While plenty of college life felt foreign to me, one thing I knew I’d have no trouble getting used to was the drinking. For better or worse, the Marine Corps will teach a guy how to drink.
In the military, just about every event you can think of is punctuated by a night of heavy drinking. Going through a breakup? Get that guy drunk. Got promoted? Get that guy drunk. Got demoted? Get him drunk too, but someone should probably take his keys. We used alcohol as a means to celebrate and mourn, to congratulate and share disappointment, to remember, or sometimes to forget. I realize that alcohol is a drug, and that consuming a lot of it is bad for you… but when the life you lead is inherently dangerous, it can be hard to worry about what another beer will do to your insides. As a result, the culture of the Marine Corps, a fighting branch born in a pub, is heavily soaked in spilled booze and fuzzy memories, and my years in uniform were no different.
By the time I arrived on campus, I had been drunk in almost two dozen countries on everything from home-made gin in the mountains of the United States to wine I could neither pronounce nor afford in Italy. I wasn’t an expert in any particular kind of booze, but I was certainly a jack of all drunken trades – and while I made it a point not to attend parties (although I found the invitations flattering) drinking pervaded college culture just as deeply, it would seem, as it did in the Marine Corps.
The first time I drank on campus was a few weeks after classes began. I was walking down the road from the campus to the commuter parking lot when a good-looking girl from one of my classes came jogging up alongside me.
“Hey, you’re Alex, right?” The chipper tone to her voice somehow accentuated the age gap between us in my mind.
“Uh, yeah. You’re Christy?” Name changed to protect the innocent.
“Yeah! Are you heading home? Because my friends and I are heading to a party. Wanna come with?” I almost laughed out loud. I pictured my wife, supportive and strong, as she looked me in the eyes before I started school again and told me, “I know you wouldn’t cheat on me, but you’re going to be surrounded with hot young chicks… and I want you to know that I love you very much… but I’ll murder you in your sleep.”
“Hey, I really appreciate the offer, but I’m an old married guy – not really the partying type.” Deep inside my mind I gave myself a trophy for being the best husband ever.
“Aww, you’re not old,” she patted me on the shoulder, and despite the imaginary trophy I’d just given myself, I glanced down at the small tank top she was treating like an entire shirt.
“Hah, thanks, er, um,” Jamie will murder me in my sleep, “thanks anyway. I hope you guys have a blast.” We exchanged goodbyes and I started back toward the parking lot, unsure if I was proud or disappointed in my performance, when I heard another voice come from behind me.
“I can’t believe you just said no to Christy, dude.” It was a male voice this time. I turned to see a young guy that I’d exchanged hello’s with in a few classes.
“She probably just needed someone to buy booze,” I laughed as I nodded a greeting to him.
“Yeah… and that’s awesome. You could have been the guy that made their party. Those chicks love old guys, bro.” Great, I thought, I’m a niche market for girls that like “old guys.”
“My wife would murder me in my sleep.” I thought again, but out loud this time. He laughed and nodded his understanding before extending his hand and introducing himself.
Although he was a decade or so younger than me, Ary and I became quick friends. His father, an Iraqi born Kurd, still spent the majority of the year in Iraq, working as an interpreter for the American Defense Department. Ary had visited his homeland a few times throughout his life, but was every bit the stereotypical college student you’d find anywhere in America. He seemed to appreciate my understanding of a portion of his life that he rarely advertised, just as I appreciated the perspective of a guy who was doing college right the first time.
After a few minutes of talking, I agreed to head back to his dorm room to meet a few of his friends before I got to work on that night’s assignments. Of course, he lured me into agreeing with promises of a “brand new bottle of vodka we could crack open” for the introductions – an offer I was not prepared to refuse.
For those who haven’t been on a college campus lately, you need to check in with the dorm staff when you visit someone. As a twenty-eight year old man, it felt a little weird to have to explain myself to the pimple-faced eighteen-year-old that looked up from his phone only twice while carding me, but college is all about trying new things, and I decided I’d try being a good sport for a change. After making it past the gate guard (who knows what they actually call them) I followed Ary down a windy maze of hallways before ultimately arriving at his room, where two of his buddies were already waiting.
After exchanging introductions, Ary reached into his desk drawer and produced a plastic bottle of mango flavored vodka. His buddies, wide eyed and smiling, exchanged high fives. I, on the other hand, was not impressed.
“Mango?” I asked without trying to seem too ungrateful.
“It was all I could get man, but I swear, it’s good.” I was no stranger to bad booze, but mango vodka out of a plastic bottle with three guys I was increasingly certain were under aged left me wondering if going to jail was a better alternative to drinking with some good looking girls from my wife’s perspective. I didn’t have much time to consider it before the open bottle was passed my way. I climbed back out of my head and took a long pull from the bottle, regretting it immediately, but following through as it burned its way down to my stomach.
After a few more passes, I thanked them for sharing their bounty with me – as I’m not so old that I don’t recall how tough it could be to get a bottle of booze when you’re twenty years old. I told them I wouldn’t be able to make a habit of this until they were 21, and they laughed at what an old man I was, but seemed to understand.
As far as first college drinking experiences go, it was a positive one, and although the school was a dry campus, it wasn’t the last time I’d find myself sharing a drink or two with the people I met in class.
While taking summer courses with a room full of adults, my Spanish professor recommended that we each “have a drink or two” before our speaking exams to loosen us up. I thought he was kidding, until a girl in my class produced a bottle of rum from her backpack on exam day. We sat in a circle in the basement of the empty library and passed the bottle around a few more times than was probably necessary… which explains why Spanish ruined my 4.0 grade point average.
Near the end of my tenure there, my friend and I threw a “drink-a-thon” for breast cancer. We rented a few kegs, brought the newly 21-year-old Ary in as our DJ (he’s since gone on to DJ at clubs all over the world and make some good money doing so) and posted open invitations everywhere. We paid for all of the alcohol and entertainment, so every dollar we raised that night would go straight to the charity of my recently diagnosed mother-in-law’s choosing.
Somewhere along the way, we also agreed to drink a beer for every $5 people donated to our cause. A few hours later, Marines stationed all over the world started a betting pool to get Jamie to taze me. She should have allowed the betting to go on longer, but at the $100 mark, she live streamed the attack to all the guys that once worked for Sergeant Hollings – and I’m told that I was a pretty good sport about it.
I don’t know how many beers I drank that night, but we raised around $2,000, and I woke up in a kiddy pool. So I’d call it a success.
During my time in school, I came to understand the biggest difference between drinking in the Corps and drinking in college, in the Marines, we drink as the means to an end; in college, drinking is that end. A lot of college students see the drinking as the event in itself, and with years of drinking experience under my belt, I was uniquely suited for that social environment at the time.
Of course, I still drink – and every once in awhile, I drink way too much – but my days of “drink-a-thons” and secret library-rum are happily behind me. As I’m sure plenty of people can account for, the hangovers eventually become a more looming threat than the fun of the evening can offer, and a cost/benefit analysis of drinking a plastic bottle of mango vodka makes the offer a whole lot less tempting.
But I’m glad I was able to participate in the alcohol based social structure of the college experience, even as the old guy. In my opinion, one of the most important parts of college is gaining a better understanding of people that are different than you, whether that’s a Kurd from Iraq or a cute girl trying to manipulate me into buying her beer. I value my time among the younger generation just as I value my time with the people of Honduras or Malta – it gave me a glimpse into how people live and gave me a chance to play along for a while.
And when it comes to meeting new people, I’ve found a drink or two never hurts.