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Making Moonshine at Sigma Mu Sigma by Gene Myers

Making Moonshine at Sigma Mu Sigma by
Article Posted: 08/14/2013
Article Views: 1346
Articles Written: 209
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Making Moonshine at Sigma Mu Sigma

Last November I wrote a Thanksgiving article, which was mainly about a successful turkey rustling mission masterminded by a fraternity brother back-in-the-day. I referred to Fred Jackson, Schenectady’s answer to James Dean, as Agent 702 because of 1) the colorful life he led in college—the guy was a walking cliffhanger—and 2) 702 is his fraternity number. During the three years Fred and I were in school together he totaled a Piper Tri-Pacer and a Mercedes-Benz roadster and walked away from both unscathed. He also once had a pet alligator. This article chronicles another Agent 702 escapade with occasional quotes from Fred for color and context.

As previously reported, Fred had the only room in the frat house with a private bath and entrance, which we believe was once quarters for a house mother. When I lived there we simply elected one of our own as house manager who became the fraternity accountant for that particular school term. Anyway, the bathtub was an old-fashioned, claw-feet type, which Fred thought would be ideal for a still. His words…

“The water outlet was the kind that you could slip a small hose over, which was perfect for what I had in mind.”

His next step was to obtain glass tubing and other equipment from friends working in the university chemistry laboratory, although he had to special order the water jacket condenser. The lab professor “donated” the equipment with the proviso that Fred would share some of the product. The genesis of what would become an alcohol producing distillery originated when Fred got a brain fart on a trip home between summer and fall terms. He explains below what kicked-off the project.

“What brought this about started when I was home on break during the fall. I had a ten-gallon wine keg. My dad was a wrecking contractor, and we would find these quite often in old houses we tore down. There was a lot of urban renewal in those days, and we did some work in old Italian neighborhoods. I probably had five or six old wooden barrels.”

Fred’s scientific curiosity was piqued when he puzzled about what to do with the barrels. It seemed a shame to let perfectly good wine barrels sit around empty. A solution soon presented itself as he describes.

“There was a wild, abandoned Concord grape vineyard near our place and the grapes were ripe when I got home…I also had a cider press, which would press grapes quite well. So I mixed ten gallons of juice with ten pounds of sugar, for extra boost, with a couple of boxes of raisins.”

The bubbling barrel accompanied Fred when he returned to campus, which was mounted on his desk to let the concoction ferment. He wasn’t sure how long the fermentation process would take, but figured the mixture would cease bubbling when fermentation was complete. He knew that for best results a system is needed to let the gas out, but not let outside air in, which was missing from his crude set-up; that is, the top was open, or at least, not sealed. Well, air didn’t get in, but something else—an unwanted something else—did.

“…flies must have gotten into the barrel. What I ended up with tasted good, but dead bugs in the mixture sure kills the desire to drink it. Up to this point I had only planned on having a keg of wine on my desk, and to salvage what I had so far, the idea of distilling the alcohol started fermenting in my mind. Most of my fraternity brothers spent their time studying and doing homework and shit like that. I now had a real worthwhile project on hand.”

It turned out that although Fred was majoring in Aeronautical Engineering that he was a “closet” chemical engineer as well. He scrounged a small heating element similar to the kind used to brew coffee; the kind where the water boiled and rose into a second container with the grounds then filtered back into the lower pot. That type of coffee brewing device was called a percolator, which I haven’t seen for decades. Fred remembers the plan coming together as follows:

“To me the whole project was a test of my imagination, ingenuity, and scientific creativity to salvage this buggy wine situation. It was legal to drink when you were eighteen in New York State, and Dad didn’t care about my wine barrel coming to college with me. I never thought it was morally wrong either.”

The still had a liter-sized flask that sat on the heating element located at the opposite end of the tub from the drain and faucet. The condenser and piping hung from a cabinet that was mounted over the tub. The end product was collected in a six-ounce soda bottle. Fred designed the system such that when the soda bottle was full, simultaneously the flask was empty. Ingenious. Naturally the end-product was sampled during all stages of distillation for the benefit of quality control. It took one complete weekend to run the contents of the barrel through the still from which a half-gallon of smooth tasting brandy was produced.

Fred was delighted with the outcome, and quite proud of his homemade distillery. He and two of his closest buddies in the house, Dick Nordin and Ken Fanning, would return from their last classes of the day, click up Dick Clark’s American Bandstand on television, and unwind drinking Coke spiked with Fred’s brandy. It became the highlight of their days. The brandy needed a name, which was borrowed from the Jackson family’s frequent trips to Jamaica. Wray & Nephew, a Jamaican rum maker, had three labels as follows: One Dagger, Two Dagger, and Three Dagger, which reflected how long the rum was aged. The ten-year aged Three Dagger is called Appleton Estates today. Fred’s brandy received the moniker of .0125 Dagger because it was aged one week. Author’s Note: Fred reports that Wray & Nephew now make a “rum cream” from over-proof white rum, which has limited availability in the US.

Life was good, and then went wrong. As usual, the problem began with a girl. Fred recalls: “There never would have been a problem if I had not met this girl. I can’t remember her name. (Author’s Note: Isn’t that always the way?) She was a tall brunette and very good-looking. We were getting along quite well; she was my date for our fall fraternity dinner dance. I wasn’t in love, but I liked her a lot…”

Unfortunately, the lovely lass lived about fifty miles south of the fraternity house, and as a “traveler” Fred brought some .0125 Dagger to accompany him when he returned to the frat house after the dance from dropping her off. About halfway back on that fateful return trip Fred was stopped by a roaming patrolman who asked Fred if he’d been drinking. You know about those times in life you wish for do-overs? This was one of those. Unfortunately Fred was in an expansive mood.

“I should have lied about it, but since I made it myself and didn’t purchase it, what was the harm of telling him about it? I found out quick.”

The patrolman took Fred to the nearby town of Waterloo—a bit of irony there—and took him to police headquarters for questioning. He was declared unfit to drive and allowed to call the fraternity house since he was being released and needed a ride. Meanwhile the officer also called the Angola police department, which was the location of the university, and told them about Fred and the location of his still. It was then that “Agent 702’s” contingency plan went into action. The fraternity brothers dismantled the still and the hid the evidence before the Angola police arrived, and disavowed any knowledge of the system. However, Fred was required to appear before the Angola police chief the following day for questioning. While Fred waited in Waterloo for a ride he reflected...

“I remember the Waterloo cop making calls to Federal Agencies. I felt like Robert Mitchum in the movie Thunder Road when the Feds had him in custody.”

When Fred met with the Angola police the following day the chief requested was that the distilling equipment be surrendered with which Fred complied. The chief seemed rather sympathetic and chalked it off to boys-will-be-boys. Fred’s next trip was proactive. He described the events in full to the Dean of Students before the rumor mill or police report circulated. In confronting the situation head-on he averted a lot of trouble for himself and the fraternity. Results: 1) Fred had to attend police court where the chief spoke on his behalf. He received a small fine. 2) The Dean placed Fred on "double secret" (What else for an agent?) probation until he graduated. The good news: Fred never got caught doing anything overtly “creative” after that.

After graduation Fred worked for Pratt and Whitney, which required security clearance. The moonshine episode did not surface during his background check. (A well-place mole must've scrubbed his record clean.)

Oh yes; and the girl Fred was so smitten with? He never saw her again nor can he remember her name to this day. What he did remember was she had an annoying habit of jabbing him in the side when he least expected it; and she said was looking forward to getting married and starting a family. That would be enough to scare anyone off—maybe even drink and drive. I think I know the type. After fifteen years or so she would probably want to get matching tattoos to bring the “magic” back into the marriage. She would also probably pack on some pounds as happens when maidens turn into matrons. One could make an alternate suggestion, e.g.: To save money and the pain of needles maybe we should just weigh the same. Oh yeah, that would bring the magic back…

Respectfully submitted,

Gene Myers aka Agent 772 aka The Phony Phantom (Roger Flickinger was the REAL phantom, but that’s another story…)

Copyright by Gene Myers, author of AFTER HOURS: ADVENTURES OF AN INTERNATIONAL BUSINESSMAN (2009), Strategic Publishing Group, New York, NY – a hilarious account of the author’s overseas travels; and SONGS FROM LATTYS GROVE (2010), PublishAmerica, Fredericksburg, MD - a mildly sinister, but amusing work of fiction. Both are available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and available in Amazon Kindle and Nook formats. Watch for SALT HIS TAIL, a catch-me-if-you can crime thriller.

Related Articles - still, wine keg, fermentation, brandy, patrolman, probation,

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