Growing up in the Bronx, my brothers and I knew not to bother Papi when he was drinking. He was a good man, a hard-working man, but he started drinking as soon as he got home from work, and didn’t stop until he went to bed. For those few hours, he didn’t want to be disturbed, and he’d slap you upside the head if you made too much noise during the Yankees game. My mom always made dinner for us and made sure we took our showers, but she was an old-fashioned woman and never stood up to my dad. Looking back on my own behavior as a husband and father, I wonder if she hadn’t already learned the hard way not to cross him.
We used to spend weekends at my Abuela’s apartment a few blocks away in Soundview. Mamá said it was because Abuela made delicious cookies, but by the time we were in high school, my brothers and I understood she was just trying to keep us away from my dad. I’d started drinking by then, with friends from school, and became a regular at Friday night parties.
I’m a tall guy, and I’ve always looked older than my age, so when I turned seventeen, one of my friends hooked me up with a fake ID. From then on, it was my job to collect money during the school week and bring beer to our parties on Friday nights. I liked being “the party guy”, and started drinking more than my friends. I told myself it was only natural. I’d bought the beer; why shouldn’t I drink more? Now, I recognize the same behavior I’ve heard about again and again in A.A. meetings. Addiction, denial, and rationalization.
Life In The Army
When I turned eighteen, I went to an Army recruiter to sign up. They let me finish high school while my paperwork got processed, and I shipped out to Fort Benning in the August after graduation. After Basic, I went home to visit my family. While I was home on leave, I proposed to my girlfriend. I’d spent my entire first paycheck on the ring, and she said yes. Afterward, I went back to Fort Benning for 14 weeks of advanced infantry training. I was an 11B, which means I was part of a mortar team, and shortly after training my unit shipped out to Germany for combat exercises.
The drinking age is lower over there, and you can imagine a bunch of 18-year-old Americans went a little bit wild. During the first week, I organized a plan to sneak a keg of German beer onto the base. When I succeeded, some of the white boys in my unit joked about my name. Jesus is turning water into wine. Praise Jesus! That sort of thing. I didn’t mind, because we were buddies, and who doesn’t want to be their buddies’ hero?
Somehow, we didn’t get caught. For the next four years, I cycled back and forth between overseas deployments and training in the US. I never got in trouble, but I never saw combat and never did anything to stand out from the crowd. I eventually made Specialist (E-4), but didn’t have the drive or the firing range qualifications to make Corporal. I wanted to stay in the Army, but there’s a longstanding tradition of “up or out”. You either get promoted, or you get let go when your enlistment runs out.
All this time, my drinking got worse and worse, but I never got caught. Getting drunk made me more focused and intense, so I always got my work done and never gave the senior NCOs a reason to suspect something was wrong.
After four years, I packed my bags and moved back to the Bronx with my wife. We had two daughters by then, a three-year-old and a six-month-old baby. I thought if I could handle the Army, civilian life would be a piece of cake.