Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Barbarous Quartet

"Hand me another beer," my friend Matt said as Gene let out a blood-curdling scream, opened the car door and bolted across the sparsely illuminated parking lot, launched himself swan dive-style over an embankment, and disappeared into the deep snow wearing only a t-shirt. I took a bottle out of our new case of beer, popped the cap, and handed it back to him.

Monotony can be a great motivator. Sometimes it inspires genius and sometimes stupidity but at a certain level of boredom, any action is better than nothing.

Now you would think that living in a beautiful state surrounded by great places to hike, swim, bike, ski or any other of a host of fun outdoor activities that teens and young adults would never have a lack of things to do. But your thinking would be wrong.

More commonly, people would just gather somewhere to stand in a circle and silently drink. A bonfire, a backyard, a parking lot or sandpit, it would always be the same. No conversations. No games. Just a bunch of (mostly) guys engaged in serious, monotonous drinking until everyone got so drunk they either fell down and passed out, got in a fight, or were dragged off by one of the few women sitting around like vultures to pick off some fresh meat. It was boring as hell. But any other activity wouldn't support the cool, silent stereotype everyone was trying to live up to.

Fortunately, my friends and I didn't have that to worry about. Almost since birth we'd established ourselves as too shy, too smart, too creative, to imaginative or just too poor to be cool. So when we went to parties - which we hadn't actually been invited to but had heard about through the grapevine - we used to try to liven things up.

Over the years, we tried lots of things. We introduced a number of drinking games to the parties when they were indoors. Once in a while, when everyone was just drinking and staring, one of us would let out a scream, turn, run and launch ourselves into the nearest snowbank, cornfield, hay mound, river or whatever else was available. Then we'd just quietly walk back and join the crowd as if nothing had happened. A little while later, another of us would do it. By the time the evening was over, we had everyone doing it. The irony is that something isn't cool unless everyone else is doing it, but someone has to start it and whoever does so isn't cool.

One night my friends Gene, Kenny and Scudder were listening to a Dr. Demento tape while driving to a party. On the tape was a song called "Leprosy" sung barbershop quartet-style to the tune of the Beatles' "Yesterday". We thought that it was funny as hell and since there were four of us in the car... why not? We pulled the car over and spent about a half hour working out our parts. Kenny was bass, Gene was baritone, Scudder and I swapped off tenor and lead.

When we got to the party - which consisted of the usual silent drinking and staring into the fire - we walked up to the first friend we saw, circled around him and broke into song. He and everyone just stood dumbfounded. There was a full minute after we finished the last note that people just stared. Frankly, I thought we might get our butts kicked. And then, one of the guys said "Follow me into the house. I want you to sing that for my cousin".

Before long, everyone had to hear it and we got invited to the next several parties so we could sing it. And then the newness wore off, our uncoolness returned, and the customary silence descended once again on the backyards, bonfires and sandpits of Deadsville.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lemmings in the Night

When you are hanging suspended in mid-air, held in place by the passenger side seatbelt while the car rests on its driver side door, you have a few moments to reflect on the propriety of drinking and driving.

In a small town, there never really is anyplace to go. And yet for some reason, after a case of beer the very first thing that pops into people’s minds is: “I gotta go to… (the store, my girlfriend’s house, the movies, what-have-you).” Therefore, there always seems to be a certain amount of drunk driving.

In my crowd, we always tried to be responsible. However, given the time when one of my crew found themselves in the state of suspension mentioned earlier, I’m not certain that we always got it right....

The most egregious lapses in judgment were those times when some guy insisted on driving home after a party. We’d always try to dissuade him and offer to drive him home. Most of the times he’d put up a fuss. Then someone would get the bright idea that he could drive himself home but someone sober(ish) would follow him to make sure he got there all right. I usually pointed out that all that meant was that you’d be there to witness his horrible death…. But no one ever listened. Like migrating lemmings, on more than one occasion the first car missed a turn and drove off into a field with the second car following right behind. Pretty dumb. At least lemmings have their migratory instinct as an excuse.

But maybe bored Vermonters have their own instinct. The monotony of small town life can become oppressive. You get antsy and just need a change for a while. And at a certain point, almost any change will do.

Those people with the financial means break the monotony through vacation travel. Others get a change of venue through artistic expression – their own or by attending concerts and shows. But no matter what, everyone eventually seeks a change of some sort. If those more positive and productive venues aren’t available, then we find ourselves driven to change in other ways – our consciousnesses through beer or our other favorite mind alterers, and our bodies in back road cruises. If necessary, even over a cliff or into a cornfield on a late summer night.

At some point, we have no choice. It is a matter of survival.

Even if not all of us survive.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Party Politics

When you have all the time in the world and nothing to fill it with, you start to pick up creative hobbies. Lots of people in Deadsville fill the void with drugs and alcohol, and we did too. But drinking was never enough for us. If we were just sitting around in our apartment having a few beers, we’d always have some other activity going too. For a while several of us took to making chainmail armor out of coathangers. We’d take a coathanger, one of the thick, heavy gauge ones, and straighten it out. Then using needlenose pliers, we’d roll up a ring of metal about 1 inch diameter and cut it. Then we’d loop the wire through that ring, roll it into another ring and cut that one. It is a lot like knitting except you get blisters and the pliers slip once in awhile and give you a good pinch. That’s why you need to be drinking the beer. It serves as an anticipatory painkiller.

We also used to just sit and practice quarter shots for hours on end. “Quarters” is a drinking game where people take turns bouncing a quarter off the table and into a shot glass. If you get it in, you get to make someone else in the game drink. If you miss once, you can either pass the quarter to the next player or take a risk and try a second bounce. If you miss your second try, you have to drink and your turn is over. If you make it, you keep going until you pass or miss twice. It is a great way for a bunch of people to get drunk in a hurry.

Now if you practice bouncing a quarter off the table and into a glass all day, every day, for months on end, you get pretty good. My friends Gene, Scudder, Matt and I got so that we could keep shooting for over a hundred times without a miss. So we decided to make it harder. We practiced bouncing the quarter with our left hands. Once we mastered that we had to bounce the quarter on its edge. And then by rolling it off our noses. Then we switched to taller and narrower glasses. Or bouncing it over one glass and into a second. It was pretty insane.

When we would go to parties, there would almost inevitably be a game of Quarters going. Just as inevitably, there would be at least one loudmouth jerk who would be picking on people. Besides being verbally abusive, every time he’d put the quarter in, he’d select the same person… making them drink repeatedly with the goal of making them sick.

Now remember, my friends and I were the smart, geeky kids. We weren’t cool. We weren’t witty and charming. We weren’t tough and looking for a fight. What we WERE was obvious targets for the jerks.

But little did they know that we were ready for them….

Beforehand, we had set some rules about how we would engage people in quarters. When a group of people have such awesome power it is important that you set ethical guidelines. Our rules were:

1) we don’t pick on each other – that would lead to mutual destruction

2) we would share the drinks around to multiple people instead of picking on just one person

3) we would miss on purpose after about 5 successes in a row

If everyone there played nice, it was a happy, fun game of sharing drinks and laughs. But if a bully decided to pick on one of us…..

First he’d make one of us – the intended victim - drink two or three in a row and make some remark about wimps. One of us would usually take this opportunity to warn him to back off – which he’d inevitably ignore.

When it got to be “the victim’s” turn, he would pop the quarter in 10 times and give all the drinks to the jerk. Then ask him if he really wanted to compete like this. Of course, he would. They always do. Next time around, he’d get 20 in a row. Then 30. If he became even more belligerent and started bad-mouthing the rest of us, we would team up and all pick on him.

Consider this:

We usually used double shot-glasses of beer. These hold 3 to 4 ounces of beer. A can of beer holds 12 ounces of beer or 4 shot-glasses worth of beer. Which means each time his “victim” made him drink, he was downing at least 5 beers (20 shots at 3 ounces per shot equals 60 ounces) within the time it takes to bounce a quarter off the table 20 times…. Around 1 minute. If he had 2 or 3 of us ganged up on him, it would turn into 10 – 15 beers in 3 minutes.

Needless to say, the bully was usually out of the game in short order and it would return to a friendly game. The other players usually appreciated that, and we gained a certain respect for our efforts. It didn’t make us cool or popular or get us laid, but hey….. if you are a geek in a small town where everyone knows everyone and remembers every foolish thing you ever did - you take what you can get.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Pigs in a Blanket

Blood and vomit never really come out of a sleeping bag. You can wash it and dry it many times over but still….. even if the actual blood and chunky bits have been washed away, you still know that they were there. So maybe I should have said “blood and vomit never really come out of your memory”.

The first time the sleeping bag got soiled was at Kenny’s birthday party. A bunch of us guys were going to party at my place and then crash out. Kenny had dropped off his sleeping bag and gone on a beer errand. Matt, Gene, Larry and others had stayed behind to do "quality control testing" on the beer we had on hand. Apparently it required multiple tests to ensure it was up to standards.

By the time Kenny returned, the testers were pretty trashed. In particular, Larry was lying on his side passed out on the couch. Kenny had only been back for a few minutes when Larry began to gag as if to puke. Matt seeing Kenny’s sleeping bag lying right next to Larry’s head, leapt over and with a sweeping gesture saved the bag from its apparent impending doom. Unfortunately, we had yet to learn that Larry was a stealth puker. He’d been puking on that sleeping bag for quite a while. So when Matt swept the bag away, it slung puke across the room and right onto Kenny’s chest. You know how when you see one person puke it makes you want to too? The cascading effect on all those guys from that slung vomit was an image that is still burned into my psyche.

From then on, Kenny refused to own the sleeping bag any more. It was now me and my roommates’ property. I washed it and put it away but no one could ever bring themselves to use it.

The next time was at my 21st birthday party. I had planned on having a small party with several of my friends at my place. As it turned out, that night was also prom night at Deadsville High and someone had told people that my party was the post-prom party. So at about 10 PM hordes of kids started showing up with booze in hand (the drinking age was still 18 but I know there were some underage drinkers there). One of these drinkers was Kenny’s friend Kyle. When he was 18, Kyle wasn’t anyone’s idea of brawny. He was moderate height, thin, with glasses and a quirky sense of humor. And he was a serious lightweight when it came to drinking.

As we were soon to discover, after about 2 beers he would become an immobile (but fully conscious) puking machine. Worse yet, vomiting would break blood vessels in his nose causing apparent nasal hemorrhaging. It was quite a horror show. And yet, he was conscious and didn’t want to miss a thing. And so at some point, somebody got the idea to use THE sleeping bag as a stretcher, carrying the prone, puking, bleeding body of Kyle around our lawn and house. I found it the next day in this little shed we had in the backyard where I had partied as a teen. I couldn't convince myself to bring it in and wash it. The only furniture in the shed was a ratty old couch so I threw the sleeping bag behind it and left it to molder.

Over the years, that sleeping bag became a regular fixture at our parties. It became some sort of physically manifested retribution. A punishment meted out on those who got too drunk at my house. My roommates and I made a rule that the first person to pass out (as opposed to consciously going to bed) at one of our parties would wake up neatly tucked into the sleeping bag. It usually only happened once per person for them to learn the error of their ways.

After a couple years, the sleeping bag was unnecessary. Plus I’d moved onto another phase of life – wife, child, house, job. You know…. the grown-up stuff some people try so hard to escape through drugs, alcohol, affairs, television, video games, the internet, sports, and high horsepower toys.

There is a thin line between “free” and “lost” and sometimes we walked on both sides of that line. And sometimes you wake up to find that what you thought was the comfort of friends and “good times” was really just the embrace of that sleeping bag tucked tightly around your body.

I burned that sleeping bag. The smoke was black and the smell horrific but it felt so right.

Friday, January 28, 2011


My best friend Kenny was coming home for the weekend. Kenny had been away in the military and then college so he didn’t get home often. So when he did, it was a big deal for his friends.

Having so much time on your hands and so little to occupy your mind, people in Deadsville tend towards two extremes. Either numb yourself with alcohol, drugs, sports and other non-cognitive pursuits or start looking for increasingly convoluted and creative ways to look at and live in your life. My friends and me leaned towards the latter. So it had come to our attention that during the last few times that Kenny had visited, an odd confluence of events always happened. These events were:

- all of our pencils got sharpened

- the same crappy band played at the local bar

- our friend Stan got laid

None of these events ever happened without the others. If one happened – say, Stan got laid one night – you could accurately predict that Kenny was going to show up and that when we went to the bar, we would find that same crappy band back.

Now some of these were clearly related. Our pencils got sharpened because Kenny would almost always insist on playing Dungeons and Dragons and bring his pencil sharpener. So our pencils would get sharpened. And we almost always ended up playing D&D because the band sucked so we couldn’t go to the bar.

However, we never could figure out how the band’s tour schedule tied into Kenny’s travels. Nor could we figure out why Stan would always get laid that weekend and thus, miss seeing Kenny. Stan didn’t get laid very often. But you could always count on two things. First, it would always be the weekend that Kenny visited. Second, that Stan’s partner would always be fat and ugly. It became such a certainty that we used to joke about it.

Then one day Stan set us straight. A bunch of us were walking down the street when we passed a very attractive woman. While the rest of us spun around to ogle her as she disappeared in the distance, Stan just kept on walking. When one of us commented on how Stan only likes fat and ugly women, he corrected us with, “She doesn’t have to be fat”. At least some things could be explained.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

You Gotta Fight For Your Right

My dad was raised with 3 brothers and they all liked to fight. Around Deadsville there were a few other families of boys who also liked to fight. In a city, such families today might turn into street gangs. Or maybe they would have a long history of being boxers or martial artists. But my father’s generation didn’t have such options. It was just knuckles in a parking lot after dark.

Apparently they would have these epic brawls, various families teaming up with each other – one time the McCloud’s might be your ally against the Parini family, and the next time they both might team up against you. They would beat each other bloody, go have beers and do it again a few weeks later. As a kid, I grew up hearing spirited stories of these glorious fights and so did the sons of my father’s rivals. I guess the urge to fight runs in the blood because when they reached a certain age, these boys all felt it was their destiny to carry on their father’s legacy. Through high school and even after, every few months one or more of these guys would try to start a fight with me.

I was tall and fairly broad-shouldered. But I was also skinny, uncoordinated and seemed to lack the gene that makes young men want to pound each other. I had no desire or skill to fight anyone. I was one of those really smart, nerdy, geeky kids whose parents dressed funny. In other words, I was a perfect target.

For the most part, I could out-talk, outmaneuver and otherwise avoid those conflicts. But every once in a while they’d get me in a corner. Fortunately, although I personally did not have the fighting gene, one of my best friends did. Boy, did he.

Brad was like a swarthy, sneering, sarcastic cobra. He looked laid-back, but he was a tightly wound spring ready to fly into action with the slightest provocation. He wasn’t extraordinarily big or muscular. My father called him “wiry”. What he had was quickness and a fearless love of fighting. He never started one…. but he never passed one up either.

When we were 12 years old, Brad and some of his friends would steal away to the bathroom during study halls and lunch not to smoke but to fight. They would stand around and just take turns popping each other in the head. At the end of lunch, they’d all emerge, cheeks red, fists scraped and bleeding, and smiling like hell.

When it came to fighting, in some kind of strange symbiotic way – Brad and I needed each other. He kept me safe and I was the bait that lured in chances to enjoy his favorite hobby.

One night a few weeks after I had graduated from high school, a friend and I were engaging in that ever-popular Deadsville pastime of sitting in a parking lot and watching the cars go by. There were probably beers involved too.

As we sat there, two of these “family rivals” and an out-of-town guy I’d never seen before wandered over and started harassing us – getting up in our faces, giving small pushes and such. I was trying to talk my way out of it but things weren’t looking particularly hopeful. Two of the guys – a rival and the unfamiliar guy – were on me while the other rival had my friend. Just as things were looking quite dire, a familiar voice called out from behind the bullies; “is everything okay here?” The three guys whirled around and found Brad leaning casually on the roof of a car. In the dark, he didn’t look like much. Nonetheless, the two local guys started backing away…

You see, Brad had recently cemented his reputation as Bad-Ass #1. At a gravel pit party a few weeks before, someone started to give Brad crap. He, of course, gave it right back. He kinda had a gift for pissing people off when he wanted to. Before long all 20 of the guys there decided to shut him up. What they didn’t know was that 20 to 1 odds were just the kind he liked. When the first couple guys rushed him, he leapt into their midst like a madman, fists swinging and feet kicking. Ten minutes later they had had enough and called a truce. Brad was sore for a couple days (someone had slammed him into a car bumper) but he was never trifled with again.

The unfamiliar guy who had been harassing me looked like he wanted to take Brad on until one of the other guys said to him “no, you really don’t want to do that”. The two local bullies apologized for any misunderstandings and hurried away.

It’s a hard world out there – especially for a geeky, too tall, uncoordinated teenage boy. In a small town like Deadsville, people have to come together – as friends, communities, and neighbors – in order to survive, thrive and get their needs met. Brad and I had very little in common but he was one of my best friends all through high school. We were there for all of each other’s firsts: dates, being dumped, driver’s licenses, drinking, jobs, deaths, even marriages. We grew up together and always knew that we had each other’s backs. Even in a parking lot. In the dark. In Deadsville.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

You Can Too

You Can Too

It was 9 o’clock on a Saturday night in downtown Deadsville. Mert’s Pizza, where I worked, had closed at eight, leaving its loiterers unmoored and looking for someplace to be or something to do. Any place. Any thing. But for the last hour nothing had presented itself and so there we sat – me, Gene, and Stan – on the doorstep of the closed pizza place. In one hour we had gravitated no more than one foot from door.

Downtown Deadsville was never a hopping place. The only time the word “teaming” was used in reference to our town was when a local farmer drove his team of oxen through for a parade. But this night was especially quiet. The bar had closed at its customary time of 8 pm, leaving just the country store as any potential draw of people into town. They had seen scarcely a soul and were already mopping up so as to be out the door not a second after 10 o’clock.

While we sat there, pondering the deep questions of life that arise when you have nothing better to do, a pick-up truck pulled up in front. The turquoise colored pick-up was a highly modified, mobile party machine with a custom wooden truck bed outfitted with rear-facing bucket seats, built in cooler, and one of those cassette stereos that you could hear two towns away. It was piloted by Peter, whose father owned the only gas station/ garage in town. It was good to know Peter because he always had a key to the gas station’s beer cooler for late night beer runs. Or if you got drunk and drove your car off the road, Peter could always get the wrecker and with luck, get you hauled away to the garage before the cops even noticed. And although he was one of the “cool kids”, he was genuinely a nice guy and always friendly to everyone. Even the geeks that hung out in front of Mert’s on a Saturday night.

Apparently Peter was also having a hard time finding fun. So as he pulled up beside us, he held a bottle of Yukon Jack out the window and yelled “You Can! You Can!”. With such a call to action, how could we resist? Before long the four of us were sitting on the sidewalk taking hard hits from the bottle of Jack. We had developed a game where as you drank from the bottle, everyone else chanted, “You can! You can!”. Upon finishing your burning gulp of whiskey, you would exclaim, “You can too!”, passing the bottle to one of the other people in the circle where the process would repeat.

After several rounds of You Can, our powers of observation apparently being enhanced by the process, someone noticed that no traffic had passed by for a very long time. In our lubricated logic, it seemed like a very funny idea to move our little drinking circle from sitting on the sidewalk to standing in the middle of Main Street. So we did. After a few more rounds without traffic interruptions, we decided that sitting seemed like a good idea. So we sat in the middle of the street and continued to drink. Eventually someone remarked that a little campfire would be a nice touch. So we foraged for a few twigs and pieces of paper and made toasty little fire. Still no traffic.

Every ten years or so, the news in Deadsville reports some kids, usually drinking, being hit by a train or car. Once in a while it is a thrill seeking couple having sex on the tracks – the danger making the sex even more exciting. In most cases they are just sitting there, daring the fates to smack them off the face of the earth. It is just boredom that gets people to risk their lives. At some point, any place, any thing, seems better than where you are. Bored. In the dark. In Deadsville.

The woman who closed the country store asked us what kind of idiots we were and told us to get out of the street. We put out the fire and went home.