Author’s note: This story ended up being literally three times longer than would fit upon these two scant pages. Damned physics! To read the unabridged version, please visit mjohnfayhee.com
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.
— Alexander Pope, “Eloisa and Abelard”
Some of you may remember the Gazette’s infamous “High Country Beer Math” saga, which was birthed in unlikely fashion a decade ago in MG #82 (Sept. 2001), till it finally mostly faded away with one last (of many) Letter to the Editor in MG #99 (Dec. 2003), only to be sorta resurrected last year. (And, I guess, in the relating of this tale, it continues on still.)
It all began innocuously enough on a hot summer day. I found myself a tad parched after a nice, long hike up the Lenawee Trail, so I stopped in the Dillon Dam Brewery for numerous recuperative beverages. I ordered up my usual pint of Dam Straight Lager, and the bartender asked when I was going to pony up for a genuine personalized mug, which, come to find out, cost $35. The benefit of doing so, I learned, was, from that moment on, I would receive 20 ounces of beer for the same price as a pint. Being a liberal arts-type person and all, I scrunched up my forehead and tried mightily, though unsuccessfully, to suss out how many beers it would take before that $35 investment would be recouped.
Also at the bar that day was a tribe of senior citizens I am proud to call chums, and I believe the vice is versa in that regard. Though their ranks have thinned over the years, via an unfortunate combination of relocation and attrition, to this day, they are known as the Dillon Dam Brewery Old Farts Club, a non-organization of aging bro-brahs that meets at the Dam pretty much every day for happy-hour libations and shit-shooting.
It should come as no surprise that several sets of Old Fart ears perked up when my mug-ROI interrogative was posed. For the next hour or so, a gaggle of retired professors, engineers, administrators, educators and whatnot, most of whom were at least partially in their cups, pulled out felt-tipped pens, grabbed proximate cocktail napkins and began scribbling, calculating and arguing. Now, I may not be smart enough to ascertain how many beers it would take me to recoup my $35 mug cost, but I am smart enough to recognize a potential Mountain Gazette story when it slaps me upside the head. By the time Happy Hour was winding down (the witching hour, as it were, for most of the Old Farts), I had in my possession more than a dozen napkins adorned with a vast array of Beer Math calculations, all of which were completely different from each other. No two Old Farts drew the same conclusion, though all were equally vehement about the accuracy of their own personal computations. The MG art director scanned in a handful of the Beer Math cocktail napkins, I jotted down a couple silly observations and we ran a half-page story on the whole experience. And that was that. Or so we thought …
About 16 months later, out of the blue, we got a Beer Math Letter to the Editor (in MG #93), from, of all perplexing things, Inmate #106669 at the Buena Vista (Colo.) Correctional Facility, who, while serving a 12-year sentence for I think some sort of contra-legal fiscal liberation, had somehow received a copy of MG #82 and, since he worked in the slammer as a teacher of GED-level math to fellow prisoners, opted to take advantage of the real-life-lesson opportunities the Beer Math story presented. He asked his class to try to solve the problem. I don’t know which was more sobering, that a Mountain Gazette story bearing my byline was being used in a prison GED class or the fact that this did not mark the first time MG had been on the receiving end of a submission from an incarcerated felon.
In addition to Inmate #106669 asking in his Letter to the Editor for a free subscription to MG, he took the opportunity to perform a Beer Math calculation of his own. That calculation essentially raised the boisterously stated algebraic ire of one Big Bob Kimble, a retired mechanical engineer of international repute, who wielded with pride a well-honed, high-decibeled Southern drawl that would make even third-generation residents of the Mississippi Delta recoil in abject linguistic horror.
Big Bob responded to Inmate 106669’s throwing down of the gauntlet by writing a long Letter to the Editor of his own (which appeared in MG #95). That Letter, which included a series of very-impressive-looking calculations that filled an entire piece of graph paper, was addressed not to me, and it was not to the Mountain Gazette. Rather, it was addressed directly, personally, to Inmate #106669. And that Letter essentially spat upon Inmate #106669’s math skills. We received a good-natured response from Inmate #106669 stating that, when he was released, he planned to visit the Dam Brewery to set things aright vis-à-vis this Beer Math contretemps.
At that time, the concept of Inmate #106669 actually showing up at the Dam to hobnob Beer Math skinny was little more than an abstraction, but in subsequent communiqués over the next few months, I learned that that abstraction had a very non-abstract expiration date, and that date was suddenly looming. Inmate #106669 was very soon to be set free. And, finally, I got the word: “I’ll be at the Dam Brewery in two weeks at 3 p.m. Please make sure all the Old Farts are there.” Oh boy …
“How will I know you?” I asked Inmate #106669 in a pre-visit email. “Oh, you’ll definitely know us,” was his response. That the email included the word “us” made me gulp even more.
So, I arrived at the agreed-upon time, already having downed a few brews to settle my nerves. Over the course of the next two hours and 15 minutes, whenever the front door so much as wiggled in the wind, I leaned forward and seriously scrutinized whoever was entering. When Inmate #106669 finally arrived, I was reminded of the time my buddy Mark Fox and I scheduled a newspaper interview with the Bud Light Girls, who were likewise tardy. Every time any young nymphets entered the interview venue — Eric’s Underworld in Breckenridge (RIP) — Mark and I wondered if they might be the Bud Light Girls. When the Bud Light Girls finally arrived, we laughed at the thought that we could have confused anyone else for them. Ditto when Inmate #106669 ingressed the Dam Brewery, with another gentlemen, who, turns out, was Inmate #106669’s cellmate for two years, a man who had been released the previous year after having served seven years for beating up two cops. Also in tow was the spouse of Inmate #106669’s ex-cellmate.
Inmate #106669 was right as rain in that, when this threesome arrived, there was no disputing who they were. It was not so much appearance or action as it was simple bearing (well, that, plus the tats). Inmate #106669 and his cellmate would have been intimidating had they been life-long Hare Krishnas, which they assuredly were not. The vibe that preceded them and surrounded them and followed them like a dark ominous karmic wake was the very denotation of “Mess with us at your peril.”
We introduced ourselves, and I took Inmate #106669 over to meet, first, the Dam Brewery’s very nervous management team, and then I introduced Inmate #106669 to the Old Farts. Inmate #106669 and the Old Farts hobnobbed good-naturedly about Beer Math for a while, but, since my ex-con buddies had arrived so late, it was soon time for the Old Farts to pay their tabs and move along, unscathed, much to my relief. Big Bob told me a few weeks later how much he enjoyed his levitous chat with Inmate #106669. The brewmaster of the Dam Brewery, the late and sorely missed Matt Luhr, had told the bartender that he would pick up the tab for Inmate #106669, his cellmate and his cellmate’s spouse, something I really wish Matt had run by me before the fact. Because of Matt’s well-meaning, though misguided, offer, my new friends opted to imbibe at what I would call an injudicious rate, and, believe me, my standards are not very high in that regard. Over the course of the next four or five hours, we all got pretty hammered, especially the cellmate, whose demeanor, sad to report, started getting a bit surly and argumentative. Several of my attempts at sarcastic jocularity were not received as I had intended them. There were a couple of snarly “What do you mean by that?”-type responses to my amiable attempts to make it through the evening without getting the shit kicked out of me.
About 9, Matt Luhr paid the tab and bade everyone a fond good night. I, too, said it was time for me to head home to Frisco, a parting of the ways that was somewhat awkward because I got the feeling Inmate #106669 was half-expecting an invite to bunk down at the Casa de Fayhee, an invite my wife had preemptively, and unambiguously, told me earlier that day damned well absolutely BETTER NOT be extended.
Though there was understandable nervous tension, the M. John/ex-con/Old Farts confab went off without a hitch. The Dam Brewery was not destroyed, no patrons were pummeled, no women raped. Whew!
Then, the next morning, I got a voice mail from Inmate #106669. “Man, I am so sorry for what happened. My cellmate just got pissed. I don’t know what to say.”
The message ended without Inmate #106669 filling in any of the pertinent details, which made me think he was just joking. Still, I placed a call to the Dam Brewery and, much to my infinite chagrin, I learned that, after I left, the cellmate had continued drinking and got up to leave without paying for his last beverages. When the bartender brought this to his attention, the cellmate said that his tab was taken care of by Matt Luhr. The bartender said that Matt had paid for everyone’s beverages clear up till the point when Matt left. After that, the deal was off. The cellmate did not respond well to this and “caused a bit of a ruckus.” The police were eventually summoned. And I had a series of apologies to make.
Soon after, the cellmate burned to death in an RV fire.
The Beer Math saga was fast losing its silly humor factor.
Inmate #106669 and I kept in contact for a couple years. He was back with his family and seemed to be doing fine. He tried to talk me into going to Burning Man with him, but, since that sort of event is not exactly my cup of tea, I begged off. He said he was going anyway and would like to pen a Gazette piece on the experience. I hooked him up with a photographer I knew was also going, but nothing ever came of the assignment. After a while, Inmate #106669 and I lost touch. I felt badly about that, but, as much as I truly liked Inmate #10666, I simply could not bring myself to fully extend a comfortable hand of true amigo-ship.
Last summer, B. Frank and I were traveling around the Four Corners area doing some readings. The first one kicked off at Maria’s Bookstore in Durango. I arrived early the day of the reading and was killing time in Carver’s catching up on correspondences. Stunningly, right then, I got an email from none other than Inmate #106669, who was, even more stunningly, living in, of all places, Durango. His recent past had been a continuous tale of woe. He had $90,000 worth of uninsured construction equipment and tools stolen. His young son had accidentally burned his house to the ground. And he had received four DUIs (!!!) in two days (!!!) and had consequently spent the previous year in the county jail. Yikes! That’s a tough run.
Right next to my laptop was a copy of the Durango Herald with a story about our reading at Maria’s that night right there on the front page. Not surprisingly, Inmate #106669 showed up at the reading, and he joined us when we went across the street to the El Rancho for a bit of post-event fun and frolic. Because of the size of the group, I did not have the chance to talk to Inmate #106669 much. He asked me to join him for breakfast, but B. Frank and I were headed toward our next stop in Silverton that very night. The opposite direction, which, mortifying as this is to articulate, is right where I felt like heading. When I got back home, there was a phone message from Inmate #106669. I never returned it. Am I an asshole? I am an asshole. God, I hate being an asshole.
Because I now live 600 miles away, I don’t get to visit the Dillon Dam Brewery much any more. Last fall, I was in Summit County, so I stopped in for few mugs of Lager (my $35 mug, #151, is still at hand … it has paid for itself many times over). At the bar were several members of the Old Farts’ Club, including Big Bob. He wasn’t looking so good. Seemed like his boisterous life force had dissipated.
“You’ll never guess who I saw in Durango recently,” I said.
He smiled wanly and we reminisced about the whole Beer Math saga.
When I left, I had a feeling it would be the last time I would ever see Big Bob. And it was. Ends up, he had been fighting pancreatic cancer and, in April, he finally succumbed. Another piece of my personal High Country social milieu is gone. I am already starting to forget many of the old names and faces that defined my quarter-century at altitude. Self-centered way to view a friend’s demise, I know, but there it is.
It broke my heart that I was unable to attend Big Bob’s memorial service, which transpired, of course, at the Dillon Dam Brewery. But my buddy Mark Fox was there, camera in hand, as always. He sent me a couple of the photos he took for the Summit Daily News. Standing around a table laden with Big Bob memorabilia were many people I have long known, people I’ve consumed many beers with. They were all smiling. When I looked closer, I could see why: They were eyeballing a copy of Mountain Gazette #82, open to page 22. I could read the headline clearly. “High Country Beer Math.” Directly under the headline, the topmost scribbled-upon cocktail napkin bore the name Bob Kimble. For the record, he calculated that it would take 55 mugs of beer to recoup that $35.
A bargain on many, many levels.
Nuther author’s note: You can read the original Beer Math story and related Letters to the Editor here.