One Saturday when I was a high school sophomore in a small town in central Illinois I got word from a friend of mine that a group of seniors—who were much cooler than us—had invited us to go backroading with them. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “backroading” typically meant a group of teens finding an obscure dirt road in the middle of nowhere, and consuming alcohol together there. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to hang out with the cool crowd.
“They’ll pick you up in 15 minutes,” my friend told me. “We’re doing beer bongs. You’ve done a beer bong before, right?”
“Of course,” I replied.
I hung up the phone and rushed to a computer to consult my only true safe space at the time—an AOL chatroom full of strangers.
“Hey,” I typed. “What’s a beer bong?”
“It’s a funnel with a tube connected to it,” a helpful stranger answered.
“Oh,” I typed. “There’s no pot involved? I thought bongs were a pot thing.”
“Ok, so then, what? You just put the beer in the funnel and drink it from the tube?”
“Yeah, really fast though, like in one big gulp.”
“The entire beer?”
“That doesn’t seem possible,” I typed. But by this point, the stranger had lost interest in me.
We crowded the bed of a senior’s pickup truck and when we reached our destination, there was indeed no marijuana, just the funnel and tube as I’d been told. I watched one of the seniors fill the funnel with a full can of beer, put it to his lips, and nonchalantly inhale it like it was nothing.
“That’s incredible!” I exclaimed in awe and complete uncoolness that most definitely blew my cover. My friend glared at me.
“Uh, yeah. Incredible. You’re up.”
One of the seniors handed me the bong. “Ok, here goes!” I said, instead of the truth: “I’m 99.9% sure I can’t make my body do this and 100% sure I don’t want to.”
First try, I didn’t do too well. Maybe half an ounce of beer in, I started gagging and the whole thing dumped onto gravel and dirt.
“You just wasted a perfectly good beer,” a senior scolded me.
“Been fighting off a cold,” I explained. “Maybe next ti—”
“—go ahead and try again.”
If it’s possible to describe the sensation of being suffocated by beer as “better,” then the second time most definitely went better. My body was furious with me of course, but mostly I was relieved that it was over and steadfast in my resolve that I would never again succumb to the peer pressure that had led me to a dirt road in the middle of nowhere desperate to impress the cool kids. That lasted maybe a week.
Here’s something all decent people should be able to agree upon: Beer bongs are awful. They’re insane. They should by no stretch of the imagination exist. I don’t know who invented the beer bong, but there’s a parallel universe where that person used their energy to invent, like, an electric harmonica or something instead, and that universe is infinitely better in every way. Human beings are not designed to consume 12 ounces of beer—or carbonated anything—in 2 seconds. It should never ever happen.
All that aside, here’s a fun fact: I was also unfortunate enough to be cursed with an odd condition that escalated beer bongs from a minor annoyance into an actual living hell for me. For the vast majority of my life, I was unable to burp. What does this mean? Exactly what it sounds like. Even if I wanted to (and I frequently did), I could not make myself burp. I simply did not know how to do it. When I asked people how to do it, I’d inevitably get a useless response like, “Just kind of swallow air.” Or: “That’s super weird, sucks to be you.” Maybe once every couple months I would accidentally burp inadvertently, but I never learned how to replicate it. So given this, you can probably imagine what a nightmare it must’ve been to dump an entire beer into my gut all at once with no release valve on hand whatsoever. While everyone else got to enjoy the lightning-fast buzz of beer bongs, I got to reenact the scene in Alien after an unfortunate victim has just had a little run-in with a facehugger—over and over again.
As I entered my junior and senior years beer bongs became more and more unavoidable at parties. Does this exist outside the rural Midwest? Maybe it happened at your high school, too. Or maybe there was some greater, unseen power at work determined to throw increasingly inventive techniques for recklessly chugging whole beers in my path. One night at a party someone asked if I wanted to do a kegstand with them.
“What’s a kegstand?” I asked. “We hold your feet over your head and you chug beer directly from the keg.”
Somehow I said, “Hell yeah, let’s do it!” instead of, “Jesus Christ almighty, that sounds like pure hell. Absolutely not. No. My god, no, no, no.”
At another party a friend proposed we shotgun some beers. I sighed deeply and asked, “Would that involve drinking an entire beer really fast?” “Yep.” Somehow I said, “Let’s do it!” instead of, “I’d rather dive headfirst into an empty swimming pool.”
At yet another party, a friend challenged me to simply see who could finish a beer the fastest. “How about instead,” I offered, “we have a contest to see who can enjoy this beer the most?”
“How would that work?” he asked.
“Haha, OK, 3… 2…”
“Goddammit.” I took a deep breath and we were off.
Some of it was peer pressure. Some of it was that bursting into a party and yelling, “Woooo, let’s all consume beer in whatever amount and at whatever speed we’re all comfortable with!” doesn’t have the same pizzazz of just chanting “Kegstand!” over and over. Whatever the method (beer bong, kegstand, shotgun), it almost always ended with me ducking out of the party, finding a secluded spot in the yard, and lying on my back while I wished for a quick death. Or, you know, just to be able to burp for once in my life. Just this once. For the love of all that is holy, please.
When I finally graduated from high school I hoped against hope that the era of beer bongs was over. In college, I thought, people are more sophisticated, more worldly. We’ll sip on IPAs while discussing Faust. On literally my first night of college I found myself at a frat party where a cute woman offered to do a double beer bong with me. “Wow, I’ve never seen a double beer bong before!” I somehow said, instead of, “Please take both of these tubes and wrap them tightly around my neck until I no longer draw breath.”
I would quickly learn that the road to a college degree was strewn with beer bongs and kegstands as far as the eye could see. If there was beer, and there was a party, especially a frat party, there was at least one method to consume that beer as fast as humanly possible.
One night at a friend’s house party I actually gathered the courage to decline an offer to do a beer bong. “Are you sure?” a woman from my North American Literature class asked. “Yeah, positive. I can’t burp.”
“What?” the woman yelled over the din of music and shouting.
“I can’t burp!” I yelled back.
“That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard,” she replied.
“I know. It just makes doing stuff like beer bongs really hard. Anyway let’s go ahead and keep that between us.”
She proceeded to spend the next 10 minutes dragging me to multiple groups of people to share the news with them. “You just kinda swallow air,” someone helpfully suggested.
“Oh, thank you, I’ll try that.”
A few years ago, I was biking home from work when, out of the clear blue sky, I burped. Startled, I tried burping again. I succeeded. Then I burped again. And again. Suddenly for no reason whatsoever, I knew how to burp. I spent the whole night burping. It was fantastic. Everything clicked. I was a member of the human race at long last, eating and drinking and burping my way through this chaotic and beautiful thing we call life.
The next morning at work I pulled a coworker aside and said, “Hey check this out.” I burped like a goddamn pro for her, but she didn’t seem terribly impressed.
“Care to explain?” she asked.
“This is a big deal for me because until last night I didn’t know how to burp,” I explained. “So, like, drinking soda and beer and stuff has always been pretty diff—”
“—I’m gonna get back to work,” she said.