As Smooth As Liquid Mercury
Thomas Calabrese — (Fact: Liquid mercury is so smooth that it will fall off your skin if you try to hold it.)
In the mountain county of Dawson, Georgia (moonshine capital of the world) moonshiners ran millions of gallons of whiskey into Atlanta and other cities in the south. Other counties, like Gilmer, Lumpkin, and Pickens, also became major producers of moonshine in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s. Moonshiners played a dangerous game of cat and mouse with competitors and revenuers. In Dawson, so-called trippers designed high-performance automobiles, called “tanker cars” (most often Fords and Mercurys), to evade revenuers.
Such car chases often ended in the death of the moonshiner or the revenuer. Out of these powerful cars and high-speed chases grew the sport known today as stock car racing (NASCAR).
December 7, 1941, Lucas Wyatt was a seventeen year old boy living on his family’s farm outside Dawsonville, Georgia with his parents and three younger sisters when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The young Georgia lad was hardworking, intelligent and wanted to attend Auburn University and would be the first in his family to progress that far in education.
His father Jed was a World War I combat veteran who served with the 4th Marine Brigade and sustained a serious leg injury during the Battle of Belleau Woods. He needed a cane to get around and as the years passed, his mobility decreased to the point that he was unable to perform routine chores. The sixty acre parcel of land had been handed down from generation to generation and Jed was doing his best to keep from losing it and breaking that sacred tradition.
Lucas’ mother, Francis was a good hearted woman who was emotionally incapable of grasping the seriousness of the situation. She was a homemaker with only an eighth grade school education and was most comfortable in the kitchen or in her garden. Lucas and his three sisters were aware of the family’s predicament so they helped out at every opportunity.
Rufus Terrell’s legacy was that he descended from a family of whiskey-makers going back as far as the Civil War. He learned the secret recipes from his ancestors of distilling a variety of whiskeys; single malt, double malt, scotch, bourbon, rye or corn whiskey. Many of the farmers in the area grew grains especially for his business and some of the more adventurous ones delivered the illegal alcohol. He was also the major employer in the area and many people relied on his moonshine operation for their survival.
When a tornado hit the area and caused significant damage to the Wyatt’s house, barn and crops, Lucas had no other choice, but to ask Rufus Terrell for a job. He knew that his parents would not approve so he made up a lie that he was working for Edgar’s Feed and Grain. Rufus had the owner cover for Lucas in case his father checked up on him
Lucas was a hell of a driver with keen instincts, but it was very dangerous work. After a couple of close calls where hijackers shot out his windshield on one occasion and a bullet missed his head by a couple inches on another, Lucas reluctantly asked his sister Claire, one year his junior to start riding with him. She was an excellent marksman with an adventurous streak that bordered on fearlessness and she jumped at the opportunity.
On one particular Saturday evening while making a routine delivery to a club, several men made the serious error of attempting to hijack their load. Claire was lying down in the backseat with a double barreled shotgun as the car pulled alongside on an isolated section of the highway.
“Pull it over,” The man ordered as he pointed a pistol at Lucas, who made the ruse of complying by pulling his 1938 Ford off the pavement. Claire popped up, opened fire with both barrels and hit the driver, who lost control and careened off the road. The car exploded in flames when it hit a tree as Lucas hit the accelerator and smiled at sister, “Good shot.”
Claire reloaded the shotgun, “That was a whole lot easier than shootin’ squirrels.”
It was December 8, 1941, Lucas was talking to his sister behind the barn, “The country just declared war and I’m going to enlist… but only if you can handle things around here while I’m gone.”
“You can trust me,” Claire responded, “I can do whatever needs to be done.”
Lucas joined the Marines and was sent to the South Pacific where he got his first taste of battle on Guadalcanal. He was in one of the machine gun squads under the command of Sergeant John Basilone when the Japanese launched repeated bayonet attacks against the Leathernecks. John Basilone received the Medal of Honor and Lucas Wyatt was awarded the Silver Star for their heroics on Edson’s Ridge, which was also called ‘Bloody Ridge.’
The young Georgia boy was involved in two more major campaigns; Tarawa and Peleliu and was now a Staff Sergeant in the Marine Corps. He was with his unit preparing for the landing on Iwo Jima when he walked up behind a Marine and tapped him on the shoulder, “The scuttlebutt was that some crazy Italian who was on a war bond tour with some Hollywood starlets was coming back to the unit. I said, no way in hell, not even ‘Manila’ John Basilone would be that crazy.”
Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone turned around and flashed a toothy grin, “I heard that some hick Georgia boy was now a Staff Sergeant and turned out to be a hell of a Marine, so I said to Hedy Lamar and Joan Crawford while we’re having lunch at the Brown Derby, I better go see for myself if that’s true.”
The two Marines embraced each other. “It’s good to see you even if I don’t understand it,” Lucas said.
“Doing a stateside tour is tougher than fighting Japs,” John Basilone quipped and the two warriors left it at that.
The invasion of Iwo Jima was scheduled for February 19, 1945 and Marines from the 4th Marine Division were aboard the Navy Amphibious Support Task Force ships. They were two days out when Lucas had a severe relapse of malaria that he caught on Tarawa. He started perspiring heavily, was quivering and was so nauseous that he could hardly stand up.
“Hey buddy, you don’t look too good,” John Basilone commented.
“I’m alright,” Lucas responded.
“Corpsman up!” John Basilone yelled.
Staff Sergeant Wyatt was transferred to the hospital ship USS Samaritan and was taken to the island of Saipan for treatment. Lucas did not find out about John Basilone’s death until he was back at Camp Pendleton. There were rumors about an invasion of mainland Japan and the Marines were preparing for that possibility, luckily that never happened and the war in the Pacific ended on September 2, 1945. Lucas was discharged and returned to Dawsonville, Georgia.
Claire Wyatt was not only fearless and adventurous, but turned out to be an excellent businesswoman. It didn’t take her long to convince Rufus Terrell that he should take his moonshine profits and invest in various businesses around the South. Claire also realized that if people had a personal interest in Rufus Terrell’s enterprises, they would be less likely to cooperate with the ‘revenuers.’ What she had no way of knowing was how things would evolve once the war was over.
Lucas couldn’t believe how much things had changed since he left over three years ago. His parents were living in a new house and Claire hired three farmhands to work the land so that their father only had to supervise. His two youngest sisters were doing well in high school and both planned to attend college. Since most of the residents were in the moonshine business in one way or another, there was a constant influx of money into the local economy.
There was a dark cloud on the horizon and a storm was coming their way. There were thousands of battle hardened veterans who had severe mental issues from their combat experiences being released from the military back into society. There were others who were willing to do anything to make a living in an overcrowded job market and fighting and killing were their primary skills.
There wasn’t much call for a former Marine Corps machine gunner so Lucas had little choice except to get back into the moonshine business. Rufus Terrell hired him to provide security for the ‘trippers’ (the drivers making the deliveries). For the next five years, Lucas developed his own methods of dealing with hijackers and interlopers. If it was just a few guys looking to pick up some extra cash, he explained the risks and warned them to move on…or else. If it was an organized gang, it required a little more persuasion.
He would ride on the most dangerous runs while being heavily armed and when hijackers attempted to take the load, they were quickly eliminated. It bothered him at first when he had to come up against other veterans, but that feeling eventually passed. Veterans or not, they knew the risks they were taking and the consequences of their actions.
In a way, it wasn’t that much different from being back in combat, Lucas had a job to do and an enemy to defeat. If he kept it in those simple terms, he had no problems, it was only when he started thinking about what was legal, moral or right that things got complicated, so he focused on doing what was necessary.
Over the next five years, things went well for Lucas and his sister. Claire got married to an ex-soldier and began raising a family. She continued doing the books for Rufus Terrell, but was no longer involved in the day to day operations of the business. Lucas on the other hand became the right hand man for the powerful patriarch, Rufus had three sons of his own, but eventually grew to care more about Lucas than he did his own flesh and blood.
“Things are going well for us and I owe a lot of it to you and your sister,” Rufus said.
“You’re an easy man to work for, sir,” Lucas responded.
“After all these years, you can stop calling me sir.”
“You’ve earned my respect and loyalty is earned and saying sir is just way sign expressing that respect.”
“I’d like to talk to you about something,” Rufus said.
“I’ve been thinking about getting out of the business. I’ll still stay in an advisory position, but I need someone to take over the day to day operations,” Rufus stated
You have three sons, this offer should go to them, not me,” Lucas protested.
“They are not cut out to run this business, they don’t have the respect of the workers or illicit the type of fear that our competitors and enemies feel when they come up against a man like you.”
“I picked up a few things in the Marines,” Lucas responded, “that I can teach your boys.”
“You and your sister have good hearts, tough characters and when you add in that you’re both damn smart, that is something that you are born with and can’t be taught. I’ve done my best to teach my boys what they need to know and what they have to do, but it is just not in ‘em. For that, their ma’ and me take the blame, we made it too easy on them. When my daddy said to me, ‘boy it’s your time’ we both knew that I was ready to take over. I’ve been hoping for a long time that my one of sons would give me a reason to say those words, but that is not gonna’ happen and I accept that.”
“What do you think they’re going say when you tell them, you want me to run the family business and not them? They’re going be madder than a knocked down hornets’ nest.”
“If they get themselves or somebody else killed, is that going to be any better?”
Lucas thought for a second then responded, “Whatever you need me to do, sir.”
Rufus Terrell’s sons were not happy, but they didn’t really have a choice, they could accept their father’s decision or leave. Six months later, Willie Davenport, a bar owner from Atlanta came knocking at Lucas’s door.
“Hey Willie, what brings you to Dawsonville?” Lucas asked.
“Somebody bought a hit on Rufus.
“Do you know who?” Lucas asked.
“Nope, one of my bartenders overheard part of a conversation and when he told me, I figured you’d want to know as soon as possible. He didn’t recognize the guy who paid for it, but knows the guy who took it. ”
“Who might that be?”
“Mickey LeDeoux, he’s a real nutcase, meaner than two rattlesnakes tied together and more deadly. People say he was in the Marines and was tortured by the Japanese in a prisoner of war camp. He loves pain, whether he’s inflicting it or receiving it, makes most of his money breaking bone for loan sharks.”
“Where do I find this Mickey LeDeoux?” Lucas asked.
“He’s always around,” Willie responded, “Be careful Lucas, I know you can handle yourself, but I got a bad feeling with this guy.”
Lucas was sitting at the bar when Willie caught his attention and nodded toward the front entrance when Mickey LeDeoux walked in. He was about the same age as Lucas, mid-twenties, his hair was still cut military style and he was stocky with a thick neck and a square jaw. There was a long jagged scar on his right cheek and his hands were big and his fingers were bent and twisted from being broken by his Japanese captors.
When two patrons didn’t step out of his way fast enough, Mickey pushed them aside. Lucas stepped off the barstool and walked over, “I’ve got a business offer for you.”
Mickey LeDeoux sized up Lucas and commented, “Let’s hear it.”
Lucas and Mickey walked over to a corner table and sat down, “Somebody paid you to kill Rufus Terrell, I need to know who that was,” Lucas said calmly.
“I don’t know nuthin’ about that, you a cop or something?” Mickey grunted.
“I heard that you’re a tough guy,” Lucas pulled out a stack of hundred dollar bills and set them on the table, “Five thousand dollars, if you beat me, you keep the money, if I beat you and I get the name.”
The two men went out the back door, Lucas tossed the money to Willie who was a step behind, “If he beats me, give it to him.”
“When I beat you, not if,” Willie smiled through yellow broken teeth.
Both former Marines faced off against each other and held their open hands up to show they did not have anything in them. They circled each other until Mickey stepped forward with his fists up. Lucas faked a punch to Mickey’s solar plexus and when he dropped his arms just enough, he unleashed a crashing right cross, followed by a powerful left hook then drove a vicious uppercut to Mickey’s jaw that lifted him off his feet and knocked him unconscious. Willie got a bucket of water and dumped it on Mickey’s face to revive him.
When Mickey came to, Lucas asked, “I need that name.”
Mickey spit out a mouthful of blood, “He didn’t give me his name.”
“I’ll need his description then.”
Mickey described the man who paid him to kill Rufus Terrell and Lucas turned to leave as his beaten adversary reached in his jacket and pulled out a his military issue .45 caliber pistol and pointed it at Lucas, “It would be bad for my business if anybody found out how easily you whupped me then lived to talk about it.”
“Don’t do it,” Lucas warned.
Mickey pulled the trigger, but nothing happened then extracted the magazine and saw that there were no bullets in it.”
“I emptied it while you were unconscious. I was giving you the option to walk away, but you took that off the table. Semper Fi, Marine,” Lucas pulled out the same model of pistol and shot Mickey through the forehead.
“I’ll get rid of the body,” Willie volunteered.
On the ride back to Dawsonville, Lucas thought about what he was going to do next and only one thing made sense to him. He stopped off at Rufus Terrell’s southern style mansion and told him about his meeting with Mickey LeDeoux and relayed the description of the man who paid for the hit.
Two months later, Lamar Terrell decided to leave Dawsonville for Tampa, Florida and the fact that he matched the description of the man who paid for the hit was only a coincidence…or was it?
When a crime syndicate from New York decided to expand their illegal operations down the Eastern Seaboard and into the South, they wasted little time encroaching in on the Terrell empire. These men were ruthless and operated under a different philosophy than the Terrell organization. They exerted brute force and intimidation to get what they wanted, while Rufus and Lucas took care of their people and instilled loyalty in their workers and customers.
Lucas knew that an attack on Rufus Terrell was eminent so he hired some combat veterans and created a security team to protect his boss. While this was happening, Lucas decided to go on the offensive. He bought four 1950 Mercurys and had local mechanics make some modifications to the vehicles. Thirty caliber machine guns were mounted inside the cars, two facing forward and two facing backward. A control panel was mounted on the dashboard so that the drivers could fire each weapon individually or simultaneously.
Lucas was driving one of these war wagons one night when the moon was full and the stars were out, pretending to be a ‘tripper’ when he was ambushed along a dirt road near Roswell, Georgia. One car pulled out in front of him and slowed down, another got behind him and tapped his bumper. The third vehicle came up on his driver’s side, “Pull it over!”
Lucas reached down and pressed the button and riddled the front and back cars with bullets, then reached over and picked up a Thompson 45 caliber machine gun and took out the last car. When he got back to Dawsonville, his instincts told him that a major attack was forthcoming so he prepared accordingly. Lucas learned some harsh lessons on Guadalcanal on defending terrain and it was time to use those same tricks again. Sentries were stationed at strategic locations around property with specific instructions. When one of them shot up a flare, Lucas and his strike team were ready to go. They ambushed the intru in an open field and killed or wounded all eleven men. Lucas bent down next to a man who had a bullet in his shoulder, and exerted pressure on the wound with his hand, “Tell me what I need to know and I won’t let you bleed out.”
The attack on the headquarters for the bootlegging gangsters in Brooklyn, New York was methodical in its operation and went off without a hitch. Everyone in the building was eliminated and the place was burned to the ground. Lucas and his men quickly returned to Georgia and the situation was revolved.
Bill France Sr. had started NASCAR on February 21, 1948 and struggled to keep it going, but once Rufus Terrell became his silent partner and invested several millions dollars, stock car racing escalated to prominence in a very short time.
Lucas began racing with former ‘trippers’; Herb Thomas, Lee Petty, Fireball Roberts and Tim Flock, and just like when he was on the back roads of Georgia running Moonshine in the Moonlight, he was as Smooth as Liquid Mercury on the track.