It has been more than half a century since I first became certifiably drunk. I have never been drunk since, but the memory of that experience is as clear today as it was on the night it happened. I was a crewman on a Navy troop transport ship, and at the ripe old age of 19, I decided that to be a true sailor, I had to be able to drink like one.
There was a very compelling reason on that special night to initiate myself into the glories of alcohol. World War II had ended that day, and everyone was celebrating. Our ship had survived two bloody Pacific campaigns, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and was then docked at Cavite Navy Base, near the newly-liberated capital city of Manila in the Philippines.
We were granted liberty, and four of us managed to hop aboard a truck that would take us to the city. Despite terrible damage caused by the house-to-house combat that had ended just three weeks before, many of the bars and restaurants were already up and running. Some were just canvas-covered cellars in the bombed-out ruins, but they were also filled with hordes of GIs and sailors celebrating the victory.
We piled out of our truck and went into a bar that looked reasonably intact. One of the guys, a drinking veteran of age 22, ordered a name brand whiskey and some Coca Cola bottles to go with it. When the waiter brought the whiskey, he made a great ceremony of opening it, allegedly for the first time.
What we learned later was that many Manila bar owners drained out the half of the original whiskey in each bottle, and replaced it with a home brew, then sold as new. The fake whiskey was a combination of river water, food coloring and very potent wood alcohol. Just two shots of the stuff could make a person seriously ill; any more than that could cause death.
I had two drinks, but before I could finish the second one, my memory faded. I dimly recalled being carried semi-conscious into the back of our truck and tasting the gritty dirt on the truck floor as I was bounced back to our ship. The other guys then hauled me aboard and into a shower stall. I still wore my now filthy white uniform, and the water eventually sobered me up.
As bad as the experience was, I was a lucky guy that night. Some of the other GI and Navy patrons of that bar had ingested more than two servings of the fake whiskey and ended up in the hospital or morgue.
That was the first and only time I was drunk, and I’ve been totally sober ever since. The strongest drink I’ve had over the years is a very occasional, very small glass of wine. Maybe that bad whiskey in the Manila bar has actually turned out to be a blessing.