Sometimes it seems like alcohol has always been a part of my life, though really, I didn’t have my first drink until age nine.
It was whiskey. Rotgut. Straight out of the bottle.
And it was my mother’s idea.
In the summers, to make money to buy school clothes or anything else our parents couldn’t afford, my brothers and I picked fruit. There were no child labor laws back then. June it was strawberries, July corn or raspberries, pie cherries in August. You got paid cash at the end of the day after handing over a punch card to the foreman who collected them from the bed of his beat-up pickup.
The foreman’s name was Jack. To me he resembled a gunslinger, although he was squat and bowlegged, and chewed Red Man tobacco incessantly.
I do know he seemed to like my mother a lot.
One day after picking ended, I found my mom and Jack in an embrace near a grove of dying trees and shrubs. I was nine and didn’t know what to make of the discovery, thinking maybe Jack was consoling my mother about something.
They did seem startled to see me, and in reaction to that, my mom shook her head as if waking from a nightmare and spat out that it was time for me to be a man. This was something I desperately wanted, to be a man, and surprisingly, Jack said he could help with that.
That’s when he produced the fifth of whiskey.
My mom said, “Go ahead, have a pull,” so I did. When she said to have another and another and another, I did that too.
At first it was like I’d swallowed a blowtorch, as if there was a forest fire burning through me. I remember spitting flames I couldn’t see. My eyeballs felt like they were melting. In a short time, the fumes turned to liquid, or so it seemed, and I began to float. I remember Jack saying, “Why, that boy could dance a jig right now.” I didn’t know what that was, a jig, but he showed me, hiking up his legs chin-high while swinging his body in a slow circle. I imitated him as best I could, which made them laugh, which in turn made me glad because, for once, I had made my mother happy. But I swung too fast. And then I couldn’t stop spinning. As I spun, the world whirled with me, until it stopped and swam away.
As far as I recall, you—reading this—are the first person I’ve ever told this story. (Or for that matter, what came next.)
From there, the story kept growing, like a too long novel or film…
In high school, a lot of my friends smoked marijuana. Not me. I just drank. A friend of mine knew a convenience store where you could slip an adult an extra ten bucks and they’d buy us bottles of wine—Mogen David, Boone’s Farm, TJ Swann. It tasted like cotton candy mixed with urine and lighter fluid, but it did the trick.
There wasn’t a dance I went to (and back then we had dances every Friday night, all year long) where I wasn’t spinning. There’s even a photo of me in an old year book where I’m dancing by myself, though it doesn’t capture how hammered I was.
In college, everywhere you looked, there were oceans of alcohol. Not only that, but the drinking age was 19 in Idaho, which was a mere (and treacherous) twenty-five-minute drive across the border.
At school, we had Keggars on the sundeck most every weekend.
We had childish rituals like “Beer Slides,” where the basement was soaked with beer, you’d take a running leap and see how far you could swoosh through all those suds of barley and hops.
There were vats of Spodie-Odie, a Sangria-type mixture I got ridiculously sick on the first time I tried it.
There was “Wednesday Morning Club” where a large group of us awoke at 5am to have “The Breakfast of Champions,” bowls of Wheaties filled with beer in the place of milk.
There were beer bongs aplenty, what we called “Fun!-a-lators” back then. Put four cans of beer in the funnel, hold the rubber tubing to your mouth, open wide, and you could swallow all four of those cans in less than five seconds. Really, you could.
After college, of course, I was 21. I could purchase alcohol legally. For the most part, that meant I could have as much of it as I wanted, when I wanted.
I could say I have a genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism, that I was exposed to alcohol too young, or I could just say I’m a low-maintenance alcoholic. Probably all are true. Either way, it all falls back on me and the choices I make.
Drinking is still a crutch when I’m lonely or depressed, when I’m dealing with haunting Holiday memories, or when I want to be more fun than I think I am without alcohol. Drinking has actually solved some of these minor issues over the years, but it’s also created a lot of major problems. Or rather, I caused them, by over-indulging.
I’m not against anyone drinking. After all, Jesus’s first miracle was turning water into wine, and that was after they’d already run out of the wine they had. I know most people can drink and keep it check. For some of us, though, that’s a lot harder to do.
Do I drink too much? Yes, sometimes I do. Can I still drink and better control it? Yes, I think I can.
Since around age ten, two weeks is about the longest span I’ve ever gone without drinking. Imagine that. Two whole weeks.
But tomorrow, I’m going 60 days. Maybe more. I’m not saying I’m quitting for good, but an extended break is definitely on the books.
I guess I’m sharing this because it’s therapeutic, or maybe for some kind of telepathic moral support. Or maybe I’m saying, if you have issues with alcohol, try to be honest about it. Tell yourself first, then tell someone else. I think it will do you good and I’m also pretty sure your friends and family are going to hold you tight and love you strong.