Leave it to my sullen, anti-social adolescent self to subvert the true meaning of Christmas. Not that I'm completely sure -- now or then -- what the true meaning of Christmas actually is. But I am fairly certain it does not involve smuggling, skulking around in basements and whipping up illicit batches of home brew.
When I was old enough to drive but not old enough to take my parent's Ford Torino to the Idaho State line for a beer run and sometime before we found that small grocery store right here in town where they never checked ID, a couple of my friends, my brother and I schemed to brew our own beer.
As that Christmas season opened, most of the people in our relatively carefree suburban lives were busying themselves with gift buying and easing into that warm, fuzzy holiday spirit. And so -- to some extent, at least -- were we, I'm sure. Except that instead of sugarplums, we had bottle caps, hydrometers and malt extracts dancing in our heads. And instead of wandering through the malls searching for perfectly thoughtful gifts for our loved ones, we were spending our summer lawn-mowing money on a 20-gallon green plastic garbage can, several feet of siphon hose, malt syrup, sugar and baker's yeast.
Some weeks earlier, in an admirable attempt to bond with his nephew, my uncle taught me the finer points of home brewing using his own time-honored method. In our rather large family, my uncle was something of a folk hero to those of us without the legal right to purchase alcohol. I mean, this guy made his own. Gallons of it at a time. To my co-conspirators and me, it seemed like a perfectly viable way out of the beer-less conundrum in which society and The Man had ensnared us. We weren't allowed to buy it. And we couldn't seem to get anyone to buy it for us. Why not (we reasoned) make it ourselves? Yeah, why not?
Once we had the equipment, all we needed was an opportunity to commence the brewing process. Christmas, as it turned out, was it.
Every year while I was still living at home, my parents threw this big open house on the night of the 25th for the entire family, including grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins galore. I always looked forward to it because it was a rare opportunity (even rarer today) for the rapidly expanding and fragmenting clan to get together, catch up on family stuff, trade stories and wolf down copious amounts my dad's sublime clam dip.
This year, as usual, my cousin (son of my brew-instigating uncle) came with his family. Of course he had an ulterior motive for being there on that particular evening: to supervise the brewing process -- a process he had personally witnessed many times. The setup was perfect. As we scurried like rats in the basement toiling toward a prospective alcoholic conclusion, the adults did whatever they usually did whenever the kids weren't around, oblivious to the covert operation being carried out beneath their feet.
We set about our mission with the zeal of a Bible-thumper and the stealth of a cat burglar. We posted a lookout at the bottom of the stairs. We tapped water directly from the hot water heater. We mixed the ingredients into our semi-clean green garbage can with a piece of lathe from my dad's wood shop. We stashed our half-assed attempt at brewing in a cubby in the downstairs bathroom my brother and I shared. Radiant with pride, we congratulated each other on a crime well committed.
But like that damn ubiquitous, all-knowing Santa Claus, my parents always seemed to get a whiff of what we were up to, no matter how carefully we covered our tracks. Admittedly, the whiff in this case was fairly obvious, as anyone who's ever toured a brewery can tell you. And so, though they probably didn't realize exactly "when" (thereby remaining blissfully unaware of how we sullied Christmas with decidedly sneaky activities), they did, as our concoction gurgled merrily away, most assuredly know "what." Surprisingly, however, they never punished us or forced us to dump our malty abomination down the drain. In fact, they hardly said anything about it at all (though my dad did slowly grill my brother and me one evening around the family dinner table with zingers like: "Have you guys noticed a strange odor in your bathroom recently? I know what it is, but I just can't quite put my finger on it... It's not a bad smell, just kind of a yeasty smell.").
For the record, our brewing venture was a bust. We bottled too early and the fermentation continued until the pressure inside the bottles caused several of them to explode. The few survivors tasted terrible. Years later, the story resurfaced and has since become an integral and amusing part of Corrigan lore. Funny how that works.
Still, I can't believe how much mental energy we wasted and how much bad karma we built up that Christmas day just to satisfy our beer lust when -- no more than 10 feet away from the crime scene -- there was a small basement refrigerator bursting with unguarded six-packs of Olympia and Hamm's.