Moonshine, Chuck Heston, and Malodorous Stills

Article excerpt

SEVERAL OF MY SONS, AND FREINDS, and I were sitting around a trestle picnic table at my farm stuffing ourselves on the fried okra, candied yams, fried chicken, smothered pork chops, coleslaw, fritters, and hush puppies provided by my friend, J.C. Ratcliffe (who runs a wonderful country restaurant in a village nearby where if you blink, you have driven by it)-taking of this and that and laughing at the story told to us by tall, blonde, buxom, long-legged, and drop-dead-gorgeous daughter-in-law Nancy Horbach (widow of our son Javier), who went this past summer to visit her family in Iowa.

There was a reunion of the clan, she told us, some two hundred Horbachs and close kin, to the last stalwart man and woman good Germans of prairie stock and farmers almost all. One ancient yet still lively granduncle brought a fat jug with a cork stopper from which powerful, enticing fumes issued. She asked him, what was that?

"Whisky," he told her. "Moonshine. The last jug in my cellar, I am sorry to say."

Nancy was astonished, if not shocked, which second case may haw been her first reaction (she was born with a wonderful innocence that she will retain to the day she dies). "Moonshine?" she repeated, eyebrows raised.

Then her granduncle said to her, "Girl, don't tell me you didn't know. We all distilled whisky during the Depression. And can you guess who we sold it to?" he said next, leering at her from ear to ear.

She shook her head. Maybe she didn't want to hear.

"Al Capone!" her granduncle hooted. "Yes, Al Capone. His hoodlums from Chicago bought it from us-and thank God they did, or we'd have lost our fams!"

We were chuckling at the memory of sweet Nancy's blushing cheeks when J.C.-who had been urging more chops on us before the banana pudding-asked me, "You're partial to corn likka?"

"The good stuff is hard to come by."

"What's it like?" asked one of my sons.

"When it doesn't blind or kill a person, the cordial St. Peter hands you when you are admitted through the pearly gates," I replied-and heard J.C. laugh behind me.

Then I told a story.

HOLLYWOOD BEDAZZLED MADRID in the early 1960s. 55 Days at Peking was being shot on the flanks of the Guadarrama Mountains. My then wife Betsy and I were friends of Ava Gardner; I happened to be writing movie scripts for a consortium connected with Warner Brothers; and, one thing leading to another, we hosted Miss Gardner, James Mason, 1 forget who (both of them), I forget who else (both of them too), the John Irelands, and the Charlton Restons for supper.

It was a fastuoso1 blast at our flat on Espalter 2, commencing with cocktails, followed by a three-course meal with white and red wine, salad, fruit, dessert, cheese, and thick coffee. I was offering brandy and Chinchon dulce to the guests when, for some reason, the subject of white lightning came up.

It was Charlton Heston who asked me about it. We were chatting in the little anteroom adjoining the parlor when-his red-gold eyebrows quivering-he said, "You say you've got a bottle of it?"

He was in his mid-30s-in his prime, both physically and as a Hollywood star: a strikingly tall, lean, virile, handsome man, modest, unpretentious, who looked everyone directly in the eye, which I liked. We'd met on the 55 Days at Peking set one long evening when everything went wrong, with the result that what should have been a three-minute shooting sequence consumed several frustrating and fruitless hours.

It was October, and cold that night on the slope of the mountains. I hot it dropped into the low 40s. I had been impressed by Heston's even temper as he stripped down to his trousers (military, were they?-the point was to display his brawny chest), strode out to the set, came back 20 minutes later, wrapped his upper body in a woolen dressing gown, chatted with us (his guests) in the tent reserved for his use (no heater of any kind), shrugged off the gown when the call came for him to get back on the set double quick, returned after yet another good long while shivering and blue along the lips, wrapped himself back up, chatted with us, stood up and stripped to the belt once again when a stagehand poked his head between the flaps to yell, "You're wanted, Mr. …