There was distress in the voice on the other end of the phone line -- more than the normal dismay I recalled from Dan, who had earned the "Desperate" moniker because of his uncanny skill in driving away women. When I ask perfunctorily how Dan's life was going, he softly said, "Not great."
Time Warp: Here's my life circa late 1980s. Picture the bronzed rays of the sun breaking over the staccato chain of islands called the Florida Keys. A sailboat, its canvas neatly trimmed for an upwind tack, slips through water that has the azure hue of tarnished copper. There I am, one hand on the wheel, one hand around the waist of the babe du jour, one hand holding a Corona.
You can see I had a problem.
And it wasn't just an insufficient number of limbs to address the tasks at hand, so to speak. The one thing I never relinquished my hold on was the beer, and I'd juggle the other priorities as best I could.
I was living on a sailboat in Miami's Coconut Grove in those days, thrashing my way through another divorce. Life, what I could remember of it from one day to the next, was a real party, 24/7 in current parlance. True, I did work for a newspaper, but that was mostly for recreation -- being thoroughly debauched was the real full-time job.
On an October weekend each year, one of Miami's bigger, wilder orgies takes place. It's called the Columbus Day Regatta, and while about 700 yachts do race, the main event is always an overnight, waterborne exercise in drinking and nudity aboard 3,000 or so boats anchored off a little island north of Key Largo. I had, on occasion, met Ted Turner during regatta festivities -- so you can surmise the high level of imbibing that transpired.
Desperate Dan was one of my racing crew. He denies it, but I'm sure it was Dan who got us all in trouble.
I found out I was out of luck Monday morning. Awakening, I noted through the portholes that we were safely tied to a dock. That elicited waves of gratitude from me since I had little recollection -- well, actually, no memory whatsoever -- of the sail back to Miami.
But I was bothered. The little bit of the dock I could see through the small port didn't look right. Sticking my head out of a hatch, I made a startling discovery. I was not at my marina. I was not in Miami.
Egad, I realized, I was not even in the United States.
No, indeed. What I saw around me was the Big Game Club in Bimini, an island that while only 35 miles or so from Miami is in the Bahamas, which while not much of a nation is nonetheless bona fide foreign soil.
In general, I was vaguely aware that it wasn't a good thing to wake up in another country and not recall getting there.
So, I shook my crew awake and started asking how the hell we got to Bimini. My voice was frantic. I was a boss editor at the newspaper I worked for, but even boss editors have boss editors, and mine had become noticeably irritated by my free-spirited life. Peering through a hangover at my watch, I realized I was already a half-hour late for an editors' meeting taking place one nation to the west of my current longitude.
One crew member -- her name was Susan -- told the tale. On the way back to Miami, someone (she wouldn't say who, but everyone looked at Dan) said it would be a helluva fun thing to go to Bimini. I, so I was told, responded with great enthusiasm in the affirmative, set the boat's heading for 109 degrees, and off we went to the Bahamas.
It must have seemed a good idea at the time.
"You did real well in the storm last night," Susan commented. "Real big waves. Lots of wind."
I tried to focus on that. "What storm?" I finally said.
Another crewman added, "And, wow, you got us into Bimini at night." No one, or at least no sane person, sails into Bimini's unmarked channels at night -- in a storm.
"You're kidding," I said.
Space Warp: A few weeks later, back at that newspaper where my boss editor was unamused at my latest eccentric adventure, I began working on a story. It was a good story, an investigation about a scummy developer. I had figured out how he had conned a bunch of people. A few months later, the guy would get indicted and eventually spend a little time in a federally operated tennis resort. Journalistically speaking, I guess I could claim his scalp for my belt.
But something really odd happened while writing that story. I checked out. Well, not all of me. I didn't indulge any of my vices while working on stories. I'm 100 percent sure I was stone-cold sober as I pecked away on my computer, reviewed a stack of documents 6 feet high, and cajoled government investigators for information. So, "I" in some sense of the word was there doing all of that.
But "I" in a spiritual context wasn't. I don't remember writing that story. The essential "I" was nowhere to be found. The story was accurate to the last comma, and (since it was mine) a brilliant piece of prose. But when I looked at the article, it was a stranger at the door of my consciousness.
A few days after the story was printed, the developer, a truly charming swamp salesman, called me up. He told me he never expected me to write the story -- that I appeared too busy partying to get serious enough to nail him.
At this point in my epic, we're approaching the date of Jan. 21, 1990. I had spent many days sitting on my boat pondering how long a guy is likely to live when he finds himself waking up in distant lands without an inkling of how he got there. And, I was quite sure my boss editor would prefer that his ace scribes more or less remembered writing their stories. Moreover, this particular ace scribe really enjoys his work -- so blanking out for days causes the souffle to flop, metaphorically speaking.
Something had to change, I told myself. And, with great fear and trepidation, I guessed that "something" was "someone," me.
On Jan. 20, 1990, I drank my last beer, a 16-ounce Coors Light (you know, Silver Bullet). Some people would say only an alcoholic would remember a specific beer consumed a dozen years ago. I don't know. The next day, I didn't have a drink, nor have I had one since.
Time Warp Back to Circa Now: When Dan called, I knew he wanted more than to exchange greetings between old crewmates. And, I could pretty much guess what was coming.
People change their lives for many reasons and via many routes. For some, 12-step programs are salvation. There are other groups that put less emphasis on spirituality, the "God thing," if you will. Churches do it for many. And, so I've heard but never verified, a few people have such strong wills that they hop on the wagon without help.
My personal choice is ... personal. I'll just say I had a few friends who helped. And, I don't give myself the credit for 12 years without a crutch-in-a-bottle.
Dan told me his life had been miserable. He had finally gotten a girlfriend, then lost her. Ditto several more girlfriends. Barfights. A skilled lawyer in his Miami days, he barely had a practice. ("Chasing ambulances would be a big improvement for me," he conceded.) He was doing two bottles of rum a day, grass and coke when he could get it. Not to mention the cooler of beer in the passenger's seat of his car.
"You, uh, you quit, didn't you?" Dan inquired. So, I told him my story. I told him how bad -- joking aside, it was hell -- my life was 12 years ago. Things aren't perfect nowadays, but existence on any particular day ranges from tolerable to pretty damn good. Wonderful wife, strong marriage, five kids, great job, a little respect here and there. I have never aspired to be normal, but there's normalcy in much, maybe most, of my life.
"You think I have a problem?" Dan asked. "You think I'm an ... an ... alcoholic?" He almost gagged on the word. I wasn't surprised. I choked the first time I said it.
Dan, of course, is the only one who can answer his question. It's never been a problem I labor over. Life for me is a lot more fun without ingesting substances that make people stupid. The labels aren't important.
This wouldn't be an authentic Sugg column if I didn't vent about something. In most respects, I'm a libertarian -- in that I fervently believe the less government screws around with people's lives the better.
If it was my call, I'd legalize drugs. After all, who benefits from prohibition? Only the $50 billion illegal drug industry and the symbiotic $50 billion drug law enforcement industry. The proof is overwhelming that a saner drug policy would reduce addiction, that treatment is many times more effective at reducing drug use than is incarceration.
So, why do we do it so wrong? There is one other beneficiary of our archaic drug laws -- the liquor industry. America's addition to alcohol is far more lethal than any other drug. But it's also very profitable, and politically very powerful.
I don't blame the problems of my pre-1990 incarnation on anyone but myself. But at the level of society, we all but hold people's -- kids' -- mouths open and poor booze into them until addiction is inevitable among a large and growing percentage.
OK, end of vent. Back to Dan and me. In exchange for righting wrongs, championing justice, enlightening the masses and all the other things I do for CL, my handlers occasionally allow me to get personal. That's what I've done today -- in commemoration of the 12th anniversary this week of a very important date in my life. I said no.
That's what I told Dan: "Pal," I said, "you don't have to accept misery."
Senior Editor John Sugg refuses to admit that he is now or ever has been a member of any organization. However, if like Dan, you need someone to talk to, one group that insists on remaining anonymous (get the hint?) and is well worth calling can be reached at 404-239-0581. Sugg, meanwhile, will recover from being warm and sentimental next week and return to his usual butt-kicking. He can be reached at 404-614-1241.
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