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The Tenth A.A. International Convention
Wherever I looked, there we were," wrote Richard from Colorado, and Geff from Ohio marveled: "So many once-broken people all patched up by AA, and having a good time together."
Those reflections were typical among the throngs of sober alcoholics who attended AA's birthday bash in San Diego, California, the weekend of June 29 to July 3, 1995.
It was the largest AA Anniversary Convention ever held (more than 56,000 people registered), and the largest convention of any kind that San Diego had ever hosted. The theme, "AA Everywhere-N-Anywhere," came to life even before the Convention opened. Butch from San Diego met some early arrivals at his regular downtown meeting: "We had a slew of out-of-town and international visitors, two from Ireland, a half dozen or more from Finland, one from Germany, one from Switzerland, a couple from France, one from Wales, one from New Zealand, and one from out of state, Tennessee." "It was possibly the most exciting meeting I've been to in twelve years in AA. The leader called on many international guests, and we got to hear the message in several foreign languages, with their companions interpreting for us. I truly experienced the language of the heart!"
"I was able to meet new friends from all over the world," said Sandy from California. "We may not have talked the same language, but the eyes and smiles said the same thing: 'Welcome, I'm glad you made it.' I bet at night there was a glow in San Diego just from our eyes."
And Martha from Kentucky "liked the feeling of connection with people I'd never met. I was constantly reminded of the line in the Big Book about our being a group of people who normally would not mix."
Many participants arrived early to see the sights and enjoy the nearly perfect weather. "Like ants on a marshmallow, AAs converged on the downtown area, strolling the harbor walk and plazas, going from hotel to hotel, meeting to meeting," wrote John from Pennsylvania. "And everywhere people were doing the 'San Diego Salute', you meet a fellow AA, hesitate for a second, then like a giraffe, you crane your neck forward to read the nametag."
Marilyn from Oregon arrived early on Thursday and had a chance to help set up chairs on the infield at Jack Murphy Stadium. "None of the stadium employees could figure out why we were so excited about setting up those chairs, even after we explained about AA service. It took us two hours, and eventually the employees began to talk with us, sharing about a friend who drank too much, or a brother. We carried the message even in the mess of all those crooked chairs. Afterward, at the Big Meetings, we were able to see all 11,000 chairs from above, and I was proud of us drunks. To be one among many is all I've truly wanted, and at twelve years of sobriety, setting up chairs still gives it to me."
Once it began, the Convention flowed smoothly and looked easy but "easy" generally has a story behind it. For San Diego, the story began fully nine years ago, when the 1986 General Service Conference heard bids from several cities and selected three potential sites. The final site was selected by the Board of Trustees after visits to all three cities. As Eileen G., GSO staff member who served as Convention coordinator, explained: "Essentially, we're renting a city, and all its major facilities. We have to know that the stadium will be free when we need it, that hotels will be able to accommodate many thousands of people, that adequate transportation will be available."
After the site was decided upon, Convention planners could relax for a while, and about two years ahead of the event, the action heated up on several fronts. In San Diego, a host committee chairperson was selected by local AAs, and Bobbie C., along with co-chairs Gary U. and Gail N., formed a core committee that took on the job of recruiting, organizing, and training 6,000 volunteers to serve as the city's welcoming face for the crowds of visitors. Planners met with all city agencies, harbor and airport, police force, fire department to arrange permits ("for everything," according to Eileen G.). There were conferences with the hoteliers, letting them know that AAs have some habits different from most conventioneers. Warned that at a past Convention some hotels had run out of coffee, the hotels came through beautifully. The ice cream lasted, too, but planners for the year 2000 will need to give warning that San Diego's automatic teller machines ran out of cash!
For many, the Convention experience begins even before the opening day. Marianne from Germany made a stop at the General Service Office in New York on her way to San Diego. She said, "Just two days before the opening, and my heart was already filled with love and overflowing joy to be a member of AA." Alberto, a Convention volunteer from Chula Vista, talked about the two people in his group who registered but weren't able to attend. So the group officers met and decided to hold a raffle to donate the registrations to group members who couldn't afford to come.
Ken and Jackie from Louisiana wrote that "during our connecting flight to San Diego, the flight attendant asked over the PA system whether there were any friends of Bill W. on the flight. We were sitting at the front, and as we raised our hands we turned around to see that at least three quarters of the passengers had their hands up, too."
The Convention opened officially on Thursday night, with a "block party" in the city's harbor area, along with dances at the Convention Center and at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. "Thursday night was out of this world," wrote Arlene from New York City. "My husband and I went to the big dance at the Convention Center. The energy was absolutely explosive! The sight of so many happy, sober people dancing under one roof was exhilarating. The floor was shaking (what a relief it's not me who shakes anymore!) and the beams over the stage were moving up and down. What a celebration! Happy, joyous and free!"
All day Friday and Saturday, panels and workshops on every conceivable AA topic challenged Convention-goers' decision-making abilities. David from Arizona reported: "Fits of indecision. Sessions checked Thursday night and scratched out in favor of other sessions were suddenly reconsidered. Too many choices! Off to . . . whatever. "In the afternoon I attended a session on 'Electronic Meetings,' where people sharing from the floor presented two instances where alcoholics' lives were saved as a consequence of having 'cyber friends' on the Internet. In both cases, one person was able to discern that something was wrong with the other and despite thousand of miles of physical separation, dispatch police to avert tragedy."
Geff from Ohio went to the "We Agnostics" meeting "to see how the other free thinkers did it. I identified with the atheist types, who were mostly just glad AA kept the doors open for us. The ones with long-term sobriety seemed to have learned to coexist cheerfully within the frameworks they found. It made me feel like I'll I just keep plugging away.
"Among the most popular meetings were those that involved old timers, the Steps and Traditions, and the daily challenges of working the program in the real world. Many meetings were so crowded that people had to be turned away at the door, and experienced Convention-goers knew to come early or they might not get in. At the "Practicing These Principles" panel, says Pat R., who served as its moderator, people were sitting on the floor, in the aisles and along the walls, on the steps to the dais. Pat saw a woman with a walkie-talkie come in, look around, and motion to her: "I'm the fire warden," the woman said quietly as the speaker continued, "and I'm going to have to ask everyone to leave who doesn't have a chair" The warden waited for the speaker to finish, then made her announcement: "We couldn't get all of you out of here if there was an earthquake." And she added, "Before you go, I want to say how much we appreciate you people. I've worked in this building for seven years, and have never met such a courteous and cooperative group."
The third floor of the Convention Center, an open-air space under sails that form a roof, featured food concessions, a large area with tables and chairs for relaxing, eating, or just chatting, a huge message board, sales booths for the souvenir book and Grapevine materials, and a Grapevine information booth where a pilot issue of the proposed Spanish edition was available. Signing souvenir books was the order of the day, and overseas visitors in particular were seriously at risk of writer's cramp.
Doug from California explained that someone went home with a different kind of memento: "On Sunday, someone parked an old white pickup truck by the exit to the stadium, complete with thick black magic markers. The truck was signed all over, even on the bumpers and headlights, with names, sobriety dates, slogans, messages, phone numbers, and drawings. It was a traveling Convention souvenir book."
Hospitality suites were set up at the Marriott and Hyatt for a variety of groups, from young people to old timers to Birds of a Feather (airline personnel). A first was the Living Cyber hospitality suite, where AAs who had been corresponding on the Internet had a chance to meet face-to-face. Geff from Ohio had been e-mailing to Butch in San Diego: "One of my best moments came when I looked for Butch to say hello. And I see this bearded guy, with the name tag Butch, and I go up and thank him for everything. And he's all modest and friendly, says he was just trying to be useful. After about five minutes, I think we both realized it was a different Butch. But I made another friend, and we laughed, and I stumbled on to new adventures."
Registration began at noon on Monday and continued through Saturday after noon, with peak days on Thursday and Friday. Many had pre registered, but more than 12,000 people registered on site. The lines moved smoothly. John from Pennsylvania was impressed: "Friday morning at nine, we were in the pre-registration area to pick up our badges. We got our badges and moved through registration quickly, amazingly quickly for a group that never wanted to be organized."
That speed was the result of meticulous planning and hard work on the part of personnel fromthe General Service Office and the Grapevine. GSO controller Don Meurer, a nonalcoholic who has worked for AA for fifteen years, outlined a few of the hundreds of details that had to be arranged: setting up Convention bank accounts, scheduling Convention Center bonded cashiers, ordering on-site registration forms and signage, arranging for armored car pick-ups of cash taken in, designing the floor layout of the Convention Center to make sure traffic would flow, and shipping souvenir books and other materials to (and back from) San Diego.
Many GSO and Grapevine employees, most of them non-alcoholics, worked twelve-to-sixteen-hour days all week to serve the needs of Convention goers and they often went the second mile. On Thursday, an elderly couple stopped their car outside the Convention Center to ask where to go for registration, and John Kirwin, GSO's assistant controller, delivered their badges to curbside, saving them the trouble of standing in line. Grapevine controller Bob Scherer was in charge of the souvenir book and Grapevine sales booth, and remarked that it really is an honest program. On Saturday afternoon the sales booths stayed open late to accommodate AAs who still wanted souvenir books or the Grapevine's new Spanish translation of The Language of the Heart but not late enough. Resuming Sunday morning to pack boxes to ship home, Bob realized that a large number of books had disappeared overnight. Dismayed at first, he then spied a box of cash $826, to be exact on one of the counters. AA members had bought their books on the honor system.
The Flag Ceremony and Big Meeting on Friday night is always the high point of a Convention, and this was no exception even though the trip to Jack Murphy Stadium wasn't easy.
Ken and Jackie from Louisiana said they were "very impressed with the transportation system except, of course, during the infamous Friday wait at the Convention Center curb. Buses only hold so many passengers, and it was obvious that some of us were going to have to wait a while. Add to that the disconcerting rumor that 'the stadium was already starting to fill up' (at four in the afternoon, no less). As buses rolled by, they were hailed with good-natured 'boos' (imagine people booing and laughing at the same time). At the stand next to ours, I heard a group saying something in unison, and a few seconds later laughter rippled through the crowd: they were offering up the Serenity Prayer. "But of course, we made it to the stadium and were in our seats with time to spare.
At eight o'clock came an announcement that we were almost ready to start, but one bus was still in transit, and they were going to wait for it. There we were, in a full stadium, while 60,000 alcoholics waited for one bus load. It was one of many heart-swelling moments."
Kit from Alaska rode a bus that got caught in a "monumental traffic jam. After about an hour, people began to grumble and complain. Then behind me a woman rose to her feet and announced that she was going to read from the Big Book. When she got to chapter five, 'How It Works,' people joined in to say with her the words we had all heard so many times. And as we said the final phrase 'God could and would if He were sought' the traffic jam unsnarled and a passageway cleared for our bus to move through. We arrived ten minutes before the meeting began."
No where was the Convention theme, "AA Everywhere Anywhere," more evident than in the opening flag ceremony. John from Pennsylvania wrote: "Flags from eighty-seven countries were paraded out, Olympics style, and two huge screens, on the left and right, broadcast the speakers. Lights from the cars on the surrounding freeways kept us informed that we were still on earth, but as the house lights were brought up, I had the sense that I was in almost a sacred place. Where else on earth could there be gathered this many souls, all trying to help each other?"
Flag bearers, some in national costumes, marched into the stadium and lined up in front of the dais. From Antigua to Chile, Ireland and Poland, through South Africa and Western Samoa, every country was cheered loud and long. Flag bearers were chosen at random from members who registered from each country, and they regard their service as a great honor. In the case of the Fiji Islands, the name that came out of the hat was a man who lived in the Islands but was not a native. However, late in the day on Friday, a native of the Islands arrived at check-in, and the original flag bearer withdrew in his favor. AA's spirit of sacrifice was alive and well. Hamid, who was born in Iran, volunteered to carry the Iranian flag if the person who came out of the hat did not show up. It was down to the wire. Hamid participated in the rehearsal, but the designated flag bearer did arrive. "I was resentful for about thirty seconds. Then I gave him a hug and watched the rest of the rehearsal."
Bradley from Chappaqua, N.Y., was impressed by the sobriety countdown early in the meeting: "I had always looked at a person with twenty years of sobriety as an old-timer. I was amazed to see that the median and average length of sobriety of all participants probably ranged from ten to twenty years."
Saturday morning began early with a Fun Run/Walk, starting at the Convention Center and going along the waterfront and back. Joan from Nevada, who started walking for exercise soon after she got sober, says: "I stayed at the back of the group so as not to be in the way of serious runners, but I soon found myself passing people, and was able to do the whole thing without slowing down. It was one of my most grateful moments in sobriety to participate as a sixty-one year old grand mother."
Brent from California said: "When I signed up for the Fun Run, I thought it would just be a pleasant experience, and a good opportunity to get out for my morning exercise. But I don't think anyone anticipated what awaited us at the finish line. A crowd of one hundred or more formed a human funnel. The closer we got, the louder and more excited became the cheers and encouragement. Across the line there was an other double line of fifty or more. I have been in these before, but nothing ever felt like that. It was an outpouring of love, encouragement, and recognition of accomplishment like no other I have ever seen."
LONG STORY AIN'T IT : )
The first-ever Convention Old-Timers Meeting on Saturday night featured 129 members with forty or more years of sobriety, fifteen of whom told their stories.
"I couldn't keep from crying when I heard those stories," said Geff from Ohio. "One guy forgot where he was but everybody stood and cheered. He was family and had kept this thing alive and had passed it down to my generation, so that even cynics and skeptics like me, if they were beaten enough by alcohol, could get sober, too."
And Barbara from California wrote: "The old-timers on Saturday night set a wonderful example of humility for all of us when they stopped immediately at the gong without expecting special privileges because of their length of sobriety."
Marie from California, forty-five years sober, reflected: "My heart is so full of the wonder of it all. Saturday night, there was a ramp for people like me, who move about in wheelchairs. As we reached the end of the ramp, my nurse and I were greeted by a man from the host committee. He asked if I had more than forty years of sobriety, and then helped us make our way to the enclosure where other early members were gathered. Our names were put in a hat, and fifteen names were drawn. My name did not come out of the hat, but I was there and a part of it. The program was fifteen years old when I joined, and now it is sixty. I remembered the days and nights we had carried the message of AA to people who did not know of the program. As I looked about me, I could see what we had helped to do."
Another old-timer, Allen from Los Angeles, "wondered how I could say 'what it was like, what happened, and what it's like now' in five minutes. But my name didn't come up, so I removed my necktie and relaxed, knowing that my forty-one years was a small part of the more than 5,000 years of sobriety among the 129 names in the hat.
The phrase 'the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts' seemed to reverberate in the stadium that night. Had the gathering been for a ball game, the rooting fans would have had divided loyalties. But no one could possibly doubt the solidarity among those electrified sober drunks.
At all three Big Meetings and indeed, throughout the city AAs carried a message of courtesy and mature sobriety. "During and after each meeting, there were Fellowship members picking up and cleaning up," wrote Conrad from Tennessee. "Many of the stadium workers said they never saw the place so clean, or so orderly, during or after an event. As we left the stadium, the city police were outside directing traffic, and we asked them how it had gone. They replied, 'Rather boring, but we never witnessed anything like it before, not one bad incident.' I heard early in sobriety that each one of us may be the only copy of the Big Book a nonalcoholic sees. In San Diego, that took on a whole new meaning for me."
Sunday morning came, and for the last time Convention-goers climbed onto buses for the trip to Jack Murphy Stadium, this time for the Closing Big Meeting. When hundreds of balloons soared into the sky at the end of the meeting, it was a time for goodbyes ('til the next time), and for reflection on the meaning of the week end as a whole.
"One thing I heard Sunday morning really impressed me. One of the speakers referred to 'this room.' A voice behind me questioned, 'Room?' and another voice responded, 'We're still just a roomful of drunks."'
Ross J. was deeply affected: "I was so happy there, so excited, awed, emotional, childlike, yet infinitely a part of the power of the flowing of God's love. Now I want to return and use that energy to redouble my service efforts. Out to my local jail to tell others about the hope and laughter and endless smiles."
Mary from New Jersey resolved to take a more active part in her home group: "Too often, I have sat back out of inertia, wanting to be 'nice,' and not speaking out when newer members ignored the Traditions. At San Diego, I learned that without the Traditions, AA might not have survived for us to be there in Jack Murphy Stadium." And Richard from Colorado felt much the same way: "For thirteen years I have steadfastly refused to go to conventions and conferences. My only reason for attending the International was that it could be coordinated with a visit to my parents. But there, I experienced a deeper calling of the spirit of our Fellowship than I had ever known. I learned that AA is more than I could imagine, and I am as much a part of it as I choose to be. I know that I no longer have to be like the person I have been. Thank you, God, for this experience. Please show me how to use it to help the new person coming to the meeting tonight."
Sara from Cold Spring, New York, saw the Convention experience as part of a whole: "The thing that touched me most at San Diego was the sense, especially at the Sunday morning Meeting, of being at a great big home group meeting - boisterous, serious, surrounded by intimates, old and brand-new, moved to tears and laughter by the reality and honesty of the speakers. And afterward? The host committee cleaned up. Our people gathered trash and folded chairs (all that was missing was the grimy coffee pot). Politely asked to vacate the premises, we went where? To the nearest diner, where my sponsor, a fellow member, and I did a 'meeting after the meeting' with twenty-five plus new and old friends. Just like home. No, it was home.!!
I had the opportunity of meeting again with a couple of my original sponsors from my first days in AA and the years before I moved Southern California to Idaho, Joe Q. in particular, and a number of former sponsees, each with continuous sobiety of from 8 to 20 years, and a couple of current sponsees from Idaho with 4 or more, collected a thousand signaures in my 1st Edition (replica) Big Book, and bought two cases of them to give to sponsees in Idaho. It was truly a grand experience to see so many old and new friends again.
Love and Peace, Barefoot
As in so many things, especially with we alcoholics, our History is our Greatest Asset!.. We each arrived at the doors of A.A. with an intensive and lengthy "History of Things That Do Not Work" .. Today, In A.A. and In Recovery, Our History has added an intensive and lengthy "History of Things That DO Work!!" and We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it!!
KEEP COMING BACK!
On the Web Oct 26, 2002 in the Spirit of Cooperation
Three mighty important things, Pardn'r, LOVE And PEACE and SOBRIETY