Sunday of Memorial Day weekend meant just one thing to a five-year-old kid from southern Indiana…it was race day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As the first rays of sunlight stretched across the two-and-a-half mile oval, the center of the auto racing universe was intensely quiet – a stark contrast to the screams of thirty-three 500 horsepower engines and 325,000 exuberant fans that would roar through this cathedral in a few short hours.
At dawn on that Sunday in 1978 my father shook me awake and asked if I wanted to go to the race. Did I want to go to the race with my dad? There is no place on earth I would rather be! I was awake and dressed in an instant. For an Indiana kid, the Indy 500 was the pinnacle of existence.
As we walked under the grandstands while Dad led me to our seats, a fan with plenty of morning fortification flowing through him knocked over a full 16-ounce cup of golden refreshment. It rained down from the bleachers above us and showered me in sticky sweetness. Once I recovered from the cold shock of my morning beer bath and my father stopped shouting his displeasure at the underside of the aluminum bench and the careless ass that sat on it, I really did not mind. I liked the smell of beer. Even at age five, I enjoyed the memories it conjured. Beer made me think of my dad – and I would spend the next six hours baking in the sun in that sweet and bitter scent.
When the cars took the track, I could not believe my young and inexperienced eyes. There it was in red and white glory – an Indy car painted from nose to tail like a can of Budweiser. It was spectacular. I mean, Bud seemed to make my dad happy every weekend. The link between The King of Beers and good times was ingrained in my persona by age five, and now I had the chance to cheer for it as it screamed past me 200 times at nearly 200 miles an hour. Anheuser Busch would waste a lot of advertising dollars on me over the next four decades. I was hooked – and had not taken my first sip.
My father is the textbook example of a loving, hard-working and successful husband, father and now, grandfather. He is not perfect by upper middle-class American standards, but no one really is and he is pretty darn close. He worked hard until his retirement to provide everything my sister and I could ever need, as well as most things we wanted. Dad made a lot of time for us on the weekends and nurtured us with guidance, direction and, when necessary, enough authority to get us back on track.
I remember the sound of Dad’s reclining chair folding-up when my sister and I had crossed the line from a tolerable brother and sister skirmish to ridiculous sibling misbehavior. One Saturday when I was probably nine and my sister six, the two of us sat at the kitchen table eating sandwiches and crunching on Doritos from a large green Tupperware container. The selfish battle that day was over which way the open end of the Doritos distribution vessel should face as it lay on its side between us. I would point the opening toward me making it impossible for my little sister’s energetic hands to reach the chips. Joey would lunge at the container and point the opening toward her while simultaneously grabbing a handful of orange-cheese-dust-covered booty and stuffing it into her mouth. The enthusiasm of the plastic treasure chest repositioning accompanied by increasingly voluminous screams of, “No,”, “Mine,” and, “Stop it you pig!” apparently exceeded tolerable limitations in my father’s opinion. From the family room we heard his recliner fold-up with vigor. A couple of fanny swats later, we were left behind slammed doors to consider how we might make lunch a more pleasant experience the next time.
My father’s punishments were always like that – stern and unambiguous but never over the appropriate parenting line. It was the early 1980s. Corporal punishment was still practiced in the schools. You were considered a bad parent if you didn’t deliver the occasional keister spanking back then. I can’t remember a single time that he took his punishment too far, nor can I remember a time that he shirked his parenting responsibilities and let us get away with something we shouldn’t have. He wasn’t perfect, but he wasn’t far off.
My dad’s career required long hours, some extensive travel and relocation several times during my childhood. Each move was obviously a promotion both because of the impressive improvement in his job title and because the new house was always bigger and nicer than the previous one. My parents loved the suburbs and my dad was always willing to suffer a long drive to work to find their perfect mix of good schools, low crime, lots of church options and a street full of kids to befriend my sister and me. This was iconic late 20th century Americana at its best. My sister and I got good grades, learned reluctantly to play the upright piano in our living room, played sports and had lots of middle class suburban friends. Mom planned activities for us in the summer and had a large supply of clean clothes and yummy food ready for us at all times. By all accounts, our family was everything a kid could ever hope for. Sure, my dad missed some of our games and recitals because he worked late and traveled, but we understood and Mom was there each and every time. There was never any infidelity, financial struggle or lack of unconditional love. Maybe perfect is not too strong a word. My parents did a bang-up job.
Every weeknight, my dad would come home and greet the family warmly. After he changed out of his suit and tie, he would join my mother in the kitchen while she finished dinner preparations. Sometimes they would go through the bills neatly writing checks and sealing envelopes. Sometimes they would review report cards or sign permission slips. Often they would just chat about his work and her recap of kid events.
Always, each and every single night of my childhood and beyond, he would have two or so gin and tonics.
This ritual was so ingrained in my memory that I even remember Dad upgrading from Beefeater gin to Tanqueray. Just like our houses got bigger and fancier as his career advanced, so too did the social stature of his beverage of choice. On the weekends, he would quaff a few beers after mowing the lawn or completing a project around the house. There was a hops and barley upgrade, too. He went from drinking Budweiser when I was young to enjoying Michelob Light in my teen years. No one needed to tell me this was an elevation in beer status. He drank Buds from cans and Mich Light from bottles. Besides, Mich Light was my grandfather’s beer of choice, so it clearly meant my father had arrived when his paycheck allowed him to make the switch. Watching the condensation drip slowly down the shapely side of that cold brown bottle was an encapsulation of manhood for me.
Being a successful man and drinking increasingly sophisticated alcoholic beverages were inextricably linked in my mind. And so began what would eventually become a decades-long brain-warping, confidence-erasing and joy-crushing decent to the gates of hell for me. I did not need booze companies to spend billions of dollars on advertising – on 200-mile-per-hour billboards or otherwise – to connect a desirable lifestyle and drinking. My idol did it for them.