Monday, November 25, 2013

The plug

My dad grew up in small-town Indiana, in the shadow of a General Motors plant, but in many ways he was raised a Southern boy. Although my dad's parents had moved to Indiana because that's where the jobs were, both of them were from rural Tennessee; just about every summer of Dad's childhood, they would drive their sons -- Dad and his older brother Bruce -- south to Tennessee to visit the extended family.

Tennessee comes in third in the nation for tobacco production, and it was a near-universal addiction in Overton County -- virtually everyone smoked, chewed or snuffed the stuff. Grandpappy Carmack always kept a plug of Red Man tobacco on the mantle over the fireplace. From time to time he'd step up to the hearth, unwrap the plug, cut off a small chunk of tobacco with his pocketknife, roll it into his mouth and chew it reflectively, spitting out brownish goop as necessary. That plug held no end of fascination for Dad. With its deep brown color and embossed surface, it resembled a big chocolate bar, but it was strictly off limits to kids -- only adults were allowed to chew.

Well, that niggling little detail wasn't going to stop Dad.

The Carmack house was built on a sloping lot, so instead of having a full basement it was supported by long beams that kept the rest of the house on an even keel.  Dad used to say it looked like a house on stilts. The gap between the ground floor and the sloping hill created a crawl space underneath the front porch, a favorite place for Dad and his brother and cousins to hide from the grownups. One day when everyone else was out, Dad surreptitiously pocketed the Red Man, sneaked out of the house and got into the crawl space under the porch, making sure no one saw him.

He pulled the plug and his penknife out of his pocket, cut a chunk off the plug just the way he'd seen his grandpappy do it, then rolled the chunk into his mouth and, well satisfied at his criminal-mastermind ability, started to chew like a grownup.

Each time Dad told this story, he used to claim that the first few seconds of the experience actually tasted pretty good. Most plug tobacco holds its shape because the leaves are layered and pressed with molasses, and regular chewers claim that good plug tobacco has a raisin-like sweetness.

But then came THE FIRE.

Although none of the adults had caught Dad stealing his grandpappy's tobacco, the Red Man plug itself chose that moment to exact vengeance on his callow taste buds. (Even seasoned chewers describe Red Man as "caustic" and claim that their first experience with it involved a sensation akin to washing your mouth out with battery acid.) Years before the phrase became popular, Dad got to feel the burn.

With his eyes and nose streaming and tongue writhing like a sacrificial victim in a volcanic caldera, Dad went into full retreat -- the Red Man had clearly won this battle. He spat out the source of his agony, tore out from under the porch and around to the kitchen door, and began frantically working the old-fashioned pitcher pump at the sink. When the water finally gushed out, he nearly drowned himself putting his head under the flow, trying to wash the burning horror out of his mouth. The minute the stream faltered and died away, he began pumping again like a madman, trying not to breathe for fear of inflaming his mucous membranes afresh; it seemed like there wasn't enough water in the world to put out the Red Man fire.

So it was that Dad learned his lesson.

No, I lie. Here's the kicker: he tried it again the next summer with his cousin Mark, with exactly the same results.

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