In 1967, the summer I turned sixteen and started to drive, I discovered the raw power of alcohol, quite by surprise. Like my ancestors before me and like most kids I knew, I had experimented a little with alcohol. The first time was at Camille’s wedding, which was an unplanned, one-of-a-kind occurrence. I got knee-walking drunk sneaking glasses of champagne and became violently ill later. I thought only an idiot would ever drink this stuff, and I vowed I would never drink alcohol again. But, I did drink again.
The next time, at age fourteen, I took a half-pint of scotch from my father. All I remembered was drinking the scotch, getting sick, and vomiting, not unlike the earlier wedding experience. The third time I drank, at fifteen, several friends had procured two six-packs of beer. They offered me two cans and after drinking them, I became dizzy and clumsy. My friends called me “Two-Can Rich” after that because they thought it was so funny. The next time I drank, the summer I turned sixteen, things were different. The alcohol didn’t make me clumsy or sick. It transformed me.
I had spent the first half of the summer working at Hogue & Knott, and as an occasional and illegal lifeguard at a large public swimming pool in the city. My parents were friends of the owner, and he had given us a summer pass. I was a good swimmer and always responsible, so the owner asked if I would like to fill-in and relieve the lifeguards when they were on break. I agreed, but because I was too young to make it official, the manager warned me never to tell anyone my age.
I spent all my free time at the pool swimming and diving by the hour. It was a wonderful time. On the slow days or when the regular lifeguards took time off or went on lunch break, I climbed up on the lifeguard stand and sat watch. Sometimes, girls gathered around me to talk and flirt. Their approaching me helped, because I was painfully shy and never made the first move on a girl for fear of rejection. I was still self-consciously short. (I didn’t reach my final, towering height of five-feet, seven-inches until I was eighteen, despite my mother’s promise that I would grow taller.) I assumed I was attractive enough, because there was never a shortage of good-looking girls flirting with me and embarrassing me by telling me how cute they thought I was. When a girl made a pass at me, it took all the fear and guesswork out of the sexual equation. Rejection wasn’t an issue when a girl was coming on to me. In fact, I could reject them, and I sometimes did.
During the last weeks of the summer, I was a counselor at a summer camp, the same camp Paul and I went to a few years earlier. I developed a crush on a female counselor named Allison, and she was about as cute a girl as I had ever been close to. She had light brown, almost blonde hair, a pretty face, a lovely figure, and a bubbly laugh. Just as important, she was shorter than I was, and most girls my age were my height or taller. I made the first move this time and tried to let her know I was interested in her. She responded favorably. During the day Allison and I safeguarded the kids and taught them softball, archery, swimming, horseback riding, and other sporting skills as best we could. At night, after we put the kids to bed, we sat around the campfire, held hands, and kissed—we teenagers referred to it as “making out.” It was quite innocent, but I was beginning to feel the first pangs of what I thought to be real love. One night, during a hormonally heated moment, Allison gave me a hickey on my neck; back then, we called them passion marks. The next morning, the woman who was in charge of the camp saw me in the food line at breakfast. Standing next to me, she looked at me and gasped, “What is that thing on your neck?”
My hand shot up to the offending hickey, I thought for a moment, and said, “Oh, that? It’s a bug bite. A horsefly bit me.” I knew my answer was weak, but it was the first bullshit thought that popped into my head.
To my shock, she responded, “Horsefly my ass. That thing is so big it looks like a whole horse bit you. Well, there’d better not be any more horsefly bites on you while you’re in this camp.”
“Yes ma’am. I’ll stay out of the woods from now on.” I was reaching and throwing out anything to try to get away from her.
When camp ended and we arrived back in the city, I called Allison for an official date. Even after the time we spent together, I was sure she would reject me, but to my surprise, she accepted.
Now, this is one of those situations as I remember it. I’m not sure it all happened just this way, but I think it very likely did. I picked Allison up, and we went to a dance. We walked to the gymnasium, and we kicked off our shoes to avoid scuffing up the hardwood floors—hence the name “sock hop.” In that instant, panic gripped me. I remembered I had danced with a girl just once before, and that was when the “Twist” was popular. It was so easy anyone could Twist. By now, dancing had evolved, and I didn’t know any of the new steps. I calmed myself and asked Allison to talk to her friends, because, I told her, I had to go to the bathroom.
I ran shoeless to the parking lot to catch my breath. Then I heard one of my friends call out to me. He and a couple of other people were sitting in his car drinking beer. It had been over a year since the “Two-Can Rich” episode, but I accepted a proffered can of beer. I gulped it down and asked for another. I swigged the second one down as well. Then, saying a hasty prayer I went to the bathroom and then back into the gym. It took several minutes in the dark atmosphere for me to find Allison, which was just enough time for the alcohol to begin to work.
Allison took my hand, and I followed her to the center of the dance floor. Walking behind her in the dim light, I made a small sign of the cross and prayed, “God, please don’t let me screw up.” Now, the beer was beginning to work its magic. As I danced, I was calm and relaxed, and I moved across the floor like one of the sophisticated, macho, male dancers on American Bandstand. I noticed something strange, a feeling I had never had before; I was enjoying myself at this large social function. I felt cool, and I didn’t care what anyone else thought. That confident feeling was wonderful and revolutionary. It was as if God, himself, reached down from the heavens and placed his soft, warm, divine fingertip on my forehead and said to me, “Now go forth, and be witty and magnificent.” And I did.
Before the night was over, three or four other girls asked me to dance with them. Afterwards, when I was taking Allison home, I asked her if she wanted to go out the next Saturday night, and she said yes. All the way home, I felt courageous, victorious, and invincible. The alcohol had brought me out of my shell. I was sociable, funny, popular, and comfortable. For the first time in my life, I felt absolute confidence in myself. I felt in control. The next day, though, I noticed some blank spots in my memory—little chunks of time were missing.
That next weekend, before I went to pick up Allison, I stopped by the grocery where I worked and bought two cans of beer. The assistant store manager was a young man, and he sometimes turned a blind eye if some of the guys wanted to buy a small amount of beer. I got in my car and drank both cans as fast as I could, then I went to pick up Allison. We went to a movie and had a couple of burgers afterwards, and I had just a grand old time. I had no fears and no worries. I felt great.
Allison and I went out a few more times, but a long-term relationship wasn’t to be. She had an on-again, off-again thing for a guy named Tommy. Despite my feelings of worthlessness, I wasn’t willing to play second fiddle, especially to Tommy who I didn’t like that much to begin with.
I casually dated a few other girls over the next year but only after they showed interest in me. I was also now aware that a few beers before a date made things smooth. I needed smooth. The fear of rejection was humiliating and almost paralyzing. I had to avoid that at all costs.