A young veteran tells how a few rough experiences
pushed him into A.A.—and how he was therefore
spared years of suffering.
MY EYES OPENED onto a hazy world. Two fuzzy objects came into focus. Slowly I realized I was in bed and that the objects were my feet, encased in a harness affair. I blinked slowly as I shifted my gaze to my arms. They also were held in some sort of strap arrangement.
Gradually consciousness returned enough to let me know I was in a hospital. I looked about the room. At one end of the bed, near the foot, was a printed card, and beneath that was a charted graph. I couldn’t focus enough to make out the chart, but the card contained two words—”ACUTE ALCOHOLISM.” Then it came to me. I was in a hospital. The place—Hawaii. The year—1948. I closed my eyes and tried to think.
I remembered having had a little drink of whiskey with a can of warm beer as a chaser. Then something happened. What was it? I couldn’t recall. I opened my eyes again and a shadow fell across the bed. Standing there was a gray haired man—tall, trim and in uniform. There were gold bars on his shoulders.
Now I know. I’m in the U.S. Navy. This must be the doctor. He asked how I felt. I didn’t reply. A corpsman stood beside him. The doctor motioned to
the corpsman to undo my straight – jacket and leg restraints. I moved about a little. The doctor sat down beside the bed and asked me how I felt.
“Do you know why you’re in here?” he queried.
I could tell him a lot of reasons why I am here in an alky ward at the age of twenty. I don’t know how I got here this trip, but it doesn’t matter very much. I’m an alcoholic. Don’t mince words. I’m a rummy. I can’t control my drinking any more. It controls me.
I remembered back to high school when I was fifteen. We all had lockers. The other pupils kept books, pencils, paper, gym equipment and such stuff in their lockers. I did, too. I also kept beer. At fifteen I was strictly a beer drinker. I didn’t graduate to the hard stuff until I was sixteen. The other kids would light out for the hamburger huts or ice cream parlors, the pizza joints or bowling alleys, after football games and dances. I didn’t. I went to saloons where I could get drinks.
I didn’t give a whoop about anything scholastic. I got a job after school pumping gas and worked until ten or eleven at night. I was the kid of the crew. I tried to mimic the talk, ideas, moods and even the drinking of the older men. It hurt to be considered a kid. I talked out of the side of my mouth, as they did. I smoked as much, tried to drink as much, and do everything they did, only more so.
I found I could boost my income by selling gas coupons (rationing was in effect then) that I’d taken in earlier from other customers, by filching nickels from the Coke machine, by short-sticking customers on oil, and by selling oil I’d drained out of other cars.
School was getting to be one big bore. I was skip-
ping classes about two days a week and doing no book work whatever. I was failing in everything. The principal had no alternative but to expel me. I beat him to it. I quit, when I was just past sixteen.
I had a drinking problem on my hands even at that time. So did my parents. They both drank like fish. They had been drinking for many years and were getting progressively worse. Home life didn’t mean much to me. They were kind when they thought about it, but that wasn’t often. I wanted love and affection but I didn’t get it. I did as I pleased most of the time.
I wasn’t burdened with parental guidance and I didn’t want any. I ran away for the second time, with another lad. We got to Omaha, from my home in Chicago. We headed out of town walking—no money, cold and hungry. It was late at night. We spotted a church in a small town. We broke open a window and got inside. We started to light matches to see, but the draft blew them out. So we rolled old newspapers together and made torches to find a good soft pew and get some sleep. My torch blazed madly and the pew caught fire.
We heard some yells outside. A busload of basketball players had been passing and saw the flames. They summoned the fire department and the sheriff. I spent the next three days in a cell. My dad, who was a newspaper man and had some connections, had meantime put a stop on me, and I guess that report went all over the country. We were identified and I was put on a train for Chicago. The sheriff bade us goodbye very happily. I still think dad paid him something to let me go.
Back home again! Drinking conditions at home
were even worse than before. I would rather have stayed in jail except I didn’t like the bologna and cold potatoes for breakfast. I got a job with the newspaper my dad worked for. I liked it and soon moved into the photo department, which was what I wanted to do. “Ace crime photographer,” that’s me.
About this time I got my first crush on a girl. I teamed up with a cute little blonde with whom I was working at the office, and for about a year we were inseparable. Beaches, parties, dances, movies—everything. Here was the lost love I’d missed at home. I was drinking quite a bit of whiskey now. She didn’t like it, but I thought it made a man of me. Once in a while I stayed home for a night, to see how my folks were doing. They were doing very well—at least a fifth apiece a day, except on dad’s days off when they did some serious drinking.
I was now nearly eighteen. I enlisted in the Navy to escape the Army draft. It looked as if the war would be over any day, but I had to go anyhow. I planned to stay home the night before I left, but my folks got so drunk I walked off early in the evening and spent the night with my girl, getting very drunk myself. Next morning I was sworn in, feeling no pain. I went into the Navy in fine style. I was drunk. Three years later I was discharged in the same way.
At Great Lakes Boot Camp I latched onto a soft billet. My job was to make out the guard schedules and thus I was exempt from ordinary recruit training activities. This went on for thirteen weeks, the first eight of which I wasn’t allowed visitors. But my dad pulled some strings and got in to see me after three weeks. He and mom smuggled in a couple of pints to
me. This was fine, but it was just an extra dividend, for I’d made connections by this time and was buying a bottle a day from the cook. I stayed in the barracks all day, “making out guard schedules,” and getting mildly plastered from the jug under my desk. I applied for photo school at Pensacola Air Base and made it. While waiting to depart I was selected—by giving a CPO five dollars—to be bartender in the Navy Chief’s Club. At night I tended bar.
While I was at Pensacola my dad became dangerously ill and almost died of pneumonia plus a heart attack. I got emergency leave for twenty days. Mom and I drank every waking moment because we felt so sorry for dad. I tried to control her drinking by pouring her whiskey down the sink before I’d leave for the night, to get drunker myself.
I don’t know why I didn’t fall out of the open cockpit of some of those planes I flew in while taking aerial pictures. I didn’t. And when this six month school was over I applied for duty in Hawaii and pulled it. I wanted to get as far away from home as possible.
Pearl Harbor was a breeze of nine months, a gay Hawaiian paradise, drinking under the palms, listening to the surf beat on the shore, a bottle of whiskey near at hand. I was becoming a solitary drinker, but I didn’t care. I was transferred to Kaneohe Bay, across the hump to the windward side of Oahu, to the aviation base. This was wonderful. I talked the Old Man into letting me live in the photo lab instead of the barracks, and for eighteen months nothing interfered with my drinking. The boys at the Post Office used to bring me my jugs; mail couldn’t be opened for inspection at the gate. This was an ideal set-up.
I was only twenty now, but I was a man. Wasn’t I drinking more than a quart every day? I knew I was hitting the skids, but what of it? Didn’t I come from a family of drinkers? There wasn’t much I could do about it, and I didn’t want to do anything anyway.
About this time my folks found A.A. It solved their problems and they started living a sane life again. They wrote me many long letters about it. I thought it was fine for them. They really needed it. But I knew I’d never get that way.
I seldom left the base anymore except once in a while when I felt the need of talking to some girl. Then I’d get a pass to Honolulu. Meanwhile the letters from home were telling about how much my folks wanted to make up to me for some of the things I’d missed. I hadn’t told them about my drinking, but I guess they knew. I’d reply and some of my letters they saved. To this day I haven’t been able to decipher what I wrote to them.
One night I was sitting in the lab alone with a fifth and a case of beer listening to dreamy Hawaiian music on the radio. Slowly a pile of pineapples started to build up on the table. They got bigger and bigger and nearer and nearer, as if they were going to fall and crush me. Two of them leaped from the table and crashed into my head. I was knocked to the floor, swinging madly at the faces on those pineapples. I swung, I swore, I started throwing beer cans at the advancing hordes of pineapple faces. I cut my hands, my face, my legs. Then I collapsed. I had D.T.’s.
The doctor was still sitting beside my bed. My past had slipped before me in a twinkling. The doctor said I’d been brought into the hospital like a madman,
crying, raving, ranting, swearing, completely in the throes of Delirium Tremens.
I was released in a week, a week of hell with no drinks. I told the doctor my parents’ drinking history and blamed them. He was interested and said he’d help me all he could. He even went to bat for me before the court martial that inevitably followed and, as a result, I drew only thirty days—fifteen in solitary.
Two months later I was discharged. I was supposed to come home on a troop ship, but I talked the base commander into flying home. We were supposed to take off at noon, but were delayed until six p.m. I spent the time in a nearby tavern, was loaded on the ship, went to sleep before take-off, and the next thing I knew someone was shaking me and telling me we were over San Diego.
I went to Tijuana that night and landed in jail. Drunk and causing a brawl, they said. Heck. All I’d wanted was one more drink. I was escorted back to San Diego next morning—by the Shore Patrol, but I was discharged on schedule.
I headed home for the most wonderful experience of all time—meeting my “new” parents—mom and dad looked different than I had pictured them. They had color in their faces, sparkle in their eyes and love in their hearts. It was a glorious homecoming. Dad got out a jug for me and poured welcome home drinks. I took it easy, because they didn’t know about me. But I was soon drinking as heavily as I had been.
I would drink all night in bars, come home about five a.m., down a good big glass of whiskey straight, and tumble into bed. Or maybe I’d come home wild drunk, singing and raving about what a fine place
home was and what grand parents I had since they joined A.A.
Sometimes I’d make it home and go to sleep at the wheel of my car, for all the neighbors to see next morning as they left for work. I paid nine hundred dollars for a second hand car on my return. I lost it many times and mom and dad would drive me around until I found it. I spent eighteen hundred dollars fixing up that car in the first year I was home, after four bad smashups. Why I wasn’t killed or how I got home I don’t know.
The end came early in 1950. I’d lost my car again, pawned my wallet and all identification papers for a bottle, and gotten home somehow. Again I went into a mild form of D.T.’s, but with no pineapples this time. The folks called a doctor and he knocked me out with sedatives. I’d heard a lot about A.A. and met a great many A.A.’s during that year at home, but I hadn’t thought of it for myself. I’d thought of it in an offhand way, of course. But I didn’t want to stop drinking—not at twenty-two. I merely wanted to cut down. And the folks said A.A. was for people who wanted to quit, otherwise it wouldn’t work.
But as I came out of this second bout with D.T.’s, I knew I was licked. I’d packed more drinking into seven years than many a heavy drinker does in a lifetime. And I’d proved I couldn’t handle it, time and again. That doctor in the Navy hospital told me I wouldn’t live five years if I didn’t quit. I’d fooled him thus far. But for how long? “I’ve got to stop if I want to live,” I told myself, and if I don’t want to break my parents’ hearts and maybe jeopardize their own carefully built up and hard fought-for sobriety.
“I’ll do it,” I told myself. “I’ll do it. I’ll join A.A. if it kills me. Mom has said the only requisite to start is willingness. Well, I’m willing, if it will curb this awful desire to drink, this fear of not having a drink, this feeling of always being alone, scared, deserted, sick. Dear God, I’ll do anything! Only show me how.”
That is how I came into A.A. There was a red plush carpet to welcome me, but even so it wasn’t easy. I’d acquired a new girl, a lovely girl who knew of my problem and had tried to help me. A week after my decision to join A.A., she called it quits. Three days later I lost my job. This combination nearly threw me. I thought, “If this is A.A. why not go back to drinking, kill myself with booze in the next three years the doctor had given me, and call it a bad job?”
But I didn’t. I attended meetings, I talked to my folks, I talked to younger people they had gotten in contact with to sponsor me. And somehow or other I stayed sober.
I joined A.A. at twenty-two. I’m twenty-six now and I haven’t had a drink since I made my decision. At that time life to me was spelled “w-h-i-s-k-e-y.” Today I think of life in terms of happiness, contentment, freedom from fear and despair, sane thinking, ability to face problems as they occur, the opportunity to help other alcoholics and to be decent.
Were I to revert to drinking, even now, I wouldn’t give anything for these four years in A.A. They have been the happiest of my life. I have been helped morally, spiritually, mentally and materially through A.A. I used to think, “Why live without whiskey?” Now I know I can’t live without A.A.
Four years ago I had nothing but a jumbled, mad
existence. Today I have all that anyone could ask. I have a lovely wife who understands my problem and helps me with it. I have two wonderful little boys. I have a good job. I have kind and sympathetic parents. I’m buying a home. I owe no one—except A.A.