Thursday, April 06, 2017

ON THE AVENUES: On swill and tornadoes, circa '75.

ON THE AVENUES: On swill and tornadoes, circa '75.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

Since I’m cradling a glass of Scotch while reading a book about Prohibition's myriad failures, trying hard to remember the last time I got carded, it seems the perfect time to dip into the archives for a glance at my squandered past.

Although this story has appeared previously, it doesn't seem to have been offered in column format at NA Confidential. In retrospect, the important part isn't that my circle of high school friends successfully organized our first beer bash. Rather, it's about these people -- and their parents. We were decent enough kids, and grew up to be solid adults, but we also were lucky to have strong families.

There were problems, of course. At the same time, perspective matters. We made it through; not everyone has the chance.


Back when spring was spring, and mild weather didn’t arrive until Derby, the unquestioned highlight of the season was the illicit consumption of wretched swill outdoors under presumably warming skies.

Specifically, there was a long-anticipated weekend, almost surely in April, one planned for weeks and weeks amid bursts of testosterone-laden impatience.

Nowadays, I can’t even pretend to recall the event “just like it was yesterday.” 40-plus years have a way of tarnishing even the finest of photographic memories. I can’t tell you exactly who attended the party, or whether it was held on Friday or Saturday.

However, what can be affirmed with a fair degree of certainty is that not one of the participants on site bothered to take into consideration the evening’s weather forecast, an omission with potential consequences.

We were lowly 9th graders in 1975, and it had been approximately 365 years since April, 1974, when the Louisville area and large portions of the Midwest were wracked by epochal swaths of destructive tornadoes.

How pervasive were those 1974 storms?

Some months after the tornadoes struck,  we were putting up hay near Georgetown, Indiana, where I grew up. I saw a rectangular black object by the fence row, which proved to be a checkbook belonging to someone in Brandenburg, Kentucky, as carried by the evil winds a full 30 miles as the crow flies.

On the other hand, none of the ’74 twisters actually touched down inside the borders of Floyd County. Maybe that’s why we were so youthfully oblivious in 1975.

Not that youth ever needs a reason to be oblivious.


From its inception, the night in question was intended to be historic, for it would be the first of what proved to be many swill-soaked camping forays, out in the fields of the Floyds Knobs farm where one of my closest friends lived.

Caution was the watchword; after all, I was pretending to be an athlete, and it was baseball season. For my mother’s convenience (of course), she was directed to deposit me at the foot of the gravel driveway, which crossed the creek by means of a concrete slab and snaked up the wooded bluff.

I practically sprinted up the hill to the staging area between house and barn. Today, the mere thought of it is exhausting. For April, it seemed balmy, but eventually clouds rolled in, and the air began cooling.

We went to work on the campsite, situated behind a copse of trees, far enough from the house to shield our activities from prying adult eyes. It seemed like miles at the time, and probably totaled two hundred yards, maximum.

After arranging coolers of weenies, condiments and slaw, and stacking fuel for the bonfire, we hiked into the scrub, back down the bluff to the north of the driveway, where two (maybe three) cases of Falls City longnecks had been artfully hidden in the chilly waters of the creek by a friendly senior football player willing to help spare a rising generation from the miseries of sobriety.

He overcharged us, and we didn’t mind one bit. There was a pint of Cherry Vodka as backup – or maybe it was Yukon Jack.


The perimeter was secured amid threatening skies, and directly I was rewarded with my first genuine bout of Dionysian inebriation, a rite of passage facilitated by two beers, maybe four, and rendered barely tolerable only by the icy flavorlessness of the liquid.

You grandfather’s Falls City was in late-period free fall, a liquid not to be confused with gold medals for excellence as awarded during the Taft administration. Serviceability was the king of beer, followed closely by low price. At least today's underage drinkers have a choice.

I never got anywhere close to the liquor. The beer was enough to numb my teeth, bolster my confidence, and provide an escape from the persistent terrors of shyness, even if there were no girls on the scene to be offended by the results.

(Unwittingly, not unlike a bizarre form of spring training, a semblance of future tone was being established and nurtured for constant, generally dysfunctional reference)

We drank, screamed and dreamed, remaining utterly unaware of the elements and giving little thought to rising winds and droplets of rain heralding the storm’s arrival. However, a (very) short distance away, my pal’s folks were paying close attention, and with dusk and bad weather closing in, we saw the headlights of their pickup truck coming down the dirt path.

Drunken paranoia briefly flared until we realized they didn’t care one jot about our drinking. Never had, and never would, all the way through high school, and long after. Rather, tornadoes had been spotted in the region, and we needed to move the party – beer, burnt weenies, adolescent fantasies and all – to the barn, mere steps from the cellar, in case it got any worse.

We weren’t busted, after all. Had I been able to speak coherently, I’d have told them that I loved them. As it was, gurgling sounds had to suffice.

Relieved, everyone piled into the pickup and collapsed onto the rusted metal bed, lying on our backs, staring up at the weird gloaming and swirling, clouded eternity.

Emboldened, I swore drunkenly aloud through stinging raindrops that I could see tornadoes fornicating – except it wasn’t the exact word I used, and you really had to be there, but at least the others took me at my word. We had a long, drunken, two-hundred-yard giggle, and talked about it for months.

I’d actually said something funny. If only I could write it that way -- to make them laugh, but maybe also pay attention. It was something to work on.

In the end, frantically coupling tornadoes didn’t disturb our consumption of the few remaining drops of beer. The cold of the ensuing night made sharing too few blankets and sleeping bags quite interesting.

It remained the era of static-laden Top Forty radio hits on the AM dial, and someone turned on the tunes, which repeated dismally, again and again, the same songs over and over, with it being too cold for anyone to get up and turn the damn thing off.

The next morning I was cold, dirty, hungover for the first time ever, and with the infuriating song “Chevy Van”* serving as an unwanted ear worm of torment. We were offered fried egg sandwiches for breakfast, and I came perilously close to vomiting.

Dazed, filthy and queasy, but careful to keep heretical thoughts to myself, I questioned whether the campout had been sufficiently fun to justify a return engagement.

The day after that, I was hooked on beer for life. Look where that inspiration got me.


* RIP Sammy Johns, (1946-2013)


Recent columns:

March 30: ON THE AVENUES: Our great and noble leader is here to stay, so let's break out the țuică and make a joyful noise.

March 23: ON THE AVENUES: Cataloguing my consciousness on a warm spring day.

March 16: ON THE AVENUES: It's all so simple, says Jeff Gahan.Remove the impoverished, and voila! No more poverty!

March 9: ON THE AVENUES: Never preach free speech to a yes man; it wastes your time and annoys Team Gahan.

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