By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 10/21/2017
Occurred: 5/31/1969
Topics/Keywords: #Autobiography Page Views: 306
How I avoided being blinded by grain alcohol the night before graduation.

It's not like I don't know how to have fun. As the photo above shows, my high school friends and I, who I refer to as the "Out Crowd", certainly know how to have a party. On the other hand, perhaps I should point out that, in the above photo, we are, in fact, pretending to be drunk. Because none of us were, there was no alcohol present, and we could still have a good time.

And that was months ago.

Being an older teenager is an exciting time yet also terrifying. There are all these new things we're expected to just know about, and we pretend we already do, when in fact it's all new and scary. Sex, dancing, drugs, cigarettes, and, of course, drinking alcohol are all rites of passage through which we must navigate. That's why last night's Class Night party was such an adventure, as I'd been told I would be drinking, whether I wanted to or not.

I had never had alcohol before, not including the one sip of beer my mom gave me when I was about 9. She literally filled a thimble with beer, and I tasted it, and I hated it, and never had any more. And, although my mom and gramma each had a glass of Scotch every afternoon, I never even asked to taste that.

Of course, my not being a drinker had already brought me some grief at school. But I didn't really hang out with the kids who drank, anyway; so I was able to resist.

But now was coming Class Night, a party for my whole graduating class—all 40 of us—and Teddy, class bully and my nemesis, informed me that I would be drinking that night, he would see to it, and he intended to start with something called "grain alcohol".

Since I'd never heard of such a thing, I asked the knowledgeable waitresses at the Posada Menendez, the restaurant at which I work as a busboy. "Don't let them give it to you," my friend, Margaret, warned. "Grain alcohol is, basically, moonshine. If you aren't used to drinking it, it can actually cause you to go blind."

I really like being able to see, even though I need pretty thick glasses to do it. So I worried all week leading up to Class Night that I might not be able to fight off Demon Drink and would have to be taken home, permanently blinded.

My girlfriend, Mary Ann, and I were going together, of course; also my pal Dennis and our friend Diana. I picked up Mary Ann and Dennis and we stopped at Diana's to get her.

Diana lives in one of those big white Victorians on Water Street, near the bay front, down the street from the radio station. I knew she lived with her grandmother and uncles, but hadn't previously met them. So we all piled out of my car (actually, my mom's car, of course) and marched to Diana's front door so we could pick her up and get a load of her digs.

But, when I knocked, the door was opened by two identical twin gentlemen, older men, each wearing a black formal suit, tie and all. I was more surprised at the suits than I was that Diana's uncles were twins, as she'd never mentioned that. But it got worse. They escorted us in, explaining that Diana was still getting dressed and would be right down. We stood waiting, in the living room, with a clear view of what would have been, in this floor plan, the dining room. However, no one was dining in there. Instead, the table had been replaced with a four-poster bed; and, in the bed, was an ancient cadaver, eyes closed, hands clutching a lily on her breasts.

My jaw dropped. Obviously, Diana's elderly grandmother had just passed away and her uncles were dressed for the wake. I could only imagine how devastated Diana must be, knowing she'd been raised by her grandmother because her alcoholic mother had abandoned her. I tried to think of how to express my condolences to Diana when she'd finally pulled herself together enough to come down and explain she couldn't come with us.

So, imagine my surprise when I heard a cheery voice call, "Hello, everyone!" from the top of the stairs. There was Diana, in a party dress and wearing a big smile, flouncing down the stairs. "Let's go!" she added, as I looked helplessly from her to her grandmother's body.

Diana must have thought I was afraid we'd wake the woman, because she said, "Don't worry about Grandmother, she can't hear you anyway." Well, of course not, I thought. Not when she's dead. But I didn't want to say anything, in case Diana was simply in denial. Later, Diana explained that 1) Her grandmother sleeps downstairs because she can no longer navigate the stairs; 2) Her uncles always dress that way; 3) Her uncles are the ones who put the lily in their mother's hands after she falls asleep. Diana had never wondered about it, and assumed it was out of love; but knowing how strict and old-fashioned the woman was (as I'd heard from Diana through the years; she wouldn't permit Diana to wash her hair more than once a week), I could easily imagine it was the uncles' sense of humor/wishful thinking that was behind it.

Anyway, now that we were all aboard, I drove us to Anastasia Island to the home of the classmate who was hosting. (Her parents owned a plant nursery on which the house was located. When I heard the party was to be held there, I joked, "Leonardi's Nursery—what a great place to get potted!" Because non-drinking teenagers become experts at learning the lingo and joking about things we have no actual experience in.

We were not the first there, by any means. And Teddy spotted me coming in, and met me with something in a plastic cup. "It's bourbon," he announceds. Bourbon was a liquor that Margaret from the restaurant had said would be relatively safe to drink, so I accepted it. It wasn't completely disgusting, though frankly Kool-Aid has a better flavor. But when it was gone, Teddy brought me a cup of beer. I tasted it. It was just as awful as I remembered, so I poured it into a potted plant when I thought no one was looking.

But then, one of my friends warned me that I wasn't getting drunk fast enough to suit Teddy, who wanted to be able to make fun of me before he got too drunk to appreciate it. And so, my friend said, he was pouring me a cup of grain alcohol. And, sure enough, I could see him approaching rapidly.

This was completely outside of anything I wanted to do. And, frankly, by now I had spotted that my classmates didn't seem to be actually having a good time, either. Oh, they weren't miserable. But they didn't seem to be there to do anything other than drink, which they were doing with a grim single-mindedness that I normally associate with people lined up for day labor jobs. I wasn't really having a "good time" and I was certain that grain alcohol wasn't going to improve things.

So, I did the only thing I could think of. As Teddy handed me the cup of clear liquid, I grinned, thanked him, then rolled my eyes back into my head and collapsed on the floor in what I hoped would appear to be a dead faint.

There was gasps around me but I had to ignore them. Mary Ann was concerned, of course. Some of the guys picked me up and laid me on something (I found out it was a window seat), my head on Mary Ann's lap.

And then, everyone ignored me. I could sense that no one stood close by. Dennis came by briefly to ask Mary Ann if I was okay, but, other than that, there was no one near. And so I started trying to communicate with Mary by pushing my head harder into her lap, and opening the eye that she could see but no one else could. Soon she was leaning over me so we could whisper. I'd already told her of my fears regarding the grain alcohol, and she agreed we'd probably have more fun pretty much anywhere else.

So Mary Ann announced that she wanted to take me home. "Oh, no!" Teddy cried. "You can't; his mother will kill us!"

"No," Mary replied, quicker on her feet than I'd given her credit for. "My parents are out; we can go there until he's slept it off." So a friend who'd graduated the year before after having been the school's star quarterback, John, managed somehow to hoist me onto his shoulders, after which he fireman-carried me all the way to my car. Remember, I hadn't eaten and had just drank a cup of bourbon. So my stomach wasn't very settled, and now John's shoulder was thrusting into my belly with every step. I was very much afraid I would puke, and really didn't want to throw up on John's back since he was being so nice to help me. Just when I feared I couldn't last another moment, we reached the car and John lowered me into the back seat.

Dennis was to drive, and Mary got into the back seat with me, with Diana next to Dennis in front. As soon as we'd taken off, I "came to" and explained what had happened. Neither Dennis nor Diana wanted to go back to the party, but it was too early to go home. So we picked up a few burgers and drove to the beach, otherwise deserted at this hour, where I played my guitar and we sang for a couple of hours until we decided we could get home without having to explain to our parents why we hadn't stayed at the party.

Now, everyone from my class (except for Dennis, Mary Ann and Diana) think I can't hold my liquor. But it doesn't matter. High school is over; I'll be attending school in Tampa in the fall and will probably not see most of them ever again. But if I do, I'll be able to hand them a copy of this essay so they have contemporaneous proof that I didn't actually drink myself into oblivion last night.

And besides, if they need further proof that I managed to avoid the grain alcohol, I can always point out the obvious.

I never went blind.