The hotel banquet hall echoed with the boisterousness of the American soldiers who had gathered for dinner. The year was 1960, and the 79th U.S. Army Band, based at Fort Clayton, Panama, was in the middle of a ten-day visit to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The trip was part of “Operation Friendship,” a goodwill initiative designed by the Army to ease the tension created by U.S. control of the Panama Canal Zone. Through Operation Friendship, the 79th Army Band had performed at every high school in Panama and was now traveling to various South American embassies.
Winston, a soldier from Beaumont, Texas, sat at one end of the table. Winston had left college a few years earlier to enlist in the Army and was touring with the 79th as a trombonist. Joining the Army had been an adventure for the southeast Texas preacher’s son, but military life had presented Winston with some challenges. Having grown up in the Church of Christ, Winston had been taught two crucial life concepts. First, Christians should always go to church, every Sunday, no matter where they are. Second, Christians must not consume alcohol. Trying to maintain these standards while serving in the Army was difficult, if not impossible, Winston had discovered. Nevertheless, he tried to cling to his convictions and hoped that, when he succeeded, his soldier peers would notice and be influenced to make good moral choices in their own lives.
During its South American travels, the band had stopped in Bogota, Colombia, where Winston knew to be wary of the drinking water. There in Bogota, he shared his dilemma with a Catholic priest, who had advised Winston to drink communion wine. This kind of wine typically contained only three percent alcohol—enough to kill bacteria but not enough to get him drunk. This should keep him healthy during the band’s South American travels and should not compromise his convictions too much, the priest had said.
Now in the rambunctious banquet hall at the hotel in Rio, Winston perused the beverage offerings on the menu. His eyes came to a stop at “vino de communion.” Communion wine. He planned to drink a little with dinner and go to bed with a mostly easy conscience. He pointed his selection out to the waiter, who nodded and walked away.
As waiters began delivering bottles of beer to the rest of the 79th, Winston heard the sound of squeaky wheels and turned to see his waiter wheeling out a cart carrying a two-gallon hinged decanter full of red wine. The waiter stopped the cart at Winston’s chair, filled his glass, and walked away—leaving the cart. By talking to a waiter with a rough command of English, Winston realized that “vino de communion” meant “wine of the community” and was meant to serve a large group of people. As he sipped on the wine, he realized something else: it had a much stronger alcohol content than three percent.
Every night during the band’s ten-day stay, the same waiter wheeled out the same decanter for Winston to drink from during dinner. He only took a few sips. By the last night, which was a Saturday, the decanter was still more than three-quarters full. Winston’s roommates asked if they could have the rest of the wine to go with the poker party they had planned in the hotel room for that night. Winston gladly gave it to them and, trying desperately to hang on to his convictions, went to bed early. True to his upbringing, he planned to seek out a church to attend the next day.
At 6:30 the next morning, Winston got up to find the decanter drained dry and his three roommates passed out. Two bodies slumped on the floor and a third sprawled across one of the beds. After checking to make sure they were breathing, Winston carefully stepped over the bodies of the men he had hoped to influence for good, and walked out the door to go to church. He may have left a roomful of hung over men in his wake, but Winston—as best he could on an Army trip to Rio de Janeiro—had stuck to his convictions.