Dry July day 29: The Steamies

Years ago I worked at a science museum that had a garage full of old engines that ran on steam, diesel, or kerosene, and had been made for specific purposes. Traction engines, haybailers, tractors, and even a pipe organ called “Calliope.” This last machine played notes through giant pipes using air directed down the right pipe via a ream of folded cardboard, filled with holes, fed into a mechanical reader. The volunteer who manned it showed me his collection of music: thick wads of cardboard labelled with names like “Für Elise” and “How much is that doggie in the window.” I asked if he had “Toxic” by Britney Spears. He told me, “No.”

Once a month all the machines would be brought out onto the museum’s grounds and paraded for the public. They were driven and serviced by a large band of volunteers who were affectionately known as the Steamies.

Not long after I started at the museum, on one of these machinery days, I was asked by the program organiser to go grab a slab of beer for the Steamies. I headed off site to the nearest pub-slash-bottle-shop-slash-strip-joint (on the outside wall was advertised “Foxy Ladies!” and “Thursday Family Nights”) and got a slab of beer.

I brought the beer back on site and headed down to the smoko area where the Steamies were finishing up after the long day. A few of them grabbed a can of beer, but a lot just ignored it.

“Beer?” I offered to one. He laughed. “Nah! Devil’s Drink!”

Turned out a lot of them were teetotalers, and had been on the wagon for years.

I was in my mid-twenties at the time, and first I was surprised. “Not a beer drinker” didn’t fit my mental cliché. Not drink beer? Everybody drinks beer! “Why not?” I had wanted to ask.

For whatever reasons, some of the Steamies didn’t. And I know now each of them had their own story of how they got there. Maybe for health, maybe for other reasons.

It also means that now I don’t assume that everyone is going to be drinking alcohol, and where I can I make sure there are a range of drinks. And I also know better than to gentle force it on people by saying something dumb like, “Not drinking beer? Naw! Why not?!”

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