.

"It ain't that big a deal," McElrath told me last week. "Hellfire. I'm
74 years old, and I've been drinking liquor all my life."

McElrath, who told me he did federal time in the late 1960s for
possession of a tank of moonshine he had stashed between two walls of
his house, sounds like a throwback to another era.

But that's not really the case. There's no longer an ocean of
moonshine around Northwest North Carolina, but there's at least a stream.

In the last year, officers have confiscated a few stills in Stokes,
Wilkes and Catawba counties. Much more often, they find the liquor
that was made in such stills. "I don't think it (moonshine) ever
left," said Mark Senter, the district supervisor for the state's
Alcohol Law Enforcement division. "Typically, it's your older crowd.
Oh, you get some younger ones. Usually, if it's your younger ones,
it's something that's been a family thing that's passed down to them."

There's some overlap of the moonshine and drug cultures, officers say.
Occasionally, they say, they'll find moonshine in a drug house. And
once in a while, they say, they'll find a father selling moonshine and
a son selling pot. That image supports a popular myth: that the same
families who once sold moonshine are now selling drugs.

But that's not necessarily the case, several law-enforcement officers
say. Some moonshiners always realized they were making a product that
the government allows if it's regulated and taxed, they say, whereas
that's not the case with drugs such as pot and coke. And officers say
many of the old-time moonshiners were a better class of people than
today's drug dealers - especially the meth makers proliferating across
the hills that were once moonshine country.

Not that moonshine is harmless. Get a hold of a bad batch, and it can
kill you. Not all moonshiners are above selling their product to those
under 21. This stuff has considerably more kick than beer or even many
types of legal liquor, so there's the real threat of car wrecks and
alcohol overdoses, especially for underage drinkers.

But even those problems pale in comparison to the ones brought on by
meth makers, who often convert their houses into drug labs where
chemical mixtures can explode, harming the makers' children, deputies
trying to make arrests and firefighters trying to squelch the
infernos. Meth users get addicted quickly, often leaving their
children to scrounge for food.

By contrast, Sheriff Connie Watson of Surry County said that some of
the moonshiners he came across in his work were among the first to
help the needy. "I know this is corny: You might say they were bad
from dealing with the liquor, but they weren't bad people as far as
robbing and roguing," he said.

You can't blame some law-enforcement officers if they almost seem
nostalgic for the days when moonshine and its not-so-bad guys were
their biggest problem. There might even be some officers who don't
really mind that there are still a few moonshiners around to remind
them of those days.
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