John W. Pinkerton

A young friend once asked me, “Why do all of your stories begin with ‘I was in this bar’?” A good question that caused me to chuckle and give the answer some thought.

When I was young, I spent a lot of time in bars.  A bar is a warm place with dim lighting where all things seem possible, perhaps even magical, and, at the very least, the amusing is likely to unfold before you.

My favorite bar was Elmer’s in Alexandria, Louisiana.  It was the place in which I learned to love Singapore Slings and to avoid Zombies.  It was the place I learned to tolerate Scotch by making it my first drink of the evening until one evening it actually tasted good: Scotch is truly an acquired taste.  My standard drink was bourbon and coke.  Later at a different bar, I learned to love Bloody Marys.  Elmer’s was a good place to meet with friends and acquaintances in the rosy soft light in the evenings when anything was possible.

Elmer’s was also a good place to bring dates.  The rosy soft lights never hurt.  I even finished second in a twist contest they had one night with a live band in the back.  If I could have contributed anything more than awkwardness, Bitsy, yeah, I’m a little surprised too that I remember her name, would have easily won the contest.  About six weeks after my date with Bitsy, I called her for another date.  She said she would love to go out with me, but she was married.  Oops.

There was another bar down the street that also featured live bands.  One night a bass player friend of mine and a few other less than sober young fellows descended on this bar while a live band was performing.  Perhaps because his talent had been enhanced by a few drinks, my bass playing friend was inspired to ask if he could sit in with the band.  The band agreed to our friend’s request, and our friend invited the rest of us drunks on stage to help him perform “BoDiddly.”  I recall not being able to remember the words always following about two words behind someone who did remember the words.  I have never heard a louder silence in my life than the silence which followed our performance.   So ended my stage career.

As I mentioned, anything seems possible in a bar:  the most astonishing coincidence occurred in another Alexandria bar shortly after I returned from two years in the army.  It was in a bar I had begun to frequent before I went into the service and a place that I always knew I could find a good friend of mine, Ronnie June “Tumble” Terry; he and I shared an apartment my last semester at LSU and his first semester at LSU in grad school, entomology.  Wishing to see Ronnie, I went to the bar.  After ordering and sipping my Bloody Mary, I surveyed the bar for familiar faces; Ronnie’s was not among them, but to my amazement, there was a fellow with whom I had been in advanced training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, a couple of years prior sitting at a table with a few other guys.  I remember that in spite of a broken shoulder blade, he and his sixty-six pound duffle bag had been sent off to guard South Korea from North Korea and the Chinese while I was being sent to guard Germany from the Russians.  Seeing him was not the coincidence.  After greeting him and exchanging updates on our lives, I learned that he was temporarily taking a job with the forestry service to replace a guy who had been called up to serve six months of active duty with the Navy.  Now the coincidence: he was replacing my other friend Ronnie June “Tumble” Terry.  It took me days to get over the strangeness of this coincidence.  I went on for twenty years occasionally thinking of Ronnie and knowing he was out in the world doing great things.  At a class reunion I learned that Ronnie died about a year after the bar coincidence.  I’m glad I didn’t know of his death for many years; I had years of positive thoughts of him and what he might be doing in the world.

The most profoundly inebriated  individual I ever encountered was at the old Country Inn in Somerville.  I say the “old” Country Inn because the “old” Country Inn was a bar and grocery store as well as a restaurant.  The grocery store and the best part of the place, the bar, are long gone.  Upon entering the joint after the changes, I realized they had clearly ruined a damned good bar.  I used to go by the place after work to have a few beers with some of the local working men,  mostly railroad workers.  One afternoon while sitting at the bar with a few other men, the building shook.  Of course we all turned to see the cause of the resounding thud behind us.  Still staggering back from an unexpected head-on collision with one of the support posts in the middle of the room, Bob (not his real name, even drunks deserve a little privacy), a local, must have centered the post on his way to the side door which led to the restrooms outdoors in a separate structure.  After finding his center of gravity, Bob resumed what seemed forever his long journey to the side door.  When he reached the door, he located the handle, grasped it, swung it open toward himself and hung on at a 45 degree angle for a good half minute gently rocking the door back and forth.  Once again he found his legs and passed through the door and disappeared.   All eyes turned to the windows behind the bar, and to our surprise, he finally emerged slowly moving within the frames of windows toward his goal. Mission accomplished, he returned to the bar to continue drinking as did we, no comments required.  Sadly, the Country Inn, has gone out of business: it is astonishing that anyone could be such a bad business person that they managed to destroy such a good business.

The best magic show I ever saw was in a GI bar in Germany.  It was New Year’s Eve in ‘67 I believe.  That evening I discovered that the bar owner was a bit of a magician.  In order to make the GI’s disappear in a timely fashion on New Year’s Eve, he served shots of free hot cognac.  One drink of this and your evening was over.  I declined the  drink suspecting something might be up with free drinks.  My two hundred pound friend, who was sitting across from me jammed between two other GIs, was suddenly gone, vanished.   After a few moments of puzzlement, we discovered him out cold beneath the table.  Apparently, like a man of mercury, he had silently slid to his sleeping place beneath the table.  Obviously his evening was over.

Bar sense is simply awareness of where the Hell you are.  I’ve always had it.  The first rule is keep your back to the wall.  The second rule is if you’re in a strange bar that’s nearly empty when you enter but quickly fills up, don’t wait for the show because you’re probably the main attraction.  The rest can’t be taught.  One late afternoon, my dad was visiting Baton Rouge, and we were on our way to pick up his brother, Uncle Paul, when Dad decided to stop into an unfamiliar bar.  We both sat at the bar and ordered beers.  While Dad flirted with the barmaid, my bar sense cut into overdrive.  I was picking up on some bad vibes.  I noticed in particular a couple of guys who were playing pool between us and the door.  I quietly told Dad that we needed to go, now.  He was reluctant, but we slid off the stools and headed for the door surprising the pool players who seemed startled and asked us, “Leaving already?”  A couple of days later Dad told me that he had read in the paper that a guy had been killed in that bar a couple of days before we were there.  This was one of the few times, maybe the only time, Dad said I had been right about something.  A proud Irish moment.

Good bars tend to promote good roundtable conversations.  One of the most memorable occurred at Greenvine (a crossroads west of Brenham which consists of two churches and a bar--grocery store).  Joe, a good friend of mine, had invited me to spend the evening at the bar with him.  The locals were appropriately crusty.  The potential for a good roundtable was there.  For some reason, Joe began telling those assembled that he liked to bite off the heads of the little chicks his momma would buy at Easter.  It seems that his momma, understandably, had objections.  Well, this revelation seemed to spark a desire from some of the others to reveal long repressed revelations about themselves.  One fellow revealed that he used to like to go into bars armed with light bulbs with which he delighted and intimidated the locals by eating.  This prompted several others of the assembled members to reveal equally embarrassing tales about themselves.  When the assembled seemed to come to a stopping point, I, still stunned by his revelation about biting the heads off little chicks, asked Joe to tell this story one more time.  Joe looked a little surprised by my request, but he began by saying, “You know.  Those little chocolate Easter chicks.”  This clarification caused groans among those who, prompted by Joe’s revelation, had told stories on themselves which in retrospect should have been left untold.

My bar career came to an end many years ago.  One thing that helped end it was the night I threw myself out of the Country Inn, the local bar, grocery store, and restaurant.  Newt, the owner at the time, and I were friends.  He and I often stayed in the bar after it closed for the evening to drink into the morning.  One evening when the bar was particularly busy, Newt tried to get me to agree with him that a couple of people we knew were having an affair.  Although I suspected he was right, I didn’t know with certainty that it was true.  Newt kept insisting that I should admit my agreement with him.  Insulted by his insistence, I declared that I would never trouble him again by darkening his door.  Essentially I kept my word.  I understand that every cell in a man’s body is replaced in approximately seven years.  True or not, it’s a good measuring stick for the appropriate length of time to reach forgiveness for minor offenses.  Seven years later I did finally darken his door when he opened at a different location.

It has been many years since any of my new stories have begun with, “I was in this bar.” The main reason I gave up my bar tour was having to listen to the same sad stories over and over again: lost love, lost money, wrongs that can not be let go of.  Perhaps romantic at first telling if told well, but boring with repetition. And thus the tour ended, probably just in time.

Still, there is a lot to be said for a warm place with dim lighting where all things seem possible.


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