I was three.
***Correction: I was four.
But I remember the night my father was brought home with a forehead full of glass and a broken hip.
I remember two of the friends who came to help my mother.
A few miles of rolling Missouri fields away, the police were telling my aunt that her husband would not be coming home, ever.
My father and my uncle had driven together to a church meeting that evening.
On their drive home, as they crested a hill, a car full of drunk teenagers crossed the center line and hit them head-on.
My uncle, who was driving, was killed instantly.
***Correction: My dad was the driver. My father was badly hurt. I do not know why he was not taken straight to the hospital that night. Perhaps he refused to go. Perhaps the EMTs didn’t think he was injured badly.
***Correction: My dad was taken to the hospital by ambulance, but at the hospital, the nurses/doctors just wrapped his head in gauze without removing the glass from all the lacerations. They ignored his insisting that his hip hurt the worst and did not even x-ray it. They x-rayed his head and his knee and left him shivering on the cold marble table for a very long time. A brace from the car had speared his knee all the way through and that looked like the worst wound to them, so they wrapped it up and ignored the rest.
Soon after “the wreck,” as us kids always referred to it, my dad developed pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. The doctor told my mother that it was common for people who suffered an impact to the chest in a car accident to develop pneumonia. While still weak from the pneumonia, my father developed a second infection and had to be hospitalized again.
I remember that it seemed like forever that he was in the hospital. I think it was actually about two months total. I remember asking my mother when daddy would be coming home.
A few miles away, my pregnant aunt had to tell her 5 children that their daddy was not coming home.
The family of the drunk teenagers sued my aunt, demanding that she pay damages and the medical bills for their son’s broken leg because my uncle had been the driver of the car they collided with.
This was my first “experience” with alcohol. I learned then that alcohol was a killer and not a fair killer either. Alcohol killed the innocent. Alcohol took people’s daddies away. Alcohol took away other things too. My father walks with a limp to this day–although most people probably don’t notice because he is so tall, and he sort of rolls along like a ship that lists to one side slightly. Alcohol took basketball away from my dad. Something he loved to play (and was good enough that he was offered a contract to play with an Australian team before he was married.) He never complained about it, but us kids knew he didn’t play because of his hip.
In my religion, we follow a health code that we call The Word of Wisdom. God has told us that “strong drinks are not for the body” so we do not drink alcohol.
As a child and a teenager, I could not understand why anyone would drink alcohol. To me, alcohol equalls death.
When I was sixteen, I worked in an office. My boss was a part-time sheriff for the county. One day he told me how he had pulled over some teenagers who were drinking and driving. He gave them a warning and made them pour out their beer. He told me this story, I think, because he wanted me to be impressed by how cool he was and how understanding of teenagers he was.
I remember just staring at him, wanting, but not brave enough to say, “Drunk teenagers killed my uncle. You should have been more harsh with them.”
Now as an adult, I don’t know. Maybe he was right. Teenagers don’t often respond to harshness. Maybe his way was an effective way to teach them a lesson.
Now as an adult, I can understand a little that if a person grew up in a home where people drank alcohol often and nothing bad came of it, or the bad that did was laughed off as a funny story, that they would see no harm in drinking.
I believe God warned us not to drink alcohol for the same reason I tell my children to stay away from venomous snakes. Snakes aren’t bad, but they are dangerous. It isn’t so much because alcohol is bad, but because it is dangerous. It dulls our minds. It makes us less able to hear Him. It makes us less able to make good decisions. Under it’s influence, you can hurt others. Those who become addicted to it are chained as surely as any slave ever was.
When I was 19, I joined the military. In our company of about 120 basic trainees, one soldier was chosen as the “Soldier of the Cycle” the best of our class. The soldier chosen was a tall young man from New York but of Pacific Islander decent. He was a hard worker and an impressive soldier. One afternoon, a group of us were talking, and somehow it came out that I didn’t drink alcohol. He became very excited. He wanted to know why I did not drink alcohol. I told him it was because of my religion. He told me that he had never met anyone who did not drink, but because of the way he had seen alcohol devastate his parent’s lives, he had made a pledge to himself to never drink alcohol.
His courage to change his family legacy all by himself was very inspiring to me.
I don’t judge others who drink alcohol. I know many good people who do. But I would judge myself, if I ever drank, because I know it’s wrong. To me, drinking alcohol would make me complicit in my uncle’s death. I would become one of his killers. I would in effect be saying, “I don’t care who I hurt by drinking this, I’m going to have some fun.”
I could not do that.