Ok—I know I’m going to catch some shit for discussing this topic in an unorthodox way and for my somewhat snarky title, but please remember that I was born in Wisconsin in 1962 and that was a very different time and place. So please don’t judge my behavior in 1979 by 2019 standards or I’ll be calling you a freakin’ snowflake!
To be very clear about the different eras, when a cop pulled you over late on a Saturday night in the 1970s or 1980s (and it happened to me three times, once while I was underage) the first question he asked you was how many drinks you have had. The question was not today’s, “Have you been drinking?” because they knew damned well that you very likely had been and you had better not insult their intelligence by lying about it. With that in mind, you had also better not insult the cop’s intelligence by saying “a couple of beers” at 2am. He also knew damned well that you had probably been out partying for 4-6 hours, so the “correct” answer was “I think about 5 or 6, officer.” People’s jaws drop when I tell them that today because that answer would mean instant arrest for DUI. But back in 1980, the cop would talk to you for a minute to see if you were coherent and then give you a few field sobriety tests with the actual intention of seeing if you were capable of driving reasonably safely, not for the express purpose of arresting you for a DUI.
As I said, I was pulled over three times late at night after probably having 10-12 beers in a 4-6 hour period, and I actually could walk, talk, and drive. (More on that to come…) I think twice I had a taillight out and the third cop was just checking to see if I was OK at 3am cruising down our dark country roads. All three stops went pretty much the same–I talked calmly to the cop for a minute or two, he told me my taillight was out, had me walk the line, touch my nose, shined his light in my eyes, etc. and every time I passed the tests and he let me go. During the one stop when I was only 17, I thought for sure the cop would bust me for being underage, but he just made an offhand comment as he gave me my driver’s license back about how I should be more careful having working taillights at least until I was 18 in a few months–Hahaha!!!
We’ve all heard the phrase “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” but I’m going to lay my personal driving track record stats on you and then explain why I’m grateful in a variety of ways.
Eric’s Lifetime Driving Miles: Approximately 2,000,000 in 40 years
Eric’s Lifetime DUI Miles: Approximately 500,000
Eric’s Lifetime Auto Accident and DUI Record: 0
Let me begin by saying right upfront that my heart goes out to anyone who has experienced the potentially deadly result of people who don’t drive safely whether in a sober or DUI condition. (And I do believe that there are actually plenty of sober drivers who are more dangerous than DUIers for a variety of reasons.) Given my current experience with a deadly disease, I definitely have plenty of empathy to go around for anyone’s suffering no matter what the cause.
The first and probably most important thing I’m grateful for is my somewhat Zen ability to be at one with a car and the road, and I think I must have been born with this. From the time I first drove my go-cart at age 10 (Thanks, Dad–You probably saved my life at least once!) to sneaking out in our parents’ cars when we were 14 and 15 (see “Learning to Drive in 1975” if you’re curious), I always LOVED to be behind the wheel and felt totally comfortable from the get go.
When I first got my license, I had already been drinking and smoking weed for a couple of years, but just to be cautious I didn’t smoke or drink and drive for the first few months to see how confident I felt about driving all over town and to places I’d never driven before. Even at age 16 I felt a responsibility to know my limits, and after a few months I felt comfortable enough to enjoy the freedom of driving to bars and partying with my friends. (The drinking age was 18 at the time; I looked about 14; but a few bucks, a friendly attitude and a fake ID would get you into a lot of places!) After all, if you couldn’t drink a bunch of beers and a take a few tokes, why were you going out with your friends on a Saturday night?! And FYI—I don’t think the phrase “designated driver” even existed back then. To us, the “designated driver” was simply the one with the best overall road skills at closing time whether DUI or sober! And due to my overall driving skills and sane attitude, I was usually elected as the “DDD” (“designated drunk driver”).
What made it work for me was my attitude of focus and diligence behind the wheel, and I’m very grateful I always had this attitude that driving was serious business. The fact that I was chemically impaired never altered my personality to the point that I became completely irrational, overly emotional, or had all my sanity filters removed. I could be in the bar or at the party for hours drinking, dancing, smoking, jamming, and generally living it up with my friends and feeling totally free as a bird. A lot of my DUI miles and years were racked up when I was playing in bands and going to live music shows from age 16-30. But when the gig or party night was over and I got behind the wheel, my party attitude immediately switched off and my 100% focus was becoming one with the car and the road so I could get everyone safely home without drawing the attention of the police. If I got in a wreck or got busted, my freedom to have fun would be gone, and that was definitely strong motivation for a teenage boy! I literally treated every buzzed drive as if I were taking a driver’s test. My mental routine was to double-check everything possible in my mind before I even put the car in drive. Headlights on? Check. The route home? Check—Run it through my mind (no, we didn’t have GPS dashboard maps talking to us in those days—Hahaha!) Weather conditions? Check—It’s snowing tonight so be extra careful in that rear-wheel drive car with the nearly bald tires! You get the idea, and I would never speed, tailgate, swerve around or drive in any other dangerous or risky way. But I had friends who did, and I’ll be getting to them shortly…
What you younger readers and many of you from Arizona don’t know is that although DUI was obviously illegal everywhere even in the ancient 1970s and 1980s, the punishment in Wisconsin was a $180 fine and you lost your license for a whole 3 months with an allowance that you could still drive to and from work! And I don’t think they even raised the fine or the loss of license time until your third or fourth offense. While people today would consider that appallingly weak enforcement of DUI laws, the fact is that Wisconsin in the ’70s and ’80s was a drinking culture (and still is), and what me and my friends were doing was pretty much (except for the weed!) what our parents, their friends, and even the cops were doing on their party nights out. I will confess to being a little bit worse than the older generation in the sense that I typically did a “wake and bake” at 7:30 in the morning on the drive to “high” school. Of course, the older generation often had booze in their offices (I know my dad’s office did!), so we were probably pretty even on this score except that they waited until 10am at least—Hahaha!
Having said all that, I did have some incidents that challenged my driving diligence to a pretty extreme degree, and I can honestly say that I occasionally just got lucky. I generally tried not to drive while taking psychedelic drugs, but it did happen a few times. There’s nothing like driving through a storm of florescent purple snow while the road is melting in front of you! (The road where this happened was ironically named “Lake Shore Drive,” and I’ll leave it to you to figure out the irony we saw in that—Hahaha!) Talk about needing all your mental powers of focus… Seeing double from too much alcohol was also a challenge as well. Fortunately, there was a simple remedy for this in that you could close your non-dominant eye and focus on the lines on the road. Voila–No more double vision!
But these were very rare occurrences, and it’s also important to know that in these 2am situations there was generally not much traffic on the road, and any mishap would only injure me and my fellow party animals in the car. And I am so grateful that never happened with me behind the wheel. I wouldn’t be the same person today if I had hurt or killed someone (most likely a close friend) because of something stupid I had done while driving. I tried to strike a balance between my WTF attitude that life was meant to be wild and fun with the idea that life is at risk when you don’t do your best to mitigate the risks you can. I think I did a pretty good job balancing risk and reward, but I am also grateful for the luck that was involved in achieving half a million trouble-free DUI miles.
OK—So that was my attitude toward diligent DUI in the ancient days, but unfortunately not all of my friends shared that attitude. Like many young men, they thought they were Mr. Invincible and Mario Andretti (you youngsters look him up) all rolled into one whether sober or drunk. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve been scared shitless by some of my friends’ driving behavior in a variety of both sober and altered states.
One of my most memorable scared shitless moments came when four of us were driving from high school downtown about 15 miles or so to our friend Marc’s house after final exams one semester in high school. I’m sure we fired up a fattie and popped a cold one in my friend Tim’s car on the way out of the parking lot, but DUI wasn’t really the issue that day. Tim had a souped-up 1974 Firebird that really hauled ass, and he never missed an opportunity to let you know it!
On the way to Marc’s house, we ran into some road construction and an ensuing traffic jam on the highway where they had closed off one lane and only left one lane open. Of course this slowed us down from 70mph to 10mph, and we had a case of cold beer waiting for us at Marc’s house! Well, Tim weaved back and forth for about a minute trying to see how long the traffic jam was, and it looked like it went on for quite a while. The left lane was closed, the right lane was open, and I was sitting in the minuscule rear passenger seat with the rather narrow emergency lane to my right outside the window. Tim kept jockeying in there to see if he could get a look ahead, and this brought my face to within literally inches of the 4′ tall solid cement retaining wall next to the narrow emergency lane. This didn’t bother me much when we were stuck in traffic at 10mph, but Tim quickly became impatient and decided to drive in the narrow emergency lane instead. (Apparently, he wanted that beer pretty soon!)
For the first few seconds at about 25mph I was cool with my face so close to the retaining well that I could count the rebar pieces, but as he quickly picked up speed I started to get pretty nervous. There was literally only about a foot between the line of slow cars to our left and about a foot between my face and the cement retaining wall. All it would have taken was one other curious driver to weave into the emergency lane for a second to assess the jam ahead, and we (particularly me!) would be toast.
When we hit about 40-50 with a line of nearly stopped cars to the left and the retaining wall almost touching my nose, I started to get really scared and yelled at Tim to chill out and slow down. Tim kind of laughed at me in the rear view mirror, so I gave a quick glance in Tim’s younger brother Brian’s direction in the rear driver’s side seat beside me and kind of raised my eyebrows as if to say: “He’s your brother-Can you please say something?” Brian kind of shook his head with a smirk as if to say: “Dude, you shouldn’t have said anything—It will only encourage him,” and damned if he wasn’t right about that! My fear and Brian’s knowledge of his brother proved to be accurate as we immediately got going to around 70-80mph because “that was closer to the speed limit” as Tim said later. The stopped traffic was literally a blur on my left as the cars flew by, and the retaining wall was so close I could have kissed it. I yelled a few more times to no avail, and eventually closed my eyes and STFU hoping I wouldn’t feel any pain as I died. The jam turned out to be about a mile long, and at 70mph that meant we made it through in about a minute, but I have to say that was one of the longest minutes of my life! So my gratitude in this situation is for the purely random good luck we were given that no other impatient drivers decided to have a quick swerve to look at the jam or to do what we did and veer into the emergency lane unexpectedly to “beat the traffic!”
A few years after this, Tim and I were college roommates living in downtown Milwaukee. One night we decided to go out drinking at a place called the Midget Tavern (also infamous serial killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer’s regular hangout, and I’ll get to that in a minute!), and my car must have been in the shop because we took Tim’s motorcycle, a rather tiny Honda 350 road bike. The Midget was only about 3-4 miles away, so I thought nothing of it. (I never learn—Hahaha!) Of course we stayed until closing time (3:30am on Saturdays), and we were definitely pretty shit faced! I asked Tim if he was OK to drive us home on the bike and he told me I could wear the helmet! We were in the city so I knew we wouldn’t be going too far or too fast, so I hopped on.
I asked Tim if there was anything I needed to do as a passenger, and he told me that whenever we stopped at a light I should not put my feet down but keep them on the pegs and stay centered on the seat behind him. He would do everything else, which turned out to mean everything except stay awake long enough to get us home in 10 minutes! We got to a rather long stop light only a few blocks from our apartment, and I noticed Tim was slowly leaning the bike to the right for no apparent reason. Like a good passenger, I followed his instructions and kept my feet on the pegs right up until we kept leaning further right and eventually hit the ground! Of course we weren’t hurt and I apologized for not putting my feet down and asked him what happened. He rather sheepishly (or sleepily) admitted to me that he had literally fallen asleep at the traffic light! Obviously, this isn’t a particularly scary story, but if Tim had fallen asleep while we were going 35 on a main drag, the story could have had quite a different ending indeed! So I’m grateful for that bit of good luck too…
Jeffrey Dahmer Wedding Sidebar
Ok–So it’s time for the Jeffrey Dahmer sidebar story here… The Midget Tavern had been a favorite hangout of Tim’s and Scooter’s since our high school days, and they knew the owner Mike very well. The “Midget” was a very apropos name for the place because it was a tiny neighborhood bar that seated literally maybe 20-30 people. Needless to say, Mike the owner was on a first-name basis with almost everybody who came into his bar. When Tim and Kathy got married in the early ’80s, they had a little pre-wedding get together at the Midget for the wedding party. I went to the wedding, but I missed the Midget gathering because I wasn’t in the wedding party. (In hindsight, I certainly wish I had been in the photos below!)
In the photos below, Tim and Kathy are the third and fourth people from the left, and best man Scooter is standing next to Tim. Tim’s niece Becky is the cute little flower girl on the other side of the bar, and the dude in the baseball cap right behind her is none other than infamous serial killer Jeffery Dahmer. He lived only a few blocks away and was a regular patron of the Midget. He and Mike the owner were on a first-name basis, and nobody knew at the time that he had a bunch of dismembered bodies in his freezer that he was scarfing down on a regular basis!
Back on the Road with Crazy John…
Although Tim was often a fast and aggressive driver, my high school friend John was absolutely nuts when sober, and he got even worse when drinking. He would mouth off to guys twice his size, insult entire groups of people when it was just me and him (and I’ve never been in a fight in my life—Seriously! And I’m grateful for that too!), and he would drive like an absolute maniac when alcohol lowered his inhibitions and removed all filters from his brain (and they were defective to begin with). John had already gotten in at least two pretty serious wrecks by the time he was 18, and fortunately they were both one-car collisions and there were no passengers in his car. Until wreck #3 where I was the passenger…
We had been to a party in an outer suburb of Milwaukee and we were staying at my house in a different outer suburb about 35 miles away. So we had a good long drive ahead of us at about 2am, and the dozen beers each of us had didn’t help matters. I should stop and say right here that if it had been one of my other friends, I might have been offered the keys as the sane, focused DDD (designated drunk driver) and things would likely have turned out differently. But John had an ego the size of Texas and he was going to drive come hell or high water.
At that time John drove a ’74 Triumph TR6 convertible, and it was summer so we were riding with the top down. When we left the party around 2am, we noticed that one of our buddies had disconnected the two front seats from the floor and they were completely loose and floating on the floor! We didn’t have the tools or the patience to reconnect them then, so we lined them up in their tracks the best we could and headed out to my house. When we got about 5 miles away from home, we were on a rural road I knew quite well (it was that “Lake Shore Drive” again!), and we were going about 55 in a 35, but it was 2:30 in the morning so I wasn’t too worried until we started approaching what I knew to be a hairpin turn. I mentioned it to John at least ¼ mile in advance and figured he would slow down, but he told his Triumph could handle that “no problem” because it was a “sports car,” it was made for that, and he babbled something about how he was going to “oversteer” or some arrogant driving geek bullshit that would allow him to navigate the hairpin turn flawlessly without touching the brakes.
I started to panic when he didn’t slow down because I knew a few things he didn’t about the turn, namely that even in a “sports car” you couldn’t go faster than about 30, that there was no guardrail on the hairpin turn, the ditch was literally about 6 feet deep, and there were large oak trees planted just beyond the ditch in the yard adjacent to the road! Knowing this, I yelled at him more loudly and firmly but to no avail. We hit that turn at about 45 as John hit the brakes at the last second when he had his “Oh, shit!” moment, and we of course went careening right off the road and into the deep ditch before we even made it halfway around the turn. I can still remember seeing one of the oak trees approaching the window directly in front of me, and I thought I was a goner. But by some miracle, the car hit something else underneath a nanosecond before and shifted the car far enough to the left that I didn’t end up eating the oak tree as a midnight snack! And remember, our seats weren’t even attached to the floor and we weren’t wearing our seatbelts because of that! I would have likely been launched out of the convertible at 40mph to almost certain death.
We crashed to a stop in the ditch without hitting a tree, and miraculously neither one of us was even hurt. I think John may have bumped his head on the steering wheel, but that was it. I let out a huge sigh of relief as I realized we had made it through this potentially deadly disaster unscathed but John was having none of that. The word “gratitude” did not exist in John’s vocabulary (nor the concept in his mind apparently either), and the first words out of his mouth were something like: “Why didn’t you tell me it was a REAL hairpin turn?!!” as though it were now somehow MY fault that he had crashed his car! I barked back that I had been screaming at him to slow down for a ¼ mile, the sign on the road said “15 MPH” with a 90-degree curve icon on it, and I never stopped telling him to slow down right up until he hit the brakes at the last second when it was already too late.
That shut him up long enough for us to think about how we were going to go the 5 remaining miles to my house (there was no Uber and Lyft in 1980—Hahaha!), and we certainly didn’t want to hang around until some neighbor called the cops and John got a DUI. This was rural BFE land in Mequon (my semi-rural suburb at the time), so there was nobody around at 3am. We started walking down the road and my plan was to make it a mile or so to the more major intersection and dream up a good story I could tell my Mom when I called her on the pay phone. As we were walking, a car approached and just for grins we put our thumbs out to try and hitch a ride. We figured nobody would stop at 3am, but it turned out to be a cool dude about our age who did us a total solid and drove us all the way back to my house!
I thought we were home free, but my Mom heard us come in and I made the mistake of telling her the truth about John putting his car in the ditch. I told her we weren’t hurt and we were going to hit the hay and deal with it in the morning. What I hadn’t counted on was my Mom’s “play by The Man’s rules” authoritarian side rising out of bed at 3am and insisting on calling the local police to report the “accident.” I told her we didn’t hit any other cars, nobody else was remotely involved, etc. but to no avail. Mom had to “do the right thing” in her mind, and although I was a bit nervous (for John really—I wasn’t driving), I thought the cops would just tell us to sort it out in the morning since we had already left the scene, and they wouldn’t want to schlep out there at 4am, etc.
Unfortunately, I underestimated how little the Mequon police had to do at 4am, and they insisted that Mom drive us both back to the scene of the accident so they could investigate, write their report, etc. So into Mom’s ’74 Eldorado we went, and there were four cops there when we arrived. My Mom had figured out by this time that we were quite drunk and she told us both to shut the hell up and stay near her car while she went over to talk to the cops. That actually surprised me, but Mom was walking the tightrope between trying to follow “the rules” while still trying to protect us from the wrath of the law. The cops didn’t have too much trouble figuring out what happened, and we figured John would get breath tested, arrested, and be on his way to a DUI.
Buuuuuut…We got really lucky in that one of the cops was Robert, our former next-door neighbor for about 10 years, and our families knew each other very well. In fact, Robert’s family were the local farmers who developed our neighborhood and we actually bought our house from them! My Mom confirmed Robert’s suspicions that we were probably quite drunk, and Robert had the kindness to not take things any further. They made John show his driver’s license, sign the report, and arrange for the car to be towed out of the ditch, and my Mom had already told both of us to shut the hell up and be nice to the cops because they were doing us (well really John) a huge favor as long as we didn’t say something stupid and piss them off. For once, John listened to some sound advice! Of course my Mom had to call John’s Mom and tell her what happened, and of course John bitched about that. I don’t think I need to explain the huge amount of gratitude I have for escaping my closest call ever with a premature death. Sure, things are pretty ugly now but that was nearly 40 years ago and I’m very grateful for that near miss with death and several others as well. I’ve already had nine lives, and I’m very glad “Lake Shore Drive” never got me over the years! (And it gave me my “Eric the Nudist” story, so I really can’t complain about the Tao of LSD, er—I mean “Lake Shore Drive.”)