I’m not sure that I would have ever gotten to my first meeting or really sobered up if I hadn’t met Walter Z. Walter was a Native American and a Vietnam Special Forces veteran. My friend Jimmy met Walter in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Jimmy was a vet too, and they drank together for a few weeks before deciding to go into treatment together courtesy of the Veterans Administration. After treatment they went to Lexington, Kentucky where Jimmy had apartment over the Hinky-dink Grocery. That’s were I met Walter. Jimmy and Walter were the only sober people I knew the summer I tried to quit.
I quit drinking twice that summer. Ever since a drunken boyfriend slammed my head into a concrete wall, I didn’t want to be around drunks, including myself. The three of us met a dozen times over the summer to tell stories and smoke cigarettes and help each other stay sober.
Jimmy and Walter talked about people they had met in the park, “Hey, you remember that guy with the little dog? He carried it in his pocket and…” Jimmy and I talked about all the people we knew who were already dead from drinking: “Hey you remember that guy who was going to inherit 10 million dollars when his dad died? And he kept drinking toasts to his dad’s death because his dad hated him because he was gay. And then he died first and he was only 26. Choked on his vomit because his friends left him passed out on his back.” We told each other these stories so we could feel better about not drinking. They were my only support.
Walter came out to my farm in Lee County a few times that summer. We rode horses, swam, put in a new dock with my brother. I remember Walter standing in the pond up to his chest swinging a sledgehammer over his head. He was the only one strong enough to pound in the big bolts while standing on a slippery bank.
Walter got a little mad at me when one day when we were riding horses and his saddle slipped. He told me about riding when he was a kid on the Navaho reservation. A storm came up and his horse was struck by lightening and died. Walter had to walk a long way home. Everyone was mad the horse had died. Walter taught me to tell the direction by shadows and the sun (and was amazed I didn’t already know how).
As the summer ended Walter was trying to decide what to do. Jimmy was going to paint, I was going to go back to college and try not to flunk out. Walter was going to a mercenary convention out West to look for a job. I told him I thought that was a bad idea—killing for hire—but Walter said that was all he was good for since Vietnam.
I was the first one to start drinking again. I don’t know why I started except staying sober was too hard. It was too isolating. I drank for a few weeks and one morning woke up with a hangover wanting to quit. I drank a beer to cure my headache and poured the other one out. That day I got a call from Walter saying he was leaving town on a Greyhound bus and would I come say goodbye to him. I said sure and drove to Lexington.
By the time I got there Walter was really drunk–and I had never seen him drunk. In fact I had never seen anyone get so drunk so fast. Jimmy was nowhere to be seen. I wanted to say goodbye and get out of there but Walter wouldn’t let me leave. He was staggering and slurring and grabbing my arm and trying to kiss me. Walter kept asking me to marry him. I kept saying no as gently as I could and trying to figure out how to get away.
Then Walter scared the living hell out of me. He looked at me blankly and said, “Sorry but I’m going to have to consider you another assignment.” I knew instantly that he was back in Vietnam and about to kill me. I wanted him to know he wasn’t in Vietnam and so I said in a sultry voice “Oh baby, you don’t want to treat me like that.” Walter snapped back to the present but I didn’t know for how long.
I was trying to figure out how to get away. I considered driving up to the police station but wasn’t sure they would help me. The only thing I could think of was to go to an AA meeting. I have no idea why I thought of that except that I knew where they met. Jimmy and I used to drink on their porch and leave our beer cans. We would laugh about the poor bastards who had to quit drinking and go to stupid meetings. But now I hoped that maybe they would take Walter off my hands.
I told Walter I was going to get some cigarettes. He got in the car and I and drove to the AA club. We went up the steps into a room where people were laughing and smoking. It was quickly clear that Walter had been to AA before. He knew to say, “My name’s Walter and I’m an alcoholic.” I couldn’t believe that he knew all this AA stuff but hadn’t mentioned it all summer.
I saw a friend I knew and signaled Cathy to meet me in the bathroom. I explained my troubles with Walter—that he was a fine and polite fellow—but I was afraid of him now that he was drinking and psychotic. Cathy bravely agreed to let us all leave in her car and asked Walter where he wanted to be dropped off. Walter said the Zebra Lounge.
That AA meeting was the start of my sobriety. I went to another AA meeting the next day and another the day after that. Walter kept drinking until Jimmy got him into the VA hospital. Walter walked out against medical advice and, as I headed off to college, Walter got on a Greyhound bus to go to the mercenary convention. I don’t know if he made it to the convention but I do know that within a month Walter had jumped off the East Bay Bridge. He only broke his collarbone and a few ribs. I saw Walter in San Francisco the next summer for a few minutes. He was in a treatment program for Native Americans. That was the last time I saw my friend. I heard that he died a few years ago and I wonder about his years in between. I hope he had some good ones.
I have always been grateful to Walter for being my friend and for getting me to my first AA meeting. I definitely wanted to stop drinking that summer and I might have ended up there eventually. But I might just as easily have have died before I got around to it. Walter was my sober buddy that summer. And by scaring the hell out of me he got to my first AA meeting. For that I will always be grateful.