In 1969, I entered the basement of a small Lutheran church on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to attend my first meeting of that famous alcohol recovery program.
For the next 35 years I didn't have a drink.
The program saved my life, our marriage, and the course of our future together.
Without that first meeting at a small church just a few blocks from where we were living in the Methodist Building, my studies at Johns Hopkins University, my dissertation research on alcoholism policy, my work in alcoholism and alcohol policy would have never materialized.
As I found out later, the Methodist Building, sitting between the Senate Office buildings and the Supreme Court, was built to offer cheap apartments and an excellent cafeteria to pro-Prohibition members of Congress.
In the basement of that small Lutheran church in 1969 I met some truly wonderful people, some of whom went on to become future shapers of the nation's federal alcoholism programs and policy.
When I met them that first night, after years of failure, I said to myself "I can do this."
And with the help of the program, I did.
Without that meeting I would never have discovered a future in public health. Without that meeting I would never gone to work for the late Dr. David Axelrod, the Commissioner of Health for the New York State Department of Health. Nor would I have met the staff of that wonderful public health institution, along with so many other New York leaders, including Governor Mario Cuomo.
Axelrod hired me for a year in Albany, but only after he had hired Carole. We wound up staying for 10 years.
Without that meeting I would never have discovered one of the last great places, Bisbee, Arizona.
Without that meeting I would never have truly discovered whom I had married, and why it mattered.
Without that meeting I would have never recovered the life I had before, the life that gave me and Linda, my former wife a wonderful daughter, Valerie. I know how much pain I caused in that marriage and I truly regret it. Valerie deserved to have a father as she was growing up, a father who was mature and took his responsibilities seriously.
Instead she got a father who often disappeared from Linda's and my lovely home in Placentia, CA to spend the weekend in Newport Beach. I am still trying to make up for that absence.
Today, Carole and I and Valerie and Linda will have lunch and I will again tell Linda and Valerie, how much they still mean to me and how many regrets I have that I was an absent father.
I recently was admitted to the Veterans Administration for a service-connected disability; hearing loss from my time in the Army and in Korea. Even after the fighting was over, Korea in 1959 was a very noisy place, especially during large scale training maneuvers, and noisy doesn't really cover it.
While I am grateful for the VA's decision to award me a service-connected hearing disability, the disability that was far more devastating was alcoholism. Uijongbu in 1958 and 1959 was a Army post with a small library and a very large servicemen's club. I spent almost every night during my 13 months there at the club and it was there that I learned what addiction means and how it destroys one's character and sense of responsibility.
Despite all of this, in 2004, as I was preparing to conclude my second term as mayor of Bisbee, Arizona, I decided to resume drinking again. Notice the word "resume." I thought: 35 years is enough. I was 67 after all. When those who knew me asked how it was going, I often would say, "Well, I didn't wake up in Singapore with a beard."
Apart from my making what turned out to be the dumbest and most unnecessary decision I have ever made, my comment about Burma and a beard was dredged from my memory, a recollection of a wonderful line I thought I had read years before in Raymond Chandler somewhere.
I had looked for that great line for decades, but never could find it. None of his novels contained anything like it.
Finally, I Googled it, and a hint turned up, and then, I found the line in his short story, "The King in Yellow." (Thank you, Google.) The story appears in a collection of Chandler stories, The Simple Art of Murder.
It is a little different than I remembered, but not much.
The story is about a hotel house detective who throws out a well-known trumpet and trombone player, King Leopardi, who is drunk on the eighth floor of the hotel. The "King" is holding a jam session in the middle of the hotel hallway in the middle of the night, keeping everyone up. He is wearing only yellow boxer shorts.
Steve, the "house dick," is fired the next day for evicting the famous musician without checking with management.
Then in the next several days bodies start turning up, including the body of the "King," an apparent suicide, dressed in yellow pajamas. The body was found in the bedroom of a radio singer the detective had met earlier in the evening at a Hollywood night club. Steve met the red-haired singer after the King attacked him in the club for throwing him out of the hotel.
Well, I told you it was a Chandler story.
After the fight in the club, the singer invites the detective to sit down at her table, thinking that she owed him a drink.
Here is Chandler:
The red-haired girl said, "The drink's on me. He was with me."
Steve said, "Coke with a dash of bitters," to the waiter.
The waiter says "Madame?"
"Brandy and soda. Light on the brandy, please." The waiter bowed and drifted away.
The girl said amusedly, "Coke with a dash of bitters. That's what I love about Hollywood. You meet so many neurotics."
Steve stared into her eyes and said softly, "I'm an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard."
Well, I had found the line, finally, and I have to tell you, that although I didn't wind up in Singapore with a beard, I am back in that famous program after a three year hiatus, keeping track of the days since my last drink. It is now over 8 years.
Plus the 35 years, of course.
The meeting I attend is a fine one, full of truly interesting people, people that I would otherwise never have met. I am sure that they too will help change my life in ways I can't now imagine.
One of the members at my new meeting came up to me afterwards and said, "It's so important for people like you who were in the program for so long and then went out, and then came back. It gives us all such hope."
I am so grateful for that. I don't attend meetings the way I used to, and I should, to support others in recovery.
From time to time, I see stories about A.A. and its limitations, and other stories about "teaching people how to drink."
Here's the astonishing thing. Most people don't drink. One third of American adults abstain, and another third drink so little it hardly qualifies as drinking. Most of the alcohol consumed in America is by daily moderate drinkers or heavy drinkers.
And so I ask the question: why do people have to learn how to drink? Alcohol is a drug and while I don't advocate abstaining altogether, why is drinking essential to life itself? Given the damage that alcohol levies on the American society you would think the norm would be to tell people this and encourage abstaining or occasional drinking instead, as the norm. So what if the alcohol industry sees some dents in their enormous profits?
I was a member of a prestigious panel on Alcohol and Public Policy which produced a landmark report, and yet today no one refers to it. This was a report of the National Academy of Sciences! And the costs of alcohol to society is enormous.
And when Phil Cook of Duke University, a key member of our panel and a friend, tried to reintroduce the topic into public discussion, he appeared on MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes. When Hayes looked at Phil Cook's data on drinking patterns based on our National Academy of Sciences, his shocked reaction was, "Most people don't drink or drink very little!"