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Stories My Father Told Me

After a lifetime of drinking, a man looks back at the lessons his father tried to teach him about alcoholism

"My dad's idea of a good time on a Saturday night was to put us in the car, stop at a drive-in restaurant, buy milkshakes for himself and mom, and me and my sister. "

When I was a kid growing up we lived in a small postcard of a town in the Cascade Mountains. The town had a population of less than 1,000 souls. My parents were very religious and there was no family history of alcohol use, much less abuse. As a family, we went to church or bible study three times a week. In the summer we traveled around to tent revival meetings while other kids played little league baseball or other things the normal kids got to do.

There was very little to do for family entertainment in such a town. My dad's idea of a good time on a Saturday night was to put us in the car, stop at a drive-in restaurant, buy milkshakes for himself and mom, and me and my sister. Then he would drive to the main drag and park the car in front of one of the three taverns in town. He usually wanted to park in front of Shorty's Town Tavern because it had the most action. I remember being as young as seven which made my sister eleven on these "field trips." She and I would sit in the back seat of the Packard sipping our milkshakes while we all watched the people going in and out of Shorty's and listening to Dad's running play-by-play commentary.

"Hah! Look at that guy," he would say. "He can hardly stand up. See the red bump on his forehead? That's because he fell down earlier or got punched in a fight."

About that time Shorty himself physically tossed another drunk out onto the sidewalk and sent him skidding off the curb and into the gutter. Shorty was about 6' 7" and weighed at least 275 pounds. Then we got to see the local deputy load the poor guy into the police car and haul him off.

"Yep! That'll fix him for the night," Dad would say.

We would sit there for an hour watching the tableau of drunken scenes. Then dad would start the car, back out, and head for home. All the way home he would lecture the two of us on the evils of alcohol.

"If you want to end up like that all you have to do is take up whiskey drinking. Even beer or wine will do the same thing to you. Hear me?"

My mother would add, "And don't smoke cigarettes either!"

This was not an infrequent lesson. It would happen at least once a month until my sister and I were old enough to be embarrassed witnessing this spectacle. Some of these unfortunates were our friends' parents, after all.

When I graduated from high school I moved 300 miles away to go to art school in Seattle. I was very naïve and felt like such a nerd most of the time.

When I was 19, I got a job as a dishwasher in a very nice restaurant in Seattle. It was just a weekend job to help defray school expenses, which were considerable. When I turned 21 I still had the job. The owner of the restaurant came to me on my birthday and said I deserved to do something different and sent me into the bar to work with Mac the bartender. I was nervous but delighted with my new responsibilities even if it turned out to be for just one night. I helped Mac wash glasses, open beer, get ice, and I watched as he made elegant-looking cocktails. The customers were nothing like the ones at Shorty's. They were well-dressed and looked like sophisticated people out for an evening to relax and have fun. The women were stunning and smelled of expensive perfume and the guys were handsome, well-groomed, and drove expensive cars. I wanted to be just like them.

After work when all the customers had left, I sat with the crew in the bar and drank cocktails. Mac watched me suck them down as if they were soda pop. He cautioned me to sip them rather than chug them. After all, they were Mai Tai's not colas.

The next week when I went to work I walked into the kitchen to find that they had evidently hired a new dishwasher. I stood there confused and the chef said, "The boss wants to see you in his office." I walked in expecting to be fired for something but instead he handed me my own Hawaiian shirt to wear in back of the bar.

"Your new job is to help Mac out. You can work as many shifts as you can. Don't let it mess up your education though. You're a good guy, we like you around here."

I was so excited and I worked my tail off back there. I was like a sponge soaking up everything as fast as I could. During the slow times Mac would teach me how to pour a drink and make exotic cocktails. The restaurant had a Polynesian theme and there were lots of fancy drinks to know. Of course I just had to sample all of them "for the sake of research" and to hone my craft. I found that alcohol had the curious effect of making me very smart indeed. After six weeks, Mac quit and moved to another bar, and the boss offered me a weekend job as bartender. I took the job and did well at it despite the fact that I looked so young that the customers at the bar teased me and asked for my ID. But the women liked me and I had no trouble at all finding female company after my shifts.

How could they resist such an intellectual, witty guy like me? What was not to like? The small town boy had grown up. Somehow, in the midst of this, I did manage to finish art school and get an entry-level job at a big time ad agency in town. Weekend bartending tips paid more than the agency paid me for a week so I kept that job too. After a couple of years working at the agency, I got a nice promotion and quit tending bar. But the damage had been done. I was a regular at several happy hours around town. I found out that the agency business had lots of social perks and they almost always included drinking opportunities.

Throughout the course of my career, I worked on some well-known advertising campaigns, earned several awards for my work and did very well financially. I began to cut back on my workdays to spend more time in bars. I had two short-term failed marriages and no children. I was much too selfish as an individual to be any good at marriage or child rearing. I had a few friends but most of them were from the bars, and I only knew most of them by their first names.

Many, many years after I started tending bar, I found myself in a loser bar across the street from where I lived at 6:30 in the morning. My sister called and said, "Dad passed away during the night." I broke down in tears even though he was 88 years old and had lived a good life and passed peacefully. The man who had parked in front of Shorty's Town Tavern to teach me a lesson about drinking died while his son was drinking in a dive bar in the early morning hours. I didn't quit drinking that day or anytime soon. I still knew nothing about humility until I had messed up my innards badly enough that I had to wear a diaper every day.

Eventually, I had had enough and went to a detox center and have remained sober for just a short time now. It hasn't been easy but I'm learning to 'work the steps' as they say in AA. As I write this story for you, at 63 years old, I think back and marvel at what a long journey it has been. I take it one day at a time and try to make it to a meeting once a day.

So far, so good. And that's the best I can do.

—David C., Costa Mesa

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