The Art of Drinking Alone
"Into this house, we're born."
In honor of Father’s Day I wanted to share this essay I wrote about my father, Herbert James Parsons (1937-2008), that first appeared on PUNCH on January 22, 2014. Here’s to you, Dad…
“The Art of Drinking Alone”
I was always intimidated walking into the bar at the American Legion Post 140. While I had attended countless clambakes, chicken barbecues, and Friday fish fries there, the bar was a members only affair. Behind the Legion there was a covered deck and then a locked entryway with a one-way mirror. After ringing the bell there was an awkward moment of silence staring at my own reflection as I waited to be let inside. Then I’d hear the bartender shout from the other side, “What’s the password?” Then laughter as I was buzzed in with a shout: “Bert, it’s your son.” Once my eyes adjusted to the dim light of the basement bar, I’d find my father at his favorite stool and he’d buy me a Coke and discreetly slide over a short stack of pull-tabs for me to help him tear through while he ordered another Miller Lite.
My father’s name was Herbert. But when people called the house it often turned into a round of “Who’s on First?” when relaying the message, on whether they asked for Bert, Herb, or Herbert. Depending on the salutation, my father could discern whether the caller was a friend, co-worker, or telemarketer. To complicate matters, his good friend and neighbor across the street went by Herbie, which was somehow short for LaVern.
Bert, as his friends called him, lived in Canastota, New York, a small village smack-dab in the heart of Central New York, just off Exit 34 on the Thruway. The historic Erie Canal cuts through the center of town and it’s home to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, (Italian-American world boxing champions Carmen Basilio and his nephew Billy Backus were both natives). He served four years in the Navy and was a veteran of the Korean War, and after leaving the military he spent most of his professional life working as an airline mechanic out of Syracuse Hancock International Airport. In 2004, less than five years into his retirement, he was felled by a stroke, leaving him paralyzed on the right side of his body and unable to read or speak. Four years later he passed away.
My parents divorced when I was 10. My mother re-married but my father never did. He lived alone, set in his ways (as one is when they live alone). He rarely traveled more than 30 miles from his house, saying that he got all of the traveling he ever wanted to do out of his system when he was in the Navy. He was predictable with his drink order, too: an ice-cold Miller Lite, preferably in a bottle. (At home he drank it out of a can, storing an everlasting case in the crisper.) But there was a time when he drank more than beer.
When I was a boy I recall the buzz of conversation and clinking ice cubes against a soundtrack of Tom Jones and Blood, Sweat, and Tears when my parents had friends over or entertained during the holidays. Unable to sleep I would wander into the living room and make a cameo appearance in my Star Wars pajamas while my dad stirred Manhattans in a tall glass cocktail shaker and garnished them with neon-red maraschino cherries.
But over the years he shifted away from drinking any hard liquor and stuck with Miller Lite, the occasional glass of red wine and a traditional tumbler of Baileys Irish Cream over ice on Christmas Eve. His liquor cabinet became a preserved tomb of Canadian Club, Lancers, and half-filled bottles of liqueurs and schnapps caked with dust.
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