Looking Good On The Outside
By Tom D.
A Vietnam-era Marine aviator turned international airline pilot tells his story.
Growing up in a house full of adults wasn't really so bad. My Dad had passed away when I was young and my mother and I moved back into her family home where three aunts, an uncle and a grandfather were accommodating enough to share their cramped quarters with us. My bachelor uncle was generally irritable and grouchy except on Saturday nights when he would meet with his friends to drink a magical potion which seemed to transform him. He instantly became a fun-loving, carefree man who loved everyone and everything. I felt privileged just to sit and watch the revelry. It was then that I decided to try that potion as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
Curious, twelve years old and in possession of a pint of whiskey borrowed from my aunt's liquor cabinet, I activated the devil which would come back to haunt me. With two friends we gagged down the contents, and I discovered a freedom and feeling of euphoria heretofore unimagined. My uncles' magical elixir was now mine. I was suddenly freed from the constraints of society and could do or say anything that pleased me. My inhibitions were lifted and I was a feather in the wind. I spent the rest of my drinking career trying to recapture the feelings of that first evening.
A strong mother and the loving support of my aunts was the impetus for me to set some subconscious goals for myself. I did not want to spend the rest of my life in the tenements of the inner city, and I knew that an education was the only way out.
Occasional teenage drinking seemed to enhance my social life and was only marginally interfering with it. I did lose my spot on the varsity football team for missing a crucial Saturday practice because I was deathly ill from the previous night's drinking. This was a devastating loss, as I was skinny as a rail and had to work twice as hard as the other boys to earn my number. I remember promising myself that I would never drink straight vodka again.
The college years were actually an extension of high school. I lived at home and worked after school to help with my tuition. My drinking was confined to weekends with Friday being boys night out, drinking beer at taverns that tended to ignore the age requirement. On Saturday night I would go to dances or date where my emphasis was definitely on the opposite sex and the drinking was incidental.
It was during this time that I joined the Marines on the promise of flight school after graduation if I could get through the rigors of officer training. The thought of the recruiting poster depicting a sleek fighter jet streaking across a deep blue sky became the new goal in my life. Occasional booze-related lapses of common sense followed by mayhem went undetected by the authorities (the Grace of God, as I now understand).
Following college graduation I was commissioned an Officer and a Gentleman and was off to flight school and my little gray jet. Three weeks later I was standing at attention in front of my commanding officer trying to explain why I was arrested for speeding in reverse while under the influence of alcohol. I had no logical explanation and was confined to the base for a month. The State of Florida then saw fit to revoke my driving privileges for two years. This made it a bit sticky--long hikes to class and the flight line. One day while hiking in the rain a sailor stopped and offered me a welcome but uncomfortable ride asking why I was on foot. Telling him that my car was in for repairs, I was, of course, too embarrassed to tell the truth.
I married my college sweetheart while in advance jet training and upon arrival at the base in Texas I informed her that Happy Hour was on Friday night and not to plan on seeing me until late. The very next Friday she was in tears as I arrived home in sorry condition with no idea of where our car might be. She was ready to go back home but I controlled the money so she was essentially a hostage. The following day I went to the local priest and asked to take "the pledge" to quit booze for the rest of my life. He told me of his experience with alcohol, the devastation drinking could cause, and that the pledge did not work. He probably advised me to try A.A. but that part I didn't hear.
During my years of military service I continued to drink only on weekends until my squadron was ordered to the Far East where I was to be away from my family for fifteen months. This is the period where there was a definite change in my drinking pattern and where, I believe, I crossed over that invisible line into alcoholism. The officers mess and bar where I would find myself every afternoon after work was a mere two hundred feet from my quarters.
My beer drinking could never seem to be abandoned for anything as trivial as dinner and I would stay glued to my bar stool until closing. Drinking in the military back then was not only condoned but was also a sign of manhood. I, however, felt anything but manly those mornings, dragging myself down to the Ready Room, unable to face breakfast. Knowing I had to eat something I found that a strawberry milkshake and a bowl of tomato soup would stay down at lunch. After I was steady, I would promise myself to take it easy that night and make sure to eat a wholesome dinner. It never happened! I renewed the cycle every afternoon.
A very confusing incident took place at 35,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean. I had no idea where I was going and no memory of briefing or taking off. Looking out I saw my wingman flying just off my right wing in a good formation position so at least I wasn't alone. The scribbling on the flight plan attached to my kneeboard indicated that we were on our way to an air base located on the island of Okinawa and that I had indeed obtained the proper paper work and had checked the weather. The rest of the flight was routine and I never mentioned my memory lapse to anyone. Flying a single seat fighter in a blackout gave me real concern for the moment but not any thought that I might be a person who shouldn't drink alcohol.
Shortly after that incident on a Saturday morning I experienced the hallucination of a miniature devil playing a piano in the corner of my room. I found it delightful and told my best friend who said it was from the drinking, so we then went to the bar to laugh about it. He told me it was an occupational hazard of being a heavy drinker.
It scared me that I couldn't seem to break the daily drinking pattern. Formulating a desperate plan, I presented it to the Squadron Flight Surgeon. Innovative and seemingly logical, I requested he remove my healthy appendix on the grounds that it was a useless organ and could cause trouble some day. The truth was, I felt if I could just get some convalescent time in the hospital away from booze, I could stop the drinking--at least for a while. His refusal ended my foolish plan and I felt hopelessly locked in my dilemma with another unanswered prayer to my growing list.
It was answered shortly thereafter in a most unusual way. My squadron was suddenly ordered to a small expeditionary base in Vietnam. There was no alcohol available unless one had the foresight to bring it with him, and I didn't. I dried out in the tropic heat at the ripe old age of twenty five and began to feel healthy again. I missed my wife terribly but I felt good and flew my daily combat missions enthusiastically. Although the adrenaline was pumping, sleep at night was sound and I awoke rested and eager to mark off each day on the calendar. There was no doubt in my mind that my alcohol free state accounted for my feeling so well yet I totally disregarded the anguish of my previous binge and dived back into drinking as soon as the supply ship arrived. The variety was limited and I gladly drank whatever ill-tasting combination was available.
One very dark evening an alert went off and I found myself sitting in the Operations tent being briefed to fly a night support mission with a full load of rockets under a flare drop. Even in the best of conditions this is a difficult mission because of the blinding effect as the rockets are fired and the resulting period of vision recovery between successive attacks. I was so drunk I had trouble walking and again I prayed the prayer of desperation. This time it was to help the Marines in battle so that I would not kill myself or them while trying to help. My prayers were answered. I was truly convinced that the incessant drinking and outrageous behavior would end as soon as I was home and reunited with my family. I had passed over into alcoholism and didn't know that I was the proverbial cucumber turned into a pickle and that I could never change back.
When my military obligation was completed I returned home to Boston and started in a ground level management position with a large company. Working more that twelve hours a day there was very little time for drinking. After three months on the job my wife pointed out that I was driven but humorless and that I should return to the sky, for that was, obviously, where I was happiest. I knew she was right so I applied to and was hired by a major international airline.
The first two years of my new career were spent in Hong Kong flying around the Orient and living in a spacious apartment offering panoramic views of the South China Sea. A live-in maid took care of the cooking, cleaning and baby sitting. It was party time and I took such full advantage of it that I almost killed myself in car wrecks and other misadventures involving alcohol. It seemed that the more time off I had, the worse my drinking became. My free time between flights was almost a social liability because I seemed to be causing embarrassment for myself and my wife now on a regular basis. We were out of the mainstream, the war in Vietnam was in full swing and that offered me the excuse I needed to disregard all the usual social boundaries.
After drinking far too much at a Sunday morning Bloody Mary party, my wife and I went home to dress for our vacation trip to Bangkok that evening. I dressed in pieces of two different suits and argued vehemently to the contrary. On the airplane, with more drinks I became loud and aggressive and was refused further drinks. Just before landing I fell asleep and had to be shaken awake by the crew so they could get me off. Knowing I worked for the airline the crew reported me and on our return to Hong Kong. I was called into my boss's office and asked if I thought I was an alcoholic. My answer was as honest as it could be when I told him I was only twenty six and couldn't possibly be. I was able to make amends to this man some years later for the trouble I had caused him.
Two years after it opened, the Hong Kong base was closed and I was transferred to New York where I was to fly the Atlantic to Europe, Africa and South America for the rest of my career. I was now flying the big jets and became a control drinker. Abstaining the night before a flight or at least being moderate and observing the 12 hour alcohol rule became an obsession. I was aware of the possibility of eventually misjudging an evening's drinking and showing up in uniform still under the influence. Termination would be automatic and the union would not defend in this situation. It was an awesome burden to put on a budding alcoholic and I gave serious thought to a career change. A nine-to-five job where I could stop for drinks on the way home each evening was very appealing. At this time my schedule was completely controlled by my addiction. When requesting my flight schedule for the following month, my consideration was the number of days off between trips. I needed at least one to unwind, one to drink and one to get well for the next trip. This severely limited me in my choices and resulted in my unnecessarily being away over major holidays and was another unrecognized indication that alcohol was controlling my life.
Around this time we bought our first home and now had three children. I was the bread winner but not a major contributor in the family. When home I seemed to be either drinking, thinking about drinking or recovering from drinking. There were times after a bout of booze that I would be temperate and, being on good behavior, was available for the family and enjoyed them. These times, however, only reinforced my conviction that alcohol was not a major problem in my life.
I had no idea where the money was going. Bills were being paid late and I was always writing embarrassing letters to faceless creditors. The lawn was either knee high or half cut and abandoned. One light by the front door was forever burned out and the fifty dollar wreck I was driving had plywood on the rear floor so the children wouldn't fall through into the street. I was totally unpredictable. One minute I would disregard a major problem, the next minute would find me in a rage over something trivial. I can still see the puzzlement in the eyes of my wife and children and remember my own insensitivity. I truly believed it was the alcohol that was helping me cope with all the living problems and was the only true friend I had left.
Another Christmas away from home but with the compensation of being off until the middle of January. The drinking began on New Years Eve and I would be drunk every night and sick every morning for the next seven days. They are a blank until day seven when I was awakened by my wife and eight year old son standing over me. Shaking me awake, she said, "Your son wants to know why you sleep on the couch and not in bed anymore? Why do you sleep with your clothes on? Why do you smell so bad?" My groggy response to these intrusive questions was essentially that it was none of his business. I put the roof over your head and the food on the table and I will do as I please in this house. In my heart I knew better. My shame was complete with the realization that one of my children had seen me for what I was. I was disgusted with myself and I uttered the unthinkable: "I'm an alcoholic". This had been something I would never entertain as it implied to me that it was a serious illness that required a serious treatment. That minor family incident crushed my denial and provided me the willingness to seek help.
I took to the road, found an isolated phone booth and called an organization I had joked about as a teenager. The voice on the other end answered, "Alcoholics Anonymous. May I help you?" Through my muffled sobs and tears I was able to choke out, "I'm 32 and I'm all messed up. Can you help me?" The saving words which would change my life forever came through clearly, "I understand how you feel. I'm an alcoholic." A feeling of hope filled the empty hole in my soul and I trusted this stranger could help me.
On a cold January evening in 1972 the man who would become my sponsor took me to my first AA meeting. I shook, perspired and spilled coffee on the tweed jacket I had worn to disguise my pitiable state. I felt devastated that a person like me could end up in a place like this, with people like these. AA had not been my boyhood dream and helplessness had not been part of my vocabulary. Had I known how AA was to change my life, I would have broken down the doors to get in.
After the meeting I asked my new mentor how these people kept from getting drunk. He replied that AA was a program of abstinence. I knew what abstinence meant and my thought was that I had overreacted to my situation. He then added that we do it one day at a time and while looking me straight in the eye asked how I was feeling. "Terrible" was my honest answer. He then said those magic words which would stay with me until this day, "you never have to sober up again."
Each night we were off to a different meeting. I couldn't remember their names but people remembered mine, shook my hand and made me feel welcome for the first time in a long time. I felt safe in AA and discovered that others had the same disease and were living normal, happy lives again.
After eight days of meetings and not drinking it was time to go back to work. Deadhead First Class on my airline to Europe to begin a six day trip. I was nervous knowing the drinks were free and it was my style to take advantage of that fact. When I told my sponsor of my fear he simply advised me to make the decision in the morning if I wanted to stay sober that day or not. It was really just another day. Almost too simple to work but it did. When the champagne was offered, I requested a cup of coffee and fully expected a round of applause from the rest of the passengers. I was proud of myself and at the same time felt the AA program working in my life a day at a time.
I struggled with a compulsion to drink for several months with certain times of the day worse than others. Chocolates, prayer and meetings got me through but there were times I would promise myself to drink the next day. When that day came I always felt different and thereby postponed the tragedy for yet another day. Today the compulsion has been lifted and I am a free man who is able to solve his living problems through the teachings of AA.
My family became beneficiaries of my sobriety when I made the decision to practice my program, first and foremost, at home. Since I would be relying on AA for my sobriety and sanity there was no purpose in hiding it in my own home. We began speaking freely of the principles I was learning and the books and literature were in plain view. My children knew all the slogans and loved to sit around the kitchen table when I brought a new member home. I had to shoo them away if we needed some private time. The family was healing and I was becoming the husband and father I always wanted to be. Alcoholics Anonymous was working in our lives. The ups and downs of life continue but Alcoholics Anonymous has given me the tools not only to cope with them but to turn them around to my benefit. I have found peace. Each day I look forward to awakening and I make my beginning on my knees asking my Higher Power to help me, an alcoholic, to go the day without a drink, to know and carry out His will for me and to be grateful for all I have been given. At night, out of common courtesy, I return to my knees to thank Him for the day of sobriety. I couldn't imagine beginning or ending my day another way.
Today my family and I are living healthy, productive lives thanks to the miracle of the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous and those before me who were kind enough to pass it down.
God Bless !
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