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  LIFE AS A LOSER #116: "HONKEYTONKIN'."  
   
   
 

 My father drinks and drives.

That sounds worse than it is. Many people out here on the East Coast don’t understand this, but in the Midwest, particularly in Southern Illinois, where there’s little more than unnamed roads and cornfields, beers are essentially permanently fused to your hand. I recently returned from a week and a half at home, and I don’t remember a moment past 5 p.m. that I didn’t have a beer in my hand. It’s just part of the fabric; you go to a friend or neighbor’s home, and without anyone even pausing to blink, you immediately head for their fridge and pop open a Budweiser. People aren’t drinking to get drunk, not necessarily. You just drink because that’s what you do.

I mean, beer is everywhere. I went to a post-service “mixer” at my mother’s Catholic church, and they had a keg. I visited my cousin, and there was a car accident outside his house. We were both drinking a beer, and we sauntered outside, curious, beers in hand. I was downing an MGD when I went up to the police officer who responded and asked what happened. I was moderately surprised he didn’t ask me for a sip. On the Fourth of July, we all had a Bud in one hand and a lighter to set off the borderline illegal explosives in the other.

In a society like this, where beer is less a troublemaker than an omnipresent appendage, it’s no surprise that, while teaching me to drive, my father once told me, half-jokingly (I think), “you gotta learn to drive with your knees so you can open your beer.” (My mother smacked him on the head after he said this. Then, from the backseat, she opened a beer for herself.) To be entirely honest, I think I’d feel less comfortable with my father driving without a beer in his hand than when he does, which is often. It’s just part of the driving process. We live outside of Mattoon, and it takes us 15-20 minutes just to go to the supermarket. That’s one or two beers, right there.

It’s not like my father is an alcoholic or anything; I’ve never seen him drunk, ever, and I’ve seen that man consume many beers in my lifetime. (The highlight: an 18-pack of Natural Light, the only beer he’ll drink, during a 10-inning baseball game. The only result, as far as I could tell, was a particularly violent belch.) That’s just what you do when you’re driving through the middle of nowhere. When you have to pee, you pull over to the side of the road. My father was pulled over once by a Mattoon cop; Dad got out of the car with his beer in hand. He did receive a ticket … for speeding. It’s not encouraged, mind you … just accepted.

When I was home, my father drove the two-plus hours to St. Louis to see a Cardinals game, my third in a week and a half home. (It had been more than three years since I’d been to Busch Stadium; my father and I estimated that’s the longest I’d gone since birth.) Despite a late night up talking with my equally tormented sister the night before, I was ready to rock, and Dad and I each had three or four large beers at the game. We talked about Jack Buck, and Darryl Kile, and the important stuff, like whether they were going to trade for another pitcher, and then Ryan Klesko grounded out to second, and the Cardinals had another victory. (They’re in first place. Have I mentioned that? No? OK. The St. Louis Cardinals are in first place. Shall I repeat?)

It was time to drive home, but once we hopped in the car and crossed back into Illinois, we realized with alarm that we were woefully short on beer. To wit, there were only four Natural Lights left in the cooler. With a two-hour drive home, not to mention an empty fridge back in Mattoon — I’d already made my presence felt — this just simply wouldn’t do. We made it to Vandalia, about halfway home, when we both finished up our stash. (At this point, our conversation had hopped from baseball to girls to our sick dog to pool to 9/11 to suicide to mortgage payments to whether or not one of my cousins was gay. Nothing beats a late-night drive with your dad when beer’s involved. I highly suggest it.) And we were rapidly approaching midnight, the drop-dead time when gas stations and supermarkets stop selling beer. We pulled off the interstate and into Vandalia … but we were too late. They’d already locked up the freezers. I hate locked freezers.

This left us only one option: a bar. One of the more unique aspects of Midwestern bars is the To Go option. Essentially, you can sit in a bar, usually sparsely populated, and drink all night; then, when you’re ready to leave, slap another seven bucks on the table and get a 12-pack to take home. It’s true genius; I can’t believe there are bars in this country that don’t do this.

But one downside — you often have interlopers popping in, with no intention of actually drinking at your bar or soaking in your atmosphere. They come in, grab the 12-pack, and bolt. Like the bar is some kind of drive-through. I know when I’ve been at one of these bars, and I see people do that, I sneer at them like the rest of the people in the bar, and then I talk bad about them when they leave. Dad and I didn’t want to be one of these hops tourists, but with no beer back at home, we had little choice. Another obstacle: We were in Southern Illinois, and the only bars you’ll find open past midnight sneak up on you. You’ll be on a deserted road, and all of a sudden you’ll see a sign that says “Dietrich – Pop: 1423,” and they’ll have one bar, which looks like a trailer home, with a Hamm’s sign out front and a couple pickup trucks out front. And after that, there will be nothing for 30 miles.

But we were undaunted. “I think I know a place in Sigel,” Dad said. This is not a comforting statement to hear. Sigel is essentially a suburb of Effingham, which is essentially a suburb of Mattoon, which has 15,000 people. Sigel has a population of 150. It is certainly possible that they all have the last name “Sigel.” It has one stop sign, about 40 houses, a post office, and a bar. The types of people who populate Sigel’s one bar at 1 a.m., they likely guzzle motor oil, devour lit cigars, and have food stuck in their beards from 1983.

And we were hardly dressed the part. We, as is expected at Busch Stadium, were decked out in all bright Cardinal red T-shirts and white shorts. Dad had binoculars around his neck. I was carrying a scorebook. We were strangers straight from Central Casting, and we had a sneaking suspicion that Sigel’s finest wouldn’t take too kindly to our popping in for package liquor. There would be nothing left of us but a pair of Oakleys and a few strands of hair.

We arrived in Sigel. The exterior of the “bar” was not comforting. First off, it was called “BAR,” which, while truthful, does not inspire much confidence in the reasonable nature of the clientele. It had a sign on the door for “Chicken Fried Steak.” There was a huge crack in the glass. A flag waved out front with “Don’t Tread on Me” blazoned across it. And there were four vehicles out front: three pickup trucks and a Harley. One truck had a bumper sticker: “I Got Your Jihad Right Here.” We were clearly toast. But we needed that beer.

We exited the car. Dad looked at me and tried to make a joke. “You got your fighting clothes on?” I looked back at him. “Dad, I have a picture of J.D. Drew on my chest. What do you think?”

A deep sigh. I made Dad go first. He pushed the door open, which rang a loud bell. I cringed. Here we go.

There were four people sitting at the bar, big dudes, and a bartender, even bigger, and every single one of them darted his head immediately toward the door. We had clearly interrupted something, and we were about to pay. They registered our faces, blinked, and then turned their heads directly back toward the television. They were entranced. The room was silent, except for the TV.

They were watching Mr. Holland’s Opus.

More specifically, they were watching the end of Mr. Holland’s Opus, when Richard Dreyfuss’ character sums up his entire career during a rousing concerto as an entire town weeps. The music rises, the crowd swells, everyone’s crying. Boy, that Mr. Holland … he sure did touch a lot of lives.

Dad and I stood at the front door, not wanting to interrupt. I looked at him. He looked at me. I attempted to stifle a giant, all-encompassing guffaw, and succeeded, until Dad whispered in my ear, “I bet we could kick the ass of every single person in this room.”

We waited until the film ended, tiptoed to the bar, asked for a 12-pack of Natural from the moist-eyed bartender, and drank all the way home. I love Southern Illinois.

 

*BT*

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