Drinking alcohol was so easy now.
It seemed like only yesterday, on a dull Friday or Saturday night, we’d be standing outside a Times Supermarket or Safeway store, waiting for some kind, understanding, unthinking adult to buy us a case of beer or a gallon jug or two of some Gallo gut red wine. This was always nerve-racking, but always worthwhile, because we never once got caught by an eagle-eyed police officer and getting ourselves drunk was then, as George W. Bush might say, although for us it was actually true, a happy Mission Accomplished.
But fear no more. Lo and behold, the law magically changed the year we all turned 18. The legal age dropped from 21 in some divine fashion, like manna from heaven, and it was off to the magical alcohol aisle we go, hi ho, hi ho.
I remember the very day the law kicked in. My classmate and fellow Hapa-haole, Calvin – this is not his real name – took us shopping at the Kāhala Star Supermarket. We grabbed a cart, of course, and proceeded to fill it to the brim with Primo beer and the most treasured bottom-shelf score: Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill quote wine unquote.
After that we were off to Kailua Drive-In. I know, this is all the way over on the windward side of the island. It would have been smarter of University High Junior Rainbows to go to Wai‘alae Drive-In right across the street, but we didn’t want to watch just any old movie. No, we wanted to get ripped while enjoying a teenage-boy-enchanting movie. At Kailua, Cactus Flower was calling us. This was Hawai‘i back then. First-run movies, unless they were blockbusters, could take a while to make it over the ocean from Hollywood, and if you wanted to see them at a drive-in theater, you had to wait a while longer.
So it didn’t matter if Cactus Flower had been released more than a year before. We wanted to see Goldie Hawn. Yeah. That hot-bodied Laugh In lady. Drinking cheap booze and watching Goldie Hawn. Some call Hawai‘i Paradise, but this was not what the PR people at the Visitors’ Bureau had in mind. We were not tourists. We were red-blooded drunken local teenagers watching a beautiful woman whom we’d often seen half-naked on TV. This my friends was what Paradise meant to us.
By the time we rolled out of Kailua Drive-In, I’d forgotten anything I had a chance to remember about that movie. We were so drunk that I lost track of what we were even watching before we were halfway into it.
This was not an unusual phenomenon back in those days. We’d been practicing the art of underage drinking for a good two years or, with some people, more. I mean some weekend nights there’d be a host of youngsters drinking in our dear high-school parking lot, of all places, until midnight. Or later. One morning I woke up still drunk, the sun shining in my eyes, sprawled upon our grassy playing field. Why we were never arrested, I have not that slightest clue, but as long as we cleaned up after ourselves, and didn’t get into any Westside Story style gang rumbles, we were allowed to break the law with impunity.
So, as noted, in my senior year it became legal for 18-year-olds to drink alcohol. There was a restaurant called Lum’s, one of a national chain, right across the street from University High. Many students at the University of Hawai‘i, right across the street as well, suddenly started drinking there at all hours of the day and night. We were seniors. We looked like we could be in college. Ergo, we would drink at Lum’s too. Even, I might add, if we hadn’t turned 18 quite yet. They never checked IDs back in those days.
It was funny. Or maybe not. But we would sometimes drink schooners of ice cold Primo draft for lunch. Yes, there was no restriction about eating lunch off campus, so sometimes we would drink lunch at Lum’s, and then head back across the street for our social studies class, or whatever class we’d burp and nearly nod off in.
You may remember that I said I was late born. As a November baby, I would not turn 18 until after I actually was in college. Yet, Dear Reader, I too would have a lunchtime beer on occasion. It was sooooo easy to do.
You can imagine our graduation night from Uni-High. High? No kidding. We’d been in training for this night for several years. It began with one alcohol infused party, and then we roamed from another drinking bash to yet another all night long. How none of my friends never died in car accidents is a miracle, one for which, in retrospect, I’m sure most of us are thankful.
Looking back on it, I would never have been able to forgive myself for killing another human being, or even injuring another human being because of drinking and driving. Still we all kept doing it. Weekend after weekend, or even with the diehards, night after night.
And don’t forget that many of us were simultaneously smoking weed back then, too. In a perfect storm scenario, so many of us could have died. I just thank my lucky stars that I escaped serious injury or death.
Well, maybe it depends on how you define “serious.”
It all began one Friday night early on in my Freshman year at UH Mānoa. The freedom of going to college, not being in an kind of lock-step chain of classes throughout the day, was liberating indeed. However, the pressure to perform in those fewer number of classes was much greater. I did not want to be drafted to go kill people in Vietnam.
You may find this hard to believe, but I was not the most dedicated academician during my secondary school career. I enjoyed art and English. I did as much as I could for those classes, and casually passed everything else. I mean I graduated high school with something like a 3.2 or 3.3 GPA, but you know, grading was not such a big deal for our hang-loose teachers coming out of the peace, love, and tie-dye 1960s.
Still, I was not yet the hardest working college student I knew. Neither was I the stupidest one. I understood fully that getting decent grades would involve more effort on my part. Especially as I was a slow reader. The reading load was double that of high school. This all took some getting used to. I felt the pressure. This pressure translated into drinking and smoking marijuana more. It was a vicious progression. Or regression?
I was not alone. With our newfound freedom, many of my high-school buddies also drank and toked more. It was easy for us to get alcohol, because more and more of us were cracking the age 18 ceiling day by day. I’d have to wait for that first legal drink near the end of November, but until that time my friends could take care of my alcohol needs.
It was a Saturday night not too far into my first semester at UH. Maybe it was late September or early October. We were drinking up our usual storm at a friend’s house out in the neighborhood of Kāhala.
Note: If you recall that wonderful little girl from Star of the Sea, the one I sang opera with, the one I had to leave behind when my voice changed, the one I had loved but had lost, well, she lived just down the block from my friend’s house. Many’s the night I would drink my brains out at his house, then stagger out to my car, lean against it, and contemplate walking to that girl’s house and knocking on the door. At 2:00 a.m. I’m sure she and her parents would have been charmed. Alas, this slow-motion toilet tissue advertisement run and embrace only ever happened in my imagination. SubNote: I never did understand that toilet tissue ad, the man and woman racing in slow motion across the idyllic meadow to embrace each other under the banner of Charmin toilet tissue, or whatever brand it was they were hawking.
So it was Saturday night. I’m told that when I announced it was time for me to leave, my friends would not let me go alone. They feared that I would never make it home alive.
And this, this I still can’t understand to this day. Instead of letting me drive home alone, they decided the best plan would be to have one friend go along with me, while the others followed me home in a second car. I still puzzle over this strategy. If I were about to steer us into a ditch, would the friend in the passenger seat grab the wheel and keep us on course? If he were too drunk to do so, which he was, would my friends in the car behind me scream out their window at the top of their marijuana clouded lungs that I should correct my steering in hopes that I would hear them and respond appropriately?
Well, the friend accompanying me was as drunk as I was, which, as you’ll see shortly, was actually a good thing. And as for my friends screaming out driving instructions to me, or however we’d agreed they’d communicate to help get me home, it was raining that night, I mean pouring, and everyone’s windows were rolled up tight.
My friends who were following me tell me I led them on a merry chase from Kāhala. The “smart” thing to do, as if drinking and driving is ever the foundational building block of smart, would have been to take the H1 freeway home. From his house to my house would have involved three stoplights at most, two on Wai‘alae Avenue before entering H1, and one at the bottom of my hill after exiting H1. So easy. I’d done that route a million times.
But, nooooo. I had to choose surface streets all the way. From Kāhala to Pacific Heights, if I drove as straight a route as possible, might mean thirty stoplights maybe? This is what I hint at about the friend accompanying me in my car being too drunk and stoned as well. Had he been more sober, I’m sure he would have advised me to take the frickin freeway. He’d actually traveled this route to my house many times as well, so he knew H1 was the quickest way to go. Fifteen minutes, maybe twenty. Max.
The route I took that night? I hear I went up Wilhelmina Rise a ways, dove down into and around Pālolo Valley, eventually made it from Kaimukī into the University area, and then up into lower Mānoa Valley, finally making a turn onto Lanihuli Drive headed for Mānoa Road.
If you know Lanihuli Drive as it ends at Mānoa Road, you know there’s a stoplight there. Well, on that rainy night, there was no stoplight there yet. If you came to the end of Lanihuli and were turning left, as I was doing, you had to look both ways before making that turn, and then take your chances as you move out. People drive on that stretch of Mānoa Road as if they’re driving on the H1 freeway. It was always a dangerous left, even if you were sober.
Probably out of muscle memory or something, I also checked left again, like I’d learned in Driver Education class, like I’d told Patti to do when I gave her that driving lesson that I mentioned in the previous chapter.
To no avail, however. The visibility was low in the pouring rain. I told the police that as I made the turn, a car came barreling down out of the valley. I accelerated to get out of the way, and pedal to the metal, slammed full speed into the wall on the opposite side of Mānoa Road.
This story sucks all the way around. Just that morning I’d washed, waxed, and vacuumed my mom’s white Malibu convertible. You remember. The one in which she taught me how to drive. Her pride and joy. Her favorite of all the cars she ever drove before, and would ever drive again.
I mean that baby looked sharp that night.
You know how they say it’s guaranteed to rain after you wash your car?
You see what they mean?
I did manage to avoid the utility pole, but I smashed into and demolished a concrete bus stop bench. Yes, that’s right, there had been a bus stop bench there. You’ll not see it there today. You know why? Because even though I had to pay $300 dollars because I destroyed the bench, they moved the bus stop. Too dangerous, they said, to have it there anymore. After me.
So you can thank me for that strategic repositioning of the bus stop.
You know what else you can thank me for? The stoplight. That’s right, even though the residents of the area had been begging for a stoplight at that corner for years, it took me and my little accident to get that light put in. You’re welcome. I’m glad they didn’t make me pay for that.
For several years after that accident, I would sit at that stoplight, my stoplight, and notice two things. One, how they’d moved the bus stop, and two, how I’d killed the vines on the wall in the same area om impact. There was a huge bald spot in the greenery that took years to grow back in.
At the moment of impact, I think I thought that maybe I should have fastened my seatbelt. My co-pilot had been too drunk to advise me to do that. He himself had not fastened his either.
I think I might have thought about how hard I had to hit the windshield to see it shatter that way, and as a kind woman helped me out of my seat and then out of the car, I think I might have wondered what made the shattered glass such a pretty rose color under the streetlight.
I think I might have thought about my friend disappearing, with the help of the friends who were following me. He was alive enough to go with them to their car, I guessed, and they took off once they knew I was in the safe hands of the police.
I told the officer in charge that I’d seen a car come speeding out of Mānoa at the last instant. Another policeman confirmed that many cars had sped out of the valley at that time because there’d been a huge gang-related fight at Mānoa gym. This fact would work in my favor when I went to court.
The officers all confirmed for me that I’d had too much to drink. This would not work in my favor when I went to court.
The officers drove me to Queen’s emergency. This worked in my favor, because the expense of an ambulance ride, on top of paying for the bench and a new car, would have made my father even Korean-style angrier than he was.
He was not angry initially, when he came to pick me up at Queen’s. I’m sure he was so relieved to know I was alive that this trumped rage.
They’d stitched up my nose and my lip. When he came in and saw the blood down my shirt, he told me later, it took the wind out of him like a gut punch.
The first thing I remember at all about the emergency room was my dad coming through the door and saying, very softly, but very sternly, “Watch your mouth and be quiet. They can all hear you screaming out there.”
Apparently, so drunk as I was, I was cursing a blue streak about the guys I thought had run me off the road, about life, about near death. Whatever. He said I was swearing a lot and opera chorus trained loudly.
When I woke up the next morning – very late in the morning, I might add – I lay there wondering what had happened to me. The night was a blur. Only bits and pieces came to mind.
I had a pounding headache. Who wouldn’t after having given his best effort to take out a car windshield. Although, thankfully somehow, I’d not been thrown completely through it.
I sat up and touched my throbbing nose and lip carefully, recalling the stitches and my father’s stern command to shut the hell up.
Then I felt the top of my head. Strange. Not the huge bump, but the fine rain of hair. I looked at my pillow and was stunned. It was covered with hair. So this must be what they meant by “shock,” I thought. It wasn’t, of course. The shattered glass had given me an involuntary haircut of massive proportion.
Now came the lecture. I can’t say they screamed at me, because they didn’t. As I say, I’m sure their reaction was tempered by the fact that I was alive. My mom was very disappointed about losing her car, her other baby, but it was clear to me that she was not as disappointed as she would have been if I were dead on top of that.
That was Sunday. Monday my dad and I went to the impound lot to look at the car. It was startling. My head had gone through the windshield and all that pretty glittering rose color I’d seen had been my nose and lip bleeding down the glass.
I did not go completely through the windshield because I’d gripped the steering wheel hard enough to hold myself back. The wheel, the steel wheel, was bent forward on both sides where I’d pressed down hard on it. Thank God for driver education and the way they stress keeping your hands at 10 and 2. Man, I must have held on, well, for dear life.
My co-pilot, wow. There were two knee indentations in the bottom of the dashboard. Why he wasn’t crippled by that impact, or how he escaped injury of any kind apparently, I’ll never know. Funny, it was the last time I ever saw him until I returned from Wisconsin in 1979. We never drank together again from the night of the accident up until then.
The officer offered and explanation. “You two are lucky you were so drunk. It relaxed you. If you’d been stiffer on impact, you’d both be dead.”
My dad put his arm around my shoulder. I think behind his sunglasses he might have been holding back tears.
I had to go to court. Now something else worked in my favor. This was not a Perry Mason full on trial. It was preliminary to something bigger, I figured, but for now it was a talk session.
“Wait a second,” the judge said, “this police report says you’re eighteen. That’s not correct, is it?”
“No sir, I’m seventeen. I’ll be eighteen in November.”
“Geez these guys,” he said. “This is some real sloppy work. This is a case for juvenile court, not my court.”
So that was that. I was sentenced as a minor for underage drinking and for drunken driving. The sentence was mitigated by the statement that I’d stepped on the gas to avoid being hit by another car. I still wonder if that was true, or if with all that rain and all that alcohol I‘d just hallucinated the whole scene.
I lost my license for six months. The upside was that I spent long hours at home studying. Suddenly, school was awesome. I realized how much I loved learning about everything.
Becoming a super student was almost thrilling for me. I would push for all As every semester, and while that did not always happen, the challenge became addictive. Like drink, or drugs.
I’ve only been that drunk and stoned ever again one time. It was the night before I flew home from Madison to Honolulu at the end of my first semester of graduate school.
You’ll be happy to know that I did no driving that night; the odyssey unraveled mostly on foot. I did, however, get lost, very, very lost, for hours and hours, and it was so cold out, and I wandered around for so long, that I nearly died of exposure.
Maybe more about that memorable night in a bit.
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Happy #WriterSaturday. Today’s #WritingPrompt is
Use it to inspire a piece of writing, and then post that piece somewhere I can read it. I’d love to see what you come up with : )