Miller Lite: a middle-aged man with a face like a ham would do a skit with another guy just like that.
There were mops of badly cut hair, bodies lumpy with too much beer and salt and age, half-folded up with too much brutal use on the playing field.
Great taste but less filling was how everyone who had a TV knew it was the beer men wanted.
My father didn’t always recognize the ex-jocks and inside-joke celebrities. Still, he laughed, quietly, at whatever skit was going then.
He had known men like that. He had been an athlete.
Some people will tell you it was the eighth-greatest advertising campaign in human history.
And the greatest of all time when it came to keeping Joe Sixpack entertained and drinking.
It did with cameos what no one had done with cameos before.
Smokin’ Joe Frazier, one of the best boxers ever, showed up in those commercials, but so did Marv Throneberry, a professional baseball player who was known for striking out.
They even had a living legend of a writer, Mickey Spillane, doing a recurring bit as my father watched and drank.
The spots needed to be good when the Miller Brewing Company was selling something called “Gablinger’s Diet Beer,” from a Rheingold’s recipe they’d bought for cheap.
My father set a can of Miller Lite and a glass of ice on the small red barrel that stood beside the easy chair in which he liked to drink and watch TV.
The top of the barrel divided into half-moons, one of which was lower than the other, as if the wet cans, over the years, had warped the wood.
He had the beer can on one side, the glass on the other.
In topping things off he did not pour so carefully that the beer slid out smoothly and without foaming. He poured so roughly the beer foamed.
Then he dipped his fingers into the foam and flicked it at the mouth of the glass, like a kid might do. A kind of play. And he briefly sucked at his fingers.
The foam stuck to the ice cubes and made a white film that looked like flour. Having dried his fingers, he picked up a salt shaker and, with delicacy, salted the beer.
Having fussed over the salt and the ice, he gave the impression the beer was something to mask, like a medicine that tasted bad. It didn’t seem to give him pleasure to drink it. It was more like an obligation.
Even though he had eaten well already, he forked fried oysters out of a tin box, the lid curled back with a little key. He arranged thin slices of summer sausage on a plate. He popped olives into his mouth.
With all of that, he seemed to be celebrating.
Fifteen minutes later, he stepped into the laundry room at the back of the house. He opened the refrigerator and took out a can of beer. Now there was just the dim light from the fridge, which he hadn’t bothered to close. That way he could finish one and get another while hardly moving.
The fridge was old and smelled of stagnant water. The little doors on its freezer wouldn’t close. They swung forward when the fridge was opened. My father was used to that, his hand rising to catch the doors before he could think to move it. Sometimes the light blinked out, so that, as he drank, he was standing there in the dark.
He turned the can upside down. He made his throat a funnel. He tilted his head back, too, so far he must have felt ready to tip over. It was done in an instant: the can emptied, and my father more full.
He was workmanlike about this. He was like a machine that emptied cans. In two minutes he drank four or five beers. He didn’t just open his mouth. He opened his throat. And the beer dropped down, fast.
Had he gotten enough? He didn’t wait to see how one beer or another would make him feel, even though he seemed to know what it would take. It may have been a matter of hitting a number he had in mind.
At most of the family gatherings I remember, just about everyone was unapologetically drunk and out of control.
My uncle drank one can of beer after another with my father in a corner of our living room. He knew more about the McDermotts in Ireland than anybody. We come from Boyle, he told us. That’s really the name.
My aunt and my grandmother steadily drank cocktails and got into shouting matches. They said unkind things about how the other had styled her hair.
My grandmother never used to drink, but after her husband, whom she had eloped with at the age of eighteen, had a heart attack and died at the department store where he sold clothes, she took it up, saying it was the only way to kill the pain of missing him.
She also drank a lot before getting on an airplane. Manhattans were her favorite. She smelled, pleasantly, of booze and perfume.
I remember a great-uncle slurring his words so much it was like a different language. What he was feeling as he talked was clear. What he was saying was not. His wife translated word by word, conferring sense.
When the family drank, emotions ran high. The drunken feeling of belonging, of connectedness among brothers and cousins, was often so strong all the men burst into tears. Trying to explain it to the children, they cried even harder.
My father liked to proclaim the exceptionalism of his Irish blood in ways that were entertaining and irrational and sometimes melodramatic.
A great-grandfather had emigrated from County Roscommon. When he got to America he worked on railroads repairing track. It was a point of pride that one of his seven sons became a depot man in town.
The depot man’s son, my paternal grandfather, was a binge drinker. Every three or four months he would leave home and disappear for a few days and drink as much as he could as quickly as he could and sleep on the floors of bars or in the open air.
There was a bar in Zell, South Dakota, where he went to binge again and again. It was a few miles down Highway 212 from Redfield, where my father’s family lived.
Once, on a hunting trip, not far from Zell, I couldn’t find my father anywhere. After searching the cattail sloughs, I walked back to the road and saw that his car was gone. Two hours later, after dark, I ran across him. He was very drunk and swimming backstroke in a motel pool with a dozen high-school football players from the Lower Brule Reservation.
As he glided back and forth he had them all laughing about something. There were no other adults around. He had quit hunting and driven to a roadside bar, then back to our motel to go for a swim. He wouldn’t say which bar, or where his shotgun was.
A few years later I drove to Zell to look around, but I couldn’t find the bar where my grandfather slept. There was nothing standing there but an abandoned Catholic school.
Climbing up the bell tower, I didn’t think I would ever find out where he or his need had finally gone.
As my father was happy to tell anyone who would listen, he came from all of that: he came from South Dakota, and from Irish. He came from drinking.
It’s exciting to think of the drunk historian, and to consider his mind set free to roam through time.
All around my father as he drank in the basement at home were artifacts of Native American culture.
There was a headdress, a woman’s buffalo hide shirt, and a pair of beaded moccasins. There were utensils made of bone. There was a ceremonial vest with braided horsehair.
There was even a tomahawk, the stone more than solid enough to split a man’s skull.
My father sometimes picked the tomahawk up and swung it around as the Great Sioux War raged on in his imagination.
There was also a broken carbine more than a century old.
It was the kind of rifle a U.S. soldier might have used during the Indian Wars, a soldier who rode with the Seventh Cavalry, a soldier Custer led.
When a commercial that wasn’t for Miller Lite came on, my father took the carbine down and pointed it at a mounted antelope head that hung on a far wall of the basement.
The carbine would no longer fire and was as much a conversation piece as the antelope. Still, he must have felled that pronghorn a thousand times over. He would kill it and kill it again, raise that antique rifle to his cheek.
Now Bloody Knife speaks with Custer before the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
To himself he says: “I will not see the sun go down.”
“Garryowen” plays as my father aims the carbine’s scored barrel at “Custer’s Last Fight,” which hangs above the TV.
The print was produced by a beer company in the 1880s. It can still be found in saloons across America. My father’s version was three feet high with fine details of bloody scalps. Custer was firing at the enemy. In the next instant he would be overrun.
This was what is known as “going down fighting.”
The scene was perfect for drinkers to look at over a long night at the bar. The idea they could come back to was that “they would not take him alive.”
Drinking made Custer’s plight more real to my father, too. The more he drank, the better he could imagine himself in those final moments.
Bosses and children were coming at him. He did what he could to keep them all at bay, and he was inventive and relentless in his own defense.
But just like that, the enemy broke through.
As a watcher of television, my father was loyal for a time to The Rockford Files. James Garner had been Maverick, after all.
He took in The Six Million Dollar Man and there was something called Carter Country about a squad of joshing cops in Plains, Georgia.
In a different decade there was Miami Vice. There was Cheers. The shows came and went, but the drinking mostly stayed the same.
Soon decades had passed with the TV, the tomahawk, the gun, and “Custer’s Last Fight” in the basement.
One night, my father mixed a drink in the kitchen. Rather than walking down the stairs, he walked from the kitchen into the living room and put my sister’s Bruce Springsteen record on the stereo.
He took a long pull from his glass, set it down, and began to dance and shadow-box to the E Street Band.
A few minutes later he abruptly left the room, and when he came back he wore what was, for him, a slightly unusual set of clothes.
With the jeans and white t-shirt, and his black hair slicked back with water, he looked like Brando did in A Streetcar Named Desire.
He wouldn’t say why he had stayed upstairs. But it was all so different now. None of the TVs were on anywhere in the house.
This happened in the spring, during those first warm days after the cold March winds had faded.
This happened in 1986. He was fifty-two then. I was sixteen.
That night, as he danced, my father flexed his biceps. In the break between “Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark” he curled a barbell to his shoulder. Drunk and wired, he looked younger and stronger than he had in years.
Now his cowboy boots cut that living room rug. He was giddy in a menacing way. He seemed powerful, and capable of doing things, even violence.
The dancing went on for a few evenings, no more.
After that he took a leave of absence from work. He would not explain why. Once he’d returned to the job, he was given permission to stay home while writing a lengthy report. He seemed busy, and we didn’t see much of him.
At some point the Miller Lite went away. He brought home cardboard boxes holding bottles of vodka instead.
One afternoon I walked into the house after school and saw a still hand resting on the carpet beyond the doorway that opened into the living room where my father had danced.
Stepping into the room, I saw that he had passed out on the floor. It was a little after two o’clock. I was calm watching him: a man lying on the floor in the middle of the afternoon, not moving.
What are you going to do, my father asked, when the heart says to go? I had no answer. I wondered, though, what my mother and I were going to do. I wondered where we were going to live and how we were going to get money.
He had woken up that morning and had vodka rather than breakfast. He had not bothered to ice the drink or to put it in a glass: he drank it warm from the bottle to save time. His eyes were red and he needed a shower.
He was following his love, he said. Most people just follow their fear. He said he couldn’t do that anymore. He laughed and raised his hands, as if he was as surprised as I was.
Then he went out to start the car. He did not seem to possess a map of any kind.
Is this the way a father should set off in search of something he has to have? Or do other ways of doing that exist? Are they better?
As he drove off, he kept one hand on the steering wheel and one hand on a bottle of vodka. It sat on the seat beside him like someone he was leaving with to make a new life.
My father had a last stand, too.
Jim McDermott lives with his family in Virginia. He is the author of a creative nonfiction book and is a recipient of the Bevel Summers Prize from Shenandoah.