Kids hung out at the Dairy Queen on Friday and Saturday nights in this middle-sized southern town where football was king, high school fraternities and sororities determined white middle-class teenage social life, and the more you were involved in either of these two things, the more you were revered.
I rode with an older girl who had a crush on my older brother and wanted me in her sorority when I reached high school. We sat on a slippery car hood sipping cherry Cokes, gossiping and flirting. She introduced me to a guy named Hal, a doctor's kid with a reputation for being rich and wild. He drove a great red sports car. He was 17. He asked if I wanted to take a ride.
I did. We rolled through the take-out window of the Dairy Queen. He ordered a large 7-Up and poured half of it into my empty cup. Then we sped off toward the edge of town, windows rolled down, the radio crooning Memphis rhythm and blues.
Hal pulled a slim, golden bottle out from under the driver's seat and angled it my way. He poured a few glugs into my 7-Up.
"Seven and Seven," he crooned, as if he were talking about something beautiful. It tasted like syrup but I drank mine, measuring my intake against his. We flew around dark curves of country road. My brain loosened. I let my hair fly out the passenger window.
I had made a new friend.
The next year, I was invited to every fraternity and sorority party in town. The fraternities had bonfires in the woods the next county over. Kegs of beer bordered the wide circle where boys and girls stood or danced, arms casually slung over shoulders or wrapped tight around waists. Our town was in a dry county. For a small profit or a share of the beer, older college-age brothers bought the beer and deposited it in the designated location. It wasn't legal to be underage and drinking in the woods the next county over, but at least the town cops couldn't pursue us there.
Within two years time, two of the kids I hung out with at those parties were dead or maimed. One boy took the curve of a country road too fast, coming home from a party, rolled his car and lost his arm. The other, a girl known for her daring when drinking, went off to Ole Miss, climbed on the back hood of a moving car at a fraternity party, stood up, spread her arms wide, flew off when the car hit a bump and cracked her skull against the pavement.
My family moved to Memphis and I went to a big high school where some kids were big drinkers, others were social drinkers and some didn't drink at all. Some smoked pot instead. But getting booze was easy, always easy. My boyfriend had a taste for Jim Beam that eventually drove him off the road one woozy night after graduation, almost ruining his wonderful face that looked just like Dick Van Dyke.
I married a smart guy, a top student, his sophomore year in college. We were chronically broke, and most of our entertainment centered around his fraternity house. His friends were bright guys, English and political science majors, funny and verbose. They drank a lot. Now, people would call it binge drinking, but then it was just what you did at the fraternity house on any given night. By my husband's senior year, one frat brother was dead, killed in a car accident coming home from a party, dead drunk. At least two others were headed for years of alcohol and drug addiction, rehab, recovery and relapse.
I grew up in a house with no booze in it -- not a single bottle stowed anywhere. I drank anyway, as comfortably and normally as I walked or sang or breathed. Now I'm the mother of two teenage sons and two grown children. I've interrogated them regularly about drinking, and sometimes they've told me the truth, sometimes not. The two youngest are of the generation of the newly recognized underage binge drinking epidemic.
When I hear that one of their friends has gone to rehab, or has had a terrible accident after drinking too much, I am shocked at first. Where do they get their booze? I ask. How can one person drink that much? The newspaper announces bureaucratic solutions, programs designed to attack the problem. Advertising and Hollywood are given equal blame for glorifying drinking and targeting kids.
But underage drinking, I remember, doesn't happen in a vacuum. It didn't come from nowhere. It's nothing new, as dangerous now as it was back then on that country road, Seven and Seven sloshing in a paper cup, my hair flying out the passenger window, my heart lifted with the promise of a new friend.