Papa Was a Bootlegger

It was a Saturday night and Mama decided to pile us all into the old Plymouth and head off to the Starlight Drive-in to catch a movie. The Starlight was located right off the southbound 99 near Childs Avenue in Merced. I forget what time we made it back, but we were half asleep when Tio Boogie walked over to the car while we were parked in the driveway to tell us the news: "Papa was busted for bootlegging!"


Everyone in the family called my grandfather Augustine "Papa." He was born September 30, 1893, in Jacona, Michocan, Mexico. To me, Papa was always old. He'd be at all the family functions, eating, or sitting quietly, wearing his sweat-stained felt hat, blending into the wallpaper, almost invisible.

Sometimes I'd come home and find Papa asleep in sitting position on our living room sofa. I'd tiptoe by as quietly as possible because if I woke him up he'd jerk up angrily and cuss me out in Spanish. And if he was awake, he never smiled, he just looked at me like I was a bug. He was Mama's father, though, so I was always respectful.

The news of his bust shook our sleepy heads out of the clouds, especially Mama, whose face took on a frantic horror worthy of the spooky movie we had just seen. "Ay dios mio, what happened?" she asked, almost screaming. Right away, images of whiskey stills, organized crime, and G-Men flooded our senses. When you put the pieces together, though, such a thing happening to my harmless-looking, sixty-seven-year-old grandfather just didn't add up. Papa?

Papa looked like a homeless person as he scavenged through the alleys of Merced collecting bottles and cans in his beat-up wire cart with crooked wheels. He walked in a crouch, dressed in raggedy clothes, and wore thick Coke-bottle eyeglasses. Papa moved so slowly it took him thirty minutes to cover two city blocks.

Whatever hard living Papa may have experienced in his younger days, it had happened long before I was born. I'd heard stories from Mama or uncles and aunts that raised eyebrows, though. One was how he'd kidnapped Grandma Socorro from Mexico when she was thirteen and brought her to Merced. Other stories of his strict, sometimes violent behavior left severe resentment. When Grandma died in 1949, she made Mama promise not to bury Papa anywhere near her.

Despite whatever history he had, he was still Mama's father, and with the startling news of his arrest, the family went into panic mode. On March 23, 1961, the Merced Sun Star and the nearby Fresno Bee had front page stories on the scandal. One headline read: "Merced Man, 67, Blames Insomnia for Bootlegging." Next to the story was a picture of Papa sitting with both hands between his legs, while a detective knelt below him counting various-sized whiskey jars. Just below the picture was a small headline: "Homemade Hooch."

To say this was a total embarrassment to our family would be wrong. We were stunned, but our family was used to bad things happening, so it just added to the mix. Once the news of Papa's arrest sunk in, it became the scandalous hot topic of the week. There was something cool about having your grandfather arrested for running a whiskey still and having it splashed on the front page of the hometown newspaper. Eventually, the local police handed him over to the Feds. "Yeah," my brother said proudly, "Papa hit the big time."

Of course, we all felt bad that Papa was locked up and possibly headed to prison, especially since Mama stressed terribly over it. Maybe he was too old, or the authorities felt sorry for him because, despite the felonious nature of the crime, he was released about a week or two later. The circumstances were typically murky. Of course, Papa had to promise to give up his shady hooch operation and become an honest citizen. He was even quoted in the newspaper that he only sold the whiskey to pay his taxes.

From then on, I saw Papa in a different light. To start with, the beat-up cart and raggedy clothes were a total front. Beneath those thick eyeglasses and that slow-moving hobo exterior beat the heart of a crafty criminal. I'd watch him sitting in the living room now, all quiet and innocent, knowing he wasn't really sleeping but plotting the next big caper.

I learned many years later just how good Papa's homemade whiskey was. According to Boogie and Charlie, the whiskey he sold in pint-sized jars for two dollars a shot was the best anyone ever drank. "Even one of the cops in town came to Papa's house to buy his whiskey," Tio Boogie bragged. Papa had a ten-gallon copper cooker, barrels of mash, and a fruit press stashed behind the house.

"Papa used pickle and jelly jars, anything he could scrounge to fill with whiskey," Tio Boogie said, "He even wrote names on them like 'Tumbayaca,'" which roughly translates Knock the Indian Down. To this day, if I bring the bootlegging bust up to any older family member, they shake their head and smile. "Papa made the best stuff in town."

Toward the end, Papa was confined to a hospital bed. Mama placed his wire cart with the crooked wheels in her bedroom. I looked inside when she wasn't around to see what treasures he hauled in there. Two empty jars, a worn out picture frame, two cans of corn, an old tattered copy of a Mexican newspaper, and some rocks. The rocks, I'm sure, were to throw at the dogs in the alleys.

The big concern among some family members was knowing that he would die soon and not being able to pry Papa's secret whiskey recipe out of him. By then, stories about the quality of the hooch were legendary. Mama told me that Tio Boogie and Tio Charlie asked him for the secret over and over with a tape recorder at his bedside while he was weak and delirious, but he never gave it up. Knowing Papa, instead of revealing the secret ingredients he was probably cussing the hell out of them for trying. Papa took it with him. For some reason, I admired that.

As the decades melted away, the family's scandal of the century was almost forgotten. But every once in a while someone would bring it up during an event or gathering. Someone was always shocked and didn't believe it. Then a cousin or uncle would pull out a crumpled copy of the newspaper clipping and point out Merced's most famous bootlegging bust. The notorious crime wave we called Papa.

(Papa was buried on the other side Calvary Cemetery, far from Grandma Socorro, without a gravestone marker. Mama kept her promise.)

Charles Mariano was born and raised in Merced, California, and graduated from Merced High School in 1970. He is currently writing stories about growing up in the Central Valley for a book titled Piece Work.

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