Gary, Indiana

John Shaifer

Sober September 15, 1960
+ + +
June 19, 1923-November 13, 2000

In Memoriam
One of the great old-timers, who taught us
what real dedication to the program means.
He worked to help us until his last breath.

Interview with
John S.

Beth M. (Lafayette), the chair of the Area 22 Archives Committee, interviewed John William Shaifer on tape on August 26, 1999, shortly before he gave his lead there. John was from Gary, Indiana and got sober on September 15, 1960. He traveled all over the state doing A.A. service work, and knew all the great old-timers. At the time of this interview, John (now 76 years old) was only twenty days short of his thirty-ninth anniversary date.  

  Now, we would visit Michigan City prison on Saturday, and the group that I'm from was Midtown of Gary, and it was founded in the year of 1946. And my sponsor George Smith took me about, over to Chicago, to the Evans Avenue Group, which is one of the oldest black groups in the city of Chicago. 'Cause as you know, Bill [W. the tailor] has about fifty-four years sobriety, and I think that group is about fifty-five years old. And we used to travel quite a bit. Me being a black man, and working with the institutions, I met a lot of men from different places, A.A.'s from Terre Haute and … they were instrumental in me visiting different institutions, such as Pendleton. See, our group, we sponsored four black guys out of Pendleton. And one of the guys is still living, been sober about thirty years, or thirty-two years.

Travels in Indiana

And we twelve-stepped the black all through the state of Indiana. Uh, some Saturdays we would go to Greencastle, that was on the farm. They had openhouse there. Then they had the openhouse at Pendleton. And usually it'd be three or four hundred people would go in to the openhouse. By me being institutional representative, I had to do a lot of travelling. I was away from home every Saturday. One Saturday in Michigan City, the next Saturday in Pendleton, the next Saturday in Terre Haute, the next Saturday at Michigan City state prison, and then Westville.

It was good work as far as I was concerned -- it's keeping me sober. Because I stayed pretty busy for ten years. In other words, I two-stepped for ten years: I worked step one and made a lot of twelve step calls.

At Indiana Reformatory, they formed the Big Brother-Big Sister movement. Whenever a guy was discharged from the prison -- say for instance if he was discharged to Crawfordsville -- well someone from Crawfordsville would meet him the day that he was supposed to be discharged, and drive him home. That's what we called the Big Brother-Big Sister movement. And at that time, the four general assembly meetings was at Butler Field House in Indianapolis. See now, in Area 22, those meetings are scattered about in the northern half of Indiana, north of Indianapolis. And Area 23 takes care of the bottom half of Indiana.

And like I said, on Thursdays we'd visit Beatty Memorial Hospital, work with the inmates there; Saturdays, Women's Prison in Indianapolis, work with the women. Our group sponsored four women out of Indiana Women's Prison, but we never had any success with the women. But we did have success with the men as far as working and doing institutional work.

Some of the guys that was instrumental in my life then was a gentleman by the name of Leonard Eton out of Lowell, he was a white fellow, very instrumental in my program. Then there was another one, Max Peterson, the Scottishman, and he was instrumental in my program. These guys showed me the ropes back in those days, as well as George Smith, another fellow that did institutional work. And another guy by the name of Kenny Aught, out of Michigan City. See, we'd have guys from all over -- large cities in the state -- take a month chairing a meeting in the institution. See, I met Wilkie, one of Glenn Coffey's friends. I met Glenn Coffey -- he did time in Jackson State Prison up in Michigan.

And I'm grateful to the program for coming along at the time I came along. Because it really helped me. Because I was the type of person that I couldn't just go to meetings. Be just like when we leave here tonight: we might not get home till about ten, ten-thirty, eleven. And I've known times -- going to Fort Wayne, Twelve Step House up there, Elkhart, South Bend, Goshen -- see I met Goshen Bill in Goshen, the only black guy in the city of Goshen, Indiana, back in the 60's.

And it was very instrumental in our group, because our group is the mother group of just about all the black A.A. groups in Gary, as well as all the N.A. groups in Gary. See our group was, like I said, was founded in September 1946. See, my first introduction to the program was the year of 1951, but I just merely hung around for about eleven months, I never got sober until I came back the fifteenth of September 1960 . . . .

We fellowshipped, and we were very close -- I guess that was due to the fact that there weren't too many groups back then. See, you only had maybe seven groups in Gary; two groups in Hammond, Indiana; one group in Crown Point; one group in Lansing, Illinois [just west of Hammond]; one group in Hebron; one group in Valparaiso. And we would go as far as twenty miles, or thirty miles, or fifty miles, to a meeting back in those days. And like I said, we were very close-knitted because of the fact that you didn't have too many groups. See, I knew just about every intelligent A.A. that started groups in Goshen, in Terre Haute, Indianapolis. See, I met a lot of people, and I'm truly grateful that I met these people.

And me being a black guy, it was amazing how cordial and how beautiful they were towards me. See, Kokomo, Muncie -- we used to travel all over Indiana. (And the institutional work is needed very badly. You can't get too many people to go in behind locked doors, because they have a phobia about going into an institution and working with that inmate, or with that girl, see, in womens' prisons.) So I can say that it was very cordial for me.

See right now, after thirty-eight years, I'm still doing sponsor work, sponsorship. Larry is one of my pigeons, see we old guys, we call 'em pigeons. And when we made twelve step calls back in those days, we were dressed just like I am dressed tonight. When we went on a twelve step call, we dressed up. This was the only way that we could convince this person that we were alcoholics [who had changed our lives]. I've been working with Larry now about five years, and I'm pretty soon gonna turn this guy loose, because he's working the program today, and he's doing a beautiful job. But I enjoy twelve step work, and this is the thing that kept me sober. See, the Big Book tells us, in order for you to lose yourself, if you're having any problems, get involved with service work, and you'll find that that'll bring you out of yourself. And this is what it done for me, twelve-stepping black people all over the state of Indiana. See, I was pretty well known during them ten years, institutional representative, intergroup representative, chairman of the intergroup. And it did wonders for me. I don't think I'd be sober tonight if it hadn't been for institutional work. And I still enjoy working with new people, as far as twelve step work is concerned.


Gary, Indiana

John Shaifer

His Life in the Program

The following is a transcript of the lead given by John William Shaifer (Gary IN) in Lafayette IN on August 26, 1999. He was seventy-six years old at the time he gave this lead. He had gotten sober on September 15, 1960, and was at this point thirty-eight (almost thirty-nine) years sober, with an incredible amount of A.A. experience all across the state under his belt. Beth M. (Lafayette), the chair of the Area 22 Archives Committee, made the introduction.  

  BETH:  Good evening everybody, my name is Beth, and I'm a grateful alcoholic, and it's my pleasure and honor to introduce to you tonight our speaker. John from Gary, Indiana, has come down tonight to speak for us. I met him and his lovely wife at the state convention this year at French Lick, and I was very impressed with his love and appreciation and devotion to the fellowship. And I am very grateful to him and to Larry for coming down here tonight and allowing us to be able to do this, and passing that torch on, and that's something I feel that we need more to be committed to that pledge, to be able to pass it on to the newcomer that's coming into the door, so that they in turn can pass it on to more people after we're not here anymore. So with that I'm going to give you John.

JOHN:  Thank you, Beth. I'd like to thank you for the invitation. Because there was a time that I wasn't invited nowhere. The taverns, I was even kicked out. But I did meet Beth at the Indiana State Convention, and it was a beautiful convention. I came down to share with you tonight, [to share] my strength and hope with you. And I only have one story, and I like to tell it, and I'm gonna tell it. First I'd like to say to the new people, identify with me, don't compare.


My name is John William Shaifer. I AM an alcoholic.

[A weak "Hi, John" from the audience.]


[A loudly shouted "Hey, John!"]

Now that's more like it!


I'm a depression baby. I was born 1923, June 19th. My dad was a bootlegger. He bootlegged moonshine and beer. And I was a little guy, and I was the waiter in my dad's house. They sold moonshine fifteen cent a half a pint. Nickle a shot. Beer was five cents a bottle, home brew, because he made it all. I used to crush grapes in another tin-side tub, wash my feet good and clean, and then crush the grapes so he could make his wine.

I know about alcohol, I've taste alcohol at an early age -- five, six, seven, on up to teenage. My dad, he didn't believe in doctors. And if I had a cold, he'd make a whiskey toddy. He had a old fruit jar, he'd sent me to the drugstore to get some rock candy, and crush that rock candy and put it in that fruit jar. Then he'd put a little camphor in there, and then when he made his toddy, he'd cut up onions and lemons, see, and then he'd add some of that AK&W, alcohol and water to that, and steam it. He'd put me in bed -- we didn't have blankets, we had quilts -- and I had probably three or four quilts on top of me. And he said, "Son, I want you to drink this cup toddy, drink it down, and then cover your head." Man, you talk about drunk! [Laughter] But I can guarantee one thing, when I woke up that next morning, I was feeling good, the cold was gone. He also, in the spring of the year, he would give us home brew to clean me out, if he didn't have sassafras tea. So what I'm telling you is, I know the taste of alcohol, but I didn't know anything about Alcoholics Anonymous.

During that time I seen at least two alcoholics that visit my father's house frequently, 'cause I used to have to take 'em home, 'cause he said, "Son, you're gonna have to take Mr. Cosby home. You're gon' have to take Mr. Brown home, because they get lost." So I take 'em home after they got drunk.

I went all through high school, and never drinked or smoked. I served three year in the United States Army, and I never drinked or smoked. I didn't start drinking, or smoking, until I was twenty-three years old. Discharged from the United States Army with an honorable discharge January 13th, 1946. I worked in the steel mills prior to going to service, so I went back to the steel mill -- Gary United States Steel. I did thirty-nine years and seven months in United States Steel, I retired November the 24th, 1985.

Like I said, I didn't start drinking until 1946. A young lady, I corrrespond with her the whole time I was in service. I did six years: three years in the regular army and three years in the reserves. I got out just before the Korean war. I was a sergeant. I got married September the 20th, 1946. And working in the mill, and working with older guys, they told me, says, "You're not a man!" Say, "You don't drink or smoke." Say, "In order for you to run with us, boy, you got to drink." So I started drinking. I liked alcohol. I wasn't a beer drinker, I wasn't a mixed drinker, and I liked that old stuff: Old Crow, a hundred proof; Old Granddad, a hundred proof; Old Taylor, hundred proof; Old Foster, a hundred proof. And old women. [Laughter]

Now I'm gonna be telling you about some of my escapades, 'cause I must qualify. After about a year and a half, or two years, I noticed the Dr. Jekyll–Mr. Hyde, and I didn't know what the hell was wrong with me. I begin to have blackouts, and I didn't know what was wrong. My wife knew. Incidently, that's a beautiful person. I asked her, I says, "Why did you put up with me all these years?" We've been married fifty-two years. She's seventy-one years old and I'm seventy-six years old. And she told me, "The first year was beautiful." See, I could hold that liquor. I take her out, drink all night, and take her home, change clothes, just enough time to grab the bus and go to work.

But like I said, after about a year and a half, or two years, I noticed the Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde personality. Once I took that first one, one wasn't enough, and a thousand was too many. And it's bad to say: any time I drank, if I had one shot . . . whatever I had in my pocket [would always end up drunk away]. Incidently, I was a periodic drinker, payday drinker. Big meal payday at U.S. Steel in Gary works was on a Monday. And I was a payday drinker; I wasn't a everyday drinker. But if I stopped and had a shot, it's bad to say, I never got home with a dime. And during that time, I had six children, buying a home, and a lovely wife.

It is only through the goodness of one of my foremens, rest his soul -- his name was Dale Owens, he passed away about five years ago -- this guy always went to bat for me. See, I was never reprimanded for drinking on the job; mine was absenteeism. I would call in and report off. And after being on the program about six years, getting sober, the superintendent called me in the office and gave me a Christmas present, around Christmastime. I had about thirty-four 26A's -- those were reprimands for absenteeism -- and he told me, "John, I want you to read 'em, and tear 'em up, and throw 'em in the wastebasket, and then you'll have a clean slate." And I read one of 'em. My mother died seven times. [Laughter] My father died three times. [Laughter] I had seventy-two teeth extractions. [Laughter] My wife had twenty-seven babies. [Laughter] She only had seven! [Laughter]

And that supervisor, I talked to him Saturday afternoon -- when he retired, he moved up in Michigan. We're still close. Back in those days, he told me, said, "John, I'm gonna give you twenty-eight days to get yourself straightened out. There wasn't any detox, see, I had to do it cold turkey. And I used to have to walk to the . . . before I went to work, I used to have to go the general foreman's office, the midnight foreman, and blow my breath in his face . . . before I went to work. If he smelled alcohol, well he'd send me home. That's how bad my drinking was. My consumption, I guess, was about a fifth and half of [Old Crow whiskey, Old Granddad whiskey, Old Taylor whiskey, Old Foster whiskey] -- old anything, old a hundred proof -- and about a case of beer. Was I a zombie? Yeah, I was a zombie.

John's last drunk

All I want to tell you about tonight is my last drunk. Like I said, I was first introduced to A.A. in the year of 1951, about January the 8th, right after the New Year. And my dry time -- I wouldn't say sobriety -- my dry time lasted till about the 13th of December that year, and I went back drinking. Because I was full of denial: I was in my twenties, I didn't think I was an alcoholic, and I know I didn't look like an alcoholic. Some of the guys I saw in Gary, they looked like alcoholics. And I guess the thing that kept me from staying was the fact that they told me, says, "Man, you so young! I drank thirty years!" And see, I started drinking '46 -- and this was 1951 -- five years. And I said to myself, "Hell, if he drank thirty years, and this other guy drank twenty-five years, maybe I got thirty or twenty-five more years of drinking." [Laughter] But that wasn't so.

Well, I'm just wanta tell you about my last drunk. I told you I was a payday drinker. This was on a Monday. The nice bars, they kicked me out. I had to go to the red light district in Gary -- you know what I mean when I say red light district? I had to go down on the border, with the prostitutes, the addicts, the pimps. And I was down in that neck of the woods for about a year. And this tavern that I visit frequently was the Wonder Bar. I went to school with the owner, his name was Seyward.

I got paid that Monday, Goldblatt store was about four blocks from the mill, so I walked and paid a bill. And I did something that I'd never done before, I called my wife at Goldblatt. And she said, "Umnpf, you're sober." And I said to myself, "How in the hell does she know that I haven't had a drink? Because she could tell me, when I'd call her sometime when I'd had a drink. And I couldn't figure that out, I thought she had a private eye following me! [Laughter] And I told her, I said "I'd be home within a half an hour." And she say, "O.K., your supper will be ready."

In Seyward's tavern . . . . see, Broadway is the main street in Gary, it divides the west side from the east side. All streets on the east side are named after states, all streets on the west side are named after presidents or famous men, so it's easy as far as directions are concerned. And his tavern was one block from Broadway on 12th and Washington. I walked in his tavern about 5:30 that evening, and when I walked in the door, Seyward poured me a double shot of Granddad, and a Budweiser beer for chaser. That was my beer -- Budweiser -- "one Bud for one stud." [Laughter] And I drank that double shot, and I drank that beer. And I had to go to the restroom.

And while I was in the restroom, Seyward came in the restroom. He says, "John, come on out man, and get one for the road." And I looked at the guy, I was shocked and surprised. What the hell is he talking about? -- "get one for the road" -- I just walked in this joint. Sure enough, we walked out, I looked at my watch:  it was midnight. Now see, there's quite a few hours that I had lost. See, I begin to have blackouts five and six in one twenty-four hour period.

I walked out of the restroom, I had another double and beer, and I walked out the tavern. I headed south on Washington, I lived on 17th. Before I got to 13th Street -- now the tavern is on 12th Street -- before I got to 13th Street, I blacked out again.

Coming out of the blackout, I was in a room. I was lying across a bed. I sat up, I looked to my left, there's a girl lying there. And I looked at her. And I really stared. Because I knew she hadn't passed out from alcohol -- she had passed out from heroin. And I accidentally looked to my right, and there's a guy, stretched out, just like she was. And he was in the same condition. Now if I hadn't'a looked to my right, I could have put two and two together, and I would have known what I was in there for, but when I saw him, this baffled me. [Laughter] So I looked diagonally to my right, and I saw this guy standing there with a tourniquet 'round his arm, with a syringe in his hand. And I knew all three -- I knew the gal, and I knew the two guys.

And I says, "Say, man, what's you doing?" He said, "Shut up, John," say, "I'm trying to get a kick, man, I'm trying to get a hit." He's looking at me through the mirror. And I pointed to the girl, and he just nodded his head. Then I pointed to the guy, and he nodded his head. Then I put my arms out like this, and he shook his head. Boy, you talking about getting the hell out of there! [Laughter] Whew!

See, like I told you, I had been to A.A. in 1951, and I hung around eleven months, to know what the program was all about. So I took a quick résumé of my life, in other words, I took an inventory: The father of seven children. You have a good job. You have a good wife. You're buying a home. And you're about to lose everything. What could you've told the judge if they had've raided that room? See, when I walked out of Seyward's, it was midnight, but when I came to in that room, it was seven or eight o'clock that morning. It's only by the grace of God, while I was in there, they didn't pop that needle in my arm.

Now I knew I was an alcoholic, no question about it. I knew the recovery as far as alcoholism was concerned: the recovery is about 75% of the people recover, according the Big Book -- said 50% recover, no relapse, never relapse; 25% have problems but they do recover. I knew that, but I didn't know the recovery for an addict.

This was a Tuesday morning. Now you would think something like that would stop a guy from drinking, but after I took that inventory and walked out of that hotel (or wherever it was, flophouse) I walked to one of my schoolmate's father's tavern. And he was working that morning, he was a Greek, his name was Tony Caiouphas, he was my classmate. And I told Tony, I said, "Tony, give me a half pint of Granddad, man." He said, "Don't have it, John." I said, "Well, what do you have old?" He said, "Old Crow." I said, "Well, give me a half pint of Old Crow, man." See, back in those days you couldn't drink a half a pint or a pint in a tavern unless you bought the setup -- you could drink shots only. And he gave me the half a pint, and I spanked that son of a gun on the butt, wrung his neck, he said, "John, you know you can't drink it in here." I told him, "Well, give me my change man." And he gave me my change, and I walked outside, and that was my last drink. That was September the 14th, 1960. I was sober.

My mother had a liquor store three blocks from where I was, and on the corner of Washington. I walked in there that morning, and she looked at me, say "O Lord, not again! Get outa here!" See, I couldn't even go in my mother's liquor store, that's how bad my drinking was. But I told her, "Well, this is it, I've had my last drink." She says, "Ahh! I don't believe it."

And about that time, usually, my wife was always looking for me. See, I didn't have a car, and my wife's oldest sister drove around. And my three-year-old son walked up to me (he's forty-two years old now), and grabbed me by the hand, and he led me to the car where my wife was. You know, that was the first time in my duration of drinking that I had money left, and all I did is, I went in my pocket, and I handed the money over to her. I told her, "I'll be home pretty quick."


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