Monday, October 18, 2010

Chicago -- "25 or 6 to 4" (1970)

Feeling like I ought to sleep
Spinning room is sinking deep
Searching for something to say
Waiting for the break of day
25 or 6 to 4

When I was a freshman in college, one of my suitemates was a junior from San Antonio -- let's call him "David."  David was a nice guy, but didn't have a lot of friends, so he had plenty of time to hang out with us freshmen.  He was usually available to drive us to a fast-food restaurant on Sunday nights (when our dining hall was closed), or to play spades, or just to sit around and listen to records.  

David played in the Rice "Marching Owl Band" (or "MOB") -- I think trombone, but maybe trumpet -- and was a big fan of bands with horn sections, like Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago. 

Chicago did a lot of girly music as the years went on, but their first two albums -- both of which were double albums -- were very good and quite distinctive in style.  "25 or 6 to 4" was probably the fastest and loudest song they ever recorded, and it was definitely my favorite song of theirs.

In case you're wondering about the title, there's a simple explanation.  Just pretend the singer is saying "25 or 26 until 4" -- in other words, the times 3:35 (25 until 4) or 3:34 (26 until 4).  Everything else makes sense then.  (If you don't believe me, maybe you'll believe "The Straight Dope.")

The lyrics of this song were pretty transparent, so it was easy to sing along to -- which I did (using my open hands to pound on my thighs like they were drums) whenever it was on the stereo, especially after downing a few beers.  

I didn't drink beer until the second semester of my freshman year.  When I was in high school, I used to sneak a little gin or vodka from my parents' liquor cabinet (they drank very little, and didn't have much of a selection of booze) and mix it with 7-Up.  I tried beer once or twice and thought it was awful.  (My first trip to Galena was the summer after my freshman year -- not the previous summer, when I had just turned 18 and could have gone to Galena legally.) 

But in the spring of my freshman year, a friend told me I should join him when he tried out for the Weiss College "Beer-Bike Race" team.  

[Note: when I was a student at Rice University, students were assigned to one of seven residential colleges.  Mine was Weiss College.  Rice's residential colleges were modeled after those found at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale.  (we fancy,huh?)  You were assigned to one randomly as a freshman, and stayed affiliated with that same one for as long as you were at Rice.  Each different college had its own dining hall, theatre group, intramural sports teams, etc.  In a nutshell, the colleges were much chummier and tight-knit than traditional dormitories, but much more democratic than fraternities.  You can read more about Rice's residential colleges here.]    

The Beer-Bike Race is a combination bicycle and beer-drinking relay race dating back to 1957.  Believe it or not, the Rice University library has a Beer-Bike Race document collection that is three linear feet long and fills six boxes.  Here's a link to an online documentary about Beer-Bike created by a student -- for class credit, believe it or not!

Each residential college has a team of ten riders and ten beer chuggers.  Riders and drinkers alternate, starting with a drinker.  When the starting gun is fired, the chugger starts to guzzle a 24-ounce can of warm, flat beer.  (It goes down a lot quicker than regular beer -- or even water, for that matter.  I think it has something to do with specific gravity.)  When the beer drinker is done, he flips his can upside-down and holds it high over his head to show that it is empty.  

The first biker then rides three laps around an oval course laid out in the football stadium parking lot -- helped on his way by a few burly football players, who give his bike a good push to help him get up to speed quickly.  (The effect is not unlike that of Olympic bobsledders pushing their sled, except the football players don't jump on the bike at the end of the run like the sledders jump into the bobsled.)  When the rider completes his rider, those same footballers are standing by to bring him to a sudden stop when he crosses the finish line and help the next rider get started as the second beer drinker does his thing.  

A Beer-Bike Race rider's assisted start

Participants who both ride and chug were referred to as "Ironmen," and they were very rare.  Ironmen always did their riding before they did their drinking for obvious reasons.   

Since each beer drinker could finish his task in five seconds or so and each bike rider needed a couple of minutes to complete his ride, it was pretty obvious that success in the race was determined by the quality of your bikers, not the speed of your drinkers.  But a plain old bike ride would have been sooooooo boring!

Here's a shot from the 2005 race showing a team member on the table and ready to chug:

Here's a close-up of that team's official "Teenage Mutant Binging Turtles" T-shirt.  (Team T-shirts have gotten pretty elaborate.)

Here's a link to a website with pictures of many other Beer-Bike uniform T-shirts.  My favorite is probably the 2007 Richardson College "Atlas Chugged" T-shirt, which resembles the cover of the Ayn Rand book, except that Atlas is supporting a beer keg on his shoulders.)

Like a track relay race, timing is everything in the Beer-Bike Race.  For example, the pushers will start to propel the biker forward before the drinker has quite finished his beer.  If they start too soon and the bike crosses the start line before the empty can is turned upwards and the judge signals with his flag, there's a penalty. 

Beer-Bike has approximately as many rules as the Olympics.  Here's a link to the 2010 rules -- 5 1/2 pages of very small print.

For example, drinkers can't spill too much beer -- in our day, it was more than an ounce or so of beer.  If you spill more than that, it's known as a "wet chug," and there's a 5-second penalty.   Chuggers may wear no more than one shirt above the waist.  ("Bulky or wet clothing articles designed to absorb beer or prevent spilled beer from being seen may not be worn.") 

The "chug judges" -- one per team -- were the ROTC instructors when I was a student.  (It was standard practice to give the judges all the beer they could handle in hopes that their vigilance might flag a bit.)  In my day, when beards and long hair were de rigeur, we knew we could pour the beer a little faster than our mouths could handle it, and the excess would be absorbed by all that hair without drawing a penalty.  

24-ounce beer can
Beer can design was also heavily regulated.  When I was at Rice, there were two basic designs -- closed and open.  Closed-top drinkers would cut a semi-circular hole that was about 1/3 the total area of the entire beer can top.  (A number of breweries made 24-ounce cans in those days.  Tennis ball cans also held exactly 24 ounces.)  They would also cut a small hole near the bottom of the side of the can. 

A closed-top drinker placed his mouth to cover the entire opening and held a finger over a hole that was punched near the bottom of the side of the can until he was ready to go.  When it was time to drink, he tilted the can almost vertical and took his finger off the hole as he started drinking so atmospheric pressure helped get the beer out of the can and down his throat more quickly.  

It was not unheard of for a closed-top drinker to pour melted wax into the bottom of his can, reducing the amount of beer required to fill it.  You hoped that the judge wouldn't have occasion to pick up the can during the race -- the extra pound of wax at the bottom was a dead giveaway there was something rotten in the state of Denmark.     

Open-top devotees (of which I was one) simply cut the entire top off the can.  (There was no need for a small hole at the bottom of an open-top can.)  The advantage of the open-top design was that you could see how much beer was left in the can, enabling you to begin to pull it away from your mouth and hold it upside-down above your head (signalling the judge that the can was empty so the next bike rider could take off) when there was still a small amount left in the can  Catching the last ounce or so in your mouth might save your team precious miliseconds.

I knew none of this when I accompanied my friend to that first Saturday afternoon tryout.  But it was lucky for good ol' Weiss College that I did.  It turned out that I was a beer-drinking prodigy, sort of like Robert Redford in The Natural.  

I made the team as a freshman -- one of the 10 fastest drinkers in our 250-man residential college -- and I qualified for the team each subsequent year.  Yes, I was that rara avis, a 4-year Beer-Bike Race letterman.  Since I didn't turn 21 until the end of my junior year, I must have participated in three races before it was legal for me to drink.  (Texas lowered the drinking age to 18 just as I was about to turn 21, so that happened too late to do me any good.) 

My times were solid, although not spectacular -- I was a consistent five-second drinker, good enough for the #6 or #7 spot on the team.  One guy was a year or two ahead of me was amazing.  He usually downed his 24 ounces of Milwaukee's finest in two to three seconds.  

Not even the pre-meds in the crowd could explain it, but he seemed to be able to open throat and just pour the beer down his throat without really swallowing.  I still remember how he would tilt the can and suddenly -- long before you could imagine the beer was gone -- remove the can from his lips, holding it high to demonstrate that he had drained every drop.  C'est impossible, I would murmur under my breath -- or words to that effect.

By contrast, another would-be team member was a tad too slow to crack the starting lineup, usually requiring about six seconds to down his 24-ounce drink.  But what made it virtually impossible for him to secure a spot on the team was his propensity to throw up the beer almost immediately after consuming it -- resulting in his being given the nickname "Six Seconds Down, Seven Seconds Up."  (The rule was that a drinker had to be able to hold his beer down until he climbed off the table on which drinkers stood while performing, and this poor soul usually couldn't manage to do that.)

Tomorrow, I'll tell you the story of one very special Beer-Bike Race practice.  Here's a little clue as to what happened at that practice.

Here's "25 or 6 to 4":

Here's a link to use to order it from iTunes:

Here's a link to use to order from Amazon:

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