First of all, a disclaimer… I do not want, nor would I ever attempt to have my personal life-choices imposed upon ANYONE else. So, as you read this consider it to be an explanation and not a sermon. Every person makes their own choices in life… like it or not.
Tiz the Holiday season and as is the case every year at this time there are parties, the booze flows freely- “come on, have one,” is the offering. And when I tell the host, or self-appointed bar tender that I don’t drink that awkward expression comes to their face as they meekly withdraw. Often there is a slight gasp,
“You don’t drink?” they ask in puzzlement, “Really?... REALLY?”
What is it? Religion? Are you a recovering alcoholic? Are you… what? At the very least I have just, once again, violated one of the strongest social norms in our culture- so there must be some deep seeded reason why I have chosen to so blatantly not fit in… especially during the holidays, or during a party, or, God forbid, both!
This past season I was questioned by someone who seriously wanted to know why I didn’t drink. My normally humorous deflection of the question which is: “Well, after my second chainsaw and bus stop incident the judge told me I had to quit,” just didn’t satisfy this person who sincerely want to know my reasoning. Thus, for those of you who are reading this and may also be curious as to why I have never done recreational drugs, used any form of tobacco, or ingested a drop of alcohol (yes- at our wedding toast, my wife had a glass of bubbly and I had a glass of iced tea… everyone said I jinxed our marriage… we just celebrated our 28th anniversary,) here is my actual reasoning.
Long ago, at the ripe age of 14, I considered all of life’s problems that any person may encounter, from the tiny to the huge, personal, medical, financial, legal, marital and professional. And while looking at that huge scope it struck me that many, many of those problems had their deepest roots in either alcohol, narcotics, tobacco or a combination of those. So, if I were to delete those three things from the equation I could make my journey through life far more easy. Thus, I decided that I simply would not do that stuff.
Of course I also had to make sure that I did not try and push my decision onto anyone else. My standard became that if you wanna do drugs- go ahead, just don’t do it around me. If you wanna smoke- go ahead, just as long as I don’t have to smell it. If you wanna drink- go ahead, just don’t get in my way while you’re doing it. Yet the yang to that yin is that, “I was stoned,” “I was drunk,” or “you gotta die from somethin’ ” aren’t valid excuses to me.
Going through one’s teen years as a “straight” or “square” or, as they used to say in my high school in the 70s, “red” kid was a bit awkward at the least, and un-cool at the worst. The drugs and the booze and the smoke were just about everywhere. In the words of Rush, “In the high school halls, in the shopping malls, be cool or be cast out… in the basement bars, in the backs of cars, be cool or be cast out.” Fortunately, my high school was not the sort to actually cast anyone out plus my reputation for hockey sticks and pucks pretty much overshadowed the fact that I was a non-indulger- so I had a pretty easy go of it. Other schools were not so tolerant. My girlfriend from my high school days, who went to a different school, actually dumped me in favor of parties, bongs and red solo cups filled with temporary feel-good. Oddly, about that same time one of the guys who I normally associated as being one of the stoners in my high school came knocking on my door asking if I wanted to go bike riding. In our little farm town you could get on those country roads and just ride for hours and rarely see anyone else. So, we took up riding, talking and generally hanging out together. He told me that once he decided to quit doing drugs he found that when the stoners hung out all they ever talked about was drugs. Suddenly he had nothing in common with them. They could not understand it when they offered him some and he didn’t take it. Also, when they found out he was hanging out with me, they wanted nothing to do with him. So, although most of our school was quite tolerant, the stoners believed in be cool or be cast out.
When I went off to college I figured I’d be far away from any stoners because I was at a well known aeronautical university and it had an absolute 100% ZERO tolerance policy when it came to recreational drug use. If you were caught, you GONE- period. Additionally, if drugs were found in your dorm room everyone in the room was gone. No appeals, no hearings, no excuses- you were all just gone. And they proved that the first week that I was there. Someone in the dorm left a little bag of pot on a table and the R.A. spotted it and that person, his roommates and the kid from down the hall who was in the room with them were all expelled on the spot. You’d have thought that this would send a clear message, but it was soon discovered that there was only zero tolerance IF you got caught.
Yet college was the easiest place for me to run under the radar as a non-drinker. First, I’m naturally a little bit crazy (that’s denoted in the fine print on my birth certificate) and secondly- I wrote a popular cartoon strip in the student news paper, so everyone assumed I had to be drunk in order to do such a thing. When attending a party I would grab the traditional red solo cup and pour some 7up into it and nurse it all night- everyone just assumed I was drinking booze until they were so intoxicated that they no longer could tell the difference. My own wife did not believe for nearly two years after were together that I didn’t drink. That was because the night that we met it was at a student newspaper party. She said that after we were introduced she watched me and some of my friends get drunker and drunker and louder and louder until she was sure I was way past being just drunk. In fact I was totally sober and just having fun. Now she says that I get contact-drunk at a party; but at least I’m always able to safely drive her home when she’s actually drunk.
Oddly, even once out of college there have been many people who are almost embarrassed when everyone else is ordering drinks and I’m not. They feel compelled to make excuses for me saying stuff such as, “He’s an on-call corporate pilot and he’s not allowed to drink,” or, “his medication would allow him to drink,” or “he’s everyone’s designated driver.” There are also the occasional people who try and force me into taking a drink. One individual tried to make a bet with me and if I won he’d pay me $20, but if he won I had to take a drink. I simply told him I wouldn’t bet with those terms.
The bottom line always seems to come down to that question of “why?” Indeed why would I decided to defy such an ingrained social norm- I mean, “…even Jesus drank wine,” one person quipped at me. I replied that I have nothing against wine- the more my wife drinks, the better I look. Yes, that question is always best answered with humor. I was once at a picnic when some guy nudged me and half snarled, “The booze is free, why the hell are ya’ drinkin’ water?” I saw it coming and had a whole mouth full of H2O which I let go in an enormous spit-take that got his shoes. Coughing I wiped my mouth and said, “Water?! I thought it was just really shitty vodka!” Yet, I find that cash-bars are a challenge. Bartenders take cash and tips for alcohol, but water is free. So, when I ask for an ice water with a slice of lime, which everyone assumes is a mixed drink, the bartender always scowls. I solve that by handing them the cash for a mixed drink and they always tell me that water is free, to which I reply, “The water is free, but your time isn’t, this is for you.” The scowl turns into a smile and I tip them a couple of bucks for every re-fill. They like me a lot by the end of the event.
Now, approaching my sixth decade of life I look back at how many friends and relatives whose lives have been shortened and or wrecked by those three things that I decided to delete from my life at age 14. I’d need more fingers to count the number who had died from tobacco related illness, including my own father. Additionally I have seen relatives and childhood friends who literally drank themselves into an early grave. More than a few people who I went to high school with died from narcotics abuse as did the big brother that I never had. Some people from my college days, who should have had fine careers in aviation didn’t because they, “just couldn’t give up the leaf,” as one of my fellow aviators who could give it up said. Now, when I go in to see the doctor and they ask about tobacco, alcohol and drugs and I tell them I’m a life-long abstainer, they say, “good for you!” then I ask them to, without looking at my paperwork, guess my age. They always guess about 10 years younger. I think I made the right decision at age 14.
These days I do a lot of talking to school age kids, elementary and middle school- normally on the subject of spaceflight, aviation, or shipwrecks and writing and research. When I conclude I usually ask them one simple question; “Am I cool?” It’s a totally loaded simple question to which they all sing out, “Yeah!” And I ask, “Are you sure? I mean, am I the coolest person you’ve met in a long, long time?” Again they sing out, “Yeah!” Then I act pondering and say, “Well, I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs… am I still totally cool?” And they sing out “Yeah!” And I tell them, “Remember, smoking, drinking and doing drugs doesn’t make you cool, but researching, discovering, learning and doing amazing things makes you cool.” The teachers and school staff smile big time.
I’ll conclude by saying that I have also seen some of my close friends who admitted to themselves that they had problems with one of the three substances that I’ve avoided, face up to it and with great courage- get sober. They have turned to others and helped them make their way into sobriety. In this article I may have made it look easy, but sobriety isn’t easy. Easy is hiding your troubles and problems at the bottom of a bottle or in a cloud of bong smoke. When life hits me in the face, when I suffer a career disaster or lose a loved one or suffered a broken relationship or just plain loneliness, I had to face it head-on, up front with nothing to shield me but my own character. Yet- that’s the best way. To my now sober friends, I’m proud of you, now the real fun begins.