No, not sex, get your lecherous mind out of the gutter. I’m speaking of your first taste of alcohol; demon rum, the devil’s elixir, spirits of the gods, rotgut, suds, brewskies, whatever label you wish. Oh, I can hear a few of you now, your noses high, lips prim and tight.
I’ve never tasted the stuff and never will.
Let me tell you a short story of the time a friend of mine went to visit his dying grandfather at the local hospital. Grandpa’s favorite beverage throughout his many years had remained the same, the simple beer, Budweiser by name. The grandson felt it only fitting to sneak a Bud to the bedside as it might be grandpa’s last. The old man’s eyes lit up at the sight of the brown bottle and the familiar logo, the condensation still cold on the glass. He tipped it up, took a pull, and smiled. But it was a shared room. The patient in the other bed took one look at the little ceremony and snorted, “Liquor has never passed my lips.” Grandpa replied, “Well then, you old fart, you got something to look forward to.” True story.
I think I was around ten years old, maybe eleven, living on a rented farm in northeast Kansas. We had a couple milk cows, a horse, pigs, two dogs, and multiple cats. Dad spent all day in the field working the corn, the wheat, the oats, whatever would grow. Mom cooked of course, sewed clothes, tended to the garden, and tried to keep the house clean from the ever present Kansas dust.
We were poor by most standards, but I didn’t know it. We had plenty to eat. We had a radio where we listened to Fibber McGee and Molly, The Inner Sanctum, and my favorite, The Shadow. We went to town every Saturday. While my folks bought supplies and visited with the other farmers on the street corner, I went to the movie matinee to watch Gene Autry or Roy Rogers or sometimes, Hopalong Cassidy. From there it was a short walk to the newsstand where they sold “funny” books. I was allowed only one. The decision was agonizing; Batman, Superman, or Donald Duck. You couldn’t go wrong with Superman. The cost of this extravagance? Movie, 15 cents, funny book, 10 cents. Total: one quarter. That was my allowance. And I was happy with it.
With money so tight, imagine my surprise on the day I found the bottle of whiskey in the storage shed. I couldn’t believe my dad would squander what little cash we had on such things. I had never seen my dad drink, not even a beer. So what was this pint sized bottle of amber liquid doing there in the shadows, tucked behind a wall stud, hidden from view to all but the devilishly curious such as myself.
The brand name was Four Roses, never forget it. It was the top selling brand at the time. I didn’t know that of course. All I knew was that this particular bottle with the colorful flowers on the label was hidden for good reason, one of which was to keep it away from prying eyes, small children, and most likely…mom. I took it out in the sunshine for a closer look and found it to be covered with dust. Obviously, my dad wasn’t a heavy drinker.
Perhaps the bourbon was there for the days when the tractor broke down, or a cow had wandered off, or it was too wet to plow. In my imagination I could kinda see my dad sneaking in the shed, casting a glance at the kitchen window to be sure mom wasn’t watching, and then slipping the bottle outside to sit on a hay bale and watch the sun go down while he took a sip or two.
The more I thought on it, the more my young head full of mush approved of the idea. I too took a furtive look around, making sure I was not under observation, and loosened the cap. A tentative sniff was not quite the aroma I was expecting. Whiskey had to be good, had to be. Heck, the bad guys in the western bars all sat around drinking the stuff, laughing, and having a grand ‘ol time before Gene or Roy or Hopalong came in and cleared them all out.
Took me a swallow of it. Bad idea. I can’t remember if I knew any curse words at that age, but if I did, I probably said ‘em. More accurately, I would have tried and failed as air was suddenly in short supply. My throat constricted like someone had poured some of mom’s homemade lye soap down there. I gasped, I choked, my belly began to bounce and squirm or as one of my rascally relatives might describe it, lookin’ like a dog shittin’ peach seeds.
I didn’t heave. That was the only good part of the experience. I wiped the tears from my eyes and returned that bottle of fire water to its rightful place in the shed, never to be tampered with again. I might have tried to cover my tracks with a leafy tree limb ala Gene and Roy, but I’m a little hazy on that part of it.
Unlike the “old fart” in the grandpa story, never again could I make the claim that alcohol had never passed my lips. In fact, quite the contrary. A smart fella would have learned his lesson that day in the old dusty shed…but no. Although I never drank Four Roses again in my life, not one sip. There’s that.