I did not commence my consumption of wine with a sophisticated palate. My first foray with the fruit of the vine was at the ripe age of fifteen and it was with a bottle of 1981 Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. Actually it could really be called a foray with the forbidden fruit because the beverage is an “apple wine product” that likely has NO grapes in it.
It was a hot Saturday in late September in Raleigh, North Carolina, an Indian summer day when the leaves were yellowing but you could still catch whiffs of Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil from the shiny brown legs of the teenagers smoking by the dumpster behind the 7/11. Up until that fall, my parents hadn’t let me go anywhere on the weekends but to slumber parties with girlfriends or to Skate Town where we would roller skate to Chic’s Le Freak and Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust. Once I got to High School, many of my rules were lifted. Once a straight-A student with a straight-laced reputation, I was suddenly unleashed upon the party scene and the only edicts I had to follow were to arrive home by curfew and to save myself for marriage. The possibility of alcohol consumption posing a challenge to rule number two was never discussed, though it would be many years and many, many more beers before I put serious thought into breaking that commandment.
So I embarked upon my newfound freedom with gusto. I hung out by the keg at my first high school parties, a feathered roach-clip in my feathered hair, streaked orangey-yellow with Sun-in, and my skin orangey-yellow from sunbathing on tin-foil with my body coated in baby oil and iodine, I was determined to make my high school years memorable and fun. Race a 250lb linebacker in a beer bong chugging contest? Sure! Count me in! But I never actually liked beer, at least not the cheap stuff we consumed. I drank it because it was present and plentiful. I needed a beverage I could call my own.
So on that sticky hot September day when the chrysanthemums dotted the flowerbeds and the last summer scents of honeysuckle were fading, a car full of junior and senior boys pulled up to the 7/11 and hung out the window calling out to us, “Anyone up for a swim at Sugar Lake?” “Sure!” we sophomores giggled back. We’d been in High School for less than a month and we’d already gotten the attention of the upper classmen. This boded well for our social lives.
Within an hour, and without the use of cell phones to organize it, a caravan of ten cars and pick-up trucks, their flatbeds filled with teens, towels, tubes and a pony keg were heading out to the old rock quarry otherwise know as Sugar Lake. Jody drove an old `62 white Porsche. “Don’t put your feet on the carpet," he called out, as I climbed in and we screeched down Buck Jones Road with Ozzy Osborne screaming about going off the rails on a crazy train.
When we were stopped at a traffic light, Jody lifted up the mat revealing what was left of the corroded floorboard, a rusty web of metal that offered a good view of the asphalt one foot below. I tucked my feet up on the cracked leather seat as we turned onto the gravel road leading to the quarry and listened as the rocks hit the floor mat like popcorn at first then like machine gun bullets when Jody decided to race a red pick up truck with an empty gun rack across the back window.
A guy I didn’t recognize was standing in the bed, holding on to that gun rack with one hand, while his other arm flew through the air, bucking bronco style. The truck lurched as it sped in front of us, its coolers crashing against the right side of the bed as an inner tube bounced out into a horseweed-filled ditch. The flatbed cowboy was thrown to the metal floor as Jody and I stopped short in the cloud of dust to rescue the tube. The truck driver hadn’t noticed the loss of his cargo or potential injury to his passenger who, within moments, popped up with a yee-haw and cracked open one of the cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon that were floating in the pool of spilled ice. The pick-up truck turned into the parking lot and disappeared from view behind a patch of Sweet Gum trees. Jody and I put the tube on the roof and he held onto it with his left hand while I held on with my right as we drove the last few yards to the quarry entrance.
Not a designated swimming area, we ducked one by one under the bent gap in the metal fencing, ignoring the DO NOT ENTER signs, and positioned our beach blankets and tattered towels on the lichen-covered rocks jutting out from the quarry cliffs or on the small stretch of beach below. Cases of beer and wine coolers were stationed on the large, flat rocks and someone passed me a bottle of icy cold Strawberry Hill. The sweet taste was far better than the bitterness of the beer, and I quickly became quite the connoisseur, easily identifying the nuanced notes of difference between Tickle Pink and Sun Peach Pink while drinking out of a solo cup by the reservoir that was our teenage wasteland.
No one checked the water’s depth before jumping. I guess we just believed the kid who said, “Trust me, I've been here before!” as he swan dove off the highest ledge followed immediately by several other credulous souls. I jumped in off a much lower precipice, holding my cup of wine-beverage high, and dog paddled out to the nearest flotation device, keeping my fabulously feathered hair as dry as possible. There in the black rubber tube, with the Carolina blue sky bright above me and the buzz of the alcohol along with the feeling of fitting in settling into my lanky limbs, I felt contented and hopeful that High School wouldn’t be as bad as I feared. Tiny fish nibbled at my butt, possibly foreshadowing some of the stings I’d suffer in the three years to come, but mostly I simply recall the easy sense of joy. A time when no choice seemed like a life changer. A time when we thought we were invincible.
As my new friends continued to leap off the cliffs into the murky water, somehow avoiding the rocky edges, we all munched on Doritos and picante sauce, consumed boxes of Twinkies while listening to Steve Miller and Grateful Dead bootleg tapes on the boom box, smoking joints and Marlboro lights.
We didn’t know then that classmates would later die in drunk-driving accidents, at least one from suicide and others would lose their lives to cancer or fall victim to the soon-to-be known AIDS epidemic. Life was simple then. And so were our tastes.
And I wonder, as you grow older and take fewer risks, making smart adult decisions and slowly sipping Cabernet blends that come highly recommended by the sommelier at the local wine shop from lead-free crystal stemware meant specifically for the varietal you’re drinking, is a more complex palate really all that much better if it comes with a more complex life? Maybe what we all need right now is to float in an inner tube with a solo cup full of Tickle Pink.