The Green Bottle

Travel, we are told, is a broadening experience.  Exposing ourselves to exotic foods, exciting or calming new landscapes, dipping our toes into both pleasant and dangerous waters, ascending the heights and plumbing the depths of our world exalts us above the mundane and breathes life into what would otherwise be mere existence.  If our travels are truly extensive, and we are sufficiently observant, we shall see poverty, misery and pain sufficient to make us cry and gnash our teeth at what seems to be cosmic unfairness; but we will also witness both corporal and spiritual richness sufficient to makes us giddy, and transcendent pleasure that elevate us into the ethereal.  All of those things and more lie “out there” awaiting discovery by the sensitive traveler.

But the most broadening experience available to us won’t be found in geography, nor can the most sophisticated GPS direct the traveler.  It is an experience no cartographer can map.  The most elaborate, costly satellite imagery cannot depict it and the most powerful electron microscope will fail to find it.  Yet it is available to – no, it is mandatory - for all.  It is . . . the journey of life. 

Much more intensely felt than the grandeur of lofty mountains, the quiet majesty of a placid lake or the rushing waters of the most dangerous rapids,the experiences we encounter as we pursue this unavoidable journey can give a richness of soul and a keenness of intellect available to Man alone if he will throw open the curtains and open his  innermost being to all that he encounters in passing from that first slap-on-the-back induced breath to that final rattling expiration that says without words, “It is finished.”

And just as a novel with no points of tension, a musical composition with no dissonance, statuary made of poured concrete and poetry written in a greeting card “factory” are poor imitations of the real thing, any person who purports to tell you his life story while allowing his sins, shames, and failures to remain untold is a hack, a charlatan: Not worth listening to.  For it is grief that teaches us the value of joy, pain that makes pleasure more enjoyable, and hard work that makes leisure more satisfying. 

Which brings me to tell you the story of small, opaque, green bottle that I have kept in plain sight for the best part of the past forty years of my life.  In and of itself it has an unpretentious beauty.   It is small, down-to-earth and designed to be thrown away.  However, some felt but unrecognized prodding induced me to hang onto it and so it has held a place in my eclectic collection of life’s mementoes since it was first handed to me – filled with wine – in the late 1970’s. 

I don’t really know why I kept it at first.  I suspect it was for the same obscure reason that inspires college boys to stack empty beer cans on their shelves but I’m very sure that whatever meaning it had has radically changed since the day I tucked it -empty-  into my attaché case and carried it off the airplane.  Whatever my reason for holding onto it was, I keep it now to remind me of the self-created horrors I experienced during a long period of stygian darkness in my life. It calls to my mind a dark pit I am not proud to have made my home; a Gahanna I would not want my worst enemy to explore; a place of living nightmares from which I was rescued by human hearts acting under the guidance of divine providence. 

I was returning from a three-day trip to attend a professional meeting in San Francisco.  Shortly after the plane on which I was a passenger rose and climbed steeply up from the bay, a voice on the intercom announced that a certain California vineyard had donated wine to be served to those who wished to enjoy it as we rushed eastward.  For me, who then lived in a dark place where dragons devoured souls, those words were tantamount to announcing the birth of a long-awaited child. 

I was at that time by job title an Associate Professor in the College of Education at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University.    I was, In fact, a struggling middle-aged man trying to succeed while dancing daily with the devil -  and failing miserably -  while steadfastly refusing to acknowledge my dance partner.  I had met “him” in his disguise as alcohol while still a teenager.  For several years he was kind to me.  He eased me over some of my adolescent problems and helped me deal with the loneliness I felt as I grew into manhood.   I didn’t notice that our positions were gradually changing so that he began leading me around the dance floor rather than accepting my lead as he had done in the beginning.  By the time I was in early middle-age, although I didn’t see it or wouldn’t accept it, he was determining with a firm hand where, when, and how we would “dance.”  

With that being my condition I rapidly “enjoyed” (that is “emptied”) the first small bottle the stewardess provided.  When she came around to collect the empties I unhesitatingly asked if I might have another one, which she cordially brought to me. When I asked for third. . .  She was somewhat slower in filling that request, which galled me somewhat.  But bring it she did.  I emptied it a little slower, and when I asked for a fourth she was more than a little brusque as she handed it to me saying, “We have no more.”  It should have been, but most surely was not, a shameful moment for me.  I had long since quelled any sense of embarrassment I might have had in being “drug around the dance floor” by my diabolical partner. 

An hour or so later as we disembarked from the airplane that same stewardess, as they are trained to do, stood by the exit door bidding the passengers farewell and thanking them for their patronage.  As I walked past her she acknowledged me coolly with the words, “There’s my little old wine-drinker.”  Again the implied disdain passed unrecognized through my ears.

Her words, though, obviously reached some secret place in my soul that recognized I was no longer free.  I was serving a despot that demanded my fealty.  No tyrant ever raised a wall to imprison his citizens more impermeable than the wall my mistress had erected.   I knew I was imprisoned.  But only in the dark hours of night, when all was still could I admit it to myself.  And there was no way I was ever going to admit to “you” that I was held captive.  My dance partner who had once been so glamorous, who made me feel so debonair and confident, had become a fish-wife.  I could not live with her – but I was tied to her by unspoken vows.    

This episode, while despicable, wasn’t the nadir of my tour of the hell of alcoholism.  In fact, there was no single low point, no awakening in a jail cell, no edict in a divorce court, no shattered family, or dramatic intervention.  Mine was the drawn-out agony of weeks leading to months and months leading to years of self-loathing, professional failures, financial crises, and marital discord.  There came a time, long before I was set free, when I realized I was powerless over alcohol, and that realization, spawning despair, only made me seek its company more desperately.   It was a cycle that could have (and countless times has) ended only in suicide, insanity, or incarceration. 

The key to my prison was given to me most unexpectedly, dramatically, inexplicably, and I shall say, aware of its full meaning, miraculously.   One Sunday afternoon after spending a few hours in the quiet of my university office I stepped into the corridor and walked towards the elevators.  Before reaching them I encountered a fellow professor whom I actually knew only because he was a fellow pilot whom I had met occasionally at the airport.  We began to chat about our passion for flying, airplanes, and our flight instructor.   Then, in some way I cannot explain, during the time we stood waiting for the elevator to reach our fifth floor offices, the conversation turned into a discussion about drinking.  It soon became much more serious than a “chat.”  The elevator came and went while we stood talking.  To prolong our interaction, one of us said, “Let’s take the stairs and we can keep on talking while we walk.”   Halfway down the stairwell we stopped on the landing and the talk became very personal.  (Recall that I barely knew “Joe.”)  We began talking about alcoholism and stood there in that unventilated, stuffy stairwell talking, for nearly an hour.  A few people came and went up or down the staircase and looked at us with curiosity clearly on their faces.  “Joe” disclosed to me that his wife was a recovering alcoholic.  In the face of that honesty I opened up and shared how I felt about my relationship with alcohol, basically telling him I didn’t know whether I was an alcoholic or not.   “Joe” was completely non-judgmental and understanding.  Somewhere towards the end of our conversation he told me that he and his wife were, in fact, going to attend a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous that very night and said that my wife and I were welcome to go with them if we wanted to.       

I went home and very reluctantly, fearful as to what her reaction would be, told my wife about the conversation I’d just had and of the “invitation.”  I still was not willing to admit to myself that I was “one of those” (alcoholics), but felt that going to a meeting where “those people” gathered wouldn’t hurt.   Probably willing to clutch at any straw by this time, she agreed to go me.

 We walked into the A.A. meeting and were met with smiles and handshakes.  I noted that they didn’t fit my notion of what a gathering of self-admitted “drunks” would look like.  We sat down in the crowd and waited, wondering what we were “in for.”  We didn’t have to wait long.  A clean-cut, very presentable man opened the meeting and introduced, by first name only, the lady who would be giving a talk this evening.  She, too, was clean-cut and quite presentable.  I looked around for the unshaven, rumpled-clothed “wino” – the obvious alcoholic – in the crowd and was somewhat flummoxed when I failed to find him.  

Then the lady began speaking.  Her first words were: “Hi, everyone.  I’m “Susie,” and I’m a recovering alcoholic. Hearing those words my eyes opened wide.  Here she was openly making an admission in front of a good-sized group of people that she was . . .  AN ALCOHOLIC!   Wow!  I perked up and listened.  How could she do that?   What would she say next?  In keeping with the traditional format of a “lecture-type” A.A. meeting she began disclosing some of the shameful, despicable things she had done in the past – in her “dance with the devil.”   I began hearing her tell how she had done the same sort of things I had done and was still doing, and how damning her self-concept had become . . . things I admitted only to myself and only in the darkest moments of my life.   But she was doing it in front of a room full of people!   My God!  How could she do that, I wondered?

But then she began telling us what had happened that brought her to the point where she could unabashedly say out loud and publicly, “I am a recovering alcoholic.”  She followed that by telling us ways in which her life had changed once she had admitted to herself, to others and to God, that she was powerless over her addiction and sincerely believed that a “Higher Power” could and would “rescue” her.  I was amazed and intrigued.  I wondered.  Could this be the key to my becoming the sober, sane, caring and intelligent person I always believed I was intended to be but had consistently failed to become.

I began attending A.A. meetings regularly.  My wife stood beside me in loving support, helping me through some difficult times.  That all took place in the summer of 1981.  No alcohol has been in my mouth since I left that first meeting.    I became and still am a “Recovering Alcoholic.”  Although it took several years to resuscitate it – it had been lying moribund for so many years – my wife tells me that I have become the sober, sane, caring and intelligent person she thought she took to be her husband.  As for me . . . the sea captain-turned-minister Rev. John Newton, when he wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” foretold centuries ago how I feel today, when he wrote this verse:

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

And I keep that little green bottle where I can see easily see it, because when I look at it I can see in all their horror some of the dangers, toils, and snares into which its contents and the content of thousands of other bottles like it, led me.  But in its dark green emptiness I also see the mysterious ways in which God works His redemption. And I am blessed.

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The Boys in the Hood

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Dick Pellek (website) on Wednesday, 20 December 2017 13:51

Some stories are worth reading a second, or even a third time. This one is a legacy story rich in symbolism, pragmatism, and a deeply personal catharsis that is, for me, also inspirational. If you are anything like me, you seek meaning about our purposes on this earth. This story is much more than a simple tale about a little green bottle.

Some stories are worth reading a second, or even a third time. This one is a legacy story rich in symbolism, pragmatism, and a deeply personal catharsis that is, for me, also inspirational. If you are anything like me, you seek meaning about our purposes on this earth. This story is much more than a simple tale about a little green bottle.
Dick Pellek (website) on Thursday, 28 December 2017 23:19

Some stories are worth reading a second, or even a third time. This one is a legacy story rich in symbolism, pragmatism, and a deeply personal catharsis that is, for me, also inspirational. If you are anything like me, you seek meaning about our purposes on this earth. This story is much more than a simple tale about a little green bottle.

Some stories are worth reading a second, or even a third time. This one is a legacy story rich in symbolism, pragmatism, and a deeply personal catharsis that is, for me, also inspirational. If you are anything like me, you seek meaning about our purposes on this earth. This story is much more than a simple tale about a little green bottle.