Somewhere back around 2006, a glaringly bright lightbulb burst to life inside my skull, and I realized that I needed Alcoholics Anonymous.
Actually, to be honest, I knew that I needed A.A. long before that. But I’d never had the will to attend. That, or I just didn’t give a crap. Either way, I went, and that day changed my life forever.
“Do you feel you have a drinking problem, young man?” asked an older Black gentleman sporting gold-rimmed glasses and a flashy gold wristwatch, as I stepped through the reinforced steel doorway leading into one of our prison’s only rooms designated for outside volunteers. The man was also decked out in several shades of green like some cool pimp from a 1970’s Black exploitation film, but his eyes bored into me with determination, almost as if he really cared to hear my answer.
“I guess,” I replied with a shrug.
“What do you mean, you guess?”
I shrugged again.
“Okay then.” He waved me past with a soft smile. “Have a seat. We’ll do our best to figure it out.”
Several semi-cushioned chairs formed a haphazard circle inside the triangular-shaped and antiseptic-scented room. Half the fluorescent lights tucked up into the drooping ceiling tiles either flickered and hummed, or refused to work at all, lending the place a dungeony feel. And the air conditioning had been cut off by disgruntled staff members (the kind that think we are in prison to be repeatedly punished), which meant the room was sweltering.
I wandered over to the chair boasting the least amount of stains on its fabric, then flopped down. Ten or so other convicts also sat in the gloomy room. We could all see one another, but nobody really looked at one another. A few guys oozed back in their chairs projecting an air of relaxation, reading their big blue A.A. books. A few others worked on some form of puzzle, maybe a crossword or sudoku. The rest of us just kind of squirmed from the heat or stared down at our hands and feet.
One convict opened the meeting with: “Welcome to Thumb Correctional Facility’s Saturday night ‘Thumb’s Up’ A.A. meeting. I’m Miles B., and I’ll be your chairperson for today. I’m going to start by reading the preamble. ‘Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their….'”
Some disinterested malevolent force in me refused to listen. The chairperson’s voice morphed into the same droning teacher’s monotone that Charlie Brown had been forced to endure in the iconic cartoon: “Waa, waa, waa, waa.”
I kept wondering what the hell I was doing there in that odd-shaped, hospital-scented inferno, right up until introductions began, that is. Then something the old Black guy said piqued my interest: “My name is Ernie, and I desire not to drink.
What the hell did that mean, I wondered?
Please don’t misunderstand. I knew what his words meant in the literal sense, but everybody else in the circle of chairs had just stated their first name, then admitted that they were an alcoholic. That’s certainly what I did when my turn came.
I began to pay more attention.
After that, another monotone voice read from a small grey book titled, “Daily Reflections.” It basically offers you a snippet of advice designed to help keep you sober for that single day of the year, which, at that time in my life, seemed really lame. Who wants to stay sober for only one day?
Finally, the chairperson turned to the Black old-timer and said: “Ernie, we’ve got a new person with us today.”
“Yep, I see him,” Ernie replied, eyes back on me. He then quickly, and with great precision, recited the history of A.A., how it had been started by a couple of fellows with a desire to stop drinking, who’d come up with the notion that talking to each other about their problems might help keep them sober. And it did. Dr. Bob and Bill W. stayed sober for the rest of their lives.
Ernie then spun me his tale. His first brush with alcohol had been way back in 1948. It had only been a sip, and he’d been standing in a humid Louisiana cotton field, with the scorching summer sun beating down on his skin. His uncle had offered him some white lightning, promising (with a lopsided grin) how the clear liquid sloshing around inside the Mason jar he held would help quench Ernie’s thirst.
It seared Ernie’s throat and belly, instantly turning him green. Because of that, Ernie vowed to never drink alcohol again. Of course, his vow didn’t last. Back in those days, everyone in the rural South drank. Ernie grew a little and began to experiment. By the age of 20, he’d blossomed into a steady drinker. By the age of 30, he’d migrated north to Michigan, where he found work in the auto industry and slowly grew into a full-blown alcoholic. By the age of 50, he’d thrown in the towel and sought out his first A.A. meeting, which was held in the back room of a bar by a bunch of old white dudes whom Ernie jokingly suspected might have been Klan members.
I found Ernie’s story enthralling. I couldn’t help but listen. He was one of the best storytellers I’d ever heard.
At first, I’d wrongly assumed that there was nothing this 70-year-old Black man and I could have in common. But that opinion quickly changed as I sat there in the sweltering heat listening to him. Ernie and I shared many of the same problems, regardless of our age or skin color. He’d started drinking at a young age, mostly pilfering nips from his older relatives’ glasses and bottles, and I too had launched my drinking career at a young age by stealing sips from my grandfather’s beer when he wasn’t looking—or at least pretending not to look. To this day I can still recall the fizzy, bitter taste I found so repulsive yet so inviting.
Ernie’s drinking had landed him in trouble both at home and at work, and drinking had also landed me in trouble in both places as well. I still recall stumbling onto a job site early one morning, hungover, and reeking of alcohol. My boss, Don, cussed me out and sent me home after I spent two hours constructing and installing an interior wall that wasn’t even on the blueprint for the house we were building.
Ernie had once gotten shit-faced drunk and rode around all night in his car with a shotgun laid across his lap while searching for a man who’d kicked the crap out of him. And I too had made a similar mistake, only I found the man I’d been looking for and ended up shooting him to death, landing myself in prison for a really lengthy stay.
I couldn’t believe how similar our lives were. More importantly, I couldn’t believe how happy a person Ernie seemed to be while living a completely sober life. That intrigued me more than anything. I’d been craving happiness and serenity my entire life, and just didn’t know how or where to find it.
“Heard anything you can relate to, young man?” Ernie asked me after he’d finished his story. “That’s what we do here. We relate. We never compare. Here, everyone is equal.” He dabbed sweat from his brow with a folded-up handkerchief.
“Yes, sir,” I answered, stunned. I did relate. On multiple levels.
Ernie smiled. He’d been blessed with such a kind, wide smile. I’ll never forget it. “I figured you would. Sometimes, like knows like. You just got yourself a good case of the ‘fuck its,’ that’s all. That’ll pass though, if you keep coming.”
And it did pass. For ten years (every Saturday night at 6:25 on the dot) I eagerly hiked up front to our facility’s control center so I could visit with my friend, Ernest Fisher. Never did an A.A. meeting pass where I didn’t steal some tidbit of wisdom from Ernie. His sayings are now my sayings. His teachings are now my teachings. I’ll continue to pass them down until the day I die, which is what Ernie did.
Ernest Fisher, my friend and mentor, a man I loved with all my heart, crossed over to dwell with his Lord two weeks ago. I wanted so badly to parole out of prison and spend some time with Ernie as a free man, even though I knew the likelihood of that ever happening was slim due to Ernie’s age and the amount of time I have left. But I still dreamed. Ernie and I often talked about hanging out in the free world, maybe catching the Michigan versus Michigan State game (I love the University of Michigan, and Ernie was a diehard State fan), or attending some A.A. conferences together.
Now that dream is shattered. Now, all I can do is capture a tiny bit of Ernie’s humble greatness on paper. A little about how he transformed my life, and the lives of so many others, during the twenty-seven years he drove east from Flint, Michigan down I-69 through rain, sleet, or snow to mentor us. To remind us we were still loved.
Ernie was the one free person outside of my family who I knew, without a doubt, believed I had changed. I’ll never be able to express how important that was to my mental and spiritual rehabilitation. Ernie possessed the knack for finding the best in people and watering it until it blossomed.
I miss you, Ernie. We all miss you. The world misses you.
Goodbye, my friend. You were a beacon of hope in a sea of darkness.
God bless you, and Godspeed.