ONE EVENING at a meeting, a shapeless old felt hat came floating up from the past, bringing with it a stab of guilt and regret. But the AA program, always a miracle worker when rightfully applied, transformed this ugly memory into something of good purpose. I'd like to share it with you.
The Hat--El Sombrero--belonged to a man of Mexican descent, a man whose English was so poor that he could hardly pronounce "hat." I don't remember his name, if I ever knew it. But without fully realizing it at the time, I harmed him--perhaps greatly.
I had never told the story until this night, when I attended a small Spanish-speaking meeting in Lansing, Mich. In our area, most Spanish-speaking people are of Mexican descent, some from lower Texas. Many such Americans apparently can express themselves with far greater ease in this kind of group. Similar groups meet in many larger American cities and throughout the Spanish-speaking countries of the world. A generous assortment of AA literature in Spanish was available on a nearby table, and the chairman was reading from AA's Big Book, also in Spanish.
As a dabbler in that language, I could pick up only fragments of the discussion, but an extraordinarily good feeling told me that the meeting was going well. Even the new man present had something to say. I learned that he was still in the alcoholism unit at a local hospital, and that we would be returning him to the ward after the meeting. Here again, the need for the Spanish-speaking group was obvious. There were AA meetings daily at the hospital, but this man's English was particularly limited. In his own language, he became quite voluble.
Then, just before it was my turn to speak, I had my disturbing recollection of The Hat, El Sombrero. It was difficult to think about that time when I may have harmed a man solely because he was a Mexican.
Back in 1947, when I was twenty-two, I was working for the summer at a railroad icing station in Idaho. One morning, I was assigned to work on the tower, where the 400-pound blocks of ice emerged from the ice-storage house and traveled by conveyor down to a lower platform. Here, the ice was broken and hurled into the bunkers of refrigeration cars carrying freshly harvested produce to the eastern markets.
In this rush season, several Mexicans worked on the icing crew, although they were seldom hired as permanent employees. Often, they were transients, and from time to time a "wetback" would be arrested and sent home. The two of us working on the tower weren't happy that a Mexican transient was assigned to help us that day, when our regular working companion didn't report to work. The new man had been at the icehouse only a few days, but he was already marked as quick-tempered and surly. Though his English was poor, he could always find words for complaint or criticism. We took an instant dislike to him, and it was obvious that he didn't like us.
Though I hadn't been drinking that morning, my attitudes were those of the sick, prideful alcoholic. (My drinking problem already had become serious, and within three years I would be having my last drink and joining AA.) Before the morning was out, I had badgered the Mexican into a showdown that almost ended in tragedy.
During a lull in traffic, the Mexican's hat blew off and fell to the ground below. Cursing bitterly, he jammed his ice pick into the wooden floor and disappeared down the stairway. I looked over the rail, and spotted The Hat lying in the cinders. We began to toss small chunks of ice at it, causing it to jump around in the dust. Others on the platform below saw what we were doing, and began to cheer us on. By the time the Mexican reached The Hat, it had been battered into a wet ball and smeared with the gray dust of the tracks.
He slowly picked up The Hat and brushed it off. We pretended to be very busy as he reappeared on the tower platform, now wearing The Hat, but still brushing bits of dust and moisture from the brim. Walking past us, he suddenly seized his ice pick and pointed it in my direction. "My hat!" he shouted. "You throw ice on my hat!" His dark face twisted in fury, he lowered the pick so that it was directed at my stomach. He began to move across the platform. I was standing there, paralyzed with fear, when the third man on the platform seized another pick and stepped quickly into the Mexican's path.
Realizing he was outnumbered, the Mexican stopped and stared fiercely at us for a moment. Then he seemed to calm down. He looked about, and saw that all work on the lower platform had stopped and angry men were looking up at us. He flung away the pick with a curse, swooped up his light jacket, and hurried down the stairway.
The Mexican disappeared without even taking steps to collect the pay due him. We assumed, rather self-righteously, that he had chosen flight over the possible risk of arrest for attempted assault with a deadly weapon. Strangely enough, it wasn't until several years later that another reason for his speedy disappearance came to me. The man was probably a wetback, in the country illegally and therefore unable to face even a routine police investigation.
By the time this thought occurred to me, I was sober and living on a new basis in AA. Then I found it a troubling memory, which surfaced whenever I read something about wetbacks. I could even work up a mental picture of an impoverished family in a border town in Mexico, denied a sizable paycheck with overtime because we had driven the man from the job. True, it wasn't something that had happened during one of my drunken escapades. But it had come about through the thoughtless, immature behavior that characterized most of my actions, drunk or sober. Of course, there was no way of making amends to the man.
As I sat at the table with the three members of the Spanish-speaking group, the incident of The Hat came back again with perfect clarity. Looking at the darkest member of the group, I could almost have believed that he was the twin of the man on the tower. His English was just as broken. I wondered what these AAs would think of me if I told them of the incident.
Suddenly, the story spilled out, as if I couldn't keep from telling it. Three Latin faces peered intently at me as I told all the details, including a reference to the cocksure feeling we had that the foreman and the police would side with us in any investigation. When I speculatively remarked that the man must have been a wetback, the three men at the table nodded. They had known wetbacks all their lives, and probably even know a few in Lansing today who have no work papers.
As I told the story, a wonderful feeling came over me. It was the feeling of a burden removed, the kind of thing one always gets when he puts the Fifth Step into practice. There was also the wonderful feeling of no longer caring what the reaction might be to my story. As I finished the account, I felt completely at peace. I wouldn't have been greatly perturbed if all three of the Spanish-speaking members had suddenly leaped across the table at me, brandishing long-handled ice picks.
But I could tell that the confession--for that's what it was--had impressed them. I'm sure they knew that it came from the heart, and perhaps they shared the feeling I received from getting it off my chest. I now felt as comfortable with this group as I had ever felt with any group in all my years in AA.
And I wasn't at all prepared for the AA surprise that followed. The darkest member (who reminded me of the man with The Hat) made a confession of his own. He told how he had worked many years earlier as a farm laborer for a well-to-do American family. Though they trusted him, he had stolen from them continually, and was never found out during the years of his employment. But after joining AA, he had felt heavy guilt over his behavior, all the more so because the family had treated him well. It was too late to make restitution, he added, but he could at least make partial amends by trying to help other alcoholics in the AA program.
With that, we concluded our meeting, reciting together El Padre Nuestro. I was very happy to be with this group of Alcoholicos Anonimos who shared their experiencia, fortaleza, and esperanza with each other so that they could solve their common problem and help others to stop drinking.
And the problem of El Sombrero hasn't bothered me since.