When a 12-Step Icon Dies
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When a 12-Step Icon Dies


One of the things about anonymity in AA is that some of its most influential members will never be recognized outside of the halls and church basements where they tell their stories and help so many others get sober. Obviously, there’s Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob, as well as other founding members, but other than a handful of speakers like Father Martin (whose “Chalk Talk on Alcohol” video has been a staple at treatment centers for years), there aren’t a lot of folks who gain any notoriety outside of AA.

So when a non-celebrity AA member does make the newspapers for their good works (usually after their death), it’s notable. One such member was Richard “Sandy” Beach, a well-known AA convention speaker who passed away recently. Beach died of a heart attack just shy of his 50th sobriety anniversary, fittingly at an AA meeting while reading from Step 1 in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions book, according to his obituary. How’s that for a reminder about powerlessness? His death was reported in The Washington Post and according to all accounts, he was a pretty impactful guy in AA.

Before he got sober on December 7th, 1964, the former Marine fighter pilot gave up his decade-long flying career rather than give up drinking after he had been confined to what he called a “nut ward.” His frequent talks on AA’s 12-step recovery program on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda routinely drew hundreds, and his “Drop the Rock” talk at the 1976 AA Convention is considered one of the classic recordings in AA.

Like so many of the great AA speakers that have had their oral stories committed to tape, Beach was able to drive home the life and death message of alcoholism with a sense of humor and in a way that people could understand and relate to. “He was an early part of the psychic change for me,” Mike H. from Maryland, who heard Beach speak at NIH 40 or 50 times, told The Washington Post. “I was depressed, suicidal…He was the poster child for that kind of happy, recovered alcoholic.”

When I was reading the articles and listening to some of his talks online, it reminded of how many male and female speakers said things to me that have stuck to this day, as well as some things I didn’t listen to the first time I came around. There was a guy named “Don’t Drink Tony” who carried the message into detoxes, jails and meetings thousands of times and whom I met when I came in the first (unsuccessful) time. He helped a lot of people and is something of a legendary figure in my local AA circles, even a dozen years after his death. Every time I spoke to him, he would end the conversation by saying, “Don’t drink!” This infuriated me, so I went to one of the guys in the group to complain, “Does he think I’m stupid or something? I know I can’t drink.”

“He just wants you to remember that you can’t, because you’re going to want to,” the guy told me, and he was right. A couple of weeks later, after I had decided that AA, with its blue-and-white banners and slogans and people that pray was all bullshit, I walked into a bar, with no intention of drinking, and I did drink, despite swearing that I was done for good. Four years later I dragged myself back in AA with cirrhosis, financial ruin and a lot of brain damage. In hindsight, the lesson he was trying to teach me was this: until I grasped the simple fucking concept that alcoholics like me really, honestly, positively cannot take a drink under any circumstances without expecting some pretty nasty consequences, the program doesn’t work very well. It was just his very simple (and effective) way of phrasing it.

Another thing that I heard (and often repeat when I speak at the podium) came from another influential speaker at a crucial point in my recovery. I was about 90 days sober, and I was honestly beginning to think I really wasn’t as bad as everyone else, forgetting that I had been in two detoxes, gotten a DUI and wanted to die every day right before I got sober. This old-timer Johnny E. again repeated what had been said to him: “Hey kid, if you don’t think you’re an alcoholic, take a good, long, hard, honest look at your demonstrated track record with booze and drugs. Then make a decision about whether taking a drink is a good idea.” I did that day and every day that I thought I wasn’t “bad enough” until I really did accept that I couldn’t drink.

There are men like Tony and Johnny and women like Louise and Marie B. that are speakers who have said things that have literally saved my life at times. But there are also people—many of whom are no longer sober or even dead from the disease—that said just the right thing at the right time from the podium or to me directly that helped me get and stay sober. Like me, many people will never remember where they heard a phrase or who said it, but it stuck with them and kept them sober and clean for one more day.

In a society where everyone wants to call their PR agency and issue a press release any time they lift a finger to help someone, thankfully there’s a place where people will help others just because it’s the right thing to do. They may never end up on TMZ or E!, but they’re still very important to a whole lot of people. Sandy Beach was one of those.

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About Author

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.