“If we’re willing to share all our garbage, we should be willing to share all the good stuff, too.”
If you’ve ever read anything about the Roaring Twenties, well, it was supposed to have been a period of wild gaiety, heavy drinking, and slaphappy fun. That was the good-time era I was born into–September 9, 1925, to be exact, in a small town called Norfolk, Nebraska. But the only part of those so-called roaring good times that rubbed off on my DNA was the heavy drinking part. I missed out on the gaiety and slaphappy stuff.
In fact, I can remember being an unhappy, miserable little kid all the way back to the age of three. Okay, make that four. The simple truth is, I always felt different and uncomfortable in a crowd of more than one. While my older sister and younger brother were both very popular among their peers, I was an uncomfortable, depressing loner.
Of course, it didn’t help that my parents were always fighting and finally divorced when I was eleven. Not too many people got divorced back then, particularly in Norfolk, and I was so ashamed I tried to cover it up. When the kids at school and the people I knew in town would find out about it, I felt embarrassed and tried to avoid them.
I actually started drinking at a very young age. My father would let me have small glasses of wine, beer, and even whiskey sometimes. He believed that if you allow children to drink as they grew up, they would get used to it and not become alcoholics later in life. Boy, did I blow a hole in that theory.
That pattern of limited drinking continued right through grade school and into high school. But when there was an ample supply of booze around, like at parties and such, I usually overdid it. I think the first time I got really drunk was around fourteen, when I started high school. I got into my father’s wine and suddenly learned how to create a million-dollar feeling.
At sixteen I dropped out of high school and spent about a year at various jobs in Denver and California. Then I joined the navy. It was May 1943 and World War II was raging. I thought I was being patriotic. The truth is, I really wanted to get away from all the trouble my drinking was getting me into. But as alcoholics soon discover, when we make that geographical change to get away from our problems, we always find the guy who created the problems right there when we arrive–ourselves. I think I crossed the invisible line into alcoholic drinking in the navy.
Even so, since it was wartime, I did my job in Uncle Sam’s service quite well. I got through boot training at the U.S. Naval Training Station in Farragut, Idaho, and then navy diesel school on the campus of the University of Illinois. After additional training in San Diego and Hawaii, I served as a member of a small landing boat crew during the battle for Saipan. I was then transferred aboard USS LST-555 for the initial assault on Anguar in the Palau Islands, Leyte and Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines, and on April 1, 1945, the landing on Okinawa, the last major campaign of World War II in the Pacific.
I was honorably discharged from the navy on November 8, 1946, with the rating of motor machinist’s mate second class. Deep down, I knew how grateful I should have been that I wasn’t court-martialed over my many drinking-related scrapes during my years of service. But, since most men in war drink or do other things, I guess it’s hard to stand out too much from the crowd.
When I returned to Norfolk, my drinking continued. I leached off my mother and stepdad for a while, and then decided to stay with my father in Nampa, Idaho, near Boise. I found and lost several jobs due to my drinking and poor work habits. My drinking landed me in jail twice. My father and I argued a lot, and one day we had this real knock-down, drag-out affair. That’s when I up and left for California, where I got a good job working in the oil fields near Ventura.
However, things went from bad to worse. I was getting drunk almost every day, and before the year was out, I had lost my job in the oil fields. I doubted I could find another job that paid enough to live on and drink on. I was now fast running out of money. I wanted to stop drinking, but didn’t know how. I had tried all kinds of ways to stop, but once I picked up that first drink, all bets were off.
I had read about AA and even noticed its ad in the classified section of the Ventura newspaper. I also remembered reading a story about AA in a Boise newspaper when I was in jail. At the time I thought I was too young to be an alcoholic. This time things were really bad, so I decided to write a letter and sent it to the address listed in the ad.
Three days later I got a call from a man named Frank R. He came by my rooming house and took me to my first AA meeting in a nearby church basement. That was on October 7, 1948, and I had just turned twenty-three. There were ten other guys at the meeting, all much older than myself. One of them told me how lucky I was to be getting sober at such a young age.
I wish I could say that was the end of my drinking. I was greatly impressed by AA and the friendship I found there. I read the Big Book thoroughly and even memorized the Twelve Steps. After a month of attending four meetings weekly–all they had in the area–I went back to Idaho in the hope of building a better relationship with my father. It worked out badly, so I then went back to Norfolk for a short stay before returning to California. Jobless and discouraged in Los Angeles–but still sober–I got another bright idea that would lead to a very poor outcome.
Since I always had a warm bunk and three square meals a day in the military, I decided to enlist in the army. With no war on, I thought I’d sign up, get shipped overseas to some friendly European country, and have myself one big party. So in early 1949, I joined the United States Army. I lasted seven months. My drinking had me in and out of hospitals and finally in the guardhouse. One night, angry and very drunk, I set the guardhouse on fire. That did it. I was fortunate not to have been court-martialed and sent to prison for that move. I was simply kicked out of the army, this time with an undesirable discharge, all because of my alcoholic drinking.Excerpted from 1000 Years of Sobriety: 20 People x 50 Years by William G. Borchert and Michael Fitzpatrick. William G. Borchert is the author of The Lois Wilson Story: When Love Is Not Enough, which was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie; Sought Through Prayer and Meditation; and 50 Quiet Miracles That Changed Lives, all published by Hazelden. Michael Fitzpatrick is one of the leading historians in the field of alcoholism, specializing in the development of the Twelve Step movement. His work has included the restoration and digitization of one of the largest audio archives related to the Twelve Step movement.