Ya-Hoo! Mountain Dew!

I'm about to make a startling confession. This may well get me disowned by much of my family, and despised by many of my neighbors. But, it's high time I came out of the closet. I can no longer hide in shame.

I drink beer.

There. I said it.

Each and every Friday night, right here in the heart of the Bible Belt, I drink beer. This may not seem like such a shocking admission to most people. But, most people weren't raised in North Carolina, surrounded by throngs of fervent, fundamentalist Baptists who are still in a sour mood over the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. I love North Carolina with all my heart, and seldom find fault with my dear Tar Heel State. However, I am ashamed to admit that you'll rarely run across a place with more screwy attitudes and laws concerning the simple act of drinking a beer. (Thank goodness for Utah! If not for them, we'd really look bad.)

As a young child, I never knew beer existed. You couldn't find it on any shelf out in our neck of the woods. Being the inquisitive child I was ("why" was my second favorite word behind "no"), I wanted to know all about beer when it finally appeared in our local country store. So, I quizzed Mom. She glared at me as if I'd used one of those four-letter words that so often got my mouth washed out with Ivory soap. Her explanation was terse, in a hushed tone as if someone might be secretly spying on our conversation. She told me that beer was awful, tasting exactly like soured milk. If you committed the sin of drinking beer you would lose your job, be hated by your family, and be sent straight to "H-E-double-L" to burn for eternity. Beer might even kill you.

Whoa. Apparently, beer drinking ranked right up there with gambling and soapy-mouthed words on my mom's extensive list of sins. It was even more sinful than failing to clean your plate at suppertime. Still, I wondered if Mom wasn't exaggerating just a bit. After all, those sparkling bottles of Miller High Life down at Burke's Store didn't look all that evil to me.

This would not be the last time I'd have embarrassing alcohol questions for my mom. By the time I turned five or six years old, Guilford County had become one of the first places in the state to allow the sale of liquor. As is still true today, North Carolina's liquor stores are all run by the government. These bland, nondescript stores are always located in anonymous little buildings. Out front, there's nothing but a simple sign that reads "ABC" (short for "Alcoholic Beverage Control"). As a young boy just learning to read, I was quite convinced that any store adorned with the letters "ABC" must be a toy store. One chilly December afternoon, while on a shopping trip with Mom and several of her prim and proper Garden Club members, I spoke up from the back seat.

"Mom, can we stop at the ABC store?"

The car, which only seconds earlier had been filled with chatty conversation, fell eerily silent. After an uncomfortable pause, my mom attempted to restart the conversation. I'm convinced she was secretly hoping my car door would pop open, spilling me onto the street, before I could repeat my question. Unfortunately for my teetotaling mom, it didn't. Instead, I repeated my question, hoping that increased volume might elicit a response.

"MOM! Can't we please stop at the ABC store? Please!"

Since I was safely out of backhand range, Mom, realizing I was not going to shut up until I received an answer, was forced to explain to her friends that she'd never once stepped foot inside an ABC store, and had certainly never allowed me inside one. I'm not sure they were convinced.

Later that winter, I was given irrefutable cause to doubt my mom's assessment of the evils of beer. My dad allowed me to accompany him into town to shop for Christmas gifts. During the course of the day, we stopped for lunch at a little downtown diner called Hamm's. Right away, I knew Mom would not approve of Hamm's. Hamm's had a tiny neon sign in the window that read "BEER". (By the way, North Carolina law dictates that "the letters and figures" used to "display the term 'beer' shall not be more than 5 inches in height". A "retail malt beverage permittee" may display only "a single, non-mechanical outside sign" spelling out that evil, four-letter word "beer".)

While I was innocently munching away on a tray of onion rings, listening to Christmas music playing on the jukebox, who should enter Hamm's but Santa Claus himself! He sauntered right up to the bar and, much to my shock and amazement, ordered himself a big old mug of beer!

This sight made me seriously doubt the sinfulness of beer. After all, Santa was a well-known authority on naughty and nice. But, even at my young age, I had far better sense than to confront Mom with this evidence so close to Christmas. I knew from past experience that Mom was the final, unquestionable arbiter of naughty and nice. She had the power to rat me out to Santa.

As my brothers and I entered grade school, Dad would occasionally be forced to intercede on our behalf when it came to Mom's constant vigil over potential beverage sinfulness. It was about this time that the soft drink Mountain Dew was first introduced. The early commercials for Mountain Dew featured two cartoon hillbillies who looked suspiciously like moonshiners. They'd take a sip of Mountain Dew, fire off their squirrel rifles, and yell, "Ya-hoo! Mountain Dew!" It took our dad considerable effort to convince Mom we would not burn in hell if we were allowed an occasional Mountain Dew. It was such a happy day when my brother and I, thoroughly buzzed on caffeine, finally got to run through the house, firing our cap guns, and squealing, "Ya-hoo! Mountain Dew!"

My alcohol education continued in junior high school "health class". Health class was what we had whenever the weather was too nasty for "gym class". Coach, who was probably the least qualified person in the entire county to teach anything, gave us a lecture on the evils of alcohol (or, al-kee-hall, as he liked to pronounce it). His assessment of alcohol seemed to closely match that of my mom. The lecture was immediately followed by a black-and-white film, complete with cheesy horror movie effects, about marijuana. It warned that anyone who dared touch a marijuana cigarette would soon be transformed into a jazz musician. Shortly thereafter, they'd jump out a window to their death. If you were a female who succumbed to reefer madness, your hair and makeup would always be messy, and you'd pull down your panties at the drop of a hat.

The lecture and movie were pretty entertaining, and health class sure beat the hell out of playing "Kill". Kill was a game invented by Coach. In Kill, you were graded on your "competitive spirit" - that is, how fiercely you attempted to pummel classmates in the face with a volley ball. I didn't have much competitive spirit. Instead, I usually forged a doctor's note so I could go wash towels. A lot of kids needed a towel after a rousing game of Kill.

Still, the marijuana movie aroused my suspicion. Everyone in health class knew Stoned Billy. He indiscreetly smoked marijuana all the time. Everyone in health class also knew that Stoned Billy was far too busy eating potato chips and napping in the back row of class to ever take up jazz music or jump out windows. Furthermore, I'd never once seen his girlfriend, Stoned Suzy, pull down her panties. I would have remembered a thing like that. So, I came to the inescapable conclusion that Coach, like Mom, must be exaggerating the evils of marijuana and beer. It was starting to look like a conspiracy.

Despite my suspicion that everyone was lying to me about beer, my upbringing did succeed in planting a large enough seed of fear in my mind to prevent me from ever enjoying a beer for most of my teenage years. However, there was one thing Mom and Coach never reckoned on: the power of Kink.

Kink was one of the coolest guys in high school. He was a sort of 1970's version of The Fonz. His parties were legendary. In one of the greatest honors ever bestowed upon me in my entire teenage life, Kink deemed me cool enough to be invited to one of his parties.

I'll never forget that Friday night. There must have been two dozen cars parked on the street in front of Kink's house. I could hear the sound of laughter and music wafting through the air as I approached the front door. Once inside, Kink, surrounded by an entourage of exotic girls from other high schools, personally greeted me.

Then, it happened. Kink handed me a beer.

I felt a little nervous even touching the 12-ounce, brown and white can of Schlitz. (Schlitz was the cool beer of 1970's Guilford County.) Trying to look as cool as possible, I nervously popped the pull-tab off the can. Then, while no one was looking, I gave it a sniff. Much to my surprise, it smelled nothing at all like sour milk. I screwed up all my courage, then took a sip. It wasn't near as tasty as a Mountain Dew, but it did give me a hankering to holler, "Ya-hoo!"

From that point on, I threw caution to the wind. I figured if I was going to burn in hell, I might as well make a little money off alcohol along the way. Thanks to North Carolina's prudish alcohol laws, I was soon raking in the dough. At the time, I worked as a bellboy at a very nice Radisson Hotel. I'd pick up guests at the airport, haul their luggage to their room, then rush back downstairs to the room service phone. Invariably, newcomers to North Carolina would call room service for a cocktail. I'd inform them that selling liquor by the drink was illegal in North Carolina. I'd then offer to secretly run to the ABC store to fetch them a bottle of their favorite spirits. In truth, I had to run no further than the parking lot. I kept a pretty well-stocked bar under a blanket in the back of my Opal Kadet station wagon.

After goofing off long enough to make my make-believe trip to the ABC store seem sufficiently arduous, I'd deliver the guest their bottle of liquor. Such service so far above and beyond the call of duty guaranteed a ridiculously large tip.

I'd often score bonus points by explaining North Carolina's archaic "Brownbagging" law. (Honest, that's how it's spelled in the statute.) At the time, the Radisson possessed the most liberal ABC permit allowed by law. They actually had a lounge, complete with bartender, a couple of scantily clad cocktail waitresses, and a powder-blue tuxedoed lounge singer. But, there was one thing the lounge didn't have - liquor. According to North Carolina law, the bartender could serve you a very expensive glass of ice and tonic water, but it was up to you to bring your own bottle of gin (in a brown paper bag, of course).

Being the helpful bellboy I was, I'd also offer to run down to the store to fetch a bottle of tonic water whenever a guest blanched at the thought of paying $1.75 for a glass of mixer.

Even though generous tips had led me to the conclusion that alcohol was not entirely evil, I was still not immune from some of its rumored perils. Just as Mom had warned me, alcohol nearly got me killed. But, it did so one Saturday night when I was stone-cold sober. I'd recently broken up with my high school sweetheart (and robber of my virginity), Nancy. Nancy's parents were the only college educated parents I'd ever met. Their liberal arts educations had apparently led them to believe they would not burn in hell for having a liquor cabinet. However, their education failed to teach them they should lock this cabinet whenever leaving their distraught teenaged daughter home alone.

Nancy telephoned me. She was so thoroughly intoxicated I'm amazed she could operate a phone. She begged me to come see her. Fearing the punishment she might receive should her parents catch her in this drunken state, I foolishly decided to rush to her rescue. When I arrived at her house, it reeked of alcohol. I asked her what she'd been drinking. In speech so slurred it was barely intelligible, she explained that she'd made herself a huge cocktail by mixing very small portions of every liquor in her parent's cabinet. That way, they wouldn't figure out she'd been pilfering. I was certainly no expert on cocktails, but this sounded like a very bad idea to me.

I did my best to clean up the disarray Nancy had caused while teetering around the room like a lopsided bowling ball. Then, with precious seconds ticking by, I tried, in vain, to convince my crying ex-girlfriend to go to bed before her parents got home. Exasperated, I finally picked Nancy up like a limp, alcohol-soaked dish rag, and physically carried her to her bedroom. As I got her tucked into bed, she drifted back into consciousness and groggily announced, "I'm so horny! Aren't you horny?"

What a moral dilemma! For my entire teenage life, the mind-numbing thought of actually turning down sex had never entered my mind. Not once. For all I knew, this could be my last naked romp for years, or, judging from past success, even decades! But, before I got the chance to proudly take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to say "no", the bedroom light suddenly flashed on. There, standing in the doorway, were Nancy's parents. They'd heard Nancy's question. But, they never got to hear me answer "no".

I sometimes wonder if Nancy's parents might have telepathically heard the phrase that was so loudly echoing through my mind when the lights came on. That phrase was: "Oh, shit."

During my twenties, much of the North Carolina legislature's time was spent battling over whether to allow counties the option of permitting the sale of liquor by the drink. The measure passed by the narrowest of margins. It was such a momentous occasion that I showed up early one morning at a local bar to make history. I was going to be one of the very first people since Prohibition to legally order a cocktail in North Carolina. However, deciding on what to order put me in a bit of an embarrassing situation. I only knew the names of two cocktails. I'd heard James Bond order "a martini, shaken, not stirred". I'd also heard a guy on a soap opera order "scotch on the rocks". Not wanting to offend the rookie bartender by demanding she shake, not stir, I opted for a scotch on the rocks. It tasted suspiciously like sour milk. But, I enjoyed it nonetheless. I was helping usher North Carolina into the 20th century.

I should probably admit that calling this place a "bar" is a bit of a stretch. In truth, there are no real bars in North Carolina. Real bars are illegal. The only places where it is legal to sell liquor by the drink are restaurants and private clubs. Apparently, our legislature doesn't want you drinking on an empty stomach, nor do they want you suddenly succumbing to temptation as you walk down the street. Instead, you must fill out a private club membership application, then wait three days. If, after three days, you haven't come to your senses and opted for a Mountain Dew, you may then enter the bar.

To this day, around five percent of North Carolina's counties are still dry. I once got talked into visiting a dry ski resort. I'll never understand why any sober person would choose to voluntarily strap boards on their feet and slid down an icy mountain. It just doesn't make sense. If our legislators need something to do, maybe they should take a look at these crazy sober skiiers.

While North Carolina has certainly loosened up a bit over the years, we've still got some pretty motherly beer laws. For example, it's illegal to sell beer on Sunday morning. We must go to Sunday School, children! It's illegal for a bartender to "use or permit the use by any other person of loud, profane or indecent language". Use you indoor voice! No yelling, "Ya-hoo, Mountain Dew!" It's illegal for a bar to "allow any persons to use the yards or grounds of the licensed premises as a toilet." Wear you Huggies, children! "The touching, caressing or fondling of the breasts, buttocks,..." or many other body parts is forbidden in a North Carolina bar. Hands to yourself, children! Also, "...slang descriptions such as "brew," "suds," "six-pack," "vino" or similar terms are prohibited." I'll wash your mouth out with Ivory, children!

In a move that would make even the authors of the USA Patriot Act envious, North Carolina's legislators, those righteous protectors of God and Country, have made it illegal for any beer label to include "...any statement, design, device or pictorial representation of or relating to or capable of being construed as relating to the armed forces of the United States or the American Flag".

(Cue Lee Greenwood singing God Bless the USA, eyes tearfully gazing skyward as a flag gently waves in the background.)

Coach would be so very proud.

Being one of the sinful fallen, I'm tempted to flaunt these laws. This Friday night, as friends gather out on my screen porch for a cold beer and friendly conversation, I may just wave my flag and fondle me some buttocks.

I might even shout, "Ya-hoo!"