The following will come off as bad or immoral, I’m sure, but most of the key players no longer live among us, and I promise the connections will come together, probably. As a young teenager, I took up distance running. I’m talking I took off kind of like the character Forrest Gump did later in his life. I’m no psychologist, but I would bet I ran away from something: My father wanting me to work with him ten hours a day at a one-person textile supply company manufacturing something called “replacement aprons,” made out of calf skin, little belts meant for spinning frames so that yarn could run without snagging on metal. Or he wanted me to plain drive around endlessly with him in his DeSoto, or his Ford Galaxie, or his VW Bug. Whatever, I took up running. I ran around the block (.6 miles) and I ran around two blocks (exactly 1 mile) or I ran around the entire neighborhood (1.7 miles) or I ran to the county airport and back (4.3 miles). I ran to the airport and around the neighborhood (6 miles even). I ran and ran and ran.
Right before I turned fifteen years old, I decided I wanted to run the length of a marathon. I got up on a Saturday morning and took off, with all these mathematical distances in mind, to and from the airport, way out on highways 72 and 25, past Mr. Bratcher’s Gulf station, past the Quick Way, on beyond Sunken Garden’s Lounge, and the Highway 25 Drive-In movie theatre, loop after loop, past the wastewater treatment plant where I’d gone on field trips third/fifth/seventh grades. I plodded along, wearing a tank top and what would be now considered short-shorts.
I’d say I might’ve been five or eight miles in to my project when I heard my father’s putt-putt-putting VW behind me, right there on highway 25. People honked their horns at him, seeing as I ran, at best, five miles an hour. He came up beside me and waved hard, a big smile on his face, as if saying, “Hey, in case you get hit by a car or fall over dead, I’m here.” Only later on in life—after his death, when I was twenty-four—could I recognize his good-heartedness, and how he meant well.
At the time, I might’ve given him the finger. What an asshole, I.
I didn’t make it 26.2 miles on that day. I made it 20.1 as it ended up. I came around to the end of our little driveway, knowing that I needed to get back out to the county airport and back, plus around the neighborhood, and I couldn’t. It took me something like four-plus hours, as I remember. (Aside: When I was seventeen, I ran a five mile race and clocked in at 27:19, in Columbia, SC, so I wasn’t a pure-tee idiot, if you ask me).
Man, I rubber-legged down the driveway feeling like a loser. My father pulled the VW behind me and, again all smiles, said, “I’m proud of you, son.”
I don’t know if I answered. I know that I got in bed soon thereafter, and couldn’t move for forty-eight hours.
And then he said, “You know, I think you might have lost too much salt in that run, from all the sweat. You need a beer.” Although the notion of “carbo-loading” hadn’t appeared in the southeast yet, in a way my father was correct. He said, “I think you need a beer every time you go out on a long run.”
He went inside and came out with a Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Uh-oh. At the time, the legal age for buying beer in South Carolina was eighteen. Those were the days.
I started going out on long runs three or four times a day afterwards.
This friend of mine named Paul moved down from New Jersey during my eleventh grade year, for his chemist father got a job with Parke-Davis. Dr. Borick knew more about everything, I thought, from golf to fatherhood (two daughters, four sons). A good Catholic, he’d studied microbiology and chemistry at Le Moyne College, Syracuse, and Columbia University. He owned patents, which no one I knew could brag about. He cooked. He grab-assed and made fun of his children’s friends. I loved the guy. Although Dr. Borick and my friend Paul lived in the upper middle class, neither of them acted in a better-than-thou realm often seen in the South.
Aside: The first time Paul came over to my house, he had this dog with him named Doc, a big, really stupid, friendly Irish Setter. I kind of worried about my parents meeting Paul, seeing as he had hair halfway down his back. Paul came over so we could go out and throw the Frisbee at the gigantic lawn in front of Self Memorial Hospital. My mother came out in the carport. Doc let out a fart that pretty much took over the entire neighborhood. My mom kind of gagged. Later on, throwing the Frisbee, we learned that Doc might’ve had some kind of vision problems, seeing as the disc hit him flat on the forehead before he jumped, stunned, doh-dee-doh, what happened?
Anyway, Dr. Borick bought cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and left them, stacked, in his garage, hot. I’m talking eight or ten at a time. Not Heineken, Miller High Life, Budweiser, Coors that might’ve been hard to get in South Carolina in 1976, the supposedly wonderful Strohs that emerged from the state of Tennessee. I’m not talking about Falstaff or Ballentine. At some point Paul and I thought, He won’t ever notice a six-pack missing, or an entire twenty-four beers. We scooped them up and took them off to the trunk of my Opel, or the trunk of his Bondo-slathered Datsun. Later, we drank those hot PBRs in the woods beside his house, or the woods off to the side of my house, or while driving down the back roads around both of our houses (sorry, but it’s true), or at the Auto Drive-In run by our friend George Zouras’s father. Or in the parking lot of Greenwood High School before classes. Or right after Paul told his daddy that he’d go off to Catholic mass, but instead came over to my house on Sunday mornings in order to see what my blue collar father had to say about things. My parents weren’t churchgoers. My parents despised most Christians, if it matters.
We drank those warm Pabst Blue Ribbons, not knowing what a cold, refreshing, normal, invigorating, non-idiotic beer could be. Well, I kind of did, what with the cold beers my dad doled over whenever I ran over ten miles, but somehow I thought it anathema to reward myself for only being able to steal beer from a friend’s father’s garage.
Right before I went off to college, a juke joint ex-train station opened up in Hodges, a place called Jackson Station, run by two gay men named Gerald Jackson and Stevie Bryant. Here’s the story: Gerald bought the built-in-1870 train station for a dollar, with a promise to move it out of town. It cost thousands of dollars to relocate the building down the road a half mile, to land he owned across from his momma’s house. Gerald was a Navy veteran, a college graduate, a man with a plan. In the beginning, one could bring his or her own albums to play. Then it turned into bands like the Swimming Pool Qs, Reverend Billy Wirtz, the Accelerators, Nappy Brown, Tinsley Ellis, Glenn Phillips, Widespread Panic, Love Tractor, and the Georgia Satellites playing there until five in the morning. Bikers, college kids, rednecks, preppies, Blacks and Whites, gays and straights, doctors, lawyers, and upcoming punks like me hung out at Jackson Station.
Gerald—who ended up getting hit in the head by a redneck wielding a pickax, surviving, then living in a VA hospital for a decade or so—made it a point to offer beer that most people of Greenwood County would never come across: Heineken, Grolsch, Sapporo, Asahi, Harp, San Miguel, Guinness, Peroni, Fosters lager, and so on. Hell, Coors. He kept a large chalkboard above the bar advertising the kitchen’s specials, most of which involved hotdogs and cheeseburgers, but one time that I remember, the PLT, as a joke: a Placenta/Lettuce/Tomato sandwich, because a heifer out back gave birth to a baby bull, named George, after my father.
Anyway, I tried all these beers. I prided myself on the beer bottle collection I kept hidden from my mother, in the crawlspace of the house where I got brought up. Amstel, Kronenbourg, Export 33, Pilsner, Bitburger, St. Pauli’s Girl, Beck’s, Carlsberg, Molson, Moosehead, and so on. Tsingtao. Carlton. Tecate. Dos Equis. I squeaked those things down, just for the bottles, but knew that I missed something.
Listen, I was eighteen, on my way to college, and ready to mesmerize my college roommate with tales of world travel, due to my Beers of the World knowledge.
But you know what? Zero of those beers matched my love for Pabst Blue Ribbon—either cold or warm. I’ve drunk lesser-known beers—Black Label, and a flat-out generic-named beer, Beer, come to mind, bought at a place called the Drop-In Store in Greenville—and I thought, This is close, but it doesn’t quite qualify. How excited did I get when Dennis Hopper’s character, Frank Booth, yells out, “Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!” in the movie Blue Velvet?
So. Here’s the thing. Hand me an IPA? Hahahahaha. Give me one of those micro-brews that’s so chic and omnipresent and I’ll hand it back, or pour it out into a potted plant, or go buy a BB pistol in order to use said micro-brew as a target. Or I might actually drink the thing, seeing as I’d be attending some kind of uncomfortable affair if the sponsors offered micro-brews solely. But I wouldn’t be happy. No, more than likely I’d stand there hoping my tie turned into a noose. I’d look at my watch and think about the time my father offered over the first PBR, or drinking warm Pabsts in the woods as an underaged teenager. In my mind, I’d map out the closest convenience store that sold the best beer to ever come out of Milwaukee.