It was, let’s see…about November 1983. I was a Resident Advisor in the wildest dorm on campus, and I had just turned twenty (thus, drinking was illegal for me). I had dealt with some shocks in my early adult life, starting with college. In Spring 1981 I was seventeen, in my senior year at a high school of 48 in a town of 750. In Fall 1981 I was still seventeen, attending a university of 35,000 in a city of two million. At nineteen, I was riding very loose herd on forty-seven freshmen, two sophomores, a junior and an old acid-head fifth-year senior who had once been brilliant, and during his rare sobriety bouts, still was. It was another ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ time.
I also was not known for abstention, so when some of my staffmates went down to Vegas for a weekend, I asked them to pick me up some Everclear. (You could not get it in Washington except on some Indian reservations, last I knew, sort of like M-80s and silver salutes.) This is 190 proof grain alcohol, 95%. I’d tried it a time or two back when I was rooming with Markdove. In case you like trivia, it took half a ton of this to fully fuel a Russian MiG-25, in addition to the avgas. Everclear tastes so viciously fiery that I have to belt it down in a gulp. Otherwise my nose pours, my eyes water and my mouth feels like I drank acetone. The guys brought me back three quarts of it.
I’ll never forget a single detail of that Saturday evening. About 10 PM, I sat down to have a drink. Now, one of my favourite basic drinks has always been a simple vodka and soda. Everclear is just double-plus-strength vodka. I had these Coke glasses from Farrell’s, 24 oz., and one can fill them with ice, pour in however much booze, then fill the rest with club soda. So I made my drink in the prescribed fashion; about an inch and a half of the Everclear over ice, topped with soda. Cool, crisp, refreshing, barely taste the alcohol. I sat down to read a good book. Nice drink. Took me about forty-five minutes to finish it.
Around 11 PM, I remember reflecting on how overhyped Everclear was. I barely felt anything, just that very light buzz I always get from drinking anything at all, and the reason I am not a fan of midday imbibing. I was just debating making myself another drink.
Here there is a discontinuity; there is no time blank, no gap, no fall, no dreams, no stupor. For all I can know, I was teleported.
I was face down on the floor, the book splayed out next to me. The chair was tipped over. The lights were on. The lighting seemed odd somehow, not as dark as it ought to be. I looked at my clock.
Seven in the morning.
Had I immediately mixed and drank most of a second round, I suspect I’d either be dead or permanently impaired. There would have been no literary career, no hockey games, no beautiful wife, no trips abroad. The body can metabolize only so much alcohol. Too much and you die. My door was locked from the inside, and no one would have had a reason to bug me on a Sunday morning, nor expected me to emerge for any reason short of a fire alarm. I had a single room with my own bathroom. Had my ‘dents heard barfnoise from outside the room, the conversation might have gone:
“That sounds like our RA being really sick in there.”
“So, what you’re saying is that it’s Sunday morning? Lieutenant Obvious, I herewith promote you to Captain.”
I would have been dead about forty hours before anyone missed me. We had a mandatory staff meeting on Monday nights. Unexplained AWOLism from the staff meeting would have created genuine alarm. They’d have master-keyed in, and they would never have forgotten the sight unto their dotages, half a century thence. What a delightful parting legacy: “He left people who cared about him with the indelible memory of his eyes rolled back.”
I’ve nearly been killed a number of times, and this one that still creeps me out to remember, because it snuck up on me and hit me on the head with a mallet. All the rest I got to see coming, and faced as best one can. None were as avoidable, nor were any for as stupid a reason.
Are you young? Thinking of drinking some Everclear, tough guy? Think it’s macho? Macha? Not scared of any drink, or of anything some old guy tells you?
I can’t stop you, and I wouldn’t if I could. It’s your life. You own it. That is, until the day you fail to treat this stuff with respect, at which time you may surrender it.
How do you want to be remembered?
If you take it easy with this stuff, you’ll have a lot longer to mull over that decision.
Take your time.
[A version of this story was originally published at Epinions. I have reclaimed, edited and adapted it for this format. They don’t get to have it anymore.]