60 bottles of beer on the wall …

Ten years ago, I found that it occupies one’s entire forty‑ninth year in order to turn fifty. Mathematically, this is inescapable but there is an emotional effect as well. Many claim immunity to this mental process but unless they were carried away and raised by wolves, I rather doubt that these folks can shrug it off entirely. Tomorrow, I’ll turn fifty-nine and begin the year-long process of turning sixty. Along with this comes the realization that some of the things that I wanted to do will never happen. To a thirty-something, this might sound tragic but, at this age, it’s actually quite liberating.

Sixty doesn’t seem quite so old as it used to – I remember when the owner of the neighboring farm in New Jersey, Ozzie Hoephner hit the big 6-0. We thought he was going over the hill but he still had about forty years, many of them quite active, left before he finally departed this realm. Ozzie celebrated this sixty-year milestone in his life by taking his wife Ann along on a trip to that place where the Hoephners seem to have originated, Soltzburg, Austria. There are more Hoephners in Soltzburg than there are Yoders in Lancaster. Anyway, this left son Paul in charge of the farm, its daily operation and, in general, the goings on there.

There was a milk house on the farm. The Hoephners were no longer in the dairy business so this obsolete facility became what Ozzie’s wife, a very dignified and well-educated woman in the employ of Princeton University, referred to as his sancto-sanctorum. (We all know that this is Latin for “man cave.”) A fortunate accident of this transformation is that an old milk house has tremendous refrigeration capacity.

This was during that period when New Jersey lowered the drinking age to eighteen. The idea was that anyone old enough to be drafted should have the right to drink and vote as well. Of course, in a state with so many ethnic Europeans whose home countries had no drinking age, such legislation sailed right through. This helped Paul, our friend Lowell and myself to reason that we should have access to whatever might be in Ozzie’s private fridge.

Jackpot. Some of Ozzie’s friends had given him sixty bottles of beer – one beer for each year of his life. Each bottle was marked with one of those years, written in felt tip pen. We quickly concocted a plan whereby we could drink some of this beer then replace it, marking the years on the bottles that replaced the ones that we had emptied.

We had some inspirational teachers in high school and so excelled in the subjects of art and history. We developed a game of commemorating historic events that coincided with the year on each bottle that we opened. Paul opened 1910 and started the Mexican Revolution as Halley’s Comet sailed overhead. Villa and Zapata took off on horseback across the Mexican desert soon to be followed in the German sky by Rickenbacker and Von Richthofen. Burns and Allen discussed higher finance with Jack Benny while mobsters shot it out in a garage in Chicago. I was feeling a little gassy from the Hindenburg disaster so I reached for the attack at Pearl Harbor. Big mistake. Oh, the humanity. The party ended somewhere around the Cuban Missile Crisis and Lowell and I drove to our respective homes on the tractor paths that skirted the fields.

The following morning will live on in infamy. I was lying there, head pounding, trying to will the morning away. Sensing my plight, my fiendish little brother played one of my Frankie Yankovic records at full volume in the living room. The phone rang – it was Paul. “Pick up two cases of beer and come over here and help me clean this up.”

I complied. Paul was being prudent, addressing the matter right away rather than allowing it to be forgotten thus leaving him to pay for the beer. Paul was a farmer, after all. Lowell had made himself scarce or hadn’t yet regained consciousness. I arrived at the Hoephner farm just before noon – a few bags of empties awaited – incriminating evidence, which I was asked to transport off of the premises.

I was issued a pen and Paul and I set about marking the bottles of beer that I had brought. “You look like you could use some ‘hair of the dog,’ ” he said handing me a bottle of beer, “I’ve been saving this just for you.”

I looked at the year marked on the bottle – 1969. “Mmm … man on the moon?” I mused aloud.

“No … Woodstock, you dummy,” Paul said, correcting me.

Oh, to be eighteen again knowing what I know now – I would have had at least enough sense to stay out of Ozzie’s milk house. Maybe. I might have hidden my Polka records, anyway.

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