I read every obituary I could find about the passing of my friend Tom Hayden. Heaps of praise were lavished upon this true hero and warrior of my generation. I admired him for all his deeply felt beliefs and envied the courage he displayed standing up for what he believed in. While his life was observed in great detail, not a single mention was made of an arena I knew Tom engaged in during the last years of his life; that being the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I recognized him as soon as he entered the meeting room of my Saturday morning men’s group in Pacific Palisades. He looked fragile and unkempt, but it was him alright. Black hoodie pulled up over his head, and pants hanging loosely from his boney frame, I watched as he found a seat on a worn-out divan along the windows in the rear of the room. The meeting is attended by a couple hundred men, so Tom wasn’t particularly noticeable. I doubt whether many of the mostly younger guys would have known who he was, in any event… but I did.
That’s Tom Hayden, I said to myself, a little surprised to see him at an AA meeting. I had known a great deal about his political career ever since the Chicago Seven days, but never heard anything about him being an alcoholic.
Over the course of the next few weeks I spotted Tom each Saturday, even though he seemed to be doing his best to remain “anonymous.” One morning after a meeting where I was chosen to be the speaker, Tom came up to me and told me he liked my talk and asked if I’d be willing to sponsor him. I was quite surprised, as I had assumed that since he had been coming to meetings for a while, he probably had a sponsor. We had never spoken to one another previously, but I was pleased that he had chosen me to work with him.
We agreed to meet the following week, at which time he explained to me how alcohol had become increasingly problematic for him, and that although he had stopped drinking a while ago, he was curious about this AA deal and wanted to give it a try. I told him that sponsorship initially entails taking a new man through the 12-Steps of AA, a job I have done countless times in my 34 years of recovery, but first I wanted to hear his story. He confined his talk with me to his problems with drinking, which was fine with me as I already knew a lot about his life and career.
Tom spoke without embellishment, assuring me he understood what alcohol had done to him. He said he was determined not to drink again, that he had a family that meant the world to him and he intended to keep them close. I’ve heard this pledge ‘not to drink again’ from many men, some of whom actually keep it, but in Tom I sensed a deeply felt commitment to doing it the right way.
We agreed we’d meet each Saturday, to begin working on the steps, but first I asked him to read the Big Book, the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous, written by Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA. Tom readily agreed to do this and by the time we met the following Saturday, he had already read it and was full of observations and questions. I thought to myself, “This is going to be some experience!” We spent that first Saturday just talking about the book. As much as I thought I knew what it contained, having read it several times, Tom brought new insight and questions that I’d not heard or considered before. It felt in some ways that he was teaching me the program!
For the next several months we met each Saturday, an hour before the meeting, to go through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’d get there a little early and stop at a local grocery store and purchase a coffee for me and green tea for Tom, which he quite enjoyed. He had a funny habit of leaving the tea bag in the cup, which I thought made the tea bitter and acidic, but Tom said he liked it that way.
We’d work a step each week, each of us reading alternate paragraphs, which required both of us to pay attention. I didn’t need to be concerned about Tom, though. He concentrated fiercely, underlining words and passages that interested him. Upon completion of the reading, I’d ask Tom to go home and write about the step, including some specific questions I’d give him. The following week we’d review what he had written.
With all of the men I’ve worked with over the years, the writing was generally brief and superficial to some degree. But Tom was different. He took the writing assignment seriously, and dove deep into each step, finding greater understanding and appreciation the more he probed. The further we went with the steps, the more into it he became.
When we got to the 4th step, a personal inventory, Tom went at it as if writing another book. He took the instructions literally; “a fearless and thorough moral inventory.” He pretty much presented me with his life story, reviewing all of the numerous relationships in his life, the resentments he held, and the part he played in the problem. It took him about two weeks to complete this assignment. In my experience, most men drag out the writing of this step, for it requires a stark look at oneself and it’s often a painful and difficult challenge. Not with Tom, though. He attacked it, like it was a matter of life and death.
The following steps were done with equal dedication and alacrity. Upon completion of the steps I offered Tom the opportunity to work the 12 Traditions of AA, which are also included in the step book, but which are not considered mandatory. The traditions of AA are to the group what the steps are to the individual, and Tom being an organization leader was quite curious as to how AA functioned. So on we went, tackling the traditions one at a time, the same way we worked the steps. Tom was like a sponge, sopping up as much information about the workings of AA as he possibly could. I thought I knew a good deal about the history of AA, but Tom’s continual questioning caused me to delve deeper into our literature than I ever had previously done. When we completed this task, Tom asked if we could go through the 12 Concepts of World Service, which is how Bill Wilson explained the spiritual principles that undergird A.A.’s structure and how the parts work together. This was a bit esoteric for me, and something I had never read before, but Tom’s curiosity made it impossible to refuse him. Unfortunately, we never got through this study, as he was taken ill when we had just gotten started.
The other thing I will always remember about Tom Hayden was his love of baseball and how we were able to share this love. Yeah, we discussed politics and the upcoming election, and how we both felt it essential to abandon Bernie and support Hillary, as the only candidate we assumed would clobber Trump. Wow, were we wrong about that! But it was in baseball that our deepest bond was established.
Like Tom, I’ve been a life-long Dodger fan, so each Saturday morning after we completed our step work, Tom and I would discuss the grand-old-game. Our conversations attacked it from every angle imaginable. Recent games, team roster, managerial decisions, trades we thought they should make. You name it, if it involved baseball, we talked about it. When Tom got really sick and was confined to his bed, I’d call him at home and replay the game I was watching on television to keep him current. I could picture him with his eyes closed imagining the game I was telling him about.
I miss Tom and the relationship we created during the short two years I knew him. He was such a remarkable man. At the graveside memorial I attended, I was taken by Tom’s pastor who mentioned that Tom’s last words to him were, “Hillary must win!” I smiled and thought God took Tom when he did to spare him what was about to happen!
God blessed all of us by Tom’s presence and I’ll never forget the gift of his friendship.