Originally published in the July 2001 Grapevine Magazine
From Section 2, Living History
IT WAS A Saturday evening in April 1964, and usually I would have been uptown at a bar. But I was home suffering from the flu (for a change it was something other than the "brown bottle flu") when a man named Hartley came to visit. My wife reluctantly admitted him to our apartment, believing he'd come to take me out drinking. But Hartley had a different purpose.
He'd seen me at a Lincoln, Nebraska, AA meeting more than a year before, and he wanted to know if I was staying sober. I told him no—"I guess I'll always be a drunk." Then he dumped an armload of Grapevines and AA literature in my lap and asked me to help him start an AA group in Geneva, a rural Nebraska town of 2,300. I couldn't turn him down: it was as if somebody else was doing my thinking for me.
Hartley impressed me with his six-month sobriety token from a Lincoln group but said he had "slipped." Six months without a drink? I believed this man was an authority on alcoholism and Alcoholics Anonymous! I cared not about the "slip." I wanted six months without booze just to see what it would be like.
My visitor gave me some assignments: find a place to meet; write a letter to the New York General Service Office and ask for a group charter and some membership cards; write to an AA friend of his who lived in another town for help in spreading the word about the new group; and get a post office box, preferably number 86. I asked why Box 86? Hartley proved his AA smarts to me by saying, "Easy to remember—86 proof whiskey. If you can't get 86, ask for 90."
The local bank was suggested as a possible meeting place, and I didn't mind asking the bank president about letting us use a room. I owed him money on a note I couldn't pay and wanted it extended, and I told him I'd be a better credit risk sober, since we were going to have AA in Geneva. He extended the note, wished us well, but said he had no room in the bank building and suggested I try the courthouse.
So I went to see the sheriff who had put me in jail earlier for driving drunk and then had the nerve to suggest I might be an alcoholic. I told him of our need for a meeting place, but the only spot available was the courtroom. He suggested that the people attending our meetings might feel uncomfortable in such a setting, and I agreed.
Then I made an amends: I told the sheriff I hadn't voted for him in the past because of my jail experience and that I was sorry. Then he told me of his weakness, horse-race betting, and how his wife was constantly on his back. I made friends with this man who also suffered from a wife who just did not understand him!
Next, I was steered to the basement of the library building. To get this meeting room, I had to expose my drinking secret to the librarian—who was the wife of the editor of the newspaper where I worked. Here I learned my secret wasn't very well-kept, and I got a key to the room, a pat on the back, and permission to smoke at meetings even though the room was also used by the Women's Club and the Girl Scouts. I had to promise to air it out after our meetings.
The errand to the post office wasn't without incident, either. I used to drink with the husband of the clerk who met me at the window. I told her I wanted to rent Box 86. She said it wasn't available. I asked about Box 90. It also was in use but she did have Box 96 and that had to do. I had difficulty spelling "anonymous" for her. Then she pushed the registration card across the counter, saying, "Jerry, sign this." I said, "Oh, no! This isn't for me! It is for some friends of mine!" She said, "Come on, Jerry, I know you better than that. Sign it!"
Then I remembered the night she had come into the pool hall to get her husband. I begged her to let him stay because he was my partner in a snooker game, but she pinched him by the ear and led him toward the door, with him grabbing for his glass of beer. (At the time, I thought I certainly was lucky to have a nicer wife than she was!)
Things were developing well. In lieu of the charter and membership cards, we got a packet of literature from New York's GSO. The AA member to whom I wrote said that Sunday, April 27, would be fine, and he would spread the word and bring a carload of people with him.
Then Hartley got drunk. He stole a neighbor's check and forged the signature to buy booze, and he was carted off to the state men's reformatory without a trial because he already was on probation. (Three years later he died of alcohol poisoning in the veterans' hospital.)
April 27 was only a day away, and it appeared I was going to be the lone Geneva drunk on whom the visiting AA members would have to work. So what did I do? I went to a beer joint to find some other drunks.
I crawled up on a bar stool beside a well-liked man everybody called Pappy. This man couldn't handle his booze very well and was habitually being ejected from the bar for throwing up or messing his pants. I bought Pappy a beer and asked him if he had ever heard of AA.
"Oh, yes," he told me. "It is a good outfit. I was sober a whole year down in Kansas before I moved here." Pappy agreed to help me start the new group and concluded the conversation by saying, "Let's go buy a jug, go over to my house, and I'll tell you all about it. My wife is working tonight, and we'll have the place to ourselves."
At midnight, Pappy was having a little nap on the floor. The bottle was empty. I found a pencil and paper and wrote Pappy's wife a note: "Dear Vera, Pappy and I got drunk tonight, but tomorrow things will be different. We are going to have AA in Geneva!" Then I staggered home.
Sunday morning dawned and I was sick. I escaped the house by taking the kids to Sunday school, promising my wife to return to drive her to church, but she knew better than to depend on the ride. She had walked too many times. It took several tomato juice beers at the bar to settle my stomach and nerves. But I did manage to leave the bar in time to get home, clean up a little, and make sure my wife was going to the library with me to make coffee and be at the three o'clock meeting.
Bless Pappy! He was there ahead of me. I was glad to see his smiling face. He told me he had spent the morning finding and pouring out half-full bottles of booze at his place. Pappy was taking this seriously.
The man who spread the word did a good job, and there were thirty-five men and women present, seated around the room in a circle. Someone opened the meeting and the sharing was passed around, each person telling how AA had made life better. Al-Anons shared, too. My wife had only ten cups of coffee in her percolator, and for years these people would agree to visit our group only if we promised there would be enough coffee.
The meeting closed with the Lord's Prayer, but no hat was passed. The AAs told us they weren't taking a chance with our success and didn't want to finance our next drunk. But they did give us three Big Books.
There's got to be a Higher Power watching over drunks. Pappy and I stayed sober from that day on, and within the first year the group grew to five members. Pappy died sober several years ago, and I am the only living member of that original group. AA in Geneva is still alive and well. On April 27, 2000, I visited my old home group along with ten others. It was the occasion of the group's thirty-sixth anniversary and my sobriety date.
—Jerry P., Hastings, Neb.