Under the Table  
A Fictional Memoir of Growing Up With Beer

November 13, 2006

First Tastes

Chapter: 12 — J @ 11:14 pm

Did you ever taste beer?”
“I had a sip of it once.,” said the servant.
“Here’s a state of things!”! cried Mr. Swiveller ….
“She never tasted it — it can’t be tasted in a sip!

     — Charles Dickens

The other opportunities that my church afforded, ironically enough, was both my first taste of beer and my first fumblings with the opposite sex. The youth wing of the Lutheran Church had set up a church camp somewhere near the middle of Pennsylvania, in the middle of nowhere. For the insubstantial sum of $30, my parents could ship me off for a week to get closer to god. The camp brought kids of ages something like twelve through fifteen together for a week’s stay in cabins in the woods. The kids came from Lutheran churches all over eastern Pennsylvania.

But the people running the camps were all idealistic ex-hippies and young college students trying to put into practice the lessons of the Sixties. So in most cases, the people charged with our spiritual well-being and care were less than ten years older than we were. And they were all of a certain bent: liberated, progressive and idealistic.

They created a curriculum with the same new age leanings as our catechism workbooks. We played games to teach us life lessons. We were separated into small tribal groups for the week, and we were pitted against one another in both cooperative exercises as well as competitive. The first of these I recall was a treasure hunt with clues that when successfully interpreted led to the next clue to be figured out. This went on all afternoon until finally you reached the final destination. My group happily had worked well together from the outset, and we rolled into the camp’s main area before the other groups had figured out all of the clues. Our reward was large sheets of Jell-O cut into small squares. As each subsequent group arrived back at camp, we were encouraged to pelt them with Jell-O. As more and more groups made it back, the remaining groups were hit by greater numbers of Jell-O-wielding teenagers eager to dish out the same punishment they’d received. It was a great way to begin.

Another exercise simply involved us each lying on the ground in turn, boy-girl, with each person laying their head on the stomach of previous person so that once we were all on the floor it created a chain of kids where the last boy ended up with his head on the stomach of the first girl. Then the instructors did something I can’t recall to make the first person laugh, which sent waves of giggling quickly through the rest of until in very short order we were all howling with laughter. That same night, we also played my first game of spin the bottle. If this was church, I was certainly enjoying it.

I made some new friends. The closest was a group of two girls and another boy. They were from somewhere near Allentown, I believe, and had come to camp together. Todd and Debbie were a couple, itself an oddity in junior high, and their friend Kathy and I hit it off immediately. Soon the four of us were inseparable.

The camp itself was new and parts were still being built. There was the ubiquitous lake with rowboats and canoes. Cabins were the same as at my Boy Scout camp, wooden platform frames with heavy canvas tents stretched over them. They were big tents, with enough room for two rows of four or five cots where we slept. The only completed building was the kitchen and dining area, which had enough tables and chairs to seat everybody in the camp. There were a few others that had a foundation and a roof, but were open on three or four sides. If they were planning on finishing them, I could not tell. But they worked well in the hot, humid Pennsylvania summers, especially when it rained but remained quite warm.

There was also a large central bathroom that we all used. It was split in two, with boys and girls on opposite sides. This was the first year the camp was built, but already one of the first things the group of boys previous to us had done, was carefully drill holes in carefully hidden places so that we could peek into the girls’ shower. This was, for almost all of us, our first glimpse into the world of naked women, at least women not in magazines. These were girls we actually knew and talked to every day. That made it a very different experience. Seeing them in all their glory made them somewhat less mysterious and perhaps made us a little more confident. We still didn’t know what delights were concealed under the thick rugs of pubic hair, but we knew we liked looking at them. We were especially drawn to their breasts, of course, which were new, small and very pert. They appeared like freshly grown plants whose blooms had just broken the surface of the ground, pushing up toward the light. Gravity had not yet taken hold of their breasts, and they seemed almost like alien creatures, but ones we very much wanted to introduce ourselves to.

One night mid-week, each group headed out of camp for an overnight camping trip with sleeping bags and pup tents. I had again paired up with Kathy and along with Todd and Debbie. The four of us were going to share a tent. Kathy was a very attractive girl, with curly blond hair. She dressed in hippie clothes, very much in the fashion of the day. I was smitten, of course, but was trying to play it cool. Still, we all got along and were having a great day when it was time to retire to our tents for the evening.

All was fine at first, with the two girlfriends in the middle and Todd and my sleeping bags flanking them on the outside. We talked for a bit, but fell asleep easily. It had been a full day, and we were all tired. But then, at some point later in the evening it started to rain. Softly, at first, but then it turned into a thunderstorm. We woke with a start when a crack of lightning sounded frighteningly close to our tent. Todd and I both had the edges of our sleeping beds wet, so we closed up ranks and huddled together in the center of the tent where, at least for the time being, it was still dry. The thunder and lightning continued loudly, and that coupled with the uncertainty of whether the water would continue to rise on our tent, kept us wide awake and talking nervously.

Todd unzipped his sleeping back and sat up in the tent. We all followed suit. He then reached for his backpack, pulling a couple of cans of Yuengling, which he told us he’d nabbed from the kitchen before heading out on our hike today. I don’t know if any of them had any experience with beer before, but mine had only been the near beer in our basement refrigerator. Todd popped the top of one of them and handed it to me. He opened a second can and handed it to Debbie. She took a quick gulp and handed it back to Todd.

Kathy looked at me expectantly, and I handed it over to her. She took a sip and gave it back. I looked at the opening, then back at her, as she licked her lips to recapture a few escaping drops of beer. I remember Eddie and all the horrible things drinking had caused my mother and me, and then looked back at Kathy. It was no contest. I lifted the can to my lips, and tilted it back, letting the golden liquid spill into my mouth. It was sweeter than I’d been expecting, and a lot better than I remembered the near beer tasting. It may have been the surroundings, but I felt a rush. The thunder boomed again, and Kathy grabbed my arm and pulled me to her, burying her face in my chest. I instinctively wrapped an arm around her and took another sip of Yuengling.

We shared the two cans and then Todd opened two more, the extent of his stash. But we were all drunk as far as I could tell. We were all rocking back and forth, slurring our words and talking nonsense. The thunder and lightning seemed to have moved on. We could still hear it, but it was sounding farther and father away. We had no idea what time it was, but none us felt tired. Todd and Debbie both got into Debbie’s dry sleeping bag and began making out, leaving me and Kathy to fend for ourselves.

I could only barely make out her features in the dim moonlight that cast long, faint shadows across the side of the tent. I had no idea what to do, so I sat there for what seemed an eternity. I knew what I wanted to do, because I liked Kathy. And I had a pretty good idea Todd and Debbie were having a much better time than we were at that moment. I was feeling the effects the beer, but I was in uncharted waters of experience. I thought back to the church dances and how hard it was just to ask a girl to dance. Here I was almost alone in the dark woods with a girl I liked, who seemed to like me, and with whom I’d just shared my first beer.

Kathy must have sensed my hesitation or maybe she just gave up waiting for me to do something, anything. I felt her inch closer to me so that I could feel her breath on my cheek. She put her hands on my shoulders and I turned to face her in the moonlight. Before I knew what had hit me her lips were on mine and I kissed her back. She slipped her tongue into my mouth, which startled me at first, but I recovered quickly and reciprocated. After a few minutes of this, she pulled me down onto her sleeping bag and we continued making out passionately, at least for thirteen-year olds.

I could hear Todd and Debbie next to us, but could only imagine what they were doing. I certainly wanted to know, but they’d been boyfriend and girlfriend when camp started so I knew it was different between them. But maybe it was the drink, or the driving rain tapping on the tent and even something more. Whatever the reason, Kathy broke away from me turning to unzip her sleeping bag. She motioned me to get in with her and I did as quietly as I could. I was facing the zippered side, and pulled it up to seal us inside. When I awkwardly turned my body to face hers, she pulled me in close again and we began making out once more.

I was shaking with nervousness and trying not to let it show. Kathy whispered in my ear and asked me if I was all right. I lied and said I was cold from being wet, kissing her hard on the mouth in the hopes of deflecting the issue. She immediately put her palms on my chest, pushing us apart. She reached up and whispered to me again. “Let’s take off our clothes then.” She began unbuttoning my shirt, which took my nervousness to new heights. When I was bare-chested, she began working on her own top. I heard the snap of her bra coming off and felt it graze the top of my head as she tossed it outside of the sleeping bag. I felt as if I might faint.

I didn’t know what to do next, of course, or what to expect. She pulled me into her again and found my lips with her own. Her small breasts pressed into my chest. I could feel her body heave into mine with each breath. I knew what she looked like naked thanks to the camp’s shower, and I tried to visualize what I remembered seeing there. We both had on our pants and I kept my distance there hoping she wouldn’t notice that I had an erection unlike any other I’d experienced. I didn’t want to scare or her and quite frankly I was a little afraid myself, being completely unsure of what to do anyway.

Kathy began kissing my neck and not knowing what else to do, I did likewise which made her moan softly. I stroked her curly hair with one hand and planted kisses on her neck and ear. She took my other hand and pulled it up so it was resting on her breast, squeezing the back of my hand over it. She let go and I grabbed a hold of it once more, feeling her nipple against my palm. I knew that much more of this and I’d have a gooey mess in my shorts. It was obvious she was much more experienced than I was. I had no clue what I was doing and just let her take control.

We continued making out as the rain pelted the tent with a staccato drumbeat. Although I continued shaking uncontrollably, I was having the time of my life. She asked me again what was wrong and I admitted I was nervous. She whispered not to worry then placed her hand squarely on my erection and began rubbing it up and down through my pants. I though I had died and gone to heaven. Her lips returned to mine and our tongues intertwined. I continued fighting a losing battle with my inexperience. At some point I just gave up and tried to enjoy myself, which admittedly wasn’t too difficult. I cupped her breasts again played with the nipples, feeling their hardness between my thumb and forefinger. She had mercifully removed her hand from my hard-on, which gave me some hope that I might not embarrass myself. Sadly, it was not to be. After a few minutes more of groping in the sleeping bag, her hand returned once more to my pants. It was more than I could bear, and I ejaculated almost immediately.

Afterward, I went limp and she again asked me what was the matter. I replied by apologizing and trying to get her to understand what had happened without coming out and saying it. Once she figured it out, she was quite sympathetic, which I very much appreciated. She told me not to worry and that it would be our secret. She held me close and we fell asleep to the sound of only the rain against our tent.

The next morning, Todd and Debbie pretended not to have known anything, though I suppose it’s possible they were too focused on themselves to notice. Certainly I forgot all about them being right next to us, so it didn’t seem too far-fetched. The rain had stopped sometime after we’d fallen asleep, but the ground was still wet. We hiked back to camp silently, though Kathy and I exchanged knowing glances. For the rest of the week, Kathy acted as if we were a couple, like she was my girlfriend. It felt nice, and although we did make out a few more times, we never again felt the intimacy of that night in the rain, drunk on Yuengling. She never returned to church camp in subsequent years, and so I never saw her again after that summer, though I do often think of her whenever I see a bottle of Yuengling beer.

On to Chapter 13

November 12, 2006

Band Aids

Chapter: 13 — J @ 11:16 pm

One drink is just right,
two are too many,
three too few

     — Spanish saying

The summer after church camp found eighth grade no better than seventh, although as I grew older my ability to stay safely away from home increased. It was becoming easier and easier to have legitimate reasons to not be home, I tool advantage of as many of these as I could. Eddie was coming home drunk more and more frequently and his violent outbursts likewise increased, too. The percentages were making the safe bet simply to stay away.

I joined a local community band that during the summer was routinely hired by city fire departments to march in parades all across the state. You had to be fourteen to march with them, though I actually began practicing with them at thirteen but had a birthday before the next summer parade season. Actually, a girl I knew and had fooled around with introduced me to the band, as she was a year older than me and had been with them the previous summer.

We’d met at a party that I threw at Bushie’s house during the winter after eighth grade began. I don’t remember there being any particular occasion other than to create an opportunity for my friends and me to interact with girls, an ever-increasing preoccupation. I decided to have it at my grandmother’s house because, besides being an ideal location, it was safer than in Eddie’s house since I didn’t want to expose potential girlfriends to him or scare them off if Eddie turned violent while they were there.

My grandfather, along with my real father and his two brothers, actually built the house that Bushie still lived in and made an ideal place for a party. It was a large, stone home with a two-car garage. The basement was as big as the ground floor, and contained, in addition to the garage, six separate rooms. There was a coal cellar, a laundry room, a furnace room, a storage room, a room where Bushie kept nothing but plants and a large rec. room, complete with a large stone fireplace. Oh, and there were closets and a bathroom, too. It could easily have been fixed up to be separate living quarters as long as you didn’t mind the smell of oil in the winter.

Maybe three-dozen friends showed up, along with Jill Metz, the older sister of Ellen, a girl in my class. We had punch my grandmother made, A-Treat sodas, along with a spread of snacks I put together with mother’s help. Bushie was there to act as chaperone, but she stayed upstairs the entire time and never once checked in on us.

Left to our own devices, we started a fire in the fireplace and played music on my portable record player. We tried to get some dancing going but that didn’t really work out. A friend of mine started snooping around and discovered a case of Heineken in the garage. I’d never actually seen my grandmother drink, so I didn’t really know who it belonged to. In any event, we opened a few of the bottles and poured the beer into the paper punch cups so even if Bushie did come downstairs, she wouldn’t be able to tell. I knew at some point I’d get caught because the bottles in the returnable case would be empty, but I figured I could either blame someone else or suck it up and take my punishment. My grandmother was a very forgiving person and as long as I could keep her from telling my mother I figured I’d be okay. Plus, in the back of mind I kept replaying what had happened the last time I had beer with girls around and decided whatever my ultimate punishment might be would be worth it.

None of us had much experience with any kind of booze and so we all felt some effects from the beer pretty quickly. I didn’t really like the taste of the Heineken, especially compared to the Yuengling, but it was still better than near beer. Somebody suggested post office and that started things going. There were several mostly empty closets in my grandmother’s basement and they turned out to be ideal for a lively game of post office. Several people paired off and we didn’t see them for the rest of the night. The rest of us just sat around and talked and drank in front of the fire. I got talking to Ellen’s sister Jill, who it turned out was just one year older than all of us. I was having a hard time trying not to stare at her very large chest. She had enormous breasts for a ninth grader, especially compared to Kathy’s, the only other pair I had any intimate knowledge of. Jill also played in the band so I’d seen her before, but we didn’t really have any mutual friends. At the age we were then, people in different grades rarely mixed.

She must have noticed me staring at one point, and asked if she could have some more beer. I told her I’d have to get another bottle, and she got up to follow me into the garage. I bent down to grab another Heineken and when I turned around and stood, Jill moved in and kissed me on the lips, throwing her arms around me. She jabbed her tongue into my mouth and we made out like that until we heard the door to the garage begin to creak open. We jumped apart just in time to see Ellen come through the door holding another boy’s hand. The two sisters looked at one another knowingly, and Jill and I exited the garage.

As we got back to the main room, she pulled me aside and into the plant room, where the closet door stood open. She peered inside and grabbed my hand to draw me into the empty closet. I shut the door behind me and we started making out. I’m not sure how long we were in there but it must have been close to an hour. Like Kathy, she also liked having her neck kissed so I decided I needed to remember that trick. I feeling a little bit more confident than the last time I was in a similar situation and I at least managed to keep from shaking. I also figured I had nothing to lose since Jill had pulled me in here and so I reached out to touch her breast. When that was met with no resistance, I put my other hand under her shirt and then under her bra. She unbuttoned her shirt to give me a clear shot and then unsnapped her bra in the front. I grabbed both of her breasts gently at first and then more firmly. They felt different than Kathy’s. They were much larger, of course, but they were also spongier, they would push out from the sides whenever my hands squeezed them. And Jill’s skin was oilier and not quite as smooth. It was also rougher, like goose bumps.

She pushed my head down toward her breasts and I thought I knew what she wanted. I kissed each breast and tasted the nipples like I’d seen in my stepfather’s porno magazines. It felt good and Jill seemed to like it, too. Eventually, we heard noises outside the closet and she buttoned herself back up before rejoining the group back by the fireplace. Jill and I talked on the phone after that and told one another we were going steady but in an age before either of us could drive, we never really spent any time together except for band practice every Tuesday night. Jill invited me to join the Wyomissing Band as a way for us to see each other at least once a week. So that was the only place we’d get a chance to see one another outside of school. It was also the only place we found where we could make out during breaks. It didn’t last very long and we broke up after only a couple of months, but I got the band in the settlement, so to speak. I had invited some of my own friends to band practice so when we stopped seeing each other, Jill stopped coming to band practice, but I kept going every week for the next five years, until I graduated from high school and joined the Army band.

Shortly after we emerged from the closet, parents started arriving to pick up their teenagers, and my grandmother came downstairs to greet them. She helped me clean up after everyone had left and Eddie picked me up shortly after that. He’d had a few drinks in him, but seemed in relatively good spirits. He never said too much to Bushie, probably because she was the mother of my father, and Eddie was a very jealous person. But he was never really mean to her either. She did, after all, allow him to have most weekends alone with my mother and that must have counted for something, even to Eddie’s warped reasoning.

Less than two blocks from Bushie’s house, at the bottom of a hill across from a creek at the entrance to the town of Mohnton was the Pennwyn Club, one of the few suburban bars Eddie liked to frequent. He generally seemed to prefer the city bars, but the Pennwyn Club was his kind of place. It was a key club, meaning you had to be a member just to get in the place. To become a member, someone had to sponsor you, I think, and one of our neighbors had showed Eddie the place right after we’d moved to Shillington.

Key clubs also had an annual fee, but once you were a member, the cost was much cheaper than other bars, both the booze and food. And best of all, key clubs could stay open around the clock, twenty-four hours a day. They were a throwback and no longer legal, but the ones that existed before the law changed — like the Pennwyn Club — were grandfathered in and could continue to exist as before. This meant they were the only places where alcohol could be served legally after 2:00 a.m. and before the bars opened again the next day. There were hardly any of them left, unfortunately, but Eddie belonged to both of the ones I knew about, the other one being in Reading.

Eddie pulled into the Pennwyn Club unexpectedly, saying he needed to talk to someone there. Not one to contradict him, I followed him into the bar. Inside there were few people there, surprising for a Saturday night, but this was Mohnton after all, not exactly a bustling metropolis. Eddie told me to grab a seat and we went to the bar and talked to a man I didn’t know behind the bar. After a few minutes he returned with a beer for himself and Coke for me.

“Drink that up.” Eddie told me. “Then chew this gum.” He laughed, throwing a stick on the table. “We don’t want you mother to know you’ve been drinking.” My head snapped up at his words, trying to look as innocent as possible. “Don’t worry.” He told me with a grin. “I won’t tell her.” I don’t know how he knew, but in retrospect I suppose a thirteen-year old with a buzz would have been pretty obvious to a man with Eddie’s experience with drinking.

It was confounding that he could be such a monster one moment and than such a seemingly good person the next. But it was in these moments I knew that there was a decent man lurking inside Eddie. That knowledge has made it difficult for me throughout the years to view anyone in narrow black and white terms. No one, it seems to me, is all good or all evil. No matter how terrible a person seems, there is invariably a good side in there, no matter how well hidden. And likewise, no one is all good, either. And while that’s made it hard for me to be taken in by a con man or fooled by a charlatan, it’s also made it difficult for me to open myself up to unconditional love. It took me a long time to reach a point where I could do that.

One of the first truly good people I met was actually the director of the Wyomissing Band, the man who Jill introduced me to when she invited me to join the band with her. Adam Weaver was a Vice-President of the local bank and worked at the same place as one of my great-uncles, Uncle Leon. When I first met Adam, he must have been in his fifties, but that’s just a guess. He had a full head of grey hair from the time we met. One of his daughters was in the class ahead of mine, but she was out of my league and a very popular girl in our school. Adam’s wife also worked in the cafeteria at the high school so I saw her nearly every day. And perhaps most surprisingly, he was the next-door neighbor of Frank, one of my best friends and one of my adopted families. We didn’t figure all that out at first, but gradually over time. One of my friends who also came to be involved with the band was Phil, a drummer, and the three of us started to traveling to parades together. Adam was one of those people who really came alive around young people, and could do so in the time before an older man palling around with teenagers too young to drive would give anyone pause. It was totally innocent and enriching for all of us. For my part, I loved knowing there was a man so utterly normal, decent and kind that it honestly gave me hope for a future of my own some day. Adam’s optimism, his outlook on life and his success in virtually everything he undertook was like a beacon to me. He was someone I could look up to, almost like a hero, but more down to earth and approachable. Adam was good for me and, according to him, Phil, me and our other friends who we eventually brought to the band, kept him feeling young and made him enjoy life just that much more. It was utterly healthy on both sides and one of the highlights of that time in my life.

The summer parade season became yet another way to escape the confines of my home life, and was something we looked forward to each spring. I don’t know if they still do it like they used to, or if it was something unique to Pennsylvania and nearby or not. It certainly seems strange now by today’s standards of entertainment. But there were a lot of small, isolated towns dotting the landscape around eastern Pennsylvania. All of the fire departments in these towns were made up almost entirely of volunteers. They were like clubs. Kids in our town started hanging around the fire station from an early age and then worked their way up to being part of the firemen. It wasn’t for me, but understood the appeal. They were big, close-knit extended families that provided a service to the community as a bonus.

Any time one of these firefighter units got a new piece of equipment, an engine, a hook and ladder or whatever, they’d throw a big party for the town and the centerpiece was always a parade. Local bands would march in them, local businesses would sponsor floats and other fire departments would shine up their own engines and wear their dress uniforms to march down the street in the parade. Prizes would be awarded to the fire brigade putting on the most impressive display in the parade. They were highly competitive affairs with big trophies for the winners to display in glass cases in the fire station. To these volunteer firemen, there could be no higher honor than winning one of these trophies and they went all out in pursuit of that goal. One way they could seem more impressive was to march by the review stand to the music of their own marching band. And that’s where we came in. Fire companies would pay us to march with them in these parades. The pay wasn’t great. Split by how many of there were marching we’d get only about 8-10 dollars for a parade. But it was never about the money. After the parade there would almost always be a big community fair, block party or something like that. Even at fourteen, in our uniforms we could usually manage to get one of the commemorative mugs that were big collectible items. People had huge collections of these mugs. They were usually just glass mugs with a logo for the town’s fire department along with the date of the parade. But to us they were like gold, because the other thing they were good for was all the beer you could drink. We could be drinking alongside policemen and they never looked at us twice. Everybody knew our band uniforms and figured we were all adult, I guess.

Within this insulated world, we were marching band geek stars. There were also prizes for the bands and we won them. A lot. We probably won something like nine out of every ten parades we marched in. The other bands were high school bands, sometimes junior high. On the other hand, the majority of our band was made up of adults of all ages right up to a few retired guys in their seventies. Most of these guys had been doing this for years. We could belt out a tune with such force that we stopped people in their tracks. We had a couple of specific marches we played just for the review stand, like March Concerto Grosso, which blew the roof off, march-wise. That’s why fire companies were falling over themselves to hire us, because we really did help them look even better. And boy was it fun. We were treated like adults for the most part and were let into the adult world for a few hours each weekend. Adam, for his part, would never buy us the mugs, but he did look the other way once we got them. I think he figured as long as he wasn’t the one corrupting us, then who was he to rain on our parade. Until we were sixteen and could drive ourselves, we usually drove with him to the parades. Adam was truly one of the good people I’ve met who had no agenda and was decent and kind. We still exchange Christmas cards, and though he’s lost his wife and now lives alone, he’s never lost that optimism and positive outlook that made him so different from any other person I knew when we first met around 1973. It was a perhaps lifesaving lesson for me to learn that there was more than one way to live. And I was also able to quickly see that alcohol, which before this time had only the capacity to destroy, also had the power to enhance life and make it just a little bit sweeter. It was not the beer itself that was bad, but in whose hands it was that made all the difference.

On to Chapter 14

November 11, 2006

The Deal

Chapter: 14 — J @ 7:49 am

Blessed is the mother who gives birth to a brewer.

     — Czech saying

High school brought new challenges as well as new opportunities. It was getting increasingly easier to not be at home. Eddie was getting worse and his violent episodes were growing more frequent and more destructive. Yet I was also drinking more. It was becoming a more common feature of the adolescent world I inhabited. Parties no longer were worth going to if there wasn’t anything to drink there. It was simply how we judged where to go.

The irony that I might easily fall into the same trap that created Eddie was not lost on me, but I suffered the same affliction that all teenagers get: immortality. I foolishly thought I was different from Eddie and my reasons for drinking were different from his and that I could and would handle myself differently. I believed it, of course, but it was a foolish gamble. That it turned out to be true made it no less foolish, but such is the arrogance of youth.

It also occurred to me given Eddie’s own mother that his home life may have been only marginally different than my own and perhaps a certain inevitability existed, about which nothing could be done. At fifteen, I had not yet made up my mind about free will. If that was true, I might as well enjoy myself I told myself.

I had a friend whose father collected beer cans. Their entire basement rec. room was lined, floor to ceiling, with built-in shelving designed specifically to display cans. And they were filled with cans from around the world. As a side business, his dad made simple lamps with a wooden base and your choice of beer can for the stem. I had him make me one with Fyfe and Drum beer, an extra light beer made by Genesee Brewing Co. of New York. I always liked the way the can looked: it was silver with embossed colonial musical instruments. I put it on the nightstand next to my bed. It was probably one of the first pieces of breweriana I ever bought, not including t-shiirts.

It turned out my mother was also watching me keenly to see what path I might choose and she couldn’t help finally to notice that I had started drinking. But surprisingly, her concerns were elsewhere and one day she quite unexpectedly announced them. She sat me down and explained that when she was a student nurse before I was born that she’d spent a rotation working in the E.R. And during those months she’d witnessed countless drug overdoses and similar abuses. She’d been watching the news, apparently, and it was warning her that drug use among the young was on the rise. She was worried, she told me, that I might end up like some of the young men she had witnessed die in the emergency room when she was only a few years older than I was now. Apparently this was something that really stayed with her because she also told me she was willing to go to any length to keep me from ending up on drugs.

And so she made me a very interesting proposal. I could never have guessed what it was, not if I’d had a million years to think about it. It was, in the words of one of the most popular movies of the time, “an offer I couldn’t refuse.” She offered to allow me — and my friends — to drink beer in our house in exchange for my solemn promise that I not try drugs. I didn’t actually know anyone who used drugs, but I kept that to myself. At least in my world, drugs had not yet attained a position of prominence. That would come later, but neither my mother nor I knew that. So I accepted the deal and began a strange new phase of my life, where I could openly drink beer in my house. Where my friends could come and play pool in the basement and likewise drink a beer.

It almost seems ridiculous now. Today they would haul my mother off to jail, with other parents throwing insults or worse at her as they dragged her into court. It boggles the mind how much more closed our society has become in just one generation. How much damage the neo-prohibitionist movements have done to our present society is apparent to me every time I have to show my idea and prove I’m adult at the grocery store, despite being now in my late forties with mostly grey hair. The standard response is that I should be flattered to be mistaken as someone so young, but that’s just bullshit. I’ve been adult even by the arbitrary rules of our society for over twenty-five years, over half of my life. I’ve served my country as a member of the military. I’ve voted in seven presidential elections. I’ve been driving a car for over thirty years. But I still have to prove that I’m an adult each and every time I want to buy a beer. Why? Because some misguided pinheads think alcohol should be removed from society altogether and they’ve been pressuring state and federal governments for years trying to achieve that end. I endured a hell on earth brought on by psychosis and alcoholism and I would no more blame the alcohol than I would ban “Catcher in the Rye” because Mark David Chapman was carrying it when he shot John Lennon. It just makes no sense. Eddie couldn’t handle his booze, but that doesn’t mean no one else should ever be able to enjoy a beer.

Driving drunk is really the catalyst for all of this nonsense. In 1980 the woman who founded MADD tragically lost her daughter to a drunk driver who’d been convicted several times before. Clearly, that person should have been taken out of society. I know I would have been pissed, too. But I also know that I would not have turned it into a cause celebre and tried to restrict the lives of every single person in the country because of the actions of one man. Changes to the law were certainly in order, especially for a person who had demonstrated they were unable to handle the responsibilities of being an adult in our society.

But MADD’s continuing misguided activism has changed our society, and not for the better. Society has to be a fair and equitable balance of competing interests. But they have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. People are now so understandably frightened about the draconian drunk driving laws today that few venture outside their homes. Has this made drinking a more solitary pursuit? Probably. This had had a chilling effect on beer sold at bars and restaurants. It has kept most people from enjoying the pleasures of being an adult, because they’ve made the consequences for everyone too high in order to punish a few in the minority who cannot control their actions.

Eddie was a case in point. He was an alcoholic, of that there is no doubt. He also had a deep-seated contempt for the law. If he were alive today he would no doubt flaunt the drunk driving laws as he did throughout his life. In the years I knew him, he only got a DUI twice, and both times were pretty extreme. Once he wrapped a 1963 Corvette around a tree and had to wear a cast on his leg for months. The second time he repeatedly rammed his car into the back of a car whose occupant owed him money and would not make good. In both cases, the DUI was the least of the charges. The law provided plenty of ways to punish the result of Eddie’s action. It wasn’t about him being drunk, it was about what he did when drunk. The literally thousands of other times he drove drunk, which frankly was almost every time he got behind the wheel of a car after dark, he presented no danger to society and in some ways was safer than many sober people on the road. How can I say that? Because I was often a passenger in the car and although I’d watch him stumble to the car, once inside I felt completely safe with Eddie driving. And not once did he give me any reason to doubt that.

And it wasn’t just Eddie, but seemingly all of society in the late Sixties and Seventies was on the road after being at the bar. Were there people who should not have been driving? Of course, but you remove them and leave the rest of society alone. Even the police exercised some judgment when pulling people over. I can remember being in the car with people pulled over by the police. The officer would sometimes ask the person driving if they’d been drinking. And people would answer honestly, like adults, with responses like “a little,” “I’ve had a few” or something like that. The police would then size up the person on the spot and either tell them to park the car and find another way home or send them on their way. Did they make mistakes? Perhaps, but society seemed a lot more civil than it does today. I didn’t fear the police the way I do now. In those days it felt like the policeman’s real priorities were actually to protect and serve the public. Can you imagine a person today telling a policeman who’d just pulled over his car that he’d only had a few drinks at the bar? He’d be pulled from the car and shackled right in front of his kids. In some places his car would be confiscated and perhaps even parental rights denied him. Does that seem appropriate? I’m sure the supposedly christian morality of the neo-prohibitionist would think so, but no reasonable or sane person does.

People didn’t even think about it in terms of driving drunk. We asked one another at parties things like “are you okay to drive?” “Are you feeling all right?” “Can you get home on your own?” And we knew when we could and when we should ask for a ride. This was years before the concept of a designated driver was foisted on society. Without being told we had to, people in communities figure out that they should look out for each other. It’s only when it’s legislated or rammed down your throat that it begins to break down and not work.

So high school began and with it an increased reliance on friends, new dynamics of relationships and actual girlfriends. There was beer at parties, beer at home, beer in cars and thanks to the deal with my mother, that was it.

On to Chapter 15

November 10, 2006

High School Blues

Chapter: 15 — J @ 9:29 am

I feel sorry for those who don’t drink because when they get up in the morning that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.

     — Frank Sinatra

Once we were fully immersed into high school life, we had two mistresses, Genny — as in Genny Cream Ale — and whatever girl we could persuade to spend time with us. And that was difficult as a tenth grader. At Governor Mifflin high school, a sophomore was the lowest rung on the social ladder. Junior high ended with ninth grade and high school was tenth through twelfth. Other schools I knew were often ninth through twelfth, but not ours.

As a result, the girls in our class would have virtually nothing to do with us socially. They had their sights sets on juniors and seniors. So it was that for the most part, tenth grade was mostly about drinking, parties and the social order. Our revenge on this situation would begin the following year, when for the two remaining years of high school we would concentrate on the girls of the lower classes, ignoring those in our own class who had so cruelly abandoned us. It was a vicious circle with no end in sight.

So we resigned ourselves to another loveless year, and instead paid homage to the Goddess Genny. Genesee Cream Ale was hands down our favorite beer and the one we tried our hardest to come by. We weren’t particularly picky about our beer, but we knew what we liked. Genny was much smooth than the lagers our parents drank. When I drank it years later, I couldn’t figure out what all the fuss had been about but to the untrained palate of a fifteen-year old it was liquid gold.

The deal with my Mom, good as it was, turned out to be not as useful as I might have hoped. My mother had limits to the deal that she had not disclosed. I guess they were in the fine print. She was not interested in me having parties every weekend and was comfortable with only a few friends being there, and generally the ones she’d known for a few years were the only acceptable friends. So while that was fine on weeknights, on the weekends I was away from home. I did keep my end of the bargain and confined myself to drinking.

School actually started a few weeks early because I was in the marching band. Football season started almost immediately with the school year and like the team itself, the band had much to practice in order to be ready. Even though many of the people were the same, high school band seemed much different somehow. For one thing there were majorettes and flag girls, increasing the ratio of female to male considerably. Some of the older girls, themselves victims of the pecking order paid more attention to us sophomores and I made some good female friends that fall. Band was great for keeping me out of the house both before and after school, even more so than in previous years.

Friday nights there were football games and it was quite an ordeal getting the band to the games, whether home or away. Mifflin had no stadium of its own and we played our homes games across town at Albright College, on the western edge of Reading. I also volunteered in the uniform room to help hand out the band uniforms, yet another excuse I could use to be not home. Then we’d load up four full school buses and an equipment truck with our instruments and other gear. The logistics were like moving a small army. It was even worse when there was rain or snow. Then in addition to everything else, we all had to wear these thick, heavy rubberized poncho made by someone like Goodyear. They made us look like giant Jawas from Star Wars, but in maroon and gold, our school colors.

After the games, there was almost always at least one party at somebody’s house, and more often choices to make. Some parties we were simply not invited to, like senior football ones, fancy ones thrown by the cheerleaders or others hosted by snooty upper classmen. We just ignored those. We weren’t really that bothered by the cliques because for some reason band guys had enough clout to get into most normal parties, and that was fine by us. Eventually, we started throwing our own after game brouhahas, and we drew people from all swaths of school society. We built such a reputation for parties that band parties became the ones to go to, even members of the football team and other popular groups showed up for our keggers. We had them wherever someone’s parents were out of town, so it rotated quite a bit. There were band geeks in the modern mold, to be sure, but the majority of the band was made up of average kids, not necessarily the most popular kids in school but also not the sort of dweebs we would have gone out of our way to humiliate, either.

For myself, I ignored the cliques and had friends in every social strata. I just couldn’t be bothered to adhere to social convention. Nobody seemed to mind that much and freed me up to be wherever I wanted, which was simply not at home. I was quite singular in that pursuit. I’m sure my behavior perplexed people unfamiliar with my situation at home. I did care what other kids thought, of course, and peer pressure was just as important to me as anyone else. I tried not to get too caught up in it, and I may have succeeded more than other did, but that didn’t mean I was immune to it. So I didn’t go out of my way to tell people I lived with a stepfather who was an alcoholic psychopath, but I didn’t hide it either. And my closest friends all knew. Many of them had even witnessed bits of Eddie’s meltdowns or had at least been present during his more erratic behavior.

So most of my friends understood when I would inexplicably wig out myself, while the rest of the school shook their heads. I developed something of a reputation for odd behavior. It served me well at some times, but over time became a liability of sorts. In many ways I didn’t care that much what people thought of me. I had enough problems without worrying if I was making the right impression with people I didn’t really know very well. But, of course, I wasn’t really that different than most teenagers — I just had pressures that most did not have — so a part of me did care. And at that I was a miserable failure. I was prone to just go a little nuts sometimes and make a spectacle of myself. My friends understood for the most part and gave me a lot of latitude, but the rest of my class increasingly distanced themselves from me and it became harder and harder to maintain casual friendships. I grew closer to my friends and grew apart from everyone else.

I retreated more and more into drinking, all the more curious given that many of the problems I was trying to escape from had their origin in alcohol, too. But there was nothing logical or rational in a teenager trying to find his place in the world with a heavy weight hanging around his neck, keeping him down. That’s certainly how it felt. No matter how much I wanted to soar, I could not seem to get off the ground. Eddie would not let me. The three years left until I turned eighteen looming before me seemed like an eternity. The older I got, the faster I wanted to grow up, get out and move on. But time just seemed to slow to a crawl. I remember sitting in class during that year and watching the second hand sweep slowly around as the minutes ticked away.

So Genny became one of my best friends, and I became a drunk of sorts. My grades never suffered, however, and I managed to keep a B average without almost no effort whatsoever. I studied for tests in the moments in between classes, wrote papers in the class before they were due, and shocked many of my teachers by acing tests. I can’t remember ever doing homework at home, not once. If I couldn’t manage it on the fly, it simply didn’t get done. I squirreled away booze at school so I could have a drink over lunch. But I kept up all of my extracurricular activities, too. I was in every band there was, most of the choirs, and volunteered in the prop room for the stage crew.

I rarely had much difficulty getting beer, even before I could drive. I could usually manage to get some from home without it being missed. One trick I used was setting some aside whenever Eddie passed out a home. He was so prone to blackouts that he never remembered how much beer had been in the refrigerator. If there wasn’t any in my stash, several of Eddie’s drinking buddies would buy me beer. All I had to do was give them a little extra for some smokes or a bottle of something else, and they could be counted on to show up clandestinely around the back of the house in the back alley. Jim was my first choice on these runs, and he was available on short notice usually three out of four times I’d ask him, or at least out of the times I was able to reach him. There were a couple of other guys I knew who might help me, but they were less reliable than Jim.

But once I could drive, it became even easier. I turned sixteen in the spring of 1976, during our nation’s bicentennial. Being near Philadelphia, there was a particular emphasis on the celebrations throughout Pennsylvania. The first car I was allowed to use after I got my license — within days of my birthday — was a blue Ford van with windows on the sides. My mother sewed curtains for the windows. Naturally, they were red, white and blue. We put the old army cot Wilbur used to sleep on in the back of the van, in case I ever needed a bed. I think my mother thought it was so I didn’t have to come home when Eddie was doing his Hulk impression, but I was thinking about how to get lucky in the backseat. Now that I was sixteen, I was hoping to lose my virginity as soon as possible. I didn’t really see not having a steady girlfriend or any prospects as an impediment. I just figured I should be ready, just in case.

But that didn’t last very long. Eddie kept complaining about me having the car and began using it as a wedge to keep me in line. Instead of liberating me, the van was threatening to do just the opposite because Eddie was using it to exert greater control and restrict my movements. I’m not even sure why it became such an issue for him, because if I wasn’t using the van, it just sat idle. My mother had her own car and Eddie had his own, as well. And in addition to the van, there were at least two other cars he owned at the garage that at least worked. So it obviously was not about that. Eddie had never seemed quite comfortable with any signs that I was growing older, though I never did really figure out why that was.

The car issue eventually came to a head one night and I was forced to flee the house after a particularly bad fight where I thought I was about to get hit. I hightailed it out the back door and walked the half dozen blocks to my Aunt Helen’s house. She had remained one of the few sympathetic figures in my family, and we had remained kindred spirits. She continued to give me books to read and seemed to enjoy talking about them with me after I’d read them. I often slept at her house on occasions such as this one so much so that she was no longer surprised when I showed up unannounced at her door. She’d even given me a key to her house so I could slip in during the middle of the night if that became necessary. Though in truth it would have had to arrive quite late indeed to fun Aunt Helen in bed, because she was as much a night owl as I was and rarely went to bed before three or sometimes four in the morning.

The next morning, I explained to Aunt Helen about the latest fight that had taken place the night before. She seemed supportive and perturbed, as usual but that particular morning she went one better. She handed me the newspaper and opened it to the classified. “She if you can find a car for yourself. Look in this section.” She said, pointing to the list of cars under $750. Surprised and a little elated, I looked through the list, circling a few that looked interesting with a pen. I handed the paper back to Aunt Helen and she went in the other room and made some phone calls. The next thing I knew, Uncle Raymond was driving the three of us — my aunt never learned to drive — to look at one of the cars for sale, which was only a few blocks away. An hour later I was the proud owner of a midnight blue 1967 Chevy Camaro. It had cost my Aunt Helen $500 and me a promise to mow her lawn for every other week.

I could hardly believe my good fortunate. I was the first of my friends to have his own car. And it was a pretty cool car, too. It wasn’t pristine or perfect, but it was in decent shape and it wasn’t a Gremlin or a Pacer or some other god awful-looking thing. I would have preferred a stick shift, but I certainly wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I was thrilled. I could stop walking to school and drive instead. I could stay out as late as I wanted, just as I thought I’d be able to do with the family van. But now no one could tell me I had to have the car back at a certain hour, because the car was all mine. I felt freer than I had in a long time. A car definitely improved my prospects for enduring the next two and a half years. I just had to figure out how to tell my mother and Eddie.

On to Chapter 16

November 9, 2006


Chapter: 16 — J @ 10:54 pm

Beer drinkin’ don’t do half the harm of love makin’.

     — Old New England proverb

Having a car did, as expected, changed life for the better to some extent. It definitely made things easier on a variety of fronts. The summer in between tenth and eleventh grades was filled with endless parties, parades and summer theatre. I was home as little as possible and my parents’ relationship seemed more tenuous than ever.

My mother seemed weary all the time, like she was worn out just by the effort of living. I couldn’t really blame her. Whatever the effect of Eddie’s violence on me, it must have hit my Mom so much worse that it was hard to imagine. She seemed to have lost her zest for life that always made her a person people wanted to be around. Now she took naps during the day, whenever she could. I tried to talk to her about leaving Eddie again, but concluded that she never would. She was still too afraid of being alone, and she continued to defend his good qualities. I knew they were in there, too, but the bad ones were exacting a very high price on our lives. Maybe it was the new math, but it didn’t add up the same way when I calculated the positive and negatives Eddie brought.

She seemed to realize that we’d drifter apart and I was disappointed in her decision to stay with Eddie. He was coming home drunk several times a week now, and tearing up the house two out of three times. There was hardly any pretense left. At least before we felt like there was a chance we wouldn’t go nuts, now we were certain he was. It was sort of like the difference between romance and pornography. Before when Eddie got home we’d be walking on eggshells, doing a kind of dance to not anger him in the hopes of his passing out without incident. And once in a while, we were successful and felt like we’d accomplished something in an unhealthy, twisted way. Now there was no more dancing. When Eddie came home it had the feel of pornography’s certainty. Somebody was going to get fucked, figuratively speaking, and was always us.

Even though our relationship had deteriorated — and I don’t think my mother truly understood the distance that now stood between us — she did keep trying to reign me in and keep me close, sort of the way her own mother tried to keep control of her. The more she tried, the more I resisted and I think on some level she knew it was futile. One thing that she did do for me which I appreciated as much then as I still do, was forbid me to work. I had talked to her about getting a job to pay for gas and whatnot several times. She always said no, saying simply. “You’re going to have to work for the rest of your life. Enjoy being a kid while you still can.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her I hadn’t really felt like a kid for years, although I still was quite immature. It was more like I had developed a hard outer shell of indifference, ennui and attitude from Eddie’s violent alcoholism but inside I was still a ten-year old.

My mother began supplementing my allowance using the same theory I had come up with for skimming beer from Eddie. Whenever Eddie passed out after one of his episodes, she would relieve his wallet of a portion of its contents, splitting the money with me. Eddie never remembered what he’d done the night before or how much money he’d spent so we simply decided to make that work in our favor. It certainly freed me up to be able to afford staying away from home more easily, since I could pay for gas, beer, food and whatever I needed to get me through the days.

Phil and I spent most weekends driving to some small town in Pennsylvania to march in a fireman’s parade, usually with another friend we’d made in band, Steve, a trumpet player from Mt. Penn, who was a year or two younger than we were. Driving around the state on our own gave many more opportunities for mischief and mayhem. Phil’s father hilariously admonished us to be sure and stay out of the middle lane on three-lane roads. He was convinced it was the most dangerous spot to drive. Of course, we went out of our way to drive in the middle.

Junior year began with band practice a few weeks before the start of the school year in August. We were looking much more forward to this year, in part because we would no longer be at the bottom of the social order. The girls in the sophomore class might even be interested in us, though it seemed more than we could hope for. As it happened, I met my first serious girlfriend that first week. Kelly was a majorette and I was smitten. She had dark brunette hair, thin features and a nice, shy smile. I found excuses to talk to her a few times after practice and one day her and a friend joined Phil and me on a drive to a spot we liked to go to drink in Nolde Forest. We shared a Genny Cream Ale and went for a walk in the woods. I invited her to go to a party that weekend and she sheepishly accepted. She didn’t think her father would like me picking her up in my car, so we agreed to meet at the party, we suited me just fine.

A guy we knew in the band, a trombone player, was having a party at his folks’ place near the community swimming pool. Kelly’s family, I learned, lived outside of Mohnton and she was going get a ride from an older girlfriend in the neighborhood. As usual, I arrived early at the party. Unless I had something else to do, I almost always went to parties early. Usually I’d help out with the keg or other details but really it was because I wanted to get out of the house, the driving force behind many curious behaviors. When Kelly got to the party, I initially played it cool, something I wasn’t very good at. But I quickly gave that up and just started talking with her and group of her friends. Eventually they all peeled off and we were left alone. We ended up drinking and talking that whole night. I drover her home, but at her insistence dropped her off out of sight around the corner from her house. We shared a brief goodnight kiss, and that was the beginning.

Over the next few weeks Kelly and I spent all of our time together. We made out a lot. I was having the time of my life. Sure, I wanted to have sex but as much as that was in the back of my mind, I was just enjoying having a girlfriend and making out. We’d been standing firmly on second base for a several weeks and I felt confident we’d round the bases at some point soon. For now, I was having too good a time to worry about it. I was even drinking a bit less, I suppose, because I was more interested in hanging out with Kelly than going to parties. But parties also afforded us a place to make out other than my car or our respective houses when our parents weren’t home. Kelly had a little brother, which made her home less of an option for us to be alone.

I really loved being in a relationship. I started picking up flowers at the farmer’s market for Kelly. Then I’d get to school early before anyone else was there and put then flowers in her locker so she’d find them when she got there. I had it that bad. I had moved passed the crush stage to adolescent love, or at least that’s what I thought. She seemed to express the same thoughts, which only confirmed my feelings. There’s nothing like that feeling of first love where you feel like you could fly or like you’re walking on air. It was probably the first time since I was very little that I allowed myself to be completely happy.

Sometime as fall began, we slid into third base and increased our sexual tension. We’d started getting naked just to feel one another’s body against each other. We’d fondle one another with fingers and hands for hours. She seemed just as in to it as I was. I had heard other friends and older kids talking about forcing themselves on girls and I was relieved that I didn’t have to confront that possibility. Certainly I had felt anxious when we’d stimulated one another for any length of time and I often wanted to just jump her and relieve myself. It sounded to me like some of my friends were having trouble controlling that impulse, not that it wasn’t difficult for me, too. I did get a few hand jobs in the bargain, thank goodness, which helped immeasurably.

Finally one Saturday in early November, my folks were out-of-town visiting Eddie’s marine buddy who lived near Pittsburgh, a good all-day drive away. We had the place to ourselves the entire day, and we planned to spend it all in bed. The only beer in the ‘frig that was some old Carling Black Label — which I had grown to dislike — and a joke beer the same friend Eddie and my mother were visiting had brought with them to our house a couple of weeks before. It was Olde Frothingslosh Pale Stale Ale, a novelty beer made by the Pittsburgh Brewing Co., the same brewery famous for Iron City beer. But it didn’t taste any different than other Iron City beers I’d had. I made us some lunch of tomato soup and some sandwiches. Afterwards, Kelly went upstairs while I cleaned up the plates and pots, loading them into the dishwasher.

I joined her after a few minutes and she was waiting for me in my bedroom, wearing a sheer nightie she fund in my mother’s dresser. I’d seen my mother in it once or twice but Kelly looked completely different wearing it, more grown up than I ever remember seeing her look. Thoughtfully she brought up more beer cans with her and they were sitting on my nightstand, next to the Fyfe & Drum lamp. I sat on the bed and took another long sip of beer, then turned to enjoy her naked form lying on my bed. I could hardly contain my excitement as I undressed and got under the covers with her. Within a few minutes, neither of us were virgins. Once we were finished, I held her for a few minutes before we both fell asleep. Waking abruptly less than an hour later, we took a shower together, laughing and caressing one another under downpour. I was ready again in no time and so it seemed was she. We quickly dried and I carried her back to my bed for round two. We took our time that day, exploring the unfamiliar territory on each other until we were thoroughly versed in the other person. We were quick studies and by the end of the day I believed we’d be together forever, such is the power of a first love.

We seemed deliriously happy over the next few weeks, at least until the band trip to Boston. Then things went horribly wrong. Our band director was originally from Boston and he set up a trip there and an opportunity to play both at a Patriots game and in a band competition taking place there over a long weekend. We’d been selling candy for months to help finance the trip and finally the time had come. We loaded up four Greyhound buses and headed north to Boston. Naturally, Kelly and I sat together on the trip up. My friend Phil was going through a breakup that began only the week before we left and he was taking it pretty hard. I felt bad for him but secretly thanked my lucky starts that I was not going through the same thing and was trying to wrap my head around being happy for a change.

We arrived outside Boston without incident and checked into hotel rooms for the night. There were four of to a room, all male of course, and Kelly was on a different floor. Later in the evening I couldn’t find Kelly so I took Phil to dinner with some other friends and tried to cheer him up. When I got back to our room, someone had written something derogatory about me (and Kelly) — I don’t even remember what it was — on the mirror in lipstick. The only person unaccounted for from our room was another drummer we knew, Lance, but we couldn’t for the life of us figure out why he would have written anything like that. As far as we knew, he didn’t even know Kelly.

Well it turned out they did know each other and Kelly had a crush on him when she was in seventh grade and he was in ninth. Three years later and suddenly he was showing her some interest and she felt her old feelings for him resurface, but she was unsure what to do about them. He had ambushed her and they went for a walk where he put the press n her to go out with him and dump me, at least that’s what she told me later. I saw the two of them when I was walking back from the restaurant across the street from the hotel wed gone to, and she tried to explain to me about her feelings for Lance and that she was feeling confused. My first reaction was anger and I didn’t handle the situation with much decorum or dignity. I was just getting used to having her in my life and no it seemed she didn’t feel as deeply for me as I thought I did for her. After I realized I was just making it worse for myself, I left her with Lance and that’s when I found the writing on the mirror.

Kelly tried to find me after that, but I’d split from my room after finding the writing on the mirror to a room where someone had managed to smuggle in some alcohol and I was tying one on, having assumed I’d lost my girlfriend. I stayed there all night, not wanting to go back and Lance and that inevitable confrontation. I had considered him to be a friend, but I was obviously wrong about that, too. I couldn’t manage to fall asleep and Adam’s neighbor, my good friend Frank, kindly stayed up all night with me talking and drinking. We’d only had sex a few times, I told myself, and I tried unsuccessfully to convince myself it was no big deal.

While looking for me, Kelly also discovered what Lance had written and she told him to get stuffed and that she’d made a mistake about him. She spent the next couple of hours trying to find me or where I’d gone but eventually gave up. I knew nothing of these events and when I eventually turned up at my old room to collect my stuff in the morning, Phil filled me in on what I’d missed. I was as confused as ever. Back in the bus, Kelly tried to explain and make up for what she knew was such an obvious slap in the face. She was contrite and apologetic. She kept on apologizing and asking me to take her back for the rest of the day. Coming back from the football game on the bus that night, with everyone else asleep, she even gave me my first blowjob under a blanket in an effort to make it up to me.

I did, of course, relent and we continued as girlfriend and boyfriend off and on for the next couple of years, but it was never the same as those first magical weeks when everything was fresh and new. After that, reality set it and although the sex continued to improve, I never really completely trusted her after that and constantly expected her to leave me again. I became a jealous person and even strayed myself a few times, which I told myself was simply preemptive. Being sixteen with so little experience in relationships, especially healthy ones, also undoubtedly played a role, too. All of those things taken together, in the end, probably made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it also gave me one more good reason to drink, too.

On to Chapter 17

November 8, 2006

When the Hangover Strikes

Chapter: 17 — J @ 2:10 pm

Landlord fill the flowing bowl,
until it doth run over.
For tonight we’ll merry, merry be.
Tomorrow we’re Hungover.

     — Old English folk song

More and more often I was waking up in the morning with a terrible hangover. The first couple of classes at school each morning were getting unbearable because of how awful I felt. Kelly and I fell into a pattern of driving one another crazy and breaking up, sometimes for months at a time where we’d see other people, only to reunite with fantastic make-up sex until the next break up. This happened probably a dozen times over the next two years, until I graduated from high school and joined the Army.

Sex was never our problem. That remained terrific the entire time. She was equally as adventurous in bed as I wanted to be, and we rarely had a bad time between the sheets. It was merely everything except the sex that doomed our relationship to failure. I didn’t trust her, with good reason, and she grew to resent my jealousy. I began to stray, too, creating more trust issues between us. We were simply not a compatible couple. If the sex had not been so good, perhaps we might have been able to break the cycle. After a while I was beginning to feel as trapped as my mother must have, but I could do nothing about it, or least that’s how it seemed at the time.
One particularly bad time, perhaps the low point of my years in high school came after another of Kelly and my famous break ups. The following weekend she was with another guy at a party in Flying Hills, a well-to-do development on a golf course just outside Shillington. I was having a fine time with friends until she showed up flaunting her boyfriend in my face. I found a bottle of Southern Comfort and crawled into it, finishing it off in about an hour. I was about as drunk as I’d ever been and I probably made an ass of myself, I don’t remember too much after a certain point. I spent a good portion of the night outside puking in the bushes next to the house and trying to stand, which I could only do with some amount of effort. Eventually I felt a little less sick, and switched to beer. I rejoined friends inside but it didn’t last. Soon I was back outside the house, hugging the shrubbery.

One of my best female friends, ironically, was a friend Kelly who I met at the same time during band practice in the summer. Laura and I got along really well and are still friends today, thirty years later, even though neither of us have any idea where Kelly ended up. Laura’s parents became one of my many adopted families. Her parents were great and made me feel welcome and like a member of the family from the first time I met them.

That night she found me hiding in the bushes and in bad shape. I could hardly walk, much less drive my car home. She helped me to my car. The Camaro’s back seat folded down and I crawled in and lay down. She drove me home while another friend followed behind us her car. Laura parked in front of my house and left me there. When I woke up the next morning, the sun was shining and I was staring up at the trees along State Street that lined both sides of the street I grew up on. Inside the car, the sun through the glass had made it very warm and I was sweating. My head was pounding. I was losing fluids and had to pee like a racehorse. But moving my head proved trickier than I’d expected and new pain shot through me when I reached for the door. I contemplated a slow death by sunlight, feeling a bit like the bugs we’d tried to fry with a magnifying glass when we were little.

Eventually, I summoned the strength to flip the car door open and push the seat forward. I inched my body to the edge of the seat and allowed gravity to spill me out of the car, landing me on my ass on the strip of grass that ran the length of the block in between the street and the pavement. I sat there a while, breathing in the cool air and feeling how good it was not to be frying any longer. But as the saying goes, the pan was still waiting for me inside. While I had no set curfew, my mother did take a dim view of my staying out all night if I didn’t at least call and let her know I was all right. Worrying was one of the remaining emotions I allowed her without a fight, so I was expecting her to use that to provoke one when I got inside.

I managed to make it to the bathroom and took some aspirin. Luckily, it was Sunday and I could go back to bed in hopes of sleeping away the worst of this feeling. I stripped my clothes and fell into my bed, which was right next to the bathroom, before anybody saw me. If anyone heard me come in, they left me alone. The pounding of my temples made it hard to fall back to sleep easily, but my body obviously needed it and after a short while I did manage it. It was dark when I woke up. I glanced at the clock on my nightstand and saw it had not been dark very long. I took a quick shower and went downstairs. Only my mother was home, a relief, and she was surprisingly understanding.

I ate some dinner and made a few phone calls. I called Laura to thank her for getting me home in one piece. She was in a good mood. She asked me if I could come over, because there was something she wanted to ask me. I heard her mother in the background, calling to Laura to see if I wanted to come for dinner. Even though I’d just eaten, I said yes — I never turned down a meal — and told my mother I was going to Laura’s house. She called after me with some vague question about when I’d be back but I pretended not to hear her. That gave mo greater leeway should I need it later.

The venison Laura’s mom served was delicious, as usual. My own Mom’s food was good, but Laura’s mother was a really great cook. Laura’s father and her older brother went deer hunting every season and shot one deer, which they then skinned themselves and put in a deep freezer to feed their family for a good portion of the winter. It was the only kind of hunting that I came to find morally defensible. After dinner, Laura told me what she wanted to talk to me about. She asked me if I remembered going to the Wyomissing basketball game the previous week. I remembered being there, but I did not remember anyone there in particular, which was her follow-up question. Apparently Laura had a friend who went to Wyomissing who saw me at the game and wanted Laura to fix her up with me. Laura told me she was nice, blonde, and very pretty, but I have found women will sometimes lie or embellish to help out a friend. At least she didn’t tell me Jenny, that was her name, had a great personality, the kiss of death for describing another girl. As Kelly and I were currently in an off period, which Laura of course knew, I told her ‘d think about it. She gave me her phone number and I stuffed it in my pocket.

Laura’s parents had a great set-up in their basement, it was an ideal space for parties and over the years we had a few really good ones there. They had a ping-pong table down there, too. Table tennis was probably my all-time favorite pastime. I could spend hours playing it and sometimes did, much to the chagrin of dates hoping I’d spend more time with them. I’d come close to going home alone several times over ping-pong. But I didn’t have any worry with Laura, and we played several games to pass the evening. Her parents were more liberal than most, and so we had a few beers in the basement while we played. They seemed fine with it as long as we were quiet and not too obvious about it.

By the time I got home, it was after eleven, meaning my mother would have already left for work. That was good, but it would be even better if Eddie wasn’t there, too. The house was dark, so maybe my luck would hold, I thought. So I was surprised to see him lying on the floor without the lights on when I opened the door. I could see he was wearing the headphones, obviously listening to something on the stereo. His eyes were closed and the music must have been loud enough that he didn’t hear me come in. I could also smell the faint fragrance of marijuana in the air. I may not have done any drugs, but I’d been around them enough to be able to identify them.

My mind raced. It didn’t really surprise me that Eddie also used marijuana. At least, I reasoned, it would make him mellower and probably less violent. Still, it was a crapshoot and I tried to tiptoe quietly through the living room. The noise didn’t trip me up, bad luck did. Eddie simply happened to open eyes as I passed by. He sat up and took off the headphones, and said hello. Actually, he said something more like “hey, how’s it going.” So Eddie did sound more mellow, at least. It turned out he was listening to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” He told me it was his second time listening to it tonight, and he really liked it, which surprised me a bit. Eddie’s usual music choices were more Al Green, Elvis Presley or ‘50s oldies.

It was odd having Eddie discovering music from my generation and actually liking it. We sat and talked for at least an hour. I gave him some other suggestions of music to listen to, and he seemed receptive. The day before had been so bad that I was even more surprised when the next day started so badly and yet ended up having a potential blind date and amiably talked music, one of my favorite subjects, with my mellow, stoned alcoholic stepfather. All in all, a pretty good day.

On to Chapter 18

November 7, 2006

When You’re Having More Than One

Chapter: 18 — J @ 12:01 am

Drink! for you know not when you came, nor why;
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.”

     — The Rubiay’at of Omar Khayyan

I waited a few days before calling Laura’s friend from Wyomissing. Jenny seemed nice enough on the phone and I made a date to take her bowling the next weekend. I was a little relieved that she lived on a block of row homes, not too dissimilar to my own block. Wyomissing was essentially the most expensive and prestigious suburb around Reading and wasn’t too interested in dating a rich girl who might have expectations I couldn’t fulfill.

In the interim couple of days, my parents decided they wouldn’t be home over the weekend. My friends decided I was throwing a party, which seemed like it might throw a crimp in my date plans. It’s not like my friends weren’t going to come over whether I was at home or not, so in the end I decided I could do both.

On Saturday afternoon, Eddie’s friend Jim got us a couple of cases of Schaefer in cans. It wasn’t our first choice but weren’t really in a position to be too picky. Frank and I loaded them into the downstairs refrigerator and he helped me clean up the basement. A few more friends, Kirk, Jim (a different Jim) and Joe dropped by early. I left them in charge and went to pick up Jenny.

She was waiting for me at the window and when she saw me drive up, came out to meet me. I got out of the car and opened her car door for her. From an early age, my mother had drilled manners into me, and every once in a while I used them to try and make a good impression. I was surprised at how pretty Jenny was. Blind dates had a tendency to go the other way somehow. I couldn’t imagine why Jenny would need someone to set her up on a date. She was almost as tall as me, with long straight blonde hair that hung a few inches below her shoulders. Apparently not shy about her thin body, she was poured into a pair of jeans with a skintight gold Lycra blouse that accentuated her chest. I needed to remember to thank Laura. I shut the Camaro’s passenger door and got in behind the wheel. I headed for Heister Lanes, the closest bowling alley. On the way we chitchatted and got to know one another a little better. She seemed a little nervous, though to be fair so was I. I don’t think I’d ever dated someone before that I didn’t know beforehand.

So there were awkward silences here and there, but for the most part it seemed to be going well enough. She knew how to bowl, at least, which was a good sign in my book. We bowled a couple of games and fell into easy conversation. She started casually putting her hands on my shoulders while I sat at the chair to mark our scores. The date went well, I thought, and I wasn’t sure what to do after we finished bowling. I’d promised my friends I’d get back to my house — and my impromptu party — as soon as I could, but I also really want to stay with Jenny, too. I explained to Jenny that my friends were throwing a party at my house at this very moment because my parents were away. She immediately suggested that we go, telling me she didn’t have to be home until much later.

That was a better result than even I could have hoped for, and I turned my Camaro onto Museum Road toward home, turning away from the creek and onto State Street at the bottom of the sloping hill into Shillington. I parked in my usual spot in the alley behind our detached garage. I could hear Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” playing on the stereo in the basement as we approached the back porch of my house. I held the door for Jenny and after we entered the kitchen, pointed to the stairway leading down into the cellar.

There were only a dozen or two people there, playing pool, cards or just talking. I introduced Jenny to everyone and somebody handed us a couple of beers. The pool game continued and the four playing pinochle went back their hands. So Jenny and I sat on the sofa next to the bar and surveyed the scene. I explained who each person was and how I knew them, since it gave me something to talk about. She sipped her beer while I finished my first and got myself a second Schaefer.

I offered to give Jenny the ten-cent tour of the house so we could be alone, and we headed upstairs. She admired my mother’s china dolls and I kept my mouth shut about how much I hated them. Upstairs she used the bathroom while I waited in my room next door. She joined me in my room and put my arms around her and pulled her gently to me. She came willingly and I kissed her firmly on the mouth. She kissed me back and after a few minutes fell onto my bed. We made out there on top of my bed for at least an hour and she yielded herself a far as second base, but no farther. It was growing later in the evening and at some point she told me she needed to get home. Reluctantly we straightened our clothes and headed back down to the party in the basement. There were more people there now, and I told my friends I was going to take Jenny home but would be back in a few minutes. It took me only a few minutes to make the round trip to and from Jenny’s house. I’d had a really good time with her but for some inexplicable reason I didn’t feel satisfied. I think it was because I was so used to having sex with Kelly any time I wanted, at least when we were together. That had probably warped my sense of expectation. I kissed her goodnight, promising to call her soon, and headed back to the party.

When I got back, a little after midnight, my absentee party was in full swing. There were enough people there now that it had spilled up onto the ground floor. Several people were sitting around the television watching Saturday Night Live. It was the only show that could stop a party. We were so addicted to it that we would turn off the music at a party until it was over, and then resume right we’d left off when it was over. Someone handed me a beer and I watched the rest of the show.

When it was over, I headed back downstairs to see who else had shown up while I’d been taking Jenny home. I was fairly shocked to see Kelly there, along with a few of her girlfriends, though not Laura. As Laura and I became closer, she and Kelly had drifted apart and Kelly tended to run with new friends who were sluttier, at least on my opinion. I tried to duck out before she saw me but it didn’t work. She saw me anyway and waved sheepishly to me. She brought me over a beer as a peace offering and I walked over behind Eddie’s bar and poured myself a shot of Jim Beam, pausing to nod to Kelly in case she wanted a shot, too. She did, and I poured a second bourbon whiskey. I handed Kelly her glass on the other side of the bar and tilted mine toward hers to say cheers, before gulping it down and washing back the harsh taste with a generous swallow of beer. She matched me and then we shared another.

The next thing I knew we were having some pretty terrific makeup sex in my bed. When I awoke the following morning, naked, scratched and a little sticky with dried sweat and who knows what else, Kelly was gone. But for the time being at least, I knew when I got to school on Monday that we were a couple again. I also knew I’d never call Jenny again, and I felt really bad about that. Jenny was sweet and pretty and what I guess would best be called a nice girl, definitely out of my league long-term. Kelly, for all her faults was what I deserved, or at least that’s what I told myself. She was slutty and unfaithful, but also dangerous and wild, qualities I could not seem to resist no matter how hard I tried. She was so adventurous in bed that I ached for her knowing touch whenever she wasn’t around. We once had sex ten times in a single day.

And perhaps most destructive of all, we both loved the thrill of almost getting caught. We constantly put ourselves in sexual situations where being discovered was a very real and potentially devastating possibility. We knew we shouldn’t, but the excitement of each successful incident made us crave the feeling it created more and more. It became like a drug, and we constantly craved its high. We had sex in Kelly’s basement with her sitting on top of the running washing machine, with her parents upstairs. We had sex in school in the band’s uniform room while we could hear kids talking and walking by us in the hall just beyond the door. I kept a bottle of Dutch courage — usually Southern Comfort — in a drum major’s hat on the top row of shelves near the ceiling for just such occasions. I drank when I was with Kelly because it enhanced our appetites, but I also drank during break up periods when I wasn’t with her, because I missed her. Or at least I missed the thrill of her.

Our most ambitious public sex was also our favorite. It became the way we most often had sex. There were lots or rural roads in and around Shillington, miles and miles of them. Since it was too dangerous to just park and risk a patrolman finding us, we simply figured out a way to keep moving. Kelly took to wearing skirts for easier access and would remove her panties. Then she’d straddle me in the driver’s seat facing the rear window and I’d enter her from below. She’s put her head on my inside shoulder so I could see the road and then we’d simply drive around, in motus coitus, as the Latin student in me liked to call it. While others might be playing imaginary baseball games in their heads or trying to solve math problems (my preferred stationary method) to prolong the inevitable, driving provided a natural solution to premature ejaculation. Having to concentrate on the road meant I could literally go for hours without finishing. We were practicing a kind of Tantric sex without even knowing it. One time Kelly boasted of six orgasms during one of our drives through the countryside. With sex that good, it was hard to let go, even though every other aspect of our relationship never worked for very long. We had very little in common apart from our fiery passions. That’s why we kept breaking up. It was our hormones and alcohol-induced lowered inhibitions that kept us getting back together. If I wasn’t careful, I was going to end up in the same sort of misery my mother endured.

On to Chapter 19

November 6, 2006

Summer, A Broad

Chapter: 19 — J @ 10:43 pm

Do not cease to drink beer, to eat, to intoxicate thyself, to make love, and to celebrate the good days.

     — Ancient Egyptian Credo

The summer in between my junior and senior years, I devised elaborate schemes to not only be away from home, but also out of town. The first one took me to nearby Lebanon Valley College, about 45 minutes from home, to take some music classes designed for college age and high school musicians. LVC had a good reputation locally for its music program, and offered a number of summer classes. I took just enough units so that I’d be gone for at least three weeks and it was just far enough away so that I couldn’t really commute and would have to stay in a dorm room at the college. I scraped together the tuition and most the money I’d need, but was a little short on extra spending cash for food or gas but I trusted it to luck that I’d figure something out. I told myself I could always give up and go home if I was truly starving.

The classes were actually a lot of fun. There were classes on improvisation, music arranging and scoring, and some on jazz theory. But the best part of being at Lebanon Valley was the dorm rooms. The college set aside one dorm building for the high school students. And rather than put boys and girls on different floors, we were all allowed to choose our own rooms wherever we wanted. The adults who were in charge of us were not really adults at all, but were college students working over the summer rather than going home or doing something else. Most of the ones we got to know were also taking summer classes and took this job to help pay for it.

The person in charge of all of us, the head honcho, was a young woman named Gypsy. I don’t think that was her real name but it suited her and I never knew if she had a different name or not. Gypsy was a real earth mother type, the kind that would have been at home at my old church camp or at a Grateful Dead show. She was very maternal, though she couldn’t have been more than 21 or 22. Most of my fellow students, if not in college, were around my age, 16 or 17, and from all over Pennsylvania. Gypsy and her fellow counselors, once they sized us up, were not only willing to buy us beer, but also made a potent sloe gin punch that was kept in the common area of the dorm’s second floor every night. I’m not sure why that was the drink of choice, but it appeared to be Gypsy’s favorite drink and who were we to complain about free booze. The local beer distributor there was having a special on Schlitz bottles the weeks I was there, and we could get a case of returnables for pretty cheap. So I became a Schlitz drinker that summer, though it wasn’t the best beer I’d ever had. The beer in some of the bottles was even a little hazy, but it still tasted okay. I just assumed that was the reason it was so cheap.

So I passed my days going to classes, getting drunk, and playing racquetball with one of the other counselors who needed a person to practice with. I told him I played tennis so he asked me to try racquetball so he could keep practicing over the summer. It didn’t last very long because within a couple of days I was beating him almost every game, and we didn’t like having to tell people a high school kid was besting him, so he quietly stopped asking me to join him. And that was fine with me because I was busy with other pursuits, and drinking was more fun anyway. The sloe gin created a different kind of drunk than beer alone and I grew to really like it. With beer, your buzz tended to build slowly, but with the punch you would continue to feel sober no matter how much you drank until all of a sudden you were very drunk, as if someone flipped a light switch. The high took you over that fast. It was a rush and I welcomed the feeling it produced.

I also met a girl, Mandy, in my classes. She was from the opposite side of the state from me, in Butler, which is about an hour north of Pittsburgh. Mandy was tall with brunette hair, cut short. She was a little skinny and wore nothing but olive drab cargo pants and the same sandals every day, but with a different shirt. We started eating lunch together every day, or rather I watched her eat lunch everyday, picking her plate clean of whatever she didn’t eat. Once she figured out I didn’t have money for food, she started buying extra food every day so I could eat more. She was an extraordinarily kind and caring person, far different from Kelly. We started spending more time together in the evening drinking and just hanging out. She told me she had a boyfriend back at home and I resigned myself to making a good friend and, more importantly, one who was willing to feed me.

Unlike me, she went home for the weekend at the end of the first week, along with almost all of the other students. I stayed in Lebanon with Gypsy and some of the other college counselors. When she got back on Sunday, I was already half in the bag. She found me in the common room, with a drink in my hand. She poured herself a tall one and motioned for me to follow her, which I did. We went back to her room and after letting me in, shut the door behind me. “I have something to tell you.” Mandy said with a smirk.

I looked up at her, with no idea what was coming next. “What’s that?

Jack and I broke up.

Jack, of course, was the boyfriend back home. I stared into her green eyes, not quite sure what that meant to me, if anything. Why was she telling me this? She’d given me no real indication she liked me, at least not in a romantic way. I thought we were just friends. Finally she broke the awkward silence.

Isn’t that great news?

Um, yeah.” I stammered. She took a step toward me. “That’s great news.” I repeated. She took another step closer. Mandy was now standing right in front of me. I was up against the foot of her bed, with my back to it. She pushed me hard so that I fell backwards onto her bed. Before I knew what had happened she had climbed on top of me and began kissing me. I kissed her right back and we made love twice that first night. Boy had I misread that one. I didn’t even see it coming, not that I wasn’t happy about it.

For the next three weeks we were a happy couple. Whenever we didn’t have class, we were together making love, getting drunk or even occasionally doing something normal. Once we went out on a real date. We had dinner and went to the movies. We saw “Logan’s Run.” One weekend we went on a Sunday afternoon picnic. It was a really great time.

I had two more weeks of classes, while she had another week after that. So I stayed an extra week just to hang around with her. Gypsy didn’t seem to mind at all and didn’t tell anybody so I didn’t get charged for the additional week. Eventually it was over and she had to leave for home. And I had a summer job I’d committed to in Mifflin County, which was in the middle of nowhere in between Harrisburg and State College. We spent the night before in bed and it was with a heavy heart we said a reluctant goodbye the next morning. We exchanged a few letters after that, but never saw one another again.

I drove home after being away for a full month. It was a great respite from my normal life and a tantalizing glimpse of how different the future could be after I graduated. I was reluctant to get home, but I was out of money and had nowhere else to go. My mother seemed genuinely glad to see me. She had a bruise on her upper arms, but refused to tell me how she’d gotten it. She did tell me Eddie had gone on a few benders and had wrapped his beloved ’63 Corvette around a tree. It was almost funny seeing him in a full leg cast, hobbling around. My mom was in full nursing mode, and Eddie being stuck home for a few months meant he was doomed to being mostly sober for a time.

I had only a week to watch the fun, however, before I had to head back on the road again. I caught up with some friends and what they’d been doing over the summer. I had only one quick reunion with Kelly but my heart wasn’t in it. I was still pining for Mandy but couldn’t tell her about that. I know she sensed something was up, but that was far as it went. We had come to just not tell each other too much about what we did when we were apart. It greatly reduced the confrontations between us.

I guy Eddie knew who owned a meat company had told me about the job I did for the next month at the Mifflin County Fair. I sold hot dogs at a stand at the fair and slept in our family van for the entire time on the old army cot. Eddie had graciously allowed me to use it for the time I was there since it was his friend I was helping out. I was responsible for the inventory and counting the cash, but in the mornings before the fair opened and after it closed at night my time was my own. And for part of the time there’d be another guy there to split time with so I didn’t have to work the entire time.

Of course, because the fair was in the middle of nowhere, there wasn’t much to do but drink, read and hand out and watch the other carnies. Luckily, the drinking age wasn’t strictly enforced for employees and getting beer was as easy as asking for one behind the scenes. I’d also brought some liquor from home because I didn’t know in advance what the situation would be like. But I was able to fall into a routine fairly quickly. The fair opened each day at noon and I’d have to get to the booth about a half hour before that to start cooking the hot dogs, fill the ice chest with sodas to sell, load the register with money and open up the windows on the booth. The first hour or so hardly anyone ever wanted a hot dog so I was free to read and listen to the radio or just watch the people.

The carnies I met were nice enough in their way, but I never really connected with any of them. It was pleasant, but casual. I had more fun with some of the locals who came to the fair almost every night since there wasn’t much else to do in Mifflin County that summer. There was one girl in particular — isn’t there always — that caught my attention. Rebecca, or Becky as she preferred, was a strawberry blonde with alabaster skin. She wasn’t as thin as my usual crushes, but was just plump enough to make her seem more rounded in all the right places. It reminded me more of baby fat, making her seem cherubic and more innocent than she was. She came to the fair most nights with a group of girlfriends and they often paired up with a pack of roving boys they apparently knew from school. Becky wasn’t spoken for but try as I might, she didn’t seem interested in any more than just talking with me. She was more than willing to hang out with me whenever I was off duty, which only increased how much she confounded me. So I got drunk almost every night with the locals on Yuengling, Schlitz or whiskey. Not having to work each day until noon made consecutive late nights a lot easier to take since I had plenty of time the next morning to work through any hangovers.

I probably embarrassed myself by how much attention I paid Becky, trying to get something going with her. But as there really wasn’t anything else to occupy myself with, I didn’t really care what the other people there thought of me. I didn’t think I’d see any of them after my month was up, so I figured what the hell did it matter. But after two weeks of rebuffing my advances, even I gave up and tried to let go of the situation. She kept coming around and when she did I’d make time for her, but I stopped going out of my way to find out where she was or seek her out. Soon enough the last two weeks were almost over and it was time to get back home. After a month of living out of my van and showering in a makeshift camping latrine was taking its toll, and I was ready to return to civilization.

The last night of the carnival was busier than usual, and at the end of the night there was a big fireworks display. I didn’t see Becky all evening and had assumed she wasn’t there that night and I wouldn’t get a chance to at least say goodbye to her. I was leaving the next day, as soon as Eddie’s friend who I was working for showed up to collect the money and tow the hot dog stand back to Reading or wherever it was heading next.

I started tearing down the stand for the final time as soon as the fireworks display ended as they were ushering everyone out of the fairgrounds. Everyone was keen to empty the place as quickly as possible, because the teardown for most would take most of the night. For my part, it wouldn’t take me anywhere near that long as the stand was pretty self-contained and it was my only responsibility. I finished up before the fair was even emptied of people and headed back to my van for a much-needed drink. Becky was waiting for me there by the back door, trying to stay out of sight. I silently put the key in the door and opened the double-doors wide. I threw in what I’d been carrying and got in. Without a word, she followed me in. I really wasn’t sure what to expect since it had been obvious all along that Rebecca had no interest in me. I spun open the cap of a bottle of Southern Comfort and took a swig. She reached out and took the bottle from my hand and gulped down a generous amount of the sweet gasoline.

We hardly spoke the whole night but made a strange sort of love in which we never even took off all of our clothes. Drunk and almost asleep, I lay on my back. She got me hard and pulled her underwear to one side under her skirt and slid me inside of her. We sat motionless for a time and then she began moving, slowly at first, and later with wild abandon. Afterward, she collapsed on my chest and we both slept in that position the rest of the night. She woke a little before dawn and put herself back together, waking me when she disengaged from me and I felt her weight removed from pressing on me. She looked at me forlornly and kissed me on the cheek. I was still exhausted and could feel my head tighten with the early signs of a coming hangover. I didn’t … no, couldn’t move. She didn’t say a word as she opened the van door and took one last look back at me on the cot. I smiled mournfully and she shut the door.

On to Chapter 20

November 5, 2006

Have Party, Will Travel

Chapter: 20 — J @ 11:40 am

Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer.

     — Henry Lawson

Not everybody is strong enough to endure life without an anesthetic. Drink probably averts more gross crime than it causes.

     — George Bernard Shaw

When I returned from the fair, I immersed myself in summer theatre, the youth group at my church that put on a musical every summer. It had been created for kids and you couldn’t be older than 24 to be involved. I’d started going when I was fourteen, the earliest age at which I could participate. I was in the pit orchestra but also helped out with stage crew stuff in order to have an excuse to spend most of my time there. Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” was that summer’s production.

I always felt comfortable with the theatre crowd. We seemed to have a lot in common. They knew about music, film, and art and they were also itinerate partiers, and I fit it with that philosophy perfectly. A group of older kids even had cards made up with a party hotline number on it and the motto, “have party, will travel” printed in the center of the card. The idea was if you heard about a party you were to call the number on the card. Then that person would call four previously designated people. Those four would do likewise, etcetera, until you had an instant party.

And the cast party was probably one of the best parties of the year. It was always an all-nighter complete with costumes, awards and all manner of drunken revelry. That party had come to signal the end of summer and the beginning of the school year, at least for me since band practice started earlier than classes did. I was thrilled that this would be last year of high school and my escape from Shillington seemed tantalizingly close as the school year began.

There were a new crop of girls, of course, and that fact alone quickened my step with endless possibilities. One in particular caught my attention right away. She was a fellow sax player and so we were often together on the field, which gave me plenty of opportunities for flirting with her. The trick with flirting there was to not let Kelly notice it since she took a dim view of cheating, not that it stopped her at all. Even when we were broken up, she was unmerciful if I flirted too openly in her presence. I suppose I understood that, since I hated it when she did the same thing. But no amount of charm, if indeed I had any left, would work on Lynn. No matter how goofy, funny or serious I tried to be, she wanted nothing to do with me. But that only made me try harder, which began to make me somewhat pathetic.

She was unlike any other girl I’d gone out with. For starters, her name didn’t end in a “y,’ a definite plus. She was very polished and mature for not just her age, but any age. Lynn carried herself with a certain air, not snobby but just that she was above it all. It wasn’t off-putting like many kids I knew whose parents were wealthy. Lynn’s family owned one of the biggest department stores in the area and they lived on a huge estate up in the hills above Mohnton. It was a huge house with acres and acres surrounding it. Lynn had her own horse. She was very much out of my league. I was, in almost every way, the kid from the wrong side of town.

Eventually I gave up and asked out another tenth grader, Tammy. She was also a majorette and lived in my neighborhood. But Kelly found out about our date and sabotaged it by tracking me down and having makeup sex with me so I’d take her back. As a result, I stood Tammy up while I was screwing Kelly. It took a good several months before she’d talk to me. I felt really bad. She did start dating a guy I knew who was a good guy, so at least it had a happy ending for her.

Senior year was a very busy year for me, and the months were passing quickly. I was drinking very heavily throughout the winter and was enjoying being at the top of the food chain for a change, at least at school. Home was the same, or worse, really. Eddie was not just a violent alcoholic anymore but had crossed over to full-blown psychopath. That was the diagnosis of a doctor my mother knew from the hospital to whom she confided in and described Eddie’s behavior. Because of his habitual drinking, Eddie’s business wasn’t doing too well, which only provided additional frustration, fueling his need to drink still more. It was hard to run a business if you drunk all the time. Even Jim had disappeared one night and hadn’t been seen in weeks, far longer than his usual absences. I had actually started to worry about him, because I couldn’t reach him at the usual place, a place even Eddie didn’t know about. He later turned up dead, face down in a ditch. He’d been stabbed about twenty times. The story came out that he’d owed the wrong person money. I went to his funeral with Eddie. My mother wouldn’t go, not that I could blame her.

Eddie also put a gun rack in the dining room, and began buying rifles to fill it. He bought some pistols, too including a .357 Magnum, like the one Clint Eastwood used in “Dirty Harry.” He even took me shooting with it at beer cans in the woods, which, quite frankly, scared the bejesus out of me. It was much heavier in my hand than I expected and it really knocked you back with the recoil. I kept thinking he was going to shoot me and leave me for dead there in the forest. There were few things I could imagine more dangerous than Eddie having guns within easy reach when he went nuts.

He was also getting increasingly paranoid and psychotic in public when drunk. My mother was getting increasingly worried that one day he was going to snap and there’d be a shout out with t he police. She seemed more frightened every time I saw her. And frankly, she didn’t even know the half of it. As far as I could tell he was getting into more stuff that even she didn’t know about. Eddie had taken a lot of how he treated women from an older uncle of his that he was very fond of, who came from the generation that believed that you didn’t tell women any more than you had to. It was better to keep them in the dark should anyone start asking questions went the reasoning. But Jim would tell me some of the stiff Eddie was getting himself into and some of it I witnessed firsthand. For example, Jim showed me a box of Polaroid photos of naked young girls, maybe high school age, that Eddie and some bad people he knew had given drugs to and then gang raped. At least that’s what it seemed like in the pictures I saw. Jim said he thought they were runaways. The two girls had these wide doe-eyed look in their eyes and looked very much like they’d been drugged. Some of the photos were very explicit. Looking at them made your stomach feel queasy.

At least a couple of times when he’d gotten his car parked in, a not uncommon occurrence in downtown Reading where parking was hard to find, he actually rammed the cars in front and behind him so they were pushed enough so he could get out of the space more easily. Then there was the time he’d tried to convince a waitress at a bar that I was dying of cancer in the hopes that she would sleep with both us. I had to play along or else. Luckily, she didn’t go for it. But the irony was that it was at this same time we discovered that my mother had developed breast cancer. Cancer ran in my family and my mother had been worried about it as long as I could remember. She had given up smoking as soon as it came to light that there was a connection between the two. It frankly seems weird to think there was a time when that wasn’t obvious.

Eddie couldn’t deal with my mom’s cancer and instead of being supportive, made life even more difficult for her by taking out his frustration, anger and the sense of helplessness we all felt on her. The best option appeared to be a mastectomy and the surgery was scheduled quickly in the hopes of containing the cancer before it spread. He rarely visited her when she was in the hospital and if he did, he came very drunk. He’d keep offering her food that she wasn’t allowed to have and then would get angry when she’d try to explain why she couldn’t accept it. I don’t think I did much better during this time period, though. I didn’t really know how to react to the idea of her being sick or the notion that she could die. It didn’t seem real and that’s unfortunately how I treated it. I pretended it simply wasn’t happening. I just wasn’t mature enough to do anything else. My relationship with my Mom wasn’t going too well and this might have brought us closer together again, but it didn’t. I visited her more often than Eddie did, but stayed as short a time as I could. I was secretly relieved whenever I’d find her asleep in her room because it meant I could leave a note and sneak out. At least twice, Kelly and I fooled around in the hospital parking lot so that I could delay going up to her room to see her. I just assumed that everything would be fine in that way teenagers think they will live forever. I had certainly been to enough funerals in my short years to know better, but I believed what I wanted to believe.

As it turned out, I was right, at l east for the time being. The doctors all believed that they had gotten all of the cancer. My mother was having some difficulty adjusting to wearing a prosthesis breast. I hadn’t realized how much of her identity was tied up in her looks before that time, I guess because we don’t see our mothers the way others do. But apart from occasional crying jags over the way she felt about her body, things returned relatively to normal, or as normal as out family could manage. I think it was a while before Eddie would touch her, which only saddened her and confirmed her worst fears.

Then suddenly I had my own crisis to deal with. Kelly showed up one day crying, which was very unusual for her. It turned out she was pregnant though she couldn’t tell me with absolute certainty if I was the father. I told her it didn’t matter and we’d go through whatever happened together. I certainly didn’t want to be a father before my eighteenth birthday but I didn’t see any way around it. Kelly talked with my mother a couple of times over the next few days and announced she wanted an abortion. If I had any protest, my mother silenced me before I could get it out. I guess it was her nursing instincts again, but my Mom insisted on going with us to the clinic and I was a little relieved not to have to deal with yet another medical crisis I had no clue about alone. Everything thing went fine with the abortion and there were no complications or problems. Kelly asked both of us to promise we wouldn’t tell anyone, especially her parents, about the abortion and we readily agreed. Kelly’s family was catholic and I didn’t relish that confrontation. Kelly’s Dad was almost as scary as my own.

Again, things went back to state of equilibrium, if not normalcy. But, of course, things never seem to stay that way for very long. My friend Phil’s dad sold car parts and Eddie’s Garage was on his route. As I understand how it happened, Eddie assumed Phil’s father knew about Kelly and me since Phil was one of my best friends and casually mentioned it to him. Later, when he was at the car dealership where Kelly’s father worked, Phil’s dad, believing it was common knowledge since Eddie had been so casual about it, asked him about it. Fifteen minutes after that, Kelly’s father was standing on my porch red-faced and threatening to do me bodily harm. Needless to say, Kelly was forbidden to ever see me again, though our love of danger just made sex even more attractive after that, though officially we were broken up. We’d just get together for sex whenever we could. It was actually a healthy arrangement as far as we were concerned. We both even began dating other people as cover but continued screwing around behind everyone’s backs.

I turned eighteen in the spring and within a few weeks had signed up to join the army band. Because they were in desperate need of both sax and clarinet players I was even allowed to choose my duty station, and I chose New York City figuring it was a great place for music. My mother had insisted on me applying to colleges, which I did, and was accepted at three of the five places where I had sent an application. But I could figure out how she would be able to pay for it and when I pressed her on it she said she’d get a second job if she had to. I don’t know if it was out of a desire that she not have to go through that or if I simply didn’t want to owe her so great a debt, but was not about to let her do that if I could possibly avoid it. So once I was eighteen and legally an adult I enlisted, knowing there would be nothing she could do about it. I also figured I could use the G.I. Bill to help me pay for college later, which turned out to be correct when I put myself through a few years later. My mother was livid, to say the least, but as I knew would be the case, my escape was foolproof and, now, inevitable. All I had to do was get through the next six months in one piece.

On to Chapter 21

November 4, 2006

On the Road Again

Chapter: 21 — J @ 7:17 am

The troubles of our proud and angry dust are from eternity, and shall not fail. Bear them we can, and if we can we must. Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.

     — A.E. Housman
          A Shropshire Lad, 1896

Women and drink. Too much of either can drive you to the other.

     — Michael Still

The most surprising and unexpected development in the spring was the return of Lynn. Not that she’d gone anywhere, I had just stopped trying to impress her and act the fool around her. With my mother’s cancer and the issues with Kelly, I wasn’t really caring what anybody thought of me. I had taken on a very laissez faire attitude. Don’t mess with me and I won’t mess with you. For reasons passing understanding Lynn found my carefree or uncaring attitude very attractive. She was in effect proving the Taoist concept of wu wei, which literally translates as without action. In other words as soon as I stopped paying her any attention that’s when she began craving it. I became infinitely more alluring when I just didn’t give a shit about anything or anybody.

Since publicly Kelly and I were no longer a couple, Lynn thought I was available and she began to find reasons to spend time with me and flirt with me. Kelly couldn’t do anything about it this time, either, not without revealing our deception. I was quite puzzled by it all and didn’t know what to do. My relationship with Kelly was clearly a dead end, more so now than ever. That the sex was so good I undoubtedly assigned a higher importance in my reasoning because of my age and immaturity. But when I’d been openly interested in Lynn, in fact asked her out several times, she soundly and completely rejected me, giving no hint whatsoever that I should hold out any hope of a change in her feelings toward me.

In the end, I was too intrigued by the possibility of new love with Lynn and knew in my heart it would be best to get past by the dysfunctional relationship with Kelly. So I accepted Lynn’s invitation to take me bowling. The day before I told Kelly we had to stop seeing one another and she correctly guessed why. We fought wildly but there would be no making up this time. I was strong and resisted, for a change. I figured Kelly would try to find a way to sabotage things for me and warned Lynn to not believe anything she heard about me that might not sound right. It ended up being a very good beginning to our relationship. I was honest with her from the start, something I hadn’t really tried before that. Lynn appreciated my telling her, she told me, and it made me feel oddly good not to have any secrets from her. We spent that afternoon just talking and telling each other stories about ourselves and managed to know quite a lot about each other even before our date Friday evening.

So it was with great anticipation and possibilities that I picked Lynn up from her house Friday. It was more like a normal date than any I’d ever been on. I had to shake hands with her father, while he eyed up the older boy taking his daughter out. I had to promise I’d have her back by midnight. And I also got the opportunity to watch her walk downstairs in tight jeans and a bright red wool sweater that looked fantastic on her. Her hair was dark and straight. She wore it shoulder length and parted in the middle. It almost seemed when she shook her head that the hair moved in slow motion, the way it does in the movies. I opened her door and held it for her while she got in my Camaro. She waved to her parents, who were watching from the window, along with her older sister who was my age and in my class, though I had never even given her a second glance.

Lynn was on the Girl’s Bowling Team, so I knew this was probably one her favorite things to do. I was pleased she had decided on this for our date. Bowling was low pressure and not terribly intimate if things didn’t go well. But after our talk earlier in the week I didn’t see how we wouldn’t have a great time together. She told me on the drive to Colonial Hills, the lanes just outside of Mohnton on the Lancaster Pike, that she wasn’t going to take it easy on me bowling. She told me I would have to work hard if I wanted to beat her because she felt she was a good bowler. I laughed heartily and told he she was on. I’m sure it was partly cockiness, but I felt sure I could beat her. I may not have been on the school’s team, but I was a decent bowler. I had been in a few bowling leagues over the years and had even done pretty well in a few local tournaments. And Phil and I bowled at least once a week at the Elk’s Club in downtown Reading, where his father was a member. They had this really cool setup in the basement where there were four lanes. The Elk’s building was this amazing giant structure that had once been a mansion in the 1800s. But the Elk’s members were dying out and fewer and fewer young people were joining. As a result, they didn’t even have enough interested people for a small bowling league. So Phil’s Dad invited us to join them. We were the only non-Elks there and the youngest people bowling by probably something like fifty years. But we had a great time with the old geezers and they welcomed us with open arms. I carried around a 160 average, not world class, but not terrible either. I’d never thrown a perfect game but had a few in the 240s, which wasn’t too bad for a high school kid who never practiced except for league play.

We did have a lot of fun, though I managed to beat Lynn two out of three games only by the slimmest of margins. So we had to admit we were pretty evenly matched. She also told me that night the reason she all but hated me at the beginning of the year. She thought I was immature and was just showing off for her, which not only didn’t work but after a while turned her off. She’d initially thought I was cute, she claimed, but that my personality made me unattractive to her. That was, naturally, rather deflating to hear but at least it was honest criticism. Apparently when I stopped trying and she saw what she thought was my true personality, that I was cute again and grew even more so as she spent time hanging out with me at school. That felt a little better and I was really enjoying being normal. I just gave her a friendly kiss goodnight when I dropped off — before midnight as promised — and drove home sober, which in and of itself was different for me. I even had some trouble falling asleep that night because I kept thinking about Lynn.

Over the next few weeks we spent an increasing amount of time together and by the time Spring Swing, our school’s musical production, began we were officially a couple. As usual, I was playing in the pit orchestra and helping out with stage crew. Lynn joined the chorus so we could be together after school. Whenever there were breaks or we had free time, we could be found in the dark auditorium seats making out. We made out a lot. I had the bluest nuts of my life but the weird thing was I really didn’t mind. I didn’t quite know what to make of the way I felt, but it was certainly different than with Kelly or anything other girl I’d been with. When alone, I frequently got to second base and occasionally rounded third, but that was it. I certainly wanted to steal home, but I didn’t want to do anything to ruin how good being with Lynn made me feel.

The only thing we ever argued about, ever, was Kelly. Lynn was understandably jealous of her and Kelly did anything she could to fan that feeling. She went out of her way to make things hard on us. That was just her way, which I tried time and time again to explain but it didn’t really help. I just tried to avoid any contact whatsoever with her and that usually seemed to do the trick for Lynn. I tried taking us places I was sure Kelly would never be, which meant avoiding a lot of parties. That also meant I was drinking less, which was actually both a relief and rather strange.

I did have more time to myself than I’d had with Kelly, because Lynn had family obligations, her horse, bowling team matches, and many other things she had to do where I couldn’t spend time with her. So we were just dating in a sense of the word I hadn’t experienced before. We’d go on dates. Outside of school, that was the only way we were together. With previous girlfriends, I just spent any free time I had with them, date or not. But it was probably healthier this way, and also afforded me chances to just hang out with my friends without any female interference.

Since some of us were no eighteen, we started going down to the Jersey shore on weekends. New Jersey’s resort towns along the Atlantic Ocean were about two hours from Shillington. We’d pile four or five us to a car, and rent a cheap motel room Friday and Saturday night. The drinking age was still only eighteen in New Jersey so I could drink legally there. We’d learned from upper classman over the past two years where the hot spots were. There was Atlantic City, pre-casino wasteland, Ocean City and what would become our personal favorite, Wildwood. If you didn’t have puka shells and a bright green t-shirt from the Shamrock Café in Wildwood, you just weren’t cool. Another feature of Jersey resort towns were the cheesy gift shops and in those days iron-on transfers were how they made cheap t-shirts for the tourists. For landlocked inland high school kids like us they were fashion statements that at once showed we’d been to the shore and that we were hip. At least that was the idea, we told ourselves.

Coors had recently achieved something of a cult status, in part because you couldn’t get in on the east coast. And when “Smokey and the Bandit” came out that May, it only fueled its prestige. I had a Rocky Mountain High Coors shirt that I’d gotten at the shore that was one of my favorites. It seems even cheesier and more than a little gauche today. Somehow, Eddie managed to get his hands on a six-pack of Coors’ cans around that same time. He gathered some of his friends and I invited a couple of mine. We reverently opened a couple of the cans and poured some in highball glasses for each of us to try. I still don’t know what all the fuss was about, as it tasted no different from most of the other light pilsners I’d tried. It wasn’t worse, but it was certainly nowhere near good enough to justify the cult status it enjoyed. But I learned a valuable lesson about perception and perceived value that day. People believed it was better, so in a way, for them, it was. A lot of life was like that. How valuable some thing or some person might be was a tricky business. I was beginning to question my own values and my own worth as I struggled to quite literally grow up and be a man. It was time, I knew, and I was still mired in the muck of my family politics, the reputation I’d created for myself in school — which was not entirely flattering — along with my uncertainty about the future. I feared many of the choices I made then would have far-reaching effects that I could not adequately predict and it paralyzed me with indecision at every turn.

And perhaps more frightening was the possibility that I would get stuck here in Berks County, Pennsylvania, like my mother had, like Eddie had, like almost everyone had. The region had at one time been an industrial center and a center of textile factories in its heyday. But those days were behind us, and the area was dying before our eyes. Businesses were shuttered almost daily, or so it seemed. For the last few censuses, the population was decreasing substantially every decade. The smart ones, I reasoned, were getting out. I was hoping that joining the army would afford me a similar opportunity but I really felt conflicted. I was beginning to feel emotions for Lynn that confused me and made me want to never leave wherever she happened to be, which might mean getting stuck in Shillington. Was the happiness I felt with her worth staying? I had no earthly idea.

The months wore on and I definitely felt like I was in love with Lynn and would do almost anything for her. But it turned out I had my limits, and I don’t to this day know what happened exactly. As my senior prom approached, I naturally asked Lynn to go with me, but she refused. The reason she wouldn’t go was because her older sister, who was also a senior, had no date for the prom and she Lynn didn’t feel right about going when her sister would be sitting home. She asked me to take her sister, which seemed very odd to me at the time. Looking back, it was sweet of her and I know she was putting someone else’s happiness ahead of her own, a concept I was not yet very familiar with. I don’t know why I said no, but I did. I’ve been kicking myself ever since, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. What was wrong me? I wish I knew, honestly I do.

When I said I couldn’t she broke up with me on the spot. Or at least that was the effect, which also made no sense to me. I was devastated. She asked me to promise her one thing, which that I not take Kelly to my prom. Naturally I agreed and if Kelly thought it strange that we got dressed up and went out to dinner on my prom night but never went to the dance itself, she never said anything. Because when I crawled back into a bottle after Lynn was no longer in my life, Kelly was there to pick me up. Or at least she joined me there in the bottle. And that’s how I passed the rest of my senior year, drunk.

Finally graduation day came, and with it the next phase of my life, though I still had to get through the summer. In the weeks before and after the end of school, there were endless parties. First, there were actual graduation parties than afterward we just celebrated being free with wild abandon. One of the best was a kegger held at the home of a senior girl we really didn’t even know very well. Her father was a projectionist at a local film theater and showed the movie “Young Frankenstein” on a screen in his basement, a room that had been converted into a home theater, complete with the actual seats from a movie house. We had a blast getting drunk with a keg of Genny while laughing our ass off watching Mel Brooks’ hilarious spoof. It had been a couple of years since we’d seen it in the theatre.

I guess because I had just graduated I feeling cockier than I normally did, and I did something extremely stupid one night. Just as I coming through the door after another round of parties, Eddie was trashing the house once more and had his hand around my mother’s neck. I instinctively grabbed his arm and pulled it off of her neck. He was red-faced from screaming, a condition I’d seen many times, when he turned to face me. Without a word, he grabbed my wrist with one hand and snapped it, breaking the bone. At least that ended the fight, as my mother and I spent the night in emergency getting a cast on my arm, while Eddie slept it off. I considered calling the police, but in the end I didn’t, because I was afraid of what he’d do to either my Mom or me in retaliation.

The following week I left for a summer job that would keep me out of the house for seven weeks before I left for boot camp in September. I had been a Boy Scout for several years — it was yet another organization that kept me out of the house — and took a job as provisional troop leader. Luckily, it was a job I could still do, even with a cast on my arm. It paid $600 for the whole summer, along with my own tent and three meals a day. I’d been going to Hawk Mountain Scout Reservation in Schuylkill Haven for several years, and played in the camp band. As a result, I’d gotten to know the head Scout (I don’t remember what his title was) who was in charge of the camp as well as the entire local district. He was a scouting professional, meaning he was paid a salary, whereas most scout leaders were volunteers. Henry was also a pedophile, which made him more than a little creepy.

But he offered me a job for the summer as a provisional scoutmaster, which meant I would have a group of orphan scouts each week who all be lumped together to create a temporary troop. Usually, it was kids who for one reason or another couldn’t be at camp at the same time as their local troop, so they came whatever week they could. I also had two kids one week whose father was an ambassador for a country in the Middle East. It wasn’t a bad gig, really. I was outdoors almost the entire day. Even when you were in your tent, you felt like you were outside because, of course, you were. The food was fantastic. I actually ate breakfast every day and that was nice. The elderly Mennonite woman who had been the head cook as long as anyone could remember was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. That she could make food for several hundred people taste so good was like a miracle. She had a thick, German accent and could not pronounce certain sounds. For example, she couldn’t say the hard “j” sound of my name, instead pronouncing it “Chay,” which afterwards was what everyone at camp called me.

Password was the “in” game and we played it endlessly after hours, while we were “off duty” at night and whenever our kids were off at a particular activity. We also drank heavily while we played, and who could play well stewed, rule. The other popular game we played was street hockey in the mess hall, where we put the benches around the perimeter of the mess hall to act like boards to bounce the puck off of. We had to do this because the mess hall had not exterior walls on three sides. Only the kitchen proper had walls. There was only one woman in camp, apart from the kitchen staff who to us all seemed to be at least a hundred, and that was the nurse. But she was humorless and rather plain, to be kind, not that she didn’t have her fair share of desperate suitors anyway.

The weeks passed quickly and by the time I got home again there was a little more than a month before my enlistment date. That final time I spent putting on one last play at Shillington Summer Theatre and drinking as much beer as I could every night with friends. I did see Kelly a couple of times and we screwed a few times. We told ourselves it was just for old times sakes, but the truth was that neither of us could pass up the great sexual chemistry we shared, no matter how bad we knew we were for one another.

It was even more difficult than usual to be at home. Eddie never apologized for breaking my arm, which constantly agitated me. My mother never thanked me for intervening on her behalf, which for some reason also irritated me considering the heavy price I paid. For my mother’s sake, I tried to act as if it was no big deal. I think she was truly frightened of what would happen when I was no longer around, which was strange since I felt I was almost a stranger in my house and had been for a long time. But military service represented a more permanent situation than simply not coming home at night and perhaps she thought it would embolden Eddie even further. I felt bad for the situation she was in, despite how much I felt it was her own fault. It wasn’t her fault that Eddie had turned into the monster he now was, but her inability to leave him or indeed even want to leave him I felt I could, and did, blame her for. So even thought I did feel a certain amount of guilt for leaving, I could not conceive of any other course for myself. I had been planning for the day I would leave Shillington for good for so long that now that it was finally within my grasp, there was nothing that could stop me from going through with my escape.

On to Chapter 22

November 3, 2006

Boot Camp

Chapter: 22 — J @ 7:52 pm

The worst thing about some men is that when they are not drunk they are sober.

     — William Butler Yeats

Keep your libraries, your penal institutions, your insane asylums…give me beer. You think man needs rule, he needs beer. The world does not need morals, it needs beer… The souls of men have been fed with indigestibles, but the soul could make use of beer.

     — Henry Miller

The week before I had to show up for the army, I rented a grove and threw a party for everyone I knew. I even made up flyers and handed them out. I billed it as my “last ever” party. Eddie even sprang for a couple of kegs of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The grove was just this big field out in the middle of nowhere. There were cement bathrooms like the ones at a state park along with a large covered area that consisted of a roof and support beams. There were picnic tables and, the specific reason I chose that particular grove, a ping-pong table.

I don’t know exactly how many people came, but there were a lot. In addition to my friends, a number of my relatives were there, including my grandmother. My mom made a thermos of pink squirrels for her. Seeing my grandmother drunk off her ass for the first and only time was one of the most surreal sights I’ve ever seen, topped only by the indelible image of her puking pink in the bushes later that evening. Even my mother was pretty tight on whisky sours, though she at least showed the good taste not to throw up.

I played a lot of table tennis, drank a lot of beer and saw a lot of old friends for the very last time. Less than a week later I was in Fort Dix, New Jersey having my head shaved. I didn’t have a drop of beer for eight weeks. There simply wasn’t any available during basic training. We marched and ran and shot things. I was in shape for perhaps the only time in my life. When you joined the army band, because you brought a skill with you (the ability to play a musical instrument), you came in to the service at a higher pay grade. So while everyone else in my platoon was an E-1, the modern equivalent of private, I was an E-3. Because of that, I was made platoon leader, which seems strange even now. The added responsibility pushed me to try harder than I might have otherwise, and I scored the highest rating — Expert — on both the rifle and throwing grenades. And then during the obstacle course final I broke my thumb, but still finished the course. It didn’t seem like that big a deal to me. The only other option if I hadn’t finished would have been to repeat the last four weeks of basic training. I would have done anything to get the hell out of there. Instead I was named “Trainee Leader” for the cycle, meaning out of everybody in boot camp at the same time. All this really meant was that I got to an extra day’s leave before I had to report to my next duty station, the military’s school of music in Norfolk, Virginia.

The only other benefit was that I sat at the head table at the graduation ceremonies for boot camp and was allowed to have one family member sit with me. For the first time I could remember I’d managed to do something Eddie thought was a good job and he seemed proud of me. Having been in the Marines, he was oddly in awe of the drill sergeants and the officers there and was doubly thrilled when I invited him to sit with me at the table along with them. It was perhaps the only time I managed to please him and after so many years of trying it felt satisfying to have finally managed to succeed, however briefly.

The following week I was in Virginia where I would be stationed for six months, which was how long the military’s school of music program lasted. It was on a Naval base and Army, Navy and Marine musicians shared the school. Like New Jersey, the drinking age in Virginia was eighteen. There was a bar on the base, the El Crocodrillo, where we could get a glass of beer for next to nothing. Sometimes we’d venture off the base just for the adventure of it, but the locals openly hated us and were sometimes downright rude to anyone with a buzz haircut, whether they were in uniform or not. It was strange to be so reviled and I imagine it was just a taste of what Vietnam era vets must have felt like after returning stateside. Of course, the area’s economy was closely tied to the military’s presence there so their willingness to take our money but treat us with such disdain was very hypocritical and the source of much tension in the community. We’d hear rumors from time to time of sailors getting beat up my local thugs so we rarely left the base. If we did, we didn’t ever wear our uniform. It definitely soured me on my military service being for some higher purpose. If the very people we supposedly were defending didn’t want us in their backyard, I had a hard time feeling very patriotic about the whole thing. Luckily, my mission didn’t extend much beyond Sousa marches.

For the first month in Virginia, I did my best to make up for not drinking for two months in New Jersey. There wasn’t much more to do there, so I drank with renewed vigor. I wrote long, embarrassing letters to Kelly because I was bored and lonely. After a time, I met a bored, lonely female Army clarinet player and we drank together — and screwed — for a time before realizing we had nothing in common apart from our mutual desire to not be alone. After that, I showed even poorer judgment, if that’s possible. I met Claire, an attractive redhead Marine who played the flute and we started a quite passionate affair. I say affair because the only problem was that she had a husband who was stationed in Korea. To be fair, she didn’t tell me that fact until we’d been fooling around for a few weeks. But she liked to drink and screw almost as much as Kelly had, so I didn’t stop once I found out, either. But I also knew it was doomed and unhealthy. I just decided that I was okay with that fact because I knew in just a few months I’d be in my permanent duty station in New York City. That meant I could just enjoy the ride since it already had a definite ending built into it.

I arrived at Fort Wadsworth in May of 1978. Fort Wadsworth sat on Staten Island in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which linked the island with Brooklyn. My barracks, which housed both the living quarters and rehearsal space for the 26th U.S. Army Band, was located in a former Civil War-era hospital on the base’s main road. It was an expansive three-story brick building with a massive catacombed basement that housed the supply room, post office, storage rooms, individual practice rooms, and a recreation room with pool tables and — joy of joys — a ping-pong table. On the ground floor was the day room, administrative offices, the main rehearsal hall (which had formerly been an operating room), a kitchen, TV room and a few living quarters. The top two floors were comprised entirely of living quarters.

Off to the side of the main floor, was a large room not unlike the rooms in basic training that housed as many as a dozen soldiers. This was where all new band members lived until a room opened up or they persuaded someone with a room already to let them room with them. You had a small open space to yourself with a bed and two metal wardrobes, one for your uniforms and official equipment and one for your personal clothes and belongings. The wardrobes created walls in between each space and provided a modicum of privacy. I was there for a few months before a large room opened up on the ground floor, which I shared with Gene, a sax player from West Virginia.

We spent a lot of our time in the day room where the television was. There was also a vending machine in there that dispensed cans of beer for fifty cents. We’d get drunk and watch Uncle Floyd, M*A*S*H, Mister Rogers and the Muppets most afternoons. Most of the band gigs were around the New York area and consisted of military functions like change of command ceremonies, PR jobs like parades in local communities and occasional full band concerts. One outdoor concert we did every year for the Fourth of July was very well-attended by the public because we always played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and they fired the actual ceremonial cannons from the old fort during the final bars of the climactic ending of the music. The score was actually written for cannons but hardly anyone still used real ones when they played the piece. For some reason, that was a big draw. And we played John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” at almost every single gig we ever played, so much so that I cringe every time I hear even a snippet of that march.

But as much as I complained at the time, it wasn’t horrible. We weren’t at war, at least, and I was getting paid to play music. We had a fair amount of free time. If there was nothing scheduled over a weekend, I could go home for a couple of days. Now that I wasn’t living there, I didn’t mind being in town for the weekend now and then. Many times, I wouldn’t even tell my family I was in town, preferring to crash with a friend. That way I had no obligations, no issues with Eddie, and no guilt. I could still attend parties, get drunk and fool around with whoever I wanted to, or at least whoever would have me.

And I started exploring New York. I went into Manhattan and saw the sights. I got my bearings by taking the elevator to the top of the World Trade Center, which had opened only a few years earlier. I went to the art museums, the natural history museum and many others. There was a USO office in Times Square that had free tickets to movies, attractions and Broadway shows. I even saw Deep Throat in a double bill with Behind the Green Door at a theater in Times Square.

After every paycheck, I bought lots of books, albums and at least one new video game for my Atari 2600. Then we’d spend the next two weeks trying to master it. Naturally, some were easier than others. But some kept us up for hours drinking and playing the new game. The game Adventure seems laughingly simple compared to video games today, but we stayed up the entire night until one of us beat it and won the game. We could play a game Space Invaders for literally hours, and sometimes did.

But once in New York, I quickly fell into a new routine. I took classes in music theory at Mannes College when I still wanted to write classical music as a living. I actively sought to expand my musical horizons are started to listen to a far wider variety of different styles. I started to read more philosophy and especially about alternative religions, since I was still searching for spiritual truths. There was a lot to see and do in New York and even though it was only a two and a half hour drive from Shillington, it was like another world. I soaked in as much of it as I could. My first months there were an amazing time.

On to Chapter 23

November 2, 2006

Jazz in the Dark

Chapter: 23 — J @ 9:53 pm

A meal of bread, cheese and beer constitutes the perfect food.

     — Queen Elizabeth I

I have fed purely upon ale; I have eat my ale, drank my ale, and I always sleep upon ale.

     — George Farquhar

Drinking in New York City in the late 1970s opened a vast expanse of new delights, sights and experiences. We spent most of our time off the base in Manhattan, though occasionally we went to Brooklyn or stayed on Staten Island. I had two initial goals once I’d settled into being stationed on Fort Wadsworth, to see as much of the city as I could and to sample as many beers as I could find. In those days, unlike the more conservative Pennsylvania where I grew up, New York’s drinking age was a more reasonable 18.

There were local beers I hadn’t had, though Rheingold’s — which Eddie had the night we drove to Times Square — had gone out of business two years before. There were a few others, but nothing that distinguished itself in my memory. By and large, it was the imported beers that were so exciting to me. These were nearly unheard of in Pennsylvania, at least in my world.

It was music that led me to them. At that time Disco was in vogue, it was all you heard on Top 40 radio and at most of the mainstream clubs. Studio 54 had opened the year before and was the place to be if you were into that sort of thing. I wasn’t, but the jazz scene in New York was just as vibrant, perhaps more so, and it just wasn’t in the limelight the way disco was. But I was captivated by the scene and went to shows at least a few times a week, usually with one or more of my Army buddies.

We went to the big venues, of course, like the Village Vanguard, Sweet Basil, the Knitting Factory, the 55 Bar but smaller ones, too, all over the East Village and the lower east side. And one thing you could count on in those days was that they carried Bass Ale and Guinness. It seems odd to think of both of those beers as new, but they were to me. Both were very different from my usual choices and I loved the way they tasted. Many of the jazz clubs did not have much in the way of food but often had trays of cheese, bread and fruit (usually sliced apples) which went with both Bass and Guinness quite well. It became our standard jazz club diet.

Some of the best shows we went to were not at actual jazz clubs but were in unmarked lofts in warehouse districts. These places has no signs and if you didn’t know they were going on, you would not have ventured into those streets or, even if you had, you would not have noticed them. They’d often be on the top floor loft and we’d climb several flights of stairs, pay a cover charge, and walk through a door into a large open space. One particular venue I remember had colorful pillows covering the floors, creating what would have looked like an impromptu quilt if seen from above. It was the uppermost floor of a large warehouse building that ran the length of a block, at least. The ceiling was several times the height of a normal room. The walls were also filled with bright curtains, like the pillows, most likely to dampen the sound. It reminded me of what I imagined an Eastern bazaar might look like. I think someone must have lived in that loft, because in one corner there was a makeshift kitchen, and the beer was being sold out the refrigerator, along with the available food on a nearby dining table.

We sat around on pillows in a scene right out of Tales from the Arabian Nights, drank Bass Ale, ate cheese, bread and apples while listening to one off the greatest big bands I’d ever heard live. That band was fronted by a trumpet player named Dave Stahl, who was trying to get his own band together. Stahl had played with Count Basie and some other big names in jazz. He was also from Pennsylvania and gave advanced trumpet lessons to a good friend of mine, Jeff, who played in the same Army band with me. That’s how I knew about the show. Jeff grew up one town away from me, in Muhlenberg. We first met after he joined the Army Band, too, when we discovered we had mutual friends and began taking turns driving home on sporadic weekends. I even later introduced him to his wife, who had been the friend of one of my own girlfriends.

These were great times, both musically and from the perspective of learning about new beers. We saw countless bands, met musicians and got into as much mischief as we could. Another favorite band, the 24th Street Band, was a quartet of studio musicians we befriended, three of whom went on to be in David Letterman’s original band: Hiram Bullock, Will Lee and Steve Jordan. The keyboard player, Clifford Carter, was replaced by Paul Shaffer, of course. We even covered one of their songs, The New York City Strut, in our show band, which we called the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (or BQE), a weird rock/jazz band that visited high schools and played popular songs of the day in an effort to entice kids to join the military. We’d go on tour for weeks at a time, playing assemblies at two different high schools each day, usually in small towns and rural areas throughout New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and even Ohio. Imagine the surreal sight of a group of ten people on a stage, playing rock and roll and jazz tunes wearing green Army uniforms and you have some idea of what it was like.

But while music was the reason I was there, it was the discovery of all this new beer that really made the experience sing. With Bass and Guinness, both beers had fuller flavors and tasted so different from what I was used to that it made me wonder what else was out there that I also didn’t know about.

About that same time, we discovered a bar in the East Village, Brewsky’s Beer Bar. It was a little hole-in-the-wall on 7th Avenue, but it had, for its day, a great selection of imported beers. I think the owner was Ukranian, or something like that, and there were a lot of beers from central and eastern Europe. There were dozens of similar-tasting lagers and pilsners with enchanting labels I couldn’t read. But it was the darker beers that really stood out, simply because they were so different from what I’d grown up drinking. For example, I recall Dortmunder Union vividly as a beer with distinct flavors unlike any other I’d ever tried.

I liked most of what I tried, though at the time I was drawn to the English ales, I think because they tasted so much different to me than what I was used to drinking. I was certainly hooked. I already had a somewhat obsessive love affair going with beer, but to find out that it was so much richer and more varied than I’d realized was something of an epiphany.

I longed to know more about what I was tasting, but there was scant little information available. Happily, that changed one day at the end of another long month. In the military, we were paid twice a month. I set aside about $100, a sizable portion of my paycheck in those days, for what I referred to as spiritual growth, usually books and music. With the Army’s hurry up and wait protocols, we usually arrived at our gigs hours in advance, so there was a lot of down time. I read like a fiend in those days, finishing books every couple of days.

During one of these post-payday trips to a bookstore, I happened upon Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer, which had been published the year before. I almost didn’t pick it up, because the garish gold and green cover had a large Miller ad in the center. But then I spied the red triangle from Bass and flipped through it. Needless to say, I bought it on the spot. Finally, I had some context to what I’d been drinking and was able to organize my head around the various tastes I’d been trying so chaotically.

Looking back, it seems odd that there was so little available information on beer and, compared with today, how truly ignorant I was. And it wasn’t just me. Practically everybody I knew had little or no idea about beer. The regional and national breweries at the time made no effort to educate consumers. Jack MacAuliffe founded New Albion Brewery in California two years before this, but it might as well have been located on the Moon for all the impact it had for me in New York. We had no concept of beer styles. I hadn’t the foggiest notion of where beer color came from, or why so many of the new beers I was trying tasted different whereas most of the beers I knew locally tasted so much the same. I was only vaguely aware that ales and lagers were fundamentally different, but didn’t really understand why.

So Jackson’s book was a great big wallop, a slap in the face, but the good kind. The welcome kind where afterwards you say, “thanks, I needed that.” It opened up a whole new world for me, even though it would be several years and a cross-country move before the ideas that took root that year began to flower. But that was the beginning: the first awkward sips that set me on my way. And I have jazz to thank for it.

On to Chapter 24

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