I have saved our Norwegian impression for the final part of this foreign account, because the story of the beginning there is a classic. It all started in Greenwich, Connecticut, in a coffee shop owned by a quiet little Norwegian and his devoted wife. The Greenwich group had lifted him to sobriety and his shop had become a popular rendezvous for them.
The little Norwegian had not written and had not heard from home in the twenty years he had been a virtual derelict. But now, feeling sure of himself, he sent a letter bringing the folks back there up to date and telling them all about himself and his escape from alcoholic oblivion via A.A.
He soon received an excited and pleading letter, telling him of the awful plight of his brother, a typesetter on an Oslo newspaper. The brother, his relatives said, was not long for his job and maybe not long for this world. What could be done?
The little Norwegian in Greenwich took counsel with his wife. They sold their coffee shop, all they had in the world, and bought a round-trip to Oslo, with only a little to spare. A few days later they saw their homeland. From the airfield they hurried down the east bank of Oslo fjord to the stricken brother’s house. It was just as they had been told; the brother was close to the jumping-off place.
But Brother was obstinate. The man from Greenwich told his A.A. story and retold it. He translated the Twelve Steps of A.A. and a small pamphlet he had brought along. But it was no use; Brother would have none of it. Said the travelers, “Have we come all the way to Oslo just for this? Our money will soon run out and we shall have to go back.” Brother said nothing.
So the Norwegian from Greenwich began to canvass the clergymen and some of the doctors in Oslo. They were polite but not interested. Much cast-down, the A.A. and his wife made their plans to return to America.
Then the impossible happened. Brother suddenly called out and said, “Tell me more about those anonymous alcoholics in America. Explain again their Twelve Steps to me.” He sobered up almost at once and was able to watch his brother’s plane take to the air for New York. He had got the message all right, but he was alone now. What could he do?
The instant he got back to work he started modest ads in his own newspaper, one every day for a month. Nothing happened until the very last day. Then the wife of one of Oslo’s sidewalk florists wrote him a letter asking help for her husband. When the florist heard the story and studied the Twelve Steps he too dried up. The two-man group continued the newspaper notices that A.A. had come to town. Soon they had a third sober member. Among others who followed was a patient of Dr. Gordon Johnson’s, Oslo’s leading psychiatrist. Dr. Johnson, a deeply religious man, at once saw the implications of A.A.’s Twelve Steps and immediately threw the whole weight of his reputation behind the uncertain little group.
Three years later Lois and I looked through the customs gate at Oslo Airport upon a large welcoming delegation. Very few words of English could they speak, but they didn’t have to. We could see and feel what they had. On the way to the hotel we learned that Norway already had hundreds of A.A.’s now spread into many groups. It was unbelievable, yet there they were.
What happened to the little Norwegian from Greenwich? He came home and somehow started another coffee shop. Four years later he suffered a heart attack and died. But not before he had seen A.A. grow great in Norway.
One more word about Norway. Quite unknown to the rest of that country, a group had sprung up in Bergen at about the same time that Oslo got underway. Hans H., a Scandinavian-American, had returned to his home town with an A.A. book. Having perfect command of English, he could translate it into Norwegian as he read aloud to a tiny band of alcoholics that he had somehow gathered about him. With the benefit of this auspicious beginning several laid hold of sobriety and thereafter spread the message in this city to such good effect that Bergen today can point to sixteen A.A. groups as the remarkable result.
At many another Convention meeting the panorama of A.A. in action today was unfolded. A.A. clubs, now numbered by the hundreds, had their problems aired and their assets and liabilities weighed. There was a lively swapping of experience on how best we could give brother and sister sufferers in mental hospitals and prisons a still better break while they were in these places and when they left them. Great numbers of these folks were already making good and had become our fast friends and co-workers on the outside, and we realized how foolish had been our early fears of the alcoholic bearing a double stigma. In still another seminar secretaries and committeemen of scores of local central services, the so-called Intergroup Associations, exposed their many problems for each other’s inspection and advice, always seeking to remedy the functional weaknesses of the many newer service bodies just trying to get under way.
In another meeting the whole subject of money in A.A. got a most healthy kicking around. A.A.’s principle of “no compulsory fees or dues” can be construed and rationalized into “no voluntary group or individual responsibility at all,” and this fallacy was exploded with a bang. There was complete unanimity that through voluntary contributions the legitimate bills of groups, areas, and A.A. as a whole must be paid or we could not properly carry our message. It was agreed that no A.A. treasury ought to get overstuffed or rich. Nevertheless, it was emphasized that the notion of keeping A.A. “simple” and “spiritual” by eliminating vital services that happened to cost a little time, trouble, and money was risky and absurd. It was the opinion of the meeting that oversimplification, which might lead us to muff our Twelfth Step work, area-wide and world-wide, could not be called either really simple or really spiritual.
Then there was a very moving get-together of lone A.A. members who had come in from the far reaches and isolated outposts to share the unusual view of our fellowship that St. Louis afforded. To no others could the Convention mean so much. They got a fresh sense of belonging, and they realized that their isolation was never so complete as they had sometimes felt it to be. They knew, as few did, how greatly A.A.’s literature and world services could help, for their sobriety had depended heavily upon the Big Book and upon those constant letters that came to them from Headquarters and fellow loners. They had developed all sorts of gimmicks and disciplines to bulwark themselves and to perfect their conscious contact with God, who, they had joyfully discovered, could just as well be felt and heard whether one dwelt in a ship crossing the equator or next door to the polar icecap.
Typical of the loner stories was that of the Australian sheepman who lived 2,000 miles from the nearest town where yearly he sold his wool. In order to be paid the best prices he had to go to town during a certain month. But when he heard that a big regional A.A. meeting was to be held at a later date when wool prices would have fallen, he had gladly taken a heavy money loss in order to make his journey then. That’s how much an A.A. meeting could mean to him. This was something that every loner at St. Louis could well understand.
At another interesting gathering the founders of many groups assembled to swap information on how best to get going in a new locality. Since more than 7,00011 A.A. groups with a total membership of over 200,000 had already been spawned over the years and new ones were taking shape somewhere in the world almost every day, there were plenty of experiences to share.
In still another section of the Convention there was much to be learned about A.A.’s Grapevine, our magazine of more than 40,00012monthly circulation and our biggest and best means of communicating current A.A. thought and experience in staying sober, in hanging together, and in serving. Among members of the Grapevine’s staff on hand were editor Don, three editorial assistants, a photographer, and a number of artists and magazine experts. By talks and exhibits they showed how the Grapevine’s well-illustrated pages could be a lively and convincing means of introducing A.A. to the new or potential member, and how its articles could provide solid material for closed meetings and discussion. The Grapevine was seen as the monthly mirror of A.A. in action, always the same principle yet ever growing and ever finding better ways of doing and thinking on new fronts of our exciting adventure in living and working together.
Then there was a session called