The third watering hole

Before the boys in Wakefield were of legal drinking age, they would sit around discussing the effects of alcohol, the only drug used in town. Early on, they had little personal experience with drinking. They might swipe a nip here and there from the old man’s private stash, but few had any understanding of serious drinking. These discussions might occur around a card table in Tojo, Settles’ army surplus personnel car, or in the bank basement where the Herman brothers often led the discussion groups. John, Jim, and Roger always knew where Walt kept the booze in the bank, and they probably nipped at it on a regular basis.

My old man was the school principal. Early school contracts often forbid smoking and drinking. Even playing cards might be targeted for censure. For this reason, Fred did his drinking at home. He kept a bottle of muscatel on the shelf in the pantry. Some of the wine was missing. This bottle became the object of my careful scrutiny, as I had been watching it for several years. Fred never drank any of it, and I wondered why. During my freshman year in high school, I got the courage to take a nip straight out of the bottle. It was horrible. I knew there must be more to drinking than this, but my role models did very little modeling. I was careful to screw the lid back on, and return it to the shelf exactly where I found it.

With the passage of time, I worried that my nipping might be discovered as the level in the bottle went down. To cover my tracks, I put a mark on the label. With subsequent nips, I would replace the missing muscatel with water. As the solution was diluted, I found the muscatel became far more palatable. My earliest conclusion about drinking was that my water was vastly superior to Fred’s old muscatel. Anything would be superior to his old muscatel. Then I wondered if the folks intentionally put the worst possible rot-gut on the shelf to teach me a lesson about drinking? I didn’t worry very long.

With the passage of time, our little groups discussed every known aspect of drinking. The question of the day might be “How long does it take to tie one on?”, or “What causes hangovers?”, or “Does drinking really lower a girl’s inhibitions?” As may be seen these are centrally important issues for all high school boys. As the legal age for drinking was approaching, we were determined to find answers to these many questions.

One recurring discussion dealt with the alteration of sensory and motor functions while inebriated. Why is it hard to walk a straight line? Why can you not touch your nose with your eyes closed? How much is your reaction time slowed with alcohol? Why do you have to be drunk to actually see the world turn round and round? The corollary to this last question is, Why does the world stop turning when you are sober?

This last topic we called as the world turns phenomenon. It was based upon the visual hallucination that you are perfectly still, while everything else is spinning round and round. Alcohol is able to create its own little world, capable of producing the most amazing feats. This discussion lead naturally to how narrowly the world is perceived when plastered. Does the drunk really perceive reality, or does his visual field become reality? It was the perfect topic for a study in perception while plastered.

“How about a real live experiment?”, we said.

“Why not” was the only answer.

Having selected an exciting topic, the actual experiment required careful consideration of each of its dimensions. These included selecting a proper subject, establishing drunkenness, controlling the visual field of a drunk, and devising the experimental or treatment variable. Finally it was necessary to establish an outcome measure, the final judge of any experiment’s success. Each of these topics was duly studied and planned in advance. The details of this planning will be described as they were actually carried out late one evening.

I was assigned the role as designated observer throughout the experiment, and served conscientiously, dutifully recording the sequence of events as they occurred. When the properly controlled conditions had been achieved, I was to give a signal to my designated driver, who was responsible for administering the treatment variable. The treatment was then to be administered until I gave the word to stop. The experiment was conducted precisely as we had planned it.

Selecting the subject was the easiest part, as Wakefield only had one town drunk. We will call him Charlie, who was otherwise quite well known around town. His endearing and persistent quality, required for the experiment, was his proclivity to drink to excess on a regular basis. At the time, Charlie had a choice of two watering holes in town, making it easy to find him as needed. Norm Price ran one at the pool hall, but the atmosphere was not conducive to serious drinking. The other was Mercer’s old funeral home on Main Street. Charlie had a strong preference for drinking at the funeral home for its somber atmosphere and the marble slabs in the back where one could lay down if the urge arose. On several occasions, Charlie had been mistakenly identified as a cadaver in the back room, but he always managed to wake up before the blood-letting began.

Charlie was the perfect subject as much of his repertoire of behavior was already known in advance. As Charlie was a farmer, he never came to town till after the chores were done, a thoroughly responsible drunk. Having nothing better to do, he would get in his Model A and drive precisely 40 miles an hour straight north into town. There he would select one of the two watering holes, believed to be the only real decision he made in the evenings. While there he would drink beer till closing time. Then he would return to his car and drive exactly 10 miles per hour all the way home.

In our collective wisdom, we judged that Charlie’s visual fields were playing perceptual tricks on him after an evening of drinking. The road which was perfectly straight and level coming into town becomes amazingly convoluted going home, a virtual Mister Toad’s Wild Ride. This required Charlie to reduce his speed from 40 to 10 miles per hour on the return trip, allowing him to negotiate the twists and turns with a margin of safety. Having selected the perfect subject, we waited only for the appropriate moment to conduct our experiment.

Like a clock, Charlie drove into town the following evening and parked his Model A in front of Mercer’s old funeral home. He went in and ordered his first of many beers. We hung around until closing, when Charlie would wander out. At the witching hour he emerged as expected, staggering ever so slightly. He got into his Model A, backed into the street, and headed very slowly toward home. We had been waiting for his exit in another Model A with the designated driver and observer eager to start the experiment.

Initially we followed him at some distance to judge the reliability of his driving. It was somewhat hard to tell, because he never exceeded 5 miles per hour in town. Charlie, it appeared, was being super cautious. The following figure entitled City Route Toward Home was the expected path he would follow. A is the location of the watering hole in Mercer’s old funeral home. From there he backed into the street, B, proceeded to C where he turned a square corner onto the section line road. Then he drove across the bridge D, and straight south toward his home. All was going according to plan.


As soon as Charlie crossed the bridge, we judged he was driving quite reliably, and had resumed his usual speed of 10 miles per hour. At that time, we passed him and assumed a position directly in front on the right side of the road matching his speed exactly. After a few moments, Charlie appeared to lock onto our tail lights. Then I gave the signal to begin the treatment variable. While I observed, my driver began moving ever so carefully to the left then back to the right. Charlie followed every move like he was glued to our back bumper. Our tail lights had become synonymous with Charlie’s visual field, and we were at that moment in complete control of Charlie’s world. It was an awesome and powerful feeling, like wagging the tail of a dog. Charlie was the tail.

Then we moved much more to the left and right, following a path like that shown below as the out of town route. Our track is designated as track A, and Charlie’s is track B. We had performed no more than two or three such gyrations when Charlie’s car missed a turn and ran straight into the middle of the right grader ditch stopping at point C.


We continued down the road to the first section line, turned around, and drove back past Charlie to finish our observations. Charlie had opened his door, walked up to the high side of the grader ditch, and was standing there wiping his brow and glaring down at his car. Its lights were still on and the engine was running. He looked like he had just escaped with his life, and was really not sure if he should tackle such a treacherous road again. When we were almost out of sight, he returned to his car, drove out of the grader ditch, and continued his trip back home.

We concluded the experiment was a complete success with just a few loose ends. We had established that as Charlie’s world turns, it was possible to enter that world and turn it upside down, or in this case, turn it from side to side. Like most research, however, the results produced a few more questions than answers. To fully understand the results it is necessary to reconstruct Charlie’s perceptual field during the experiment.

Perception #1: Charlie is clearly a person who likes to follow familiar routines. We judged that, in all probability, he had never previously followed another car home at 10 miles an hour. As a result, he was totally lacking in appropriate car following behavior. Being unsure about whether he should lead, follow, or get out of the way, he chose to get out of the way, and deliberately pulled into the grader ditch. This seems an unlikely explanation, as driving into a strange grader ditch is a risky response, even for a drunk.

Perception #2: Charlie may have believed the car ahead was playing games. At first he thought the game was follow the leader, which he had played many times as a kid. Later he discovered the game was crack the whip, and he was the last one in line. The grader ditch was a wholly unexpected outcome. This explanation is more compatible with his reaction; leaving his car, and reassessing the situation from the safety of the high side of the grader ditch.

Perception #3: Charlie was clearly locked onto our taillight, and believed he had hitched a safe ride home. We might have wagged his tail all the way home had we reduced the wagging speed to Charlie’s impaired reaction time. We were simply wagging too fast, Charlie missed a turn, and ran into the grader ditch. In our wisdom, we selected this response as the one which explained the results most completely.

On sharing our experimental wisdom and power over Charlie with some farm boys, one suggested that careful researchers would return to the grader ditch during the daylight, and examine it carefully for any observations we might have missed in the dark. We accepted the challenge and returned later that day. Like Indian trackers, we scoured every inch of the grader ditch to discredit any confounding explanation. Finally we found some startling evidence which was hard to swallow, yet clear and convincing.

Peering along the grader ditch for a quarter of a mile, one short section contained grass which was far greener than the surrounding area, as though it had been saturated with nitrogen. While looking for a single set of fresh car tracks, we found a deeply grooved buffalo path of Model A tracks into and out of the grader ditch. With this new evidence, we were forced to rewrite the perception which most closely conforms with Charlie’s at the time.

Perception #4: Charlie likes to follow familiar routines. Like all farm boys, he also prefers the great out-of-doors to indoor facilities. As a creature of habit he left the funeral home pleasantly plastered and followed his usual route out of town. Charlie also knew that at 10 miles an hour, it would take him half an hour to make the journey home, and he preferred to make it in comfort. This trip was momentarily interrupted by another car which passed him just beyond the bridge. For a short time he followed its tail lights, which might have become synonymous with his perceptual field. Still he anticipated he was about to arrive at a stretch of road with which he was intimately familiar. At precisely the right moment, with limited vision, he pulled off the road onto the path as he had done hundreds of times, stopped the car, and walked to the high side of the grader ditch. After making sure no cars were coming, he responded to nature’s call, turning the grass green in the process. Feeling much relieved, he returned to his car and drove home.

We have been eating crow ever since. Charlie not only relieved himself, he also relieved us of our spectacular findings. With this embarrassing outcome, we learned that Charlie had three watering holes, and we knew exactly where the third was located. We learned that the bladder is more powerful than a locomotive, and is an integral part of every perceptual field. Finally we agreed, in our wisdom, that a drunk with a full bladder may not be a responsible research subject, as he may leave the experiment at any moment, without permission, and won’t even care.

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