The title of this post hearkens back to a lyric from a Grateful Dead song, Wharf Rat. It is a classic tale of an alcoholic named August West who tells his story to a stranger, presumably another penniless addict/alcoholic, in exchange for his time and undivided attention. He touches on his desire to stop drinking, noting that his life is unmanageable and hoping the "good Lord willing" he can break the cycle of addiction and "live the life I should." The song is so precisely constructed, and pinpoints the moment when one person caught in the grips of the disease of addiction can help another.
So, there I was, sitting in my Favorite Coffee Shop with a man who had achieved legendary status, in my lifetime, as the person who made the decision to shoot the chimpanzee which would eventually become my iconic Museum display.
Baldy Lee sat back, took a swig of his coffee and pondered a response to the question I had asked him about his background, prior to his appointment as Superintendent of the Springfield Parks and Recreation Department...
Earlier in the day I had gone to Forest Park and visited the Monkey House. John Bilodeaux, another familiar face from the Blue Moon, took the time to Talk to me about the Monkey House and Jiggs.
"I don't remember Jiggs escaping, I was a baby at the time, but I heard the stories from my older siblings, and yes they were familiar with Jiggs." Bilodeaux, who has been an employee of the Parks Dept. since 1991, grew up a short Distance away on Bryant St., about six blocks away from Forest Park.
As we toured the former Monkey House, I noted the glass roof was still intact. There were pocket doors separating the platform where the animals were displayed from the out side exercise area. There was a slight trough in the concrete floor leading to a drain somewhat obscured by pentagonal concrete templates which had the upcoming baseball season's home plates setting up within. The iron bars set into the concrete were still visible where they had been cut.
I asked again, how did Jiggs get out? Bilodeaux's face lit up with an awed expression and he demonstrated as if he were pulling at two iron bars. "He pried them apart, ripped it out."
Bilodeaux began to speak about other parts of the Park. "We really don't have that many pictures of the Park, like the Stone House ( Shelter for Winter skaters near the Duck Pond which later hosted an Art Gallery) and the Barney House all we really had of them were Postcards. They were the only source of information."
Bilodeaux got his start in the Parks Dept. working in the Sign shop. when that closed he moved to the maintenance dept. I asked do people often ask about Jiggs? He replied, "More often people ask me more about the stuff in the woods. There are old benches set up near the Horse Trails. and there are stone fireplaces set deep into the Forest on Snake Hill. On Red Hill there is a set of steps constructed with old grinding stones Mr. Barney's factory used for grinding the blades of the skates.
He noted that some of the other structures in the woods were constructed by ECOS teachers. ECOS (Environmental Center for Our Schools) is an environmental education program offered to students in grades 4-7 in the Springfield Public Schools. The program teaches about the various habitat of plants, animals which can be found in Forest Park. the also have a course in Winter survival skills.
I was supposed to have a photographer with me that day, but he was "unavailable."
Let's just say it was probably a good thing we didn't see each other that day.
I headed to the Blue Moon alone, to meet Mr. Lee. He swigged his coffee and began to speak again.
Lee had retired from the Park and Rec Department, years ago. He gave me his background. He was originally from Walpole, MA, and graduated from Sanborn Seminary in 1948. He went to Springfield College and ended up in Wesport, CT for eight years before taking a job with the West Springfield, Parks and Rec Department. He did some work with the Ludlow Boys Club before being tapped by Parks Commissioner Romeo J. Cyr. to fill the position of Superintendent in Springfield in 1964.
Lee sipped his coffee again. And told me how he was Spending his retirement. As, Baldy had mentioned earlier in the conversation. He had been a drinker. He knew had a problem and it brought him to his knees. He finally surrendered and joined a 12-step fellowship.
These days he spends his free time bringing meetings, his experience; strength and hope to inmates in the Enfield State Prison in Connecticut.
"I like working with the kids, (young adults) in the prisons. If they can get out of jail and stay away from alcohol and drugs, they have a chance for a great life."
My mind started to race. Did he know? Did my Dad call him and tell him I'm having a problem, or was it one of those it takes one to know one situations? Perhaps he glimpsed the tell tale scars on my battle wearied hands and arms.
It was probably the latter. Even though I was fairly straight and lucid at our meeting, I was caught up in the grips of the insanity of addiction and destined to go out with a friend later in the morning, which meant we would spend the majority of the day getting high.
"You know these kids today ... it is amazing to me how cocaine has destroyed lives. They want to stop, they know what it does and they can't stop until they end up in jail or worse." He shook his head.
At this point in the conversation, I almost fessed up. I almost told him that my days involved me acting like the worst kind of addict obsessed with my drugs of choice, and what would happen to me when those would run out. I wanted to tell him how I was just like the kids he was talking about; How I wanted to stop but didn't know how. I caught a lot of pain that summer. And engaged in activities I had sworn, to myself, I never would. I wish I had the courage to reach out to him. He could have helped me, if he couldn't he surely would know someone who could.
He would have not let me out of his sight until I was safely in some detox facility somewhere. He and his brothers would have shown me the love that I needed. The love that is brought forth by living the principles of the 12th Step.
The 12th step reads - "Having had a Spiritual Awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry the message to the Alcoholic/Addict who still suffers, and practice these principles in all of our affairs."
That message, and the one I desperately needed to hear that afternoon, is - that there is a better way to live. If you just keep with it, you will never have to pick up ever again. I wouldn't have to get high in the morning and before I went to sleep.
I spoke of Mr. Lee having something I wanted. I wanted that peace, that serenity. I wanted that confidence that made an old school white male go into a prison and truly want to bring a message of hope to people of a different culture and economic bracket. A message of hope to another human being regardless of their background, just simply because the needed help and did not know how to love themselves. A message which was freely given to him on the day he took his last drink.
They say the only requirement is a Desire to stop. I have had that desire for a long, long time. A lot longer than it took for the progression to set in and chip away at my morals, character, and self-confidence. The disease still kicks my ass if I let it.
All of these what ifs. That was the past. Who knows what would have happened if I had come clean that day and told him I was an addict and needed help. The funny thing is, even though the disease does chip away at your pride and allow you to participate in progressively fiendish behavior, it leaves you just enough pride to keep that vital information inside, to let you believe. "I can stop any time I want to, just not today."
I am getting better everyday. There have been triumphs and there have been challenges. There have been slip ups. There is still insanity in my life. But the question is, how am I going to deal with it ... Today?
It wasn't long after meeting with Mr. Lee that I did begin walking the road to recovery, which explains why almost three years later I am writing of our encounter. It has been a long road and a bumpy road. Today my desire to stop using outweighs the desire to harm myself, and when it doesn't I must take certain steps to make sure I don't pick up, such as calling others who have been there and worked through the pain and the quagmire of early recovery. For those people, I am grateful. I am grateful that there are men and women out there who are willing to share their experience to help me survive and "Live the life I should."
There may be cries of foul amongst you readers, Did I break anonymity? I don't think I did. He spoke of his experience freely, knowing that he was being interviewed for an article which would eventually be published. Yes he is a member of an un-named 12 step program, Any more than that you do not need to know.
Just For Today ... I am Running Hard Out of Muskrat Flats.