September 2016

Listening for 50 years

In 1965, an old-timer heard the bartender say last call. Five decades later, he’s still using his ears

March 27, 1965, I climbed off a barstool in El Paso, Texas and said, “That’s enough.” Although I had only been drinking for 13 years, I had done lots of damage to my family, my friends and myself. I started when I was 19.

I have never forgotten that night. At the time, I’d been sober for three months. I had been relatively happy without drinking. But now my wife was divorcing me and I was in El Paso waiting for the final papers to be translated across the border in Juarez, Mexico. I felt so sorry for myself. I had just lost a wife and two kids. My job was being threatened. I felt like I deserved a drink.

But one side of my brain screamed, No! You’ve been happy in the three months you’ve been sober. Don’t do it. I remember arguing with myself, going back and forth. But if you stew about drinking long enough, you’ll pick up. And I did.

I rode a tourist bus from the hotel in El Paso to the dog track in Juarez, and there I started to drink. After a few races (and more than a few beers) I wanted to return to El Paso to go to a bar I had noticed there. So I boarded the bus and got upset because the driver wouldn’t take me back to El Paso, even though I was the only passenger.

Eventually, I got back to town and went straight to the bar I had seen and commenced drinking. It was about 11 in the evening. At midnight the bartender sang out, “Last call for alcohol!”

“Whaddya mean, last call?” I said to him. “I know Texas. You close at 2 a.m.” He replied, “Sonny, it’s now Sunday, and we’re dry on Sunday in this county. That’s your last beer.”

Well, that was the turning point in my life. I was drunk, but not as drunk as I intended to be. I could still think. I asked myself, Are you having fun tonight? The answer was no. Then I thought, Is this the way you want to spend the rest of your life, sitting on a barstool and drinking? Again, the answer was no.

So I left the bar, turned right toward my hotel, instead of heading left and across the river into Juarez where I could have continued to drink and gotten into who knows what kind of trouble. That was my last drink. The bartender was right. I’d had my last beer.

When I first came into AA in upstate New York a few months earlier, it was not for the right reasons. My wife was on my back and I came only to get the pressure off. I had a chip on my shoulder about AA, expecting to find a bunch of skid row bums. I was a bit late for that first meeting. A guy came out of a room in the church and asked, “Are you looking for AA?” I replied, “Yeah—and I bet you’re looking for me, too.”

I was convinced the folks in that room were just waiting to tear me apart. How wrong I was. At that first meeting, I found that AA folks were just like me. They seemed to be happy. They were clean and well- dressed. And after someone shared a story similar to mine, I realized they even drank like I did.

The secretary, a woman named Lil, spoke up when I said I wasn’t sure I belonged there. “We’re not here because we have bad breath. We’re not here because we have ingrown toenails. We’re here because we’re drunks,” she said.

No one had ever called me a drunk. I had a great job, a college education, a wife and kids. I wasn’t like “them.” But after she gave me that verbal slap, I sat back and listened. The sad thing is that when I repeated this anecdote 2,000 miles away at a meeting in Denver, a man spoke up and said he knew Lil and that she died drunk. I felt like crying. She who had pushed me forward into AA and sobriety couldn’t keep it for herself. I vowed that I would not have the words “Died Drunk” chiseled on my tombstone.

So I came back from my night of drinking in El Paso and went back to that upstate New York meeting, having told no one that I drank. Very soon after, I got a job transfer downstate where I found another meeting. My first time there, I noticed that people were all dolled up, with guys wearing ties and jackets. I wasn’t dressed like that so I turned around and went home.

The next week I was back and I hesitated before going in. But a lady came out and invited me in, telling me that the previous week was the annual birthday meeting. That’s why they had been all dressed up. I think if she had not come out and I hadn’t felt God’s foot in my back, I wouldn’t have gone in and may never have gotten sober.

That meeting, which I attended for the first two years of my sobriety, was so important to me. When the one-year anniversary of my initial entry to AA approached, I got nervous and finally told someone about the one night of drinking in Texas. The man I spoke to looked me in the eye and told me that I had to reset my sobriety date, which I did.

There were a couple of men in that meeting who took me each week on panels—to other meetings, to jails, to hospitals and to a prison for the criminally insane. During the 20-minute ride to and from those panels we would talk AA—or at least they would—and I would listen.

Two years later, I was transferred overseas to Vienna, Austria. I found two weekly meetings in that city of 3 million. Of course, Vienna was the center of psychoanalysis then and all could be cured on “the couch.”

Those two meetings in 1967 and 1968 had only two regulars, two middle-aged Austrian ladies who spoke almost no English. But we tried, and eventually got our stories told. I became the English-speaking contact for Vienna in the AA Worldwide Directory. Several times, visitors came to dinner at my house and afterward we would go to a meeting.

One more point about that stay in Vienna: I got a phone call shortly after I moved there. The call was from a man named Norris who attended my old meeting in Poughkeepsie, New York. The phone connection was poor and we had to hang up. But I knew who it was. A year later, I went home on leave and went back to that meeting. I asked Norris why he called. He said he’d wanted to be sure I had found a meeting!

I knew Norris pretty well. I had been to his small apartment over a grocery store and knew he couldn’t afford an overseas phone call. But he called despite the cost. At the meeting, I asked about the two men who had taken me to the panels. “They’re out,” I was told. “Out of town?” I asked. “No, out drinking.” I never saw either of those men again.

These days I try not to be a bleeding deacon. I suit up and show up, stick out my hand to newcomers, take commitments when needed and listen to my many friends in this program—even if I’ve listened to them hundreds of times.

Initially I hated those corny AA slogans on the walls. But I have come to realize that they are as important as the Twelve Steps or Twelve Traditions. I encourage newcomers to keep coming back, to listen with an open mind, to find a Higher Power and to pick up the phone … before they pick up a drink.

Bruce D., Manhattan Beach, Calif.

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