Eighty Beers I Remember—Part One
If I’d had any clue that it would actually take the better part of a month (back in May) for everyone to give up telling me that I really was eighty years old, I might just have stayed at 79 for a while, before sneaking quietly into 80. No such luck. But, now that I’ve seen how great it is to be an old pharte, I should have done it ten years ago!! I remember the old line from “Cheers”: “Sometimes you want to go where everyone knows your name…” Ain’ it da trut? And don’t ask me how it was that I managed to survive this long.
The first beer I ever tasted was my stepfather’s homebrew at the age of six. I had just failed the first grade. No one notified me of this failure. My mother only informed me some nine years later when I was fifteen. She had simply moved to another town and told them I belonged in the second grade. Which is where I easily succeeded as just another silly second grader.
My next beer of memory was Budweiser, but I wasn’t paying attention when, at 17, we (a troop trainload of Marines) stopped at St. Louis and toured that brewery. It was great. For the next six years I drank nothing but Hamm’s (when possible), until a friend notified me that the Hamm’s brewery was actually located in St. Paul, MN, not St. Louis, MO. So much for paying attention and staying sober.
I didn’t exactly live a delicate life, what with managing to survive two wars (WWII and Korea) through no fault of my own. I missed being sent to Iwo Jima by virtue of catching the mumps. The Marine Corps didn’t want any sickies in that operation. I might have gummed up the works severely. Then, after training me carefully in several different military arts—flight radio operator, radar operator, machine gunner, and assistant BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) ground pounding person—they finally sent me (via a very slow boat: 55-days) to Okinawa. Once there, it turned out that they hadn’t changed my MOS (military occupational specialty) to BAR person.
I ended up in the Second Marine Air Wing in Okinawa, despite the Corp’s best efforts to send me to the First Marine Division, and despite the fact that II MAW had no use whatever for another flight radio operator gunner. I spent most of my time safely on mess duty scrubbing pots and pans. I didn’t make PFC (private first class) until after the war, during the occupation of Japan in March 1946, after some 29 months service. I had led a charmed life and was having so much fun by then that I reenlisted in the reserves, which is why I was called up for Korea; but I digress, and that’s Michael Jackson’s job.
On Okinawa, we were issued (as I remember) 4-6 bottles of beer a week—some weeks—which ration dwindled down to a can of tomato juice on at least one occasion after the war had ended. However, the only brand I remember is khaki colored cans of Duquesne (Pittsburgh), which was also issued to us in Japan. All of this beer was low alcohol “3.2” beer (4% ABV) only.
In Japan (1945-6), I sampled my first “foreign” beer: liter bottles of Japanese Asahi, which cost ten yen ($1) and arrived with the company of a young lady and her ten dance tickets. But for a short time, there was also a cask conditioned malt extract beer from the British Brewery ship HMS Menestheus on duty with the British navy, brewed for the British services; in this case for their Marines at our base in Yokosuka near Tokyo (AAB 21:4, Sept 2000).
Back home in the late summer of 1946, I was still not 21, so I drank Washington-brewed Olympia at the VFW club in Everett, where I was a member. Of course, there was also my stepfather’s free homebrew, which my friends and I imbibed. It cost him 2 cents a quart in those days.
After 1947, when I turned 21, we also had a choice of Seattle-brewed Rainier, Heidelberg (Tacoma), and Lucky Lager, (Vancouver, WA). National brands were more expensive so we seldom consumed such. These beers were all pretty much similar, so brand loyalty was rarely considered.
In 1948 I matriculated at Springfield College in Massachusetts to became acquainted with Ballantines Lager and their wonderful Bock beer, produced, we were told, by cleaning those dirty beer vats in the spring. I stayed there only one school year, opting to return to Seattle’s University of Washington in the fall of 1949. Pabst Blue Ribbon and Schlitz also crossed my path during those years.
Somewhere during that time period, I tasted my first Rainier Ale, the only beer available one night at a dance hall on Seattle’s notorious First Avenue. They sold it at a reduced rate, because it was the “3.2” version of that beer’s regular 7.5% offering. I didn’t know then, that Rainier Ale was what brewers called a “bastard ale” (i.e., lager, normally fermented cold, but here fermented warmer at ale temperatures and finally aged cold). I marveled at the strange taste of this thing called “ale”. For the most part you could only buy the full strength version (as a “malt liquor”) at a Washington State Liquor store for a higher price.
At the end of June 1950, as I worked lifeguarding at Seattle’s Golden Gardens Beach in north Seattle, the North Koreans invaded South Korea. Later that year, I was recalled to the Marines as a flight radio operator roaming the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to Japan and Korea. In Hawaii I became acquainted with their famous Primo. Primo had serious flaws including a very noticeable “house” character, but it was highly regarded by the local folks. I liked it because, at 30-cents a bottle, it was cheaper than my favorite Oly was at 35-cents.
The job of “flight radio operator” was, at that time, mostly safe and a fairly cushy military occupation. Our 4-engined planes (R5D/C54) were well maintained (we only lost one in that war) and accidents were rare, although we landed exceedingly hard on one occasion. We also ran into a telephone pole (don’t ask) the last day of that war at what is now Seoul airport. It was all great fun.
I shook hands with Mrs. Pat Nixon; and First Lieutenant Ted Williams actually introduced himself to me! I also discovered (on one trip) that we were evacuating one of my best friends, with an amputated leg, from Hungnam in North Korea. He had been a fellow swimmer at college a year earlier.
There was always plenty to drink (Canadian Club fifth at $1.25), not at all like WWII Okinawa where booze of any type was nearly always illegal. Just so you know we weren’t screwing around, I can tell you that our Marine Air Transport Squadron (VMR 152) had the highest safety record (USAF, USN, USMC) in the Far East, and won two Presidential Unit Citations (Korean and U.S.). I stayed out there for well over three years, visiting airports over South Korea, those on half of the islands in the South Pacific and almost all Marine air bases across the U.S. I had a great time. Did I mention that we received extra flight pay for the job?
During that period I became acquainted with Miller, Champale, Japanese Kirin, Dutch Heineken, German Löwenbräu, and Danish Tuborg (in a stone mug). I met a former Budweiser employee who introduced me to the then delights of their original Michelob, a distinctive and delicious beer in that era.
Our friendship was very educational for me. I was to learn a great deal about the beer industry of the late 40s and early 50s, and he led me on an exploration of the dark side of lager beer, including Budweiser Dark and Michelob Dark. The joy of ale continued to elude me, although I still thought that species had somehow evolved into Rainier Ale. I also discovered Dos Equis Amber in Tijuana one lovely afternoon…or was it evening?
When I left the service after the Korean War, I returned to the University of Washington, where I graduated in 1958. I returned to swimming pool management that same year, continuing my exploration of American beer, which by then had began to seriously degrade. As it became ever paler and lighter in character, it continued to lose taste pleasure. I found that Coors was every bit as dull as Olympia had become, but Yuengling Porter showed some promise in taste, as did my first intrusion into the world of Guinness Draught; but it would be several years before I discovered the truly great taste of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout during a visit to Hong Kong.
By the early 1960s Seattle had grown to become the northwest’s largest, most crowded city. The beer scene continued to narrow severely and the state’s three brewers were all brewing drink-alike beers. I really gave up on beer and began to think wine and winemaking, as well as finding a less crowded habitat.
End, Part One: the first 38 years and 29 beers.
Fred Eckhardt, at 80, is clearly having entirely too much fun, but he absolutely refuses to apologize, of which his own mother would definitely disapprove. He is still teaching swimming to some fascinating adults and children in Portland, OR. He hopes the reader will live that long, and have as much fun as he is having now. Enjoy!