I first met Marvin “Dutch” Horton at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in December. (Full disclosure: Dutch is his real nickname, but his first and last names are otherwise.) Dutch is older than me, early 50s, and his experience is one of the toughest I’ve ever heard. Here is his story’s beginning, as he told it to me this past Monday night.
Dutch: You on?
Me: All plugged in and ready to go. Begin anywhere you want to.
Dutch: My grandma named me “Dutch.” As a boy, I played all about the yard around my daddy’s farm, and his mamma lived with us. I always was doing things in the ditches: floating paper boats, plastic toy battleships, playing cards, those old-timey wooden blocks, Legos, rubber balls, my sister’s dolls, everything you could think of. And I said “ditch” wrong, so my grandma called me Dutch.
(Dutch rolls up one of his sleeves a little bit and fusses that we can’t smoke in this restaurant. He says we’ll go outside in a few minutes so he can smoke. That’s fine with me, because I smoke, too. He’s wearing a flannel shirt and he’s shaved clean, missing the Vandyck I’ve known him to wear every since that first AA meet-up. He even smells like cologne.)
Dutch: My daddy was a drinker, and so was my grandma. And all my uncles and my aunt on my daddy’s side. Momma drank wine on occasion, but I never saw her drunk. My sister’s a year older than me and she gave me my first drink. A shot of Southern Comfort from my grandma’s bottles. (Dutch laughs and picks nervously at the wart on his chin he says is a byproduct of nearly 40 years of alcoholism.) My sister drank it before Janis Joplin did.
Me: How did you like it?
Dutch: It was sweet and nasty. We drank two coffee mugs each, and I went into the woods with the dogs and stayed for hours. Nobody thought anything of it. I was always in the woods with the dogs. That’s what 12-year-old boys were expected to do.
Me: Are you comfortable? Want to go outside now?
Dutch: (Shakes his head.) Let’s do another few minutes. I’m fine. I’ve lost the shakes, so I can shave, see? It’s the first time I’ve been clean-shaven since the ‘80s. How ‘bout that? I done spent half my life lookin’ like that old TV mountain man. Damn, what’s his name?
Me: Grizzly Adams.
Dutch: Yeah, yeah. Good old Grizzly Adams.
Me: Dan Haggerty. He was the actor …
Dutch: Gotcha, slick. But you know, I hate the goddamned mountains. I’ve been up there three or four times, and it always wound up miserable for me.
Me: How so?
Dutch: Doesn’t matter. Most places ended up miserable for me. That’s why I live in the motorhome. Nobody’s wants to live with me, nobody wants to live near me. I can understand that. That’s understandable. I was wild. Like an animal. Like a dog. It’s just lucky for me I’m still here, you know? Damn lucky. I coulda ended up like my daddy and my grandma.
Me: What happened to them, Dutch?
Dutch: My daddy drowned fishing in the sound. It’s 40 degrees in the air, and the water’s like 50, and he’s so pissed drunk he falls outta the boat. They said he didn’t even have any fish in the well, even though he’d been out all day fishing. But mostly drinking, I guess. My grandma killed herself. But that’s not to talk about this time.
Me: Weren’t you married?
Dutch: Yeah, yeah. Wanna get that cigarette now?
(It’s cool out, now just after sunset, and there’s nobody at the tables on the patio. Dutch suggests we sit out here for a while, for as long as we can, so we can keep the flow going. He flags down our waitress through the window and orders two coffees. You’d never guess that Dutch had lived the past two decades in a worn-out motorhome behind the house he grew up in, drinking up to a half-gallon of whiskey a day when he was really going. He’s said he never has liked beer. Drinking wine reminds him of his mother. He hasn’t talked to me about her yet, other than in passing. I’m hoping he’ll talk about her tonight.)
Dutch: Shit! I left my coat inside. Hell, I don’t need it. I’ve slept hundreds of nights outside when it was colder than this. (He laughs.) You said you never did that. Slick, you really missed something. Alcohol must keep the blood from freezing, that’s why you won’t die, but when them eyes crack open and your beard is frozen with spittle and whatever, you wish you’d had the veins ice up. That’s a situation I won’t miss one bit.
Me: How long have you been sober?
Dutch: This is 104 days. I quit right in-between Thanksgiving and Christmas. They say that’s the hardest time, that you shouldn’t even consider going sober during the holidays, but that’s crap. For me it’s like someone finding the Lord. It happens when it happens. So it’s like them saying you can’t find the Lord on Halloween or the Fourth of July, just because it’s a bad time of year. That’s just crap, slick.
(Our waitress brings the coffee, steaming, and Dutch tells her he takes sugar but no cream.)
Me. Has it been hard?
Dutch: No. I don’t know why it hasn’t been hard, but it just hasn’t been. When you’ve been ready to do something for so long, and you finally make up your mind to getting around doing it, the hard part is over. The deciding and thinking about it. It ain’t like giving birth or getting married. (He’s been married twice, one son.) You don’t have this date set that you get all ready for, get prepared for some each day until you’re about to explode with nerves. It’s just one day you’re a drunk and the next day you’re off to stopping being a drunk. For me, each day is like that first day quitting. Each day is like my first day stopping to be a drunk. I don’t know if there’s a second day. If there is, you tell me, alright, slick?
Me: You got it.
Dutch: I could tell you stories … you know, this friend of mine, in high school, told me once … I guess it was our junior year … that he’d drunk enough to float a battleship. He come all out and told me like he was the world’s most experienced, hardcore drunk. But you know what, slick? I could float the moon with all the alcohol I’ve drunk. I could lay that baby on its bottom right on top of a lake of bourbon and beer and it would float, pretty as a picture. My guess is the moon’s gotta be a million times bigger than a battleship. But that’s a regret, not a brag. I wish all I had to float was that dude’s battleship. Oh well, woulda, shoulda, coulda, right?
Me: Will you ever start drinking again?
Dutch: Sure I will. Even if I don’t ever take a sip again, I keep thinking my next drunk is just around the corner. An hour away. That the night I start floating that moon again is this night, the one that’s coming up. That’s one of the first things I tell myself when I get up. Dutch, you’re gonna get back to drinking again tonight. What that does is pisses me off and I make all my plans for the day around staying sober. From how I’ll lay my cereal spoon next to my bowl, to how long I’ll blink my signal light when I’m turning in for the AA meeting at the church. I’ve don’t that 104 times. So far, so good.
Me: Your coffee is getting cold, Dutch.
Dutch: Damn if it ain’t! I think she gave me your cream even though I told her it was for you. (He pushes the two tiny cream containers across the table and sniffs at the rising vapors from his mug, smiling so that I can see the missing teeth. He raises his mug up.) Here’s to me and you, slick, and Day 105. How many is it for you?
Me: Tomorrow is 32.
Dutch: (His face becomes as soft as I’ve ever seen it, but he still looks tough.) Good for you. Here’s to 32, old O.J. Simpson’s number. Only thing is, slick, I’m not sure if we should be counting days that haven’t happened yet. I’ve never heard anybody say either way, to tell you the truth. Can’t be much harm in it, though. Here’s to jumping the gun, to that being the worst thing we do from here on out.
Causes Sean Jackson Supports
PFLAG, Amnesty International, AA, Catholic Social Services