My brother and I must have been about eleven and ten, respectively, when we were allowed to try our first sip of beer. It was summer vacation, and it was time for our yearly trip to Cape Cod. Usually we stayed at a little cottage in Chatham at the end of the street, but this one year it was occupied, and we stayed the first night or two at Hotel El Dumpo out on the highway a little.
The cottage was a story in itself. It was just a teeny thing, as the word ‘cottage’ implies, and it didn’t even have walls that went up to the ceiling, which meant that I spent a lot of my time proving I could climb over the top into the next bedroom.
Hardly broke anything.
There was a collection of authentic record albums there–so ancient was the place–and that is where I discovered ‘The First Family’. Comedians imitating presidents is as old as the hills, but it offered me a hilarious, behind the scenes glimpse into Camelot–the Kennedy administration. Check it out on Spotify.
I loved that place; I’m guessing we all did. My brother and I had room to mess around outside, and our parents could relax inside in the twelve minutes per day when we weren’t bothering them. The beach was only a short bike ride away, and we made the most of every summer there. I don’t even want to guess how many fiddler crabs I tortured, or remember my first horrible sunburn, which I also got there.
All of that is nice, except for, um, all of it, but the real story of the cottage predates our first visits there. It goes way, way back in time, before Kennedy, even, to a time when most people had no idea what the Cape was, except for the lucky ones who lived there.
My grandfather used to go down there every now and thenI picture him being kind of a trailblazer since most of the Cape wasn’t developed yet. He knew his way around eastern Massachusetts and played golf on most of the courses there. One of the things he didn’t know his way around, however, was a business opportunity.
It all seems so simple now. All he had to do was scrounge up a few thousand dollars, buy some land, and wait. He would’ve easily been a millionaire. In reality, there was no money to scrounge. First the Depression happened, then the war, then came the house in Brockton, which he had to pay for on one income.
Looking back though, it’s hard not to wonder if he hadn’t, in fact, let the “big one” slip away. It was hard, growing up in our house, inside a cauldron of negativity, not to believe that our family was always doomed to let the big one slip away.
So there we were in Hotel El Dumpo, playing hearts (a great game the aforementioned grandfather taught us at an early age) and waiting for the night to pass, so we could move into the cottage. My Dad was pounding back his usual allotment of beer, my Mom was working through…whatever it was she was drinking, and I suddenly piped up and asked if we could try some.
My Dad said yes.
Talk about a can of worms.
We were only allowed to fill half a Dixie cup full of the stuff, but it didn’t matter-there’s no way either of us were getting it down. But we were excited. We couldn’t stop giggling. I had to go into the bathroom and try and drink it there, since my Dad was making us both laugh in the main part of the room. After about 83 tries, a million nervous snickers, and 250 attempts at chiding myself into being more of a serious man, I finally gave up and gave the now-very-warm cup to my father, who downed it quickly.
My brother had also failed miserably, and that was the end of our alcohol consumption.
What happened between that day and the next twenty years or so? At which point did alcohol become more than some taboo adult pick-me-up and more of an issue? How did it manage to play such a prominent role in our lives and health?
It’s ridiculous of me to say that things would’ve been different if Dad had said no that day. If it wasn’t then it would’ve been a different occasion. But somehow a part of me is forced to wonder what if? Would our futures have turned out differently? Would we have been healthier and happier? Would my father still be around? Would this specter not continue to haunt our subconsciousness day in and day out?
Would we have been able to finally nail the big one?