They only make them in plastic now. When I got mine is was a stoneware stein, a heavy vessel for swigging beer. It was a wild, stormy night, near a town called South Euclid, Ohio. The rain pelted down so hard, each dropped bounced back, a foot high and as I descended, on foot, off the highway, soaked to the skin, I remember thinking I’d love a beer, right then. I was hungry too but, as they said at home, my throat was cut for a sup. I knew the Notre Dame campus was right down here, somewhere, close to the interstate.
Six days I’d been on the road, through deserts, over mountains and across broad plains of corn, as far as the eye could see. I’d slept on the roadside, in campus dormitories and once, in a railroad carriage. Hitchhiking, back then, was an adventure but don’t get me wrong, even then, in 1974, it was a dangerous adventure.
Many well-intentioned people pick you up out of the goodness of their heart but there were predators, too. The best ride I got brought me from Cheyenne, Wyoming on I80, all the way to Chicago, Illinois. Chuck and Jess were driving a black and chromed up Lincoln Continental, the most unlikely mode of transport you could imagine for a pair of old motorcycle bandits.
They had a cooler full of beer in the back seat and I sat upfront with them, all the way across Nebraska and Idaho, drinking beer, smoking reefer and singing along to Chuck’s collection of Lynnrd Skynnrd 8 Tracks. Occasionally, we’d get surrounded on the highway by leathered up, road dusted, motorbike gangs in their charging hogs and choppers and they’d exchange greetings, joints and beer before moving on down the road.
Shortly after they dropped me off, a man, middle aged, well dressed, neatly groomed, tried to rob me but I got away from him. You could never be too careful.
So here I was, trudging up to the flood lit football stadium on the Notre Dame campus where pre-term training was in session and I did what every traveling student did in those circumstances, I played the Irish card. C’mon, what did you expect? Hey, I said to one of the guys, as soaked as I was, except he was in his football gear, I’m an Irish student, traveling, I need a place to stay, can you help?
Help? They brought me back to their dormitory. People were dispatched to round up a crowd and as many beers as they could muster. Food was found and my clothes were taken to be laundered and dried. I dug one dry pair of jeans and teeshirt from the bottom of my back pack. Pretty soon, the party was in full swing and from there, my memory blurs. The following morning, after breakfast. the guys presented me with my Fighting Irish beer stein, the receptacle from which I had drained an entire can of beer without breath, the previous night. I packed it away and promised I’d cherish it.
Three months later, back home in Dublin, I was packing up, again, leaving home for a student pad of my own on the other side of Dublin. My mother fussed about, packed a Tupperware box of sandwiches, a couple of hardboiled eggs and an apple – in case you get hungry and there isn’t anything in your place – and as she dressed my abandoned bed to keep her self busy she bumped the shelf above my bed and an avalanche of football trophies, medals, model cars and my Fighting Irish mug, hit the ground, hard. The mug shattered and so, I believe, did my mother’s heart.
She was inconsolable in her contrite grief, mortified to have shattered my trophy from my travels. She cried and cried. Then I cried, too because she wouldn’t stop crying and I was a big boy now and it’s only a fucking mug, for God’s sake and there’s no need for you to be cursing about it, what kind of language is that? I’m sorry, Mammy, then we cried again as she picked up the shards and vowed to put it back together again.
And I gave up, piled my backpack on my back again and left, ‘cos I was a big boy now.