The Bird In Your Hands

By Ivan K.

A salesman was traveling from Toronto to London and got lost. He stopped at a farmer’s place to ask directions, and this is the conversation between the two of them: Salesman, “Do you know the directions from here to Woodstock?” Farmer, “Nope.” Salesman, “Do you know the directions to St. Thomas?” Farmer, “Nope.” Salesman, “Do you know the direction to London?” Farmer, “Nope.” Salesman, “Mr. Farmer it seems you don’t know very much.” Farmer, “Nope, but I sure ain’t lost.”

That is me in a nutshell. I don’t know everything, but I sure ain’t lost.

My name is Ivan K. I am 81 years young, and on August 30th, 2012 at 2 p.m. I celebrated my 59th year of one-day-at-a-time sobriety.

Step 1 says “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable,” and I believe that I was born with the disease of alcoholism.

This is how I look at Step 1: my life was always unmanageable, and when I took a drink I became an alcoholic.

My father had a bad drinking problem. He kept the wine in the kitchen pantry, and I would lay in bed, and when I believed everyone was asleep I would sneak into the pantry and take a couple slurps, and go back to bed.

I started smoking when I was 9 years of age by picking butts off the sidewalks.

There is a book written by Robert Ringer named “Winning Through Intimidation.” I knew the secret years before he wrote the book.

Listed are a few of many examples.

My mother knew I smoked, and she would search me before I would go skating. When she found cigarettes, she would say, “You are not going skating.” I would answer, “You don’t like me. You wish I was never born. I am going to the basement, lie on the floor, get sick, and die, and you will be happy.”

I would go to the basement, and my mother would come down with tears flowing like Niagara Falls, and Ivan would go skating.

I used hammers. If I could not get my way I would stand in front of the China cabinet, my mother’s pride, with a hammer and tell her I would break it. We had a Rodger Majestic Radio and I would tell my father that when he was at work I would take a hammer and break the glass on the dial. All day at work he would worry about the radio.

About 40 miles from Brandon, Manitoba where I was born there was a place called Clear Lake. We used to hitchhike there every weekend in the summer, and we did some drinking. One Saturday I did more drinking then usual, and Sunday morning I woke up sitting in a chair back at home, and that was my first blackout.

Fast forward to 4 p.m. December 27, 1949. I took my Oath of Allegiance to King George the VI of the British Empire as a new member of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). I can remember this part of my story as if it was yesterday.

The recruiting officer said, “Congratulations, young man. You are now a member of the greatest air force in the world.”

Less than a month later I left by train for two months of basic training at the RCAF base in Aylmer, Quebec. By the end of the training they were going to release me. My shoes were not shined properly. I was late for parades… I drank too much.

The man that was to make the final decision was squadron leader McNee, a WWII Fighter pilot, with two tours of duty and a chest full of medals. I put my uniform in the drycleaners, get a new shirt and tie and shined my shoes until anyone who looked at them too hard would go blind.

I marched in front of the squadron leader and saluted. He looked me all over, and it felt like an eternity.

Finally he said, “Airman, I have been in the RCAF for many years, and have seen many airmen, and in my opinion you are the sharpest airman I have ever seen. The problem here is I believe someone is picking on you.”

I stayed in the RCAF another 20 years to protect Canada.

I was transferred to RCAF Beaver Barracks in Ottawa as a food service attendant to work in the kitchen.

My drinking escalated. I drank every night. Most days I was late for work. I was confined to the barracks many times.

In September, 1952, a friend and I were given 27 days in army detention (jail) for being drunk and wrecking my living quarters.

On January 31, 1953, I was once again in front of my CO for being drunk, and behaviour unbecoming of a good airman, and received 14 days in RCAF detention.

When I got out I phoned this beautiful woman and asked if she would like to go to the Valentines Day dance at the barracks and she accepted.

At the dance I started to drink, and continued to drink. The evening of Sunday, April 12, 1953, I left her apartment took a cab back to the barracks. The next thing I remember I woke up late for work, my shorts covered with blood. When I went to urinate out came blood. I counted 12 bowel movements in one hour. I was admitted to the RCAF Hospital and stayed 33 days. Dr. Doyle, my civilian doctor, sat at the edge of the bed, and said: “Young man you came into the hospital with almost an ulcerated bowel.  Tomorrow you are being released, and I strongly advise you to quit drinking.”

“Well, can I have a few beers?” I asked.

His answer was no and when I asked why not, he said, “You will be back in six months, and we will measure you up for a wooden suit.”

I stayed sober and went home to Brandon on my annual leave. I started to drink, and Saturday, August 29, 1953, at 22 years young I was drinking in the Legion. All the time what was running through my mind was Dr. Doyle’s message: “If you drink you will have a tailor-made wooden suit.”

I looked up at the wall clock. The time was 2 p.m. I said Ivan drink up, stand up, walk through the door, and you will never drink again.

I drank up, stood up, walked through the door, and the rest is history.

What has happened since then?

I was promoted a year later to corporal. I became a cook and transferred to England in 1955. In 1957, I went to RCAF Clinton, Ontario, to take an advanced cooking course, met the most beautiful woman in London and married her the next year. On March 24, 1959, my wife gave birth to our son, and I have two daughters also.

On Wednesday, April 29, 1959, I attended my first AA meeting. I told a fellow corporal in the air force how I had drank in the past and how I had been sober since August 30, 1953. He told me he was a member of AA and invited me to an AA meeting.

The speaker at the meeting was a man by the name of Don who had been a Spitfire fighter during WWII, and now was a helicopter pilot with 12 years sobriety. Guess what: he was telling my story. At the end of the meeting I said Ivan you should have come to AA the day you quit.

I was told AA is not a religious program, but a spiritual program, and I bought it.

It was many years later when I started to think for myself that I said, Ivan, God is mentioned more times at an AA meeting than at church. Why is it some AA members pray to God and get drunk while some atheist and agnostic alcoholics do not pray to a God, and yet stay sober?

Bill, our founder, died from smoking. If prayer could keep him stay sober, why not help him to quit smoking?

I have been alcohol-free since 1953, nicotine-free since October, 1961, smoking between 20-40 cigarettes a day, and caffeine-free since 1961, and the God of the Bible had nothing to do with it.

On December 28, 1969, I retired from the RCAF with 20 years of service.

When I retired I sold mutual funds and life insurance for three years. In 1972, I started to sell home improvements. In 1975, I started my own home improvement company called Honest Ivan’s Home Improvement Co.

In June, 1976, at 39 years young my wife died of cancer.

In 1979, I went bankrupt, lost my business, my home, my Lincoln and had to send my children to their grandmother’s.

A friend of mine in AA had a home improvement company. I went and sold for him, and stored my furniture in his warehouse. I would work selling home improvements, and at 1 a.m. I would pull into the Ramada Inn parking lot, go to sleep, wake up at 6 a.m. I would wash, put on a clean suit, shirt, tie and look like I walked out of Esquire magazine.

I was not a happy man.

One day in September, 1979, I was driving down one of the streets feeling poor and depressed when I hit a red light, and there crossing the street in front of me was a man crawling on all fours, like some chimpanzee.

I had never seen him before. But as I was watching him I said, Ivan, you are an Idiot. Why do you say so, I asked myself. Because I bet that man would change places with you in a flash of a second.

The light turned green, I put my foot on the accelerator, and I haven’t had a bad day since.

Over 20 years ago I was at a London AA convention and Clarence S. spoke. He said you need to work Steps 1 to 9 but once to the best of your ability, and then you stay sober one day at a time on Steps 10, 11, and 12.

An AA joke: A cop stopped a juggler. In the back seat of his car was a bunch of knives. The juggler said they were for his juggling act and the cop asked him to prove it. The juggler took out the knives, and started to juggle them. A man going to an AA meeting said, Boy am I glad I quit drinking. The roadside tests are sure getting tough these days.

In 1985, I found the phone number for Dr. Doyle. I phoned him and told him my name was Ivan and in 1953 I had been admitted to the RCAF Rockliffe hospital with a bad alcohol problem. You doctored me back to health, I told Dr. Doyle, and the day prior to my release you gave me a prescription to stop drinking. I told him I had been following that prescription ever since and thanked him. He cried, and I cried, and that was a great spiritual experience.

In closing I want to tell the story of the wisest man that ever lived. One day a young lad said the man is not that wise and I will prove it. With a bird in his hand he knocked on the door, and when the wise man answered the young lad asked, “Wise man I have a bird in my hands. Is it dead or alive?” Now being a wise man he thought, if I say the bird is alive he will squash it and kill it. If I say the bird is dead he will open his hand and the bird will fly. Being the wise man that he was, his answer was very simple, “Today the bird is in your hands.”

AA friends, remember that sobriety is in your hands, and no one else’s.


6 Responses

  1. boyd p. says:

    Big Book, page 63
    The wording (of step 3) was of course, quite optional so long as we expressed the idea, voicing it without reservation.

    Thanks Ivan. We help make the fellowship strong, as did my father (1950).

  2. bob k says:

    It is very easy for “oldtimers” to slide away from AA and go about their business – many do. People such as Ivan are a great gift to the rest of us, and I’d like to thank him for sharing his story in such a delightful way. Some day, there will be a secularized Big Book for heathens and this charming tale deserves a prominent placement.

    Ivan, I don’t know you, but I wish I did. Thanks again, my friend.

  3. Andy Mc says:

    Ivan, loved your share.
    You are an inspiration. I miss seeing you at Friday’s “Live and Let Live.” You have such a positive attitude that it is infectious.
    We need you and 80 yr.+ young at more meetings to help dispell the deadly god myth that stops so many suffering alkies from attending or coming back to meetings. It’s AA’s “elder statesmen” such as yourself that challenge the pious status-quo found often in the “bleeding deacon” meetings. You add credibility to us “newbies” who find a contented life in sobriety without magic, miracle or mythical monsters.
    Thanks again for taking the time to share.
    Your friend, Andy Mc.

  4. Lech says:

    I was at RCAF Station Clinton as an Air Cadet in the summer of 1959 a couple of weeks after Steven Truscott was arrestd and charged with the murder of a girl. We may have crossed paths if you worked the airmen’s kitchen.

  5. Neil says:

    Thank you for your inspirational story. I too have concluded that a belief in a god is not what is required for me to stay sober. I do believe that a change in how I live and respond to life has helped me stay sober. I used the AA 12 Steps as a template for writing my own 12 Steps that are free of god. I accept personal responsibility for doing whatever is required to stay sober and live a happy life. This approach has worked well for 26 years and I have no reason to believe that it won’t continue to work. Thanks again for sharing.

  6. Eric T says:

    Thank you so much for your post Ivan! Your shared experience gives me strength and hope today, and that sobriety test joke made me laugh out loud! I’m grateful to know I’m not alone in this spiritual – and secular – journey of ours.

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