I grew up in the hazy, crazy miasma of an alcohol culture. “It good for the worms,” my relatives would say when, as a little boy, they induced me to take a sip of rum. “You play good today boy, take a drink,” from the adults after a game of football or cricket, or the converse, “Don’t study that, even though you lose you try hard. Come take a drink.”
It was “Rum, Glorious Rum, when ah call you, you bound to come” and “Drunk and Disorderly”. Weekends with no work to do were alco-holidays spent in the nearest rum-shop, strolling in and staggering out late in the night. The evenings after work were the same and sometimes, in the morning, passing the rumshop on the way to work someone would inevitably call and say, “You early man, take a beer before you go and teach dem hard-headed children.”
That culture has not really changed much in the Caribbean. In fact, from what I see, despite the high price of alcohol, people are drinking more. That is indeed “rum” behaviour.
My father grew up in the canefields of Caroni, digging para-grass at the age of five. In those days men drank and if you wanted to be considered a man you had to drink too. “Puncheon” (or “overproof” rum) was the drink of choice for cane-cutters, both men and women. They started their day at two in the morning cutting a “task” or allotted area of cane, surrounded by thousands of “sandflies” or wickedly biting mosquitoes.
Puncheon was cheap, it made you feel warm and it “built a quick head”. Even late in a life cut short by alcohol and the health problems associated with its abuse, my father never felt that he had a drink unless he had a shot of puncheon. I remember my mother telling him, “You drunk” and with a big, broad smile he remarked, “Drunk what? I only had six beers.” His family had told him that brandy was better than rum for his diabetes but he still stuck to puncheon.
Trips to the beach brought out the alcohol in quantities. It seemed that the Almighty had designed Trinidad especially for people from the centre of the island to have a good time going to the far-away beaches. There were always several cars in the “lime” – a cavalcade of boozers. After a few miles, the lead car, generally driven by my father, would stop and the others would pull up behind us and then the bottle passed.
Eventually we would head off again until the next stop. Maracas Beach was a ten-stop drive. Los Iros was about eight. Cedros was about twelve to fifteen. Fortunately there was much less traffic on the road in those days and the Almighty, having created the opportunities also looked after us. The law, at that time, also made it easy. If a policeman stopped you and thought you were driving under the influence, there was no breathalyzer. He would have to take you to a doctor who had to pronounce you drunk and all this took time.
One night when my father hit a row of parked cars in front of a cinema, a lady living nearby hustled him out and gave him several cups of coffee so that he seemed relatively sober when the police eventually arrived. The police were also quite tolerant and one day when a motor-cycle cop stopped us, my father asked, “Officer what you having?” and he replied, “Ah go take a beer.” Matter finish.
We drove on unhindered. A few days later the same officer visited us at home and this time had more than one beer.
My father was a very quiet man who woke at four in the morning, took his bag with his lunch and headed out, returning in the evening and then went to sleep early – starting in the living room and ending in bed. However, under the influence he was a different person. He sang, he danced, he played the organ and between all of that he would joke. At certain times he became aggressive and this usually cost him his job which, ironically, was driving trucks.
He once worked for a Trinidad contracting company in the oil industry driving a heavy trailer. His boss was a huge Texan with a decidedly Puritan work ethic. One day, after a liquid lunch, my father staggered back to work, late and drunk. His boss, who liked him because he was a hard worker, tried to be lenient. “Deyal,” he said, “you’re drunk. Go home, sober up and come back tomorrow.” My short and generally mild-mannered father looked up at the tall Texan and said, “Who you calling drunk? Are you a (expletive deleted) doctor to say I drunk?” That was it and the story of my father’s life in a sense. He lost that job and many more because of his drinking.
What triggered the thoughts of my father, his many friends and family, as well as many of my friends, many dead because of alcohol, was a story in a Trinidad newspaper headlined, “Drunk American Fined.” According to the article, “An American citizen in TT, overseeing work for a company, received the full brunt of the law yesterday when he was ordered to pay $5,200 (about US$600) in fines for driving under the influence of alcohol…”
The American was among 13 persons including a Prisons Officer who were charged a total of TT$50,200 for failing breathalyzer tests. The American explained, “I did drink but the alcohol content here is stronger than in the USA.” He pleaded with the Magistrate to keep the matter from being published because he could lose his job in the U.S. Needless to say, he lost on both counts.
One of my friends was concerned that the man’s nationality was mentioned. “You think the New York Times would have said ‘Trini Fined for DUI’?” Another commented, “Carib Brewery should pay the man’s fine and even give him a job if he loses his. This is good advertisement for our beer. After this we could compete with Bud Light.”
I couldn’t help thinking about my father and what would have happened to him (and to us) if the breathalyzer was around in his days. It cannot be fooled by dinner mints and it would have saved a lot of lives. On the other hand I used to think so when “tickets” were introduced for traffic offences. Yet, they have not done much to make the police more efficient or less rapacious. We always find a way to beat the system although for the policeman who is willing to turn a blind eye to a misdeed, one beer or even a case would not do it anymore. You need to come better than that.
One option is something that a Canadian man came up with. When police stopped him, he ate his underwear hoping that the cotton would absorb the alcohol. It did and he was acquitted because his breath came in within the legal limit.
*Tony Deyal was last seen saying that the only edible underwear he knows are for ladies and he would prefer face a magistrate than his wife if he gets charged with DUI and tries the Canadian man’s recipe.
I will eat a piece of Exxon Christmas Cake with your ingredients inside.
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