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A Different Type of Christmas Gift

Charles B. Gordon

Donuts on Cake

Charles B. Gordon
(Dec. 7, 1909 - Nov. 15, 1982)

ED. NOTE: (Written in December 1962 as a Christmas present to himself.)

If someone had told me, say in 1944, that a day would come when for 25 years – close to 40 per cent of my life – I would have been without a drink, I would have hoped, God knows, he was correct. But I couldn’t have believed it any more than I could have believed I would someday be rich, or famous, or the writer of the Great American novel.

But, when next Friday arrives and I am still sober (and I think I shall be) it will have been 25 years since I last had a drink. A few days ago I had a physical birthday, and I said as little about it as possible, because I am growing old, at least in body, and such birthdays are nothing new to me.

I wrote essentially this same column five years ago for another newspaper in another town and later a man told me he was proud I did it. He had a son who was nearing manhood and he hoped my frank disclosure might help that young fellow avoid one of the most prevalent – and hazardous – of life’s many traps.

Now, people who know have told me what it is that a political columnist should do: he is supposed to admonish and point out the mistakes of the Governor, the Legislature, the Congress and the President; and to counsel and advise the courts and the judges and the world in general.

I have further been made aware of this responsibility by reading the production of others in similar positions. The fact that this often confuses me to the point that I don’t know my femur from the big bone in my thigh is of no consequence. I had my chance to become enlightened.

Anyhow, a quarter of a century ago I was a complete and thoroughgoing, if small bore, alcoholic – and realistically speaking, I still am, lacking only the first drink.

I was never the drinker some of my contemporaries were, or claimed to be. Physically insufficient from boyhood, it took comparatively little beverage alcohol to make the full fool of me – but I took that amount just about as often as I could get to it. I was never the life of the party. I was simply that sodden, sick wretch somebody had to scoop up and take home.

This situation eventually resolved itself in late December, 1947 – a time so long ago that during it I heard on a radio on a porch at Whitfield a Delta Bowl game in which Charley Connerly was throwing the football for Ole Miss and Barney Poole was catching it, against young John Vaught’s alma mater, T.C.U.

If it had not come to a head, I would have been dead for close to the last 25 years. My baby son had pneumonia for the second time in his six months of life and was in a hospital. My employer who, despite all my prevailing failings, still needed someone who was capable most of the time of being the one-man staff of a five-day-a-week newspaper, had been forced to ask me to hunt another job. He hadn’t fired me, precisely. He simply served notice that he was trying to find someone to take my place, and urged me to seek another location.

At that grim point, following a night in which I went to the hospital where my little boy was and made the customary ass of myself, I got my lawyer father and lawyer brother to get together the papers by which I could sign myself into Whitfield. At midday on Dec. 29, 1947, I staggered into the place and was bedded in the White Male Receiving Ward along with 40 mental patients who were beginning to show signs of being able sometime soon to go back home and about a dozen drunks like myself.

I awoke the next day with approximately the restitution of such faculties as I ever had in those days and, as seven days went by, I observed and thought and wondered. This was before the days in which the Legislature built a $250,000 Alcoholic and Narcotic Center, then forgot it so far as doing much of anything more to help the institution in real rehabilitation work. I spent my nine days on the Receiving Ward, and they were very nervous days indeed. The only real treatment I received – daily shots of insulin for a person who had no diabetes – made me very much more restless.

When I had returned home Jan. 8, 1948, sober and shaken by my experiences, and found my employer as glad to see me (and able to lift the load he had been toting those nine days) as I was to see home and family, I began writing a book in which I put down every detail I could recall from the affair. I called it “Nine Days in a Nuthouse” and I take it out now and then and reread it and, if I need anything to continue to inspire me toward sobriety, it does the job.

The son recovered and went on to spend four years in the U.S. Navy, including a year in Vietnam at the height of the battle, and he was in the press box as LSU beat Ole Miss in the final second a few weeks ago.

Growing in sobriety has, by no means, taken care of all my problems of whatever nature. But drunkenness was a good one to rid myself of. I will never be free of alcoholism – but knowing that will help keep me free of a lot of other things.

Dr. W.L. Jaquith, slender young psychiatrist and medical doctor who had come to Mississippi not long before to work at Whitfield, was the physician in charge on that Receiving Ward.

Mississippi has never inherited a more worthy citizen from another state than Dr. Jaquith – and I defy anybody among the state’s 2,000,000 people to challenge that assertion.

He has had to fight for Whitfield in the face of ignorance so widespread it has, at times, extended from the eagle on the top of the Capitol to the home of the most conspicuous yokel who ever got elected to the Legislature. But he has continued to fight a battle that’ll stop when his gallant, sympathetic heart stops, and no sooner.

After I had become a reporter of Mississippi Capitol affairs, I had a chance one day to tell Dr. Jaquith that I was one of his real successes in the field of the treatment of alcoholism at Whitfield. I reminded him of the day – Jan. 5, 1948 – when one of the alcoholic clowns on the Receiving Ward got hold somehow of a bottle of shaving lotion and drank it and wallowed bug-eyed down the corridor of the ward.

Dr. Jaquith called in us drunks, one by one, and told us in most emphatic terms to get the hell away from there. “I can’t treat my real patients, these people with mental troubles, for you blank-blank drunks who are cluttering up this world,” he told me. “Get out of here and come back at your peril (he used some rather stronger language than that, but this gives the general idea).”

As I reminded him about that day many years later, he laughed – not at me but with me. At various times since then he and I have met in the Capitol or otherwise and he grinned again, not at me and my troubles of long ago, but again with me. He is no more capable of laughing at the misfortunes of a foolish drunk of 1947 than he would be of humor at the expense of the grotesqueries of one of the most deeply stricken of his mental charges.

Well, that day, one of the other discharged drunks paid my bus fare from Whitfield to Jackson and I went to the Clarion-Ledger office on Lamar Street and got Purser Hewitt to provide me with enough money for a bus trip home. Actually, I got enough that I could have bought a pint of whiskey, in addition, but I was determined to get home sober, and I did.

I had read considerably of the comparatively new organization which provided the means of self-help to alcoholics who came to realize that they were never more than the first drink away from drunkenness, and the “one day at a time” principle of Alcoholics Anonymous ruled my life for many years [34] of intensive activity in the organization. This is true even though I had been sober on that principle for more than two years before I first attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

The whole point of this in my sincere opinion, is that if I could do it – by being made aware that I am never more than one swallow away from becoming drunk again and refraining from taking that first drink – anybody could do it.

The next time you look at that handsome advertisement which shows the “statue of our founder” – the gentleman who developed “the old family recipe” – down by the limestone spring the temperature of which is constant even in the depths of winter, and watch the contented ducks float in the clear water, and gaze at the men who supervise the seeping of the product through the charred maple that is found only on the highest point of the mountain and having plenty of time to whittle as they wait, only remember, as I try to do:

The last drink has never been the one which precipitated the state of drunken despair. It was that delightful first one that did it.

--- Charles Gordon never had another drink of alcohol after leaving Whitfield. He lived another 35 years. Gordon was a native of Liberty, where he began working for the “Southern Herald” as a teenager. He spent his life working as a reporter and columnist for newspapers across Mississippi. He was inducted posthumously into the Mississippi Press Association Hall of Fame in 1983.

Donuts on Cake
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