Big surprise.

That’s what Henry Sanders, my great-grandfather, was going to give his wife and family.

It was the early 1950s, and my grandfather was getting ready to go to Korea, where he and other U.S. soldiers would be instructed, right as they were stepping off a transporting aircraft, to zigzag while dashing to a specified area in case of enemy fire.

Korea likewise would be the place where my grandfather would try his first — and last — bowl of cornflakes with beer during a period of critically low supplies.

It also was where a North Korean soldier snuck into camp one night and slashed the wall of the tent where my grandfather was sleeping, putting a permanent scar right above his foot.

Prior to this sneak attack, my grandfather had changed sides on his cot due to the unlevel ground, laying his head down where his feet originally had been. If he hadn’t, it likely would have been his throat that got cut.

But, on this particular night before his experiences in the Korean War, my grandfather was going to surprise everyone by showing up earlier than expected for a visit from Fort Benning, Ga.

Having ridden buses and hitchhiked his way to his hometown of Gordo, Ala., my grandfather was on foot as he walked along country roads toward the Kennie Hill community. He was wishing someone could give him a lift when a pair of headlights suddenly flashed from behind. And, by the time he threw up a thumb, an old car nearly left him in its dust.

It came to a gravel-flinging halt, its back tires abruptly rising and slamming back down. A deep voice called out, and my grandfather rushed over.

“Where ya headin’?” the driver asked, his tone indicating there was zilch time to dawdle.

My grandfather told him.

“Hop in.”

The ride was pure insanity, death-defying, as the car careened wildly around every curve and catapulted many feet after every hill.

My grandfather desperately seized anything he could hold on to, his thoughts solely focused on praying for his dear life. Unfazed, the driver never eased off the gas, delivering my grandfather to his destination in record time — unbroken.

The same as all the clinking jars of moonshine in the back seat.

My grandfather considered asking the driver for one. He reckoned he’d earned it.

Shoebox surprise

This certainly wasn’t the first time my kin folks got caught up in bootlegging shenanigans. There was the time my grandfather’s daddy, Alf, got a shoebox surprise.

This happened during the early 1930s, when prohibitionists were hell-bent on eliminating every last drop of alcohol, resulting in the underground economic boom of whiskey, moonshine and rum-distributing entrepreneurs.

One of these country business folks was a young fella by the name of John Falls, who’d taken quite a fancy to Alf’s oldest daughter, Lorene.

Aiming to butter up her daddy and ask for Lorene’s hand in marriage, John made his way to Alf’s home, toting a shoebox containing a pint of whiskey under his arm. Upon arriving, he set the gift on a table, where it would be waiting for Alf to get home.

The wait wasn’t too long, as a hot-tempered Alf walked through the front door and carried on an argument he was having with the man behind him — the sheriff.

“I don’t care what you say,” the sheriff asserted. “I know you’re hidin’ alcohol in here somewhere.”

“No I ain’t!” Alf snarled. “There ain’t no alcohol in this house. I’ll even help you look.”

So he did, accompanying the sheriff as every cabinet, cupboard, room and closet was thoroughly searched. All to no avail.

Finally, the sheriff spotted the shoebox.

“What’s in the box?”

Alf sneered, boldly declaring, “Ain’t nothin’ in that there box! Here, I’ll show ya…”

I’m willing to bet good money that Alf was far more surprised than anyone else in the house.

And so Alf and John, who’d returned to the house with Lorene around the time of the big shoebox reveal and ’fessed up that he was the one who brought the whiskey, were taken to jail.

Shortly afterward, however, a deal was struck. Long before the shoebox fiasco, the sheriff had approached Alf on many occasions, requesting he paint the town of Gordo’s water tower.

For free. Out of the kindness of his heart.

Alf, naturally, told the sheriff where he could kindly shove it.

Now, the deal was Alf and John would both paint the water tower. Community service, you see. In turn, the whole whiskey matter would be dropped.

And so, the next morning, Alf and John were dropped off at the tower, along with paint and brushes. The sheriff would later return to retrieve them, and this routine would go on until the job was finished. In the meantime, if anyone flaked out, the sheriff knew where they lived.

Ready to get the whole thing over, Alf climbed to the top and got to work. John, meanwhile, stayed on the ground. He was afraid of heights.

“Might as well come on up here!” Alf called down to him. “We gotta start painting from the top. Ain’t a thing you can do down there!”

It was about this time that a freight train whistle could be heard approaching on some nearby tracks.

“The hell there ain’t!” John replied, and he soon hopped aboard a passing boxcar, waving goodbye to his future father-in-law.

Poor Alf. He’d gotten yet another big surprise.

Keith Huffman can be reached at

Keith Huffman can be reached at

Load comments