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Jack Zaleski, Published December 31 2011

Happy New Year? Well, not always…

I’ve always been ambivalent about celebrating the new year. I associate alcohol-besotted partying with memories of my childhood, when my father’s family gathered at our house New Year’s Eve for what was supposed to be a family event.

It routinely degenerated into a drunken shouting match among my dad’s three brothers, two sisters and their spouses. I recall threats of violence and occasional fisticuffs among my dad and his brothers. Petty hatreds and perceived hurts intensified as blood alcohol levels increased. Not pretty.

It was the late 1950s. My sister and I were kids. My parents, uncles and aunts – all of the World War II and Korean War generations – were young, the eldest in their early 40s, the youngest uncle in his 20s. All, except my mother, drank a lot of alcohol, not just at the New Year’s bash but what seemed like all the time. By today’s measures, most of them were alcoholics. By the standards of the 1950s, they just liked their whiskey.

And it was mostly hard siprits. Beer was for summertime. Wine was for sissies. My dad drank the good stuff: Canadian Club on ice. Vodka (most of them were Polish) flowed freely. The youngest uncle was a bourbon connoisseur. Uncle Seward, the Canadian from Nova Scotia who had married into the family, was the only beer-drinker: Molson’s. Uncle Al owned a package store. He brought booze by the case for the party.

On that night, the tiny four-room pre-fab house (hundreds of them had been thrown up quickly in my hometown to accommodate returning World War II veterans) was hazy with unfiltered cigarette smoke. All of ’em (except my mom) smoked. Uncle Seward’s cigars added to the fog of secondhand smoke, long before that term was part of the language. I’m guessing my sister and I were exposed to more toxic smoke on that one night than today’s bar patrons are in a year. But back then, who knew? The first surgeon general’s report on smoking’s health risks was years away.

The images that linger range from my dad – his tumbler of CC in one hand, a short Camel in the other – arguing loudly with his brothers, to a kitchen table heaped high with the red-shelled, succulent holiday meal of the night, Maine lobster. My sister and I would huddle under the table with plates of lobster, baked potatoes and a couple of those wonderful, green-glass 6-ounce bottles of Coke.

At midnight, those who could still stand would sing auld lang syne, and those who couldn’t stand each other would hug uncomfortably. The house stank of booze, smoke and lobster, and reeked of bad temper.

Happy New Year? I didn’t see it.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or (701) 241-5521.