Childhood = 100 Years Ago

This Birthday Memory Brought To You By Coors

For my 11th birthday, I hosted a sleepover for eight of my friends at our home in Tacoma, WA.

In case any of you don’t know, sleepovers are different than slumber parties. Like, inherently different. Sleepovers were for boys and, therefore, awesome. Slumber parties were for stupid ol’ girls and, therefore, stupid. Slumber parties, I assumed, had tea and sandwiches, had stuffed animals included on the guest list, incessant talks about ponies and ended at 9:00 when everyone went to sleep and dreamt of stupid girl stuff like princes and weddings and rainbows. Sleepovers revolved around junk food, a slasher movie on Showtime and staying up as late as possible.

With sleeping bags strewn about the living room, my friends and I laughed, burped and whispered “dirty words” well into the night, fueled by cheap pizza and gallons of brand name sugar water (the brand name being ‘Soda’.) My sister opted to spend that night at a friend’s house, my dad had been out since 7, so the only person in danger of being kept up was my mother. Either a heavy sleeper or the definition of lenient, my mother never complained or asked us to quiet down.

Around 1:30 or so, my friend Tim was entertaining us with a secondhand Cheech and Chong routine he had heard from his brother-in-law. The bit had something to do with bodily functions, which was the height of comedy at 11, so we laughed like hyenas on nitrous oxide.

“Bodily functions! hahahahaha! Bathroom reference! hahahahaha!”

It was then that we heard my dad’s car pull into the driveway. At the first sign of an adult, standard sleepover protocol dictated everyone pretend to be asleep. And so, as what sounded like 200 keys rattled to unlock the front door and the first sounds of cowboy boots clomped on the entryway linoleum, none of us knew that our sleepover was to be front row to what happened next.

Now, in order to reach the master bedroom, my dad had to sidestep a pre-pubescent minefield of nine sleeping bags. Normally, this would not prove a difficult task for an able-bodied forty-something. In this particular case, however, it was more like sending a blind man to run the gauntlet. Let me be clear, though, it was not my dad’s fault. You see, the architect who’d drafted the plans for our house had failed to consider the possibility that a father would arrive home the night of his son’s 11th birthday staggering drunk.

“What am I, a psychic? I’m a freakin’ architect. How the hell was I supposed to know the dad would be drunk?”

So there was my father, determined and committed to the challenge ahead of him.  It was true he’d been able to drive himself home with zero to few fatalities, so his chances of navigating the living room weren’t completely nill. If he stayed focused, if he really put himself in the zone, he knew could get from point A to point B like the champion he knew himself to be.

The rest of us weren’t so sure.

To his credit, he started off strong. With the skill of an Olympian, he maneuvered around Tim, then followed this up by stepping over Harper. What form! What execution! But on his way to a gold medal, my dad ran into trouble when he misjudged his next move and stepped on Wendell. Attempting to recover, he over-corrected and stumbled over Clint. You could almost see his Wheaties sponsorship fading away. Clint, laying closest to my dad and already the victim of his size 12 boot, slowly inched himself away from the 198 pounds of drunken Irish that threatened to topple onto him.

My dad stood (well, more or less) for a moment, getting his bearings and re-evaluating his route. His body tottered a little (or he stood still and the rest of the world tottered, depending on perspective), but a repositioned boot quickly steadied him. If an audience had been there, they would no doubt have gasped.

Grunting some motivational, but indiscernable, call to action, my dad decided that the best route was a simple straight line and, dammit, he was gonna go for it.

Balancing on one foot, he attempted to reach the hallway in one giant step, in the same fashion he might step over a rattlesnake. He moved slowly in order to land it just right… maybe a little too slowly. But, proving  that sloth-like mobility and drunken stupors don’t mix, my dad’s balance wavered and he began to fall. Blindly reaching out for any bit of support, he grabbed onto the macramé flower pot holder that hung just above the TV. Surprisingly, it didn’t rip from its hook, but actually allowed my dad to steady himself. That wasn’t macramé, that was spun steel!

“That’ll be enough, bartender. I got a birthday party to get home to, so can’t overindulge, ya know?”

Then, with one last oomph (and nine silent sighs of relief), my dad had reached the safety of the hallway. Now home free, it’s safe to assume that he must have felt a certain amount of pride because (at least, in his mind) he had slipped past all those kids without disturbing a single one. Gold medal secured!

But… it is when we let our guard down that the worst can happen.

Without warning and certainly without provocation, the wicker hamper, which had always seemed harmless, bounded for him from the dark recesses of the hall, like a lion from its den!

There was a struggle!

We could hear each ‘goddam’, ‘sonuva…’ and incoherent mumble my father uttered. Partly thanks to his days back with the Co-Braughs (an Irish gang of Cleveland teens), my dad put up one hell of a brawl. Within seconds, the hamper was down, the struggle was over and the victor (my father) emerged. Pushing the slain hamper aside and kicking it once for good measure, my dad slipped into the bedroom where he capped off his adventure serial evening with a well-deserved black out.

“It’s another hamper attack, detective. Poor guy didn’t have a chance.”

The moment the door clicked shut, every one of us broke into quiet, mostly nasal, hysterics, as the smell of beer and cigarettes lingered along with the stench of budget cologne and fake leather. I could laugh about it or feel ashamed and make for an even more awkward evening. I chose to laugh.

“He stepped on my bladder,” Wendell said in a half-whisper, half-giggle.

“I think I got two broken ribs,” joked Clint.

“Drunk-arooni,” Alan giggled.

Wendell asked me, “Does your dad go to bars a lot?”

I didn’t feel the truth of ‘yes and often alone’ was necessary. “Oh, no. His friend had a bachelor party.”

Wendell became deep and reflective, changing the subject the way I had hoped someone would. “Someday, I wanna go to a bachelor party. Naked boobs all over the place… That’s probably what’s cool ‘bout gettin’ divorced, ya know? You get a party every time you get married again.”

Soon, everyone settled into the inevitable sleep aspect of any sleepover. Everyone but me, that is.

I was too angry and too embarrassed to sleep. Angry that my dad had found it necessary to get drunk that particular night, that he’d shown his true self to my friends, that I had to make up an excuse for his conduct, hell, that he was my father at all. At the same time, I was embarrassed for all of the exact same reasons.

Home was one world, friends and life outside of home were another. But, that night, the two worlds I tried so hard to keep separate and isolated from one another had collided like two cars in a drivers ed film.

One of the comedic stand-by’s in film/tv is the lovable drunk, the inebriated source of entertainment that elicits giggles and nods of ‘Boy, can we identify…’ from viewers. But, even as a child, I never thought those characters were funny. If anything, they made me uncomfortable. All I could think of was what happened after the character left the scene. Did he go home and berate his family? Did he force his kids to hug him and bully them into saying how much they loved him? Did he spend a portion of the night ranting about ni**ers and wetb*cks? The drunks in movies weren’t a cause for laughter, they were a cause to ask, “But, now what’s gonna happen?”

“Listen, Uncle Billy. Your… your drunkenness isn’t funny. It… it… it’s just sad. I know we’re supposed to laugh, but I think you might have a problem.”

With every cab ride home from whatever bar he’d abandoned the station wagon at, with every case of beer that filled the crisper drawer in our refrigerator, with every petty argument he would decide to “discuss” with my mom at eleven at night, the light under which I saw my dad faded dimmer and dimmer.

I couldn’t yet bring myself to say that I truly hated my dad, but I knew for sure that I just didn’t like him.

I knew I had the alcoholic gene staggering about inside my DNA, its face flushed, wearing a cowboy hat, singing Red Sovine songs and yelling accusations and obscenities at all of the other genes. “You think you’re better’n me, low blood pressure gene? Huh? Well, **ck you!” “Whadder you lookin’ at, blue eyes gene? You got a prob’em wi’ me? You’re an ungrateful, spoiled gene, ya know that?” “Where you goin’, arched eyebrow gene? Don’t walk away from me! Fine, go!”

While I had asked for a few Star Wars toys for my birthday, I instead received an unexpected gift in the form of a defining moment. On the night of my 11th birthday, I swore that I would make whatever choices necessary to never become anything like my dad.

“…so, I told the boy, ‘Yeah, I was down at-at the bar’ and he starts crying. Like I’m s’posed to know an AT-AT is some kinda spaceship toy. How am I the bad guy, I ask ya?”
.

29 thoughts on “This Birthday Memory Brought To You By Coors”

  1. It’s always heartbreaking when a child has to make up stories to cover for his or her parents. I can see why that night would be a defining moment. I think you perfectly nailed the embarrassment and horror such a situation invokes.

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  2. Thank you so much, Carrie. To this day (and my wife can attest to this), I would be happy to allow my birthday to go completely unnoticed.

    My 12th birthday story will be coming up soon. The birthday stories have a theme.

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  3. As you know, Calahan, this strikes close to home for me. Those feelings you had while laying in the dark (no, not THOSE feelings) about your father and the shame of having to make excuses — it brought back a familiar stomach knot. Also too, the epiphany of what not to become, and the mix of determination of rergret that comes with it. You’re a good man, Calahan, despite your father’s example. But certainly not out of spite.

    Well done.
    All of it.

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    1. Thank you, Ned. I appreciate knowing that it is a story that is relatable. At the time, I always felt like my dad was the only drunk on the planet, but there is something comforting in knowing that that was wrong. Sort of depressing and unfortunate and possibly selfish, but comforting.

      Honestly, in so many ways, I have tried to model myself in pure contrast to the type of person he was. At no point did I think, “Hateful and ignorant? Pop’s got it all figured out. That’s how I’m gonna be, too!”

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      1. Not selfish at all, because the reality is that alcoholism is prevalent. The only selfishness lies in the efforts of those who try to make others feel alone for not participating in the same behavior. Fortunately for me, my father never pressured me into that — one of the slivers of hope and positiveness I stll hold for him.

        Most of us are born with an internal compass that helps us find right from wrong. The trick is in not allowing others to become a false “north” as we get older. You managed to stay headed true “north,” and those who have come into your life have benefitted from it 😉

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          1. No, he died about 20 years ago. The older I get, the more I realize how he helped define who I am today — like you, mostly by not following his example. I’ve tried to embrace the positive memories more. They aren’t all negative. The more I do, the more I see him as a man and not just a figure. Sort of like moving around a 3-dimentionl object; you can only see all sides if you’re willing to move around a bit.

            Is your Dad still alive?

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            1. Nope. Died over 15 years ago and I hadn’t spoken to him in 10 years. I have very few happy memories, so I have don’t think much about it, in general. Stories like this, things that I can laugh at in some way, are ways to remember how he actually was. Not a caricature, not black and white, but by no means someone I would ever choose to spend time with. I’m glad you were able to mine some good aspects of your dad and see him compassionately. I feel as though I totally lack that ability.

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              1. I can’t say I hated — but certainly deeply disliked my father for many years. I’m 48 now and only started to seeing him as something other than a dark part of a past life in the last five years or so. That doesn’t mean you ever will, or are wrong for not doing so — neither of which reflects a lack of ability to feel compassion. Given this piece and your desire to revisit moments that defined you through his memory, I’d say you are exactly the opposite. Those who lack compassion generally make the same mistakes as their fathers.

                Compassion doesn’t mean feeling sorry for someone as much as it means understanding how they have impacted you. Only then can you avoid the same mistakes.

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  4. By the way, Mike, I know Calahan is your last name and I often refer to you by that name. Mostly out of respect, but also because it’s cool. I hope that’s ok. Rememebr, this is coming from a guy who has not one but TWO boring names. Not that I’m bitter…

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  5. Spot on. One difference between you, boy, and me, girl, is that I never could have a slumber party because I was always afraid of how dad would act. Oh, and yeah, I really dislike “Shameless.”

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    1. It’s because of that night and the endless ones before and after it that I have not and will never get drunk. I enjoy a glass of wine or sipping on whisky, but never to excess. How did you react to having a similar father type? Were you conscious of that potential in your genes?

      Also, if “Shameless” is a Vin Diesel movie, then I would probably dislike it, too.

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  6. One of the (many) reasons I don’t drink anymore is because I realized I was probably a far less charming and fun-filled drunk in my children’s eyes than I imagined. Now I’m just boring, but that’s fine. There are worse legacies than boring.

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  7. One of my dad’s favorite pastimes in his later years was busting the balls of self-pitying guys who would whine about having little or no relationship with their kids. He would have made verbal mincemeat out of your dad for that performance on your eleventh birthday. In his younger days, my dad, who was a physical fitness freak, could have kicked your dad’s butt, but as strong as he was, he was a very responsible guy. He didn’t pick fights, even though he was the toughest guy in the room mentally and physically. I feel very lucky to have had the father I had, especially when I know so many who got shortchanged in the dad department. I’m glad that you’ve resisted following your dad’s lead. If you ever decide to be a dad yourself, you’d probably be a very good one. My dad was the son of a dad who didn’t appreciate him, but he figured out how to appreciate his wife and kids. In return, he got the love from his family that he never got from his own father.

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    1. No kids for us, but we are both more than happy being adoring pet owners. While I’m sure the wine and spirits industry would encourage more imbibing Calahan’s, I don’t think those genes need to be passed along.

      I would love to have overheard some of the things your dad said to those complaining fathers. That would have been both amazing and hilarious. From what I’ve read of yours, you got very lucky in the dad department. 🙂

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      1. I think it’s as responsible to decide to not breed as it is to breed. I’m someone who was born to be an aunt, not a mom. My dad took no prisoners when geezers would gas negatively about their kids. He was also big on crowing about how well he got on with his, and he especially loved it when some old fart would make an issue about me being lesbian and living across the country in NYC. He was quick to fillet those fools. Yeah, I got very lucky. I keep all of his company-related paperweights on my writing table. It’s like having a little piece of him with me at all time.

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  8. You have such a gift. I’m sorry that happened. My ex is sober now but I think our youngest will always hold on to it and I don’t blame her. Your writing is so funny and poignant, this should get you another FP!

    And um, hello, where was the basement when you needed it?!

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  9. Now that I read this post and comments, your comment about a vasectomy suddenly seems a lot less light-hearted than when I saw it on my blog.
    This is a pretty extreme case of trying to not follow your father’s example…

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  10. I’m very sorry to hear that he was drunk at your birthday party. It was kind of funny to hear that he tripped over someone on the floor, but then again it wasn’t funny. It was a very interesting article to read.

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