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John Waelti: Beer, culture and college students
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When we think of Wisconsin we think of beer, brats, cheese, cows, farms, forests, fishing, Badgers, Packers, and Brewers once again. We were reminded of this last week during a delightful Green County UW Madison Alumni event organized by Dave Mosher and Mike Klassy at Monticello's Dining Room at 209 Main. What other rural county in the U.S. boasts two excellent regional breweries?

The evening featured a beer-tasting session highlighting excellent samples from Deb and Dan Carey's New Glarus Brewery. Noted beer authority and author, UW Professor Robin Shepard, narrated the session and shared the finer points of beer tasting.

Professor Shepard, originally from Northern Missouri, described the culture shock he and other migrants to this area initially feel. Around here, taverns are not considered dens of iniquity, but respectable community and neighborhood gathering places.

This civilized view of respectability is consistent with my own upbringing. When my brother Louie and I would accompany our dad to town he would invariably step into Hauser's Tavern, owned and operated by John Hauser, grandfather of Rosemary Forcade. As Dad sipped his beer, Louie and I would sit at the bar with the other patrons, sipping orange pop. It seemed like the natural order of things.

We didn't travel far in those days because we always had to get back for milking. But one day we were on the other side of the Mississippi in Dubuque. As Dad walked into a tavern with Louie and me, we were shocked when he was tersely informed that kids were not allowed. So I was kicked out of a bar at a very early age.

In those days it was legal in Wisconsin to drink beer at age 18. UW Madison was famous, or I should say infamous, for it. It's not that college students elsewhere didn't drink. It's just that Wisconsin was honest and open about it.

After three months of Marines Boot Camp and a stint at infantry training, I and the other three other members of my fire team who had been with me since Boot Camp were assigned to Radio Operators School in San Diego. After that, we were split up - they went to the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton and I went to the 2nd Marine Air Wing at Cherry Point, N.C. But we kept in touch.

Those three chaps told me of once when they were minding their own business enjoying a beer on a beach near San Diego. For this, they were arrested and spent the weekend in jail. How ridiculous can you get - tossing three teen-aged Marines in the klink for having a beer?

Had I been with them I would have had jail time under my belt. Wouldn't that have been a real hoot during my recent campaign for a seat in the Wisconsin Legislature!

I eventually made the transformation from Marine Corporal to "Joe College." It was easy enough to get into Madison's big U in those days. The tough part was to stay in. It helped being a vet - we were exempted from zero credit physical education and required ROTC.

I joined the social-professional Ag fraternity, Alpha Gamma Rho. There were other local students in that frat - among them, Wes Falk, John Burgy, Allen Schuetz, Roger and Ralph Stauffacher, Paul Hartwig, Jake Gruenewald, Ralph Mauer, Bill Pick, and later, Karl Drye. Like other frats on campus, we had beer in the house. The national AGR organization didn't like it, but hey, this was Wisconsin.

Maybe it's because most of us were farm kids and some of us were vets, but I think it goes beyond that. It was a different era. We governed ourselves and held strictly enforced quiet hours. Many of us went on for advanced degrees. I haven't taken a formal poll, but I think most of those "older" alums at that gathering in Monticello last week would agree that legal beer at age 18 didn't hurt us.

Lest I appear to pass this off too lightly, there is a downside to alcohol consumption. Alcohol and driving don't mix. In addition to being dangerous and unhealthy, binge drinking is just plain stupid. How can you savor fine beer when you're brain-dead? And for those to whom alcohol is addictive, abstinence is imperative. Abstinence should be highly respected.

But the policy question remains. Has the present law prevented, or even reduced, "under-age" drinking? If you believe it has, I have a bridge in Brooklyn about which we need to visit.

And how could this unrealistic law possibly be enforced? With a "Beer Gestapo" policing every college living unit? Or throwing several thousand college students in jail? Or kicking them all out of school? That makes about as much sense as my three Marine buddies landing in jail. So the law is pragmatically ignored with a wink and a nod.

All the present law accomplishes is taking our intrepid lawmakers off the hook. And it creates broader disrespect for legitimate laws that need to be enforced. Personally, I would opt for realistic legislation and teaching responsible behavior.

But then as Professor Shepard would point out, we're all products of our culture.

- John Waelti is a native of Monroe township. He is former Professor of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota; and Professor Emeritus, New Mexico State University He can be reached at