(Excerpt from Hope for Misfits: Drunk and Shameful in France)
About nine months after leaving home, I sat on a stool early one evening at Le Normandy Club, a bar in Laon, France, staring at a full glass of tepid draft. I wrestled with a pivotal decision: to drink or not to drink. This dilemma was raised not by the room temperature of the French brew or by its foul taste, a flavor I suspected is similar to urine, but by the consequences when I drank beer or any alcoholic beverage.
I had been stationed for about four months at the Air Force base nine miles from the old cathedral city of Laon, 80 miles northeast of Paris. Since arriving in November of 1960 for a three year-assignment, I had recognized fundamental differences between me and my peers when we drank. I got drunk every time and they didn’t. My buddies could drink a few beers and quit, but I didn’t stop until I was plastered. I experienced blackouts and was frightened the next morning when I had no recollection of the previous evening past a certain point. Few acquaintances had blackouts, just hangovers, and most roommates and acquaintances didn’t drink every day. I did.
From the beginning of my tour of duty in France, I was an obnoxious, troublemaking drunk, and few people would drink with me a second time. Only Ed Swanson, my roommate from Arkansas, tolerated me for the duration of my three years at Laon. But Ed, who has remained a lifelong friend, was a loner by temperament, and we seldom drank together.
A sparse crowd had gathered at Le Normandy the night I confronted my demon. I didn’t recognize any of the other patrons that night, but it didn’t matter. I was preoccupied with the internal factions contending for control of my life.
One inner voice admonished: Don’t drink, alcohol makes you do bad things; you feel awful the next morning; you can’t handle it and you have blackouts; you make an ass of yourself; and you weren’t raised to be a drunk. Another voice urged me: say the hell with it and pick up the glass; booze is your best friend, a comfort for homesickness, and liquid courage for talking to girls. Go on and drink and feel like somebody; you don’t give a damn anyway, and the folks back home will never know. Besides, you can quit tomorrow.
I felt pressure to either drink the beer or walk out as Henri, the barman, eyed me suspiciously. Henri’s English vocabulary was limited, as was my French, but we were able to communicate. He asked if I was okay. I nodded and thanked him, but he was more curious than concerned and likely preferred that I not frequent his establishment. Le Normandy was my favorite place, a popular bar for the young French crowd and GI’s from the base, but I had been boisterous on previous occasions and Henri had called me down.
As the fight over my destiny boiled within, I watched as my hand, seemingly with a mind of its own, reached out and picked up the glass of beer. I downed it in a couple of gulps, and signaled Henri to draw me another one. Now I was behaving like the beer-and-cognac chugging idiot he had come to know. He most likely dreaded my transformation ahead. I rapidly drank one beer after another and changed from a reserved, polite young man into an ugly American. The next morning, I remembered only the first few hours of drinking, and didn’t know how or when I had gotten back to the base and to my bed in the barracks.
I was a drunk for the next 25 years. When sober I was mostly a moral person, but when drunk I did shameful things. But I functioned well in my Air Force job as an administrative clerk, and I had grown up believing that drunks couldn’t hold jobs. Drunks lived on skid rows and drank cheap wine. So, since I was doing a good job, I was just a hard-drinking GI.