ON THE AVENUES: Mourning (and alcohol) in America, circa 1984.


(On the Avenues has moved back to Thursdays)

If not for Ollie North’s illegally financed Nicaraguan “contra” rebels, U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky” would not have been written, though there’d have been so many other chances during the decades to come. 

From 2009 through early 2011, I wrote weekly columns for the pre-merger New Albany Tribune. This one was published in the newspaper on October 28, 2010, and for the first time at the blog on February 18, 2016A few topical modifications have been made.

On Election Day in 1984, I was unexpectedly late for work. To this very day, I blame it on the zeitgeist.

It was Tuesday, November 6, 1984. The anti-climactic culmination of a profoundly unbalanced presidential campaign wasn’t so much the re-election of the former actor Ronald Reagan. It was a re-enthronement.

Indeed, in my contrarian, left-leaning lifetime, conservatives never have seemed as smugly insufferable, or liberals more depressingly disenfranchised, than at that precise juncture.

Granted, living on the border between Indiana (former governor Mike Pence) and Kentucky (current governor Matt Bevin) in the year 2019 can make life feel like déjà vu all over again, although now we have the inner satisfaction of knowing that demographics are at long last on our side.

In 1984, doomed Democratic challenger Walter Mondale had a few bright moments early in the campaign, much like when the Hazard County Dulcimer Institute sinks a basket or two after the opening tip before succumbing 130-25 to the University of Kentucky in a preseason roundball tune-up.

Alas, although “where’s the beef” was an entertaining sound bite, and despite signs of Reagan’s unfortunate descent into dementia occurring at regular intervals on the coronation trail, Mondale was no Chaminade waiting in ambush.

When the singer Stephen Stills performed during a Mondale appearance on the steps of Louisville’s City Hall just prior to Election Day, he strummed a medley of 1960’s protest songs and spoke of a “surprise” in the offing. The “surprise” turned out to be how very close Mondale actually came to losing his own home state of Minnesota, along with the other 49.

It was one of those years – strike that; it was one of those decades.

Whenever I was in my cups, that comfortably numb region conducive for enduring brain-dead patriotic platitudes and acute disgust with condescending Falwellian theocrats, and while toiling multiple jobs to accumulate enough money to travel somewhere in the world more civilized, I’d grimace, stare balefully at the date, and rationalize: Just four more years.

I’d be only 28 when Raygun performed his long overdue curtain call, except there was the perpetual fear that he would decide to install a chest-thumping, flag-waving, trickle-down dictatorship. In such a case, known heretics like me might have to consider more hospitable climes.

Until then, there’d be hash marks on the wall, calendar sheets torn and wadded, and oceans of alcohol for solace.

Not coincidentally, alcohol was the reason why I turned up late to work on November 6. My gang’s preordained eulogies for the electoral right-wing landslide started at least three days earlier, over beer and brats; honestly, the re-elective problem drinking may have commenced as early as the New Hampshire primary.

Accordingly, on the evening of Monday, November 5, I attended a party in New Albany, where the guest of honor was a Missouri-born friend of a friend — I’ll call her Lorna, not because I care to protect her identity, but because I can’t remember her real name.

She was an attractive, smart and formidable woman who fancied herself the second coming of Margaret Thatcher, and her periodic visits to town inevitably prompted vigorous ideological tussles so agitated that they verged on the erotic … not to posit opportunity, or anything as Hollywood-like.

Lorna was so far to the right that I habitually referred to her as the “St. Louis fascist,” and this verbal shorthand inaugurated a habit that has remained firmly embedded in my derisory repertoire to the present day, hence NABC’s “These Machines Kill Fascists” t-shirts, and occasional rhetorical embellishments like the substitution of “Peronists” and “Falangists,” better to send the Fascists scurrying to their dictionaries for edification.

From late afternoon beers, we quickly progressed to Bloody Marys, and as the evening wore on, the political discussion predictably escalated. Somewhere between the explication of a Marxist dialectic and my standard anti-Apartheid spiel, Lorna appointed herself bartender.

By the time I was advocating a war crimes trial for Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Lorna was mixing triples – just for me, not anyone else. This development was confided to me much later, but just then, all I felt was advancing intoxication, with a concurrent neglect of the clock ticking on the wall, for it was getting late … and 6:30 a.m. would come very early.

Drinkers accept that the fog of war is not restricted to the battlefield, and mercifully, I was driven home by a friend. Once there, the alarm may or may not have been set, although it is irrelevant, because I did not awaken until well past ten.

Charitably speaking, you could say I was suffering from a hangover. Uncharitably, you’d be giving me a breathalyzer to see if Lorna’s straight vodkas had yet been metabolized. Either way, one point was clear amid the painful haze: I was quite late.

At this juncture, I must confide to you the nature of my daytime job.

I was a substitute teacher.

My specific assignment that Election Day was to cover senior civics classes at Floyd Central. Luckily, first period was open, and so my own absence only truly began with second period, extending into third, with my panting, belated arrival coming just at the beginning of fourth.

Expecting to be caught dead to rights, I weaved directly to the classroom. To my jaw-dropping amazement, it transpired that not a soul had noticed me missing. My name was there on the morning attendance sheet, standing in for the regular faculty member … alongside a hundred or more seniors officially excused for the day to “work” the polls, in a now passé custom that truly saved my bacon on November 6, 1984.

The handful of otherwise unexcused students straggling apathetically to civics class during second and third periods merely shrugged, took their proscribed turns with the hall pass, and behaved impeccably.

I was in the clear.

Reagan was duly re-elected, and the drinking continued. Somehow, we survived, and probably will next time, too, whether it’s The Donald or one of several hundred Democrats seeing the job. Is it too late to be an expatriate?

Recent columns:

June 18: ON THE AVENUES: Let’s lift our voices for another verse of “Talking Seventh Inning Blues.”

May 28: ON THE AVENUES: Challenges are forever, but downtown New Albany’s food and drink purveyors keep on keeping on.

May 21: ON THE AVENUES: “Pints&union, where the classic beer hits keep right on pouring.”

May 14: ON THE AVENUES: Where do we go from here?