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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

No one drinks alcohol because they are thirsty, not even an Irish priest…

In high school there was a secret place near a river out in the woods where some of the bravest souls would gather on the weekend to drink beer purchased or purloined by a slightly elder one. I approached hesitantly once, but the reek of alcohol was too much for me, and I quietly made my way back to the road and my Honda 50.

While the legal age in Pennsylvania was 21, our neighbor New York permitted alcohol consumption at 18. Binghamton was a little over an hour away, so me and my friend Dave and two of his friends  -- including an epileptic young lady who should never have been near a magazine ad of a bottle of gin – took the drive for a little tipsy.

If I didn’t know what the word sleazy meant before walking into this place, I could define it for sure before we walked out. I knew I shouldn’t be there, but at 18 reason and good judgement sometimes take a back seat to adventure.

When the waiter came by our table, I was the only one stammering to order a drink. The young lady knew that gin with something was the right way to start the day. Three drinks later she was the life of the party – for about 2 minutes. I don’t remember what I ordered, only that it tasted something like rubbing alcohol mixed with whatever was stuck to the bottom of my left shoe.

After she became noticeably drunk and mildly belligerent, Dave had the good sense to get us out of there. It wasn’t but a couple of minutes on the ride home that she demanded we pull over, and out of an abundance of caution and good sense that David always possessed, he complied. We were at the top of a small hill, and her epileptic seizure hit fast enough that she began tumbling headfirst down the hill in short order. Dave and her boyfriend chased after her and managed to corral her after 10 or 15 seconds. She was inconsolable, and a wave of fear rolled over me as I did the math on how we were going to make it home from here.

As negative numbers began appearing in front of my eyes, somehow we got back in the car. With the two of them huddled tightly in the back seat, I had a longing for a religious conversion in case this might have been the end for all of us. Dave got us back to Kingston – I have no idea how, and I crawled sheepishly over the threshold of our house, firmly locking the door behind me. I exhaled…

No taste for alcohol yet.

During my first year of college at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, someone managed to sneak a sixpack of a local and very wretched 3.2% beer up to the 16th floor where we were ensconced. I still couldn’t stomach the smell or taste of beer (that would be rectified during my summer in Munich a few years later) but took a bottle to be one of the boys. I held my breath as I tried to choke it down. I was wishing for an earthquake or tidal wave, alas in vain.

About two thirds of the way through the bottle I became woozy and somewhat aggressive. I was no fun drunk – which was very obvious to everyone else there.  Although I frequently frequented local dive bars that served the under-aged, I did not feel comfortable.

I finally found something I liked, really liked, the following year back home in Wilkes-Barre. The Deep End was an iconic 60’s bar. The atmosphere was electric, with good vibes and magnificent music from local artists. I felt at home there the first time I stepped over the threshold. I bellied up to the bar and sat down. My attention was immediately stolen by the fellow next to me. He apparently was a connoisseur of fine bourbon. He asked the bartender to pour him one shot of all seven bourbons in the house. I sat in rapt awe as he picked up a glass and literally poured it down his throat, consuming all seven shots in less than two minutes. The bartender was somewhat shocked by this brazen display, but after having chugged the bourbon, the young man, now with a very, very happy face, pointed to the third glass, indicating this was his brand.

The bartender looked at me and I gave him my best ‘me too’ nod, and me and my new friend shared a shot of 101 proof Wild Turkey. An epiphany (my first of many) rolled over my noggin as I chugged down this bourbon. Voila! I had found the mystical key to unlock many years to come at bars all over the country. As long as they had this bourbon, I was a happy camper. While I temporarily switched to Tequila after landing in California in ’74, the only bottle me and Phyllis kept filled in the house was this magical bourbon.

My biker buddies drank it like water. My friend Clarence had it in his coffee at breakfast. While I did knock down 8 double shots of Tequila with my friend Bruno the night before Phyllis and I married (and I did not drink for a solid year after that), Wild Turkey was there for the long run.

I never mixed it, I never sipped it. It was down the hatch, two or three times, and like our family friend Joe Black used to say: “Next Case!”. That went on for over 20 years – until the purveyors of this fine beverage released Single Cask 101 Proof Wild Turkey. Even Phyllis was amazed by its smoothness and clarity. It left the old 101 in the dust. I was finally moving up in the world!

My biker buddies were attached to tequila and mezcal. While I never personally ate the worm in the bottle, most of my friends fought over it. Mezcal is a different sort of drink – very earthy -- definitely an acquired taste.

These were wild and woolly days when we would go bar hopping on our Harleys. Beer was the mainstay, but I could never finish a bottle, much to the consternation of one or two of the guys. It was more about the camaraderie than the drinking and I never saw anyone getting totally shit-faced-drunk.

My friend John, an amiable bloke from Australia, had a wooden leg when it came to alcohol. On more than one occasion I watched him knock back two six packs of beer without getting up even once to use the bathroom or show even a hint of inebriation.

John was my undoing as far as alcohol was concerned. After a rollicking night club hopping on the Sunset Strip, he pulled out a bottle of Bundaberg Overproof. This is a 151 proof Australian rum, and if you took a close look at the alcohol in the shot glass, you could see what looked like a shimmering lake sitting on the top of the liquid.

The moment I slugged it down I knew I had made a disastrous mistake. The Bundaberg did not agree with me. I wish I would have simply upchucked the shot – I would have been able to move on with the evening had that occurred. Instead, it felt like I had swallowed a live marmot, who was now dancing the Macarena in and on my digestive track. I have had food poisoning before, and I would have gladly traded a case of it for the madness happening to me now.

John and the guys were laughing their fool heads off. They had each gone through what was tearing me up now. I guess they saw this as a rite of passage for me. If I lived, our friendship would be cemented for life. I did survive, but I rarely touched any alcohol after that.

I can still have a bit of Saké with my sushi, but hardcore alcohol has been off the table since that fateful evening. A sip of Jameson now and then I find very satisfying, but the nights of three or more shots of bourbon are but a dim memory. I used to mix a pretty fine Martini (Bombay Sapphire) back in the day – me and Phyllis would knock one back and pass out – lightweights, I know…

None of my friends ever became belligerent drunks. We partied hard and slept it off. The most radical thing we ever did was having 151 Bacardi backed Pina Coladas on one of my biker buddies front lawn at 9 am on a Sunday morning after a Saturday evening of very hard partying. It makes me dig up my favorite quote from the late great Hunter Thompson:

“It just hasn’t gotten weird enough for me yet.”


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David Schimmel
David Schimmel

I believe we went to Marty's in Kirkwood on our New York drinking adventure with Diane-I-can't-remeber-her-last-name.. I drove past there last week to discover that den of iniquity had been torn down. Probably went belly up when New York upped the drinking age to 21.

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