There are certain events in a boy’s life that stand out. Certain firsts. The first kiss. The first time driving a car, etc. Your first drink is one of those moments.
It was the summer of 1986 and I was 14 years old. It was an exceptionally hot and dry summer that year. There was a drought, in fact. A severe one. It was the summer before my freshman year at Spring Valley High School and I was planning to try out for the freshman football team. I had seen the writing on the wall the prior year when, as an eighth grader I spent the season firmly entrenched on the bench as a member of my middle school basketball team. I was eager to try a new sport.
My Uncle Roger was in town that summer for an extended visit and staying with us at the house on Spring Water Drive in northeast Columbia. Roger was a character. A few years younger than my Dad, he insisted that I call him “Roger”, instead of “Uncle Roger”. For a boy steeped in Southern manners, that was kind of a big deal. It made him more approachable. More like a buddy than an authority figure. He told great, off-color jokes. We laughed a lot.
One Saturday, my Dad away on National Guard duty, Uncle Roger and I drove over to West Columbia to cut the grass at some rental properties Dad owned a few blocks off of Leapheart Road. The rentals weren’t in the best area and good tenants were hard to come by. Rent was paid late if at all, and evictions were frequent. Despite Dad’s best efforts at keeping the properties up, they were typically left in varying degrees of disrepair and squalor.
We drove over in the family’s old Chevy Caprice Classic station wagon, complete with simulated wood grain paneling and rear-facing third-row seat. We spent several hours cutting grass, trimming weeds and giving the place a general tidying up. It was a classic July day in Columbia – unyieldingly, blisteringly hot and humid. The drought made it worse and by early afternoon, the heat beat down with a malevolence that was staggering. The air was dead still, not a pine needle stirred. The constant undulating song of Cicadas seemed to drown out even the drone of the lawnmower.
Parched and needing to hydrate, we took a break and drove over to a gas station around the corner. Walking into the store we were greeted with a welcome blast of air conditioning which made me nearly light headed. I held open the door of a cooler pondering the various Gatorade options while the cold air washed over me. Through a mild daze, I noticed Uncle Roger already at the counter checking out. He motioned for me to meet him back at the car and I was intrigued when he walked out carrying a brown paper bag and a mischievous grin.
We drove back to the triplex and parked in an empty driveway. He put the car in park and reached into the bag. I was surprised but delighted when he handed me a Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler. He reached back into the bag and pulled out a Budweiser tall-boy for himself.
Now, Bartles & Jaymes may seem like an ignominious beginning for a man’s drinking journey, but I tell you with all sincerity, it was magical for a thirsty fourteen-year-old Baptist boy. I opened the twist top and the very sound was pleasing – the release of compressed air and the mild, malty aroma which followed. I remember beads of condensation on the label as I tipped the bottle to my lips expectantly. It was cold and the bottle somehow just felt good in my hand.
The first swallow was amazing. Slightly citrus, but enough malt and alcohol to make their presence known. I liked it and finished it quickly. After, there was a novel, if very mild buzz. The world took on a pleasing hue. The bouquet of sour sweat, gasoline, freshly cut grass and alcohol was pleasurable. Uncle Roger let me take a couple of swigs from his Budweiser and I immediately liked the taste of that too. Heavier malt with a pleasing bite as it went down.
The world slowed. We sat there in the car with the windows rolled down and the radio on. John Mellencamp sang about pink houses as the late afternoon heat began to loosen its grip a bit. I knew I had crossed some sort of threshold into another, more worldly realm. I smiled a goofy smile, sublimely satisfied. After a while, we finished the mowing and headed back toward home.
Thinking back on it now, it’s as though that moment is encased in museum glass. There was something so understated and, dare I say, manly about it (in spite of the wine cooler). An uncle and his nephew sharing a drink after toiling in the hot sun. A reward. A rite of passage. A bonding moment. Somehow, over three decades have passed by since that day. But I remember it like it was last week.