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The Way it Was: More memories from the days of Prohibition

by John Straka Published: August 24, 2016 12:00 AM

Prohibition was the law of the land between 1920 and 1933. For me, that was between the ages of 3 and 16. I remember some things from those days. Seeing a man staggering along on his way home after having spent some time at the local tavern was a pitiful sight. Knowing that my uncle Ed died after drinking Lysol while in a drunken stupor is still a sad memory, because I liked my uncle Ed. He was my father's next oldest brother. Uncle Ed and my dad looked a lot like each other. After just a few drinks, Uncle Ed's personality changed from mild and likeable to mean and nasty.

I remember being at family weddings or aniversary parties where liquor was served like any other beverage, and before the evening was over there would be a fight that would scare the wits out of me. Dance halls that were open to the public were required to have a police officer present to control drunken patrons.

My dad wasn't like that. If he had a few drinks, he would lay down someplace and take a nap.

The need for laws prohibiting alcohol wasn't something new like a flu epidemic. Much of Europe had the same problem of people drinking too much and causing trouble. Here in the USA, there were organized movements opposing the sale of alcoholic beverages. There was the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and others, who held rallies and marches. Prohibition started with an amendment to the constitution of the United States. It was implemented by the Volstead Act that spelled out the details.

I remember watching a man on his way home from work. He must have stopped along the way to do some shopping and to have a few drinks. He was carrying a package of sausage links, with most of the links dragging along on the ground behind him.

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Andy was a friend who sometimes came over with his wife to play pinochle. I could tell how much he had already imbibed by how outrageously high he would bid.

Prohibition fueled a whole new industry known as bootlegging. Speakeasies flourished and "home brewed" alcoholic beverages were being made in almost every home on every street. Any attempt to control that was impossible. The "bad guys" far outnumbered the officers of the law. They had more money and found more ways to outwit the "good guys." Some of what went on was almost comical.

A speakeasy would advertise as being a coffeehouse. Drinks were served in coffee cups. Staff and customers used coffee related terms and the supposed effect was to make fun of the law. Some of those joints were very small and customers were limited to only close and trusted friends, relatives and neighbors. Their product was known as bathtub gin because they did not have the more sophisticated equipment used by higher class places. Others were more open, and in some cases, all a patron needed to do was to say, "Joe sent me," and he would be admitted.

Slivovitz is a kind of plum brandy associated with Slovenian culture. I remember seing crates of grapes ready for neighborhood Slovenians to make into wine. Other nationality groups made other drinks.

At our house, the only homemade beverage was root beer. Five gallons of warm water, 5 pounds of sugar, one (or maybe two) cakes of yeast, plus a bottle of extract, were bottled and capped. After several hours in the sun, the bottles were stored in our fruit cellar for a few days, and then, a few bottles at a time, chilled in the icebox. Satisfying, thirst quenching and just plain yummy!

I like this story about an alcoholic who was told by his doctor he must stop drinking or else. After many years of at least six drinks a day, he pleaded a sudden stop was cruel. So the doctor agreed to a deal -- one drink a day.

At his next appointment, the doctor could tell the patient had been drinking. He said, "Didn't we agree to only one drink a day?" To which the patient replied, "You're not the only doctor in town."

I believe my firsthand experience with Prohibition influenced my attitude toward alcoholic beverages.

I do not remember ever drinking whisky, except for one or two taste sips. It tasted very bad. On a very few special occasions, such as a New Year's Eve party, I would have a small glass of champagne. During a European riverboat cruise, my wife and I celebrated with a $12 glass of wine. We served Sangria to company for dinner and sometimes used it in hot tea to ease the congestion of a cold. My sister-in-law liked Port wine-it was her favorite.

My attitude toward alcohol is not at all like that of my long ago boss. Shortly after arriving at a wedding reception, his wife couldn't find him anywhere. When he finally showed up again, he said he had been standing near the entrance for awhile, no one offered him a drink, so he went across the street to a tavern and bought one. I hope it tasted like Beaujolais -- which to me tastes just like cough medicine.

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