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My Hampshire Grenadier
Reading his college alumni magazine, he came across a notice that would change the course of his life
The alumni magazine arrived in a thicket of bills. I relocked the mailbox, leaving the bills to ripen, and trudged upstairs with the magazine. I poured myself a coffee-mug sized bourbon and settled back to read "Class Notes."
The self-reporting by my college cohorts was always the same: thriving marriages and careers, high-achieving offspring heading to campus to repeat the same success-loop themselves. Which is why that month's lead notice for the Class of 19— arrested my attention mid-sip. I swallowed hard.
"You may have already heard the very sad news that Cameron F— has died. The cause of death was heart arrhythmia due to late-stage alcoholism."
Although I would drink heavily for another two months, Cameron's heroic death notice was instrumental to my deliverance to AA. In my understanding of how the alumni magazine operates, the notice could not have appeared in those otherwise preening pages unless Cameron himself had wished for it, leaving instructions to his family or to the magazine's editor. I could not be more grateful to him, truly. There but for God's grace go I.
I am reminded of Cameron whenever I read "Bill's Story" in the Big Book. Cameron is my "Hampshire Grenadier / Who caught his death / Drinking cold small beer." Bill saw this bit of "doggerel on an old tombstone" when, as a WWI doughboy in England, he visited Winchester Cathedral. "Ominous warning — which I failed to heed," he wrote.
For my part, I tried like mad to forget Cameron's warning to me. But it was impossible now to drink with the same abandon. I'd torn the page out of the magazine and filed it away, along with a poem about drinking by Josephine Jacobsen called, simply, "Program," which I'd found in an old copy of The New Yorker.
The rooms were much on my mind that summer. A month prior to Cameron's warning, a sober friend had taken me to an open meeting at the church down the street from where I live. "I'll think about it," I told her afterwards.
And I did think about it — I thought very carefully about avoiding that entrance to the church, crossing the street whenever I saw people congregating there of an evening. I skulked a wide arc past the rooms, my newly acquired bourbon jug or six-pack held defensively close to my body.
My exhausted, miserable body. I'd drunk hard and fast to my bottom — it had taken, by my count, merely three years to arrive, in middle age, at the day that I could not go a day without a drink in me. Many drinks, beginning at ten in the morning in that last year. I spent a lot of time in the beer aisle of the supermarket, rolling bottles so I could squint out alcohol content, if it was so-labeled. I always went for the highest octane.
Weirdly, however, I'd taken to watering down my beer, in the vain hope that this might forestall the inevitable headache and evening hangover that would start at five o'clock on the dot. What used to be cocktail hour. That was back when I still drank with friends.
I'd variously dismissed all my friends, refusing their calls when they did call, something that had become not a problem at all during those months of the ten a.m. tune-up.
Laura, the friend who'd taken me to the open meeting in the spring, had the good sober sense to leave me to my "research": drinking while streaming the '80s TV miniseries Brideshead Revisited, the tears streaming my face. I'd recognized the panicked expressions of the Flytes when Sebastian comes tottering into the room, drunk and angry: these were the expressions worn by my own family, whenever I showed too much spleen.
It was now Labor Day weekend. I was quite alone. My family had gone away without me, and I was fine with that. Or so I said to myself. I was both defiant and despondent on the last morning of my drinking.
My "research" into alcoholism had produced an item via interlibrary loan that I thought I could handle — a TV documentary called, simply, "Addiction." I didn't make it past the first episode, so horrific were the scenes of people arriving at the ER, their limbs nearly separated from their bodies, their speech, if they were conscious, slurred. I snapped off the TV. I found the file I'd been assembling on alcoholism, the oddest odds and ends, including factoids about where in the world drinking is heaviest ("Northern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa"). I plucked out Cameron's death notice and, using a ruler, underlined it in red. I knew where there was an A.A. meeting in a few hours — I'd been avoiding the sidewalk outside it for the past two months.
When I got there, I knew I had to share. After saying, "I'm an alcoholic" — knowing it to be true — I said… Well, I can't remember what I said. Can anyone remember their first share? My first drink, when I was 15, in Washington, D.C.'s Foggy Bottom, I can remember vividly.
Suffice to say that I feel I heeded Cameron's warning in time. He knew he was dying of this terrible disease, and he reached out to save me, though he could not save himself. This is What Happened. My Winchester Cathedral moment. Whenever I read "Bill's Story" in the Big Book, I cannot help but make the connection to my own experience. I am so grateful to my own Hampshire Grenadier, and to my higher power, for putting his warning before my eyes.
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