I can’t think of a better way to kick off spring than drinking beer.
Recently I attended the 56th annual Spring Rites and Beer Festival in Manhattan Beach, California. This yearly event, held on the heels of St. Patrick's Day, celebrates March birthdays, the arrival of spring, and, of course, all things beer.
You might think that given the longevity and ritual nature of this celebration that it is a highly publicized event held in an open setting with venues for music and good food.
Or that maybe it is just an out-of-control beer blast on the beach.
It is neither.
This party is held in the backyard of a personable, ninety-year-old man named Bob White. A Dixieland Band provides the musical entertainment, nachos provide the nourishment, and kegs of beer served in Solo Cups to happy revelers does the rest.
Oh, and Bob White plays trumpet in the band. Did I mention he is 90 years old?
And this ritual festival has been attended by hundreds of people, young and old, traveling from near and far, for almost 56 years running.
Almost because the celebration was cancelled one year when Bob’s wife suddenly tragically grew ill. The fun-loving couple started the festival together in 1961 as a simple birthday party. They continued the party the following year. And the year after that. And the year after that.
There is no stopping a good thing.
Most of us understand that where large beer gatherings are concerned, the theme generally finds the party. And given that the beginning of spring was always in attendance, the ongoing ritual soon took on the noble task of recognizing the rites of spring as well.
This year I journeyed to the 56th annual celebration because Bob White was turning 90 and my father really wanted to join the fun. They are best friends and have known each other since they were in seventh grade.
These days my dad needs a little help getting around. He is 90 too. They were born during Prohibition.
We arrived in Manhattan Beach on Bob’s birthday. It was Saint Patrick's Day, the day before the beer festival. Bob was dressed head to toe in green. Even his shoes. He had two fresh cigars in his shirt pocket and had just returned from a late afternoon pub crawl. He was sorry to inform us that the St. Patrick’s Day Irish pub tour, also an annual event, was to be no longer.
As he explained in his deep, clear-throated voice, “they won’t let us drink beer on the bus anymore.”
We celebrated his birthday with friends and family. We drank beer and ate chocolate cake. Just before he ritually blew out the candles Bob made his son go out and get vanilla ice cream. Because you just can’t have cake without ice cream. Or beer for that matter.
The 57th Annual Spring Rites and Beer Festival officially kicked off at 3PM the following day. Like any good ritual, the beer festival began with a ceremonial raising of the flag accompanied by a dixieland rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, led by Bob White on the trumpet.
Bob, choking back tears, introduced my father to the large backyard crowd as the festival’s official flag raiser, which after 56 years had become a special honor steeped in tradition.
My dad raised the flag. The guests raised their beers. I raised my camera. There are some events which are just too precious not to capture no matter how old you are.
And so the party began. Young people. Old people. People with small children. People holding on to walkers. All enjoying with energy and high spirits a simple beer on a magical, sunny California day.
All smiles, a gentleman in a bowling shirt approached me. His name was Don. He also played trumpet in the band. He was an ex-cop who was now a roller derby referee. He was entirely bald except for a tiny wisp of gray hair on the back of his head which he had banded together in a pony tail.
Don has attended the beer festival religiously for many, many years.
He handed me a beer and then taking my arm, showed me the ceremonial fence of fame surrounding the yard. The fence was lined end to end with large poster boards. Each poster board was labeled by year and plastered with a joyous collage of photographs from beer festivals past.
The poster boards only went back to the 90s because there was not enough fence.
And on one board, miraculously, a small photo jumped out. It was snapshot of my mom, now passed away, with my dad. I think it was the 35th Annual Spring Rites and Beer Festival.
And they were laughing, frozen in time, drinking beer and enjoying the ritual start of spring on a magical, sunny day in California.
I hope someone took my picture. I want to be fastened to that fence next year.
It may only be a party, but traditions matter.
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