The best Christmas gift he could give

Published 1:00 pm Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Editor’s Note:  This column appeared in a Jackson newspaper in 1977. The writer, a Mississippi reporter and editor from McComb, died in 1982. It has been reprinted many times in newspapers across the nation.

By Charles B. Gordon


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This is essentially the same column I wrote for the Sunday paper Dec. 24, 1972. It is basically the same column I wrote at Christmas in 1967 for another newspaper in another town.

It is used here today as a Christmas and holiday present for my family and myself. I will be wholly sympathetic  with anyone who stops at this point, not caring to pursue old Gordon’s private affairs any further.

When it appeared 10 years ago, a reader told me he was delighted I had written it. He had a son closing in on manhood and the father hoped my frank disclosure might play a part, no matter how small, in helping that young fellow avoid of the most preventable and hazardous of life’s plethora of traps.

It concerns drinking and alcoholism. If you don’t need another warning you can turn to the comics or Parade’s questions for Jackie Kennedy Onassis and/or Farrah Fawcett-Majors.

When Christmas arrives and I am still sober – and I feel now I shall be – it will be more than 30 years since I last had a drink. If someone had told me, say around Pearl Harbor Day or when FDR sickened and died, that day would come when for about 44 percent of my life would have been without a drink. I would have hoped he was right.

But I couldn’t have believe it any more that I could have believed I would someday be rich, good looking, or the writer of the Great American novel.

Those 30 years ago I was a complete and thoroughgoing, if small bore, alcoholic. Realistically speaking, I remain just that, lacking only the first drink to activate myself.

I was never the drinker some of contemporaries claimed they were. I was never the witty and clever life of the party. I was simply the sodden wretch somebody had to scoop up and take home.

This gruesome situation resolved itself in late December, 1947 – a time so long ago that during it I huddled on a cold porch at Whitfield and heard on a radio the Delta Bowl game in which Charlie Conerly threw passes to Barney Poole to lead Ole Miss into beating young Rebel coach Johnny Vaught’s alma mater, TCU.

If it had not come to a head then I would have been the faint memory behind a gravestone for almost all of the last 30 years. But come it did, and I had signed myself into the mental hospital to get was what purported to be treatment for alcoholism at that time.

In my case, this was a daily injection of insulin. I didn’t have diabetes. The insulin was to build my appetite as I understood it. What it did was make me just that much more restless.

Entering the hospital was the most important act of my life, perhaps excepting only birth and my marriage.  I awoke in the White Male Receiving Ward early on the grim morning of Dec. 28, 1947, on approximately the highest level of sobriety and sensibility I had been able to attain for many months, and spent the next several days in that place – bewildered, scared, watchful, observant and thoughtful.

Dr. W.L. Jaquith – and this Christmas finds the great old boy steadily recuperating from a severe attack of illness last August and looking forward to being able soon to resume his battles in behalf of the mentally troubled in Mississippi – was the slender young ward doctor.

Many years afterward, when I had graduated from being a drunk to the status of political writer for the Jackson Daily News, I had the chance one day to tell Dr. Jaquith I felt I was one of his real successes in the field of treating alcoholics at Whitfield.

I reminded him of the day – Jan. 5, 1948 – when one of the dozen or so alcoholic clowns on the Male Receiving Ward drank a bottle of shaving lotion and wallowed bug eyed drunk and sick up and down the ward.

Dr. Jaquith called his drunks into his office, one by one, peeled back the hide and told us in quite emphatic terms to get the hell away from Whitfield. “I can’t treat my real patients, the people with mental troubles, for you sad drunks who are cluttering up this world,” he said.

“Get out of here – and come back only at the risks of dire results,” he finished. (To be truthful, he used rather more pungent language than this.)

Dr. Jaquith laughed when I reminded him of this episode. Many times since then he and I have met at the Capitol and he has chuckled again, not at me and my troubles of long ago, but always with me.

He would no more laugh at the misfortunes of a foolish drunk in 1947 than he would at the expense of the grotesqueries of one of the most tragically stricken of his mental charges. Well, that day in 1948, one of the other discharged drunkards paid my bus fare from Whitfield to Jackson and I went to the Clarion Ledger and got Purser Hewitt to provide me enough money for a bus trip to McComb.

Actually, I got enough that I could have bought a pint of whiskey in the odoriferous men’s room of one of the downtown Jackson hotels. But I didn’t buy it. I was determined to get home sober, and I did.

I returned to my job as the one-man news staff of a five-day-a-week newspaper and for many weeks from 5 to 7 a.m. I wrote a book in which I included every detail I could recall from the stay at Whitfield.

I called in Nine Days in a Nuthouse and I get it out and reread it every now and then. If I need anything to remind me how much better off I am sober, this book does the trick.

I had read a lot back there in the middle 1940s about the comparatively new organization which provided the means of self help to alcoholics who came to realize and admit they were never more than a first drink away from total drunkenness.

Thus,  the “one day at a time” tenet of Alcoholics Anonymous came to rule my life for many years of intensive activity in the group and on to this day. This is true even though I had been sober on the AA principle for more than two years before I attended an AA meeting.

The whole point of this is that, if I could do it – by being made aware and constantly reminded that I am never more than one swallow away from being drunk again, and refraining from taking that first drink – anybody could do it.

Next time you see one of the handsome and costly advertisements like the one showing the “statue of our founder” – that gentleman in the frock coat who developed “our old family recipe” – down by the limestone spring before those charming workmen who supervise the seepage of the product through the charred maple that is found only on the highest points of the mountains and who have plenty of time to whittle as they wait, remember, as I try to do:

The last drink has never been the one which precipitated a state of drunken despair. It was that delightful first that did it.

The first drink is too much.

A whole cheap coffin – the kind most drunkards are buried in – wouldn’t hold enough.