It was a Friday night about 50 years ago, during the last week of our public education. The final exams were fortunately behind us and, like all red-blooded high school students, we felt a “seniority” – this desire to let go a little and celebrate the end of our long journey. It was a natural impulse, given the significant changes that were imminent in our lives.
Soon we would be off to college. This meant greater freedoms and greater responsibilities. It was the start of a new journey towards total independence and careers. With a war being waged in Vietnam, young men were conscripted. Faced with such daunting prospects, yes, it was natural to want to let off steam a bit.
Dave, Craig and I piled into a family sedan with vague intentions of releasing said steam. If I remember correctly, Dave was driving. We headed apprehensively to a bar called Smitty’s, run by a classmate’s father. None of us had been there before, and we had never been to a bar before that night, but it was rumored that many senior citizens would be there that night.
We arrived at the modest building in daylight. From the parking lot we could hear and feel the vibrations of the music inside. As we walked through the door, we paused to survey the surroundings, letting our eyes adjust to a darkness punctuated by illuminated wall signs that advertised the beers on tap.
It was a narrow building with a bar running the length of it. There were older men there, no doubt regulars, given the early hour. Luckily, we spotted a crowd or two of our fellow seniors, standing with drinks in hand, talking animatedly.
We were under the legal drinking age. I was 17. But we made our way to an open area at the end of the bar and quietly strategized about ordering something to drink. Would the bartender ask us for ID? Would he laugh at us?
When the bartender came, Craig spoke up. “Can I have a root beer?” he asked with feigned resolution. Without hesitation, the bartender said, “Root beer, damn it! Then he put three beers on the bar and said, “That’ll be $6.” (I can’t remember the actual cost.)
With smiles of gratitude and relief, we took our bottles and retired to a round table against the wall. We had never ordered drinks in a bar or sat in a bar as customers so it all felt like an experience. Our success in getting the beers was rewarding, but also curious. I know I was analyzing my feelings throughout this new experience and I was sure Dave and Craig were too.
We were too responsible to completely let go. Someone must have driven later. And we had no way of knowing how much alcohol would affect us. As we socialized and soaked up the atmosphere of Smitty’s, we watched each other and each other for telltale signs of being drunk, whatever they might be. I know I was feeling some effects after the second beer. But how affected have we been?
We left after that second beer. The sky was now dark. We were always examining our feelings and thoughts for evidence of impairment. Dave emerged from the gravel lot that surrounded Smitty’s and drove the few blocks toward downtown. There was very little traffic. When he stopped the car for the traffic light at the intersection with Memorial Drive – the main avenue – we waited in the right lane for the light to change, chatting.
Just before the light turned green, a car coming from behind us swerved into the left-turn lane and quickly passed us, honking its horn. By the way, the pitch of the horn changed frequency from low to high to drop again.
Immediately, Craig and I looked at each other and exclaimed, “Doppler effect!” It was a reference to the perceived frequency variation, caused by the relative motion between the sound source and the listener. We had learned the term recently, thanks to Mr. Gable, our overqualified AP physics teacher.
We all laughed, now quite sure that our faculties weren’t so impaired. I don’t remember anything happening later that night. They are shrouded in the impenetrable fog of the intervening decades. But that moment is forever etched in my memory.
The author lives in East Petersburg. The events of the story took place in Ohio.