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How AA Came to Geneva, Nebraska in 1964
© The A.A. Grapevine,
Inc., July 2001
was Saturday night. I should have been up town at my favorite
bar or at the Veterans' Club but I was home, wrapped in
a blanket on the couch. I was feeling poorly and not from
"brown bottle flu". I had a bug of some kind.
knocked on the door and my wife, Betty, reluctantly admitted
a man named Hartley. She thought he came to get me to go
out drinking with him but Hartley had a different purpose.
He had seen me at an AA meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska a year
and a half earlier and he wanted to talk.
brought with him an armload of Grapevines, AA literature
and some mimeographed newsletters from several state penal
complexes. He dumped them in my lap and asked if I was staying
sober. I told him, "No, I guessed I'd always be a drunk."
Then he asked me the big question, would I help him start
an AA group in the little town of Geneva, Nebraska. He said
he saw me at that meeting at Fox's half-way house. He said
he had earned a six-months sobriety token from a Lincoln
group but he had slipped. For reasons unknown to me at that
time, I agreed to help Hartley do this without considering
what might come of it.
was a farmer and I lived in town so he asked me to find
a meeting place. He thought it should be a place where we
could park our cars and not cause too much curiosity. Small
town people are curious folks! He suggested the bank might
have a room in which we could meet. He gave me the name
of a man he knew in AA from Beatrice and asked me to write
him and ask him to help us form an AA group.
also suggested I write to the General Service Office in
New York City, inform them of our intentions and ask them
to grant us a charter for the group and send us some membership
cards. (Of course there are no such things in AA. They sent
us a packet of literature instead).
also sent me to the post office to rent a post box, saying,
"Ask for Number 86 or Number 90." I asked why
these numbers and Hartley said, "They would be easy
to remember--86 proof and 90 proof whiskey." Hartley
had a six-months token and I believed he knew all about
to the bank, I did not mind. I talked to the bank president
and told him I realized I had a note due and that I could
not pay it and would he renew it since I was going to become
a better credit risk because I was going to quit drinking
once we had AA in Geneva. Then I asked if we could meet
in a room on the bank's third floor. He told me he could
not let people up there because that floor of the bank building
had been condemned for public access.
also told me he knew my finances were in a mess because
I had checks bouncing. But he wished us well and confided
to me that he had a relative with a drinking problem and
he knew what a curse it was to his family. (I later met
his granddaughter at an AA meeting).
banker suggested I try securing a meeting room in the courthouse.
So I made a trip to see the sheriff who had me in jail for
said he understood alcoholism because some fellows from
a neighboring city had left some literature with him. He
also said he had sort of an addiction to betting on the
horses and his wife was continually scolding him for this.
sheriff said the only room he could think of was the court
room and he suggested some of the people who would be coming
to our meetings might feel uncomfortable there and to this
I agreed. But in just talking to him, I considered this
making an amend of sorts. I told him about me not voting
for him at elections past because of being jailed and I
told him I was sorry. The sheriff suggested the city library
had a meeting room in the basement and maybe I should go
see the librarian.
took some doing on my part. The librarian was the wife of
the editor of the newspaper where I worked. But I swallowed
my pride, made the proper requests and got a key and permission
to use the meeting room on Sunday and Wednesday evenings.
next chore was a trip to the post office. I knew the lady
who waited on me. I drank with her husband. I was there
the night she came into the pool hall, took the snooker
cue out of her husband's hand, grabbed his ear between her
thumb and forefinger and led him towards the front door,
with him grabbing for the part glass of beer he had sitting
on the bar.
told this lady I wanted to rent a post office box for a
new organization in town called Alcoholics Anonymous. I
said I was supposed to get Box 86 or Box 90. She said the
closest she could come was Box 96 and that would have to
do. Then she pushed a card over to me and said, "Sign
told her, "Oh, this isn't for me, it's for some friends
of mine!" She said, "Oh, come on, Jerry, I know
you better than that. Go ahead and sign it."
I look back on these experiences I see it as people helping
me get honest with myself and I can laugh at it today. I
met no hostility, no ridicule and certainly no encouragement
in denying my problem. These non-alcoholics really wanted
to help me and they all recognized my problem before I did.
comes the sad part of this story. One day before that first
meeting was scheduled, my friend Hartley was taken off to
the State Reformatory for Men in Lincoln. He had gotten
drunk, stole a neighbor's check from the mailbox, forged
and cashed it to buy booze. Since he was already on probation
away he went. (About two years later Hartley died in the
Veterans Hospital in Lincoln. His sister called me to thank
the Geneva group for their efforts in Hartley's behalf.
She said booze had damaged every organ in his body. Before
he died he was begging the nurse to let him out of bed so
he could go buy a bottle and cure himself).
there I was, faced with the first AA meeting in that town
the next day and I was going to be the only drunk present
for the visitors to work on. What did I do? I went where
one can find people who drink. I went to the beer tavern.
had a few, then spotted a man everyone called "Pappy".
We all liked him but he always was under the watchful eye
of the bartender because when Pappy got too much he either
threw up or soiled his britches. I bought Pappy a beer,
sat down beside him and asked if he had ever heard of Alcoholics
Anonymous. He surprised me by saying, "Oh, yes! They're
a good outfit. I was sober a whole year down at Hill City,
Kansas before I moved up here." Pappy said, "Let's
go buy a jug, go over to my house and I'll tell you all
about it. My wife is working tonight and we'll have the
place to ourselves."
about midnight, I was sitting at Pappy's kitchen table,
the pint of Sunnybrook was gone and Pappy was sleeping on
the floor. I found a piece of paper and a pencil and wrote
Pappy's wife a note: "Dear Vera, Pappy and I got drunk
tonight but tomorrow is going to be different. We ore going
to have AA in Geneva." I signed it and then staggered
on home. I lived about 50 yards from Pappy's place, across
a grassy field that never got mowed, probably because of
the many bottles hidden in the grass.
next morning I just had to go up town and "cure"
my head and stomach with a few tomato juice beers. Our town
had Sunday beer hours 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. I always used the
excuse of taking the kids to Sunday school to get me uptown
on a Sunday. Also I promised my wife I'd be back to drive
her to church but she learned early in the game that she
had better allow time to walk because I'd never show up.
occasion she would stop at the tavern after church, smelling
good and looking good and totally out of place in that element.
She would ask me if I was coming home with her to dinner.
I felt I was most clever and showed the crowd at the bar
who was boss at my house when I would say, "Why spoil
a $2 drunk with a 25-cent meal?" And these were pretty
much the conditions the day I was to go to that first AA
meeting in Geneva.
did make it home in time to clean up a little bit, make
sure my wife was going to come down to the library with
me and make a pot of coffee and when I arrived I was most
glad to see Pappy's smiling face already present. Pappy
had spent the morning searching out and pouring out part
bottles of whiskey at his place. Pappy was taking this seriously!
B. to whom Hartley had me write, had done his job well.
There were 35 men and women present, seated in a big circle
around the room. They came from the Nebraska towns of Superior,
Beatrice, Lincoln, Columbus, York, Grand Island and Hastings.
And my wife had 10 cups of coffee for this crowd. We heard
about this for many years to come. "We'd like to visit
your Geneva group, Jerry, if you promise to have enough
volunteered to be chairman and a short AA story was told
by each person. The Al-Anons shared, too. We all said the
Lord's Prayer at the end and they left a Big Book for the
group and for both Pappy and I. No hat was passed and later
I was told they did not really trust us and they were not
about to finance our next drunk!
was another man from Geneva present but he did not stay.
Pappy had urged Jim McC. to attend. He claimed he was a
member of the South Sioux City group. He was in trouble
with the law when Geneva's night watchman caught him exiting
the drug store via a rear window on the alley. He had a
bottle of booze and some pills. He owned the building the
store was located in and he worked there. He left Geneva
and we never saw him again, although we were told he found
AA, got straightened out and became a procurement clerk
for the pharmacy at one of the state hospitals.
first meeting of the Geneva AA group received a small writeup
in the local newspaper and a classified advertisement was
placed. Since neither Pappy nor I had a telephone we used
the Methodist preacher's phone number as a means of contact.
We also named the Geneva library basement as the meeting
place and asked interested people to write Box 96 for more
information. Our post office box was visited daily but no
mail ever was received except for the Grapevine and some
letters from the General Service Office.
and I decided to hold meetings on Wednesday and Sunday evenings
at the library and also meet at home for coffee after work.
We could see across the grassy field and if I saw his car
when I came home, I knew coffee was on and I'd go to his
place. If I got home first, I had coffee made and Pappy
would come to my place. These nightly meetings consisted
mostly of talking about people we knew who still drank and
who "needed AA" as bad as we did. Many inventories
when I went to the post office to check the box I was stopped
by a postal clerk who told me a brief story about how he
and a friend had to have beer when they went fishing. He
confidentially asked me to tell him what it took to be an
alcoholic. I mailed him the pamphlet "Twenty Questions"
and later he thanked me and said, "If we ever get to
drinking more than a six-pack apiece while fishing, we will
look you up." This wasn't exactly a Twelfth Step call
but it sure did make me feel good that this man asked and
did not make fun of me for quitting like so many did.
and I grew quite close. I learned more about this kind,
gentle man than anybody I've ever met in AA. He told me
about his background, the oldest boy in a Kansas farm family
who made its own liquor because Kansas was a dry state at
that time. Pappy's dad died young and Pappy had only five
grades of formal schooling when he had to quit and go to
summed it up for me in one profound statement: "Jerry,
I can barely read and write my name. I can understand most
of the literature if you will explain some of the bigger
words to me and besides not getting much schooling, I burned
my brains out on homemade Kansas booze. But I can stay sober
if I can just call you my friend." I answered him by
saying, "Pappy, I promise you, I won't drink if you
don't, and I'll always be honest with you."
used some sayings which must have been typically "Kansas".
Instead of just "telling his story" he called
it "testifying". If somebody "slipped"
Pappy would say he was a "back-slider". He called
whiskey "Sneaky Pete" and beer was "Loudmouth".
told the most fantastic drinking story that caused many
a raised eyebrow in doubt. He frequented Kansas pool halls
because that was where he got hauling jobs from farmers.
He hauled hay, grain and livestock and drove a small model
pickup with a flat bed to get back and forth from town.
Coming home one night he failed to negotiate the curving,
uphill driveway into their farmyard. The little pickup became
airbourne, left the rood and landed in a medium-sized tree.
The combined weight of the vehicle and Pappy caused the
tree to bend to the ground, wherewith Pappy was able to
step out unhurt. Minus Pappy's weight, the tree straightened
up and Pappy said he never did live down the fact he lost
his pickup to a tree top! He had to hire a crane to get
word of mouth experience, the literature and the Big Book
were our total source of AA information. He had been a member
of groups in a couple of Kansas small towns, but especially
he talked about the Hill City group. He told of a judge
down there who pretty well ran this group, which claimed
100 members. We found this figure in the U.S. AA directory.
We also noted Kansas had many more small towns with groups
than Nebraska did in 1964.
Pappy explained why the Hill City group was so large. The
judge would hear the drunks' stories and then go easy on
them if they would commit to going to AA meetings. He tried
to find jobs for them and they could sleep in the old building
where the group met if they had no place to call home. The
judge did not follow the anonimity tradition. He had published
in the Hill City newspaper where he was going to speak next
and what his subject was going to be. And he kept a busy
a month or so, Pappy and I were still meeting at the library
basement but we had cut back to one meeting a week, on Sunday
evening. We had only one visitor, a resident of California.
He got information about the Geneva group from the police
department. Being quite dumb about AA procedures, I chose
to read from the AA pamphlet, "Twenty-Four Questions",
and I never asked the visitor to share a single word. He
didn't complain and I remember he ducked out when Pappy
and I started the Lord's Prayer. Years later we had a fellow
from Texas walk out when the Lord's Prayer was recited.
we seemed to be a "slow growth" outfit, I finally
asked Pappy if we should go to York to "see if we were
doing it right". Something surely must be keeping all
the drunks in the county from looking us up! At York, a
town of about 7,000, the group met in the back of an upholstery
shop. When we from Geneva attended, there could be as many
as ten members present.
to York created sort of a risk for Pappy and me. Pappy's
wife took his car because she worked nights and Pappy had
lost his driver's license. So that left me to drive the
27 miles to York in my 12-year-old Plymouth with the wobbly
rear wheel. And I had no insurance! I acquired this car
about a month before I stopped drinking. I was in the tavern
doing my usual Saturday thing when some fellows came in
to have a quick one before going to the horse races at Grand
Island. I found $2, handed it to one of them, saying bet
on Horse No.7 in the 7th race.
was still sitting on the same bar stool when the fellow
returned and plunked down $42, saying how lucky I was at
picking a long-shot. At first I offered the money to the
barkeep, asking that he put a keg on tap so everyone could
share in my good fortune. He declined and my drinking companion
that day was a mechanic from the Chevrolet garage. He told
me he had a good old Plymouth down there that needed a universal
joint but otherwise ran good. He sneaked a U-joint into
the driveshaft for me without charge and then I bought the
car for the $42. As we drove to York in this old heap, Pappy
and I would remind each other that since our purpose was
good, perhaps our Higher Power would take care of us on
these weekly trips, and I guess He did! We never got stopped
and had no trouble while on the road. The Plymouth replaced
a 1954 Ford I had wrecked.
day, when the Geneva group was about three months old, the
Methodist preacher called me at work and said a man named
John F. had called him, wanting to know about the Geneva
AA group. We knew John by reputation. He was that hard-luck
Irish farmer who had stopped trains on the CB&Q railroad
main line when his car stalled on the tracks. John had this
habit of turning parallel to the rails instead of crossing
them in downtown Grafton. The depot agent would phone ahead
and stop the train.
we went to call on John, I had put together enough money
to have a telephone installed and pay the big deposit required
because I was considered a bad credit risk. Anyhow, I called
John and set up a meeting at his home. Pappy and I envisioned
John as a big man, his nickname was "Jumbo", and
we weren't sure if he was drinking or not. But when we arrived
we found a small, well-tanned man who would not weigh 130
pounds soaking wet! He offered no physical threat to either
Pappy or me and he had been sober awhile.
did tell us that when he was drinking the booze made him
want to fight and he was always getting licked after challenging
another drunk in the bars. He told us stories of prohibition
days in Grafton and of the bootleggers he knew. They sold
thin, flat bottles of illegal hootch called pocket cutters,
because they would not make a tell-tale bulge in a person's
clothing. John also introduced us to some of the knowledge
of what local doctors were doing for drunks. He took pills
he called "yellow devils" to control the shakes
and to help him go to sleep at night. A nip of whiskey was
his eye-opener in the morning.
farmed many acres. He was not a poor man like Pappy and
I. And he went to church, something Pappy and I had not
done for many years. He couid tell some pretty wild drunk-a-logs,
too. Like the time he thought he saw the tiger under his
coffee table. He tried to "kill the tiger" by
beating on the table with one of his heavy kitchen chairs.
After sobering up, he thought vandals had entered his house
during the night and made kindling wood of his furniture.
John had been introduced to AA at the primitive "treatment
center" at the state hospital at Hastings. He had been
driving to Hastings, about 35 miles, to meetings, but decided
to put in with Pappy and I with the Geneva group. Grafton
is about 12 miles from Geneva.
John and I called on our next member, Bill H., at his home.
Bill was a carpenter of great skill when he was sober. He,
like John, had never married. He lived with his aged father
who had plenty of money and who had been put in touch with
the Geneva AA group by an insurance and investment broker
who had given the group a dozen ash trays. Bill didn't work
much and stayed home as a companion and housekeeper for
his father who was a semi-invalid.
had some stories to tell that I'm glad I did not hear while
I was still boozing. He beat the high cost of drinking by
buying rubbing alcohol at 35 cents a pint and then filtering
it through a loaf of bread. He claimed such a process removed
the harmful ingredients and made the alcohol palatable.
When his dad cut off his allowance in hopes to slow down
his drinking, he ingested vanilla and lemon extract and
just added these items to the list the grocery delivery
was driving without a license and once when he disappeared
his dad feared he went on a cruising drunk. Dad called Pappy
and reported we had to do something to keep Bill from being
arrested. Dad needed him to cook and clean the place where
they lived. I was working on the newspaper and we had a
deadline to meet, so I did not get in on the search for
Bill. Pappy and John drove better than half a day looking
for Bill and after giving up, they went home to receive
a call from Dad saying that Bill had been taking a nap in
his car in the garage and had driven no place that day!
awhile, Member No.4 showed up. Harry G., who farmed near
Shickley, started attending our meetings. Harry claimed
the record in Fillmore county with 27 arrests for intoxication.
He also had seven charges of driving while intoxicated against
him. Today this would have been cause for the law to lift
his license, but before 1964 Harry just hired a lawyer and
he got off with second offense each time. The last time
he told us the lawyer alone got $750 for getting him off.
Harry went to treatment. First he went to Hastings to the
state hospital. Here he conned his wife into believing that
they were "tapering him off and he had to furnish his
own booze", so she was bringing him a pint each visit.
Then Harry took early release to help in the fall harvest
at home. Harry had a bad heart and every time he had a flurry
of heart trouble, he'd come to meetings and lay off booze.
second time Harry went for treatment he had John drive him
down to Norton, Kansas to the Valley Hope Treatment Center.
This place was formerly a motel and had quite a campus.
When John and Harry drove into the place they saw a class
just being dismissed and people were walking across the
campus. Harry stopped a large young man who was carrying
a teddy bear. He asked first where the office was and then
asked this athletic type person what he was doing with the
teddy bear. The young man said he had a belligerent and
destructive personality when he was drinking and he had
to carry the teddy bear to teach himself gentleness. According
to John, Harry turned to him saying, "Get me the hell
out of here! I may be a drunk but they're all crazy here!"
B. was our next member. He had gone through treatment at
Hastings and Paul had to take a doubly serious try at sobriety.
He was a diabetic and knew booze and diabetes were a deadly
combination. He had already blown his business in a small-town
meat market and grocery near Geneva. He then got a new job
as a meat-cutter in Hastings. Paul went to my sponsor in
York and told him that "Jerry must tell John and Harry
to quit taking up the meeting time talking about farming
and concentrate on the Steps." The word was passed
to me and I spoke to John about the situation and I got
told the only reason John came to the Geneva meetings was
for the sociability of it. So since nobody really "runs"
AA, I kept quiet and Paul dropped us and began going to
meetings in Hastings.
did well and of the first six members of that Geneva group,
other than myself, he was last to die. Pappy was first of
the originals to pass away. He was sober five years when
some rare blood disease took him. We went to his funeral
and Vera asked us to sit with the family. She introduced
us as "Pappy's special friends". Harry had a heart
attack and died while moving irrigation pipe a few years
later and John lasted into his late eighties and died at
the Geneva nursing home in the early 1990's.
the first anniversary of the Geneva group was approaching.
We had made Bill treasurer, each giving him a dollar at
the end of the meetings. We made big plans for the open
anniversary meeting. Bill said we had $50 in the kitty and
we sent out written invitations to our families, our bosses,
to the local ministry, to law officers, including lawyers
and judges and to the doctors and nurses we knew.
engaged the use of the Congregational church sanctuary for
the meeting and obtained a speaker, Lloyd F., of Hastings.
Then Bill disappeared. He had spent the money for vodka
and was on a good one. His dad notified us of this predicament
and offered to reimburse the money. We told him we couldn't
take his money and mode up a new kitty out of our pockets.
We begged Bill to come back but he wouldn't. He avoided
us from then on and as far as anyone knows, he died still
day came for the meeting. We all wore suits and our families
had bought us white carnation boutonnieres to wear. The
speaker arrived, took a look and exclaimed, "Is this
an AA meeting or is it a wake?...Who died?" We had
ham sandwiches, pie and coffee for 100 people and only about
25 showed up. The speaker was excellent and concluded his
remarks by shaking our hands and exclaiming, "Congratulations!
Now you are in AA Kindergarten!"
cannot speak for the others. They are all deceased. But
this anniversary meeting was a humbling experience for me.
I learned that not everyone is interested in who is staying
sober. I had a lot more people paying attention to my activities
when I was drinking. But I do believe that the Higher Power
took over this group at times and we were rewarded not so
much for what we accomplished but for what we tried to do
for the good of those who still suffer. The Geneva group
still exists and I am told it meets three times a week now
and the women have branched off and formed a group of their
© The A.A. Grapevine,
Inc., July 2001
In practicing our Traditions, The AA Grapevine,
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