Note: A prologue from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
We all know about it. Many of us partake, and many of us have related funny stories that resulted from our partaking; there’s an old joke that goes “…no really great story ever began with ‘a bunch of us were sitting around eating some salad when…’” Booze may in fact be one of the wellsprings of civilization. It arose out of the beginnings of divisions of labor, it helped make water from questionable sources safe to drink, and it went on to produce fine wines, great whiskeys, and extraordinary beers.
Every silver lining, however, has a great big cloud, and it’s the cloud, not the lining, that produces the fantastic stories referred to above.
I think I was twelve or so when a buddy of mine met me in the woods and produced a can of beer he had smuggled out of his Dad’s refrigerator. Mind you, this was a July day in northeast Iowa, with temps well into the nineties. My buddy met me in the upper meadow on my folk’s place after a three-mile walk from his family’s farm, and from his knapsack produced one – only one – can of Schlitz.
The can wasn’t warm to the touch. It was hot. “Are you going to try some?” my buddy asked. My bravado kicked in. “Sure!”
The can foamed over when we opened it. After shaking off the foam, we each sampled the brew. Schlitz isn’t really a premium beer in the best of conditions and serving it at a simmer isn’t the best way to experience beer for the first time. Both of us gagged a little, realizing suddenly why some folks referred to cheap beers as “horsepiss.” We dumped the rest of the can in the grass and went on about our business.
Later on, though, as I went through my teens, I developed a keen appreciation of beers served properly – that is, in a red Solo cup, filled from a keg laying in a box of ice set on the open tailgate of a pickup truck. My friends likewise developed a fondness for the stuff.
That led us to a number of questionable adventures.
In Those Days:
It was common for my buddies and I, in the years right after attaining our majority, to take what most people called “the weekend” and turn it into a mobile earthquake of drunken excess. Not just beer, mind you, but often a cheap blended whiskey like the old Black Velvet – or occasionally some clear stuff bought in Mason jars from two elderly members of the extensive Duffy clan who had been engaged in the corn-squeezin’ trade since Prohibition. Beer was whatever was on sale – the great American classics like Schmidt, Hamm’s, and Falstaff, among others. Our taste was tempered by poverty, and we were more than willing to sacrifice quality for volume.
As time went on, most of us got real jobs – that is to say, town jobs, where we actually got a regular paycheck – and we started being able to do things like drink cheap beer and bad whiskey in bars, instead of sitting on the tailgate of a pickup down along the river someplace.
That led to some of the usual shenanigans teenaged boys got up to in those days. A few fights, a few ejections from bars by big farm kids just a year or two older than us who signed on as bouncers. In fact, there were two guys who owned almost every bar in the area and, ever summer, hired a bunch of big, tough rural kids who had just graduated high school to work as bouncers. One summer I did a stint at that job myself and began to feel a little sympathy for the guys who had ejected my drunken form from a watering hole or two. So did most of my pals.
Not that we let that interfere with our own forays. It may have calmed us down, though – a little.
And Then This Happened:
It all started in the nearby town of Decorah on a Thursday night. I had three days off work, and so left my Cedar Falls digs and decided to spend the weekend back in Allamakee County, hanging out with some friends, but as you’ll see, that wasn’t to be. That fateful Thursday evening, after spending the afternoon helping the Old Man with chores around the place and downing one of Mom’s wonderful suppers, I hopped on my motorcycle and headed into town to have a few cold ones – as I saw it, that being the only appropriate way to start a long weekend. As I rode away, I heard the Old Man call after me: “Be careful on that thing!” I waved and gunned the gas for town. I wasn’t worried. No nineteen-year-old ever is.
Parking my bike in the alley that ran behind the businesses along Water Street, Decorah’s main drag, I proceeded into the Corner Bar, one of my regular haunts. I went in, cozied up to the bar, and ordered a draw of something cheap.
And that’s where my memory ends.
My memory returns with waking up. My head was pounding as though a steam locomotive had taken up residence therein; my tongue felt as though the Red Army had just walked over it in their stocking feet. When I sat up, my stomach did a slow roll to starboard, settling back down only reluctantly. There was a dresser with a mirror across from me. I could see myself and winced at the view; my face had a distinct pallor, my eyes were yellow veined with red, and I had picked up a beautiful shiner at some point or other.
A quick look around the room: I didn’t recognize it. I didn’t recognize the bed I was in. I didn’t recognize the young woman snoozing blissfully beside me, reeking of tequila.
I found my jeans, pulled them on, and went into what was obviously the small living room of a cheap second-floor apartment, where I had a quick look out the window. I didn’t recognize the town I was in.
“Well, shit,” I said quietly to myself.
Turning at the sound of bare feet padding across the floor, I saw the young lady from the bedroom walking towards me, pulling on a cheap bathrobe that managed to conceal very little. She greeted me and I realized she knew my name; that was awkward, as I couldn’t remember hers. “You want some breakfast?”
“Sure,” I replied. “You know, this is going to sound funny, but…” I indicated the window.
“You were wondering where you are?” she giggled.
“Minneapolis,” she said.
“Where did we meet?”
“Rochester. Friday afternoon. Before you ask, it’s Sunday morning now.”
“Rochester?” My stomach did another slow roll. I suddenly realized I had ridden my motorcycle from Decorah to Rochester, a seventy-mile trip, when I was too drunk to remember doing so.
“Yeah. You were pretty smashed when we met.”
“I bet.” I took another look out the window. “Where’s my bike?”
“Outside. In the back of my pickup.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. At least I had been coherent enough not to abandon my transportation.
“Ham and eggs OK?”
I figured I’d better try to eat something before attempting the ride back to Allamakee County. “Sure.”
Determined to make a difficult morning of it, my stomach protested at accepting food, but I managed to browbeat it into submission. As the young lady, still in her bathrobe, was clearing away dishes, I said, “I guess I’d better be heading home. Got a long way to go.”
“Expected you would,” she said. She strolled back to the kitchen table and put her hand on my arm. Leaning over, she said softly, “sure you don’t want to take another spin before you go?”
Leaning forward in front of me as she was, the bathrobe concealed even less. Being miserably hung over, I was slightly surprised to find myself responding – physically. Nineteen-year-old bodies are, after all, very resilient. “Sure. Why not?”
I left an hour later, still hung over but relieved to have at least one pleasant memory from the weekend.
Oh, and I never did find out her name.
I arrived back at the folks’ house in a contemplative mood. The Old Man said nothing; he just gave me one of those paternal looks, with the raised eyebrow. The folks were accustomed to my being absent for several days at a time and, as the Old Man told me years later, figured they were better off not knowing what I’d been up to.
Even so: Even at nineteen, I realized that I was lucky to have survived that trip from Decorah to Rochester. For the next year or so, my drinking settled on a much more reasonable level.
Some lessons don’t last, though. A couple of years later I found myself in the old U.S. Army Field Medical school at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, training for my 91A MOS. On the first weekend we were allowed to go into town, our tough old First Sergeant gave us a fifteen-minute “safety briefing” which included such Army classics as “flies cause disease, so keep yours closed!” At the end of the briefing, he shouted at us, “now, I’ll tell you this – there are at least a hundred big trucks that bring beer into San Antonio every weekend. There’s no way you sons of bitches are going to drink all of it.”
That didn’t stop us from trying.
As It Ended Up…
These days my imbibing is definitely modest. I enjoy a beer or two with my lunch on Saturdays, and on some occasions, I’ll kill a six-pack over a weekend. I also enjoy a nip of good whiskey now and then.
Age does take its toll, after all, and these days it takes a lot longer to recover from a binge than it used to. But, once in a while, the old Animal, the one from those long-ago days, grows restive, and I find I must let him off the leash for a bit, and those sessions usually involve beer and plenty of it. Mrs. Animal knows this, is tolerant of it, and on a few occasions has even joined in – including a notable bout in the Japanese city of Utsonomia, where we went afield with two of my colleagues and ended up staggering back to the hotel at 3:00 AM – when we had to catch a 6:00 AM shinkansen for Ueno and the airport.
Yes, booze has played a significant role in human history. I’m just doing my part to add my own little chapter to the story.