Drinking With Grandpa
In 1972, two days after my eighteenth birthday, I went north from Florida to New England to visit my grandparents in Riverside, Rhode Island. It was in mid-June and hot. I had returned from Europe a few months earlier with what would eventually become a drinking problem all my own. Being young and fresh — I still believed in the myth of the bawdy, jolly, lusty sailor who drank and romanced women, port to harbor, with endearing abandon. My father drank. My father’s father drank, and though I knew grandpa George was in ill-heath because of a fifty-year tobacco habit, I looked forward to tipping a few with him at the Riverside Social Club, a private bar where the old salts would juice quietly whenever the stress of aging became too overwhelming. My father, George Jr.; (whom they called Sonny) was dead by that time. He had been killed in an airplane accident a year earlier. Grandpa still mourned his only son. Drinking was a male rite of passage that Grandpa understood. We were sitting at the kitchen table. I finished off a slice of my auntie’s blueberry pie, and handed the old salt his favorite cap (the one with the Navy anchor).
“Grandpa, I’m eighteen now- and I’m old enough to drink. Let’s go to the club.”
My grandfather, who was hooked up to an oxygen tank and unable to smoke his beloved pipe, seemed to consider the idea fondly by arching his eyebrows and chuckling a bit. I think he not only liked my audacity, but welcomed it.
“Just like Sonny .”
He could barely walk then. I remember half carrying my grandpa down the hill through narrow streets, his lungs wheezing from the emphysema in the early afternoon heat.
The sign read ‘Riverside Sportsman Club- Private- Members only’. I remember thinking that Rhode Island working class architecture was not much to get excited about. Everything seemed small and cramped compared to the southern architecture I’d grown up with. The interior was stark. No windows. Fluorescent neon lights were placed above the Formica bar in a dry attempt at decoration. Old Glory hung above the mirror, faded and dusty. There were blue chipped stools for seating. For ambience — bathed in the pink glow of a Budweiser sign — were some girly calendars from the 1940’s. Beefy women wearing bikinis. Holding tools.
The six old Vets sat drinking at the bar in the middle of the afternoon. They all looked up as I, a baby-faced hippie kid with long hair halfway down to my ass, walked in with my grandpa. One of them let go the zinger;
“She’s a little young fer ya , ain’t she George”?
My Grandpa laughed with them and looked at me in masked amusement. I gamely smiled back. Yankee salt-geezers, I thought.
“Naw, he’s Sonny’s boy… just up fer his first beer with the grown men”. He coughed as I helped him to the barstool .
“You sayin’ he’s a full eighteen then, George?” asked Kenny the barkeep, looking me over with suspicion. I produced I.D.
“Flarida, eh”? he remarked as he handed me back my card. I loved the Yankee accent.
Grandpa was quiet as he sipped his beer. After his third Budweiser , he gargled;
“Y’oughta be signed up, kid.”
“Fer the service, kid, if yeer eighteen, y’oughta be signed up fer the service.”
The effects of all the beer made me bold enough to sass him back.
“So I gotta go to Viet Nam to serve my country?”
“Hell, yes boy- Y’go where yer country sends yah. “Y’do yer duty!” barked Kenny the barkeep, polishing glass. My grandfather’s coughing kept him from being able to speak. He nodded an affirmative and pointed at the flag.
“Isn’t that why all you guys fought WW2? –so I wouldn’t know what war was like? Right Grandpa? Didn’t you guys suffer the war so dumb-ass kids like me would never know? Wasn’t that the idea?”
Grandpa George looked up at me from his bar stool. The others in the bar grew silent. One old Vet rose slowly to leave. It wasn’t until he stepped into the full light and faced me that I noticed his left sleeve was pinned at the shoulder. He smiled down at me.
“He’s gotta point they-uh, George.” He pat Grandpa’s shoulder. “He’s got Sonny’s head on ’im”.
He’s Sonny’s boy alright.