I started drinking in 1964 when I was fifteen. I didn’t exactly decide to get wasted every weekend; I just didn’t consider the possibility that there might be an alternative. It was either drink or date, and I did my share of each. Every Saturday, I would have supper while watching the The Wild, Wild West, and then drive the three miles into town in my ‘56 Fairlane. When I had rounded up a few friends, we would go to a bootlegger’s, usually the one on Highway 51 a little past Della's Motel. I always bought gin and drank it straight from the bottle. I never had a mixed drink until my sister took me out on the town in New Orleans when I was eighteen. Because of my inexperience with liquor that didn’t taste like liquor, I got a whole lot sicker than I had ever been and felt like a fool in the bargain.
I was in two drinking-related wrecks in the same night. In the first, my friend, Penny ran his car off a dead-end road and into the wet earth of an embankment. This scared everyone aboard except him and me—I had survived so many close calls that I didn’t believe cars could hurt me—so they got out as soon as we got back to town, but I was still with Penny when he slid backwards into the high curb behind Dr. Reel's office. A few weeks later, he flipped that same car and was crushed by it. Mississippi roads back then were narrow, hilly, and curvy; bootleggers would sell liquor to anyone; drunk drinking was commonplace; and you could get your license at fifteen. All this together meant that a lot of teenage boys died in car wrecks.
When a popular kid died—most popular kids came from prominent families with money—their classmates would hit everyone up for the cost of a wreath, but when an unpopular kid died, he didn’t get a wreath. My friends and I weren’t the kind of people who got wreaths. We were the kind of people who wouldn’t have been missed had we died. Even if we passed a year—I flunked three years but made two of them up in summer school—we did it by the skin of our teeth. We also cut school when we could, and we avoided every sport, club, and organization that might have given us a sense of belonging. We did this because we believed that such things existed for the popular kids.
Another night, I hungout with four friends who were camping by the railroad tracks, and when I got ready to leave, I was so drunk that I had turned partway onto the tracks before they stopped me. On yet another occasion, I got drunk early, and drove home to find my mother and sister watching TV. I tried to walk into the house as if I was sober, but I bounced off the patio door like a bird and fell flat on my back. The next day, I found that my car was full of puke and bottles, but I didn’t remember where I had been or who I had hungout with. I did remember the hurt in my mother’s eyes as she helped me to bed.
My parents never said a word about my drinking except for the time that I put a dent in the car. My father had a good bit to say about that, but he would have said most of the same things had I not been drinking. His belief was that a real man could do anything drunk that he could sober. Of course, there was that night when he came home drunk (a rare event), missed the driveway, and ended up in a ditch. Staggering though he was, he set up a come-along to winch himself out of that ditch before daybreak.
I concluded at a rather early age that my parents thought I was a bit of a loser. My mother would often say: “Boy, you’ll never amount to anything.” I told myself at the time that she was saying mean things because that’s what I deserved. Now, I understand that she was probably taking her anger toward the father and the two husbands who had abused or abandoned her out on me, the only defenseless representative of my gender.
Psychological pain is like physical pain in that you can’t share it with anyone even when you try. I find it fascinating and terrifying to know that I am utterly and irrevocably shut-off from other people. We can reach, but we can’t touch. Yet, the reaching still matters, at least until we die when nothing matters anymore.
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