Alcoholics Anonymous History In Your Area
How AA Came to Geneva, Nebraska in 1964
Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., July 2001
It was Saturday night. I should have been uptown at my favorite bar or at the Veterans’ Club but I was home, wrapped in a blanket on the couch. I was feeling poorly and not from “brown bottle flu”. I had a bug of some kind.
Somebody knocked on the door and my wife, Betty, reluctantly admitted a man named Hartley. She thought he came to get me to go out drinking with him but Hartley had a different purpose. He had seen me at an AA meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska a year and a half earlier and he wanted to talk.
Hartley brought with him an armload of Grapevines, AA literature and some mimeographed newsletters from several state penal complexes. He dumped them in my lap and asked if I was staying sober. I told him, “No, I guessed I’d always be a drunk.” Then he asked me the big question, would I help him start an AA group in the little town of Geneva, Nebraska. He said he saw me at that meeting at Fox’s half-way house. He said he had earned a six-months sobriety token from a Lincoln group but he had slipped. For reasons unknown to me at that time, I agreed to help Hartley do this without considering what might come of it.
Hartley was a farmer and I lived in town so he asked me to find a meeting place. He thought it should be a place where we could park our cars and not cause too much curiosity. Small town people are curious folks! He suggested the bank might have a room in which we could meet. He gave me the name of a man he knew in AA from Beatrice and asked me to write him and ask him to help us form an AA group.
Hartley also suggested I write to the General Service Office in New York City, inform them of our intentions and ask them to grant us a charter for the group and send us some membership cards. (Of course there are no such things in AA. They sent us a packet of literature instead).
He also sent me to the post office to rent a post box, saying, “Ask for Number 86 or Number 90.” I asked why these numbers and Hartley said, “They would be easy to remember–86 proof and 90 proof whiskey.” Hartley had a six-months token and I believed he knew all about AA.
Going to the bank, I did not mind. I talked to the bank president and told him I realized I had a note due and that I could not pay it and would he renew it since I was going to become a better credit risk because I was going to quit drinking once we had AA in Geneva. Then I asked if we could meet in a room on the bank’s third floor. He told me he could not let people up there because that floor of the bank building had been condemned for public access.
He also told me he knew my finances were in a mess because I had checks bouncing. But he wished us well and confided to me that he had a relative with a drinking problem and he knew what a curse it was to his family. (I later met his granddaughter at an AA meeting).
The banker suggested I try securing a meeting room in the courthouse. So I made a trip to see the sheriff who had me in jail for drunken driving.
He said he understood alcoholism because some fellows from a neighboring city had left some literature with him. He also said he had sort of an addiction to betting on the horses and his wife was continually scolding him for this.
The sheriff said the only room he could think of was the court room and he suggested some of the people who would be coming to our meetings might feel uncomfortable there and to this I agreed. But in just talking to him, I considered this making an amend of sorts. I told him about me not voting for him at elections past because of being jailed and I told him I was sorry. The sheriff suggested the city library had a meeting room in the basement and maybe I should go see the librarian.
This took some doing on my part. The librarian was the wife of the editor of the newspaper where I worked. But I swallowed my pride, made the proper requests and got a key and permission to use the meeting room on Sunday and Wednesday evenings.
The next chore was a trip to the post office. I knew the lady who waited on me. I drank with her husband. I was there the night she came into the pool hall, took the snooker cue out of her husband’s hand, grabbed his ear between her thumb and forefinger and led him towards the front door, with him grabbing for the part glass of beer he had sitting on the bar.
I told this lady I wanted to rent a post office box for a new organization in town called Alcoholics Anonymous. I said I was supposed to get Box 86 or Box 90. She said the closest she could come was Box 96 and that would have to do. Then she pushed a card over to me and said, “Sign this.”
I told her, “Oh, this isn’t for me, it’s for some friends of mine!” She said, “Oh, come on, Jerry, I know you better than that. Go ahead and sign it.”
As I look back on these experiences I see it as people helping me get honest with myself and I can laugh at it today. I met no hostility, no ridicule and certainly no encouragement in denying my problem. These non-alcoholics really wanted to help me and they all recognized my problem before I did.
Now comes the sad part of this story. One day before that first meeting was scheduled, my friend Hartley was taken off to the State Reformatory for Men in Lincoln. He had gotten drunk, stole a neighbor’s check from the mailbox, forged and cashed it to buy booze. Since he was already on probation away he went. (About two years later Hartley died in the Veterans Hospital in Lincoln. His sister called me to thank the Geneva group for their efforts in Hartley’s behalf. She said booze had damaged every organ in his body. Before he died he was begging the nurse to let him out of bed so he could go buy a bottle and cure himself).
So, there I was, faced with the first AA meeting in that town the next day and I was going to be the only drunk present for the visitors to work on. What did I do? I went where one can find people who drink. I went to the beer tavern.
I had a few, then spotted a man everyone called “Pappy”. We all liked him but he always was under the watchful eye of the bartender because when Pappy got too much he either threw up or soiled his britches. I bought Pappy a beer, sat down beside him and asked if he had ever heard of Alcoholics Anonymous. He surprised me by saying, “Oh, yes! They’re a good outfit. I was sober a whole year down at Hill City, Kansas before I moved up here.” Pappy said, “Let’s go buy a jug, go over to my house and I’ll tell you all about it. My wife is working tonight and we’ll have the place to ourselves.”
So about midnight, I was sitting at Pappy’s kitchen table, the pint of Sunnybrook was gone and Pappy was sleeping on the floor. I found a piece of paper and a pencil and wrote Pappy’s wife a note: “Dear Vera, Pappy and I got drunk tonight but tomorrow is going to be different. We ore going to have AA in Geneva.” I signed it and then staggered on home. I lived about 50 yards from Pappy’s place, across a grassy field that never got mowed, probably because of the many bottles hidden in the grass.
The next morning I just had to go up town and “cure” my head and stomach with a few tomato juice beers. Our town had Sunday beer hours 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. I always used the excuse of taking the kids to Sunday school to get me uptown on a Sunday. Also I promised my wife I’d be back to drive her to church but she learned early in the game that she had better allow time to walk because I’d never show up.
On occasion she would stop at the tavern after church, smelling good and looking good and totally out of place in that element. She would ask me if I was coming home with her to dinner. I felt I was most clever and showed the crowd at the bar who was boss at my house when I would say, “Why spoil a $2 drunk with a 25-cent meal?” And these were pretty much the conditions the day I was to go to that first AA meeting in Geneva.
I did make it home in time to clean up a little bit, make sure my wife was going to come down to the library with me and make a pot of coffee and when I arrived I was most glad to see Pappy’s smiling face already present. Pappy had spent the morning searching out and pouring out part bottles of whiskey at his place. Pappy was taking this seriously!
Bob B. to whom Hartley had me write, had done his job well. There were 35 men and women present, seated in a big circle around the room. They came from the Nebraska towns of Superior, Beatrice, Lincoln, Columbus, York, Grand Island and Hastings. And my wife had 10 cups of coffee for this crowd. We heard about this for many years to come. “We’d like to visit your Geneva group, Jerry, if you promise to have enough coffee.”
Somebody volunteered to be chairman and a short AA story was told by each person. The Al-Anons shared, too. We all said the Lord’s Prayer at the end and they left a Big Book for the group and for both Pappy and I. No hat was passed and later I was told they did not really trust us and they were not about to finance our next drunk!
There was another man from Geneva present but he did not stay. Pappy had urged Jim McC. to attend. He claimed he was a member of the South Sioux City group. He was in trouble with the law when Geneva’s night watchman caught him exiting the drug store via a rear window on the alley. He had a bottle of booze and some pills. He owned the building the store was located in and he worked there. He left Geneva and we never saw him again, although we were told he found AA, got straightened out and became a procurement clerk for the pharmacy at one of the state hospitals.
The first meeting of the Geneva AA group received a small writeup in the local newspaper and a classified advertisement was placed. Since neither Pappy nor I had a telephone we used the Methodist preacher’s phone number as a means of contact. We also named the Geneva library basement as the meeting place and asked interested people to write Box 96 for more information. Our post office box was visited daily but no mail ever was received except for the Grapevine and some letters from the General Service Office.
Pappy and I decided to hold meetings on Wednesday and Sunday evenings at the library and also meet at home for coffee after work. We could see across the grassy field and if I saw his car when I came home, I knew coffee was on and I’d go to his place. If I got home first, I had coffee made and Pappy would come to my place. These nightly meetings consisted mostly of talking about people we knew who still drank and who “needed AA” as bad as we did. Many inventories got taken!
Once when I went to the post office to check the box I was stopped by a postal clerk who told me a brief story about how he and a friend had to have beer when they went fishing. He confidentially asked me to tell him what it took to be an alcoholic. I mailed him the pamphlet “Twenty Questions” and later he thanked me and said, “If we ever get to drinking more than a six-pack apiece while fishing, we will look you up.” This wasn’t exactly a Twelfth Step call but it sure did make me feel good that this man asked and did not make fun of me for quitting like so many did.
Pappy and I grew quite close. I learned more about this kind, gentle man than anybody I’ve ever met in AA. He told me about his background, the oldest boy in a Kansas farm family who made its own liquor because Kansas was a dry state at that time. Pappy’s dad died young and Pappy had only five grades of formal schooling when he had to quit and go to work.
He summed it up for me in one profound statement: “Jerry, I can barely read and write my name. I can understand most of the literature if you will explain some of the bigger words to me and besides not getting much schooling, I burned my brains out on homemade Kansas booze. But I can stay sober if I can just call you my friend.” I answered him by saying, “Pappy, I promise you, I won’t drink if you don’t, and I’ll always be honest with you.”
Pappy used some sayings which must have been typical “Kansas”. Instead of just “telling his story” he called it “testifying”. If somebody “slipped” Pappy would say he was a “back-slider”. He called whiskey “Sneaky Pete” and beer was “Loudmouth”.
He told the most fantastic drinking story that caused many a raised eyebrow in doubt. He frequented Kansas pool halls because that was where he got hauling jobs from farmers. He hauled hay, grain and livestock and drove a small model pickup with a flatbed to get back and forth from town. Coming home one night he failed to negotiate the curving, uphill driveway into their farmyard. The little pickup became airborne, left the rood and landed in a medium-sized tree. The combined weight of the vehicle and Pappy caused the tree to bend to the ground, wherewith Pappy was able to step out unhurt. Minus Pappy’s weight, the tree straightened up and Pappy said he never did live down the fact he lost his pickup to a tree top! He had to hire a crane to get it down.
Pappy’s word of mouth experience, the literature and the Big Book were our total source of AA information. He had been a member of groups in a couple of Kansas small towns, but especially he talked about the Hill City group. He told of a judge down there who pretty well ran this group, which claimed 100 members. We found this figure in the U.S. AA directory. We also noted Kansas had many more small towns with groups than Nebraska did in 1964.
Anyhow, Pappy explained why the Hill City group was so large. The judge would hear the drunks’ stories and then go easy on them if they would commit to going to AA meetings. He tried to find jobs for them and they could sleep in the old building where the group met if they had no place to call home. The judge did not follow the anonimity tradition. He had published in the Hill City newspaper where he was going to speak next and what his subject was going to be. And he kept a busy schedule.
After a month or so, Pappy and I were still meeting at the library basement but we had cut back to one meeting a week, on Sunday evening. We had only one visitor, a resident of California. He got information about the Geneva group from the police department. Being quite dumb about AA procedures, I chose to read from the AA pamphlet, “Twenty-Four Questions”, and I never asked the visitor to share a single word. He didn’t complain and I remember he ducked out when Pappy and I started the Lord’s Prayer. Years later we had a fellow from Texas walk out when the Lord’s Prayer was recited.
Since we seemed to be a “slow growth” outfit, I finally asked Pappy if we should go to York to “see if we were doing it right”. Something surely must be keeping all the drunks in the county from looking us up! At York, a town of about 7,000, the group met in the back of an upholstery shop. When we from Geneva attended, there could be as many as ten members present.
Getting to York created sort of a risk for Pappy and me. Pappy’s wife took his car because she worked nights and Pappy had lost his driver’s license. So that left me to drive the 27 miles to York in my 12-year-old Plymouth with the wobbly rear wheel. And I had no insurance! I acquired this car about a month before I stopped drinking. I was in the tavern doing my usual Saturday thing when some fellows came in to have a quick one before going to the horse races at Grand Island. I found $2, handed it to one of them, saying bet on Horse No.7 in the 7th race.
I was still sitting on the same bar stool when the fellow returned and plunked down $42, saying how lucky I was at picking a long-shot. At first I offered the money to the barkeep, asking that he put a keg on tap so everyone could share in my good fortune. He declined and my drinking companion that day was a mechanic from the Chevrolet garage. He told me he had a good old Plymouth down there that needed a universal joint but otherwise ran good. He sneaked a U-joint into the driveshaft for me without charge and then I bought the car for the $42. As we drove to York in this old heap, Pappy and I would remind each other that since our purpose was good, perhaps our Higher Power would take care of us on these weekly trips, and I guess He did! We never got stopped and had no trouble while on the road. The Plymouth replaced a 1954 Ford I had wrecked.
One day, when the Geneva group was about three months old, the Methodist preacher called me at work and said a man named John F. had called him, wanting to know about the Geneva AA group. We knew John by reputation. He was that hard-luck Irish farmer who had stopped trains on the CB&Q railroad main line when his car stalled on the tracks. John had this habit of turning parallel to the rails instead of crossing them in downtown Grafton. The depot agent would phone ahead and stop the train.
Before we went to call on John, I had put together enough money to have a telephone installed and pay the big deposit required because I was considered a bad credit risk. Anyhow, I called John and set up a meeting at his home. Pappy and I envisioned John as a big man, his nickname was “Jumbo”, and we weren’t sure if he was drinking or not. But when we arrived we found a small, well-tanned man who would not weigh 130 pounds soaking wet! He offered no physical threat to either Pappy or me and he had been sober awhile.
John did tell us that when he was drinking the booze made him want to fight and he was always getting licked after challenging another drunk in the bars. He told us stories of prohibition days in Grafton and of the bootleggers he knew. They sold thin, flat bottles of illegal hootch called pocket cutters, because they would not make a tell-tale bulge in a person’s clothing. John also introduced us to some of the knowledge of what local doctors were doing for drunks. He took pills he called “yellow devils” to control the shakes and to help him go to sleep at night. A nip of whiskey was his eye-opener in the morning.
John farmed many acres. He was not a poor man like Pappy and I. And he went to church, something Pappy and I had not done for many years. He couid tell some pretty wild drunk-a-logs, too. Like the time he thought he saw the tiger under his coffee table. He tried to “kill the tiger” by beating on the table with one of his heavy kitchen chairs. After sobering up, he thought vandals had entered his house during the night and made kindling wood of his furniture. John had been introduced to AA at the primitive “treatment center” at the state hospital at Hastings. He had been driving to Hastings, about 35 miles, to meetings, but decided to put in with Pappy and I with the Geneva group. Grafton is about 12 miles from Geneva.
Pappy, John and I called on our next member, Bill H., at his home. Bill was a carpenter of great skill when he was sober. He, like John, had never married. He lived with his aged father who had plenty of money and who had been put in touch with the Geneva AA group by an insurance and investment broker who had given the group a dozen ash trays. Bill didn’t work much and stayed home as a companion and housekeeper for his father who was a semi-invalid.
Bill had some stories to tell that I’m glad I did not hear while I was still boozing. He beat the high cost of drinking by buying rubbing alcohol at 35 cents a pint and then filtering it through a loaf of bread. He claimed such a process removed the harmful ingredients and made the alcohol palatable. When his dad cut off his allowance in hopes to slow down his drinking, he ingested vanilla and lemon extract and just added these items to the list the grocery delivery boy brought.
Bill was driving without a license and once when he disappeared his dad feared he went on a cruising drunk. Dad called Pappy and reported we had to do something to keep Bill from being arrested. Dad needed him to cook and clean the place where they lived. I was working on the newspaper and we had a deadline to meet, so I did not get in on the search for Bill. Pappy and John drove better than half a day looking for Bill and after giving up, they went home to receive a call from Dad saying that Bill had been taking a nap in his car in the garage and had driven no place that day!
After awhile, Member No.4 showed up. Harry G., who farmed near Shickley, started attending our meetings. Harry claimed the record in Fillmore county with 27 arrests for intoxication. He also had seven charges of driving while intoxicated against him. Today this would have been cause for the law to lift his license, but before 1964 Harry just hired a lawyer and he got off with second offense each time. The last time he told us the lawyer alone got $750 for getting him off.
Twice Harry went to treatment. First he went to Hastings to the state hospital. Here he conned his wife into believing that they were “tapering him off and he had to furnish his own booze”, so she was bringing him a pint each visit. Then Harry took early release to help in the fall harvest at home. Harry had a bad heart and every time he had a flurry of heart trouble, he’d come to meetings and lay off booze.
The second time Harry went for treatment he had John drive him down to Norton, Kansas to the Valley Hope Treatment Center. This place was formerly a motel and had quite a campus. When John and Harry drove into the place they saw a class just being dismissed and people were walking across the campus. Harry stopped a large young man who was carrying a teddy bear. He asked first where the office was and then asked this athletic type person what he was doing with the teddy bear. The young man said he had a belligerent and destructive personality when he was drinking and he had to carry the teddy bear to teach himself gentleness. According to John, Harry turned to him saying, “Get me the hell out of here! I may be a drunk but they’re all crazy here!”
Paul B. was our next member. He had gone through treatment at Hastings and Paul had to take a doubly serious try at sobriety. He was a diabetic and knew booze and diabetes were a deadly combination. He had already blown his business in a small-town meat market and grocery near Geneva. He then got a new job as a meat-cutter in Hastings. Paul went to my sponsor in York and told him that “Jerry must tell John and Harry to quit taking up the meeting time talking about farming and concentrate on the Steps.” The word was passed to me and I spoke to John about the situation and I got told the only reason John came to the Geneva meetings was for the sociability of it. So since nobody really “runs” AA, I kept quiet and Paul dropped us and began going to meetings in Hastings.
Paul did well and of the first six members of that Geneva group, other than myself, he was last to die. Pappy was first of the originals to pass away. He was sober five years when some rare blood disease took him. We went to his funeral and Vera asked us to sit with the family. She introduced us as “Pappy’s special friends”. Harry had a heart attack and died while moving an irrigation pipe a few years later and John lasted into his late eighties and died at the Geneva nursing home in the early 1990’s.
Soon the first anniversary of the Geneva group was approaching. We had made Bill treasurer, each giving him a dollar at the end of the meetings. We made big plans for the open anniversary meeting. Bill said we had $50 in the kitty and we sent out written invitations to our families, our bosses, to the local ministry, to law officers, including lawyers and judges and to the doctors and nurses we knew.
We engaged the use of the Congregational church sanctuary for the meeting and obtained a speaker, Lloyd F., of Hastings. Then Bill disappeared. He had spent the money for vodka and was on a good one. His dad notified us of this predicament and offered to reimburse the money. We told him we couldn’t take his money and mode up a new kitty out of our pockets. We begged Bill to come back but he wouldn’t. He avoided us from then on and as far as anyone knows, he died still drinking.
The day came for the meeting. We all wore suits and our families had bought us white carnation boutonnieres to wear. The speaker arrived, took a look and exclaimed, “Is this an AA meeting or is it a wake?…Who died?” We had ham sandwiches, pie and coffee for 100 people and only about 25 showed up. The speaker was excellent and concluded his remarks by shaking our hands and exclaiming, “Congratulations! Now you are in AA Kindergarten!”
I cannot speak for the others. They are all deceased. But this anniversary meeting was a humbling experience for me. I learned that not everyone is interested in who is staying sober. I had a lot more people paying attention to my activities when I was drinking. But I do believe that the Higher Power took over this group at times and we were rewarded not so much for what we accomplished but for what we tried to do for the good of those who still suffer. The Geneva group still exists and I am told it meets three times a week now and the women have branched off and formed a group of their own.
Jerry P., Hastings, Nebraska
Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., July 2001