Last month I shared the upside of OG's recent 50th high school reunion. Today I'm tackling the darker side.
This is a story of six men, OG and his closest boyhood friends. Several of them had known each other since kindergarten. They were a diverse group and followed different paths in life, but one major factor colored all their lives.
One drank himself to death in his early thirties. His twin brother, trained as a mining engineer, shot himself in his late fifties. A third bounced from job to job--fireman, painter, property manager--until he was able to retire. Another realized his lifelong dream of becoming a successful small-town lawyer, only to die of a heart attack in his early sixties. Two graduated from Ivy League colleges, and one went on to earn a PhD in Chemistry from MIT, but their careers were never what they'd hoped.
What did their lives have in common? All were substantially affected by alcoholism.
The three who are still alive attended the reunion. Two traveled all the way from California to Kansas City to reconnect with old friends. At 68, they have all been sober for many years--two since their mid forties and the third since age 60. They have ultimately attained a level of acceptance and peace in their lives, but their careers and relationships suffered.
As we were driving back to the hotel from the first reunion event, OG told me about attending the funeral of the first friend. Afterward, the one who was a lawyer came up to him and asked, "Why do you think we all drink so much?" I've been pondering that question, because, while heavy drinking isn't particularly uncommon, six out of six seemed like a startlingly high percentage.
I don't know if any of the others grew up in alcoholic homes, but I know OG didn't. However, they lived in a rough, inner city neighborhood and attended a diverse, and often violent, high school. OG said you never knew when you might be jumped and beaten, in or out of school. And he was a letterman on the football team. Imagine what life must have been like for the smaller boys. It's a good thing guns weren't as readily available as they are now. Of those classmates who didn't go straight into the army and to Vietnam, a significant number ended up in the penitentiary or dead.
I think he and his friends, like many soldiers, suffered from PTSD as a result of the pervasive violence, so to ease the pain and anxiety, they drank. And they didn't stop, even after escaping that environment. They didn't stop until they either had no choice or were dead. A fifty percent survival rate is pretty grim.
But observing these survivors at the reunion also reminded me of soldiers in another, more positive, way. These friends were bonded in the way combat binds warriors. They mourned those they'd lost and clung tightly to each other. OG was an only child, and in his own words, these were his brothers. As I watched them embrace after so many years, I knew I was in the presence of a true Band of Brothers. I was sad for what they'd suffered, but glad to see them find strength in each other.