Nineteen Forty-Six. The Ark.

28 Dec

In his ten years of dealing with alcoholic seekers of refuge, Leo Monk had never faced such a hard winter. By March of 1946, he was in a state of severe exhaustion in body, mind, and spirit. Was it a futile war he had been fighting? The settlment worker felt profoundly depressed as he trudged through the streets and along the sidewalks of South Boston in the windy early morning.

A sturdy, rugged figure, Leo progressed slowly, avoiding visible ice and snow piles. His jutting jaw was a reddish pink in the frigid air. He fixed sky-colored eyes on the faded sign over the front door of the single-storey brick building across from him on Dressler Street. “The Ark” read its letters. The Boston Council of Churches , its sponsor, had obtained the structure as part of a large estate bestowed upon it in the late 1930’s. What better use than a shelter for drunken derelicts?

Leo, a college graduate with a major in social work, had worked for the last decade running the facility. A smile, wry and cynical, crossed his lips as he made for the front door. How many had he, in reality, saved from the blue devils of drink? How much of his effort had actually been for naught? At least the place had provided him a salary to live on and kept him out of military service in World War II.

He unlocked the front door and entered. Memory told him that there were only three “sleepers” inside the place from last night. Drunks did not like being locked up overnight. They preferred the freedom, the liberty of the oudoors even in a Boston winter. That’s the way they were and it seemed to Leo they always would be.

The shelter director slowly, noiselessly began to boil coffee in his front office. No one was yet awake in the rear dormitory. What good slumberers these men were!

All at once, a sharp ringing sound broke the silence. Leo picked up the telephone receiver.

In an instant he recognized the voice on the other end. It was Merlin Holding, head of the Boston Council of Churches. His immediate superior in the charity hierarchy.

“Leo, I’m bringing somebody over after ten o’clock. Be sure that the place looks good. Understand? I want us to make a good impression. The man is a professor and a researcher from Harvard Medical School.”

“You’re bringing a doctor over to the Ark?”

“I don’t know all the details, but he has some kind of experimental project in mind. His name is Dr. Unus. I haven’t met him yet, but we’ll be driving to South Boston as soon as he arrives in town. Have you heard of Dr. Tibor Unus? He’s hoping to advance and improve treatment of alcoholism. Aren’t we all, Leo?”

The latter promised to have everything presentable when they arrived. Then he excused himself and hung up. He started to arrange and order his office first. The lack of noise revealed to him that the sleepers in the back were still in dreamland.

Merlin Holding, rangy, lanky, and lantern-jawed, knew how to keep a stony solemnity in his face.

His ambition, years before, had been to become a noted preacher in the pulpit. But life had recruited him into serving as a church bureaucrat. He blamed the Depression of the 1930’s for that. The Ark to save alcoholics now fell under his jurisdiction.

Coal black eyes matched the straight raven hair under his large dark fedora.

He parked his Chevrolet coupe down the street and led Dr. Unus to the storefront refuge. His companion wore no hat. Through his heavy overcoat his potbelly bulged forth. His body was thickset and paunchy. Nutbrown hair was crew cut. Eyes as sharp as diamonds took in the front of the Ark. Holding opened the front door and motioned to him to enter first.

Leo came out of his office and greeted the pair. Holding introduced the two strangers to each other.

“Please, let’s sit down,” said Monk.

“Do you have clients in the back?” inquired Merlin Holding.

“Only one. The others have left and are now out hunting.”

“For liquor?” interjected Dr. Unus. His face held no expression whatsoever.

Leo, making no verbal reply, gave him a sly smile.

Once the three were seated, the director of the Ark offered to make coffee for his guests. Neither said yes to him. “We had some back in my office,” said Holding. “Let’s get down to why we are here, Leo. Dr. Unus has a project in mind that he thinks is ideal for the Ark. I decided that it’s best for him to explain to you what it is.”

The doctor, staring at Monk, took a moment before starting.

“For several years, I’ve been studying the physiology of alcoholics. There must be some biological factor involved, I have concluded. But what can it be? The question has bothered and haunted me.

“But since the end of the war there has been research on a particular substance called Antabuse. It was first discovered over in Denmark a few years ago. The chemical has a long technical name: tetraethylthiurum disulfide. What it does is to produce acetaldehyde at a very high level in the blood. An alcoholic who takes it becomes ill. His heart pounds like a hammer and he gasps for breath. In a little while, the man feels great distress and is on the verge of vomiting. How can that be considered a cure of any sort? It forces a person to fear and avoid liquor. I myself am in favor of a better, more reasonable weapon, one that fights the cause of alcoholism, not the unhappy result.”

Leo decided to give his own opinion. “I agree with what you say, but I don’t know that any single cause will ever be discovered. Perhaps there is no specific, definite factor that we can blame for it. I prefer to think of alcoholism as a general condition, not a result of some cause that no one will ever find. Excuse me for interrupting you, Doctor.”

Both Holding and Unus looked at him with surprise. The physician continued speaking.

“My own research has been in another direction. The glands that produce the body’s hormones is the area of study I’ve concentrated on. It was in 1941, when I was in New York and connected with Bellevue Hospital, that I learned an important fact. I took part in a series of blood and urine analyses of patients with delirium tremens, the awful final stage of alcohol addiction. I noticed that the blood sugar levels were always dangerously low. There was clearly a glandular defect in these terminally ill alcoholics. Fever up to 110 was common, along with very rapid breathing and pulse. Their condition could easily be taken by mistake for Addison’s disease, which results from the failure of the adrenal glands.

“I began to inject adrenal cortical extract, taken out of slaughtered cattle, into these patients with extreme delirium tremens. It was a surprise when they completely recovered, as if resurrected from the dead. It seemed miraculous to me. Their shaking ended. Hearts slowed down and the fever disappeared.

“During the war years, I gave this ACE to cases of alcoholic insanity. In twenty-four hours, their excitement and wild behavior would be gone. these patients grew coherent again.”

Dr. Unus suddenly rose to his feet and stepped over to where Leo Monk sat behind his small wooden desk.

“I want your help in testing a particular hormone on ordinary drunkards. Believe me, it holds enormous promise for the future. There will be no physical distress involved, as there is with Antabuse and other chemical compounds. I believe that this hormone, called ATCH, will be even better than ACE was with extreme delirium cases. You see, ATCH is produced in the pituitary gland within the brain. It is a natural product of the body. My suspicion is that a shortage of it exists in the addicted alcoholic and that is the main causal factor that creates the disease.

“The pituitary is considered the master gland in a person’s body. It controls all the other endocrine glands. I have found that a very small dose of ATCH has great curative effects on ordinary alcoholics that match those of ACE on the extreme, final stage patients.

“What I want to prove, with your assistance at the Ark, is that the pituitary gland is at the center of the condition we call alcoholism. In those suffering this disease, the pituitary fails to stimulate the adrenal cortex to function properly and produce adequate amounts of ACE. In other words, there is insufficient ATCH coming forth from the brain to accomplish that.

“I believe that alcoholism damages, over the years, the already weak adrenal system in a truly vicious circle. The evil starts in the insuffiiency of ATCH from the pituitary. This defect, for all I know, could be an inherited genetic characteristic of the alcoholic.”

Dr. Unus finished, but then Merlin Holding addressed the director of the Ark.

“What do you think. Leo? I think we should allow testing of the people you serve here. On a voluntary basis, of course. No one should be coerced in any way. I told Dr. Unus that his research appears to hold great hope and promise for the alcoholics who come to us for help. The final decision is yours, but I would advise that we cooperate with his research program.”

Monk meditated a moment before turning his sky-colored eyes on Unus.

“As I said a short while ago, Doctor, it has never been my idea that a particular cause for alcoholism can ever be isolated or identified. My own approach is close to that of Alcoholics Anonymous. You might call it a psychiatric, if not a spiritual, method of dealing with it. What I mean is that medical treatment can be only one part of the overall picture. The rest of what is needed is on a wider, more philosophical level. Am I being clear? I think that my reading on French existentialism has influenced my atitude toward alcoholism.” He glanced at Merlin Holding. “There are many Christian existentialists, to be sure.”

“I believe we should cooperate, Leo,” repeated Merlin. “This hormone could hold the secret that will cure the disease in time. The science is of no interest to me, only the practical results. That should also be your own primary concern.”

Monk turned to Dr, Unus and grinned. “No objections on my part, sir. I intend to be as helpful as possible. My only desire was to underline the complexity and fogginess of the state we call alcoholic inebriation. The addiction is an imprecise condition. No one can fully describe or define it. That is why we have no single practical treatment for it.”

Tibor Unus stepped forward and extended a hand to Leo. The two men shook hands over the program of testing about to begin.

“How long will it take you to recruit ten volunteers?” asked the experimenter.

Leo thought a second. “Give me at least a week.”

“All right,” said the physician carrying out the research. “I’ll return in seven days.”

It proved difficult to convince individuals to join up and be tested. Leo had unexpected difficulty explaining the experiment. No one believed that their alcoholic situation had anything to do with a pituitary hormone’s effect upon the adrenal gland. No one coming into the Ark was willing to accept the idea of a defect of any sort in an organ within the brain, of inadequate secretion of something they knew nothing of.

Leo visited bars, alehouses, beer parlors, gin mills, and beverage rooms. He talked with tipplers, bibbers, sots, tosspots, lushes, rummies, bloats, barflies, inebriates, the boiled, the canned, the potted, dipsomaniacs, boozers, the lit, the loaded, the pie-eyed, the tight, the reeling, men with three sheets in the wind, topers, souses, and soaks.

He found them in beer houses drinking pilsener and bock. Monk visited what had once been a barrel house during Prohibition. Its name was still the Blind Pig. There were winos huddling in  cold corners. Vodka, scotch, geneva gin, brandy, cordial liquor, straight vermouth, rye, bourbon, cognac, even lady’s schnapps were consumed. Besotted derelicts found applejack. The hunt was on for hooch, swizzle, fizz, rickies, slings, pick-me-ups, bracers, hookers, and pottle of all kinds. The most suicidal sought illegal absinthe.

Grog was available throughout South Boston, on Cypher St., Gold St., Tudor and Harbor Sts. Wherever Leo wandered, he located bars and stores dispensing some form of alcohol. But there were no volunteers for the experimental testing by Dr. Unus.

Merlin Holding visited the Ark two days before the project was to begin its tests. The weather had become warmer and milder, forecasting the approach of springtime.

“I have only two signed up so far,” apologized Leo. “It’s been hard going. They are very suspicious down here. Why become a guinea pig when there’s nothing in it at this time? We should be offering money, even a little. Then they’d be rushing in to join up.”

“It can’t be done,” objected Holding. “Dr.Unus says it goes against his medical principles, although others do it. And the Council of Churches doesn’t have funds for that.”

Leo frowned. “Can’t he cut down the size of the group to be tested? I might be able to get him five, if I’m lucky. It might be possible to make an arrangement with Alcoholics Anonymous.I know the president of the Boston chapter. He might agree to try to convince some of the members to join. I only need three more to reach five.”

Merlin rose to his feet, ready to leave. “I’ll contact Unus. He should agree to the change. There’s no other way?”

The social worker nodded. “But please don’t tell him where the additional volunteers are coming from. That might complicate his research somehow.”

That evening Leo located the apartment where Hyman Beam lived. He knew him from when the veteran returned home in 1945. Hyman blamed the liberation celebrations in Paris in 1944 for throwing him over the line. He returned to South Boston a boozer, an inveterate carouser. Hy, as he was called, seemed a happy lush to those who knew him. His 1946 conversion to the A.A. system had been quick and unexpected. None of his friends could have foreseen it. Leo had not seen him for several months. Hyman Beam was now a sober Rechabite, a confirmed nephalist who had learned how to stay on the wagon for good.

The thin, bony man was surprised to see Leo Monk, recognizing him instantly. His long, rust-colored hair was still wild and unkempt. The prismatic eyes shown with bright, sparkling vivacity, but now possessed conviction and rationality as well. Beam showed his visitor into the living room of the apartment and asked him to take a chair. The two studied each other for a time. Then Hyman sat down across from Monk.

“I haven’t seen you for some time,” said the former. “How is everything at the Ark?”

“The same, always the same,” replied the director. “What can I say? Its the same troubles as before. And there is nothing that anyone can do. The Ark is a very depressing place. I shouldn’t be saying that, but it’s the truth.”

Hy hesitated before he reacted to what he had just heard. “I can sympathize with you, Leo. Everything seems useless and failing at times. As you know, I’m in A.A. ever since they helped me drop my old ways. Many times now, when I deal with alcoholics trying to escape, there is a great deal of frustration that I feel. Then, the thought of my own rescue makes me have courage again. We all have ups and downs. But A.A. showed me the way to maintain a certain strength inside, enough to prevent sliding backwards. At least up to now. It is an unending battle for those like me.

“I realize that I will never be completely free until the second I die. That is the truth that every recovering drunk has to recognize, even after making a comeback. Nothing is easy for those who go through what I did.”

“You still work for the Boston Library system, Hy?”

The latter nodded yes. “But in my spare time I try to help new A.A. members. That is my mission in life. I don’t want to sound pompous, but that is what keeps me going and gives me a sense of purpose. That is really what I live to do.”

Leo waited a moment and decided to make the point he had come there to present to Hy.

“There is a doctor at Harvard Medical School who wants to carry out research at the Ark. The Council of Churches has agreed to assist his project. He believes that alcoholics suffer from a deficiency in a hormone produced in the adrenal gland. He traces this imbalance to failure in the brain’s pituitary gland. What happens when the missing substance is injected into the blood system of an alcoholic? That is what he wants to find out.

“Originally, this doctor asked for ten volunteers from the Ark. I worked hard, but could only muster up three. The request was then reduced down to five volunteers. It’s hard to find anyone because no money is going to be distributed to the alcoholics. So, my problem is to locate two volunteers more. I thought of you and the A.A. branch in South Boston. Hy, I’ve steered potential members to you. Quite a few, as I remember.

“I came here to ask you for help. Can you find me two willing persons who might agree to take the hormone injection in this experiment?”

“But our people are mostly dried out already,” replied Hy Beam.

“I know that, but A.A. consists of alcoholics who will always remain alcoholics. What possible effect would any hormone in the world have on them? It is their own self that rescues them, their inner soul.” Leo took a deep breath. “We need not reveal the A.A. connection to Dr. Unus, the one who dreamed it all up. He need only know that they are alcoholics, nothing more than that.”

The two men looked at each other intently for a time.

“I fear that we would be deceiving this doctor unless he knows everything,” declared Hyman. “This could distort the results reached by him in the end.”

“Not necessarily. The A.A. members will come out okay, and that would support belief in this hormone’s ability to work. This would make Dr. Unus confident about what he discovered. What’s wrong with that? The hormone causes no harm to anybody who takes it. They already know that.”

Thinking fast, Hyman Beam wrinkled his brow. “Do you think this stuff can help any of us?” he asked.

“Who can say? Perhaps it will rebalance the chemicals that the glands produce. My hope would be that those given it will be motivated to join something like A.A. for their kind of therapy. Do you understand what I am saying, Hy?”

The latter spent a while in close thought before answering.

“All right, then. I will become one of the volunteers, myself. I will find someone to go with me, too.”

The two men rose and shook hands in agreement, then Leo Monk left. He felt elation as he realized what he had achieved. The outcome of the experiment was set and predetermined

Merlin Holding heard a tale of success when he came to the Ark the next afternoon.

All the snow on the streets and sidewalks of South Boston was melted. Only the sludge and dirt deposited by winter remained. The promise of better days was in the cleared up air.

Holding listened nervously to the story that was told to him.

“The Doctor will get his subjects, then?”

“That’s right,” Monk assured him. “Everything will go smoothly. The results of the testing are foreseeable for me. Tibor Unus is going to make a name for himself in the world of medicine. He is about to become a famous scientist, I imagine. It will be South Boston alcoholics who raise him to that high eminence.

“I’ve thought about this business, Merlin. Are any of us committing a crime or fraud? I don’t think so. There will be no false claims. If someone like Unus were to ask, I would tell them the truth that A.A. members have volunteered for the tests. We can always disclose what was not reported at the beginning of the program.

“Don’t worry. The experiment will come out the way it should.”

Merlin bit his lip. “I fear for the Council of Churches, as well as A.A., should there be any public disclosure of what you are doing. In the newspapers, for instance.”

“This will never come out, believe me,” argued Leo. “Yes, there is a measure of risk, but that exists in everything we do. I foresee advantages to all of us from this, both the Ark and A.A.

“I hope you are right,” muttered the stone-faced man from downtown. “It will be good when all of this business is over.”

Dr. Unus arrived before dawn. Two female nurses accompanied him. It took only a short time for them to set up their equipment in a small back room. Monk watched with interest their every move. He asked questions and absorbed every bit of information given him. By eight o’clock, the preparations were finished. On the dot, Hyman Beam arrived. He thereby became the first person to receive an injection of ATCH that day.

A bed had been readied for him to rest in the remaining morning hours. There were follow-up tests that Unus intended for him and the nurses to carry out before that phase of the experiment was done, as well as interviews in the days and weeks to come. One by one, the volunteers arrived and their processing started. After a short explanation by the doctor, they received their dose of the hormone being tested.

By nine-thirty, all five subjects had received ATCH and were resting on cots. Three of them had fallen asleep and had to be awakened for the further tests. Leo watched silently, eager to learn how things came out.

The four volunteers questioned first said they already felt better. Last of all it fell to Beam to be questioned by the doctor in charge.

“What can you tell me about any change you feel inside yourself?” asked Unus.

“I have increased strength, Doctor. There are things to be done and I need to get started.”

Unus smiled on hearing this. “Not too fast. Take a little time to adjust to the changes happening to your internal system. I don’t want you to bcome too active till late today. What is so important that you have to get to it immediately?”

“There are some friends I must see,” muttered Hyman. “They’ll be expecting me.”

“Are they fellow-drinkers? The bars and beer joints don’t open till noon, I think.”

A wave of anger flowed through the man on the cot. His scraggy face turned red.

Leo perceived this sudden emotional reaction in Hyman and sensed the danger in it.

“Alcoholics are a lot like other people, sir,” asserted the tested one. “They have more than one single interest in life. My friends are expecting me for something other than taking some shots. Completely different.”

“That’s interesting, Mr. Beam. What is it that your friends are so involved with beyond simply imbibing liquor, may I ask?”

Leo knew, at that moment, that he had to intervene before Hy said too much.

“Let me reveal something to you, Dr. Unus. There are certain matters that these men are pledged to me not to tell to anyone. You have now reached that point in this questioning of yours. I have to beg you not to continue these particular queries. I assure you, there are valid reasons for this.”

Tibor Unus looked at Monk with an expression of surprise and perplexity on his face.

The doctor did not realize that his mouth gaped wide open as the situation became uncomfortable for him.

Leo could see how shaken and confused the physician was.

“I need to speak to you about a certain matter later, when you are finished, Doctor,” he said.

Unus continued with other questions about the body of Hy Beam as if nothing had happened.

Leo and his friend, for a second, exchanged looks of relief.

There had been no mention of Alcoholics Anonymous by anyone that morning, for which the director of the Ark was grateful. By the time that everyone but Dr. Unus and Monk had left, the latter had devised an explanation in his mind for his earlier strange behavior.

Leo led the physician into his office. Once they were seated and drinking freshly brewed coffee, the manager of the facility presented a fiction he had succeeded in inventing in his dilemma of how to explain what had happened.

“This is what I dared not tell you earlier, in front of the volunteers who were present and could have overheard me. You see, I have been using Hyman Beam, the alcoholic you were questioning, as a kind of missionary among the local community of addicted alcoholics. He goes among them for me and draws them in as clients who come to the Ark. What I am engaged in is based on what I have learned from reading the French philosphers who call themselves the existentialists. Are you familiar with their school of thought?”

“No,” replied the puzzled doctor. “I have little time for that, and no interest whatever in abstractions of philosophers. I deal with and work on specifics.”

Leo swallowed hard, then went on.

“I am hoping to cure Hyman by making him think that he is helping cure others. He now believes that his task, his mission in life, is to solve the addiction problems of his fellow alcoholics. So, in order to be able to influence the others, he has to abstain totally from all drink himself. He cannot win over others without first convincing himself that he has to stop doing it too. That has always been the experience of missionaries. They have to change themselves before there is a chance that they can change someone else.

“What I taught him was that each one of us, every day by our words and actions, created and shapes himself. This is what we do every single second. I told him that as an alcoholic he was becoming somebody different from his true self as time passed. That was a choice he was making, mostly unconsciously. I was able to put into his mind the idea that it is never too late to become the person they were meant to be, the one they were truly destined to become.

“As a result of the special training I provided him. Hy now goes among the drunkards of South Boston convincing and converting them to this new perspective on their own lives and what they are capable of. That is why I intervened, Dr. Unus. My fear was that if he started to explain what he was doing as my recruitment agent, it would appear as if I was the one pulling the strings and the originator of his reformation of himself. No, he might lose some of the confidence in himself that I had helped him to gather up and concentrate.

“Is all of this clear to you, Dr. Unus?”

The latter grinned with appreciation for what he had heard. “You yourself are a philosopher, Leo. A psychologist, as well. Yes, a wise and sharp one, my friend.”

“No,” softly said Leo Monk. “I am only an alcoholic who found himself over ten years ago. My work with other alcoholics here at the Ark is what changed my drinking behavior, I believe. It was the rescue of many others that saved me.”

“So, it made sense not to talk about such matters in front of a stranger like me,” concluded Unus.

The doctor left the Ark in a little while, not having learned of the formal organization of alcoholic recovery or its name.


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