Everyone, I’m sure, has heard stories of moonshiners and their souped up cars outrunning the “revenuers” along Appalachian Mountain roads.
Songs and movies have been made detailing the narrow escapes, and captures, of men racing through treacherous terrain to get their illegal product to those who would buy a gallon or two.
NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson, in fact, had a movie made of his life, called “The Great American Hero.”
Well, a fella I once knew named Fred lived the life of an outlaw, too, but it wasn’t the “Demon Rum” that caused his problems with the law.
Few younger than my generation will remember that it wasn’t just “hooch” that was illegal back in the 1940s, even into the ‘50s.
Nosiree, runnin’ margarine could get you in a heap of trouble back then.
I remember as a small lad that margarine came in two clear bags. The margarine itself was an off white, while the accompanying small bag was the yellow coloring. Folks would buy the margarine, then break the seal between the two bags and squeeze the coloring into the margarine.
That’s the way it was sold. The dairy industry didn’t want margarine sold in stores to resemble real butter in any way.
In some states – Wisconsin and Michigan, for example, and probably others – just possessing margarine was considered a crime.
And, that’s how Fred – I never knew his last name – came to be operating a “Gasthaus,” a German tavern, in the small town of Furth, just outside of Nuremberg, back in the 1960s.
Fred was American who had married a German lady, called “Ma” by the many patrons.
Fred and Ma’s did a steady business and was a favorite hangout for soldiers from nearby Monteith Barracks. It was only about a mile away from the base’s front gate – easy enough to walk for thirsty GIs. And, I reckon, because Fred spoke their language, soldiers found it convenient.
And, Ma made an absolutely wonderful schnitzel dinner. In those days, more than 45 years ago, it was easily affordable, too. For a dollar, soldiers could buy four German marks and for just under four marks you could get a schnitzel dinner that included schnitzel, good German potato salad, a piece of rock-hard bread and a half-liter of potent German beer.
That’s less than a dollar for a meal and a drink. There’s little wonder a visit to Fred and Ma’s was so popular.
Even more than the food and drink, though, was listening to Fred’s tales.
“Yup,” he told me one evening when there surprising few were in the bar. “The courts, they gave me the option – either join the Army or go to jail.”
That was intriguing.
“What did you do?” I asked Fred, expecting some tale of robbery, assault or some other crime that the courts felt was serious enough to rid the area of such a person.
“I was caught runnin’ across the state line from Indiana into Michigan,” Fred said.
“Moonshine?” I asked.
“Nope. Margarine,” he said.
Before that evening in early 1967, I had no idea margarine could be considered contraband.
But, it was. At least in Michigan, Fred told me.
“It was illegal to take margarine into Michigan,” he told me matter-of-factly. “We’d get margarine in Chicago, then drive it into a corner of Indiana and into Michigan. You could make a few easy bucks selling the stuff in Michigan – they’d pay a good. It was good enough to be worth the risk.”
But, Fred got caught crossing the border one afternoon.
“I had a couple hundred pounds of margarine that day,” he said. “Ended up in jail. The judge, though, he was a pretty good old guy – gave me the option of going to jail or joining the Army.
“It wasn’t hard to make that choice. And, then I came over here and met Ma. Well, ain’t been no reason to go back, so I guess I’ll be here to the day I die.”
Fred may not have been the “Great American Hero,” but I think of him often as I spread margarine on my morning toast.
(Bill Haglund is a writer for Stephens Media.)