When the Night Is New

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I must give credit where it's due: this is my brother's story, and I've heard Randy tell it in bits and pieces a dozen times--altering the details slightly depending on his mood, his depth of intoxication and, of course, his audience. Bartenders are natural storytellers, I think, even part-time bartenders. Randy was the graveyard jock, midnight to five a.m., at WGBQ Radio but Thursday through Sunday afternoons he kept bar at the Sportsman's Club in Galesburg, Illinois. 

The Sportsman's was an old-fashioned tavern with a brass-trimmed oval bar surrounded by anchored stools with real leather seats. Against the walls were small square tables, and on each was a candle in a red bowl and an amber ashtray. On the walls were regal-looking paints of sports scenes: baseball, horseracing, football, golf. . . . Sports as noble ceremonies. The jukebox, which was a hulking thing between the cigarette machine and men's room, glowed purple and orange, and didn't offer a song recorded before 1965--lots of Sinatra. In fact, it was an unwritten house rule that whenever "New York, New York" was selected, everyone in the place hand to sing along with Old Blue Eyes. Sweet nostalgia clouded the air like tobacco smoke. 

I've never been much of a drinker but on Sundays I'd drive down to Galesburg to shoot the breeze with Randy. He's three years older and back then, when he was tending bar at the Sportsman's, he was thirty-four. It was 1985 but he'd looked the same since the Nixon administration: shaggy brown hair down over his collar, generous hunks of sideburns, a handlebar mustache, and wire-rimmed glasses with circular lenses. If it hadn't been for all that unruly hair, we probably could've passed for twins, a pointless joke we often pulled on strangers when we were growing up. During the Sportsman's period, Randy often chided me for being too clean-cut; I wore glasses, but they had trendy reddish brown frames with lenses that turned dark in the sunlight. 

"A disc jockey is supposed to look like a refugee from Woodstock," I argued. "I couldn't get away with it in my profession. Junior high history teachers need to be conservative--it's expected." 

He'd sort of half laugh, half grunt disapprovingly, then return his attention to tending bar. He was always under the watchful eye of the Sportsman's owner and main bartender, Wendell White, who was known to everybody as Whitey. He'd probably had the nickname since childhood but when we knew him it was particularly appropriate because his crewcut was virgin white and as thick as carpeting. His hair color must have been about the only way he'd changed since his Marine days (Whitely did tours in both Korea and Vietnam). He was leaner and more muscular than most twenty-year-olds, with a torso as solid as a side of beef, and thick simian arms. His physical condition was something of a marvel to me. Maybe Whitey was a dynamo of activity during the week but on Sundays, when I saw him, he sat on the patron side of the bar drinking glass after glass of dark beer and popping salty peanuts still in their skins. He was one of these guys who wore a short-sleeve shirt year-round, jacketless in all seasons. If a snowstorm escalated to blizzard conditions, Whitey might show up at the Sportsman's wearing a windbreaker--unzipped. A curious thing about Whitey was that he didn't seem to be very interested in sports. You'd think that a big ex-Marine who owned a bar called the Sportsman's Club would be a regular sports junky, but in actuality his favorite topic was the Civil War. You know they type--they can't get enough of North-South trivia. There ought to be a special term for such people, maybe "Civil War-philes," or fancier still, "bellumphiles." I never tried it but I bet if somebody blurted out "Antietam!" Whitey would respond without hesitation, "September seventeenth, eighteen-sixty-two--McClellan versus Lee--bloodiest single day of the war-over ten thousand killed-the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. . . ." Like a War-between-the-States talking encyclopedia. 

(By the way, I'm not a bellumphile myself; it's just that one Sunday afternoon Whitey and his buddies were hot on the Battle of Antietam--or the Battle of Sharpsburg, the Rebs' name for it apparently. If Little Mac had done this, if The Old Man had ordered that, if the weather had been such and such… all afternoon.) 

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