John C.’s Story


In his mind he’d died and gone to heaven.

by Bree L.

John C. was born in an upstairs flat at 24th Street and Mission. His history is such that his father, uncle, and others in the family were alcoholics going generations back. At 14 he sold Mickey’s half pints to a kid at his Boy Scout meeting and pulled a knife on his scoutmaster. The boy “fingered” John, which led to John’s first alcohol-connected arrest and put an end to his operations.

Early on he was aware of his social and academic deficiencies but could bluff his way through most things by playing the clown. The saloon became his neighborhood stage. Bartenders told him, “We’ll serve you a drink if you promise not to recite poetry or sing an Irish song.” It was an easy way to get free drinks. He graduated from high school in 1952 and was lucky enough to land a great job with the San Francisco Stock Exchange. They not only paid him to drink; they expected him to drink as well. His task was to get milkshake-sized cartoons of martinis and Manhattans from the saloon and bring them back to work. In his mind he’d died and gone to heaven.

We’ll serve you a drink
if you promise not to sing …

This began an uninterrupted 20-year affair with alcohol, except when he was incarcerated or hospitalized. He doesn’t know how he survived those years driving drunk, smashing into telephone poles and hitting parked cars. Judges would sometimes ask if he saw any correlation between his jail time and drinking. His answer was always a resounding “No.”

In 1953 John married his childhood sweetheart and had 5 children. His firstborn son died of encephalitis at age six after being paralyzed for five years. He got many free drinks out of that. Wonderfully, today his other children are still doing fine. John went to his first A.A. meeting in 1963 and continued to bounce around for six more years. He calls this his Hotel California period, when the real Dick Smith-ing started (sneaking drinks and hiding what he drank). He tried every known cure for alcoholism: Aversion therapy, Antabuse, religion and paraldehyde, to name a few. There always seemed to be someone sending him back to A.A., be it his wife or a judge.

A person can leave A.A. at any time, yet after some exposure they can never completely check out emotionally or mentally. As he says, if you’re in the middle of the lake and drowning, it doesn’t matter how you got there. In April 1970 he reached his bottom and finally got up enough courage to ask for help. The key factor that prevented him from getting sober was that he wasn’t willing to take the steps of recovery. So when that day came, he says, “Johnny had to reintroduce himself to John. The only way was for John to take those first steps of recovery.”

He stood up in a meeting in the Sunset and said, “My name is John C. [He spelled out his last name.] I’m in the phone book. If I’m missing more than a week from this meeting, I hope that someone will check to see if I’m alright.” The date was May 1, 1970.

H. and I. is the Marine Corps of A.A.

John got into H&I early. He found this more than anything else contributed to his sobriety. He says, “H&I is the Marine Corps of A.A. We are in the trenches and it’s almost impossible to worry about finances or hurt feelings when you’re holding someone’s hand when they’re strapped down in a detox ward.” He paraphrases Gandhi as, “We find ourselves only when we lose ourselves in the service of others.” Today at 48 years sober, he’s still going strong.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

serving San Francisco and Marin Counties