Generally, when a bartender gives you a word of advice, you should take it.
I found this out the hard way in the Land of the Last Frontier. Alaska, for those who haven't heard the nickname. As one can imagine, Alaska has some mighty fine bars and taverns. It's easy to get in a web of people and become a community of alcohol, much like Cheers.
For those who may be regular patrons of a drinking establishment, you know the thrill when "everyone knows your name" because it fills you up with the said feeling of community I just mentioned. You gain a group of friends, and if you're lucky, the closeness prevents the potential problem of knocking one of them out or taking the damage yourself.
I've seen a barfight or two in my day.
This is why I usually chose a lowkey place to visit, and my regular order was two bottles of Samuel Adams and a coffee. Perhaps I was exhibiting a love for Boston since I had visited with an ex-girlfriend the year before, and that was the only positive thing left. It remained this way for many months. They could expect me as often as the mailman, and I would show up every evening between 5:30 PM and 7:00.
I would suck down my two beers in a circular upstairs bar shaped like a UFO. The bartenders rumored that in past days the bar actually rotated. There might have been a person or two that struck me as a bit intergalactic. Seeing it would have been great, but I wasn't that lucky.
I also wasn't lucky with the younger blonde bartender.
She was lovely and friendly enough, and par with my usual course, I was too nice, even if she displayed interest initially. And then I brought a friend to the bar, and she slept with him that night. As I learned, his drug-pandering activities made him much more attractive, even if he did come off like a used car salesman.
They decided to have fun on a more consistent basis and to let me in on the undesired details of their liaisons and the tales of a chemical high during passionate intercourse. Honestly, I'd never asked and didn't want to know. With all that time and money wasted both inside the bar and out of it, it made the beer taste flat. I took the hint and exited stage left.
That was how I ended up at the VFW Post bar.
If you're a veteran, being in a group of vets is, for the most part, your briar patch. This particular post is no longer in existence, but on those days I was there, its hallowed wood-paneled walls pretty much looked as one would expect like it was built by a bunch of good old boys. I don't mean that as much of a denigration as a description. It was dimly lit and adequately stocked. A sad party banner left as an afterthought from previous festivities hung along a makeshift bar of two-by-fours stained to provide the construction a purpose and identifying mark. But there was a refrigerator that held copious amounts of beer—nothing fancy, just the most common variants. For a veteran, sometimes that's the venue most desired.
I was among friends that were like me, which was calming and exciting at the same time.
That brings us to Gerry. I'm calling him Gerald because it's been almost thirty years, and I can't remember his real name. Gerry had the same blondish hair and vibe as Hannibal from the A-Team. That should have been my first warning. I won't say that there was anything sinister about him, but he was very much a rite of passage there at that little post.
Our conversation began innocently enough. I had ordered a Heineken, and as the barkeep brought my bottle Gerry smiled with approval, and I realized that he was drinking it as well.
"I love Heineken. Got hooked on it when we liberated the brewery."
"What?" I asked, laughing.
"No, the actual brewery. In Holland. We liberated them from the Nazis, and we drank a lot of beer there, let me tell you."
"You're saying you were in WWII?"
"My grandfather was in WWII, and I'm pretty sure he's got twenty years on you," I answered, not believing his horse hockey for a second.
"I'll bet ya $100," he said.
"I don't have a hundred."
"Fifty. Got that?"
I fished around in my pocket. I actually did have over a hundred in my pocket, but I wasn't telling him that.
"I got it."
Gerry slapped the counter, uncovering his challenge coin. "Put it up."
"You don't wanna do that," the bartender said, looking me in the eye.
The challenge coin is a thing of honor. Military members get challenge coins for various achievements. The short version is that in a bar setting like this, one person puts their coin on the table as a challenge, and all members of the party must present their coins. The one without pays. If all have their coins, the challenger pays.
I pulled the amount and laid my coin on top. I knew this might not go my way, but honor is honor, and I had run my mouth. Gerry didn't look a day over 50, and that was stretching it.
"Give the kid the card," Gerry said to the barman. He reached up to the wooden trim where he jammed the patrons' IDs for safekeeping, pulled Gerry's, and handed it to me.
There was Gerry's prominent smiling face, and the bottom of my stomach dropped as I read the birthdate on his Alaska driver's license.
"You're 74?" I asked in shock.
"Every day that I can tell," he laughed. Quickly yanking the bills from under my coin, he handed them to the bartender and said, "Start the kid a tab, wouldja?"
Honestly, this was a mighty decent way to handle it.
On a later occasion, I was drinking with the Post Commander and asked him about it, which led to a round of raucous laughter. "He does that to all the new folks that come in."
"And y'all aren't gonna do anything about that?" I asked.
"Hell, no! How do you think we stay ahead on beer around here?"