The converted Quonset hut had been bought from the military surplus after World War II had ended, almost 21 years before. From a former barracks, housing men on their way to that great conflict, it had been converted to a multi-purpose hall, in which many functions were held. On this night, the floor that had seen a big dance the night before had been covered in carpet and the north half of the hall filled with folding metal chairs, at the front of which was a podium. A man was leaving the podium and returning to his seat through polite applause, while another man, tall and white-haired, took the podium behind him.
“Thank you, Bert, for that inspired reading of the Twelve Steps. And now, please welcome our speaker for tonight, my good friend Al.”
A round of applause from the thirty-odd people gathered together filled the hall as Al stepped up to the podium. He was a man of medium stature, short black hair that was starting to gray at the edges, and intense blue eyes that looked around the hall, recalling a day when such a structure as this had been his home for a while in the Army.
He had been thinking about this all day long, and now was the moment of truth. There was still time to figure out how he wanted to do this, but four years in the Army during World War II, and another two during Korea had taught him that hesitation meant destruction, so he decided to just get right into the thing.
“Two things aren’t found in foxholes—atheists and sober people. Both of those are among the casualties of war. Along with countless social mores, biblical injunctions against killing and the entire structure of civilization. If you think I’m kidding, let me start shooting at you, while my buddies are lining up a few mortar and artillery rounds, and an occasional plane comes by streaming fire and lead from its wings, looking to remove you from this planet. Let’s see you stop drinking when after half an hour you can’t stop shaking from the aforementioned battle.
The audience leaned forward in their chairs, and there wasn’t even the sound of coffee being stirred, as was frequently the case during many of the meetings in the hall.
“I was six months on the wagon when I got called into the Army thanks to Uncle Sam’s long arm and a busy Western Union motorcycle courier. Well, that sobriety went out the window pretty damn quickly. When the Nazis are gassing and burning people, laying waste to entire cities and destroying countries left and right, a six-month stretch of sobriety suddenly doesn’t seem as big a deal. And the reality that you are heading in to Festung Europa, otherwise known as Fortress Europe, where you will be looking over your rifle barrel at some German kid looking over his rifle barrel at you—you start wondering how many days you got left.
“I was one of those guys that drew Omaha Beach, and I figured we didn’t have a chance in hell at getting onto the beach, and I was damn near proven right. That was the worst day of my life, seeing two of my best friends killed right in front of me and another losing his leg. There have been plenty of bad days, but nothing as bad as that day. We had no idea from minute to the next if we would still be walking, or breathing. I see all these guidebooks saying how to get through Europe on 5 dollars a day, and I have to laugh. I went through there, and got paid to do it. But let me tell you this, it was no picnic, and though it needed to be done, I’m glad it’s over and I wouldn’t go through that again for anything.
“I was still basically a kid, a big goofy city-raised kid, though I was 19, but I wasn’t ready for any of what we saw on that beach, or in the hedgerows behind the beaches, or the fields in Falaise, or any of the innumerable lanes and fields and roads of Western Europe. That is not a walking tour I would ever recommend to anyone.
“My sobriety lasted all the way up to the first farmhouse we found, which had a cellar and lots of wine. In my youth, which disappeared as soon as the first guy was ripped in two by the MG42s, I thought, what the hell, I stopped drinking before, I can just stop after this is over. I literally needed it to stop shaking once the fighting was over.”
“I’ve killed men, plenty of them, because it literally was me or them. Or with my buddies being involved, us or them. There was no other choice, no middle ground that some book-reading student might suggest, not ever having been there at that time and place.” He pauses; takes a sip of water. “The words on the page are no match for the bullets in the air.”
“Okay, I know I am getting on in time, I have got to get this out. I just laid the foundation, why that six months disappeared, and why I thought I could just get it right back again. I was wrong about getting it back again, at least as soon as I thought I could. We hit the beach on June 6, 1944, and it is now August 28, 1965. And I am proud to say that tonight, this very night, I have five years of sobriety, thanks to my sponsor Bill, and rooms like this filled with people like you. And me.
“What I really want to say here, with a few moments left, is that the sobriety that I thought I would pick up again in a few days or weeks, took me sixteen years to get back to. So if you think there is something going on that is more important than staying sober for today, let me tell you, you are wrong. And if you push it, you might find yourself dead wrong.
“Thank you for allowing me to speak tonight, I want to thank Jerry and Alice for inviting me here, and for all of you for showing up. My name is Al, and I am a grateful non-practicing alcoholic.”
The room erupted into applause, and Jerry shook Al’s hand as he stepped up to the podium and closed out the meeting. There were handshakes after the meeting closed out with the circle and the Lord’s Prayer, and the crowd lingered to thank Al not only for his speech but for his service as well. And gradually, the people filtered out, the coffee cups were cleaned up and the trash was emptied, and when Jerry locked the door, it was on an empty room, with a podium awaiting the next speaker.