Tuesday, March 22, 2011

the tall boy

Days Remaining to Next Beer: 358

Sometimes, the first one is really is free, handed to you like a donut to a drowning man.

Although as nothing is actually free, what did the first one cost? Earning some approval from a grown up? Check. Making a positive first impression thereby ensuring much repetition of consumption thereafter throughout time and space? Check. Creating a memory with the power of a West Side Story musical number, sperm to worm and womb to tomb? Check.

My Uncle Pete handed me my first beer ever. At least as far as I remember. Sips of something that caused me to make funny faces for the bemusement of adults when I still wore diapers out of necessity rather than lifestyle choice don't count.

A single tall boy can of Pabst Blue Ribbon plucked from the cooler, same cooler I recognized form the boat Uncle Pete had taught me to drive on a man made lake in Virginia. Not yet brandished as the party favorite of hipsters and a couple few years before Dennis Hopper spoke Pabst's praises in Blue Velvet (Frank Booth: [shouting] "Heineken? F**k that s**t! Pabst Blue Ribbon!"), that can of beer passed to me by a fella I quite looked up too had an effervescent sheen, same as an Oscar or an Emmy, a thou art worthy coming of age sort of were a boy now a young man now right of passage glow that left em sitting there feeling the cold sweat soak into my fingers as I carefully clenched the can with both hands and cautiously sipped a taste.

The cold bitter sting like the silver lactation of angels on my tongue and numbing a path as it coursed down my throat. I'm exaggerating the magnificence of the first slug, however I've never forgotten it, and few since have been as tasty, as majestic, or as fulfilling. I will point out that in only a couple short years I moved from that tall boy to color coordinating my hooch cup with my Converse high-top All Stars.

That is how quickly kids grew up in the 80's, folks; and I'm pretty confident rug rat whipper snappers grow up way interstellar travel like Guinness fish on intergalactic warp drive capable bicycles faster now.

Mom married remarried in the big main room on the first floor of the big house behind the Parson's Table in Jonesboro on January 1st, 1978, the year after Star Wars arrived to wide theatrical release and finally reached Jonesboro, Tennessee. The fella that became my Dad is the middle child of three, so with him came a new Uncle Mark and new Aunt Elaine. 

Uncle Mark drove a crazy little Volkswagon bug with the heater permanently stuck on and liked the Sci-Fi commemorative Star Wars glasses from Burger King nearly as much as I did, also those Star Trek Motion Picture cards that came with Wonderbread and in Cheerios cereal. The year The Abyss came out, cementing for me a deep need to get a dive certified I've only finally realized this year, Mark's wife Patsy introduced me the bands The Dead Boys and Jon Wayne's Texas Funeral.

Aunt Elaine, an artist in her younger years, and there's a strange painting of an eagle on an unfinished background that I used to fawn over for hours as a child somewhere in my parent's garage to prove it, had married a long time friend of hers named Pete. And Uncle Pete is the man that gave me my first beer.

Pete, if I remember correctly, was a history and / or social studies teacher in a high school in the suburbs of the Washington DC sprawl. He and Elaine had a fantastic house backed against a greenbelt with a sprawling back yard full of trees and a babbling brook and rocks and mud and ferns and enough Fern Gully magic to inspire the tween I was find the place deeply relaxing, soothing, enviable compared to the tiny place my folks and family lived couped up that felt akin to a growing boy to the shipping container blues of refugees somewhere off the coast of Australia with the sound of Coast Guard fire hoses raining off the sides. They had a huge German Shepard, more black than tan, named Oscar that could cuddle like a kitten when I slept on his couch on their screened in deck porch listening to an independent station out of DC that introduced me to Accept's "Balls to the Wall" and Bad Brain's "Sailin' On". Approach Pete's car when Oscar was on duty, though, and better hope that glass is strong enough to contain him, see nothing but teeth and flying spittle while sound is drowned out by the wrath of a thousand years of selective Bavarian breeding.

On our second trip piled into the Ford Escort compact station wagon to visit Pete and Elaine I slept out on the porch. After an elbow to kidney car trip I elected to move out of the throng of people  to the great outdoors, enjoy the refreshing Virginian summer breeze rustling through the trees while the screens containing that part of the porch deck kept mosquitoes and werewolves at bay. Pete let me borrow his big cassette boom box from the boat to keep me company, said a lot of his students listen to some station way over on the left end of the dial, similar to he college stations I'd volunteer at later in life, probably due to an appetite whet by what I heard on Pete's battered and paint spattered boom box. 

Patton Oswalt talks on one of his albums about growing up in a suburb of DC and how the local radio station didn't play any of the bands breaking or making the scene in DC. Of not knowing about Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Black Flag, all the stuff scoring a new soundtrack for the youth that didn't necessarily reflect the pop payola pap putrefying mainstream radio broadcasts. Of thinking Phil Collins was edgy. Of being seriously flabbergasted, and subsequently pissed, upon discovering the tsunami of stuff out there beyond the boundaries of his Hobbit hamlet shire he'd hit puberty in. I could empathize entirely, recalling my own saucer eyes and throbbing ears as I shouldered against a dog heavier than me like a rookie cop against a crack house door for room and leaning so close to the boom box I could smell the plastic around the transistors heating up as I listened to all those magical sounds I ain't never heard before.

After the first night of aural astonishment, I asked if Pete had any blank cassettes I could borrow / have. He fortunately had one, I think he'd been learning Spanish from it, and after Scotch taping over the holes on the back, I filled that tape with the radio's broadcast that night as through collecting gold flakes from a running stream to clutch to chest and bring back to Lexington with me. I was in 9th grade and didn't know shit yet, so Accept and Bad Brains and all the rest. Simply. Changed. Everything.

Patton Oswalt had thought Phil Collins was edgy. I'd though Ratt and Motley Crue were  the bee's knees. We both were living in bubbles waiting for impact on a cactus of cataclysmic proportions, at least, musically. Later on I'd meet people like Jim Shambhu that would happily fill whatever cassettes I gave him with groups like Bau Haus, The Pixies, Red Hot Chilli Peppers (back in "Super Secret Song Inside" days), The Cure, the Sex PIstols. He'd handwrite song names and info meticulously with a black wax pencil, the sort wrapped in woody paper with a string down inside to help tear through the paper so you could unravel it to expose more wax lead, and always autograph the his work with a quick little doodle of a skull, sometimes giving the skull a drop shadow highlight with a red wax pencil. 

Jim's letter "E" never had a spine, just three dashes. A couple years ahead of me in school, he clearly made quite an impression on me. I followed him to work at WRFL 88.1 FM, and I still sometimes draw skulls and Es like that, and I still have some of those tapes in a plastic cassette holder in the crawl space. The 120 minute Bau Haus 1 & 2 for sure, the one that has a full album form the double anthology album on a side, each side cutting off the last songs from said albums halfway through. Like that 3rd Eye verse, "If you want some more flava, go buy the album." And so I did, many, many times.

After filling Pete's donated tape I convinced someone to take me to a Wallgreens or Krogers so I could get blank tapes, and while they were a crap trio of case-less tapes in a long plastic bag, of course I got Chrome ones for all that extra quality they'd bring to capturing the static laced, fickle mistress of the independent station that had captured my heart, mind, and full attention.

By day, when we weren't out on the lake with Pete's boat learning to drive on water or stay upright on two skis, I sat on the back porch overlooking their expansive back yard, reading William Gibson's Neuromancer and listening to the tape from the night before.

So thank you to Pete for both my first tall boy of beer and for inadvertently opening a door to other worlds of music. Both beer and music have remained invigorating aspects of my existence. 

No further Learn to Speak Spanish cassettes were harmed during the creation of this post.



  1. OMG...that's me...that's us...on my 16th! What were you REALLY drinking in that pic from the party??? I'm almost afraid to ask!

  2. According to my utterly unreliable and revisionist memory, if not beer, then some zany rum punch like a Elmore Leonard novel. What I do know is if I could dance like that now, I'd have far more career options!