My wife Ellen and I just returned from a two week adventure in India. We planned the trip for months, and although Ellen tried to warn me about bringing warm clothes, I thought we were going into a summer climate, and I arrived unprepared. We didn’t realize most of the places we booked had neither heat nor hot water. These were not primitive villages; they were hotels and AirBBs that had solid positive reviews. We were cold for two weeks, and we both got quite ill, luckily, not at the same time.
I was the one who got sick first (high fever, coughing, no energy, zero appetite), and the father of the owner at one of the places we stayed was a physician, and this wonderful man made a house call, and with the right drugs, got me out of bed and relatively well in a hurry. We continued on our adventures across Rajasthan, and although we were cold most of the time, we still had a good time.
And then Ellen noticed that her hands were turning blue. We had a tablet computer with us, and she looked up her symptoms, and found her condition is called “peripheral cyanosis.” It’s usually caused by low oxygen levels in the red blood cells or problems getting oxygenated blood to your body. It’s also caused by low temperatures narrowing the blood vessels, restricting blood flow to the hands and feet. Our casual research convinced us that when she warmed up, she would be fine.
But then she got what I had, and we stupidly didn’t get her medical care, still hoping to get warm. By the time we were ready to fly home, she was in such bad shape that the people at the airport wouldn’t let her board the plane and sent her to the airport doctor instead. He tried to take her blood pressure, but it was so low he couldn’t get a reading, and immediately dispatched us to a hospital emergency room.
The triage process involved many questions about her recent health, and one of the most significant was, “how long have her hands been blue?”
Our answer, “three or four days,” caused some concern, and the emergency room staff seemed pretty upset at us for not getting her to a hospital sooner. They worked on her for several hours, filling her with IV fluid, inhaled medicines, and some pills. She was returning to the land of the living, but the doctors were still very concerned about her circulation. There was a greenish tint to her skin, as well as the blue hands.
I was genuinely scared, wondering how I was ever going to get her home (dead or alive). Another couple hours went by, and a new doctor came by her bed, with a bottle of alcohol and a piece of cotton. He began rubbing her hands, which suddenly began turning pink again. And the cotton turned blue.
Somehow, Ellen had rubbed her hands on some poorly dyed fabric, and induced the identical symptoms as shown on the medical web site. And several doctors had thought it was the same thing we did.
Another few hours went by, wonderful nurses and doctors got her up on her feet, we paid the hospital bill, and they released her to fly home, with an official “fit to fly” message on her hospital forms so the airport people would get us back in the air.
The story is long, but not as long as the trip home, where we arrived after 62 hours of travel. I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned here; I think it has something to do with self-diagnosis, or permanent fabric dye. Our joy at being home is only exceeded by our humble gratitude for the help we received by the gracious doctors and the British Airways team at the Delhi airport.
This is the Andromeda Galaxy in the constellation Andromeda. Andromeda is about 10 billion years old, and it’s around 220,000 light years across. It has at least twice as many stars as The Milky Way’s 200 to 400 billion. It is thought that the flat, spiral shape of Andromeda resembles our own galaxy. Andromeda is the nearest galaxy to The Milky Way. By nearest, I mean it is “only” 2.54 million light years away! It’s so close that some astronomers think that sometime in the distant future, about 4.5 billion years, these two galaxies will merge and become one.
I like this photo a lot, not only because I shot it myself, but because it shows how dense are the billions of stars in our own galaxy. There are many prettier photos of Andromeda. Here’s one, shot by Randy Flynn, proprietor of the Squirrel Valley Observatory, one of my friends from the Astronomy Club of Asheville.
Andromeda has another name, “M31,” or “Messier 31,” a shorthand designation used by astronomers. The Messier catalog contains 110 objects. In the middle of the 18th century, a French astronomer named Charles Messier began a life-long search for comets. He would eventually discover 15 of them. In order to keep his comets separate from other objects he discovered, he began keeping a journal of his sightings, and other astronomers found it so accurate, it’s still in use after all these years, even though many more galaxies and other objects have been discovered.
That’s another galaxy, just below Andromeda, called Messier 110, a dwarf elliptical galaxy, a satellite of the Andromeda galaxy. Some people can see Andromeda with just their eyes, but I’ve never seen it. I imagine our ancestors, before there was so much light pollution and the air was cleaner, were able to spot it regularly. Around the year 964, the Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi described the Andromeda Galaxy, in his Book of Fixed Stars as a “nebulous smear.”
I’ve been using a wide angle lens to shoot long exposures of the night sky, and Andromeda shows up constantly. I never get tired of seeing this wondrous neighbor. When you look at these photos, remember that every star you see, even with telescopes, is part of the Milky Way, and there are billions and billions of galaxies in the universe. When I think about the vastness of what I see in my photos, the distances, the time, the quantities, I’m unable to comprehend it all. I like that the astronomers estimate so wildly. Although they know a lot more than I do, there is still so much to learn.
What is the scientific name for our galaxy, “The Milky Way?” It’s a translation from the Latin “Via Lactea” which is derived from the Greek word “Kiklios Galaxios” which means milky circle. It has no scientific name.
I live near the Blue Ridge Parkway, and there are spots along the Parkway that are dark enough to see the band of stars, and the darker areas of interstellar dust. I wonder what it was like for our ancestors before there were lights.
This band of stars we call The Milky Way is the concentrated edge-on view we see from Earth, but it is not the whole picture. Every star we can see, every single one, is within our own galaxy, and there are hundreds of billions of galaxies beyond The Milky Way.
Astronomical distances are measured in “light years.” A light year is the distance light travels in one year. The closest star to Earth, among all these billions of stars, is Proxima Centauri, about 4.22 light years from Earth. Proxima Centauri is too dim to see without a telescope, but if we could look at this “close” star, we would be seeing light that left Proxima Centauri over four years ago.
So how far away is it, really? Let’s look at some simple numbers. You’ve heard of “the speed of light.” What does it mean? Light travels at 186,282 miles in one second. So in a minute, which is 60 seconds, light travels over 11 million miles. How far does light go in an hour? We’re real familiar with the term, “miles per hour.” Light goes about 671 million miles in an hour. How many hours are in a year? There are 8,766 hours in a year, so you can see that a “light year” is 671 million miles times 8,766 hours, or 5,878,451,895,552 miles per year.
If you multiply that number by 4, you get a rough idea of how far away our closest star neighbor is.
Are you getting confused? You’re not alone, and you probably won’t find a calculator that can handle numbers this large, so scientists and mathematicians use a shorthand way of working with numbers this large, called “scientific notation.” It looks something like this: 5.878451895552 × 1012, or to round it off, 5.9 × 1012
Did you see what happened? We were looking at a pretty photograph, amazed by how many stars there are, astonished by how far away they are, and suddenly, we’re in the middle of a big math problem.
I think this is a common experience and it’s a challenge to maintain the awe and wonder as we quietly embrace the night sky. I often imagine our mathematically ignorant ancestors being overwhelmed by what they saw, craving to make sense of the universe, inventing sky gods to help make sense of it all.
I believe it is useful, sometimes, to not try so hard to figure it out, to not think of how to portray the distances in scientific terms, to forget about F-stops and apertures and exposure times, and just look up and enjoy.
I started searching for a place to see the eclipse well over a year ago. I used Google maps and picked out a couple spots in Tennessee.
I joined the Astronomy Club and met people who knew more about the solar eclipse than I did, and learned there were many places closer to home than Tennessee.
When I first told Ellen, my wife, about it, she said, “I don’t want to spent three hours in a car to see something that lasts two minutes.”
I answered, “I’ve been looking forward to this my whole life, and I’d like to share it with you.”
So I found a place I thought she would like, while we waited for the eclipse to start. I wanted to go somewhere we would enjoy in case the weather didn’t cooperate. We decided to go to the waterlily farm near Franklin we’d been to before, not on the center line, but close enough.
As the eclipse day got closer, people I knew started asking, “where are you going for the eclipse?”
I wanted to keep my special spot a secret. One night I was out on the Blue Ridge Parkway with a guy from the Astronomy Club. We were looking at Saturn through his telescope, and he said, “where are you going for the eclipse?”
Rats. I didn’t want to say. I vaguely answered, “somewhere near Franklin.” It turned out he was going to nearly the same place, and he invited us to join him at his furniture factory near the Franklin airport. He was only inviting a few people and I was one of the lucky ones. Now I had “Plan B.” It was close to the lily farm and we could go there afterward.
The day before the eclipse some close friends asked me where we were going, and soon they had invited themselves to come along. I tried to say no, but couldn’t. I didn’t know how my astronomy club friend was going to take this – he had only invited the two of us. What if I brought more people? What if everybody did?
And then, late that night – it was after 10 o’clock – the night before the eclipse, there it was: my friend who had invited himself and his wife to come along, called. He said his college roommate was in town and wanted to come along too. And his wife. And their two kids.
I just about freaked out. This was not unexpected, but it was also not going to happen. I had to say “no.” But before I had a chance, he said he had a friend with a honey farm, even closer to the center line, a private place with a large field with perfect views – if we could change our plans we could all go there.
So I checked the map online, saw it was a good spot, and agreed, we would all meet there.
On eclipse day, I got up very early, before 3 AM, too excited, too nervous, to sleep. I wrote a short note to my astronomy buddy, thanking him for his offer, and telling him we’d changed our plans.
Ellen packed the cooler with a huge lunch she had prepared the night before and we left the house a little before seven that morning. The traffic was surprisingly light. I was still nervous, but the sun was rising in a clear blue sky.
The ride was fast and easy, but I couldn’t find the farm. We got help on the phone from the owner, who guided us right to our destination. Of course I had missed it, I had driven right past it several times, looking for the big, open, field. We were sitting in front of a honey store on a busy highway, telephone poles and wires strung around not a field, but a parking lot! I was heartbroken.
Obviously, we had to find a different location and we followed our friends to a parking lot on a lake, a parking lot for cars with boat trailers! After a year of planning, here we were, just a couple hours before the eclipse, and people who had no idea where they were going were leading us!
I told Ellen, “if this gets screwed up, I’m going to be pissed off for ten years!”
We soon found a parking lot at a Forest Service ranger station, and pulled in. Happily, I saw a woman with a tripod set up on the sidewalk in front of her car. Good! A fellow photographer. I walked right up to her and said, “how is it?”
Somehow, she knew exactly what I meant, and said she had asked inside and they told her she could stay there. We had a clear view of the sky where I imagined the sun would be in a few hours. Relieved, I took out my tripod and set it up near her, but far enough away that I knew I wouldn’t obstruct her view. I expected the place to fill up like a New Jersey beach on a summer weekend, and I wanted to stake my claim early.
I talked to the lady, and I found out she was from Germany. This wasn’t her first eclipse – she had seen one in Munich in 1999. She asked me to take a couple pictures of her and her rig, a professional 400 mm lens on a full frame SLR.
The place was ideal – some shady areas, a clear view, perfect weather, and last, but not least, bathrooms! With running water! I was set, and somewhat relieved. I got a folding chair out of the car and set it near the tripod.
Our friends had gone into the ranger station and found an even better place. We stayed where we were. Perfect was good enough for me. So they left. And we waited. And the sun was broiling hot. We sat in the shade and ate lunch, and the German lady sat in her car. And it was quiet, and the parking lot was still nearly empty!
While we waited, I migrated between the shady spot near the car and the folding chair. My binoculars had solar filters so every few minutes I checked on the sun, waiting to see that first glimpse of the moon on the edge. The only sounds were the distant traffic and the air conditioner running at the ranger station.
And then the magic began. There it was, the curve of the moon, slowly moving across the sun! Two park rangers approached and since there were so few of us there, they invited us to a special spot behind the building, a helicopter pad with clear views of the horizon, as well as the sky. I hadn’t come this far, gotten this close, to pick up and move. Perfect was still good enough for me. Everybody left except the German lady and me.
The light began getting dim, taking on a strange golden green color. The air cooled, a welcome relief. It got so quiet! All the cars and trucks and motorcycles were at their destinations, only a few minutes to go before totality. Probably because of the temperature drop, even the distant air conditioner at the ranger station cut off and I was suddenly aware of the deepest silence I had ever heard outdoors in the daytime. I watched the sun getting smaller, smaller, smaller, then…
OH MY GOD. The moon looked like a dilated pupil surrounded by the wispy, white corona, like the smooth feathery water you see in long exposure waterfall photos. The color of the sky behind it was the most beautiful silvery blue, and there was Venus, visible in the middle of the afternoon! And I knew, as long as I lived, my life was going to be divided between all that went before this very moment and all that came after.
And then it was over. I kept watching, as the process was reversed, the sun emerging from behind the moon, first as a very thin, bright orange line, then turning into a crescent, and then the sunspots reappearing, and the light getting brighter, and the temperature rising, and the people coming back from the helicopter pad, getting in their cars and leaving, and the traffic beginning already, the total silence broken, the magic over.
That night, after the long drive home, Ellen asked if I knew where Mazatlán was. I didn’t. She said, “it’s on the west coast of Mexico. It’s on the center line in 2024.”
It was 50 years ago. The “Summer of Love,” the Hippies, Timothy Leary, Meditation, The Beatles. I put on a white shirt, a silk tie, and drove my sports car to downtown Miami and began my career in advertising, taking Business Administration classes at night.
Society was falling apart. The grown-ups relied on the TV news and LIFE magazine to tell them what their kids knew first-hand about marijuana, LSD, mescaline, mushrooms. It was called “The Generation Gap.”
Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, and Timothy Leary were my guides. I quit that job, dropped out of school and moved to California, to do my own research. I was a scientist, and my brain was my laboratory. Then I had a “bad trip,” and decided I had walked through The Doors of Perception one too many times.
I got married, had a kid, moved back to Miami and finished college. When I graduated, once again I put on the white shirt, the silk tie and joined the work force. Not in advertising this time, but in computers. I paid my dues at entry level jobs, had another kid, then I got my break, a supervisor position at double my pay, at a grocery distributor in North Florida. Horse country. Barbed wire fences. Rednecks.
To get the job, I had to pass a lie detector test.
I showed up early, which gave me time to use my “yogi powers” to relax. Soon, a man showed up carrying a black suitcase and led me to a dim room lined with dark brown paneling, an empty desk and two chairs. Francis X. Brennan was a retired cop and said he’d been doing this for thirty years.
He put the suitcase on the desk and opened it, politely showing me the parts of the machine that measured changes in blood pressure, breathing rate, and skin response. There was a roll of graph paper, a blood pressure cuff, a long spring wrapped in black plastic to go around my chest, and a couple little gizmos that went over the fingertips. He said the machine can tell the difference between nervousness about taking the test and an out and out lie.
He didn’t hook me up yet, we just talked. When he got to the drugs question, I told him I had tried marijuana, and then he lumped a bunch of other drugs into the same bucket – heroin, LSD, cocaine, mescaline – all the same to this guy. Sitting there in my coat and tie, it was obvious I had nothing to do with hard drugs. By the time we were finished, we were just two guys stuck in this forced situation; I had completely stopped thinking of him as a threat.
He wired me up and turned on the machine. He stood behind me, and the machine was behind me too. I felt like I was strapped into an electric chair. I concentrated on the doorknob across the room, centering on that round point of meditation. He pumped up the blood pressure cuff, asked me my name and told me to give him the wrong answer. The machine whirred and I could hear the little ink needles scratching on the graph paper. I kept my eyes and my mind focused on the doorknob. Then the voice behind me began the questions.
“Are you holding back information about your name or any aliases you have used?”
“No.” Whirr, click.
“Are you holding back information about your marital status?”
“No.” Whirr, click.
“Are you holding back information about your medical history?”
“No.” Whirr, click.
“Are you holding back information about your involvement in any criminal activity?”
“No.” Whirr, click.
“Are you holding back information about your drinking habits?”
“No.” Whirr, click.
“Are you holding back information about your use of narcotics, pills, or drugs?”
“No.” Whirr, click.
“Are you holding back information about your plans to leave in the near future if you are hired?”
“No.” BOING! ZAP!
“Are you holding back information about any thefts from former employers?”
“No.” Whirr, click.
Again he asked me, “Are you holding back information about your plans to leave in the near future if you are hired?”
“No.” BOING! ZAP! (Again!)
It was the only question about the future – all the rest were about my past. But I had fooled the machine! It went nuts on what I thought was the least important question he had asked me. As he was unhooking me, I told him I was nervous about having to quit my current job, and he said that had probably done it.
He packed everything up and sent me out to the lobby to wait for the personnel manager. I took the same chair I had been sitting in before the test. I figured they would never hire me if they thought I would quit in a few months. I got up to look around, and I found the rest rooms. The water in the toilets was weird; it was white as milk. I went back to my seat and then an older man with a crew-cut and vomit-green pants, a white short-sleeved shirt and a tie came in and called my name. We walked back to his office and he introduced himself.
Don Burt reminded me of Elmer Fudd from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons and as soon as he began talking, I knew I didn’t like him. Looking at the report, he said, “I’ll come right to the point. The only problem on your polygraph test here is the ‘Mary J.’” I smiled at his use of the quaint expression. I was thrilled I had beaten the test, but it wasn’t time to celebrate, not yet; I still had to deal with Elmer Fudd.
He called it “mary-jew-wah-nah.” He really said it just like that, and he asked me if I would want my daughter doing something like that. “Well,” I thought, “only if she shared it with me…” but I didn’t say it, this was no time to be a smart-ass.
“What was it, peer pressure?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered, “it must have been peer pressure… I was at a party, and my friend told me I should try it, so I did, but I didn’t like it. I’m not friends with him anymore.” Wait till I tell Bill about this, I thought to myself.
He told me he was going to break the rules and hire me, but only if I agreed to a future lie detector test to be sure the drug hadn’t “reared its ugly head.”
Both of my kids live in Seattle, where “mary-jew-wah-nah” is legal. I visited them last year, and we drove past a pot store, where we saw office workers in silk ties and white shirts standing in line to openly buy it, no peer-pressure necessary. Now I see in the news, engineers in Silicon Valley are using “micro-doses” of LSD to improve their concentration and productivity at work. And clinical tests are underway to help PTSD patients.
I think about Don Burt, who by now must be very old. I found him on the internet. He lives on a rural street near Tampa, Florida. It looks like a normal house from the outside, but inside, watching the news, reading the papers, I imagine he lives in a world gone mad. Think how much fun it would be to send him a letter. What would I say?
One of the joys of retirement is having the time to read. My reading list is infinite; I’ll never catch up. So I try to be selective, and not spend too much time reading popular fiction, although I have recently read some Stephen King and Pat Conroy, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
I set out a while ago to catch up on classics, the first of which was Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. It had been assigned reading in ninth grade, and the language stumped me then. I resorted to Cliff’s Notes to pass the exam. I think this book is often assigned in the middle grades only because the protagonist is a teenage boy. Many parts of this book were incomprehensible to me a half century ago; I had no context to understand. And they would be meaningless even today, had I not experienced a sour marriage, traveled to Europe several times, and met many colorful characters over the decades since ninth grade.
Remembering that one of my favorite books of my life was The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham, I decided to read his earlier classic, Of Human Bondage. Despite its heavy sounding title, it’s not about world history or slavery, has nothing to do with empires or downtrodden races. It’s a story about one man’s enslavement by his passions, his religious upbringing, his insecurities. At first, I had a hard time with it, and found it so tedious I almost gave up. I don’t have time to waste on something that’s not enjoyable. As I had in the past, I went to Amazon one-star reviews, to see what others thought of it.
Unlike three of my recent attempts, Magister Ludi by Hermann Hesse, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, and The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt, all of which had thoughtful, carefully written negative reviews which agreed with my assessment of the novels I felt were wasting my time, the bad reviews of Maugham’s book were not convincing – they were weak, and many readers had left negative reviews without finishing the book. It was the comments refuting these reviews that convinced me there was value in continuing, and so I did.
As I read, I found my mind wandering, and sometimes would even fall asleep after just a few pages. But I persevered and soon the book got much more interesting and I found myself unable to put it down.
As I neared the end, I thought about all the quotes and all the new words I had come across, lamenting the fact that I hadn’t taken notes during this great adventure. When the thoroughly enjoyable experience ended, I was thankful that I had continued, but was curious why the journey had been so difficult in the beginning, and from reading those reviews, I knew I was not alone.
It was the language, especially the vocabulary Maugham used. Describing a character, rather than calling him lazy, he would say he was “languorous,” or someone who didn’t speak much was “taciturn.” If his character were sad, she was “lachrymose.” I figured out why my mind wandered as I read – every time I ran across a word I didn’t know, wanting to move on with the story, I divined the meaning from the context, and left it at that, but sometimes it would shoot my mind off to a tangent. When I realized my eyes were reading, but not my brain, I had to backtrack.
When I finished the book, there were so many times I had thought, “what a great quote,” or “what a great new word,” I decided to read the book again, in spite of the growing stack of books on my “to-be-read” shelf. My mission: write down every single word I didn’t know, look up the definition and write it down, then re-read the paragraph containing the word. I was surprised to find not only a huge number of words I had skipped over, but the second time around, I found the early parts of the story every bit as compelling as the later pages. I was also happily surprised that knowing the ending in advance didn’t diminish my enjoyment at all.
Although this second reading was a far richer experience than the first, I sometimes felt that Maugham was using absurdly obscure words instead of pacing the story for the enjoyment of his readers. For example, he uses the word “halcyon,” but not the widely known definition. Maugham’s halcyon refers to a type of kingfisher bird, and making his point, he goes into some detail about the legend of the halcyon. His vast knowledge of art, history, geography, philosophy, medicine, fashion, business, religion, architecture, food, and human emotions was encyclopedic, and although it is a novel, it could be used as a jumping-off point for a lifetime of trekking through obscure tangents.
Now I have a list of vocabulary words, with definitions, none of which I ever use in speech, or writing, and I wonder if I ever will. This self-imposed task may seem like an arduous assignment from a sadistic college-prep English teacher, but it sure made the second reading rewarding, and I’m glad I had the time to devote to this project.
My readers (all three of you) may think I’m a dunce for needing to look them up, but I’ve listed all 137 words at the end of this little blog entry so you can see for yourself if you know them. I don’t know why Maugham chose them in lieu of more conventional, well-known words; perhaps they carry a nuance of language that their more often used synonyms fail to deliver. Maybe these were in common use a hundred years ago when he wrote the book.
In this age of instant communication, bombardment with noise from all sides, all day, every day, it is a pleasant diversion, a relief, to dive into the language of more than a century ago, to take it slow, and be thoroughly immersed in some quiet time.
Just a note, I alphabetized the list, just to make it more pleasing to the eye. The original list, in order of appearance, reveals some interesting patterns. Sometimes many of these words appear in clumps, several scattered across just a few pages, other times I was able to cruise through 40 or more pages without any speed bumps. I feel this provides some insight into the mind of the author, as though there were days when he felt especially pedantic; other days he just wanted to get on with the story.
You can reply in the comments if you’d like to see the non-alphabetized version.
Here’s the list. The definitions I’ve chosen match the context from the book. Every word is a link you can click to reveal the best online definition I could find.
The 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee was close enough to St. Louis that my friend, Bread and I decided to drive there with our families. We both had children about the same age, one boy and one girl each.
Bread rented a chalet in the Smoky Mountains, and we set out before dawn in two cars. Driving all day, when we got to Gatlinburg we stopped at a convenience store and we saw a display of blue and white World’s Fair beer, so we bought three six packs, two for souvenirs and one to drink. The man in the store told us the blue cans were the second color, the red cans had sold out and collectors were buying as many of the blue cans as they could.
The fair was disappointing; long lines, oppressively hot, and the rides were expensive. We were only there one day. We spent the rest of the time horseback riding and having fun with the kids in Gatlinburg. By the time we left, the next ones, the green cans, had come out. We each bought a case to take home.
We both wished we had some red ones, and stopped at several stores, but all we could find were green. Beer can collecting was popular then, and the sold out colors were sure to gain in value. Our families split up; we left, but they stayed a day or two longer in a motel. On the way home, I figured I might be able to find some left-over red ones in an out of the way store that tourists were unlikely to visit. I took the back roads, and my hunch turned out correct; at a lonely, isolated little place somewhere in the middle of Tennessee, there it was, a stack of RED World’s Fair beer.
My family and all our stuff was crammed into my little Honda Civic hatchback, and the beer was already scrunching the kids in the small back seat, so I couldn’t buy enough for my friend, but there was a pay phone in the parking lot, and I called his motel and left him a message, a long, cryptic description of where this treasure could be found, if his wife would let him drive so far out of the way to get it.
The fair ran all the way to the end of October, and every three weeks, they issued a new color. Over that summer, six million cans were sold. I wanted a full set of all nine colors, and every time someone from the office went to the fair, I gave them money to bring me back a case. My logic went, the only people who could collect a full set of all the colors were people who lived near Knoxville, so a full set would be very valuable.
By the end of the fair, I had amassed 210 cans of beer, eighteen complete sets, with some spares. It was my kids’ college fund. I stacked them in the basement, unopened. Now, all I had to do was wait.
We moved in 1984, and the beer cans moved to a shelf in the garage, freezing and thawing through the seasons until we moved again in 1990, this time to Charlotte, where they lived in another garage until 2002, when I moved to Weaverville, and they ended up way in the back of a long, narrow closet.
Over the years they survived the thirsty eyes of exhausted carpenters at quitting time, they remained intact through not one, but two waves of teenagers, and all their friends. Somehow, they even missed being marked by several generations of cats. The flat cardboard trays warped and discolored, turned brittle, but the cans, still full, a bit dusty, but unwrinkled, unscratched, lived on. College came and went, but the beer stayed, tuition loans and grants replacing collectors’ premiums. Not even a divorce and a new wife could uproot my precious collection.
Like the Desert Storm trading cards and the historical newspapers and Life magazines they shared the closet with, they stayed out of sight over the years, but there comes a time when you stop accumulating, and start dispersing. The cans came out of the closet.
They’d been packed away before eBay made its appearance – heck, they went in before the internet, before PC computers, cell phones, laptops. We’re in the future now, and eBay is the ticket. Nobody online has all nine colors for sale!
So I went to YouTube and found out I needed to buy a scratch awl. In another era, this pointy tool was called an ice pick. I had to empty the cans before I could sell them. And this is when the fun began.
I thought I would do this job in the kitchen. I found out when I made the first, tentative hole, this wasn’t a great idea. As I wiped the beer off the cabinets and the ceiling, I decided this was an outside job. So I set up a table, got out a scrub brush to clean off 34 years of dust, and went to work.
Each can required two holes, so air could get in and displace the beer flowing out. Tapping gently with the ice pick, the first hole erupted just as it had in the kitchen, a golden geyser of fizzy old beer. Not tasting too great when it was fresh, it had not improved with age. How do I know this? Surely you don’t think I sampled it. It blew up all over my face, sprayed behind my glasses, got in my eyes, went up into my shirt sleeves, drenched my pants and my shoes, and I learned something else. Bees like the smell of beer! Undaunted, I carried on, turning each six-pack over, draining it while I punctured another 12 holes in the next one, brushing the bees away from my face. I took a break after each case to dry my glasses, my squishing shoes leaving a wet trail to the bathroom.
I’ve heard you can pour beer in the garden to keep slugs away. There won’t be slugs in this yard for 200 years. Bees, yes, but not slugs. By the end of the day I was drenched, but those cans are empty, and soon they’ll sell to the highest bidder, maybe in time to pay for the next generation’s college tuition.