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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014

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Vodka, Frank Sinatra and the Wide World of Sports

My father was a lifelong Milwaukeean, until he moved to the San Diego about 16 years ago. Despite being born and bred in Milwaukee, Dad had (and still has) absolutely no use for the weather here, particularly from October to May. And now that he's lived out there for so long, where it's always 72 degrees (you see, if it gets up to 75, everybody turns on their air conditioners and talks about how hot those Santa Ana winds are; and if it drops to 68, they all turn on the heat and catch the flu), I fear his blood has thinned to the point where he can no longer stand the brutal Wisconsin weather, unless he happens to come here during the one week in spring or fall where the temperature matches that of his adopted home town. Anyway, my dad was always a fairly successful fellow – by no means a rich man, but not poor, either. That is, until a battle with the demon alcohol almost killed him. He always liked to party as a young man - hey, it was the 70's - but as time wore on, the booze got the best of him, as it does to so many people.

It happens that alcoholism runs in our family, to a point. My grandfather was a charter member of the Milwaukee chapter of AA, joining some time around its founding in the 1940’s, if I’m not mistaken. From the day he joined, when he was in his mid-30’s, he was a dedicated member and never took another drink. When I was in high school, it came to my attention (rather to my surprise) that my dad was an alcoholic. He wasn't an obvious drunk - didn't stumble around, slur, yell or beat on his wife or kids. In fact, in my rebellious, self-obsessed high schooler phase, I didn’t even have a clue. As far as I knew, my parents had a nice, well-stocked liquor cabinet – who didn’t? – and he enjoyed a cocktail every now and then. Well, turns out that he liked to come home from work pretty much every day, sit in front of the TV with a coffee cup full of vodka, and drink and watch sports until he passed out.

The only inkling I had of his drinking was that he would occasionally say strange things, and seemed kind of forgetful at times. I just figured he was kind of an airhead, or getting senile in his old age. He was in his 40s, after all. But this had been going on for many years, until my mom decided that she’s had enough and divorced him, and that's when things got really ugly. My mom and my sister moved out, I graduated high school and moved to the East Side like all the cool kids did, and Dad embarked on a number of halfhearted attempts to get sober, including a rehab trip to the Mayo Clinic and to a halfway house in Macon, Georgia. Nothing worked - he'd come home from the latest rehab stint, and having left his job, just start on his post-work vodka-and-televised-sports routine a little earlier. Like when he got up in the morning. It all came to a head one day when I hadn’t seen him in maybe a month or so. Being a self-obsessed young adult now, I just didn't want to deal with all this shit, so I tended to avoid stopping at home as much as possible, until one day when I had to stop by to get something. Tried to call Dad, but no answer. So I went over to the house before I had to be at work at noon one day, rang the bell, and opened the door, and here comes Dad, so drunk he could barely stand, skinny as a rail (he was always skinny, but this was something else), and the worst part of it ... yellow. His skin, his eyes, his fingernails, all yellow. A sure sign of liver failure.

He was trying to drink himself to death, and doing a pretty good job of it. Naturally, I freaked out. I called my mom, I called his to-that-point-unsuccessful AA sponsor (an old friend from his younger partying days), and finally, called 911. They sent an ambulance and the cops and took him to the hospital for involuntary detox. I learned later that if I hadn’t stopped there that day, or maybe the day after at the latest, he most likely would have been dead. I don't know if this close brush with death is what did the trick, but sobriety finally took hold.

Well, with one minor relapse a few weeks later, when he tied one on for one last time, and – I am not joking - snuck into the Frank Sinatra concert at the Bradley Center without a ticket and made it all the way up to the front row, where he spent the entire show. One last hurrah, as it were. And that was it. He got seriously into sobriety and became a dedicated AA member, to this very day attending meetings almost daily. In 1994, a couple years after he sobered up for good, he moved to the San Diego area - ; following a girl, of course, although I still think she was just a convenient excuse to finally get himself into a climate more to his liking - where he's been ever since, and September 5 is his 19th sobriety birthday.

My dad has never been a fireman or a champion football player or saved a life, but he has overcome a lot, and in his own quiet way, he's become a bit of a hero to me. I've only been out there to see him twice since he moved, and, like a lot of folks these days, my wife and I are trying to dig our way out of debt and seriously watching our pennies, and we just can't afford to go out for a visit right now.

So I don't know that I necessarily deserve a free trip to San Diego any more than anybody else does, but I'd love to see my dad to celebrate his 19th. And anyway, I'm one of the few people on Earth who have never owned a laptop of any kind, so a new netbook would be pretty sweet!

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sandstorm | Aug. 14, 2009 at 2:05 p.m. (report)

best one yet.

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