Learning to Drink in Wheeling

Somehow we all got introduced to the ancient evil of alcohol. In Wheeling most likely it was beer. Way back in the old days, which would have been the late and mid 60’s Wheeling had a great system for creating future drunks, and reasonable drinkers. Most young teenagers probably started with a swig from the home supply, but soon a better supply was needed.

If my old mind serves me correctly the legal drinking age was 18 when I was a teen. This could be justified because all you could legally get at 18 was 3.2 beer. It was training beer. You would likely drown before you got too drunk. Although the legal age was 18 it seemed to be the widely accepted standard that if you were tall enough to put a quarter on the bar you would be served. Checking IDs was unheard of.

On Washington Avenue there was a bar where all the teenagers hung out. I just cannot recall the name of the place. After consulting friends still in Wheeling the consensus is the bar was The Cardinal Inn.

My first memory of that place and beer was an incident that involved a friend. My friend Mike thought he had an ideal scheme to come by some beer as a pre-legal person. Mike called the bar from a phone booth across the street. Mike pretended to be his father. As the fake father Mike called the bartender and said he was sending his son down to get a six pack. Somehow the bartender sensed a rat or the scam had been tried before. From the bar you could see across the street to the phone booth, so the bartender could see Mike making the call. The bartender told Mike he could see his father in the booth across the street and recommended his father come get the beer. Mike went dry that day, but it was not long that he realized like every teenager did when they got a little older sixteen seemed to be the age of passing and the same bar would serve you.

On the corner was another bar. I think it was called Moxie’s. According to folklore kids would get off the school bus and go in to have a beer and a hotdog. The amazing thing about the bar we hung out in was that more than likely no one in the place was of legal age at times. Over on Edgington Lane was Tom’s and the Alpha.

The police in the old days seemed more like chaperones. If you got out of hand they told you to go home. Rarely did anyone have a run in with the police. As you got older and braver you branched out to other bars, and there were plenty of them.

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The Wheeling College students were frequently at the Washington Avenue bars. Somehow an alliance was formed with the college students and the high school students were allowed to attend the keg parties of the college crowd. A wonderful place existed for these parties. If you went to the end of Edgington Lane and up Boggs Hill Road there was a place you could get down to the creek. The creek split and formed a peninsula. On that flat little piece of ground someone had placed an old pickle barrel from The Burger Chef. That barrel could be filled with ice and a keg of beer placed in the barrel.

On warm evenings a fire would be built the kegs would appear and the party was on. One of the best aspects of the remote location was crossing the creek to get to the celebration. In no time someone was inebriated to the point they fell in the creek, but the best show was when you would hear the roar of a motorcycle about to cross the creek. The engine would rev up, and there would be the brief perception of movement, and then the splashing sound of a crash. Down at the creek would be some idiot laying in the stream with his motorcycle. Not sure if I was ever the idiot.

If all the drinking stories were retold it would be book length, but somehow most of use survived. One fond memory that does come to mind is a sunny day with young guys sitting in front of the Cardinal Inn. Down the street coming from The National Road was an old 30’s or 40’s car with some old geezer driving it. The car was moving very slowly and as it got in front of the Cardinal Inn a bunch of the young guys ran out and jumped on the back bumper of the car. From watching it seemed like they had done this before. The weight of the people on the back bumper was enough to lift the front of the car off the ground. The old guy driving just kept going down the street with the front wheels three feet in the air. Although I was amazed it seemed like this was a well rehearsed circus act that had gone on before. The old guy cooperated.

Another strange memory of sitting outside the bar in the daytime was the passing of Lonnie Banks dump truck. Lonnie Banks was a black preacher that had a combination church and house of ill repute on the top of Rock Point road. My uncle once defended him on charges of prostitution. Lonnie Banks had an old beat up pink dump truck. As we sat in front of the bar the dump truck came down Washington Avenue with three trumpet players standing in the back. After a blast on the trumpets in unison they would yell ” Come to Lonnie Bank’s Church”. No doubt if you did go to that church you would hear some wonderful music.

Growing up in Wheeling was like growing up in the Twilight Zone, strange things seemed to happen all the time and no one seemed to think of anything as unusual.