IT is more than incidental to this story that as a practicing alcoholic I cared little for motion pictures. Part of the reason, I believe, was rooted in a peculiar, somewhat appalling mental apparatus that enabled me to stage productions of my own.
With the first drink, a projector would start grinding out an extravaganza in which I performed amazing feats of valor and reached heights of achievement that were unprecedented in human affairs. These productions were in Technicolor and Cinemascope, and while Hollywood was still groping for the key to stereophonic sound, I had already utilized that discovery via the uncorked bottle.
To the bartender and the other patrons of the fifth-rate bar, I was a maudlin and malodorous drunk sitting in the last booth, and would have to be kicked out after my next drink.
Unbeknownst to them, at that moment I was Henri Dubois, the brilliant and resourceful secret operative of the French Sureté, and was racing across the European continent in a luxurious passenger train to keep a daring tryst with a desperate band of enemy agents, whom I would capture after a brief gun battle in a darkened street in Cologne or Copenhagen. Henri Dubois was an earthy sort of fellow who quickly returned to Paris after each triumph to be congratulated by his superiors and, most important, to spend a few days touring the famed drinking establishments of that city with Suzette, the beautiful and provocative lady agent who accompanied him on all but the most dangerous of his missions.
But there came a day when crime must have been rampant and completely unchecked in France, for the master sleuth of the Sureté was spending all of his time in the Paris bistros with Suzette.
When I tired of cloak-and-dagger thrillers and Paris, my built-in camera would focus on a Western scene. Tuned in on this frequency, I emerged as Lash Lonehand, the fighting and courageous lawman of tempestuous Abliene. I tilted my glass, the scene focussed clearly, and abruptly I stood in the center of the rutted main street of that small frontier town, while a hundred yards away, at the end of the street, the most dangerous killer in the southwest swaggered through the doors of the Sudden Death Saloon and moved towards me in a deadly half crouch.
All along the street people dived for shelter, and then watched in fascinated silence as the gap between us slowly closed. The tension quickened, and momentarily held the whole town paralyzed.
Suddenly the killer's hand blurred in my vision as he made a lightning draw for his pistol. It was to no avail, for Lash's sixgun cleared his holster with all the blinding speed of a striking cobra, and as the staccato burst of gunfire died away and reverberated along the housetops, the badman swayed soddenly and toppled face-forward into the street.
As Lash Lonehand, I always won, and later there were awed congratulations from the admiring well-wishers and backslappers in the saloons, while Flo, the dance-hall girl, sat on my lap and poured the drinks. Soon Abilene must have descended into an inferno of corruption, for the fearless lawman of the plains was spending all his time in the saloons with Flo.
But sometimes the dream was of a more altruistic nature. Another Dr. Martin Arrowsmith, I boarded a small South American packet vessel bound for the Latin Republic of Bolitivia, where the population was being decimated by an epidemic of Cactus Cholera, a mysterious, baffling plague which was thought to have been brought into the country by the Lower Slobbovian swamp mosquito.
With the aid of my beauteous South American assistant, Juanita, I erected a crude laboratory in the jungle swamps, and, though almost losing my life in the process, eventually hit upon the serum that halted the epidemic. The grateful inhabitants of the country all but overwhelmed me with lavish praise. I was bibulously modest, however, and preferred to spend my time in the quiet coolness of the bar of the International Bolitivia Hotel, drinking tequila and Brazilian beer with Juanita. But soon the aura of altruism fled from the dream, and I seemed to be spending all my time in the hotel bar.
Late in the afternoon or evening my reveries were inevitably interrupted by the bartender. He was not aware, of course, of my other identities as Henri Dubois, Lash Lonehand, or the conqueror of Cactus Cholera, and seemed intent only on removing me from the premises. The reels of the projector then stopped turning as I wobbled waveringly out the door and down the street, and to all who saw me I was what I really was: the maudlin and malodorous drunk who had to be kicked out of a fifth-rate bar.
Variations of this occurred probably hundreds of times, but there came a dawn from the awful darkness of this miserable phantasy: the dawn of AA. It has now been over five years since alcohol's anesthesia has admitted me to the dubious glories of being a cloak-and-dagger agent or a frontier gun-fighter. These vicarious thrills I now purchase along with a bag of popcorn from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and have even become a homespun authority on matters cinematic, and can describe in detail everything from the implements of warfare used in Ivanhoe to the type of plumbing in the Sioux Indian tepees in Chief Crazy Horse and White Feather.
When that type of film production was the vogue, I was the only guy in town with contact lenses made for 3-D. And the best of it is that the only hangover I've experienced so far from daydreaming by way of the film exploits of Alan Ladd or Gary Cooper seems to be a mild constriction of the eyeballs and heartburn from too much popcorn.
For a long time it was embarrassing to remember the absurdity of these infantile dreams of fame and power, but I gradually learned that this sort of thing is, in a general way, quite common in alcoholism. And perhaps it has helped to make me somewhat more tolerant of the still-practicing alcoholics I meet. . .after all, I can easily reason, as I happen to observe an alcoholic being forcibly ushered from the dingy depths of a fifth-rate bar. . .after all, it just might be that he too is Henri Dubois or the conqueror of Cactus Cholera. And I humbly acknowledge that but for God and AA there go I too, as he wobbles waveringly down the street, leaving his dreams behind in the smoky mist of the bar.
Copyright ©1944 - The AA Grapevine,
All Rights Reserved. Reprints by permission only.