In my late teens my mother told me how my father quit drinking.
I was two years old, and like many erstwhile soldiers who had fought in "The Big One," he was expected to return to his hometown of St. Paul and live out his life as if the war -- the worst in history -- had never occurred.
My father's generation, which was later crowned by Tom Brokaw as "The Greatest Generation," believed that drinking hard liquor -- in my old man's case his poison was scotch -- was practically a sacrament. Regarding the drinking of alcohol, that group of veterans' post-war battle cry was Sinatra's line, "Set 'em up, Joe," from the maudlin tune, "One For My Baby."
Bill Stieger Sr. drank at the Lexington and O'Garas. The laws on drunk driving were lax in those days, and drinkers thought nothing of stumbling back to their Chevy's, Fords and Pontiacs, and weaving about the city, on and off the road, as they tried to remember the location of their homes.
My old man's drinking, more than once, resulted in his waking up on our couch, only to discover that his car had vanished, later found in the impound lot. Booze was the sole source of relief from PTSD, what was called at the time "shell shock." My father hadn't had such a difficult time in the war, so I suspect it was life's anxieties that overwhelmed him. He was your garden-variety boozer.
But I think of myself at the time, an only child, riding in a car without seat belts, with a father wasted on booze. We are, at present, horrified by this dangerous behavior. But such were the times. And booze the propensity to delude the drinker with the false confidence that leads to such vehicular insanity.
So the story my mother later told me began with her comment that my father had been "86'ed," or banned, from O'Gara's. When I pressed her as to the cause, she told me it was because he had dropped me off his bar stool.
How drunk do you have to be to be barred from drinking in an Irish bar in the 1950s? Well, the answer has to be, drunk enough to drop a two-year-old off a bar stool.
My mother went on to say I'd been unhurt. And my father quit drinking after the incident and began attending AA meetings. There were slips, and then an innocent stumble into barbiturate addiction, as prescribed by his doctor in the early '60s: Librium, Miltown, Seconal, Phenobarbital. None knew at first the dangers of such drugs. The phenomenon has repeated itself in the current tsunami of painkiller addiction. The barbs nearly killed him, but he managed to quit those as well. Ironically, once my father straightened out, my mother began to resort to the bottle. But that's another chapter.
In those days families, at all costs, obsessively hid their alcoholics and addicts. I didn't let my friends inside our house unless it was one of those marvelous sober weeks that drunks can occasionally pull off. These days, going to rehab and admitting to any pernicious addiction is practically a badge of honor. The shame has lifted. And I believe -- as Martha Stewart would have it -- it's a good thing. The old way was a long walk to the graveyard while leaving a family of neglected, messed up kids. And I was one of them.
It's taken a lot of years to get myself somewhat together, mentally, with much help from counselors and shrinks, and loads of support from friends and loved ones. Though I am far beyond spell of lost kid I had been, that boy will follow me to the end of my days. Once in a while he'll try to mount a coup-de-ta on my equanimity, and I'll admit he's won a few battles. But he lost the war a long time ago, a war that began with falling off a bar stool.