When I was in high school, the legal drinking age was 18, but if you were 17, you could take your chances the drive-thru liquor store, and your chances were about 50-50. And if they did ask for proof of age, you could just drive off. Short and sweet, and completely devoid of that awkward, shameful, empty-handed walk from the cashier's counter back to the car.
But oh, the drive-thru liquor store, with it's drunken drive-thru liquor store cashiers. As timid and completely devoid of backbone as I was, even I could still handle the drive-thru liquor store. And about half the time, I drove off with the goods. Those days, the goods could be Southern Comfort, Wild Turkey, or Jim Beam. But most of all, we drank beer.
Now if you weren't yet 17, your chances of scoring alcohol - even at the drive-thru liquor store - weren't very good. Not unless you had a mustache or something, and I certainly didn't have a mustache. Or something.
So, at 16 and in need of beer, your best chance back then was to network. You had to know a junior or senior who could get you your beer. Sometimes, an older brother or maybe an uncle would do the trick. (And sometimes even a church deacon!) Nobody in my family would buy me beer, but I had older friends. And I also had friends with older brothers. All in all, my network was OK. I worked on it. Kept the relationships greased. Whatever it took.
My beer network began with the older kids in the high school jazz band. I was 15 at the time. Out of four trumpet players, I was the fourth. "Fourth trumpet." The first and second trumpets (David and Ronnie) usually picked me up and took me to our performances. On one of those trips, I discovered the wonders of Miller High Life.
"You can handle a quart, can't you?" David asked. David was bigger than me, but, looking back, he didn't look like he could handle a quart.
"Sure," I said, trying not to look anxious. Or excited. After all, I was about to encounter The High Life. The Champagne of Beers.
As I recall, it took everything I had in order to drink The Champagne of Beers without grimacing. I drank the whole damn quart, too. I don't remember being drunk, but I do remember trying real hard to act drunk.
Yep, that was a good night. We were performing at a circus at our high school, in a big circus tent erected on the P.E. field, with real circus animals and real circus acts. And there were shitty student skits, too. The whole evening was a cacophony of beer breath, saliva (where there are trumpets, there's saliva), smelly animals, and shitty student skits.
It was a weeknight and in the stands may have been 35 people, all of whom must have been parents of the student conscripted into the service of shitty skits in the center ring. The only ring, for that matter.
We were there - that is, the high school jazz band was there - to play music between circus acts. Oddly, during one of our sets, the music director called for Maynard Ferguson's rendition of Hey Jude, which began with a fourth trumpet solo. That's me! My solo! I'm Fourth Trumpet! He never called for Hey Jude. He never, ever called for Hey Jude! Hell, we only played it a few times in rehearsals. I knew it had something to do with the that first sheet of music with my call sign in big bold letters at the top. Fourth Trumpet Solo. We avoided playing or even rehearsing that song…because of me. That solo scared the shit out of me, and of all the musical instruments in the world, the trumpet is the least forgiving when it comes to hiding your fear. The trumpet announces your fear and blasts it in shaky, off pitch, things. Things that almost sound like notes. Musical notes. Almost. Goddamn it, that solo scared me.
But not that night! That night, I was emboldened by The High Life. And that night, I put my ephemeral brazened heart into that goddamn song. I was the brass man's Paul McCartney.
Hey Juuuuude, don't make it bad.
Take a sad sooooong, and make it beh-eh-eh-tter.
The band director, a fearful perfectionist and expert asshole, looked up at me in the middle of my solo, as I serenaded those 35 lucky parents. His eyes were intense, and I could just barely distinguish impressed look from his other look - his asshole look. I was nailing that goddamned song, and I knew that he knew I was nailing it.
Much later, in fact years later, I was finally willing to myself the truth. I was willing to admit that our asshole band director was probably thinking, "Why the hell did I call for Hey Jude? God, that fucker's flat again."
My first beer. My first and last trumpet solo. Such is The High Life.