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An Excerpt from Always a Little Heathen

In the 17th century, as the European explorers began to settle in the new world, they found an indigenous people already there. What today are called “Native Americans,” once were called “Indians”. These Peoples formed numerous tribes and varied cultures and were sprinkled from the east to the west coast. As the two Peoples began to interact, they traded goods with one another. One good the Europeans brought with them and introduced to the natives was alcohol. The natives had not been exposed to this substance before and whether it was the shock of going from zero exposure to inundation or something specific to their gene pool, the effects of alcohol on their culture was devastating (I suppose the introduction of tobacco to the Europeans was a fair tradeoff and has probably wrought more damage than alcohol). Nearly 1 in 10 Native Americans is alcoholic and 12% of all Native American deaths are alcohol-related (U.S. average 4.1%).

Alcohol was common in my family, especially among the men (a recent article from the UPI in the Health News section said this: “Adults who are Scottish or Irish have been shown on average to drink more than the recommended limit of alcohol.” My family? Scotch-Irish). Dad, along with all of his uncles (with the exception of Uncle Jack who decided one day to quit drinking and kept a bottle of whiskey in his kitchen cabinet, just out of reach, as a reminder of his vow to never drink again), cousins, and brothers, as well as most of his work buddies all partook. It was common to have coolers full of beer at family gatherings (if we kids were lucky, there would be coolers of ice-cold pop; in bottles no less) and occasionally the men would sneak off to their cars, “out of sight”, and pass around a bottle of something a little stronger than beer. Drinking was looked at as a manly thing to do and was considered a rite of passage (on special occasions and parties the women would drink too, but for the ladies, beer wouldn’t do). As a kid growing up in this environment it was almost inevitable; my fate was sealed.

When I became a teenager the topic of alcohol consumption began to be bantered about within my close circle of friends. Even though we were all under age, it wasn’t hard to imagine obtaining a bottle of wine or six-pack of beer; all outside the knowledge of our parents. We would talk about older brothers or rumors of some other kid who knew somebody who would buy some for us. For a long time it was all talk, until the day somebody obtained a couple of bottles of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. As alcohol goes, this particular wine was relatively impotent, but in a similar way to the Native Americans being shocked by the exposure, so too, I had a pretty strong reaction to it.

The two bottles of wine were hidden under a pine tree in a neighbor’s yard and four of us were to take turns “sipping” from the bottles. When the bottle was passed around and finally reached me, as I had with Dad’s beer, I gulped rather than sipped and this lead to accompanying howls from the other guys, “Hey, save some for us!” At first I didn’t feel the effect of the alcohol, but as we finished the bottles and began to walk around the neighborhood my head became a bit woozy and my legs seemed to want to go in a different direction than my mind was instructing. What a feeling! The other guys began to laugh at me as I wobbled down the street, exaggerating the behaviors associated with the drinking. In some ways I was Arthur and they were Linda Marolla and her father; slightly amused, but a bit disturbed at the same time. I liked both the feeling and the attention. I was fourteen years of age that summer.

Mom and Dad didn’t really know what to do with me. I was a decent student and a good athlete in addition to working a job in the early hours of the morning before school. Although I did a pretty good job of hiding my behavior from them, I was also one of those people who always seemed to be caught doing the wrong thing. I remember a couple of incidents that happened while I was still only fifteen years of age, that not only frustrated them, but embarrassed them as well. Sometimes they came down hard on me, other times they tried to laugh it off.

One night I was out riding around with friends and we came into some beer and other alcoholic beverages and as usual I drank as much as I could as fast as I could. Drunk again. As the night wore on and the alcohol dried up I became desperate. There was a bottle of men’s cologne (British Sterling) in the glove box of the car and the driver suggested I drink that; after all it was mostly alcohol. I drank some of it and the rest of the night only comes back in stories told by others. The driver, not being one of my true friends, decided to let me off in a parking lot behind my house and drove away; not knowing if I made it safely into the house. Apparently, I approached the house and when I noticed the lights on and family members still awake I staggered off; aware of my condition and not wanting to be caught. Later, someone driving down the road near our house noticed a body in the ditch and called for an ambulance.

At the hospital I was out of control and it took a few nurses and attendants to hold me down. When Mom and Dad arrived they were told that I may have ingested some unknown drug (the cologne probably explained my behavior). Later Mom told me that, much to her embarrassment, words came out of my mouth that she had never heard before. I awoke the next morning, naked and in my bed, with scrapes and bruises all over my body and a hangover to boot. For a moment I was scared, because I couldn’t remember what had happened. The usual pattern ensued; the scolding and punishment, my apparent sorrow and repentance, and then back to the same.

Another night, for some reason, my parents and my best friend’s parents decided to double date and take in a movie at the local drive in theater. The arrangement left my friend and me a pretty good amount of time to find some beer (while I was waiting for my friend to pick me up at my house I often found some of Dad’s Schlitz stored in the garage and would place it in the freezer for a quick chill and sometimes would “down” two cans before the evening had officially started), drink it, and return home; no one the wiser. Unfortunately, I got drunk again. Often when drunk I would get loud and obnoxious. This was one of those nights and as we pulled into the local convenience store I began wandering around the parking lot, yelling at passersby and making a racket. Guess who just happened to be driving by at the time, not sticking around for the end of the second feature?

We ended up in our front yard into the wee hours of the morning; my friend, his dad, Dad, and me. The dads pulled some lawn chairs out on the grass and while they sipped from their cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, proceeded to lecture us on the evils of drinking (I’m not sure that the irony of the situation dawned on them, although they seemed a lot less convicted in their arguments than the situation warranted). I sat on the ground trying to stay upright, but tipped over a few times. My friend remained standing the entire time and did a pretty good job of acting sober.