My father was a tough guy. In the style of his era that meant he wore a hat with the brim slightly angled over one eye. It meant that he favored movies starring George Raft or Humphrey Bogart, tough guys, who, like my father, smoked Camels and could hold their liquor. That was about all it took to be a tough guy, cruelty had nothing to do with it. You couldn’t miss my father’s sweetness, but it’s less painful to remember that he was tough.
When he was about 45 his doctor told him that he had sugar diabetes. I vaguely recall the word diabetes, but in our immigrant family diabetes was too hard to pronounce; we just called it, “sugar,” and we could say the word in Yiddish just as easily. My father had, “sugar,” and therefore lots of things changed. I remember only one of those changes.
All of his adult life my father had been a beer man. First he drank Fox Deluxe, which was brewed in our hometown. When the brewery closed he switched to Schmitz. My father was a loyal guy, and though there were liquor stores in our neighborhood, he drove across town to buy beer from his friends Charlie and Spike. When the Standard gas station moved, he drove out of his way to buy gas from Ted Johnson. In fact everyone we dealt with was a friend, or at least an acquaintance. The barber, the grocer, the pharmacist, maybe it was just small town America, or maybe it was my father. He liked to stick with what he knew, including people.
Charlie and his son Spike ran the beer store. I went there with my father almost every week, and I remember the time he delivered his last empties. Charlie, a heavy set man who couldn’t walk easily sat on a swivel stool at the cash register. Spike carried out the cases. Spike had fought in the Pacific, had been wounded, and after the war came home to help run his dad’s business. My father told me that Spike was a hero, but I just thought of him as a strong man who could carry two full cases without much effort.
As soon as we walked in Charlie handed me a pretzel stick, my usual. Then my father told them that he wouldn’t be drinking beer anymore. The three of them talked it over, a medical conference at the counter of a small liquor store on Plainfield Avenue in Grand Rapids Michigan in about 1952. While the men talked I pretended to smoke the pretzel, my own version of being a tough guy.
“Not even one bottle with supper?” Charlie asked. My dad shook his head. Spike pulled the empties to his side of the counter, then he stepped out to shake my father’s hand. Charlie got up from his stool, asked me to hand him his cane, and hobbled over to join them. “Sugar,” is the word I remember, “God damn sugar.”
“There’s not as much sugar in ale,” Charlie said. “They use more hops, and there’s more bitterness. Maybe that’s okay.” These were men who knew about hard things, Spike in World War II, Charlie in World War I, my dad as an immigrant slipping away from Poland on a merchant ship – they understood sacrifice, but giving up beer because of “sugar,” that seemed to stump them. My father quoted Dr. Schnor who had also told him to stop smoking, but that would only happen years later. The beer would be cold turkey. The men talked, I smoked my pretzel and we walked out of the liquor store empty, my father and I accompanied by the other father son team.
“Stop by when you can anyway,” Spike said. Charlie gave me a bonus pretzel for the road and waved at us with his cane. “Good luck Sammy,” he said to my father, “good luck with the God damn sugar.”
I never saw Charlie or Spike again. My father adjusted. He drank seltzer, and in the spot under the kitchen sink where he had stored a case of beer, my sisters put hair accessories and I kept my baseball glove and ball. We filled the space but I never forgot that sugar had cost my father a lot, beer and then some.