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THE WORLD ACCORDING TO HOOTER MCCORMICK -- ALTERNATIVE FUEL

by: Wes Ishmael

“Delmar, you around here anywhere?” shouted Hooter through the front door. Tripping over the assorted debris on the way up the walk, Hooter had just about decided it wasn't worth it. But this was serious. Gas over $3 a gallon. Something had to give.

“Delmar!” shouted Hooter again. Still no answer. Hooter knew Delmar had to be around somewhere because the faded purple 70's model El Dorado was in the drive. It was before noon, so Hooter figured he must still be around the house. Delmar Jacobs was known as something of a night owl, after all, what with his propensity for partaking of the fruits of the vine, as Delmar liked to term it.

Long as anyone could remember, Delmar was just Delmar, nice as they came and always at least half sozzled. He'd been in one business and out of another over the years, not because they were failures, but because he got bored fairly easily. The last one anyone could remember was Delmar's junk business, which by the looks of the yard, he'd be able to open up again at a moment's notice.

Fact was, though, despite his casualness about organization and upkeep, Delmar was pretty well off. He'd made his share of good trades over the years, and the oil wells on his land didn't hurt, either. What folks tended to forget, because Delmar gave them every reason to, is that he was sharp as they came when he wanted to be. He even had an advanced degree in chemical engineering that he'd never used, exactly. That's why Hooter had come.

After banging on the door a few more times, Hooter wandered back out to his pickup and laid on the horn. Soon enough, Hooter saw Delmar weave his way out of a shed.

“Hey—ahhh—Heya Hoo—Hoot—Hooter,” came the greeting with a looping wave.

“Lord, Delmar, I was starting to wonder if you were dead. What are you doing out and about so early?”

“Just a little (hiccup) project. You?”

“I came for some advice, Delmar. I need some help.”

Delmar looked as if he might cry for an instant. He wasn't used to anyone asking him about what he thought about anything. “Have a seat,” said Delmar, motioning to a moldy hay bale that had lost its way from Delmar's pickup. “I'll do what I (hiccup) can.”

How Hard Could It Be?

“You've got a chemistry degree don't you?”

Delmar looked touched all over again. “Yep. Mo—mo—people forget that. Happ—happiest days of my life in school.”

“And, you still make a little of your own shine, don't you?”

“Well now, that'd be agai—again—(hiccup)—illegal, strictly speakin'.” He gave Hooter an exaggerated wink. “I think of it more as pharm—pharm—pharm…”

“Medicinal supply,” interrupted Hooter.

“Yep.”

“See, here's the thing, Delmar. I got me an idea. With gas being so high, I got to wondering about making some of my own fuel. That got me to thinking about ethanol, which got me to thinking about stills, and that got me to thinking about you. You reckon you could look at some plans I drew up, see if you think it would work?”

Delmar looked like a puppy that's just learned how to catch, staring at a new ball. Quicker than Hooter would have guessed was possible Delmar was on his feet and heading back to the shed with some purpose in his step. “C'mon.”

Hooter had been by Delmar's a million times over the years. He'd been over most of Delmar's place, too. He'd never been in the shed where Delmar was heading, though. It wasn't that big, holes in roof, looked like it was about to fall down.

“Over here,” said Delmar in the darkness. “You have to prom-prom—don't tell anybody.”

Hooter never would know for sure what button or lever Delmar pulled or pushed, but there was suddenly the sound of creaking wood and scraping metal and a flood of light rushed up from the floor of the shed. It looked like Delmar's silhouette was getting shorter and shorter, then Hooter realized he was going down some steps.

“C'mon,” came Delmar's voice from below.

Hooter eased his way down the steps. Before he got to the bottom there was the noise of wood and metal again. When his eyes adjusted to the light he couldn't believe what he was seeing. It was like a laboratory, spotlessly clean, stainless steel and copper pipes and tubes, blinking lights and corridors trailing off into darkness in three different directions. “But Delmar, how…what…when…”

“Man's got to tin—tink—tinker,” slurred Delmar. “Try this.”

Hooter eyed the metal thermos. There was a piece of white tape on the side with some kind of chemical equation.

“Go on,” said Delmar.

“Well, I don't know, Delmar, all I wanted was a little advice.”

“Here let me (hiccup) show you.” Delmar pried the lid off and took a hard draw. Instead of handing it back as Hooter expected, though, Delmar poured some of the clear liquid out onto a wood cutting board. He struck a match, threw it onto the puddle and a brilliant blue flame exploded to life, then disappeared.

“See that?” he asked Hooter.

“Yeah.”

“All blue.”

“Yeah.” Hooter wasn't sure where the conversation was going and Delmar could tell.

“If there's other colors, ain't pure. Mine's pu—pur (hiccup) pure.” He handed the thermos back. “Go on.”

Hooter took a sip expecting the worse. It was smooth as silk, kind of a sweet taste that seemed familiar. “That's right good, Delmar. What's in it?”

“This and that. Mostly prickly—prickly—mostly cactus.”

“That's what I was tasting,” said Hooter. “Pear. You've got prickly pear in there. I couldn't quite place it, but that puts me in mind of the jelly Aunt Pinky used to make.”

Delmar looked pleased. He retrieved the jug for another swig. Before he could hand it back, though, Hooter said, “Now, about these plans, Delmar. Maybe if I just spread it out on the table here.”

Hooter rolled out his blueprint in the time it took Delmar to take another sip. Peering over the top of the thermos, Delmar announced, “Won't work.”

“Huh?”

“Won't work,” said Delmar, leaning over the plans. “What you've got here is an old pot still. What you're wanting is high-octane fuel. These old pot stills won't produce a pure enough grade of alcohol for that. Besides which, the net energy coefficient is all upside down. See?”

Hooter's mouth was hanging open in amazement. He not only couldn't understand what Delmar was saying, he was awestruck at how Delmar was saying it. He'd never heard him talk without stutters and slurs before. It was as if Delmar was an entirely different man as he considered the plans.

Delmar recognized the confusion on Hooter's face. Instead of trying to explain, he just handed the thermos back to him.

“Back in the day, I messed around with some of this ethanol stuff, some methanol, too. You want to stay away from that wood alcohol. For one thing, the molecular weight is about 32, now what's that tell you? Only about half of the molecule actually burns. It's not great, but there's more relative heat value to ethanol. With me?”

Hooter just nodded and took another sip.

“What you need is a reflux still or a variation of it,” continued Delmar, obviously warming up to the task at hand. “You see, in basic terms the reflux system gives you more internal surface area for condensation. If you build one with a series of columns and do things right, by the time you collect the distillate it's already pure enough to burn in an engine. Any questions?”

Hooter's head had a disembodied feel to it. From time to time, he could swear there were two Delmars when he knew there was only one. Still, he managed to say, “What syst—syst—system do you use?”

Delmar beamed. “Well, I started with what they call a Cellier-Blumenthal still, and I made some variations off it. Gives you continues operation, you know. Both space and fuel-efficient. Plus, with a reflux column and overhead condenser I can build a circuit depending on what my needs are.”

“Uh…huh…”

“Here, let me show you the results,” said Delmar, grabbing a tray of six smaller thermoses. “These are all from the same batch, but from different holding tanks along the circuit. We'll just try these two, from the first and last, that'll give you the idea.”

Delmar took a swig from one of the jugs and passed it to Hooter. “Tastes a lot like the one I gave you to begin with. That's from the first holding tank, so it's pure, but nearly as pure as this one.” He picked up another thermos and took a long draw. Then handed it to Hooter, who promptly slid to the floor.

“Kic—Kiiiicks, don't it?” said Delmar.

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