Fifth A. A. International Convention
The fifth AA International Convention was held in Miami
in 1970. It was the first one that I attended.
Nell Wing, Bill's secretary, wrote: "More than 13,000 members and their families came from all over the world to see the cofounder and hear him speak, as he had at all previous conventions, and to participate in the wide-ranging program."
Arriving at the Fountainbleu Hotel, where the convention was held, I was thrilled to meet members from many countries. Nell said there were many from Latin America.
I also was delighted -- typical A.A. member that I am -- to see that free coffee was being offered in the lobby. But when I looked for some later it was all gone. Nell explained that the host committee in Miami, chaired by Wes P., "one of the more colorful members," had raised about $10,000 from local groups to provide complimentary coffee. But $10,000 worth of coffee doesn't last long, especially at hotel prices, with that many A.A. members hanging around.
It may have been Wes P. who drove me around Miami one day. When I noticed people on the street pointing at the car and smiling, he explained that the license plate on the front of the car read "Alcoholism is a Treatable Disease." He gave me one of these license plates to take back to Washington as a gift for Senator Hughes.
On another occasion, a taxi driver taking me to the Fountainbleu, asked if I were there for the AA convention. I told him I was. He admitted his worry about his own drinking, and I wound up spending considerable time doing 12th step work.
Other memories of the convention include the wonderful entertainment. An A.A.
member who was a professional comedian did an act in which he pretended to be drunk. He pretended he was doing live commercial breaks during a movie being shown on TV. During each pretended commercial break he would take a drink of the alcoholic product, talking about it's fine bouquet, excellent flavor, etc. Each time he did the live commercial, of course, he was a little more drunk. He said at the end "I can't tell you how many thousands of dollars it cost me to learn that routine."
A Florida A.A. member told me a few years ago that she thinks it was Foster Brooks, "who always did a drunken skit, even though he was a very sober member of AA at the time." He often appeared on the Dean Martin show a lot, and was also appeared with Rowan and Martin. He, like, Bill Wilson, died as a result of his addiction to cigarettes.
I also remember the "Alkathons," AA meetings going on constantly 24 hours a
day. I had been invited by GSO to speak at one of them. (Senator Hughes had been invited to speak at one of the big meetings, but declined because of the legislative schedule at the time. Well, that was his excuse anyway. I think he really declined because he knew he had been invited because of the celebrity he was then receiving as the leading "dark horse" for the Presidential Democratic nomination. He hated being invited to speak at A.A. functions because he was a "big name."
At the opening session, we were disappointed not to see Bill. As Nell wrote: "His life long cigarette habit had caught up with him in the form of emphysema, even though he had given up smoking the year before."
He had suffered a fall in the spring of 1969, from which according to Nell, he had never fully recovered. (However, when he came to Washington to testify before Senator Hughes' Subcommittee in July of 1969, he seemed in good health. I don't remember whether he was smoking, but if he had already given it up because of his emphysema, it must have grieved him to see Senator Hughes -- who also died of emphysema -- chain smoking the entire time.) But a year later, at the time of this convention, Bill's health had deteriorated greatly. That April he was unable to complete his opening talk at the annual General Service Conference.
Despite his ill health, he had flown to Miami with Lois and Nell a few days
before the convention. But it became clear that he was not going to be able
to keep his scheduled appearances. Once or twice a day he was taken back and forth to the Miami Health Clinic. Nell reported that: "Lois, Bob H., general manager of A.A.'s General Service Office, and Dr. Jack were spread pretty thin trying to cope, trying to keep the huge convention going and easing anxiety caused by Bill's failure to appear. I was caring for Bill in their suite upstairs at the hotel. It was during that week that he began hallucinating, imagining he had made a long-distance call. It was terribly distressing for Lois."
She remembers Lois's courage and determination to carry on with the Al-Anon
programs. Nell thinks that Al-Anon more than ever "came of age" at this convention, with its own program of events and big crowds in its own headquarters hotel, the Eden Roc, next to the Fountainbleu.
When the press conference was held the Wednesday afternoon before the
convention began, Marty Mann and Dr. Jack Norris substituted for Bill. Bernard Smith, a past chairman of the GSO Board, substituted for Bill at the opening session. Nell said that Bernie Smith was a "little disgruntled" to be called down from New York on short notice, and asked her to help him adapt a talk from a previous conference. They finished the talk by one or two o'clock, after which he got in some golf. On Sunday, he apologized to Nell for his irritability the day before.
Poor Nell was so exhausted that she slept in Sunday morning and missed the
program. But I was there, with the thousands of others. And I was not disappointed. Late in the morning, a wheelchair appeared from the back of the stage, and there was Bill. He was hooked up with tubes to an oxygen tank, and had insisted on wearing one of the orange-colored blazers that identified the Miami host committee.
When we realized it was Bill, we rose as one and exploded with applause and
cheers. Bill was wheeled to the front of the stage and pulled himself up to his full
height at the rostrum. He spoke for only a few minutes, but his voice was strong and clear. He seemed almost like the old Bill so many of us remembered.
He talked of how happy he was about the large attendance, especially the members from other countries, and about how much it meant to him to see A.A.'s enormous growth and to have been a part of it. And then he ended by saying: "As I look out this morning on this vast crowd, I know in my heart that Alcoholics Anonymous will surely last a thousand years -- if it is God's will!"
When he lowered himself into his wheelchair we all jumped to our feet in thunderous applause. Nell says "Many times since I've thought about the coincidence, the similarity of the final exit of the two cofounders twenty years apart."
Later that day, Bill returned to the hospital. He and Lois remained in Miami until August, when they returned home to Stepping Stones. Bill's health steadily declined. He required oxygen constantly and his hallucinations were much worse. Soon he needed nurses around the clock. Bill was returned to a Miami hospital for treatment, and died in Miami less than six months after this convention.
One of my many regrets is that I did not save a copy of the last message he wrote Senator Hughes. It was a post card which he and another AA member at the hospital both signed. They knew they were dying, and they wrote: "We only hope we live long enough to see you become President."
"Grateful to Have Been There©," by Nell Wing
Unpublished diary of Nancy Olson©.
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