Lee Sweetser, Orange County, California, November 1976 –
We had the pleasure meeting the Sweetser family almost forty years ago (Ouch!). Immediately after graduating from high school back in 1976, we came to America determined to see the country we’d dreamed about as a youth. Having little funds, hitchhiking was my only viable means of transportation.
While hitchhiking down Highway 1 from San Francisco, we met Lee, the wonderful patriarch of the extended Sweetser – family. While in the spacious family kitchen, he gave us some advice: “Here, have some bourbon and ginger ale. Without a highball, you will NOT understand America!” For the past thirty-eight years, I’ve worked diligently to gain a deeper understanding of his wisdom.
Everyone crossing the threshold of our apartment (which his wife Bonnie visited some time ago) receives a highball — strength dependent on the time of day — and is regaled with the advice a young German hitchhiker received in a California kitchen many moons ago.
This May was a perfect example of how we’ve continued honoring Lee’s sage advice. I was giving a talk in our local library about democratic revolutionaries from Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany who settled in eastern Iowa at the Mississippi. Following the talk, about one hundred in the audience came to our apartment for a WILD party. Everyone there from the youngest (sixteen-year-old Gloria, a friend’s daughter and one of ten servers tasked with keeping the highballs coming) to the oldest (my eighty-five-year-old father, Ingo) were introduced to Lee’s astute advice.
Even though it was the middle of the week, the party’s last guest didn’t leave until 3:30 in the morning. Nele, Jan, and Rolf (three of our ten happy young highball servers), finding no one left to serve, took their leave as well. That left only me and my old college buddy Dee Eicke, who was staying in our guest bedroom. I routinely asked Dee, “Can you handle one FINAL highball?” Dee pretended to be furious that I would even ask such a truly dumb question. Having shared a student apartment with Dee for five and one-half years, during which time GALLONS of highballs were thirstily consumed, I immediately saw through Dee’s mock anger. I went to the kitchen, where to my utter dismay, I found thirteen empty bottles of Jim Beam and not a drop of American ginger ale from Schweppes. No wonder the last guest had left! Undeterred, we reverted to our Germanic roots and drank the local Flensburg beer instead.