Moosehead by John Matthews

I had just helped a young neighbor, much younger than me, dig an annoying stump out of his yard.

We were tired and muddy, but he invited me into his house for a breather.

“Have a seat,” he said, pulling out a kitchen chair. “How ‘bout a beer? I’ve got Heineken and Moosehead.”

I paused. The choices were so unexpected.

“Wow, my two favorite beers in the world! How can I decide?”

“I can’t really tell them apart,” he said. Without waiting, he uncapped one of each and set them before me.

I hoped he didn’t notice I was blinking back tears. When you get old, fits of nostalgia bring on emotions without warning.

He took a healthy swig from a bottle he had opened for himself. I couldn’t tell which kind, and I don’t think he’d even checked. “Why the sudden quiet?” he asked. “It’s just two beers. What’s so special about them?”

“You said you can’t tell them apart,” I said. “To tell the truth, if you blindfolded me. I couldn’t either. It’s memory, not taste, that’s making me a little misty now”

“Memory? Misty?”

“I’m lucky to have a friend who, by this simple kindness, can, even without intention, take me back fifty years.”

“Hauling the stump away can wait. Let’s hear it.”

Black and white pic of two naval men in uniform, walking down street
Midshipmen by Marc Mulligan. CC license.

And I started my story. On my freshman Navy ROTC cruise, our destroyer was moored at the pier in St. John, New Brunswick. Part of the training was to develop the proper social skills of the young midshipmen. A dance had been arranged, to which local young ladies had been invited. The arrangements had included renting the hall, an upstairs party room in the headquarters of some local fraternal group, and getting the ladies’ auxiliary of that group to invite appropriate young women. The rest was up to us. A fraternal lodge in a waterfront area naturally had some taverns close by. The most enterprising of the midshipmen procured some cases of beer and had them delivered to the hall. There was an upright piano on the ground floor, and even though there was a record player for music, someone decided that the piano was needed upstairs also. A good chance to develop leadership and organizational skills, but I don’t think we did that. I remember a bunch of guys shoving a piano up a narrow staircase, so narrow that most of us had to just shove on the person in front of us. A slip could have brought serious injury, a demolished piano, and bad performance reviews for leadership.

At the top of the stairs someone realized that there was only one member of the group who could play the piano, my friend Dave Wertman. Soon he was pounding out melodies, and beers somehow got opened. Someone insisted on singing the Kingston Trio song “MTA,” a ballad about a man who became trapped on a subway when a fare increase went into effect in the middle of his ride and he didn’t have the additional nickel. I guess it was a spoof of protest songs of the time, calling a minimal increase “a burdensome scandal.”

Dave didn’t know the song, but he picked it up after one chorus. The song ended with a line about the man’s wife handing him a sandwich as the train passed the station. This group of seasoned nineteen-year-old salts and veteran beer guzzlers changed the last line and sang it over and over.

“Through the open window she hands Charlie a MOOSEHEAD as the train goes rumbling through!”

Funny, I don’t remember anything about the dance itself, the girls, whether we ever tried to get the piano back downstairs.

The cases of beer were Moosehead. I don’t remember drinking much, but I know Dave didn’t drink any. He said he never liked alcohol and I remember that the closest he came to it was a nice stem of Mateus rosé with an ice cube.

I keep saying “someone” because the names of the other midshipmen have faded from memory. But they, and the junior Naval Officers they became, were some of the sharpest people I ever knew. They became competent experts at navigating, ship handling, and ship propulsion while I was still struggling to grasp the basics. They were able to make quick correct decisions in times of emergency. They were able to earn the respect of sailors with years more experience. Later they became commanders of nuclear submarines and university professors and business administrators.

“And all this because of Moosehead?” asked my young friend.

“No, of course not,” I said, through tears that I didn’t bother to hide, “but it was a brand name that imprinted itself on the event, just as the sound of the stupid song “MTA” has done. We remember products and music as special, not because they are great themselves, but because of the memories they evoke. Did you ever play a favorite old record for a friend and wonder why they don’t hear it the way you do? Did someone ever tell you about a place that made the best pizza in the world, and when you went and tried it, it was only mediocre?”

My friend was young, but not too young to get it. He smiled. I hoped he was happy for making me happy. He saw that my Moosehead was empty. He reversed the bottles in front of me. “Okay, what about the Heineken?”

After a sip of the Heineken, I began. A few years later I was in the Navy for real. I was on watch on the bridge of the carrier Independence as it plied the Mediterranean alone at night. In the distance we could see the flashing signal lights of another ship. When the flashing ceased, the signal bridge called down. For some reason, the Captain was on the bridge.

The signalman reported, “The contact is a Dutch oiler, Sir. They ask if we need our bunkers topped up.”

Everyone understood this was just a friendly exchange. We didn’t get our fuel from foreign tankers.

The Captain thought a few seconds and told the signal bridge to signal back, “Do you have any Heineken?”

It was the first time I’d heard of Heineken, but everyone laughed because the fame of the Holland beer was well known to sailors.

Fast forward about a year. Home from the Med, still in the Navy and getting ready to get married. I had to find a best man. Dave was not in the Navy. He was already married and available for the honor and the duty. My second biggest chore, find a place for a honeymoon. Again, Dave came to the rescue. “This is perfect!” he said. “‘Expo ‘67, the world’s fair in Montreal. You know you love Canada. Remember our freshman cruise? Donna has never been out of the US. She’ll love it too. And afterwards you can spend a few days in New York City, just like we did then. You can impress her with how you know your way around.”

Dave was a wonderful best man. I can’t remember what I gave him as a best man’s gift. I must have given him something because I remember him reminding me that he had given his best man a torque wrench.

Photo of pitcher of beer and full glasses
ber 061022 022 by beaumontpet ( CC license.

But I’m drifting as I take another sip of beer. Oh, yes, I was getting to Heineken. Donna and I had our first fight after getting married when I got lost outside of Montreal and wouldn’t ask for directions. But a world’s fair is a great place for a honeymoon. A theme park for grownups. At the Netherlands pavilion at Expo ’67 we had our first tastes of Heineken Beer. Donna is not a beer lover but here she was, game to try just about everything that was offered. Heineken got a shrug but passed because of the classy green bottle, which would finally be allowed in our house, but only in the garage refrigerator, along with Moosehead, because the moose is her favorite cute stuffed animal.

Dave has been dead for a long time now. His widow still sends Christmas cards. I sent her the story above to let her know I still think of him, and on the chance she might remember that best man’s gift, but she doesn’t.

Two beers, whose taste I can’t remember, that remind me of a non-drinker friend I can’t forget.

Go figure.

John Matthews
John Matthews enjoys writing true and fictional stories about modern (‘60’s-‘90’s) life and work. He learned to write in a job translating government regulations into plain English for public agencies. He has had stories rejected by many fine literary journals. “Moosehead” is his first published work.

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