Mike Wilson: A bootlegger named Tomcat and a Three Stooges marathon

It’s funny what you think about sometimes. I’ve found myself thinking back here lately to Christian Sorenson Bennett. One year my senior, he was my favorite boyhood cousin. Named after his Danish grandfather (my great-grandfather), a fisherman who had left that life to come to America as an indentured laborer at the turn of the other century to pour and finish concrete in Jackson, Tennessee. 

Later, he could still take a ball of cord and easily make a basketball net in just a few minutes. He relished any eel or soft-shelled turtle we might bring home from the river. He also cheated at checkers; Chris discovered one day that Big Daddy would cover several checkers at once with his huge hands and slide one along underneath with his thumb as he made the presumed real move with a finger. Chris’s mother was my grandmother’s younger sister, and his dad was a very nervous veteran of World War II whose hands shook for the rest of his life. No wonder: he had driven a fuel truck in Italy. Uncle William developed the skill of crafting beautiful knives from old, discarded leaf springs and abandoned fence posts.

We whiled away many summer days reading and rereading his footlocker full of comic books. His allowance of a dollar a week allowed the purchase of ten new ones every time he went to the store. Most summer mornings we went to Campbell Pond to fish for catfish with balls of biscuit dough. Saturday morning at ten, they had special movie showings for kids, and we enjoyed such classics as “The Three Stooges Meet Hercules” (oddly, no Oscar nominations).

Chris was a natural comedian, preternaturally cheerful, who at an early age knew every lyric of Roger Miller’s Greatest Hits. He became adept at “eefing and hambone” after seeing Riddle and Phelps only once or twice on Hee Haw. All in all, I think he may be the only personal acquaintance of my lifetime I would characterize as jolly.

We once went to visit his family as they camped for two weeks on the banks of a creek that fed the Buffalo River. The creek was cold, clear, and about a foot deep, perfect for cousins of eight and nine. You could catch a beautiful rock bass on almost every cast at the confluence of the two streams; we got our bait by seining for crawdads.

Later, in high school, we had some fun running around once he got his driver’s license. He once took me to see a bootlegger named Tomcat (Madison County was dry) with an honest-to-God tiny door in the bigger one to place orders and receive half-pints. On one visit to town, he drove me to the airport to see the first microwave oven in the city. (Imagine, in those days one could walk into an airport without a cavity search..)

Our lives rather diverged after high school. He went to vocational school to become a machinist, a trade he plied for the rest of his life. He could hollow out a large needle, put a smaller one inside so it rattled, and solder the big one shut again seamlessly. I believe he was the first recycler I knew: he kept iced PBR’s for his trip home each afternoon and threw the empties through the little sliding rear window of his pickup. When the bed was full, he turned them in.

I only saw him at funerals for most of our adult lives. We exchanged Christmas cards, and while our address must have changed over a dozen times, his always remained the same. His pride and joy was his little grandson Christopher, who at the age of three wandered away momentarily and drowned in the family pool. I’m afraid the entire rack of Hallmark cards contained no sentiment suitable to send him. While his medical file may suggest otherwise, I am certain Chris died of a broken heart. The comments collected with his obituary cited his kindness, generosity, and good humor. Of course, I already knew all of that.

Mike Wilson is a former Hampden-Sydney Spanish professor and 13-year resident of Prince Edward County, who now calls North Carolina home. He can be reached at jmwilson@catawba.edu.

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