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W.'s Talk in Cleveland, Ohio, 1950
A.A.'s 15th Anniversary everybody knew that we had grown
up. There couldn't be any doubt about it. Members, families
and friendsseven thousand of them spent three inspiring,
almost awesome days with our good hosts at Cleveland.
theme song of our Conference was gratitude; its keynote
was the sure realization that we are now welded as one,
the world over. As never before, we dedicated ourselves
to the single purpose of carrying good news of A.A. to those
millions who still don't know.
we affirmed the Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, we asked
that we might remain in perfect unity under the Grace of
God for so long as he may need us.
what did we do? Well, we had meetings, lots of them. The
medical meeting, for instance. Our first and greatest friend
Dr. Silkworth couldn't get there. But his associate at Knickerbocker
Hospital, New York, Dr. Meyer Texon, most ably filled the
gap, telling how best the general hospital could relate
itself to us. He clinched his points by a careful description
how, during the past four years at Knickerbocker, 5000 drunks
had been sponsored, processed and turned loose in A. A.;
and this to the great satisfaction of everybody concerned,
including the hospital, whose Board was delighted with the
results and specially liked the fact that its modest charges
were invariably paid, money on the line. Who had ever heard
of 5000 drunks who really paid their bills? Then Dr. Texon
brought us up to the minute on the malady of alcoholism
as they see it at Knickerbocker; he said it was a definite
personalitydisorder hooked to a physical craving. That certainly
made sense to most of us. Dr. Texon threw a heavy scare
into prospective "slippees." It was that little
matter of one's liver. This patient organ, he said, would
surely develop hob nails or maybe galloping cirrhosis, if
more guzzling went on. He had a brand new one too, about
salt water, claiming that every alcoholic on the loose had
a big salt deficiency. Fill the victim with salt water,
he said, and you'd quiet him right down. Of course we thought,
"Why not put all drunks on salt water instead of gin?
Then the world alcohol problem might be solved overnight."
But that was our idea, not Dr. Texon's.To him, many thanks.
the industrial meeting: Jake H., U.S. Steel, and Dave M.,
Dupont, both A.A.'s, led it. Mr. Louis Selser, Editor of
the Cleveland Press, rounded out the session and brought
down the house. Jake, as an officer of Steel, told what
the company really thought about A.A. - and it was all good.
Jake noted A.A.s huge collective earning power - somewhere
between 1/4 and 1/2 billion of dollars annually.
of being a nerve-wracking drag on society's collective pocket
book, we were now, for the most part, top grade employables
who could contribute a yearly average of $4,000 apiece to
our country's well being.
M., personnel man at Dupont who has a special eye to the
company's alcohol problem, related what the "New Look"
on serious drinking had meant to Dupont and its workers
of all grades. According to Dave, his company believes mightily
all odds the most stirring testimony at the industrial seminar
was given by Editor Louis Selser. Mr. Selser spoke to us
from the viewpoint of an employer, citizen and veteran newspaper
man. It was about the most moving expression of utter confidence
in Alcoholics Anonymous we had ever heard. It was almost
too good; its implications brought us a little dismay. How
could we fallible A.A's ever measure up to Mr. Selser's
high hope for our future?
began to wonder if the A.A. reputation wasn't getting far
better than its actual character.
came that wonderful session on prisons. Our great friend,
Warden Duffy told the startling story of our original group
at San Quentin. His account of A.A.'s 5-year history there
had a moving prelude. We heard a recording, soon for radio
release, that thrillingly dramatized an actual incident
of A.A. life within the walls. An alcoholic prisoner reacts
bitterly to his confinement and develops amazing ingenuity
in finding and drinking alcohol. Soon he becomes too ingenious.
In the prison paint shop he discovers a promising fluid
which he shares with his fellow alcoholics. It was deadly
poison. Harrowing hours followed, during which several of
them died. The whole prison was tense as the fatalities
continued to mount. Nothing but quick blood transfusions
could save those still living.
San Quentin A.A. Group volunteered instantly and spent the
rest of that long night giving of themselves as they had
never given before. A.A. hadn't been any too popular, but
now prison morale hit an all time high and stayed there.
Many of the survivors joined up. The first Prison Group
had made its mark; A.A. had come to San Quentin to stay.
Duffy then spoke. Apparently we folks on the outside know
nothing of prison sales resistance. The skepticism of San
Quentin prisoners and keepers alike had been tremendous.They
thought A.A. must be a racket. Or maybe a crackpot religion.
Then, objected the prison board, why tempt providence by
freely mixing prisoners with outsiders, alcoholic women
especially. Bedlam would be unloosed. But our friend the
Warden, somehow deeply convinced, insisted on A.A. To this
day, he said, not a single prison rule has ever been broken
at an A.A. meeting though hundreds of gatherings have been
attended by hundreds of prisoners with almost no watching
at all. Hardly needed is that solitary, sympathetic guard
who sits in the back row.
Warden added that most prison authorities throughout the
United States and Canada today share his views of Alcoholics
Anonymous. Hitherto 8O% of paroled alcoholic prisoners had
to be scooped up and taken back to jail. Many institutions
now report that this percentage has dropped to one-half,
even one-third of what it used to be.
Duffy had traveled 2000 miles to be with us at Cleveland.
We soon saw why. He came because he is a great human being.
Once again, we A.A.'s sat and wondered how far our reputation
had got ahead of our character.
we men folk couldn't go to the meeting of the alcoholic
ladies. But we have no doubt they devised ways to combat
the crushing stigma that still rests on those poor gals
who hit the bottle. Perhaps, too, our ladies had debated
how to keep the big bad wolf at a respectful distance. But
no, the A.A. sister transcribing this piece crisply assures
me nothing of the sort was discussed. A wonderfully constructive
meeting, she says it was. And about 500 girls attended.
think of it, A.A. was four years old before we could sober
up even one. Life for the alcoholic woman is no sinecure.
were other special sufferers overlooked, such as paid Intergroup
secretaries, plain everyday secretaries, our newspaper editors
and the wives and husbands of alcoholics, sometimes known
as our "forgotten people." I'm sure the secretaries
concluded that though sometimes unappreciated, they still
love every moment of their work.
the editors decided, I haven't learned. Judging from their
telling efforts over the years, it is altogether possible
they cameup with many an ingenious idea.
agreed that the wives (and husbands) meeting wasan eye opener.
Some recalled how Anne S. in the Akron early days, had been
boon companion and advisor to distraught wives. She clearly
saw alcoholism as a family problem.
we A.A.'s went all out on the work of sobering up incoming
alkies by the thousands. Our good wives seemed entirely
lost in that prodigious shuffle. Lots of the newer localities
held closed meetings only, it looked like A.A. was going
exclusive. But of late this trend has whipped about. More
and more our partners have been taking the Twelve Steps
into their own lives. As proof of this, witness the 12th
step work they are doing with the wives andhusbands of newcomers,
and note well those wives' meetings now springing up everywhere.
their Cleveland gathering they invited us alcoholics to
listen. Many an A.A. skeptic left that session convinced
that our "forgotten ones" really had something.
As one alkie put it - "The deep understanding and spirituality
I felt in that wives' meeting was something out of the world."
from it, the Cleveland Conference wasn't all meetings. Take
that banquet, for example. Or should I say banquets? The
original blueprint called for enough diners to fill the
Rainbow Room of Hotel Carter. But the diners did much better.
Gay banqueteers quickly overflowed the Ballroom. Finally
the Carter Coffee Shop and Petit Cafe had to be cleared
for the surging celebrants. Two orchestras were drafted
and our fine entertainers found they had to play their acts
twice, both upstairs and down.
nobody turned up tight, you should have heard those A.A.'s
sing. Slap-happy, they were. And why not?
a serious undertone crept in as we toasted the absent ones.
We were first reminded of the absent by that A.A. from the
Marshall Islands who, though all alone out there, still
claimed his group had three members, to wit: "God,
the book Alcoholics Anonymous and me." The first leg
of his 7,000 mile journey to Cleveland had finished at Hawaii
whence with great care and refrigeration he had brought
in a cluster of floral tributes, those leis for which the
Islands are famous. One of these was sent by the A.A. lepers
at Molokai - those isolated A.A.'s who will always be of
us, yet never with us. We swallowed hard, too, when we thought
of Dr. Bob, alone at home, gravely ill.
toast of the evening was to that A.A. who, more than anything,
wanted to be at Cleveland when we came of age. Unhappily
he never got to the Tradition meeting, he had been carried
off by a heart attack. His widow came in his place and she
cheerfully sat out that great event with us. How well her
quiet courage will be remembered. But at length gaiety took
over; we danced till midnight. We knew the absent ones would
want it that way.
thousand of us crowded into the Cleveland Music Hall for
the Tradition meeting, which was thought by most A.A.'s
to be the high point of our Conference. Six old time stalwarts,
coming from places as far flung as Boston and San Diego,
beautifully reviewed the years of A.A. experience which
had led to the writing of our Traditions.
Then I was asked to sum up, which I did, saying:
"That, touching all matters affecting A.A. unity, our
common welfare should come first; that A.A. has now human
authority - only God as He may speak in our Group Conscience;
that our leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern;
that any alcoholic may become an A.A. member if he says
so -- we exclude no one; that every A.A. Group may manage
its own affairs as it likes, provided surrounding groups
are not harmed thereby; that we A.A.'s have but a single
aimthe carrying of our message to the alcoholic who
still suffers; that in consequence we cannot finance, endorse
or otherwise lend the name "Alcoholics Anonymous"
to any other enterprise, however worthy; that A.A., as such,
ought to remain poor, lest problems of property, management
and money divert us from our sole aim; that we ought to
be self - supporting, gladly paying our small expenses ourselves;
that A.A. should forever remain non-professional, ordinary
12th step work never to be paid for; that, as a Fellowship,
we should never be organized but may nevertheless create
responsible Service Boards or Committees to insure us better
propagation and sponsorship and that these agencies may
engage full time workers for special tasks; that our public
relations ought to proceed upon the principle of attraction
rather than promotion, it being better to let our friends
recommend us; that personal anonymity at the level of press,
radio and pictures ought to be strictly maintained as our
best protection against the temptations of power or personal
ambition; and finally, that anonymity before the general
public is the spiritual key to all our traditions, ever
reminding us we are always to place principles before personalities,
that we are actually to practice a genuine humility. This
to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us;
that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of
Him who presides over us all."
summing up, I then inquired if those present had any objections
to the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous as they
stood. Hearing none, I offered our Traditions for adoption.
Impressively unanimous, the crowd stood up. So ended that
fine hour in which we of Alcoholics Anonymous took our destiny
by the hand.
Sunday morning we listened to a panel of four A. A.'s who
portrayed the spiritual side of Alcoholics Anonymousas
they understood it. What with churchgoers and late-rising
banqueteers, the Conference Committee had never guessed
this would be a heavy duty session. But churchgoers had
already returned from their devotions and hardly a soul
stayed abed. Hotel Cleveland's ballroom was filled an hour
before hand. People who have fear that A.A. is losing interest
in things of the spirit should have been there.
hush fell upon the crowd as we paused for a moment of silence.
Then came the speakers, earnest and carefully prepared,
all of them. I cannot recall an A.A. gathering where the
attention was more complete, or the devotion deeper.
some thought that those truly excellent speakers had, in
their enthusiasm, unintentionally created a bit of a problem.
It was felt the meeting had gone over far in the direction
of religious comparison, philosophy and interpretation,
when by firm long standing tradition we A.A.'s had always
left such questions strictly to the chosen faith of each
member rose with a word of caution. As I heard him, I thought,
"What a fortunate occurrence. How well we shall always
remember that A.A. is never to be thought of as a religion.
How firmly we shallinsist that A.A. membership cannot depend
upon any particular belief whatever; that our twelve steps
contain no article of religious faith except faith in Godas
each of us understands Him. How carefully we shall henceforth
avoid any situation which could possibly lead us to debate
matters of personal religious belief."
was, we felt, a great Sunday morning.
afternoon we filed into the Cleveland Auditorium. The big
event was the appearance of Dr. Bob. Earlier we thought
he'd never make it, his illness had continued so severe.
him once again was an experience we seven thousand shall
always treasure. He spoke in a strong, sure voice for ten
minutes, and he left us a great heritage, a heritage by
which we A.A.'s can surely grow.
was the legacy of one who had been sober since June 10,
1935, who saw our first Group to success, and one who, in
the fifteen years since, had given both medical help and
vital A.A. to 4,000 of our afflicted ones at good St. Thomas
Hospital in Akron, the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Simplicity, devotion, steadfastness and loyalty; these,
we remembered, were the hallmarks of that character which
Dr. Bob had well implanted in so many of us. I, too, could
gratefully recall that in all the years of our association
there had never been an angry word between us.
were our thoughts as we looked at Dr. Bob.
for an hour I tried to sum up. Yet how could one add much
to what we had all seen, heard and felt in those three wonderful
days? With relief and certainty we had seen that A.A. could
never become exhibitionistic or big business; that its early
humility and simplicity is very much with us, that we are
still mindful our beloved Fellowship is really God's success
- not ours.
evidence I shared a vision of A.A. as Lois and I saw it
unfold on a distant beach head in far Norway. The vision
began with one A.A. who listened to a voice in his conscience,
and then said all he had.
a Norwegian-American, came to us at Greenwich, Connecticut,
five years ago. His parents back home hadn't heard from
him in twenty years. He began to send letters telling them
of his new freedom. Back came very disquieting news. The
family reported his only brother in desperate condition,
about to lose all through alcohol. What could be done? The
A.A. from Greenwich had a long talk with his wife. Together
they took a decision to sell their little restaurant, all
they had. They would go to Norway to help the brother. A
few weeks later an airliner landed them at Oslo. They hastened
from field to town and thence 25 mile down the fijord where
the ailing brother lived. He was in a bad state all right.
Unfortunately, though, everybody saw it but him. He'd have
no A.A., no American nonsense. He an alcoholic? Why certainly
not! Of course the man from Greenwich had heard such objections
before. But now this familiar argument was hard to take.
Maybe he had sold all he had for no profit to anybody. George
persisted every bit he dared, but finally surmised it was
no use. Determined to start an A.A. Group in Norway, anyhow,
he began a round of Oslo's clergy and physicians. Nothing
happened, not one of them offered him a single prospect.
Greatly cast down, he and his wife thought it high time
they got back to Connecticut.
Providence took a hand. The rebellious Norwegian obligingly
tore off on one of his fantastic periodics. In the final
anguish of his hangover he cried out to the man from Greenwich,
"Tell me again of the "Alcoholics Anonymous",
What, oh my brother, shall I do?"
perfect simplicity George retold the A.A. story. When he
had done, he wrote out, in his all but forgotten Norwegian,
a longhand translation of a little pamphlet published by
the White Plains, N.Y. Group. It contained, of course, our
Twelve Steps of recovery. The family from Connecticut then
flew away home. The Norwegian brother, himself a typesetter,
commenced to place tiny ads in the Oslo newspapers. He explained
he was a recovered alcoholic who wished to help others.
At last a prospect appeared. When the newcomer was told
the story and shown the White Plains pamphlet, he, too,
sobered instantly. The founders to be then placed more ads.
years after, Lois and I alighted upon that same airfield.
We then learned that Norway has hundreds of A.A.'s. And
good ones. The men of Oslo had already carried the lifegiving
news to other Norwegian cities and these beacons burned
brightly. It had all been just as simple, but just as mysterious
the final moments of our historic Conference it seemed fitting
to read from the last chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. These
were the words we took home with us:
yourself to God as you understand God. Admit your faults
to Him and your fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your
past. Give freely of what you find, and join us. We shall
be with you, in the Fellowship of The Spirit, and you will
surely meet some of us as you trudge the road of happy destiny.
May God bless you and keep youuntil then."