Those outside of Central Texas may not have heard of Wurstfest. Every year since 1963, in the little town of New Braunfels just north of San Antonio along Interstate 35, a 10-day festival celebrating the German heritage of this part of the state sloshes through endless gallons of beer and meat-bombs countless tourists with more greasy sausage than the human body should have to endure. Then there’s the oompah music, about which the less said, the better.
Nevertheless, when I was in high school in the late ‘70s in San Antonio, we looked forward with great, hormone-addled anticipation to Wurstfest every year. Because what Wurstfest meant to us was: a) fun unencumbered by adult supervision; b) a legendarily-lax approach to IDs in the beer lines; and 3) girls!, in combination with a) and b). Looking back on those trips up the highway, it’s obvious to me now that they were very much a facet of pre-Reagan America.
In 1980, I moved up to Austin to start classes at the University of Texas. Now legal upstanding drinkers, for the first couple of years my no-good friends and I still drove down to Wurstfest, as a salmon-like migration as much as a conscious decision. Using a friend’s lake-side trailer at nearby Lake Dunlap as a base, we would engage in various preparatory activities and then head out to Landa Park and dive in, as it were.
Our ’81 expedition turned out to be the last, following certain cataclysmic events that could not (at least in their specifics) have been foreseen. It is a bizarre tale, even in the abridged version I give you here, but I assure you that it is entirely true. Really!
In several carloads, we trooped down I-35 and met at the lakehouse, carrying cases of college-budgeted beer (Schaefer, Hamms, Black Label, and a few quarts of Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull bought out of a sense of sheer belligerence), as well as a few bottles of gold tequila. Although it seems immature and scarcely-believable now, I must confess that a beer bong was also in tow. Not the crappy, rookie amateur type with short hoses and funnels like the Tin Man’s hat, but the Real Thing: 2+ foot long transmission oil funnel from the auto parts store, attached by sturdy hose clamp to a 4 foot length of not-insubstantial diameter clear tubing.
* * *
A short digression about beer bongs: I had never seen one of these things, or even heard of them, before going to college. But my dorm suite-mates, from a different San Antonio high school, had evidently long perfected the techniques involved in beer bong construction and use. After a short introductory period, it wasn’t that successfully finishing your beer from the device was so bad. What made it hazardous (apart from whatever medical impacts we were blithely unaware of) was that these guys from the rival high school evidently had a long tradition of distracting the drinker/victim just before he did his beer bong and, in the process, pouring Other Substances (eg. tequila) into the funnel while he wasn’t looking. Due to some vaguery of chemical interaction and fluid dynamics, the liquor would not mix with the beer and would instead float at the top, so that the beer bong-ee, right at the apex of his extremis when he was sucking on the tube for all he was worth (that sounds bad…..) had his hopes suddenly and alarmingly dashed by that last unexpected one-foot of liquid in the tube (that turned out to be a fair amount of straight tequila). Sometimes the body would, quite sensibly, spontaneously decide that this was Too Much and proceed to reject the entire operation. This was deemed Deeply Amusing to the others in attendance, especially to those who had done the earlier distracting/tequila sabotage.
* * *
Upon arrival at the lakehouse, all these supplies were duly unpacked and employed, good tunes cranked on the rickety Radio Shack stereo in residence, the nutria rats chased out of the undergrowth, and a Good Time was muchly had by all. The trailer belonged to the family of Rosencrantz (I’m changing the names in this story, for reasons that will soon become all-too apparent), who also happened to be one of the Main Instigators of the bait-and-switch beer bong/tequila technique referenced above. On this particular night, he and his high school pal Guildenstern (whose family owned another lakehouse just down the way) were very much employing The Technique. Hilarity/extremis ensued.Overall, the mood was one of gleeful anticipation with more than a hint of reckless bonhomie.
Finally it was time for the short hop to the Fest.
A brief note about Wurstfest attire: Although it wasn’t something we thought much about, Wurstfest is a German-themed festival. While it’s true some attendees dress up in lederhosenfor the event, we would not have been caught dead doing so. Not only would it have been deemed staggeringly uncool, but it was also thought to be entirely counter-productive to the Meeting Girls Imperative (MGI). But the strange exception10 of our group made to this rule of thumb that nightin 1981 proved disastrous for all involved, as you will soon see.
After paying and entering the fairgrounds, the first booth by the walkway was one that I scarcely noticed until all were boisterously waved back by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. What the booth was selling were deeply cheesy cheap green flannel elf hats, upon which the gullible purchaser’s name would be written in Elmer’s Glue and gold glitter. These hats were being sold as ostensibly appropriate accessories to a lederhosen outfit.
They looked beyond ridiculous. And not in a good way.
However, somewhere in the addled minds of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the idea had become entrenched that wearing these hats, with the word “lonely” in gold across the front substituted for the name, would be of great service in the evening’s sacred MGI. Now, both of these guys were (and are) possessed of the gift of outstanding bullshit. They can be quite persuasive, damn their hides. So out of the 14 of us, a full 10 succumbed to the siren’s song and purchased identical Lonely Hats. And thusfestooned, they walked proudly down the promenade, which followed the gentle bends of the Comal River. They looked like a motley procession of pituitary elves, disgruntled from having been kicked out of Santa’s Village for snarling at the children.
The remaining four of our group (including myself, your humble Virgil for this coming tour of the Netherworld) walked a little behind, fascinated by the spectacle but determined not to be tarred with the same brush.
Did I mention that the Lonely Hat group had the beer bong that Dante managed to sneak into the gate?
Given the cumulative effect of the evening’s various consumptions, I have to say that the rest of the night deteriorated into a series of vignettes, some of which I personally witnessed and some that were related later on, after an initial sorting of legal difficulties. But it did not take long to see that A Pattern was emerging, one that would eventually lay waste to the Lonely Hat contingent of our merry little band.
As is customary at Wurstfest (well, at least customary in certain circles….) once each beer was consumed, the highly-prized large souvenir plastic cup would be saved and the newly-purchased full beer cup stacked on top. After a time, this led to each of our group walking around holding a precarious tower with a full beer swaying and splashing on top. I have a distinct memory of Dante and I walking down the path next to the river, very much in the middle of the fray and surrounded by hundreds of people, balancing impressive towers of cups without spilling (much) of the beers at the summit. Dante still had the beer bong and suddenly stopped cold, yelling out “Load me up!.” So, as we stood in the middle of the busy walkway, I put my tower down and plucked the beer from atop his and poured it into the beer bong, my thumb snuggly fit over the far end of the clear plastic tube.
Did I mention these cups were quite large, and held an impressive amount of beer?
So, having “loaded him up,” I passed the tube end to Dante and he replaced my thumb with his own (again, that sounds bad…..). Still holding the funnel, I picked up my beer tower and held it with the other hand. Dante then assumed the tradition stance, dropping down on one knee while simultaneously bringing the tube to his lips and diligently emptying the beer bong while I held the funnel high.
What Dante couldn’t see behind him at that moment was the two uniformed cops walking briskly toward us. I watched them approach, six-cup beer tower in my one hand and funnel in the other, with a sense of dread and inevitability. Upon arrival, they stood just behind Dante with their arms folded, watching as he finished off the beer bong, stood up in one fluid motion, taking the funnel from my hand and blowing out the foam on the ground in the traditional mannerwith a great spewing and trumpet-like flourish(the foam landing not far, as it turned out, from one cop’s shoes).Like a choreographed set piece, Dante dropped the beer bong on the ground and raised his arms up in the air—Rocky-like—and joyfully whooped “Yeah!”, at which point the cop whose shoe was violated reached up, grabbed Dante’s arms from behind, brought them behind his back in one continual motion and put the handcuffs on him. This had all happened before Dante even knew they were there.
It was quite the well-oiled Greek tragedy. It could have won a Tony.
Meanwhile, I’m still standing right in the thick of it, holding my teetering beer tower and looking helplessly into Dante’s eyes as his face processed through a variety of emotions. I say something to the cop along the lines of “hey, come on now…..”, at which point the other cop says “do you want to go, too?,” which had the desired of effect of immediately silencing me and causing me to step back and watch as Dante was led away, his green Lonely Hat receding through the crowd.
I stood alone on the walkway, lost in thought and holding one beer tower with Dante’s equally-impressive tower down at my feet. Sensing it would be wise to relocate, I combined his cups with mine and walked off into the crowd.
* * *
In the interests of space constraints, suffice it to say that ALL 10 of the Lonely Hat group were arrested that night in separate incidents, while none of the hatless schism were put in the hoosegow. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were trying to chat up some girls while sitting next to them on a stone wall, and had the bad luck to teeter and fall off it just as some police were walking by. Downtown they went, toot sweet. The tale of LaMotta and McMahon is more concerning, but does have interesting legal aspects to it. The two were standing outside of their car, keys in pants pocket, still wearing Lonely Hats and pumping gas in the car when a cruiser pulled up and disgorged cops who ran over and arrested both for DWI. Interestingly, it turned out that the police never saw them actually driving at all (which they certainly should not have been doing anyway….), and that was later grounds for dismissal of those charges. As these facts were emerging around a desk just the other side of the jail cell bars downtown, McMahon (the car’s passenger) was told he would be released with no charges after signing for his personal effects. However, as it was later told to me, McMahon was too drunk to sign his name and was thus put back in the pokey for public intoxication. And thereafter, in certain circles, “too drunk to sign your name” became a moniker for those who were held to have over-indulged and should cease.
The four of us with the good judgement to abstain from Lonely Hatswere left to cage rides from strangers back out to Lake Dunlap, followed by long walks down dark dirt roads and subsequent loitering outside the locked trailer. Various observed vignettes were related and compared, and the true import of the Lonely Hats of Doom soon became apparent.
Now, the Comal County Sheriffs’ Department was (and is) famous for using public intoxication arrests to stoke up the public coffers every year when Wurstfest rolled around. But I can attest that there was not an appreciable difference between the levels of inebriation of the Lonely Hat group versus the four hatless members of our troupe. While the level of unacceptable behavior very well may have been somewhat greater in the former versus the latter, it is still difficult to ascribe the arrest vs. non-arrest statistics to anything other than the wearing of the Lonely Hats themselves. Of course, you will have already noted the interesting psychological questions raised by the very lack of judgment that led to the purchasing and wearing of such headgear.
It goes without saying that no wearer of a Lonely Hat experienced any success in his MGI that evening. In fact, I’m willing to go out on a limb and state for the record that those chapeaus created an impressivefield of GRE (Girl Repellant Effect) that radiated out at least to the line of sight.