For my second assignment, Santos had asked me to write my own version of the personal stories found in the second half of the Alcoholics Anonymous Book. Once I got busy writing, I realized I was on pace to overtake the three volumes of Mark Twain’s autobiography, and needed to narrow my focus. This is my second attempt.
I was shy and suspicious from birth, and we moved often when I was growing up, so I never felt comfortable in one place or with any particular group of people. Although I come from Midwest Scandinavian stock and my Dad was an ordained Lutheran minister, both my parents became Born Again Christians after college, and we spent my earliest year in Hawaii, living communally at times, and moving from place to place.
I loved reading and escaping through books, and my first addiction was to comic books. Once I discovered that fantasy world of outsiders who discover secret powers and can operate outside the boundaries that constrain the rest of us mortals, I was hooked. I felt awkward in school and church, and often wished I could just fly away or disappear into thin air. I would later learn how to do these things extremely well, on defiance and willpower alone. If there were two arts I came to master, they would be the Art of Suffering and the Art of Escape.
When I was in seventh grade, my Dad was the director of a Bible Camp in Iowa, and I had some friends who got a six pack and went out partying in the woods. All my life, adults had told me about the dangers of drinking alcohol, so I was worried about my friends. Then I went to a disco in a girl’s attic one night, and some kid took a beer from her parents’ refrigerator and spiked the punch with it. I’d always been too shy to even talk to girls, but by the end of the night I was under a table with the cutest girl at the party, resting my head on her ass, like it was a big, denim pillow.
Shortly after that party, my Dad took another job at a church in North Dakota. One day some boys were talking about drinking, and I embellished my story, claiming that the party had been at a pool, and that the girl and I had been making out in a lawn chair. Kenny Markle liked my story so much he invited me out to his farm to party. That weekend his parents were going to a Turkey Shoot to gamble and drink, and we rode along and got an older kid to buy us a six pack. That cold, bitter beer was almost impossible to swallow, and whenever Kenny wasn’t looking, I spilled as much of it as I could, but based on the wild stories we told at school the following Monday, our reputations were set.
A lot of people drank in the small, farm town we were living in, and the drinking I did with my friends, or keg parties I attended, weren’t much crazier than what a lot of the other kids were doing. When we moved out to California the middle of my junior year, however, my drinking took a more sinister turn. As part of the wrestling team, I was initiated into the Brotherhood, where slamming hard liquor was considered a rite of passage. We played quarters with straight tequila and went down to Mexico for lost weekends.
The summer after graduation I worked at an Italian restaurant with a bunch of young adults, and it was there I discovered the pleasures of smoking weed and listening to classic rock.
By the time I went to college in Minnesota, I was an accomplished drinker. That worked out well, as it proved to be one of the most popular extracurricular activities on campus. My friends in the dormitory were the other guys who were into swagging beers, firing up the bong, and cranking up tunes. If there was a party going on anywhere, we’d find out about it. Most nights we shut down the only bar in town.
Instead of comic book superheroes, my heroes were now sixties Rock and Rollers and the Romantic poets. I’d taken an acoustic guitar to college, and got busy right away learning songs by Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Band, the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Rolling Stones. If those bands had a song with an acoustic guitar in it, I could play it.
My junior year I started writing my own songs, and was accepted into an exchange program in Oxford, England, to study the poetry of Percy Shelley. In the essay that I’d written for the application, I’d compared a midnight climb a few of my friends and I had taken to the top of a grain elevator, to a poet ascending the rungs of imagination, on his way to an epiphany. I neglected to mention that our inspiration for climbing the tower had come from dropping acid.
The semester I spent in England was life-changing. I also traveled to Scotland, Wales, Amsterdam, France, and Spain during this time, and busked, or played my guitar, in the streets and subways for change. While in Barcelona, I stayed in my first youth hostel, and met travelers from all over the world. I couldn’t believe there were people my age who’d done so many things and been to so many places. When I got out of school, all I wanted to do was travel the world and write songs.
All of my twenties, I was a gypsy and seasonal laborer. I lived in Oregon for a year and discovered the country-blues, listening to Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, and Robert Johnson, and practicing finger-picking blues in the old-growth forest. I lived in New Orleans and tended bar in the French Quarter. I did a couple of fishing seasons in Alaska and traveled to Thailand and Central America. I drank beer probably every day, often enormous amounts of it, and would smoke weed whenever I could score some. After a bad acid trip in Portland, Oregon, one New Year’s Eve, I largely stopped taking psychedelics, but would never say no if the right opportunity came around.
By the time I was thirty, I had a lot of experiences under my belt and a lot of songs that I’d written. I recorded my first record, Ghost on the Roam, in downtown Los Angeles, but found out the hard way how difficult it is to do anything with an art project. I ended up getting a job as a teacher in South Central, where the schedule was work four months, then have two months of vacation. I stayed at that school for ten years.
While teaching in Los Angeles, I took big trips to Mexico, Peru and Bolivia, India, Cuba, Venezuela and Brazil, Australia, Japan, China, Chile and Argentina, Eastern Africa and Egypt, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, Central America, and all over the States. I burned the candle at both ends, teaching by day, and going out to bars at night to listen to bands and hobnob with other musicians. I made six full-length recordings during this time, and only one got a little bit of attention.
It was not unusual for me get sick and hungover from drinking, but the last few years were a bad downward spiral. I’d been suffering from major depression for years, and after it became clear to me that nothing was going to happen with my music, I moved out of my apartment and started living in a hotel downtown. I went from drinking mostly beer to drinking vodka, all the time. It got so bad that I checked myself into an outpatient program, but after a few months started drinking again, certain that it was my job and lack of success that was the problem, not the drinking.
My forties, when most people aspire to be stable and secure, ended up being my wildest decade so far. I had a small pension that I cashed out, then headed down to Central America to become a scuba divemaster and start writing poetry. To make money, I took a job teaching English in Saudi Arabia, and in the next ten years, worked a total of four contracts in the Middle East. I would work for a year, then travel for a year, work for a year, travel for a year. I took huge trips to Africa, Southeast Asia, India and Sri Lanka, the South Pacific, almost all of Europe, almost all of the Americas, and recorded live poetry wherever I went.
Sometimes I wouldn’t drink for months, especially in Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is prohibited, but more often than not I would find a way. When I was traveling, I drank every day, sometimes mad binges, usually just drinks starting in the afternoon, leading up to bed.
Like my music, nothing ever happened with my poetry. I created a lot, but no one ever responded when I tried to put it out. After ten years, I’d been around the world half a dozen times, but was once again broke, with no idea where to go or what to do next.
My longest standing fantasy has always been to return to my birthplace of Hawaii, and go back to being innocent and pure, like I was when I was a child. I’ve dreamed for years about standing on a beach, a healed man, with all of my addictions and disappointments behind me, in touch with my Creator, surrounded by friends, ready to give my heart away, to love and be loved by others.
The last time I went to Hilo I had to drink a bottle of wine every morning, just to keep my anxious thoughts at bay. I found myself surrounded by strangers, and realized I couldn’t afford to even rent a room for a month. I’d pictured myself finally surfing, and it rained every day. I had beautiful songs that I’d written on ukulele, and all they wanted was rap.
My only backup plan was to fly to Vietnam, where at least I could afford a hotel for a few months. I figured I’d probably take a job in China, but inside I just wanted to die. I drank, but never felt happy. I kept traveling, but couldn’t escape. Then COVID happened and even that came to an end.
Forced back to California, I drank until I had a seizure. When I got out of the hospital, I couldn’t keep myself from drinking again. I needed a bottle beside me just to lie down at night. Where could I possibly go from there? My will, which I’d tried to bend the world to for so many years, had run straight into a wall. It was time to get help, or time to die. It had come down to that. There were no other options.