After 20 years sober, Kase Johnstun’s grandfather fell off the wagon during a fishing trip in Alaska. He never got back on.
My grandpa sat at the edge of the tiny riverboat on the Kenai River in Alaska. His green thermos mug rested next to him. His beret hung over his eyes, and his 82-year-old body seemed fresh, giddy to be fishing for King Salmon on the famous Alaskan River. The river rushed around us. My dad, my brother Jake, grandpa, and I sat with our gigantic fishing rods attached to down riggers and trolled for the returning fish of the northern Pacific.
We’re a family of fishermen. Jake and grandpa live to fish. My dad will go when he gets the opportunity, but he doesn’t let it rule his life. When I was a kid, I liked to fish only when we were catching fish, but now, at 34, I’ve learned the beauty of just being near the water. I love the patient rhythm of throwing out the line, placing the fly close to where I want it, and trying again.
My childhood is filled with memories of grandpa and me on boats or on the edge of rivers. He would bait my hook when I was too little and taught me to do it myself when I was old enough. Grandpa told jokes and sipped on his Pepsi, his staple as a recovering alcoholic. At times, all of us guys in the family would head off for fishing weekends. We would take up shelter in his pristine 1970s motor home.
He was newly sober when I was young, and fishing with the boys was a challenging time for him to stay on the wagon. I never saw him drunk back then. I only remember him sober, kind, and, when we deserved it, pissed off. But his drunken legend was well established by the time I could understand what my mom meant by the word “drunk.” He was a mean, violent drunk. He beat his kids. Once, he broke grandma’s arm.
English only has one word to describe two very different states of drunkenness. If you drink too much one night, you’re “drunk.” If you drink too much every day, you’re “a drunk.” The only difference is the addition of the article ‘a.’ I find this lacking. The Spanish language, my grandpa’s language of choice when he’s angry, deals with this much better: If you’re drunk at one point in time, Spanish speakers say estoy emborracharme (I got myself drunk), using the verb estar to show that your drunkenness is a temporary state of being. But if you’re drunk all the time, they say “soy borracho,” using the verb ser to show that your drunkenness is a permanent state, similar to saying soy humano (I am human).
My grandpa seria borracho. He ruined Christmases for my mom and her siblings. He started drinking on December 23rd and kept going until he and grandma were throwing pots and pans at each other. Christmas morning never really happened, what with the hangovers. Other holidays and weekends also disappeared in this cloud of drunkenness. My grandfather’s legend grew with him: he was a nasty bastard when he drank.
In the motor home at night before a morning of fishing, my dad and uncle Randy would drink a couple beers. But, in respect for their sober father-in-law sitting next to them, it was always just a couple. If they didn’t have any beer, grandpa would get angry that his problem affected them. If they had too many, they would be assholes—so they sipped on a couple and went to bed early. They understood that even though he had been sober for many years, he would always be termed “soy borracho.”
That early morning in the bright Alaskan summer, where the sun set for only a couple hours at night, we got up at 4 a.m. to catch grandpa a King. Jake and I had already snagged ours and held them up in front of our bodies. They practically eclipsed our frames. But grandpa hadn’t caught his yet, and that year, our first Alaskan fishing trip, was really all about him catching fish. He was in his 80’s by then (with a few heart attacks and bypasses under his fishing vest), and my dad knew it was time to fulfill a lifelong dream of my grandpa’s—fishing in Alaska. Sadly, the morning ended without a catch for grandpa.
(The night before, Jake and I had spent the night slugging back a case of beer out on the dock while throwing our lines out and trying to catch some Silver Salmon. We didn’t drink more than two beers before heading out to the dock. We were young, in our mid-twenties, and wanted to get a little drunk, but we didn’t want to do it anywhere near grandpa. When Jake headed to bed, I took the rest of the case down below our window and, unimpeded, called my to-be wife and professed my love for her.)
We headed into the B&B for some showers before another walk down the banks in search of silvers. My dad found a quick moment to lecture us about our drinking the night before, but we brushed it off. We didn’t see the problem with drinking to excess. Jake diverted the conversation to focus on the morning’s fishing.
“Where’s John?” my dad asked.
“Don’t know. Haven’t seen him since we got back.”
“He may have just gone to get breakfast before us.”
We put on clean clothes and headed toward the barn-like cafeteria. As we approached we could hear the loud yelling and laughing of a group of day traders who had flown in from New York the night before. It was the summer of 2001, the bull economy still steaming ahead, Sep. 11th still a few months away, and the young men had been drinking since they’d arrived. They’d come to Alaska to drink and fish, and if they didn’t catch anything, they would be just fine.
The screaming and laughing erupted from the barn when my dad opened the door. Bottles of vodka went from hand to hand, followed by bottles of beer to chase the liquor.
I didn’t see my grandpa eating in the barn. I went back out and into the house to check for him again. We had lost him. I jogged, a little worried, back to the tent. This time I saw him. Grandpa, twenty years sober, was sitting smack dab in the middle of the day traders. And he was taking swigs of vodka and whiskey. (continued on next page)