William of Gin

By Michael W. Harris

In September of 2017 I accepted a job at the College of William & Mary and had just two weeks to uproot my entire life and move across the country. I had spent the past decade living in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and was now moving to the lower Chesapeake Bay and Historic Triangle of Williamsburg, Virginia. I had been to Virginia only once before, during my elementary school field trip to Washington, D.C., and my only memory of the state is almost being left behind at Jamestown when I spent too long in the gift shop looking at books.

I was a nerd from a young age.

My life seems to be a pattern of sudden change. While some live in a state of constant flux, mine seems to have long periods of stability punctuated with moments of rupture. Though, in retrospect, this change was possibly telegraphed. I had become restless in Colorado, and the physical changes my body was undergoing—I had recently decided to get healthy and dropped a considerably amount of weight—mirrored a larger change in my personality as I was struggling to figure out the direction I wanted my life to go. I had made the leap from professor to librarian, and by the fall of 2017 I was in the final semester of my library degree. However, there was still no sign that the permanent temporary status of my job at the University of Colorado would ever change.

So it was, when I returned to Colorado after spending a month in Wyoming doing the requisite internship for my library degree, that I decided to hit the job market hard and truly begin my new career in earnest. Not long after that I was packing up my apartment, including an inordinate number of bottles of gin leftover from my 37th birthday party, and began the three-day drive to Virginia and the College of William & Mary.

The move hit at what proved to be a turbulent and particularly liminal moment in my life. One that caused me reflect even more on my life and my history. I was moving from a place I had lived for ten years, and travelling to a state and college that, unbeknownst to me, had deep roots in my family’s history, all the while, in a hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, my grandfather lay dying. And that is why I found myself, a month into my new life in Virginia, sitting at a makeshift desk and writing the initial draft of this essay. It was the day after my grandfather, William L. Harris, had passed, thirty-two days after my life was packed up in Boulder, Colorado, and the only respite I had found during that month was in ending my day with a gin and tonic.

I am a librarian, but I am also a historian and a writer. And to make sense of my life at that moment I put all of my skills to use. I researched the namesake of my new employer and the history of my drink of choice, I contemplated my family history, I poured myself a gin and tonic (and then a second), and I wrote. I wrote to try and sort through all of my conflicted emotions and through prose hopefully understand them and my new life.

*          *          *

In 1688, in what English Protestants called the Glorious Revolution, William of Orange, leader of the Dutch Republic, was invited to become King of England, Ireland, and Scotland along with his wife Mary—William’s cousin and daughter of then King James II of England. William and Mary were much beloved, but more importantly to the English, they were not Catholic, unlike the current monarch. This largely bloodless revolution (at least in England) in which James II was run out of London, having been abandoned by his army, was widely celebrated throughout the kingdom. His ascension also had a lasting, and, in my mind, more important effect on England and the wider world: the popularity of gin amongst drinkers throughout the burgeoning empire.

Gin, or at least what would become gin, was invented by the Dutch and was called genever (or jenever), a word descended from the Latin word for the juniper berry: juniperus. Dutch genever was quite a bit different from what we now know as the classic London Dry Gin. It was sweeter and had a distilled malt wine as its base—as opposed to the grain neutral spirit used as a base today—to which was added various botanicals, most notably the juniper berry which is still the distinctive flavor of gin to this day.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth

King William III was a fan of the hollands, as the drink was sometimes called by the English, and many English drinkers decided to take up the spirt with the ascension of William and Mary to the throne. Since then, the English have had a complicated history with gin, at times worrying about its deleterious effects on their society, and have occasionally branded it as an evil foreign drink due to its non-English origins. The poem accompanying Hogarth’s famous Gin Lane print, published in 1751, says of the distilled beverage: “Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught, / Makes human Race a Prey. / It enters by a deadly Draught / And steals our Life away.”

It was four years into his reign that King William III, along with Queen Mary II, issued a royal charter to “make, found and establish a certain Place of Universal Study, a perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good arts and sciences…to be supported and maintained, in all time coming” in the then Crown Colony of Virginia. It was named the College of William & Mary in honor of the new monarchs. Mary II would die the following year and William died only a few years after the completion of the College’s first building in 1700. He did not live to see the College flourish into an institution that educated many of the leaders who would help lead the revolution that would disintegrate the ties between his kingdom and its colonies in the New World (it educated sixteen members of the Continental Congress, four signers of the Declaration of Independence, and three of the first ten US presidents). Nor did William live long enough to see the Gin Craze of the mid-18th century, during which five different acts of parliament were passed in try and to curb the consumption of a drink that was now seen as a public health crisis. However, his thirteen-year reign established lasting legacies to both American education and British spirits.

*          *          *

238 years after the founding of the College of William & Mary, Richard L. Herrick, my maternal grandfather, entered the College as a member of the class of 1935, assuming that he had competed the studies he began in 1931. Born on the island of Manhattan in New York to a family tracing its roots back to colonial Massachusetts, it is unclear why he left Williamsburg after only a year to complete his studies at Iowa State University. But my grandfather did attend William & Mary for a year, even though the yearbook and catalog misidentify him as “Richard H. Herrick.”

The Herrick family originally came over from England in 1626, prior to the Glorious Revolution, and by the time of the College of William & Mary’s founding in 1693 they were firmly established in the town of Salem, Massachusetts. One of the Herricks of Salem even served as marshal of that town in the 1690s. It was during his tenure that there was an outbreak of mass hysteria over supposed witchcraft between 1692 and 1693. The subsequent trials led directly and indirectly to the death of twenty-five people, nineteen by hanging. Contrary to popular belief, none of the accused witches of Salem were burned at the stake.

*          *          *

My first gin, a classic gin and tonic, was not love at first drink, but I do think I enjoyed it. I believe that drink came around 2006, but at the tender, young age of twenty-six I had yet to develop a true palate for alcohol. It was Colorado that ended up teaching me how to drink, but by then it was beer. Easy to do living in what is sometimes termed the “Beer-muda Triangle” that encompasses Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins.

However, in the last three or so years, I have drifted back to gin and tonics, which has luckily coincided with a gin making renaissance. There is more gin being made now than at the height of England’s gin craze—at least this seem to be true, not sure if hard numbers would back me up—and there is also more experimentation within the distilling industry and gin is being redefined as to its flavor profile. Sometimes for better and sometimes for the worse.

Somewhere in these past few years I also made a choice to try and become a connoisseur of gin, occasionally to the detriment of my bank account. My 37th birthday party, taking place just a month before I packed up for Virginia, was themed by gin and lavender, so of course I went and stocked up on ten different types of gin—along with mixers for a dozen different types of gin cocktails. I don’t recall how much I actually spent, but it was definitely in the multiple hundreds of dollars. Luckily, as I always tell people, good gin is magnitudes cheaper than good scotch or whisk[e]y. The most I have ever spent on a bottle of gin, really good gin, is $50, but that was back in Colorado. Now that I live in Virginia, alcohol prices have seemingly jumped, and that $50 bottle of Old Raj Blue Label would now cost me over $70, and that is if I could even find it at one of the state controlled liquor stores. The idea of a state controlled liquor store is still strange to me, even after living in Colorado—which bans the sale of any alcohol over 4.2 ABV in convenience and grocery stores.

*          *          *

William L. Harris passed in the early morning of 27 October 2017 in St. Peters, Missouri. Born 27 March 1932 in Lenox, MO, William came from a long line of Harris men who first settled in Virginia sometime in the 17th or 18th century. While the exact family history of my paternal grandfather is still a bit uncertain, William L. Harris of Missouri descends from a family with multiple Williams in his line, and which can trace its history back to Virginia. The name has certainly been a popular one, not only for British monarchs (if the current Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, ascends to the throne he will become King William V), but also for English speaking humans in general. However, it is not outside the realm of possibility for an early William Harris in Virginia, or any of the numerous Williams he is descended from, to have been named at one point in honor of the great savior of English Protestants.

William L. Harris is also the source of my own middle name.

*          *          *

It was 329 years after the Glorious Revolution, 324 years after the College’s founding, 253 years after Thomas Jefferson graduated from it, and 241 years after that alumni penned the Declaration of Independence that separated America from the Empire, that I arrived in Williamsburg and first set foot on the historic campus of William & Mary. Born in Missouri and having lived for the past decade in Colorado, this was perhaps the most radical change I had ever made. My own personal revolution, a break with a past that hurdled me headlong into an unknown and uncertain future.

I may have broken a few laws bringing in this much liquor to Virginia.

Unbeknownst to me, the second I crossed over the Virginia state line on 1 October 2017, I was immediately in violation of Virginia laws regarding the importation of wine, beer, and distilled spirits. Per the pertinent webpage: “You’ll need authorization to bring in more than one gallon of alcoholic beverages, which include wine, beer and distilled spirits.” Considering I had some twenty opened and unopened bottles of “distilled spirts,” most of it gin, in the trunk of my car, I certainly had more than one gallon. I also had 1 ½ gallons of chai concentrate, but luckily the Commonwealth of Virginia doesn’t seem to care about that.

The liquor laws of Virginia continue to baffle me, and the more I consider the deep ties of this state to various revolutions (both of the Glorious and American types, to say nothing of the Civil War), not to mention its own history of liquor distilling and tobacco cultivation—the College of William & Mary was initially funded by tobacco taxes and other duties on animal furs—it seems somewhat archaic to have such strict alcohol control laws. Guess they enjoy the extra tax revenue.

Regardless, I never declared nor filled out any forms regarding my importation of distilled spirits across Virginia’s borders, nor do I intend to. Consider it my own little revolution in the spirit of both William III and Thomas Jefferson.

*          *          *

William L. Harris was born during Richard L. Herrick’s one year of study at the College of William & Mary, and forty-eight years later two of their children would collectively give birth to me, Michael William Harris. Thirty-seven years after that I would cross the state line between West Virginia and Virginia carrying a large amount of gin, a drink popularized by the namesake of the college I would begin working for the following day.

It is strange, I think, the coincidences that shape our lives. Dirk Gently, the protagonist of two Douglas Adams novels (an author whose books were first introduced to me by my father), claimed to solve mysteries utilizing the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” and I guess this might be an example of that theory in action. The threads of my entire life, my family history, my drinking preferences—everything—can somehow be pulled together right now. Like the drawstrings on a bag being pulled closed. And during my first month in Virginia, as I sat in my new apartment writing the first draft of this essay, camping chair pulled up to a plastic folding table because my furniture and assorted “stuff” had not been delivered after nearly a month, and the day after the death of my paternal grandfather and middle namesake, I could not help but be reflective.

I was able to see William L. Harris one last time on my drive out to Virginia in September 2017. He was weak and only wanted to be free of his pain. He had lived a good eighty-five years, in which time he had gone from the son of poor southern Missouri farmers to starting and running a successful real estate business in St. Louis. I am proud to have his name within mine.

*          *          *

When I crossed the border from Kentucky to West Virginia during the final day of my three day drive from Boulder to Williamsburg (a crossing that had been made multiple times by previous generations of the Harris family), I knew I would stop whatever I was listening to and put on John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The lyrics, ostensibly about West Virginia, describe the natural beauty of the state while also expressing a sense of melancholy and longing for home: “I hear her voice in the mornin’ hour she calls me / Radio reminds me of my home far away / And drivin’ down the road I get a feelin’ / That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday.” The song is about driving and trying to reach home, but within the narrative of the song the singer never gets there. This feeling was a leitmotif of a lot of Denver’s work, that sense of wanting to get home but never finding it. As a military brat growing up, he moved around a lot and never found a stable home or even sense of home. However, it was in Colorado that Denver did seemingly find his resting place. A feeling that he detailed in his song “Rocky Mountain High.”

After playing through “Country Roads” multiple times when I crossed the West Virginia state line, I cued up “Rocky Mountain High,” a song that I had never really listened to closely before. What I had heard of it when listening passively over the years struck me as overly sentimental and not for me, so I was knocked over when, upon listening to it that day—two days after leaving Colorado—I found that it described my own experience of coming to my now former state: “He was born in the summer of his 27th year / Coming home to a place he’d never been before / He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again / You might say he found a key for every door.” I had moved to Colorado in July 2007, the summer of my twenty-seventh year, and in the decade that I lived there I do feel like I had actually become my best self. While I would never use the phrase “born again,” I had undergone a profound change while living there. Not only did I earn a PhD and become “Dr. Harris,” I had also started to become confident in myself, explore more of who I am, and venture out into the world a bit more. I had truly come home to a place I’d never been before.

It was appropriate that it was so overcast that day considering what was ahead of me.

My three day drive out to Williamsburg was emotionally charged, filled with many moments of almost crying, and the entire time on the verge of being choked up. Crossing the border of Colorado and Kansas for that last time as a resident, I stopped in front of the “Leaving Colorful Colorado” sign and took a selfie. I had already planned on doing so before I hit the road, but the emotions slammed me like a tidal wave when I did. I only allowed myself a moment’s reflection, though, snapped the photo, and got back on the road. There were well over fifteen-hundred miles left to go.

Moving from Colorado meant parting with the place where I felt like I had really matured and grown into who I wanted to be. It also meant leaving the best emotional and social support network I had ever had. Sure, that network had undergone many changes over the decade I had lived there, and my shift from grad student to faculty at the University of Colorado had made things a bit weird, to say the least. I had begun to chafe at straddling that line between still being somewhat connected to the grad students in the College of Music while also being considered a colleague to the faculty there, and on top of that also being faculty in the University Libraries. Trying to negotiate the dynamics of politics at play between the groups had become exhausting. And if I had come back from my month-long internship in Wyoming with one thing, it was the overwhelming urge to finally move on. Still, once moving on had become a reality, doing so was the hardest thing I had ever had to do.

It meant leaving home while trying to reach another one. Driving down the highway from Colorado to Virginia, I had a feeling that I wanted to be at home. I wanted to be back in Colorado. And listening to John Denver sing about his finally coming home to Colorado after I had just left it behind, I almost had to pull over to the side of I-64 in West Virginia and have a good cry.

But I didn’t. I kept moving further east along the highway, getting ever closer to what I hoped would be my new home and new life.

*          *          *

When I was born in 1980, I was almost named either Richard William or William Richard after both of my grandfathers. Ultimately this idea was struck down because either form could be shortened to “Willie Dick” or “Dick Willie,” and my parents decided it was not a good idea to have names with shortened forms that could refer to male genitalia.

While my school-age self thanks them for sparing me even more bullying than I already suffered as an overweight nerd who played the bassoon, I have always been a bit sad later in life to not carry both of their names, especially as I seem to embody traits of both of them.

I am tall and broad-shouldered like William L. Harris, and my hair formerly blonde now more brown much like my father’s and possibly William Harris, but my personality is very much in the mold of Richard L. Herrick. Though I only know this from what I have been told by my mother, whose personality I also take after. Richard L. Herrick died when I was still an infant.

I do not have the business sense nor the gift of gab and networking that William Harris, his son, and my sister all have. However, I do have a sense of loyalty and the ability to make close, true friends…once I get to know someone and let them into my life. I am not outgoing by nature, much like Richard Herrick and his daughter.

I try not to measure myself against those who came before me. One grandfather an engineer who worked on projects that launched mankind into space in the 1960s (his part was small, but still a part of the engineering program that helped build the capsules in St. Louis), the other a self-made businessman who transcended his humble, rural upbringing to build a successful life for his family.

These are men to admire, much like my own father who was the first of his family to attend and graduate from college, who provided a good life for his family, and helped raise a loving and stable household. They were and are all good men, not without their faults and foibles to be sure, and one of whom I never knew, but still good men by all accounts.

And the fundamental interconnectedness of all these lives draw the strings ever tighter.

*          *          *

When I arrived in Virginia, I had only what I could fit in my car, which included camping furniture, an air mattress, and other assorted things to survive what I figured would be about a week without most of my possessions. It was over a month from when they were loaded onto a truck in Boulder, Colorado, to when they were finally delivered. During that month of limbo, not knowing when, if ever, I would see them again, it was in gin mixed with tonic and a squeeze of lime that I found one of the few escapes from the torrent of emotions that accompanied my personal revolution. Always drunk in moderation, it provided me with fleeting moments of distraction as I tried to forget what that month had brought: a grandfather slowly dying and now passed, a new job and all the uncertainty that comes with it, and worldly possessions caught in purgatory by a moving company that was incompetent, unscrupulous, and probably both.

I felt lost.

My bed for the entire month of October 2017.

Lost in time and space, unmoored from my previous life by both the absence of familiar surroundings and people along with the lack of familiar stuff. It would be months before I finally felt as if I had a comfortable and familiar place to come home to every day after work. Instead, for the entire month of October 2017, I would walk into my apartment and was greeted by a completely empty living room, an office filled with cheap folding furniture, and a bedroom populated with an air mattress and sleeping bag. Gin was my escape from the drab surroundings, along with videos viewed on my iPad and played through a wireless speaker. The physical and mental effect of one or two gin and tonics on my brain simulated, in some ways, the emotional feeling my life had: floating, disconnected, and adrift. But whereas my circumstances had stressful, and at times deleterious, effects on my person, gin allowed me brief respites from said effects even when the affect was somewhat similar.

*          *          *

I finally felt like I was settled in my new job and new life in Williamsburg, Virginia, on 2 January 2018, and it was all because of a couch.

It was perhaps symbolic of the entire fiasco that was my moving experience that my couch from IKEA was a month late in arriving. However, once I got over the shock of a flat-packed couch, assembled my Klippan loveseat, and sat down in my living room, I finally felt like I had a home. Not because I had a couch from which to watch TV, sit and read, or whatever, but rather because I was finally able to put away the last of my camping furniture that I had been using for going on three months. Even once I had all my stuff, I was still forced to use a camping chair when I wanted to watch TV because I had not moved my couch with me from Colorado. Indeed, that was the first thing to be removed the weekend before the movers came last September.

So it was that the day after New Year’s that I collapsed on my couch, cued up a video on my Amazon Fire TV, took a sip of a gin and tonic, and knew that I was finally at home. I took a deep sigh and relaxed, fully and completely, for the first time since I received a call offering me a new job, a new life, and a new beginning.

I don’t know how long I will be in Virginia, or even if I will still be here on New Year’s 2019, but for now I can finally relax and enjoy my gin rather than using it as an escape.

*          *          *

Every time I drive through St. Louis on my way to visit family, I would drive past the hospital where I was born. To me, St. Louis has always seemed like not only my birthplace, but also the birthplace of my family. It was where both my parents were born, it is where all my grandparents lived, and it is also where most of my extended family currently lives. It is only my branch of the family that has left the nest, and me the one who has traveled the furthest. As such, as I would drive past that hospital, I would think to myself, “in my own journey through life, my displacement is now zero. If my birthplace represents the coordinates of 0, 0, on a Cartesian plane, I am right now returned to that point and have traveled no distance.”

However, when I consider what I now know of my familial history, convoluted as it is, somehow it feels like it is now, living in Williamsburg and working at William & Mary, that my displacement is zero. That somehow, even though I had never visited the city or college before, that the path of my life has been leading me here since before I was born. Even if this job is truly only “visiting” and I leave here at the end of my current contract in October, it will have been a logical stop along the way. It is both a returning and a beginning.

This is my first job that has no ties to existing employment or education. I came to this job having no prior connection to this institution or the area…except that I do. Deep familial, historical, and emotional ties.

I have only been here a few months, but somehow I have also been here for years.

I am Michael W. Harris, not the first of his name and most certainly not the last, William of Gin.

Next Week: …six months later

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