Sunday, June 29, 2014

Another Beer

It happened quickly. At the Olde Saratoga Brewery, in Saratoga Springs, New York, during a book signing party on a Friday night, the bartender leaned forward and gave me the kind of look bartenders used to give men at the footrail: “You want another beer?”

He filled the glass and plunked it on a coaster. When he found out I was from Vermont, his straight, white eyebrows went up, crinkling his wide forehead. He knew Vermont. He knew Vermont beer. He wanted to know about the famous Heady Topper. But first, he had a question: “You want another beer?”

He had been to Vermont on a beer bus. The beer bus started in Saratoga Springs at nine in the morning. Some of the younger beer bus-goers started drinking then. But the bartender held off. It was a long trip, with stops at Long Trail Brewery, Fiddlehead Brewery, Switchback Brewery, Magic Hat Brewery, and the Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington. He wanted to tell me all about. But first, he had a question: “You want another beer?”

He was going to tell me about how he acquired his knowledge of beer, how he’d been stationed in Germany when he was in the U.S. Army. He was going to tell me about the laws governing German beer, restricting it to three ingredients: water, barley, and hops. He knew all about these rules, he said, and he was going to explain the entire process to me. But first, he had a question: “You want another beer?”

He was just about to tell me how he thought many of the new, craft beers were overrated, that they lacked the solid and consistent body of traditional lagers and pilsners, that putting orange peel and dark chocolate into beer was heretical, and that over-hopping beer was not only unnecessary, but soporific. But first, he had a question: “You want another beer?”

This all happened quickly, within an hour’s time, as I returned again and again to the bar to fill up my glass. Each time I approached, the bartender looked at me with anticipation, ready to offer me another piece of his beer journey, and a glass to accompany it. And I did want another beer. And another, and another, and another. There were lots of beers to try, and since they were all served in small, 4-ounce glasses, I could enjoy them all without losing track of the bartender’s story. I told him all this and he leaned forward and asked, “You want another beer?”

Saturday, June 07, 2014

The Big, Yellow Bus

Last Wednesday, my youngest son, Brendan, made an announcement: “Well,” he said, “I’m done with school.” On an abstract level, this was startling. But then he explained that he only had one final exam the following week, then a couple of graduation rehearsals before graduation itself. Beyond all the other emotional consequences this had for Chantal and me as parents, there was a practical one as well: he would no longer be taking the school bus.

We’re school bus people. Chantal grew up in France, where there are no school buses trundling down the roads in the morning, and she loved the idea that her children could stand outside their house, or at the end of the driveway, or the bottom of the road, and a bus would come by, pick them up, drop them at school, then reverse the process in the afternoon. And so it went for us for 15 years, from Seamus’s first day of kindergarten, when he and Brendan (who thought he was going to kindergarten that day, too) were sitting on the front porch steps, waiting for “the big, yellow bus” to come, to Brendan’s announcement last week.

Each morning at our house went the same way: I wake the boys up and prepare their breakfast; the boys grouse and refuse to rise; threats are issued; cereal is consumed; the boys go back to bed; my head swells, threatening explosion; Brendan is ready five minutes before the bus arrives; Seamus is still in bed; a flurry of activity and questions ensue: “Where’s my _______? Where’s my ________? Where’s my __________?; Brendan, already outside, calls back, “Bus! Bus! Bus!”; Seamus, a Beatles fan, lives a line from “A Day in the Life”: “Found my coat and grabbed my hat/Made the bus in seconds flat”; The bus pulls up, the lights flash red, Seamus streaks out the door. I let my breath out.

And now that’s all over. 

Many people shun the bus, especially in Stowe. Some parents have confessed that they drove their children to school because they wanted to avoid exposing their kids to malefic influences (in Stowe, there’s only one bus for all grades, so seniors in high school share the bus with elementary school kids). Since I’d already taught my sons how to cuss, that didn’t concern me. And we already paid for the bus. Why not use it? The alternative was to join the queue of Volvo XC90s and Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matics at the elementary and middle/high schools, idling, crawling toward the front door. To be fair to a lot of people in Stowe, the bus doesn’t go everywhere, and many people decided that if they had to drive their kids a mile to the end of their road to catch the bus, they might as well drive a couple more and just drop them off. 

That doesn’t mean that having the boys take the bus was a carefree experience. Once, when they were in fifth and fourth grades, respectively, Seamus got off the bus holding his face. Blood was gushing out around his hands, and his front teeth were snapped off. It seems he got into a disagreement with his brother. After that, we made them walk to school for a month (the elementary school is only a half-mile away, and we usually met them to walk them across busy Route 100).

Part of my morning ritual (some would call it a neurosis) was to make sure the boys were able to cross the street safely each morning to board the bus. I drilled into them the necessity of waiting for oncoming traffic to stop before stepping out onto the road. I built a swinging gate to ensure that if they were horsing around, they wouldn’t accidentally push each other out onto the road. And I stood there, my coffee mug in a death grip, talking through the window, until they were safely aboard.

Maybe the best part about the bus was knowing that our neighbors were the ones driving them to school. Over they years we’ve been lucky to have a great bunch of folks as bus drivers. John Beecy, a retired U.S. Air Force officer, found a second career as a bus driver for several years. Joe McGovern, a driving instructor, and his wife, Becky, had the route when the boys were in high school. And before that, Sam Kaiser, a true Vermonter, drove the bus and didn’t take any guff from them, as my grandmother would say. Cathy Davis often had the afternoon route, bringing the boys home. Everybody at Percy Transportation was wonderful. 

So when Brendan announced he was done with school, Chantal and I were a little emotional. Something special was ending. And while some folks choose not to take the bus, we’re glad our boys did. It gave them some independence and us some satisfaction. But when Joe McGovern goes by every morning at 7:25 a.m., I’ll still choke up a little, remembering the two little boys sitting side by side on the porch that September morning 15 years ago. Thank you, big, yellow bus.