In the Weeds: Summer 1986

Authors Note: I finish my fifth drink, and signal for the bartender to pour me another. Bartenders can tell when someone is there to spend money, there to get drunk, there to get laid or there just to drink themselves a little closer to hell. Not for the first time that night, I’m startled by how old I feel. Where I was once only a few years older than the people in this college bar, now I’m over a decade older than most of the clientele. The bartender even seems young, despite his tattoos and nostril piercings. I wonder what if would actually feel like if I yanked them out of his nose. Would he scream? Would he sue? Or, would he enjoy the pain so much, so very much? Would an act of random violence send this last legal purveyor of the world’s oldest and most dangerous drug into a cycle of self-destruction?

I let those thoughts go. I drift in a place of nonchalance and relative peace, despite the noise around me. I’ve been drinking steadily since early that morning and have to real intention of stopping anytime soon. I’ve finally achieved the buzz and perfect combination of drunk and upright that I had been looking for. I can maintain this shit.

Where is truth? What is it? As I write in the silence of my kitchen this night, free of drugs and alcohol yet still paying the terrible price extracted by years of addiction, I feel that this moment is true. My son is asleep in his bed. My wife is tossing a bit, but drifting off in our bedroom just off the kitchen. Fireflies are lighting up the night with their mating calls, the females patiently waiting for the males to locate their flashes of light as they fly about aimlessly, searching for a mate. I can feel my feet, my nose, the keyboard and I have a relatively good idea of what will happen tomorrow, I think.

But, I did grow up in the late seventies and early eighties. A poor kid, usually dressed in hand me downs that were either way too small or way too big. Still, I loved my childhood and enjoyed life all around me. I was relatively free in my wanderings and doted on by my parents and grandparents. Still, what triggered alcoholism, that descent into madness as an adult? It certainly wasn’t here…

You ask yourself and so many others ask the same question: “How did you get to this place? Armed with the knowledge that alcoholism runs in your family and you come from literally generations of moonshiners and drinkers and others that abused and/or made their living from alcohol, why did I start drinking? When did I start drinking? Why was it different for me and not for so many others?

There was a day in the dead of summer when I was fifteen or so. Exhausted from mountain biking all day and borderline dehydrated, a close friend of mine and I decided to cool off in a mountain stream. There wasn’t much water, as it hadn’t rained in a couple of weeks and the stream was dependent on runoff, as is much of region known geologically as the Appalachian Plateau. We swam and pretended to fish and investigated for what had to the thousandth time a large drain that caused the pool of water to form. The artificial pool had been built by my Grandfather in 1977 after flooding devastated the area and left me and my parents largely stranded for over a week. The stream jumped its banks and washed out the dirt road to our house, so rather than try to re-direct the stream into its old channel, my grandfather laid what ultimately became his last rock wall. Nearly twenty feet high, the stream tumbled over the wall from the overflow cistern and carved out a deep pool into the soft shale bedrock in only a few years. It was a magic place for a boy and a teenager, quiet and shaded, with newts and water skaters, frogs and water snakes, and, if you were silent and still, the occasional wild turkey with her brood taking them to the stream for a drink of water and to dispel the afternoon heat in the coolness of the deep pool.

Not too many people made the trip with me to the pool aside from my little sisters. It was my place, one of the many places that I had to be alone, from the spot under the tree on the North ridge where I could, if the leaves were off, see into the next county and dream boyhood dreams of conquest and escape, of riding down the Mississippi on a raft or of sailing around the world, visiting new ports and writing about my adventures.

Brock was a bit different, though. For better or for worse, the lonely kid, maybe a year or so younger than me, had attached himself to our family and shyly made my parents as his own. He was adopted, one of the thousands of children in Appalachia to fall through the cracks in foster homes and inevitably be placed with a home whose sole business was to raise children in return for the benefits provided by the government for their service. I liked him, but was rather ambivalent about his presence, which confounded my Dad. He was worried about the influence that Brock would have on me, and for once Dad might have been wrong. I think it was I that was a negative influence on him.

Even then, as a child and teenager, I was given to bouts of depression that would often last for weeks on end, especially in the dead of winter or the stifling heat of mid-summer. The books that I read so voraciously portrayed a life far different from my own, a life where the teenagers my age were exploring, solving mysteries, attending summer camps and doing all the things that I wished I had privilege to, somehow.

Yet, here I was, in a pool of water cascading down a hand build stone wall in the dead of summer, seeking solace from the sun as it made its way across the sky. Brock and I climbed, as usual, out of the water to dry for a few moments as our camouflage shorts dripped all around us. We discussed girls, the sweet jumps that we had just did, swapped the same stories and lies that we had been telling for years and investigated our surroundings as only teenage boys can.

“It looks like a boob!” Brock was scouring the stream for rocks and geological artifacts that could, in any way possible, resemble female body parts. He’d already found a butt and a vagina, so he nearly had a complete woman in his hands. All the parts of a woman that mattered to a fifteen year old boy, anyway. I ignored him as much as possible. My antisocial tendencies were already very deep at this point in my life and I rather detested his babbling about various pieces of quartzite and sandstone and what he was going to do with Sandra when we went back to school.

Brock didn’t know it, but Sandra and I had become quite an item anyway, at least in my mind. She was older than both of us by a couple of years and extremely attractive in a miniskirt, knit gloves and leg warmers. She had taught me a lot in the years that I had known her, from how to play basketball, sprint faster, drive go-karts and many other things that I took for granted. I dangled from a hold above Brock’s head, far above the pool, headed towards the pipe that channeled the stream into the pool.

Climbing had always been something that I was good at. I was a bit afraid of heights, something that I would not have then admitted under the threat of torture and bodily injury, so it was always a thrill to deny myself the relative safety of staying on flat ground. I followed the tales of climbers and explorers, surfers and sailors, marveling at the adventures that they experienced and longing for the same. As I chinned myself with an ease that I now envy, I pretended for a few moments that I was the lone survivor of an air raid into Vietnam, the only one left alive after our planes had been strafed with bullets by violent Commies, forcing me to parachute into the jungle, chute at the last possible second to avoid sniper fire, abandoning my dog tags for the enemy to find so I could not be identified upon my inevitable capture. That was the coolest, of course, the torture part. At least, it would be cool if I could somehow black out during the process, only to revive long enough to spit out my refusal to comply with their demands, which always involved a bikini-clad native and American freedom, which coincided quite nicely with the scenario I was acting out in my imagination.

I spun around in a move that would have left many professional climbers dumbfounded, grabbing a hold blindly that I had seized so many times it was ingrained in mind to do so. I was now facing the pool and Brock, who was still searching the stream for his stony girlfriend. I was around him more than anyone else and was more than a little convinced that there was something deeply wrong with him. Although I ultimately took the blame for him, he was the one whose idea it had been to tie two cats together by their tails and throw them over a clothes line like an abandoned pair of shoes on a college campus. Their ultimate battle to the death didn’t happen as he quite imagined, leaving one cat screaming in agony on the ground and the other fleeing the grisly scene with most of his mates hindquarters crudely tied to his tail.

The problem of the screaming cat was addressed by first pouring fuel on the unfortunate creature and igniting him. The cat immediately turned into a rudimentary incendiary device, hell bent on completing the destruction by escaping into the barn, which was stuffed to the rafters with fuel oil, hay, gunpowder, bullets and firewood for our wood stove, all of which were more or less essential to my family’s survival.

I arrived in a dead run, alerted from my chores in the chicken coop by the screams of my younger sisters and brothers and racket that the seemingly invincible cat was making as he attacked everything in sight. Two of my brothers were old enough to handle firearms, but they were rooted to the spot as if staked down, watching the entire scene open-mouthed with horror. I assessed the situation as best I could, screamed at Brock to stop, please STOP trying to club the inferno that used to be a healthy cat and ran for the front yard and my Dad’s work truck, which contained a firearm in the center console.

Handling firearms without my Dad’s permission and supervision was punishable by a certain beating and most likely a grounding, coupled with no dinner for the evening locked in your room as everyone else played in the cool of the day. It was a miserable experience, but I felt at that moment that it was justified.

My father arrived on the scene just as his gun in my hand went off, effectively ending the threat of a burning cat and no doubt adding to the trauma for my two youngest sisters, both of whom had sunk to the ground in tears. I was crying, by brothers were screaming and my Dad was yelling at everyone at once, most especially me. I watched in slow horror as my beloved father tore his leather belt off and gave me the worst beating I had experienced in my short life. The firearm was returned to its hiding place and life went back to usual relatively quickly.

My strongest memory of the experience is of Brock watching, expressionless except for a smile that played for only an instant around the ambience of his face. He said not one word to me, not in thanks nor explanation.

Maybe I was thinking of that the day I clung to my perch high above his head. I’m not sure. I grabbed the lip of the pipe and summersaulted into the cool blackness of the cavern. Brock was still babbling about something below me, but he had essentially disappeared from my point of life at that moment. As my eyes adjusted to the low light and I once again enveloped myself in my imagination I noticed something that, in retrospect, probably belonged to a close family member. I didn’t think about it at the moment, but the place was essentially hidden from view from the road and readily accessible on the upstream side without any fifteen year old bravado or Rambo-style guerilla attacks in the imagination.

There, in the cool of the stream on the far end of the pipe, maybe one hundred feet away, was a six-pack of Coors and fifth of Wild Turkey.

To this day I really don’t know whose stash I raided. Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of that afternoon. I pulled the cork on the bourbon after ripping the tag off the first can of beer, which loosened me up considerably, given the amount of exercise and lack of water that the day of summer activities had required. Wincing a little at the smell, but wildly curious and very rebellious, I took my first swig of what would become the bane of my very existence many years later.

The rest of the afternoon passed in some sort of blur. Dehydrated, young and holed up in my culvert with only the alcohol to keep me company for an unspecified amount of time. As I was to learn years later, alcohol mars the perception of passing time, rendering watches obsolete and either slowing down or speeding up your life. In my case on that day, it didn’t take very long for my mind to succumb to the effects of Wild Turkey 101. Brock, oddly enough, took one swig and promptly gagged and rinsed his mouth out in the stream. He then tried a Coors, with very similar results then threw the mostly full can at my head in a fit of anger.

To me, it was the ultimate form of rebellion and I reveled in both the immediate effects (mostly pleasant) and the morning after hangover. I felt like an adult. I was fifteen. I had essentially learned to drink.

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