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Short Story

THE JACK DANIELS FACTORY: FROM THE TALES OF THE TASH BROTHERS BAND, TRUE AND OTHERWISE (THIS ONE’S THE GOD’S HONEST!)

Bobby Dee’s big sister Sue (the late, great Susan D’Alessandro) tells him she’s got to use up a bunch of bonus air miles before they expire but she can’t possibly fly all over the place at the moment so she tells him “Here, go somewhere. Take Crespo.”

So that was that and we were off to Nashville. Not because we’re musicians and songwriters, which we are, but because we had a friend who lived there, a guy named Trey who was our drinking buddy in Captain Walter’s in Sheepshead Bay for a few years.

Coast Guard guy, stationed on a cool patrol boat with gigantic engines and machine guns on it in Roxbury, just over the Gil Hodges Bridge in Rockaway. Mid 80s maybe. Who remembers dates? It was a long time ago anyway, pre-internet and cell phone times.

Captain Walter’s was headquarters in those days for me and Bobby and Tony Burdo, the 3 ring leaders of The Tash Brothers Band, a fine saloon on Emmons Avenue. Trey and a few of his Coast Guard buddies were regulars, mostly Southern boys and pretty good people, lots of fun.

He had been discharged and back home in Tennessee for 5 years or so, married with a kid and working a salesman job, so it would be a good reunion.

Trey had a nice little house with a stream in the backyard, a pretty little wife and a cute 3 year old boy named Crosby Alonzo James IV, which is how I found out that Trey’s name was Crosby Alonzo James III. Trey had always been plenty good enough for me.

His kid liked the two Brooklyn guys named Bob visiting, and settled things by calling us Crespo and Bobby Dee, like most other people did. Beautiful child, reminded me of my own two guys before they morphed into teenaged pains in the ass.

His wife was a sweet young girl of maybe 22, old fashioned, very mannerly and a bit of a holy roller. She called Trey Daddy, and he called her Mama. She treated her guests like princes, mentioned Jesus a lot, and promised to remember us in her bedside prayers. She even taught me how to dowse one afternoon, finding underground water with a “witching stick,” and pronounced that I had “The Gift.” Never has come in handy in Brooklyn, but it’s good to know I have an inborn gift other than being a wiseass.

A lovely, gentle and genuine soul, not an ounce of mean in her. This was a new kind of person to me and Bobby. Our world was different.

We had planned to stay with them for a day or two and then get a hotel in town where we could raise proper hell, but they wouldn’t hear of it and insisted we spend the whole 5 days with them. We couldn’t say no to Little Mama, as we called her.

They were only 20 minutes from downtown Nashville and on the weekend we took the kid, they called him Skip, to an amusement park called Dolly Parton Land, which was loaded with great music shows and huge fiberglass sculptures of Dolly’s ample breasts as well as the regular rides and whatnot. We all had a blast, especially little Skip.

Then there was Nashville at night, highly recommended. Went to a lot of great clubs, saw some awesome musicians, and there seemed to be a virtuoso player doing his thing on every street corner: guitars, fiddles, mandolins, banjos, both solo and in every imaginable combination. Wicked, wicked players.

Great town. Our only disappointment was that both The Ryman Auditorium, which houses The Grand Ole Oprey, and Conway Twitty City were temporarily closed for renovations. I had never heard of Conway Twitty City before we drove by it and to this day wonder what the hell it was all about.

Then Bobby had the brainstorm to go to the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. In those days Jack Daniels was our favorite beverage. The Tash Brothers were all skilled and enthusiastic drinkers. Not that this is a wonderful virtue, mind you, but that’s how things stood then.

Bobby says we’re in Tennessee and who knows when we’ll be here again so let’s go to the source, or words to that effect. Bobby Dee, who at this point in his life, somewhere in our early 30s, had never held a steady job, was a master at finding interesting stuff to do in the daytime back in New York.

His partner in idleness was Tony, while I worked a day job, so I usually didn’t do those things like visiting the Jack Daniels Factory. But I figured I’m on vacation in Tennessee, what the hell, and off we went on a scenic two hour drive to the tiny hamlet of Lynchburg, Tennessee, population around 2,000, give or take.

And quite the tour it was, from the barrel yard where they charred the oak whiskey barrels by burning only selected hickory inside them, to the huge stainless steel vats of ice cold rotting corn mash that seared your nostrils with a sugary ammonia sting, to the machines that applied labels and swept the bottles up and down and around corners on tracks until they arrived at the whiskey spigots, where they were filled in an eyeblink, then wrapped by robot arms a dozen at a time in open-topped black and white cardboard boxes.

The open boxes then rolled down to a platform where the only hands-on work on the whole assembly line was done by a platoon of hairnetted, white-clad ladies with incredibly limber fingers who screwed the caps on each bottle by hand in no time at all. Odd. From there the boxes roll into a machine which wraps the caps with tax stamps and seals the cases and the hour-long tour is over.

Pretty impressive, you’re thinking, now to taste the product itself! So the tour guide ushers you into the reception room where you are offered complimentary drinks, all you could consume in the 15 allotted minutes. Hot damn, you’re thinking, glad I’m not driving! I still had the taste in my mouth from sniffing the giant vat and looked forward to putting myself outside of a decent amount of smooth Tennessee sipping whiskey.

Only thing is, the drink they offer in unlimited quantities is lemonade. Lynchburg, Tennessee, it seems, is a dry town in a dry county. Small wonder only 2,000 people live there. No alcoholic beverages may be sold or publicly served within county limits, so we settled for buying some Jack Daniels caps and T-shirts for our fellow corn whisky enthusiasts (drunks) back home.

There wasn’t anything for me to buy for my kids there, so we chugged a lemonade apiece (not bad) and ambled out. We found out later that it was general knowledge that Jack Daniels was manufactured in a dry county and served only lemonade, but that bit of trivia never reached me or Bobby Dee until presented with the harsh reality, and it would be a lie to say this wasn’t a sizable let down.

So, the three of us, (Little Mama didn’t want to visit a place that made whiskey, something she never touched herself but didn’t mind if the menfolk did in due moderation) Trey, Bobby and I got in the car and headed home, figuring we’d take some back roads, see what this part of the world looked like.

And sweet it was, a beautiful slice of America. We didn’t get far before we crossed the Moore County Line, and there we encountered a whole bunch of scenic wonders of the American South; roadhouses, every one of them doing a brisk trade in whiskey with disappointed visitors to the Jack Daniels Factory. These friendly outposts line every road leading out of Lynchburg, Tennessee.

This was apparently the unofficial (and best) part of the Jack Daniels tour and we had quite an enjoyable afternoon. I dig the hell out of ladies with a Southern drawl and they get a kick out of our Brooklyn accents, so a fine time was had by all in some joint with a funny name I can’t recall, only that it had a killer juke box and was filled with a lot of friendly souls.

Trey figured we didn’t want to meet any Tennessee State Troopers under adverse circumstances and get a poor impression of southern hospitality on our last day in Tennessee, so he insisted we eat something and swallow  lots of coffee before heading out. Sound advice.

Southern cooking is fabulous and the funny-named joint with the great music was no exception so we didn’t mind at all, sharing a table with some interesting people from Georgia and eating barbecue, biscuits smothered in honey, grits and po’boys, which I thought were a New Orleans thing but are a Southern thing.

Whatever, the food down south rocks and we made a long, lazy feast of it. Little Mama wasn’t so happy that we rolled home around 10 at night from a day trip, but was happy enough once she saw we weren’t plastered or anything, just old friends saying a fond farewell (Of course we didn’t mention the high-test reefer we had been smoking on the long drive or the LSD blotter tabs Bobby had been thoughtful enough to provide. In those days you could carry marijuana on a plane with little or no risk as long as you didn’t light up on board.).

She was a girl who made you wish you were a better person, like Melanie from “Gone With The Wind,” but real, and so you tried to be on your best behavior around her. Trey’s a lucky man and he knew it. Good for him.

Bobby and I left the next morning, flying from Nashville to Chicago before switching planes to New York, the reverse order of our trip down south. Seems that when you fly free on unused bonus miles you get to take some pretty convoluted detours.

In Chicago there was a huge rainstorm which caused us to wander around gigantic O’Hare Airport for three hours and then to sit in the second plane on the runway for another two hours, dying for a cigarette or a drink, which they don’t serve before you’re airborne.

Any thought of sneaking a smoke in the restroom went poof when a Rastafarian guy with long dreds from Brooklyn that we had met in an airport bar an hour or so earlier was dragged off the plane by police after his reefer blunt set off a smoke alarm (see disclaimer above), so we sat and waited while it rained a new Lake Michigan on the O’Hare runways.

Bobby had the window seat, and was fairly appalled when the plane started moving in the middle of what looked like a monsoon. He said he hoped we were only moving to another parking spot to wait out the storm or hopefully disembarking us for the duration so we could light up.

Then the captain announced that some storm front or other had lifted and that it was now perfectly safe to take off, although we should expect to experience “some significant turbulence” while we flew around the storm, so please keep your seat belts fastened until further notice. Off we shot down the runway, just as fast as jets do on perfectly dry runways.

I heard Bobby mutter an “Uh,oh” and an “Oh, shit” just as the plane lifted off, but I was feeling okay. I was the one with a fear of flying, not him, but for some strange reason, I had no worries on this flight, while he had plenty.

On the way to Nashville I had gotten drunk before flying, my usual M.O., and spent most of the flight not quite passed out enough to avoid the fear and sweating that you know damned well is completely unreasonable but can’t help having anyway. Stubborn things, phobias. Not on the way home, though.

Some flight it was, too. The plane bent, shivered, twisted and swayed as it flew through a hellacious storm, making a pretty impressive array of moans and groans and some ominous I’m-about-to-come-apart-at-the-seams metallic screams while numerous lighting bolts gave us terrifying peeks at the torrential rain blowing sideways.

A lot of barf bags got used on that flight, and some people openly wailed in fright when the plane shook like a towel that had been snapped by some giant hand. From my aisle seat I could see the floor of the plane undulating, writhing and twisting like that same hand was trying to wring the water out of the towel.

The plane held up just fine and eventually we were in glaring sunlight with an unbroken floor of clouds below us as far as the eye could see. Pretty fine piece of engineering, those old 707s. Almost everyone was audibly relieved but very shaken, and more than a few prayers of thanks could be heard.

Even Bobby Dee was a little queasy, and didn’t order any whiskey when the stewardess offered some once we were safely stable above the clouds. He was white as a ghost and uncharacteristically quiet.

Not me. I felt fine, and on the worst airplane flight I’ve ever experienced, my fear of flying left me completely. At least so far. No sense claiming otherwise with irrational fears, they could come back next time I board a plane. I say never say never. Actually, I never really say never say never, but think it from time to time.

Be that as it may, Bobby said that just proved how friggin’ crazy I am to be so happy-go-lucky on a flight that had everyone else on the plane making promises to God if He just let them live (presumably while the rest of us suffered a fiery death). But, to the best of my recollection, that’s exactly what happened on the way home from a fine old time in Tennessee with some very fine people.

I still think about southern girls who can turn the name Bob into a little three syllable song. Thanks for the miles, Sue. Came in handy in more ways than one.

If I was still a drinking man, this is the part of the program where I’d be hoisting a stiff glass of Jack Daniels to Sue Dee, Little Mama, Trey, Crosby Alonzo James IV and the State of Tennessee. Oh, and also to good old 9-toes Bobby Dee (another story for another time). Cheers, y’all.

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