I saw my first fallen-down drunk when I was four years old.
For the first part of my life, our family lived in a remote fishing village on the east end of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. It was a place where fishermen would get their paychecks on Friday, then drink them up at the bar by Sunday. On one Sunday evening we were walking from our home to the chapel for evening service, when I looked off the boardwalk to see a man just lying there. He wasn’t moving, like he was asleep in the grass and sprawled out like he fell. “Mom what’s wrong with him?” I asked.
“Just keep walking,” she replied.
Later on at the chapel I was told that he had been drinking and that he was passed out. Since my parents helped care for the physical and emotional well being of our fellow villagers, I can only surmise they determined he was fine and just needed to sleep off his booze right where he was. They would have NEVER left him in that spot if there was danger. I don’t recall ever seeing him again. How did this impact a four-year old kid?
I remember enough of it to share the story nearly fifty years later, and know first hand what true alcohol abuse looks like.
I never wanted to be that guy. I have never laughed about it. Through my teen years I remembered him. When I had my first alcohol ever, that dude along the boardwalk was on my mind. I was dry for about ten years during my 30s, because his sprawled out frame kept showing up in my head, and I didn’t want to end up lying in the grass somewhere completely unphased by passers by. This summer, while walking to a restaurant in White Center, I passed a man who was passed out and encircled by malt liquor cans – right along the sidewalk; immediately the man in Sand Point popped into my head and said, “Yeah that was a bender.”
Even last night, as I relaxed with my wife, I looked at my beer and thought of him.
He didn’t seem glorious, or a champion, or anything remotely like a life goal. He was a sad representation of a life wasted, alcoholism, and self medication. Was he using the bottle to run from depression? Bad relationships? Abuse? I’ll never know. Maybe he couldn’t stop, which was common among many of our friends in Sand Point. We knew a brilliant painter on the island who was also regular resident at the jail, and a slave to the bottle. It happened, and it was sad. Maybe this guy just overdid it after having a good time.
But when the result of your good time puts you face down in the tundra in the Alaskan bush, maybe the end game outweighs the excitement at the start.
At 53 years old I can safely say I won’t be him because I saw him, early enough to make the right impression at the right time. I know where to drink and when to stop. I like coffee just as much as I like Rainier, and can easily switch when it’s time to be responsible. Thanks to this unidentified man, sleeping off a weekend along the boardwalk to an island church, I have stayed clear from the damage of heavy drinking.
In some odd way, that fallen-down drunk kept me safe.