Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Deal (Chapter 14)

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-shirts.

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.

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