March 17, 2009
—Op-Ed by Calvin Luther Martin
A day or so before Thanksgiving, ComLinks CEO Nancy Reich was pulled over by a trooper during a pre-holiday traffic check—a public safety measure aimed at keeping the roads safe for the family, above, from the homicidal threat of drunk drivers.
The trooper (correctly) suspected Nancy was drunk, gave her a breathalyzer test, and she failed. The reading wasn’t even close to “sober.” Then he did us all—including Nancy—a great service, for which we should all be eternally grateful. He arrested her—to remove her from the highway, where she was no longer the Nancy Reich we all know and appreciate doing something as mundane as driving home in her SUV. She was Nancy Reich morphed into a murderous weapon. A weapon hurtling down the highway and passing within inches of families like this one. A weapon that could easily (for reasons of brain chemistry I won’t go into) slam into the car carrying this laughing child.
Killing boy, mother and father. Killing Nancy herself. Or any number of possibilities, all tragic and mind-numbing.
Clinicians know that someone whose brain is awash in ethyl alcohol no longer controls her faculties; it’s a straightforward matter of biochemistry. Make no mistake, it has nothing to do with whether someone is a good person nor not, or whether they’ve done a briliant job as CEO of ComLinks or U.S. Senator or federal judge. The eerie part is, one’s behavior is no longer under conscious control. “Reason” turns to spaghetti. The terrifying thing is, when we’re drunk we don’t realize we have lost control of our reason and, above all, judgment.
Brain chemistry trumps Nancy’s resumé and all her best intentions. Including my best intentions and resumé. The brain bathed in ethyl alcohol is a comandeered organ, prone to ugly and spectacularly dangerous behavior. Two methyl molecules and a hydroxy ion. CH3CH2OH. Amazing molecule. Notably small and nimble. Slips easily in and out of cell membranes. Once inside, it creates molecular mayhem.
When I was a Rutgers professor I was adjunct faculty at the university’s Center for Alcohol Studies. Because, as a historian, I was doing research on the effects of alcohol on people—Native Americans, in this case. I used to give learned papers at scholarly conferences and lectures at medical schools on the subject.
When I lived with Eskimos, I taught at the regional prison up near the Yukon River. It was full of Eskimos who got drunk, blacked out, and did ghastly things to (oddly enough) their loved ones. Usually to wives or children.
Consider this man.
He seated himself and I made him a cup of tea. Peter is my age. A Yup’ik Eskimo. Slender, muscular, with beautifully crafted thin face, hair showing some white. Softspoken, shy even. Nothing frivolous about him. Solid and calm.
We spoke of little things, till I asked him about his life with alcohol—what he came to speak about, I suspect. He started by saying he was originally from Eek, a small village downriver near the coast, and his parents had been Christians. He accepted the Lord as a young boy—he wanted me to know.
Growing up he saw drunks around the village from time to time; they fascinated the kids, who would stand and stare. “They were entertaining.” Sometimes kass’aq (white) fishermen or hunters coming through would be intoxicated, and were likewise a curiosity.
Somewhere in his teens he took his first drink, a beer, I believe. He didn’t enjoy it. Nonetheless he began drinking. Slowly, at first.
He moved upriver to Bethel, did some commercial salmon fishing and cab driving and other assorted jobs. The drinking all the while gathering momentum. He married a nice girl from home.
Alcohol was becoming habitual, and in time he found himself in the cyclone. Hooked. Occasionally there were blackouts.
There came the day when he drank heavily one night. He remembers only waking up the next morning with a strange man bending over him. The state trooper was saying, “Mr. Green, you shot your wife last night.”
Peter vividly remembers his reply: “Does that mean she’s dead?”
“Yes, Mr. Green. Quite dead.”
Immediately, he says, his mind went blank. He was sitting at the dining room table when he told me all this. Quietly, factually. He gestured at the air above his head. “My mind felt like air—for the next two days it was only air.”
He was whispering now.
Peter did not dislike his wife.
He declined to defend himself at the trial; there were no instructions from defendant to lawyer. The D.A. and public defender bargained on a manslaughter charge, and he did five or six years at the regional prison. An outstanding prisoner—Warden James Symbol still talks about him. Peter told me he re-dedicated his life to Christ inside. He ran a Bible study every night all those years. And he took it upon himself to prepare the room for the chaplains whenever they came.
He began to feel strength coming back. One Christmas they released him to spend the holiday with family in Eek. He flew back with trepidation, afraid people would not forgive him. But he made it through. I suppose that’s when he met the woman he eventually married.
She took a job with the native hospital, next to the jail, and would visit him religiously. He still blesses her for that. She gave him confidence. He told me how, even today, whenever he thinks on those hard days and nights, he still thanks her for abiding with him.
To see Peter Green today one could never detect this. He’s a diligent student at the native Moravian seminary. Serious and attentive. He went on to become a brilliant counselor at the alcohol treatment center, and sings gospel with a local group. You will notice him in church every Sunday morning, and he sits on the board of directors of the seminary.
Peter was just elected to the governing board for the Alaska Moravian Church. He has a new five-year-old daughter, Rachelle. He adores her. I watched him carrying her around the house at her birthday party.
He told me all of this matter-of-factly. In little more than a whisper. I think, perhaps, because he needed to.
Nancy Reich, hurtling down the highway in her ComLinks SUV, would not have disliked the husband and wife and little boy whose car she slammed into—had she plowed into it. Fact is, she didn’t slam into it. Or any other car.
But there is an equally indisputable fact. Which is that the state trooper realized she was perfectly poised—neuro-biologically poised—to smash into another vehicle. Or tree. Or plunge down an embankment.
Think of it this way. Take a revolver, insert one live round, snap the chamber shut, climb into your car and accelerate down the highway. Get her up to 55 mph. Now roll down the window—and start squeezing off shots at cars going by.
Vehicular Russian roulette. There’s your drunk driver. The analogy is apt.
I drank. I’m Irish; boozing is part of the job description. Fact is, I liked alcohol. And, being a vain man and inordinately self-confident, I thought I could cheat brain chemistry. I know without a doubt I drove while drunk as a young man.
I stopped. Because I’m a boozer in my Irish soul, and because I’m a writer (all writers worth a damn, drink), I knew I could not drink in moderation. I knew I would have to stop entirely. Not a drop.
Do I miss it? You betcha. Beer. Love beer. I still love beer. There are moments I can taste Thai beer.
But I remember Peter Green. He adored his wife. I remember how I neglected my wife and children, and remember my anger. And remember puking into a toilet thinking I was going to die—then hoping I would.
And I’m thinking of Nancy. Nancy’s larger than life. I identify with her. (Hell, she’s probably Irish.) She’s tremendously talented and, like me, tremendously flawed. The saving grace about Nancy is, she would admit to both.
What should Nancy do now? Resign? Get fired? Dump Kevin Nichols and accept the rap? None of these is a question I can answer. Only Nancy can. Nancy and the ComLinks board of directors. (Happily for me and ComLinks, I’m not a board member.)
What I can say with certainty is this. Nancy is part of my community. I have chewed on Nancy Reich in these pages before, and doubtless will do so again with gusto. Nonetheless, Nancy is a human being within my community, and hence my kinsman. For I am in fact my brother’s keeper. Call it a cosmic law.
Like Peter Green, the Eskimo who played Russian roulette on his wife. Peter was part of a tight, warm, caring community. The community always embraced him. Peter discovered that other Eskimos were not going to ostracize him: they are always forgiving. The community that’s family. The community that expects him to use their forgiveness for his own healing—this is the essential ingredient. The critical dynamic.
Like Nancy, I too have roared down the highway at 55, window down, firing rounds at passing motorists. I was a professor at the time. I too had a reputation and a job to lose. As it happened, there was no state trooper sent by the grace of God to pull me over and say, “Doc, you’ve been drinking! Let’s do a breathalyzer.” Somehow I got home before I clicked the chamber around to the live one—the one that matters—which is all it takes to erase a boy and his parents.
My day of reckoning happened otherwise, but, make no mistake, it did happen.
I have no advice for Nancy. No judgment to pass upon her. All I have is this story.