In daytime, the place was just a normal house, down at the heels, surrounded by a gravel parking lot where a lawn may once have existed. At night, it was the infamous “Bloody Bucket.”
The name was derived from a makeshift sign that hung, a bit cockeyed, from the rusted rain gutter over the sagging front porch. Proprietress Delilah Grimm, known almost universally as “Lil,” had been thwarted in her original plan. She had wanted to call the place “Delilah’s Bucket o’ Blood Tavern and Grille.”
When it was time for the sign to be painted, however, she discovered that one of her half-witted sons—as she never failed to describe them—had decided that the bocce balls would be far easier to see in the evening games if they were painted red. In their crafty but stupid way, the two teenagers found the paint.
The Italian miners, who were the only users of said bocce balls, claimed the two idiots had left runs of paint on the balls that made them take screwy paths like Dizzy Dean’s junk pitches. They refused to use them.
Lil’s outrage when the absence of the requisite red paint was discovered became a thing of legend among her customers. She was very fond of that apostrophe in “Bucket o’ Blood,” but she found little more than dregs left in the bottom of the paint can—far too little for the planned sign.
When one of the most senior of the customers discreetly suggested buying more paint, the proprietress met him with a blast of profanity and a flouncing departure. It was the principle of the thing, she hissed. No one else had the colossal nerve to revisit the subject.
When she couldn’t have the name of her choice she dropped the apostrophe, the “grille,” and the “tavern,” and even her name. The sign simply said “Bloody Bucket.”When Lil decided she couldn’t put “Grille” on her sign she reasoned that there was no cause to deal with prepared food at all. She was never much of a cook to start with, and she didn’t miss the effort. At one end of the bar there was a murky gallon jar of pickled hard-boiled eggs that resembled nothing more than a bunch of disembodied eyeballs rolling around in cloudy humor.
At the other end was a similar gallon jar of pickled pig’s feet. Perhaps sometimes a customer would get drunk enough to dare one of the horrific-looking snacks, but if one did, no one was ever sober enough to remember it the next day.
In between those two paeans to nutrition Lila provided things guaranteed to increase thirst and thus beer consumption. The offerings changed from day to day, sometimes there were plates of fresh pork cracklings dosed liberally with hot sauce, sometimes there were soft pretzels glistening with kosher salt. Near the holidays Lil would sometimes put out small hard salamis cut in quarter-inch thick slices. She took the cucumber-sized salamis from a five-gallon can where they were packed in pure hog lard. These salamis were universally known as “hunk salamis,” and they were considered a great delicacy. The combination of salt and fiery Hungarian peppers caused beer sales to soar.
Lil’s customers were mainly miners—first and second-generation descendants of those originally imported from Wales, Northern Italy, and the broad expanse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when soft coal was first exploited commercially . Thrown into the mix were a few Russians from the Shakhty area, a scattering of Irish, and a Frenchman or two. The conglomeration of nationalities led to the cognomen of Southeast Kansas—“the Balkans.”
By the time of this story most of the true aspects of nationality had been subsumed. Most of the descendants spoke an English that featured a flat mid-west accent and a marked tendency to speak though clenched teeth. Despite their homogeneity, they called each other, Dagos, Hunks, Frogs, Wops, Micks, and Terriers.
The sterling establishment served mainly to slake the coal dust from the throats of those who worked twelve-hour shifts in a choking miasma of black dust in the open pit mines. The alcohol that washed away the dust also lowered inhibitions; one of which was the one that kept men from tearing each other apart like wild beasts. There was little in the way of actual ethnic friction at the Bloody Bucket. Any faction would fight any other faction, and if no likely opponents were available they would engage in internecine warfare until a better deal came along. Once enough of the piss-water beer was consumed, the fights were inevitable, and the Bloody Bucket earned its name again and again.
In what would have been the parlor in any normal house there was a long bar made of salvaged doors laid across a series of tall, slapped-together sawhorses. The doors were usually covered with a white cloth runner that progressively became more and more disreputable until Lil could no longer stand the expanse of shoe-polish stains, spilled beer, and coal-stained mucus coughed up from ravaged lungs or dripped from running noses. When that collection of stains was joined, as it always was, by a sizable number of vomit-marks and bloodstains, she would finally rip the thing off in a fit of rage and drag it though the room to the front door where she would fetch kerosene, wad up the ugly mass, and set fire to it.
The periodic sacrificial burning was seen as cause for great celebration among the patrons because Lil often provided free beer until the old runner burned away. After those paroxysms the bar would stand naked for a few days till the proprietress could once again no longer bear the ugliness, and she would conjure up another virginal runner from somewhere.
Lil Grimm’s clientele worked hard in the mines—called strip-pits— that surrounded the little T-intersection in a despoiled countryside. Water-filled pits that made long, narrow lakes surrounded great gaping pits full of men and machinery where coal was still being dredged from thick seams. The lakes were played-out mines where acid now leached into the ground water.
At the most productive time for the coalfields, before the Great Depression, the area was a beehive of activity; beer joints and makeshift brothels surrounded the pits. In the thirties, the coalfields began a long decline. There was a brief resurgence of the importance of coal—even soft coal—during the war, but by the early fifties the boom was far past. The miners and those who fed them and tended to their needs were all on borrowed time.
The Bloody Bucket was now the only place near the strip-pits where a man could get a drink before he herded his car or truck home along arrow-straight gravel roads.
The drink of choice was, of necessity, three-two beer— a watery, semi-tasteless example of the brewer’s art created expressly to satisfy the bizarre Kansas drinking laws that followed the reign of the temperance queen who called herself “Carry A. Nation.”
Hard liquor was completely forbidden, but if a good customer needed to get along toward oblivion a bit faster than the watery beer could carry him, Lil could usually find a quart Mason jar of a yellowish, slightly oily-looking liquid that could do the job.
The stuff was called “deep mine,” and it had existed in Southeast Kansas ever since the noble experiment with prohibition made bootlegging an extremely lucrative profession. By 1948 Kansas had actually authorized state liquor stores, but bars where real whiskey could be consumed by the drink, were expressly forbidden. The place called “Bloody Bucket” was the closest substitute.
Lil kept the miners’ thirst at bay with barrels, bottles, and cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Carling’s Black Label, and a local product called Griesedick Brothers Beer. A comely blonde barmaid known in magazine and radio ads as “Mabel” marketed Carling’s ads to the refrain of, “Hey, Mabel, Black Label.”
A popular joke held that Mabel had been caught with a Griesedick in her hand, and the mirth engendered by that double entendre was so ubiquitous that the Griesedick brothers even changed the name of their product to “GB,” to no avail—the joke would not die. Lil joined in the gaiety whenever one of the miners, still as black as any Haitian from the ever-present coal dust, would call out, “how bout a Griesedick, Lil?” Her never-fail reply was, “ya already got one, ain’t ya?
It takes a lot of three-two beer to faze a grown man. What goes in must come out, so every evening there was an unending line for the outdoor facilities by the time the place had been open for an hour.
In what Lil sometimes grandly called “le pissoir,” two galvanized tin hog troughs were propped up in the middle by a three-legged milk stool. The resulting two-sided inclined plane carried a river of urine down both troughs to spill out under walls that didn’t quite reach the floor. Her sons constantly spread pea gravel to soak up the torrents, but when the traffic was heavy there were perpetual puddles on both sides.
In the summer, the combined aromas of beer, sweat, pee, and tobacco overwhelmed the place till it was nearly impossible to draw breath or hear a conversation over the buzzing of flies. In winter, the snow blew under the walls and occasionally, yellow icicles formed along the troughs.
One sultry night in the early summer of 1953 Joe Byrne and Johnny Halacy walked into the Bloody Bucket. It was both their premier visit, and as it turned out, their last. They did not fit in with the working stiffs.
Joe and Johnny were fast friends and excellent drinking buddies, but they were not miners. In fact, Johnny had distinguished himself by never in his twenty-four years having held any kind of meaningful job. Johnny was a thief, a strong-arm holdup man, getaway driver, and general jack of all criminal trades. He had a sunny disposition and was easy to get along with as long as his next beer was in sight.
Joe was the snake-bit scion of a good family. He was not allergic to work; he merely had a short attention span. As the youngest brother in a family of seven—and a half-brother to boot—Joe had been spoiled unmercifully. The older brothers, one after the other, quit school in the eighth grade and went to work to support the family. They were all gainfully employed or in the service and Joe actually made it to high school. When 1945 rolled around, Joe decided that he would get more girls in Navy blue than in the classroom, and he disappeared, at sixteen, into the Navy and was shortly a battleship sailor in WEST PAC, as he called it. He came home, a salty veteran, in 1948. He immediately married, and in short order fathered a child, deserted his new family, and with Johnny’s help launched a small, but intermittently successful enterprise in cattle rustling.
He owned a sturdy pickup truck with stock racks. His hauls were not large, but they were generally lucrative. He stole only the best and haggled like an expert when he sold his purloined stock.
He had a good run till the early winter of 1950. He was nabbed with a truckload of prize Guernsey cows and there were no appeals or long continuances. The judge looked him up and down, and said, “Boy, it’s the pen or the Army, what’s it going to be?”
Joe took the latter and found himself on the front lines in Korea in January 1952. He did a year as a combat infantryman, made sergeant when the attrition was at its height, and came home early in 1953.
Johnny was waiting for him. Despite his best attempts to resist the pull of crime, Joe was soon back in the game. He staked the money he had saved in Korea, and the money he had won in a continuous poker game that ran from Hungnam, to Seoul, back to Pusan, to garrison posts in Japan, and all the way back across the Pacific to get a new start. The first investment was a ’50 Ford convertible, and the second was a lump sum child support payment.
Johnny had finally been caught with a stolen car, and he was waiting; out on bail, for his time to go up to the state pen in Lansing for eighteen months. In the meantime, the boys had signed on to do some journeyman construction work, but that was to start tomorrow, and tonight was all reserved for the Bloody Bucket.
Joe was talking about the utility of the M-1 Garand, and the flush feeling a fellow could get when new ammo was brought up every morning. When he was a little boy he remembered his older brother getting a whipping for wasting bullets. He had used a whole box of .22 shorts, but only forty-two rabbits had been counted.
“You couldn’t run out, Johnny,” he said, “the Chinese came up blowing them horns and beating on garbage can lids or something, you could just shoot and shoot, knock those little bastards rolling. Wearing tennis shoes in the snow they were, and there’d be piles of ‘em in their plumped up jackets, and every morning they’d bring up boxes and boxes of ammo for our rifles and the machine-guns. It was amazing.”
“Sounds like that thing they got at that amusement parlor up in Kansas City where you shoot those little mechanical rabbits, and they just keep coming around. I shoulda gone with ya.”
“Nah, it wasn’t that much fun,” Joe said.
The night dragged on apace, the beer bottles piled up, and occasionally one of Lil’s half-wit sons would come to carry off the dead soldiers, but there was still a brace of empties on the table when Joe and Johnny hit some kind of a snag. No miner paid any attention to the pasty-faced little pissants and neither Joe nor Johnny could remember the next day, what had caused the problem.
Johnny had suddenly said, “well, Goddamn it, I’m afraid we’re jist gonna have to go outside.”
Joe stumbled to his feet, and mumbled, “S’Okay with me, damn you.”
“I guess you better bring a beer bottle, Joe, ‘cause I got my knife,” Johnny looked at his friend a little google-eyed.
“Well, you son of a bitch.” Joe spoke extraordinarily carefully and got all of the syllables out of his mouth just before he took a side-armed swipe and broke a bottle on the side of Johnny’s head.
Johnny responded with a switchblade knife and Joe stood there swaying, “Johnny, you rat bastard, did you stick that knife in me?”
Johnny slumped on the other side of the table with sheets of blood running into his eyes. “If you don’t think so, jist try to flinch your ribs.”
Joe did and felt a blinding pain. “Well, take it outa there, that was a new shirt, Goddamn you. I guess we better go see the Doc.”
“Kin you drive, Joe?” Johnny ineffectually wiped at his eyes.
“I guess I can.”
The bugs were thick, and the headlights were dim, but the road was straight. They roused the doctor after some serious pounding. While they waited for the sawbones to get dressed, Johnny sluiced most of a half-pint of gin across the windshield of Joe’s Ford. He scrubbed at the smashed bugs with his bloody shirt and intoned in a monotone, “take that, you little bastards, how do you like that?”
The doctor patched them both and called the Sheriff. A deputy came, and seeing Joe and Johnny said, “you can’t drive. You’re too drunk. You got anyone to go your bail, or do you want to sleep in the drunk tank?”
Joe allowed as how he’d like to make a phone call. He called my dad, his half-brother; and not for the first time, Dad went and got the boys out of jail and took them to the cramped room they were sharing at the town’s lone hotel.
The next morning Johnny arose to look in a wall-mounted mirror that was beginning to lose its silvering in a scrofulous pattern. He squinted and considered the tower of white gauze that was wrapped around his head. “Joe, you got me lookin’ like a Goddamned A-rab.”
“Yeah, you sonofabitch, but you still got a shirt.”
My dad came by and took them to the job site where one of his other brothers was the foreman.
The older brother looked at the two with distaste, but a family bargain was a family bargain, even for a half- brother.
“Joe, you start pullin’ nails outa those two-by-fours over there,” the word came out like “tubafours.” “Johnny, you might as well start practicing for Lansing. There’s a pile of concrete over there, some of it’s got rebar in it. I need that busted up, there’s a sixteen-pound sledge over there. Get swingin.’”
It was already hot, and brutally humid. The two began their assigned labors with some vigor, the nails creaking in protest as Joe pulled them out of the hardwood beams; Johnny swung the sledge like a metronome. The alcohol streamed out of their pores.
“I can tell ya’ one thing,” Johnny said after perhaps fifteen minutes, “I don’t think I’m gonna like this penitentiary bullshit.”
His comment was prophetic, I guess. Eight months later Johnny was dead in the Lansing pen. He had carried a knife every day of his life since age ten or so, but the screws in Lansing took away his best friend, and he soon crossed paths with a grizzled old con; one that had figured out how to skirt the rules better than Johnny. The man stuck a long, straight piece of glass wrapped in many feet of masking tape straight through Johnny’s sternum, and deep into his heart.
Joe was banned from the Bloody Bucket. He made several half-hearted attempts to go straight, but it always required more concentration than he had to offer. The Western Pacific called out to him. One day he hitchhiked west. We got a four-line scribbled letter from Seattle with the news that Joe had become a merchant seaman, and six months later a gaudy, bedraggled card from Bangkok. The message said simply, “Got a new job, very interesting, Joe.”
It was a long time, it seemed, before my grandma received an official-looking letter from France. I coveted the colorful stamps, but the entire missive was turned into a family shrine of sorts. One of the oldest miners at the Bloody Bucket was pressed into service as a translator.
“Le Bep,” he said as if it would mean anything to us.
“What is it?” My dad held the letter up to the light as if illumination would help him understand the foreign words.
“Battalion Etranger Parachutiste. The Foreign Legion, do you know it?” The old man bore the inescapable nickname, “Frenchy.” He had been a soldier in a long ago war, and he still coughed from the mustard gas. “It says he was killed in action in a place called Dien Bien Phu.”
It was the first time I understood the connectedness of the world.