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Red White & Blue Fourth of July

Brian stood a full four feet ten inches but had the chest and arms of a brute. Probably the strongest guy I ever knew, he possessed a deadly sense of humor and a charm that dropped the pants of almost every woman he ran into.

I had known Brian since I was 17. His brother Rick and I met when we joined the Boy Scout camp staff in the summer of 1979 or 1980. Rick happened to live in my neighborhood and we struck up quite a friendship in the following years. We ran together and drank together. With our good friend Jeff, who we had also met at scout camp, we made quite a trio. Brian would have us over to the various apartments he lived in and kept us (me) in liquor and weed.

These bonds deteriorated when I decided to move out of my parents’ houses and into my own place. When I took up with two guys in an apartment in Midtown, Rick and Jeff, who were definitely not city people, went to the wayside.

Brian, however, being disembodied from the core of our group, stayed somewhere in my life. I didn’t leave Midtown often. Constant drunkenness and fear of cops kept me close to home. Plus, I had everything I needed. A grocery store with a complete liquor section lie just around the corner. My work was also in Midtown, a mile away. Bars and clubs with music and cheap drinks were in the neighborhood. Every now and then, I spotted Brian at a bar. He always sported his signature big, toothy smile and a couple of woman on his arms who were two feet taller than him.

In 1984, I moved into a small apartment complex, a knot of buildings at the corner of 40th and McGee in Midtown. I lived the basement apartment a chiropractic student named Joe who went on tears about once a week. His benders would make him sick for the rest of the week, then, he’d be at it again. “Study sessions” he held with classmates were especially deadly. Our relationship revolved around red wine, hard liquor, and a bi-weekly apartment party we held with some guys down the hall.

One day, as Joe and I were sunning ourselves on the steps of the apartment building, Brian came strutting up with two bags of groceries. From one hand swung a case of beer in returnable bottles. I almost fell over. Here he was, the sexpot and party animal, in the flesh.

It turns out that Brian lived with a woman who had been a friend of mine a couple of years before and was now his wife. How the two came to know each other, I could only guess. But he had settled down, it seemed, and became a family man.

Or, sort of. After we saw him that day, I spent long afternoons in his apartment drinking while his wife was at work. Brian loved weed and weed and wine and whiskey went together for him. When his wife came home, we were stowed in front of the VCR watching Trading Places for the umpteenth time or some other movie and drunk as skunks. The ashtrays were filled by then and the place must have smelled like a bar after a rough night.

I don’t know if she ever got mad at Brian for his dissolution, but it must have built some tension. It had to. Coming home three times a week to a drunk husband has to cause problems.

Brian never let on. We continued our carousing for months. Winter turned into spring, spring to summer. As the temperature rose, I remember, old and poor people died in their apartments. The news sported bad stories like this every evening, as Brian and I had the habit of watching the evening news after watching movies all afternoon.

Then came July. Sitting in a futz of cigar smoke and whiskey fumes, Brian and I came up with a stunning idea. We would go camping on the holiday. I suggested we go to Knob Noster State Park. I had been there once as a scout and remembered it being nice. Brian wanted to know if we could go fishing. Sure, I said. There were two lakes at the park. There had to be fish in one of them.

Neither of us had been fishing or camping in years.

The morning we decided to take off, we packed his fishing poles into his VW Beetle. He had a tent. We both had sleeping bags. We trundled off to the grocery store to pick up supplies, which included a can of soup for each of us, two cases of Red White & Blue, two bottles of Evan Williams, and ice for a large cooler.

We headed back to the apartment to make sure we had everything we needed. Brian loaded up a bunch of joints while he and I sipped whiskey and drank a couple of beers. By the time we went back outside, it was brutally hot. The light was too much for our bleary eyes. He put on sunglasses, and I donned a trucker’s hat that had an American flag and said, “Convoy, 10-4” above the brim.

We headed off. Out of Midtown and down to Highway 50, the VW squirted between semis and down through Lone Jack. We stopped at a country store to buy fishing licenses and worms. That much we knew. We got a couple of Hamm’s quarts to help us along.

By the time we made it to the campground we were boiled. Brian was stoned on top of being drunk. We drowned a couple of worms in a shallow pond whose water was as warm as bathwater. We stumbled through setting up the tent, only to watch it fall when we stood back from it. A ranger came by. We slurred and stuttered. We had gathered some firewood and set it aflame with gas siphoned out of the VW. The ranger looked at us and the alleged campfire, which was merely a black char in the fire ring, and said, “You boys stay close. Don’t go getting in that car.”

By mid-afternoon, the ice in the cooler had melted. The Red White & Blue was old and warm and tasted like aluminum and skunk water. I dutifully drank one after another. Brian kept to the whiskey. Around 5 p.m., I started to black out. I would be walking to the bathroom and suddenly find myself sitting at the picnic table with another beer. Did I go to the bathroom? I asked Brian. “Sure,” he said. “Twice.”

We thought it all very funny. We were bedraggled and sweating. We could hardly stand up. We decided we wanted air conditioning, this camping stuff was for the birds. The next thing I know, I am in the VW in front of our apartment complex. The tent is in a wad in the back seat. The fishing poles stuck out of the windows. The water in the cooler was hot. A few lonely beers floated around in there.

When I came to the next morning, I called Brian. His wife answered the phone and she was so angry she scorched my ear. What had I done to her husband? Just what happened to the car? (It turns out we hit something. What? Where?) What did I think about throwing my life away? Why was I so drunk all the time?

This went on for a while and then ended abruptly when she slammed the phone down. I looked in the fridge. Somehow, I had the last five Red White & Blues on the top shelf. The thought of drinking one made me sick in that moment. But the first one sure tasted good later.

And it still tasted like metal and skunk.

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