Our Chicago editor recalls his 'last Derby Week as a Louisvillian'
'I drank it in pretty deeply. This was Louisville. This was Derby. This is why they invented bourbon.'
By Allen Helm
Chicago Editor / BourbonStory.com
I was the first person in my family to get a bachelor’s degree. Up until then, everybody got out of high school and immediately went to work or hit a junior college (sometimes graduating with an associate’s, and sometimes not). Nobody left town…in fact, most everyone lived within a few miles of each other…a tight-knit, German Catholic family. My brother and I (the oldest grandchildren from a family with a strong matriarch who had five kids) were encouraged strongly to get a bachelor’s degree by my parents because they believed a formal education was the way out of the daily paycheck-to-paycheck grind that they endured.
We both went to the University of Louisville and graduated. I decided to keep going. A few years after graduation, and discovering I liked working in research labs (work that started as work-study at U of L), I decided to get a Ph.D. in microbiology from somewhere out of town. It wasn’t that I didn’t love Louisville and my family…it was just something I felt like I had to do. Many of my friends went away to college. I loved the idea of that but I didn’t have enough money to do that, and my grades in high school weren’t nearly good enough to get any sort of scholarship.
Not to mention, I was a bit of a Deadhead then, and maybe even a hippie (albeit an employed one with prospects!) As Robert Hunter wrote in Truckin’: “I guess they can’t revoke your soul for trying / Get out of the door, light out, and look all around.” I really took that to heart.
Enter the Come Back Inn in Louisville. This Italian-American restaurant and bar was opened by Mark Wagner and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Gena not too long before I left. I really loved that place and got to be a regular (for both food and booze, in particular bourbon, even more particular, Wild Turkey). In the short time it was open (before I moved) I got to be friends with Mark, Gena, and some of the staff.
Derby week 1997…Leaving Louisville was a big deal, it was something that people in my family just didn’t do. Although I didn’t know where I was going to be next year, I knew that this was going to be my last Derby Week as a Louisvillian. I had plenty of vacation time at my lab tech job at U of L. I took the entire week off. I decided to spend Thursday afternoon/evening at the Come Back Inn, where many of the people in the Pegasus Parade met up before the event to get their bearings, knock back a few, and got ready for their march.
I started the day by reading “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”, and then headed to the CBI. It was a beautiful afternoon and I settled into a few glasses of my beloved Wild Turkey on the rocks. As people filed in I heard the guy next to me talking about newspaper stuff, as if he were an insider. I started talking to him and then realized soon that it was Jeffrey Lee Puckett, someone I had always admired as an important member of the Louisville music scene (even if I occasionally disagreed with his reviews). If I remember correctly he was drinking Woodford Reserve. He was there because there was a Courier-Journal float or car or something taking part in the parade. He was waiting for the rest of his CJ compadres to arrive. We chatted for a good bit. It was really amazing for me to be able to get a good chunk of Louisville culture, at my favorite bar, with my favorite bourbon, on a gorgeous afternoon. As we spoke, more CJ folks arrived. He introduced me to Nick Anderson, and then Rob King who did the comic strip “Family Business”, and then Kevin Baker (who I remembered from her work on the U of L newspaper The Cardinal). We hung out for about an hour, they with their Woodford, and me with my Turkey…each drink over rocks if I remember correctly. I remember the frosty glasses catching the sun coming through the large windows at the entrance of the bar.
After a while, it was time for them to hit the trail, to go to the start of the parade. I stuck around to watch the parade on TV, over yet another Wild Turkey. I drank it in pretty deeply. This was Louisville. This was Derby. This is why they invented bourbon. And this was the reason that, even to this day, I almost always hit the CBI on my trips back to Louisville before my final destination (usually my folks’ house, where I stay when I visit). No matter how bad or long or tedious the trip was, that first taste of ice cold Turkey on the back of my throat brings me back to that day.
I could write volumes on my many trips back to Louisville since I moved all those years ago and most of them begin with a Wild Turkey at the CBI (Derby and non-Derby visits), but none of those stories put a smile on my face as readily as that last Derby Week as a Louisvillian.