They called him “The Shepherd.” I didn’t know why but soon discovered he was, in fact, a shepherd of men.
I was running down alleys, naked, screaming in the early hours of the morning. Scared. Really scared. My best friend had abandoned me. My best friend, my only friend, was alcohol and it didn’t work anymore. I had lost all sense of reality.
One day, a friend came to visit me in the small room I was renting. I was drunk. Really drunk. I asked him a question. It was this: “If you see me some day and if you see that my spirit has left me. My eyes have gone dead. Would you please kill me?”
This friend looked at me and said nothing. There was silence for a long time. Then he just turned and left.
All the places I’d been, all the people I’d had the privilege of meeting, all the worlds I had lived in, meant nothing. The advantaged I had been given by being the son of James Whitmore, a hard-working movie star, meant nothing.
I was lost. Drunk. Yes, but it wasn’t working anymore. I would drink and drink and drink and nothing would happen. I was inebriated, of course, but the magic was long gone. The alcohol did not shut off my head. The voices in my head just got louder and louder until the screaming was unbearable. I had to stop drinking. But how? I couldn’t go a minute without a drink.
I walked a lot, up and down streets. All the streets. Just walked. I was near a college. They had a center of some kind where you could go and get therapy. I didn’t really know what they were about. But a few years back in Stockton, California, I had gone into a place that offered free counseling for alcoholics. I had been put on Antabuse; a drug that was supposed to make you sick if you drank. I took it. I drank, got drunk, in fact. And other than my heart racing and my face turning bright red, it didn’t prevent me from drinking.
I went into this center in East San diego near this college and hoped they would give me some pills or something. I didn’t want Antabuse but something I could get high on. I had to be stoned on something. Life was way to ordinary if I wasn’t loaded. In fact, it was downright unbearable.
I was shown into a small room where this older man wearing a Yarmulke, or to be more exact a Kippah – a black hat – was sitting behind a small wooden desk. He was nervous because I was shaking and moving in his direction.
“What can I do for you?” He finally asked. “I think I’m an alcoholic.” I blurted out. “I can’t help you.” He replied. He proceeded to tell me about a group of men and women that could possible help me. He pushed a phone towards me and gave me the number. “Call them.” He said.
That night, a man with a twisted leg, came to my room and took me to a church where men and women were gathered together against the first drink. I knew this was not going to work for me.
These people were old. Boring. Stupid. I was young, 27, exciting, I thought, and my whole life was in front of me. These folks were waiting to die. Of course, I may have been 27 but as one person politely put it, my face had a lot of years on it. I was in shambles. Ratted clothes, matted hair. Smelled.
I was glib. Quick with a joke about my circumstances. Arrogant. Huge chip on my shoulders. One young guy yelled at me. He was serious about his sobriety. I was full of shit. Excuse the language but I was.
I went to the meetings for a while, but got drunk again. By this time, drinking didn’t work for me. I had drunk myself into sobriety or death. Death didn’t seem such a bad thing to me. I wasn’t sad really. Just bored and scared. How do you get through the day without being drunk? I decided, maybe suicide was OK. Not such a big deal. I wasn’t maudlin about it. Just seemed like the next logical step. Then, the phone rang.
“Hello,” I said. It was a girl. She asked how I was doing and I told her the truth. “ I think I’m going to kill myself.” I said this matter-of-factly. Not emotional or hysterical. Just a fact.
“Don’t do anything until I come over,” she said. “OK,” I replied. Hung up the phone and waited. And waited. And waited and waited. She never came over. And the thought of suicide left. It was night by now and I walked to one of those meetings.
Not many people at this gathering. They were reading out of a book. I sat, bored, restless and ready to bolt again. But this night was different. A man was there who took me aside and talked with me. He was kind. Gentle. Loving even. I liked his warmth. He asked if I would like to go to a meeting the next night. I said I would.
I lived in East San Diego. This older man lived in La Jolla. He was the manager of the shoe department of I. Magnin’s – no longer in existence.
This older man, Will Campbell was his name – now deceased, drove a beat-up station wagon with a pissed off Cocker Spaniel in the back seat. Always this small yellow dog was in the back seat of this rickety station wagon. The year was 1977. I was 27.
Will Campbell was known as “The Shepherd.” I had no idea what that meant, but here’s what I do know. He would drive to where I was roaming the streets of East San Diego and pick me up and take me to a meeting in La Jolla. That drive took him two hours. Half-hour to get me. Half-hour to the meeting in La Jolla. Half-hour back to my room and then half-hour back to La Jolla.
He was to make this trip every night for the next 365 days. I haven’t had a drink since. October 16, 1977 was the first sober day.
His name was Will Campbell and he was, indeed, “The Shepherd.” I owe him my life.
Next up: A new day. College on the G.I bill. King of the One-Acts. Life was now in session.