During my first semester of college, a fellow whom I did not know but recognized as one who lived on my wing of the dormitory, approached me one afternoon with an invitation. “Would you like to come to a Navigator dinner?” Although I grew up on the coast, I had little interest in boating. Without disguising my annoyance, I declined and we parted ways.
I was seventeen when I left home, traveling over a thousand miles to attend college. Being so far away from the confinement of family, friends, and community, I found myself in an environment where I could make my own choices, decide my own fate, live my own life. So, I did what any self-respecting college kid would do. I went to class and drank beer. Lots of it.
Now, beer drinking is a common pastime on college campuses. In my case, however, drinking alcohol had a special significance, one that I came to understand many years later. When my brother, two years younger, went off to college, he adopted a lifestyle similar to mine. He drank beer. Lots of it. By the age of 33, he was dead. The beer killed him. Cirrhosis of the liver. (You thought hepatic cirrhosis was an old man’s disease, didn’t you?) My older brother, too, was an alcoholic. Ironically, he was killed by a drunk driver at the age of 24. While visiting my dying younger brother at a large metropolitan hospital, I was asked by a nurse about my father’s drinking habits. “Ya, he drinks, but I’ve never seen him drunk,” I said. She was quick to point out, “Maybe you’ve never seen him sober.” It turns out, she was pretty nearly right.
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The story about how two of my friends and I got caught cheating on a final exam at the end of my first semester in college would bog this story down in excess detail. Suffice it to say that I was a mess, morally. I didn’t think cheating was wrong, until I got caught. My ability to choose respectable friends was rudimentary at best. And if I had a good sense about anything it was that my drinking was utterly out of control.
I had a month over winter break to think about my life even though I had no idea how to think about something as complicated and slippery as “life.” When I returned to college, I ran into my boating friend a second time. “Would you like to come to a Navigator dinner?”1 Why did his question hit me differently this time? Maybe this will be the change that I need, I thought. “Sure.”
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!”
Hound of heaven, Francis Thompson