Collector Man

Posted January 7th, 2009 at 7:23 pm (UTC-4)
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There was a tragedy in our family recently. Carol, who was about to take a photograph of my beer-bottle collection, backed into the shelves marked “Pennsylvania” and sent about 20 bottles into a tinkling death spiral to the floor. Two broke into irreparable shards.

Landphair Den
All was cozy in the den. Here’s where the saga began

This is a tragedy only in gross hyperbole, of course, unless you’re the one who carefully assembled the assortment of U.S.-brand beer bottles over 35 years. (American brands only because I was going broke buying imports here and raising the suspicions of customs agents abroad.)

All I could think of as the horror unfolded before my eyes in clichéd, cinematic slow motion was a variation of the old drinking song:

“1,586 bottles of beer on the wall,
“1,586 bottles of beer.
“If two of those bottles should happen to fall,
“1,584 bottles of beer on the wall.”

1,584 is the number of bottles still standing, including 18 that had tumbled but miraculously not shattered.

Some background.

Over the years traveling here, there, and everywhere across America, I’ve met and interviewed gatherers of all manner of objects. In a story four years ago, I wrote:

“For the longest time, humans have collected things, just for fun. Butterflies. Buttons. Thimbles and coats of arms. It’s not just an American thing, of course, but we go a little nuts with it. . . .

“Some people have a ‘thing’ for umbrellas or matchbooks or metal toy cars or menus from Chinese restaurants.

Pez collection
This person collects Pez dispensers. Pez is a sweet-and-sour candy that comes in many flavors and different styles of dispensers. Why would anyone want to collect such things? Why not!?

“Here are some other collections I’ve run across: spoons, paper clips, maps, toothpicks, drinking straws, shopping bags, postcards, hockey sticks, transit tokens, marbles, dice, security badges, airline tags, citrus peelers, stuff having to do with pickles, memorabilia of the eccentric comedian Pee Wee Herman, and even miniature cast-iron frying pans.”

So you see, amassing beer bottles isn’t so terribly eccentric, as America’s “Beer King,” Alan Eames, once assured me years ago. Fondly called a “beer anthropologist” and even “The Indiana Jones of Beer,” Eames had ferreted out beermaking sites and beer containers from the Andes to Egyptian tombs. He even came upon what must surely have been the world’s oldest-surviving beer advertisement, a Mesopotamian stone tablet of a woman holding two goblets of beer. As the New York Times reported in Eames’s obituary in 2007, he translated the inscription to read: “Drink Elba, the beer with the heart of a lion.” In all ancient societies, Eames told me in 1993, “beer is a gift of a goddess.”

These are no common toothpicks or frying pans I’m collecting here.

Beer can collectors can be quite esoteric about the provenance of cans that interest them. And there are hundreds of sites on the Internet available to help in the search for just the right can

There are thousands and thousands of beer can enthusiasts, too. They line their walls with their treasures in what sometimes appears to be an effort to break a Guinness world stackability record. I prefer bottles for their many shapes, colors, and imaginative labels. The label on a Lionshead, one of the two bottles lost in the recent carnage, for instance, depicts a growling lion every bit as menacing as Leo, the beast that introduces every movie from the MGM studio.. Alas, he now lies, tattered, in a trash basket.

My 1,584 surviving bottles of beer – or rather, bottles minus the beer – on the wall now include:

-All the familiar American brands, including 56 different vintage and current products of the biggest brewer in the United States, Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis, Missouri.

Grain Belt Beer
Grain Belt Beer was first produced in 1893 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have several versions of its bottles. The company was sold some time ago to the August Schell Co., which still brews a version of Grain Belt

-Old, old bottles that predate Prohibition, those dark days from 1920 to 1933 when the government tried unsuccessfully to wean us from making, selling, and drinking alcoholic beverages. That effort did, however, unfortunately, succeed in permanently shuttering thousands of small, thriving breweries.

-Microbeers like Bad Frog, Blithering Idiot Barley Wine Style Ale, Bubba Dog, Buffalo Butt, and Bull Ice. And those are just the B’s. (Microbeers are produced in small batches by craft brewers).

-Rows of “ponies” – little bottles that hold just 207 milliliters of beer.

-And some oddball containers, including a transparent bottle that once held “Clear”-brand beer, aluminum bottles now popular at American sporting events, a few big fat ones that look like moonshiners’ jugs, and a delicate cobalt-blue number of the sort a French perfumer would roll out.

Jimmy and Billy Carter
Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter has a bite to eat at his brother’s gas station in Plains, Georgia, during the 1976 campaign

I have also held onto a single can: a Billy Beer, once promoted by President Jimmy Carter’s countrified brother. Although nearly undrinkable, Billy Beer was quite the rage in the 1970s.

By now you are wondering why I do this. It’s a question asked – not of me but of his colleague – by the detective Erlendur Sveinsson in the Icelandic novel Voices, by Arnaldur Indridason.

Erlendur gets to wondering whether a murder suspect’s passion for collecting phonograph records of choirboys could be motive enough to kill. The gumshoe has never collected anything, and he’s convinced that carefully obtaining and often displaying unusual stuff is some sort of “yearning for lost youth.” Those who never outgrow collecting cards or stamps (or bottles?), he posits, must have “a need to keep hold of something that otherwise would disappear from their lives but which they want to retain for as long as they can . . . something you don’t want to let go but keep on cultivating and nourishing with this obsession.”

This is where the fixation started, with an ordinary-looking bottle

Uh, no, I don’t think so in my case. I had the most pedestrian reason for beginning my collection: Traveling to Hawaii for what I assumed would be my one and only time, I sought a cheap, but not too tacky, souvenir. None of those undulating plastic hula girls for me, thank you. I had drunk and enjoyed a bottle of a local brand called Primo and stuck an empty into my suitcase. Later, as I traveled more extensively, the “cheap souvenir” criterion held, to the point that one shelf, then a bookcase, then rows from floor to ceiling along every wall of my den, were filled with the things.

Alphabetically arranged by state, of course. What do you expect? I am a Virgo.

Landphair Den
Here’s another view of the assemblage of bottles in the Landphair Den and Museum. It’s not really a museum, of course. Yet

I am not proud when it comes to acquiring bottles. I accept them as gifts, drink three or four brands at a sitting at a restaurant or bar and ask the server to bring me a bag for the empties, and buy them 50 at a time once a year with Christmas-gift money. I have been known to stoop to the gutter and – dare I admit it? – paw through the big metal trash containers behind taverns where the bartender just threw out the last bottle of a brand I’d been coveting.

Like it or not, a “tour” of my collection is obligatory for dinner guests, repairmen, distant relatives, process-servers, indeed anyone who comes through the door. Not really, but I do describe the collection so rapturously that visitors have little choice but to trudge upstairs and see it.

They usually ask two questions (in addition to, “Are you daft, man?):

If I had drunk all the liquid in the bottles within my collection, I’d look like this. And remember, to get one bottle I sometimes have to buy an entire 6-pack! Somebody has to drink them

“Did you drink all this beer?” No, in fact I prefer the empties, which, upon breaking (that word again: sob), have less chance of ruining the contents of my suitcase. My youngest daughter, Nicole, annually presents me with a membership in a beer-of-the-month club. Each month, I receive 16 total bottles of four brands of microbrews. Some, especially stouts and porters, are such swill that I pour the contents down the drain, save the bottle, and give the other three to dark-beer-loving friends.

The other question: “Is this collection worth something?” I don’t know, since I have no intention of selling it. When I’ve popped my last bottle cap, though, I can’t imagine Carol or the kids wanting it around. Imagine the dusting! They’ll probably get a few bucks for it on eBay, though I don’t envy them the task of packing and shipping what I hope will be 2,000 or more bottles.

Good News

So, no, Inspector, this is not some obsession from my childhood. It’s a purely adult infatuation having to do, I suspect, with wanting something manly in my den. I don’t hunt, so trophy heads won’t do. I gave up trying to fish. I’m not much for guns and certainly wouldn’t display them. And I have never won a sports trophy in my life.

So it’s beer bottles – 1,584 of them, so far as I know. I’m not entirely sure of the count, since Carol’s home today on the loose.

Old Faithful
In several locations around Yellowstone National Park, there are signs that estimate the time of the next Old Faithful eruption. As the time grows closer, people drift toward the site to watch, then go back to back to what they were doing

A year or so ago, Carol and I spent some time in Yellowstone, the world’s first (1872) national park, a piece of wilderness immune from development or settlement. It occupies the northwest corner of the western state of Wyoming and a touch of Montana and Idaho.

She loves the place for its scenic photographic opportunities, including the eruptions of the “Old Faithful” geyser every couple of hours. (Hence the “faithful” part.) She’s also partial to bison and elk from a distance, and chipmunks up close, of which there are plenty in Yellowstone.

I’m less enamored of the park because of the ever-present stench of its bubbling, sulfurous mud pots and steam terraces. You see, the entire park rests on a skittish volcanic cauldron.

Mineral-rich steam from Yellowstone geysers spills onto nearby rocks, over time, creating what are called “Minerva travertine terraces,” made of calcium carbonate

On New Year’s Day, Time magazine reported that “a wave of recent earthquake activity is raising fears that have their origins 642,000 years ago, when a Yellowstone ‘supervolcano’ exploded so violently that it created the caldera itself.”

(Just how scientists know the last “big one” at Yellowstone was 642,000, and not 643,000 or 641,000, years ago, I’m not sure.) A caldera is a humongous crater. In effect, Yellowstone Park is a shallow bowl, many kilometers wide, formed by that thunderous prehistoric explosion.

Bison are part of the scenery in the park. They are normally docile around humans, until some fool tourist startles or approaches them. Then they are ornery and extremely dangerous

When we were last there, a park ranger mentioned, with a twisted smile and a mischievous gleam in his eye, that we were standing above a pressure cooker that could “blow” any old time. This would, of course, have ruined the day for him and us, the bison and elk and chipmunks, and thousands of tourists and tourbus drivers who happened to be in the vicinity as well.

I liked the odds against it, however, although it could be argued that after 642,000 years, a “big one” might be overdue. When – not if – it happens, Time reports, “such an explosion – 1,000 times more powerful than the explosion of Mount St. Helens in 1980 – would not only cover most of the U.S. with ash but also throw so much dust into the atmosphere that the world’s climate could change.”

Mount St. Helens
Do you notice what looks like a cavity in a tooth on the left side of Mount St. Helens mountain? And the blackened condition of the surroundings? They are both residual effects of the great eruption of 1993 almost two decades ago

Mount St. Helens’ cataclysmic detonation was the most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history, blasting 2,500 meters of rock off the mountain. If the pressure building underneath bucolic Yellowstone Park produced the kind of eruption that is predicted, it would be an event of Krakatoa proportions. The frightful disintegration of Krakatoa island in the Indonesian Archipelago on August 27, 1883, heard more than 3,000 kilometers away, was no less than the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded time. When Simon Winchester wrote what became a bestselling book about it, he titled it The Day the World Exploded. Krakatoa’s ashes shot higher than airplanes now fly and drifted around the globe, materially lowering temperatures for a year. The blast and the Indian Ocean tsunamis it produced killed uncounted thousands of unsuspecting people.

This drawing of Krakatoa island and volcano appeared in Harper’s Weekly a month after the “day the world exploded”

Let me revisit one dramatic notation above: If exploding Yellowstone’s fury were to match that of Krakatoa, commuters in Chicago, ranchers in Texas, and revelers on Bourbon Street in New Orleans would clearly hear the blast. Imagine the effect in Jackson Hole or Casper, Wyoming.


When scientists reported a “notable swarm of earthquakes under way beneath Yellowstone Lake” late last year, veteran park rangers had to take notice. They well know the story of the 7.5-magnitude earthquake in the park in 1959 that killed 28 campers and propelled enough boulders from the deep to dam the Yellowstone River.

Only in Alaska, within the United States, have I seen as dramatic juxtaposition of flat prairieland interrupted by so spectacular a mountain range as in the Tetons, above. There seem to be no foothills at all

Maybe that’s why I’ve always preferred Teton National Park, the gorgeous expanse that sits immediately south of Yellowstone. There, spectacular peaks soar 3,500 to 4,200 meters straight up from the Wyoming prairie. The Teton Range was formed in a cataclysm similar to the one that created Yellowstone, but millions of years earlier.

Thinking back to that “notable swarm of earthquakes,” it’s my guess that neither a Yellowstone National Park ranger nor any of the other locals in the area has a beer-bottle collection. If they did, they probably don’t anymore.

Branch Davidian compound
This is an image of a burned-out bus at the Branch Davidian compound. Virtually nothing remained of Mount Carmel, the sect’s church and residence, which was consumed by flames. Only a shack and a few hand-drawn signs remain at the site today

On another topic far afield, do you perhaps remember news coverage of the siege by federal agents of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, in 1993? The Branch Dividians were a radical religious sect that viewed the Federal Government as persecutors. Amid allegations that its leader, David Koresh, had taken underage brides and physically abused children, heavily armed federal agents raided the Davidians’ compound and were met with small-arms fire. The agents retreated and began a physical and psychological siege that ended badly after a government tank broke through a wall of the compound and released tear gas. The raging fire that ensued killed 76 Davidians, including Koresh and 21 children.

This sort of speaker has become a tool to make life miserable for those who hole up to avoid capture

But it’s the psychological operation, or “psyops,” to which I want to allude. During the siege in Waco, the feds attempted what they called, in classic bureaucratese, an “acoustic psycho-correction.” They turned off the electricity, flooded the stronghold with bright lights through the night, and jammed radio and television broadcasts of everything but FBI news conferences. And most famously, operating on the “capture their minds, and their hearts and souls will follow” theory, agents set up loudspeakers through which they loudly piped the sounds of laughter, squawking birds, rabbits being slaughtered, Tibetan chants and – worst of all – rock music.

These tactics were widely excoriated as inhumane – and who who has come anywhere near headbanger music could disagree? But in light of the terrible inferno that ended the standoff, not much is said anymore about the psyops element of the siege.

All this is a preamble to the unspeakable psychological warfare unleashed in Fort Lupton, a town of 6,800 people on the Colorado prairie. There, Municipal Judge Paul Sacco has “had it” with noise violators. You know the type: drivers who crank up the bass woofers until homes and passing autos shake, people who party hardy into the morning to the beat of a heavy-metal band, and hard-of-hearing seniors who crank up the TV in the apartment next door at all hours of the day and night.

When the decibels reach so high that the police get involved, Judge Sacco throws the book at these inconsiderates.

Barry Manilow
For many, maybe most, people, listening to Barry Manilow is a pleasure, not punishment. But one can take only so much of a good thing

Worse, really. He sentences them to an hour in a closed room, where they must listen to the babblings of the children’s character Barney the Dinosaur; to the syrupy stylings of 1950s group The Platters; and even – gag! – to the warbles of the king of schmaltz, Barry Manilow, interpreting “I Write the Song” over and over again.

So draconian is this punishment that most offenders gladly plead guilty, pay the fine, and promise to keep a lid on the noise back home. And why not? Wouldn’t the screams of dying rabbits be preferable?

Not to Judge Sacco. “I actually don’t think Manilow’s too bad,” he told the Associated Press.

Nor does our otherwise-hip former VOA colleague Maura “M.J.” Farrelly, who now teaches journalism and American studies at Brandeis University in Boston. In fact, she adores the singer-songwriter. She never dared play “Mandy” in the office, but I seem to recall a poster of the doe-eyed crooner that triggered a gag reflex in us all.


M.J. could live, banging pots or blaring her stereo* loudly with impunity, in Fort Lupton. She might even conspire to be dragged before Judge Sacco in hopes of hearing an hour of Manilow “Looks Like We Made It” renditions, back to back.

But what if, by the time she moves to Colorado, Judge Sacco’s tastes have changed to Lawrence Welk, or LL Cool J?

*Using the word “stereo” certainly dates me. When’s the last time anyone has played a “stereo”?


One last thing. The final stack of Christmas cards received at the Highsmith-Landphair abode this past holiday season was lower than in 2007; as the pile in 2007 had been shorter than the one in 2006. Carol and I don’t take it personally. We know it’s a reflection of people’s busy lives. Pity, though. The Yuletide is the one time of year when we write to, and hear from, people who matter, even if it’s just to wish them holiday happiness and health in the New Year.

Not to worry, said Chris, the partner of our eldest daughter, Jeannette. Over drinks before Christmas dinner, he whipped out his hand-held personal communications device, punched a button, and up came all sorts of zippy Yuletide greetings from his circle of friends, some in reply to his own snappy holiday texts.

How does one convey this inviting seasonal scene in text shorthand?

This serves the purpose in a barebones way, though I wonder how one more quickie blurb in a daily blizzard of texts could have the warming effect of a beautiful card. Where do jolly St. Nick, Currier & Ives snow scenes, and Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus fit on a tiny keypad? I’ll concede that even a dashed-off text is an improvement over yet another page-long, single-spaced, “holiday newsletter” reviewing friends’, neighbors’, and relatives’ travels, weddings, divorces, and kitten adoptions. It’s better than another group photo of Lou and the Missus, children Buffy and Lou Jr., nine grandchildren, Brother Dick and his wife What’s Her Name, Great Aunt Tilly visiting from Toledo, Beth just after her breakup with Chuck, and Boris the Beagle – all gathered and smiling around the barbecue grill. Yes, Cousin Fred even got Boris to smile for the photo.

From these folks, a simple electronic greeting, even in text shorthand, would be a blessing. Something like, “HoHoHapNu, L, Lu+.”*

(*“Merry Christmas, Happy New Year. Love, Lou and Family.” Then we could efficiently reply, “HoHoHapNu2, L, C+T.” As holiday sentimentalists, though, we’d want to dress up our message with a lively ringtone of, say, “Christmas is Just Around the Corner,” by Barry Manilow.)


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Excoriate. To scold someone scathingly. The word has a medical origin. It also refers to the wearing-away of one’s skin. Imagine taking sandpaper to your palm and you’ll appreciate how unpleasant it is to be excoriated.

Gumshoe. Detectives and private investigators got this unflattering nickname in late 1800s, when they snuck around furtively in cheap boots or shoes whose soles were made of gummy rubber.

Humongous. Really, really huge. The word is a deliberate exaggeration that offends linguists. The Web site World Wide Words quotes William Hartston, writing in the British newspaper The Independent, as calling it “surely one of the ugliest words ever to slither its way into our dictionaries”.

Hyperbole. The use of exaggeration for emphasis. When one exclaims, for instance, that long-lost friends “look good enough to eat,” you’re not really a cannibal about to devour them. At least I hope not.

Impunity. Free from punishment. If you’re told that you can do something with impunity, you can go wild! You’ll not be arrested for it.

Moonshiners. The stealthy makers of illegal whiskey back in the woods, away from government “revenuers” who might want to tax their brew. These furtive distillers work most efficiently, naturally, by moonlight.

Tacky. Frumpy, dowdy, lowbrow, decidedly uncool. Wearing white socks to a formal dinner, for instance, is considered tacky and uncouth.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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