January 3, 2017
By Michael A. Calvert
I stared out the window with my faded denim jacket over one arm and my other clutching a football against my ribs like I was a running back. I wanted to see Joey’s yellow, ’54 Mercury as soon as it rounded the corner so I could be at the curb when he and Linda stopped in front of my house.
“Tell me again where you’re going.” said Mom behind me.
“Hoover reservoir,” I replied without turning my head.
“”You’re not going out on the water?”
“Nah. It’s a just a big picnic,” I said with a hint of irritation. “We’ll play touch football, roast wieners, and watch the sun go down.”
“Please be careful, honey. When will you be home?”
“I don’t know. Joey’s driving. Don’t wait up,” I said over my shoulder as I started down the driveway. I opened the rear door, slid in and closed the door in one continuous motion. Joey and I exchanged brief grunts as greetings. Linda mustered a word or two of greeting.
“First stop, the beer drive-thru,” said Joey.
“Tell me about this girl you’re bringing,” Linda said glancing over the back of the front seat. She sat right next to Joey on the bench seat, and I suspected her hand was on his leg.
“Karen lives in Westerville. Went to St. Mary’s High. She’s in my freshman English class. I’ve only been out with her once,” I replied with intentional nonchalance. I was not disappointed that she nodded and asked no further questions.
Joey wheeled into the metal building with pallets of beer stacked to the roof on both sides. While we waited for the attendant to fill an order for the car ahead of us, a forklift whirred, inserted it’s silver blades into a splintery pallet atop two others, lifted it, whirled ninety degrees, and deftly deposited it on the concrete floor.
“Two cases of Gam,” I said to the bearded attendant with a Budweiser ball cap as I handed him a ten dollar bill and my driver’s license.
“We got a lot of Iron City to move, $4 a case…” he said as he checked to see if I was eighteen.
“No, thanks, I said before he could make his pitch. He shrugged and went to fill my order. “I don’t want to support a Pittsburg beer. I hate the Pirates and the Steelers. And the Gambrinus’ brewery is on Sycamore Street near the river,” I told Joey and Linda.
“Oh, yeah. There’s a big statue of Gambrinus, the king of beer out front,” said Linda. Joey opened the trunk as the burly guy approached with a case swinging at the end of each arm.
On the way to Westerville, I envied Joey’s wheels. The white fuzzy dice that hung from the rearview mirror, the dashboard with red and green lights like an airplane’s instrument panel, the pleated naugahyde seats, and most of all, the moon roof. Joey said girls liked to look up at the thick plexiglass above the front seat when parking at the submarine races along River Road. I was picturing this when Joey interrupted my fantasy by asking where in Westerville this girl Karen lived.
When we stopped in front of her house, I went to the door, prepared to meet Karen’s mom, or worse, her dad, but she emerged before I reached her porch. Her curly, red hair bounced as she ran down the walk with two huge bags of Wise potato chips, wearing tight jeans and an OSU sweatshirt. After introductions, Karen and Linda asked each other if they knew someone they had met at their respective high schools.
Karen spotted the red needle on the gas gauge bouncing off empty, and asked Joey if he needed gas. Everyone laughed, and Karen looked at me, frowning. “It’s stuck on empty,” I said. “Friends often offer Joey a couple of dollars for gas, and his mom fills the tank every time she borrows the car.”
“Works every time, said Joey with a chuckle. “Mom took the car to Carfagna’s Meats this morning and filled it up. We’re good on gas.”
Tim and his girlfriend Margaret were already at the reservoir with a few others setting up trays of food, dishes, and coolers around the picnic tables at Shelter No. 5, a few picnic tables under a roof. The midday sun silvered the reservoir. A lone fisherman in a small boat was motionless on the water. Joey and I brought the beer; Linda and Karen carried large baking dishes covered with tin foil to the shelter.
“Welcome to our Bull-bitch-tomma-wallager, “said Tim, always jovial, but more so that morning suggesting that he had a head start on drinks or a morning joint. When asked about the name, Tim laughed and, as her put the beer in tubs of ice, said, “What the hell? I made it up. We’ll see.” Margaret cocked her head, hunched her shoulders, turned her hands up with a smile.
Friendly greetings and introductions followed. Tim and I invited our friends from the old neighborhood and the people we knew at Ohio State. We thought it would be interesting sociologically—and a bit mischievous. Everyone was to bring what they wanted to drink and eat. No fancy plans, just a laid back day. Dick and Katie arrived laden with boxes of wieners, buns, mustard, catsup and potato chips. Chuck and Cathy, Tommy and JoAnne, and other couples followed along with other couples, some from campus and some from the neighborhood.
Rich drove across the grass to the shelter. Tim helped him extract a shiny silver beer keg from the trunk of his old Oldsmobile. Several guys gathered around the keg and opined about how to tap it and keep the pressure strong enough to flow without too much foam. Competing ideas were advanced with great certitude. They managed to make the beer flow through some trials and various errors.
Friends were still arriving when a middle-aged man wearing a purple T-shirt that said New Albany Methodist Church walked up brandishing a letter on Park Board stationery with PERMIT written in large, bold letters. Several folks about his age with kids trailing behind followed the man with the permit and defiantly put their food on tables next to ours. They crossed their arms and shot sidelong glances at the long-haired students and to each other as they tensely assessed the situation.
Tim rushed over and apologized effusively and assured the Methodist that we would move immediately. While he looked on, Tim turned and graciously explained to our group that he knew fishing spot on a beautiful point of land. Everyone carried dishes, boxes, tubs of iced beer, and grocery bags to the cars. Rich returned with his Olds and wrestled the keg into his trunk. Our caravan followed Tim and Margaret to his fishing spot. The church folks seemed disappointed to win their shelter without at least a little resistance.
Soon paper plates were piled high with barbecued ribs, ham sandwiches, potato salad, and chips. Everyone shared. Neighborhood guys made several trips to the keg, and the students passed around bottles of Boone’s Farm grape wine with plastic cups. The neighborhood people clustered together. Some snickered among themselves about the OSU guys with shoulder-length hair, wide bellbottoms, and shirts with bright flowery patterns. They tried not to stare too much at the obviously braless coeds. One of the students began strumming on a guitar and singing “This land is your land…’ in a strong, deep voice. Other students began singing and, with some encouragement from Tim and Rich, some of the neighborhood girls joined in. Finally everyone was at least humming the tune. The guitarist moved on to hits by the Beach Boys and the Kingston Trio.
After the singing, everyone lounged on blankets. I stood with the football raised for a pass and called to Joey. He sprang to his feet and I hit him with a soft pass. He returned it and others raised their hands for a reception.
“How about a game of touch?” said Joey spiraling the ball upward in one hand. “Mike, you and I could choose sides as he led a dozen or so guys to a nearby open grass area. How about two-hand touch below the waist? You can block, but can’t leave your feet. OK?” asked Joey. After choosing teams, Tim announced, “Shirts and skins,” pulling off his shirt along with his teammates. We used shirts to mark the corners of the field.
The student with the longest hair pulled it into a pony tail and became the quarterback for one team. He connected with Joey for a touchdown on the first play with a long pass. A short student on the other team was the fastest guy on the field. There were lots of substitutions for winded players who sated their thirst with big gulps of beer. We lost track of the score. After two hours of exertion, Tim declared it a tie. No one called for overtime, and we retreated to the blankets.
As I drank beer from a white plastic cup to tamp down my thirst, Margaret tossed me a package of Twinkies and sat down a grocery bag brimming with Twinkie packages. I inhaled several of the soft, cream-filled cakes with intermittent swigs of beer. My pace slowed, but I continued to refill my cup and slurp beer.
Karen brought me a paper plate with a pastrami sandwich, beans, potato salad, and said “There’s lots more. You must be hungry after running up and down the field.” After a big bite of the pastrami, I sampled the beans. They were still warm and flavored with globs of pork, granted cheese, and chopped onions. I was hungry. The pastrami and beans tasted so good.
Several guys began singing “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall…” The students abandoned the guitar and joined in, keeping time with sloshing beer cups. I lay down and the trees above me swayed like ballet dancers. I told Karen I had to go to the woods, and staggered toward a stand of pine trees. I needed to pee, but before I could do so I retched and deposited a revolting yellow spew of beer and Twinkies on a pristine bed of needles. The painful dry heaves were next. I stumbled farther into the trees, peed, and slumped to the cold ground. In a few minutes, I walked unsteadily back to our blanket, firmly resolved to have no more beer that day and never again put a Twinkie in my mouth. Karen stroked my forehead as I lay back watching clouds move across the sky, but the trees were no longer dancing.
Shadows from the trees crept over our blanket as Tim organized an expedition into the woods to gather small sticks for kindling and some dead logs for light, heat, and embers. With the help of paper napkins one of the girls brought, the sticks caught and soon the logs were crackling. I sipped Coca-Cola from a white cup as if I were still drinking Gam.
Tommy Powell said, “Great food. Who made the barbecue? Best I’ve ever put in my mouth.”
“I picked it up from Old Texan’s near campus,” said one of the students.
As he spooned more beans on his plate, Tim said, “Who made these fantastic baked beans?”
Silence. More silence. “Maybe they left already?”
“And leave this big baking dish? Nah,” said Tim as he stood with a spoonful of beans over his plate. A grin slowly spread across his face, then he laughed, and had difficulty stopping long enough to say, “We didn’t mean to, but we must have picked up those God-damned Methodists’ beans.” Everyone was laughing. Some people rolled on their blankets.
“Serves the self-righteous bastards right,” said Tim. “Let them have Shelter No. 5. We got their fucking beans. Laughter rippled through the group.
The sun slipped behind the trees unspectacularly, and the reservoir faded to a steel gray. The lights of fishermen’s rowboats flickered on the ruffled surface. Venus showed her point of light , shyly at first, in the eastern sky. The songs became slower and softer. The student quarterback loosened his ponytail and led everyone in Carmen Ohio, OSU’s lugubrious anthem. Tim followed with Eldeweis. Then someone picked up the pace with “The Hills are alive…” We were certainly not in tune like the von Trapp family or Julie Andrews, but no one cared by then.
Later the water was inky black and the opposite shore was equally dark. The blackness was no longer pricked with lights from fishing boats. Venus shone proudly. A half moon was rising.
One group stood, gathered their leftovers, coolers, and put their blanket over their shoulders, tossed out a general farewell, and headed to the cars. Soon everyone was on their feet except Dick who Katie had difficulty rousing from a deep sleep. “Good night, everyone,” said Tim. If anyone ever asks, you’ve been to a real, live Bull-bitch-tomma-wallager.” A small cheer rose with a smattering of applause.
Joey tossed me his keys, and said, “You’re driving. Take the long way home on County Road 17. You’re OK to drive?”
“Yeah, I haven’t had a beer since we ate,” I replied. Joey smiled broadly as he opened the back door for Linda. Karen slid into the front seat. I patted the seat next to me, and she slid over close, but not snuggled up to me as I had wished. I put the Mercury in drive and maneuvered onto the deserted two-lane road. The dual mufflers emitted a soft growl as we reached the speed limit.
There was only silence from the back seat. An occasional moan and rustle of clothing. To shift our attention, I awkwardly asked Karen if she noticed the plexiglass moon roof over the front seat. She hadn’t, looked up, and exclaimed loudly, “You really can see the moon.”
“Not every night, “ I said with a raised eyebrow, “But it’s pretty cool.”
I gently placed my right hand on Karen’s thigh, kept my eyes on the road, and waited. She turned her head, leaned toward me, but didn’t kiss me as i hoped she would. Instead she whispered, “I like you, but this is only our second date. OK?”
Before I could respond, a red light suffused our car for a moment and returned half a second later. “Oh shit, damn cops,” I said. Karen slid across the seat, and Joey and Linda were sitting up and their heads were silhouetted each time the red light spun past. I eased to a stop on the shoulder of the road.
“Were you speeding?” Joey asked.
“Hell, no! Cruising at 45. Speed limit’s 50 here. I don’t know why he pulled us over,” I said.
“Driver’s License and vehicle registration, please,” said the sheriff’s deputy in a deep voice from beneath a Smokey the Bear hat. His silver badge glistened menacingly on his brown shirt.
I fished my license from my wallet and Karen passed him the registration Joey had told her was in the glove compartment.
“Please, look directly into the light,’”said the deputy turning his long flashlight on my face. For several seconds I saw nothing but the blue-white light. He clicked off the long flashlight and holstered it on his belt as I blinked and squinted.
“Please step out of the car. Have you consumed any alcoholic beverages tonight?”
“Not tonight, sir,” I said truthfully. It flashed through my mind that we were in a “dry” county where county commissioners called alcohol a “tool of the devil” and railed against “demon drink.” I pictured myself using my one permitted call to awake and panic Mom. Then pacing back and forth in a tiny jail cell.
No cars had passed us, and none were in sight at this late hour. The deputy motioned for me to stand up straight with my feet together on the yellow line in the middle of the dark highway. I hoped a car would not come roaring around the bend.
“Spread your arms out,” he said, pantomiming for me. “Now touch your nose with the index finger of your right hand. Then the left hand. Now the top of your head. After I did this, he said “Walk the yellow line,” again pantomiming. After a few steps, one foot in front of other, he held up his hand, and said, “OK, you can go. It’s time for you youngsters to be home in bed.” He handed me my license and Joey’s registration.
After we continued slowly down the road, Joey said, “Jesus, it’s good you were’t drinking tonight, Mike. He would have taken you to the county jail.”
“You’re right. That’s why I am always careful about not drinking too much.”
When I pushed open our front door of our house, Mom stared at me wide-eyed from the couch, and said, “I must have fallen asleep. How was your picnic?”
“Nothing special. Just a picnic.”