To Live and Die by the Grape

My life has never revolved so singularly around a particular fruit than during my time in Mclaren Vale. There, I lived by the grape. I picked them, I constantly ate them and most nights, I drank them. One particular night, I drank a few too many of them. Bad hangovers blow in any circumstance, but are absolutely awful when doing manual labor in the 100-degree Australian summer.

Our workday had finished early. Matt, Clara and I arrived back at camp in mid-afternoon, hot, dirty and pissed off with the typical news – no work the next day. They sat in their camp chairs and I took a seat on my tin of biscuits. Then Clara put the kettle on for tea while Matt and I continued to sit in silence. “Might as well go get some goon tonight then.” Matt suggested after a minute. “Yep.” I agreed without hesitation.

A cup of goon at camp

‘Goon’ is the appropriately named term for boxed wine down under. In a land where all other forms of alcohol are too expensive for anyone living in a tent, this cheap elixir was a blessing… and a curse. You could get a 4-liter box for $10 AUD, but consuming it was terrible. Think of the worst wine you’ve ever tasted and mix it with poison and that about does it. In an effort to avoid its full wrath, we’d mix the sickly liquid with cheap fizzy lemonade, creating a passable drink. That was the plan for the evening.

We didn’t even wait for the sun to go down. We didn’t even wait for dinner. In fact, thinking back on it, I don’t recall ever having dinner. Mike and Tina came over with their own box and joined in the festivities. The five of us sat around drinking until our work worries melted away into a glowing evening. Struck by the beauty, I took my camera and wandered into a nearby field. There I snapped photo after photo with the same enthusiasm one would employ at a sunset over a Hawaiian island, not a pasture filled with dead trees and power lines. Nevertheless, I enjoyed myself.

A few hours later, our French friend Claire informed us that two guys on her crew decided not to work the next day. So, Matt and I declared we’d go in their stead. To celebrate our good luck, we had some more drinks, and then some more. The rest of the night is a collection of short scenes and muddled audio clips, all out of order and all separated by long periods of nothingness.

I recall lots of yelling, making fun of the uncouth German guys (who sold drugs from their shanty town in the corner of the camp) and the horrible old ladies that owned the place. I remember the always sweet and amiable Tina delivering a random rant of colorful expletives (the most memorable was the frequent use of “F*** Off Mike!”). I remember making a pass at my voluptuous Estonian neighbor. I remember failing. I don’t remember Mike and Matt crawling into my tent and singing to me at the nights end. But, I’m told it happened.

Around 3 a.m. Clara awoke suddenly, failed to find the tent zipper and threw up on her sleeping bag. Tina woke up the next day confused and covered in a multitude of bruises (from her frequent surprise meetings with the ground). Matt and I woke up at 5 a.m., suspiciously perky and ready to pick.

Our boss didn’t seem thrilled with our initiative of replacing the two no-shows, but let us work. Matt and I picked on opposite sides of the same vine. We laughed, joked and quoted Australian soap operas in our worst Australian accents as we worked. We were still very much intoxicated.

A few hours later I was done laughing. A sweltering sun burned through the morning clouds, a creeping hangover replaced my comical mood. I then found out I was dead last in the group’s bucket count. We were paid by the hour at this point, but they kept track of the buckets we picked and didn’t hesitate to fire those who underperformed.

As I tried to catch up, the hangover went full blown. The afternoon got worse. Temperatures soared. My head pounded, my stomach turned and I became severely dehydrated. But I kept going, thinking, “don’t complain, you’re making money, don’t complain. There can’t be many rows left.” But the rows ran endlessly that afternoon and work kept going. The grapes we picked were now small and shriveled, making filling a bucket all the more difficult. Then my condition worsened to the breaking point.

I watched a dust devil pass over the field. Dry grape leaves and dead grass swirled hundreds of feet into the air above us. I remember thinking, “well that’s neat… I’m going to die.” And I was honestly convinced. I no longer thought about working, the money, the freaking grapes or my bucket count. I just thought about what the local newspaper headlines would say. ‘Hungover Jackass Dies.’ And that’s where my life was to end, face down in the dust of South Australia.

I staggered around in a haze of dismal thoughts for a few minutes until Matt asked if I was okay. I gave him a grave look and then put my bucket down. “I need water.” I said. I wandered to the cooler and drank from the huge community cup. Then I promptly ran behind a truck and threw up everywhere. Onion and cheese sandwiches seemed like a good idea at the time, but then again, so did polishing off four liters of goon.

I stood with my hands on my knees waiting for the next wave of vomit when I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see my boss standing above me. “You can’t drink it that fast, mate.” He handed me a smaller cup and instructed me to sip it. I sat down in the dirt and drank the cool water slowly. Then I made a personal vow to never drink that much again… well, that much boxed wine… before work.

Reviewed and Edited by Katie Chassaing

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One Response to To Live and Die by the Grape

  1. uncleurnie says:

    It seems you young whipper snappers have to learn everything the hard way. Did you not listen to all those stories I used to tell you about the evils of cheap box wine?

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