Columbus, Ohio USA
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A Sobering Experience
Papaw, Mamaw and I join A.A.
By Betty Garrett Deeds
September/October 2013 Issue
In the last “Appalachian Sprung,” I wrote about my adventures and misadventures as a grade school companion to my grandfather when he took me to the best of New Boston’s bars, the Mill Lake Inn. Other kids came into the bar occasionally, but only to try to get their fathers to return home or to make sure milk was picked up on the way back.
Unlike the other children, I remained at the bar with Papaw while he drank, reading comic books and throwing peanuts at the big grizzly bear staked outside, until we wound our way home, sometimes in unsteady fashion.
The drinking was not discussed at home, at least not by Papaw. A proud, unbending man, he never conceded that his drinking habits were out of control. About 1950, though, he was informed by Dr. Bloom, New Boston’s only doctor, that he would die soon if he did not stop drinking. Mamaw told me this one day just before a big black ambulance stopped outside our home to take him away. She said he had to go to a hospital far away, “Up North.” I thought she meant Columbus, which was the northern limit of my childhood travels.
I realize now that it is possible, perhaps probable, that Papaw was taken to St. Thomas Hospital in Akron. It was then the only hospital in the country giving rehabilitative care (“drying out”) to people with drinking problems. Dr. Robert Smith, a surgeon who was co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous along with a stockbroker named William G. Wilson in 1935, was on staff there.
They were the first to recognize alcoholism as a physical disease as well as a mental and emotional problem. After receiving medical care, recovering alcoholics who left St. Thomas often joined A.A. in their own hometowns, which Dr. Bob and Bill W. – as they would become known to the world – had developed into a national program.
In Papaw’s case, meetings were held in Portsmouth, just west of us. Papaw “officially” joined A.A. by admitting – as the first step of their 12 step program – that he was “powerless over alcohol” and it had made his life unmanageable. I didn’t hear him say those words the first time. Considering his stiff-necked pride, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for him to stand in front of the others and say: “My name is Frank W., and I am an alcoholic.”
Mamaw and I eventually joined him at the Saturday night meetings in a large empty house. What had once been a huge living room was now filled with folding metal chairs. Papaw and his fellows members (no women were present at that time) sat in there by themselves. Although A.A. does hold open meetings which allow families or anyone else interested in solving a drinking problem to attend while members have discussions about past experiences as alcoholics and the difficulties of staying sober, there are also closed meetings limited solely to members.
Mamaw and the other wives and (rarely) their children all gathered together in a kitchen at the back of the house. They brought along homemade cakes and pies and brewed fresh coffee for refreshments later. The women never sat in on the meetings themselves. I suspect that the Appalachian culture in which families did nearly everything together accounted for our actually being there.
Papaw had always refused to go to church with Mamaw and me on Sundays, a habit which did not change after joining A.A., although he regularly practiced the Twelve Steps and recited The Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
Apparently Mamaw had the wisdom to know the difference between Papaw’s embracing sobriety through the partially faith-based program of A.A. and finally getting him to join the Baptist Church, because I don’t recall her pestering him about it. Churchgoing involved sitting through long sermons about what to do or not do (primarily anything which hinted of pleasure) in order to avoid being condemned to Hell. Papaw voluntarily acknowledged his drinking problem and a need to change it, but he was not about to have someone order him how to behave.
Aside from missing the Glenwood High School basketball games on Saturday nights, I welcomed the time spent at the A.A. meetings and found a new interest in these occasions: listening to the men tell stories about their struggles with alcohol. While the other females and kids kept their proper place in the kitchen, I sneaked around corners and eavesdropped on proceedings in the living room.
Oh, the terrible things they had done while drunk! The misdeeds, the hangovers (physical and mental) and, worst, the pain they caused to the people they loved – sometimes losing them – were recounted in excruciating detail. Yet, expurgating these experiences allowed them to realize that they were no worse and no better than other recovering alcoholics. At the time of their downfall, they felt they were all alone in their pain and that no one else had ever scraped the bottom of the barrel of humanity as low or as hard as they did.
Papaw did not speak often, but he was a man of few words anyway. However, I do recall his confessing some of the things I already knew firsthand – such as the night he swerved off Rhodes Avenue into the field facing the steel mill, plowing the ‘36 Pontiac into a power pole. (“Betty Lou, I think we’ll walk home tonight.”) I never heard him mention the empty pint bottles of that era’s equivalent of Thunderbird wine in the quilts on his bed, nor how I put them back in place when he asked me to “make” his bed. (I thought I was preserving his collection.)
He did bring up one story I had long forgotten. I must have been very young when he took me to a carnival in Portsmouth – after having a few drinks. I never got to ride the Merry-go-Round because Papaw stopped to play something called a shell game. I watched him take change from his pockets and place it on a stand as he tried to guess which shell was hiding a pea the huckster manipulated. Papaw kept guessing wrong, but placed new bets until all the money was gone.
As we walked back through the sawdust, he held my hand and said, crestfallen and ashamed as I had never seen him: “Betty Lou, I’ve made a fool of myself and I’ve wasted all your Mamaw’s money.” Yes, it came back to me with fresh pain when he told his fellow members.
One incident I never knew about until he told it there (a marathon confession of not “how great I was” but “how hard and low I fell”) was his stealing Mamaw’s iron. Her precious, always-needed iron, which she applied to every item of clean laundry, was sold to obtain a little money for drinking. Shameful and terrible indeed.
Listening intently, though, I also detected in these alcoholic accounts a certain sense of competition: “You think that was bad? Wait until I tell you about the time...” Or even a fugitive sense of nostalgia. After all, when they committed those drunken acts, sometimes they probably enjoyed it, or, as the cliché goes, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
There was one man whose name escapes me, but his story never has. He couldn’t recall how it all began aside from getting drunk, but when he woke up one day, he found himself on a coal barge on the Ohio River, floating along with all the other flotsam and jetsam on that polluted water. He wound up somewhere in Kentucky. “That was some trip,” he sighed, before laughing, “I just wish I could remember it.”
There was one unqualified tragedy in the A.A. programs, though. It occurred on meeting nights when one of the “regulars” didn’t show up. It meant he had probably fallen off the wagon. A pall of dread and anxiety would fall over the room. Would he make it back, or was he lost? Of course, it was a reminder of how precarious their own hold on sobriety was and always would be. That is why alcoholics always speak of themselves as “recovering,” not “recovered.”
The fellowship which began for those men and their families at the meetings often extended to personal friendships which were taken home, at least that was our own experience. Eventually, Mamaw’s wonderful Sunday dinners began to include at least three additional people from the A.A. family.
One was Rev. Frank Fox, accompanied by wife Gretchen, who used his full name freely in our home. He always said grace before Mamaw’s fried chicken was touched. Another was a World War II veteran, Warren K. who had lost both his legs and was confined to a wheelchair. We developed a special closeness, and he would make sure to put a drumstick, my favorite, on my plate. He also listened to my stories about school, although he never spoke about the war or having a family besides us. Mamaw told me privately never to ask him questions about that.
Occasionally Warren would go to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Chillicothe for care and would send me postcards making silly jokes he knew I’d enjoy. During one extended stretch, the postcards stopped coming. Mamaw drew me aside, hugged me and told me that Warren was dead. He had tried to throw himself out a bathroom window, but he couldn’t scale the wall, and attendants pulled him down, foiling his suicide attempt. However, he caught pneumonia and died.
Over the coming years, Papaw and Mamaw introduced newer A.A. members into our home and extended family. Papaw never once “relapsed.” He remained sober until the end of his life at the age of 73. He never gave up smoking, though. He did stop hand-rolling that Bugler Tobacco and switched to Camels.
Gratefully, he and Mamaw enjoyed a kind of companionship I’d never seen before, despite the obvious bond they had always had, even during his years of drinking. It might not have involved going to church, mind you, but there were family outings, including drive-in movies!
Mamaw was thrilled to see the Cecil B. DeMille spectacle, Samson and Delilah. So was I, although I wondered why Victor Mature was dumb enough to let Hedy Lamarr cut his hair, and worse, pull down those pillars and crush himself and everyone else in the Coliseum.
Once we traveled all the way to Indianapolis with Uncle Bud and Aunt Renie to “see” the Memorial Day 500 mile race. We parked in a dusty field, never even near, least of all inside, the big fence which enclosed the race. Nonetheless, we were there, and heard the deafening noise of the circling wheels and became covered with clouds of dust that settled over all the baskets of picnic food Mamaw had spread on several tablecloths. We swallowed the dust along with the food.
Most often, we drove to Ashland, Kentucky, to visit relatives, a 25-mile excursion which took at least two or three hours at Papaw’s accustomed driving speed, which sometimes only went as high as the distance. At times other cars pulled around us and people yelled things we couldn’t hear. They might as well have been saying the Serenity Prayer. Unperturbed, Papaw continued at his stately pace.
What it amounted to, in a wonderful collective way, was a life that fulfilled the lesser known part of that prayer: “Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace; Trusting that (we) may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy forever in the next.”
I don’t know about the next world, but after Papaw joined A.A., things were truly happier and more peaceful for us in this one.
Betty Garrett Deeds is a former reporter for the Columbus Citizen-Journal and author of Columbus: America’s Crossroads. She can be reached at Bettydeeds1@aol.com. This article was first published in our July 2003 issue.
See Part One: Grade School by Day, Barfly by Night
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