A new drinking ritual when turning 21

My little brother once cheated at blackjack, and I seriously thought my liquored-up father was about to shoot him with a deer rifle.

John Hoff

Jason Reinhardt died at a fraternity near Minnesota State University-Moorhead of alcohol intoxication. He had consumed 16 drinks in an hour on the night of his 21st birthday before arriving at the fraternity. The Reinhardt incident in 2004 helped lead to passage of a law aimed at preventing “power hour” drinking.

I have little faith in laws aimed at “power hours,” since drinking on somebody’s 21st birthday can take place outside of a bar as well. I believe that drinking during a power hour has its roots in the primal need for a coming-of-age ritual to mark the passage to full, legal adulthood. Therefore, I would like to propose a new, positive drinking ritual upon turning 21.

On what expertise do I base this proposed ritual? Let us say I’ve had a lifelong relationship with the alcohol demon. My father, Willard, was a soldier who did and saw horrible things. He went through two divorces and prison before he met my mother. My dad drank when he was happy. He drank a lot more when he was angry or depressed. Once, he drank so much that medical staff in Alexandria told us my father had beaten some kind of unofficial hospital record for a blood alcohol content on a live human being.

We would get an allowance when we were kids, but there wasn’t enough cash for allowance and my father’s cigarettes, too. (The cigarettes ultimately killed him right in front of me.) So there was a ritual which went with receiving the allowance. We would play blackjack with my father and try to hang on to our allowance. Blackjack is all about getting to 21. You might make 21 with an ace and a face card, the easy way, or you might get closer to 21 with one or more additional cards. Getting to 21 the harder way is, in many ways, more satisfying.

Drunk and gambling, my father would open up and tell revealing stories about the war. The alcohol demon possessing him could be jolly, or mocking and cruel. My little brother once cheated at blackjack, and I seriously thought my liquored-up father was about to shoot him with a deer rifle. It was hard to tell if he was really kidding.

Years later, as an army medic with a psych specialty, I dealt with patients who had substance abuse problems. But it wasn’t until the day I graduated from law school that I squarely faced my fear of the alcohol demon, and learned how to drink in a very limited way, for calculated social purposes. For years, I have thought about how to bring about a new and socially-useful “turning 21 drinking ritual,” and these musings have finally taken the form of “21 the hard way.”

This is how you fulfill the new tradition. On your 21st birthday, you will go from bar to bar with friends, seeking free drinks, because some bars will give you a free drink on your birthday. You will not consume any of these free drinks. You will give the drinks away to complete strangers who appear to be over 42 and, furthermore, it must be a stranger of the same gender as you.

You will try to talk to these strangers, and ask them what lessons life has taught them, and will not drink at all on your 21st birthday, learning to be a pillar of mature self-control at the very moment you are most tempted and entitled to let loose.

Then, on 20 different days, you will seek out 20 additional strangers (appearing over 42) of your same gender, and ask the strangers to buy you a drink. Yes, you can explain about the ritual. You can and should explain you want to find out what lessons life has taught them, what things they wish they would have known upon turning 21, approximately half a lifetime ago.

It will take great cleverness and social skill to get 20 drinks this way, especially since (if the subject comes up) you have to be honest that you’re not looking for a date, and you must never drink an unsafe drink handled by somebody other than the bartender, or you lose.

You might endure drunken mockery, intoxicated anger or meet genuine psychos. The world is full of random psychos and you will need to learn to deal with them, because you’ll encounter them in bars you’re now allowed to enter. The point of meeting “same sex” strangers is, actually, to protect young women who may attempt the ritual.

The risk, of course, isn’t entirely eliminated. There are males who prey on males. But women who commit sex offenses against woman are rare. The endless mystery of the sexes is a worthy topic for bar conversation with philosophical strangers.

In any case, just explain you are there to listen, learn and fulfill the ritual. You will drink exactly one drink, the drink the stranger buys you. The stranger gets to pick the drink, but you might ask for a drink that “has a story” meaningful to the stranger. You will drink no other alcohol, not until you accumulate 20 drinks from 20 strangers on 20 different days. Then you may drink freely. (Communion, cough syrup – duh, these are exceptions.)

It may take 20 days, or it may take a full year. You can also fulfill the ritual with less than 20 stranger drinks just by turning 22. We’ll call that “standing pat.”

What will you gain if you can fulfill this challenging ritual? You will gain wisdom from the experiences of others, plus admirable self-control when it comes to alcohol. Clearly, with young people dying by drinking themselves to death, we need more of both.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]