The best one – ever – was handed ice cold and dripping through the window of a car so beaten-up by Texas that I couldn’t tell the make or model.

Not that I cared.

I’d been standing by the road in the blasted heart of you-know-where with my thumb out. For a long, long time.

Here’s why.

Out between dots on the map called Van Horn and Toyah, two interstates, I-20 and I-10, go separate ways. My previous hitch happened to be an I-20 type, nice guy, on his way to Pecos … maybe even Odessa if the bad tire held out. 

Me? I-10 all the way, New Orleans dancing in my fantasies.

The moment I stepped out of the truck and waved thank-you, I knew I had made a mistake.

Maybe a bad one.

Old campfires blackened the flinty road shoulder. I saw tell-tale signs of stranded travelers, hitchhikers like me, obviously with a lot of time on their hands. I can tell you their names: Joe. Alice. Henry Maximillian Buckholt III. They stacked rocks to spell out their identities. Maybe they feared the next ride would never come. Maybe writing their names with rocks would help notify next of kin. 

The sun burned hot enough to melt those rocks. I found a rattlesnake skin. A tumbleweed blew past.

After five hours, vultures circled.

Now and then, sunlight flashed off chrome somewhere across the endless ever of Texas. Oh boy! Here comes a car! Here comes a chance!

Every chance took 30 minutes to arrive. 

When a vehicle got close, I stepped to the asphalt, stuck out my thumb. I gave a cheerful I’m-not-an-escaped-convict grin.

Cars going 80 miles per hour spotted me … and accelerated to 120 miles per hour. They veered to the farthest lane. One trucker stretched clear across the cab to lock the passenger-side door.

Old Tex, I suppose, was scared to death that this hitchhiker would suddenly take off like a jackrabbit at a 120 mph sprint with a flailing suitcase and guitar and chase down his rig and gnaw a hole through the metal door and get inside.

Speed up, mister! Don’t let that happen!

After eight hours, I finally thumbed a ride.

My rescuer wore a gray suit that matched the battered gray car. He sold Beltone hearing aids for a living, the inventory piled around his ankles in the floorboard. The hearing-aid salesman… Could. Not. Hear. … for the unmuffled engine roar under his hood.

As the Samaritan pulled his anonymous make and model to a blessed stop, I hustled up to jump aboard.

A hand with a cold bottle of Coca-Cola appeared out the window. He’d already popped the cap.

That was the best one. Ever. 


I grew up in Alabama. We called any soft drink of any kind… a Coke.

Orange soft drink? That was orange Coke. A root beer? Root beer Coke. We drank grape Cokes, peach Cokes, even chocolate Cokes.

I now have a delicious Coca-Cola Journey assignment: Describe the 12 best Cokes I ever tasted.

You now know the first. That Coke in west Texas in 1974 chased buzzards from the sky. It made me happy all the way to Houston.

So let’s open the rest of the 12-pack ...


Charles McNair
Charles McNair outside Manuel's Tavern in Atlanta, Ga.

#11: An Early Taste

You won’t believe this, and I don’t blame you.

I was weaned on Coca-Cola.

I have word on this from the bona fide authority on the subject: My mother.

In 1954, I learned to crawl, toddle and scamper. Mama says I undertook locomotion for one reason… and one reason alone: Milk.

I followed her like a shark. After months of constant pursuit, Mama needed relief.

Coke was it.

#10: Gridiron Goodness

I tried out for junior high football in blast-furnace August. I picked up my helmet during one practice… and dropped it like a glowing horseshoe. Too hot to touch.

I was 12. The seniors on the team were 14, except for those who had flunked a grade. They were 15. The offensive linemen had flunked two grades. You can do the math.

The physical difference between the athletic abilities of a 12-year-old and a 16-year-old can best be described in punishing terms. Stomping and trampling come to mind. I auditioned for tackling dummy. One practice, I got knocked so silly I saw stars all morning.

In that era, coaches sneered at the concept of water breaks. Unmanly. Soft. Ball boys handed out salt tablets, and we gobbled them, our manhood on the line. If you got bloodied – lip, elbow, whatever – medical treatment never varied: Rub dirt on it.

After two-a-days – smoldering morning practices and blazing afternoons – I hobbled to a store that served 48-ounce slushy Cokes.

I drank two after each practice.

I didn’t make the team, but I didn’t die.

#9: A Slithering Surprise

One of my favorite Cokes didn’t have any Coke in it. Just the bottle.

With a surprise.

My granddaddy worked as a yard man. He found fascinating things for the McNair boys all the time. Baseballs. Baby rabbits.

He eased out of the truck one spring afternoon carrying a Coke bottle. It held grass blades… and thin as a shoestring, down in the bottom, a beautiful little green snake.

We kept our pet for a week. We caught little grasshoppers to feed him.

We finally let it go in the woods.

I like to think that great-great-umpteenth-great-grandbaby green snakes still play out there.

#8: A Cold Drink on a Cold Night

The football stadium for the high school team lay downwind from a commercial bakery. Loaves baking on Friday nights made everyone ravenous. During the National Anthem, players on the field faced the bakery instead of the flag.

One freezing fall night, my buddies and I undertook a half-time expedition. We collected enough quarters for 15 hot unsliced loaves, and we carried them in our arms like stacked firewood back to the stadium and up into the cheering section.

Fans ignored the game after that. We tore off the ends of loaves and ate fluffy soft hot warm clouds of inside bread. We stuffed frozen hands into the hollowed loaf, the crust warm like a muff.

We ate hot loaves and sipped Coca-Cola from red-and-white paper cups.

No ice required.

#7: Liquid Courage

One of my favorite Cokes held a little rum, and a lime perched like a green crescent moon on the lip of the glass.

There was a beach at night. Stars glittered. There was a pretty girl in a bathing suit, and she liked me very much.

The rest is a secret...

#6: Been Caught Stealing

I played baseball in Italy. Third base. Verona Arsenal.

(Those words look so cool on a resume.)

Our team reached the championship game. The rival coach unexpectedly demanded to see my U.S. passport before the game – the only time any team ever asked for such documentation at that lowest level of organized ball in the Roman Empire.

After a madcap motorcycle sprint across medieval Verona for the papers… and an intense extra-inning ball game I personally lost trying to play hero and steal second and getting thrown out instead… I wept on the bench with my uniform in tatters and a four-inch gash down my shin.

Somebody handed me a Coke.

The healing started. 

#5: Hard-Earned Refreshment

Christmas holidays, my daddy corralled the McNair boys in the icy back of the pick-up with some hired hands. We headed to the Alabama woods.

You’d think we would go out like holiday lumberjacks and return with evergreen trees on our brawny shoulders.

Just the opposite. We planted trees. Pine seedlings. By hand. Tens of thousands.

A planting crew is no day at the beach: Two men work long rows. One man lugs a dibble, a cast-iron tool of 15 pounds. One man lugs a heavy bucket of pine seedlings in sloshing water. One man pours sweat. One man can’t feel his hands all day.

The man with the dibble takes two strides, clears a rough space on the ground with a boot, plunges the dibble into frozen red clay, wedges open a hole. The man with the bucket pops a seedling in the hole, stomps the earth back together around its stem.

This happens three hundred times an hour. Ten hours a day. Six days a week. Christmas Day off.

But there was grace.

Every noon hour, my daddy’s green Chevy rumbled up. He handed out identical lunches: A can of Vienna sausages. Saltine crackers. A honey bun.

And a Coca-Cola.

After long cold mornings of labor, manna arrived from heaven in paper bags. No steak dinner, ever, tasted more delicious than those starved-dog lunches.

And no glass of champagne ever matched those Cokes in the woods. 

#4: Pitch Perfect

My first start as a soccer goalie came in Atlanta, where my team, the University of Alabama soccer club, took on Georgia Tech.

I only started in the net because our first-string goalie, a member of an African Olympic Team in the 1972 games, got into trouble and had to stay in Tuscaloosa.

I did okay… until midway through the first half. A corner kick lofted toward my goal found the head – okay, the turban – of a Sikh striker.

To this day, I believe my Indian friend had a coiled high-tension spring under his headcloth. The ball shot past me like I was standing still. Which I was.

We lost 5-2. But after the game we partied at midfield, dehydrated, sprawled on the grass.

Somebody with a boom box played Steely Dan, Can’t Buy a Thrill. The sun blazed in a blue sky.

Teammates stood over me with open bottles. They slowly tipped these… and poured 10 Cokes into my open mouth. 

I nearly drowned. In happiness.

#3: The Write Stuff

I won an award. Alabama Press Association. Feature of the Year, Weekly Newspaper.

My moment to shine.

I drove to Gulf Shores, Alabama. I sat in the front row, with the honorees. Jody Powell, Jimmy Carter’s press secretary, spoke.

Halfway through his talk, the wooden bottom of my chair gave way. I plunged through, stuck fast, legs kicking in the air, my best suit ripped. My butt showed.

After I wiggled free, I huffed away, red-faced, into the 94-degree, 100-percent humidity Gulf Coast night.

Speeding home to Mobile, my Chevy Vega had a flat.

I changed a tire in the dark, in my ruined suit, beach traffic blaring past.

Up the highway, I stopped to collect myself at a fry joint. I threw off my tie and jacket and washed the tire grime off my hands. 

The waitress called me “darlin’,” and she sat me, torn pants and all, on the deck looking out at Mobile Bay.

A full moon rose. 

I drank a Coke.

After awhile, I felt like a prize-winning writer for the very first time. 

Charles McNair
McNair writes in his home office.

#2: Mi Familia

I looked down a long communal table at a restaurant in the green countryside outside Bogota. Yes THAT Bogota, in Colombia. I moved here January this year, on my birthday. 

The girl of my dreams lives here.

One doesn’t simply join a mate in Latin America. One joins a family.

My newly acquired familia occupied a table with 20 seats. Young and old. Gringo-friendly – I felt welcome.

Almost everything I do or see or smell or hear or taste … is completely new here. It feels wonderful.

But even wonderful can wear you out.

Sometimes, I crave home so badly … my other home, back in the U.S. I crave the familiar. I crave feeling not so … foreign, so point-blank alien.

It’s why the row of sweating Coke bottles down the long table made me… happy 

I felt as though I’d been here before. Like I belonged. 

Charles McNair

Coca-Cola here tastes like it does back in Alabama.

Like sweet home.

#1: To Be Continued...

Writing about favorite Cokes makes me mighty thirsty.

Next stop… the icebox.

This next Coke will taste pretty darned good …

Charles McNair, a native of Alabama, lives and writes in Bogota, Colombia. He's the author of two novels, Land O' Goshen and Pickett's Charge.