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My mom and dad grew up around moonshine whiskey and home-brewed beer in Oklahoma, a dry state at the time. Liquor may have been illegal, but of course there was still plenty of it sloshing around. In fact, in one of my first memories —I can see it clearly even now, seventy-five years later— I was sitting with my sister in the backseat of our 1939 Nash Ambassador while my dad drove down a dirt road looking for a moonshiner he had heard about.
That kind of environment, unhappily, produces more than its share of problem drinkers, among whom I count most members of my family, aunts and uncles included.
And that meant that almost every holiday, all the Okie Forresters who had immigrated to California, my mom and dad, both sets of aunts and uncles, and one set of grandparents, came together, ostensibly to celebrate the holiday, but mainly to drink. My sister and I would lie awake in our bedroom listening to the sounds coming from the living room and kitchen. As the night went on, the sounds grew louder, sometimes erupting in arguments and occasionally punctuated by a crash of a lamp or drinking glass.
That heavy drinking also caused an occasional physical fight. I remember my dad and my grandad, both drunk with fists flailing away, fighting on our small back porch in downtown Los Angeles. They were going at it so hard that they shattered the banister as they fought their way down the stairs. An all-out fight among adults is a scary thing for a kid to watch.
I also remember a fight between my mom and dad on Christmas morning around 1944, the culmination of Christmas Eve binge drinking that lasted until dawn. Most holidays were ruined for me because my family drank too much.
Mom was so sensitive to alcohol that she slurred her words after her first drink of whiskey or after a single can of beer. God, I hated that. I usually sulked when she was like that, and I was embarrassed when it occurred in front of my friends. It was much later, after I had left our house in LA for good, that I realized that mom was an alcoholic.
Despite my family’s drinking problems, my sister and I were well cared for. My mom made sure that we had clean clothes and a hot meal on the table each evening. Mom was more than her alcoholism. She loved to read and do crossword puzzles, and she was a great letter writer with an elegant hand. (I have a handwriting award she won in the 8th grade, framed and on my wall.) My dad was a heavy drinker, but he could also hold his liquor, and he showed up for work in the oil fields every fricken day.
I once worked as bartender in a dive bar in Springfield, Oregon. You ever see a drunk fight a sober guy? It was almost always the sober guy who would land a solid blow, with a bare fist of course, to the face of the windmilling drunk. That solid blow sometimes broke teeth and occasionally even shattered the drunk’s jaw. Because of my family background, I almost always rooted for the sober guy. Besides, the drunken lout usually started the fight. (I had a small bat under the counter that I was supposed to use to break up really violent fights, but I never used it. Darned if I was going to get in the middle of a bar fight between a couple of drunks. Besides, I’ve seen two brawlers turn on a peacemaker.)
After my mom died, my dad — drunk, lonely and maudlin — used to call me late at night. By this time I was a grown man, a professor in Kentucky. I may have sympathized with dad, but I still hated those calls.
I’ve read that liquor has caused more divorces, homelessness, infidelity, fights, and fatal car crashes— more mischief and heartache — than all the weed and hard drugs combined. Cops know that domestic disturbance calls almost always involve liquor.
Drunks think they’re entertaining and witty. They’re not. They’re stupid and crass, and I avoid them when I can.
When I came across the following passage in Isaiah, I knew the prophet was a man of my own heart. Listen to Isaiah rant about the evils of drunkenness:
Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine. They have their harps and lyres at their banquets, tambourines and flutes and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of the Lord . . . . Therefore the grave is hungry and opens its mouth to receive them. Into it will descend . . . all their brawlers and revelers. (Isaiah 5: 11–14)
Isaiah may go a bit too far for me. Even I don’t really wish an early grave on drunken “brawlers and revelers.” At least I don’t think I do.
Postscript: In rereading this, I may have given the impression that my family was drunk most of the time. That’s not true at all. Outside of an occasional bender by my dad and mom’s slow descent into alcoholism, most of the heavy drinking occurred on arranged weekends and holidays.Published in