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FIRST PERSON

On Valentine's Day, a Tale of Love, Loss . . . and Salvation

February 14, 1995|WESLEY G. HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

My Valentine's name is Julie. She was born on my first wedding anniversary, Valentine's Day. She was beautiful. She was perfect.

Feb. 14, which was already important in our house, became a very big deal indeed. It was like another Christmas. And it remained that way for a little more than three years--until the day Julie rode her tricycle into the pool while her mother was setting the table for lunch.

Julie was just over the chicken pox, and I had promised to swim with her that afternoon. She was excited about it and that morning I warned her to stay away from the pool unless someone was with her. She looked at me with those big, bright eyes and said, "Don't worry Daddy. If I fall in, you will save me."

"But what if Daddy's not here?" I asked.

With a 3-year-old's special aplomb, she told me, "Well then, I'll call a policeman." Those were her last words to me.

She got her policeman and firemen and an ambulance too. There were six doctors crowded around her working feverishly to save her life. They let me hold her hand for a while.

They told me that if she lived, she might be blind or retarded. I told them I'd take her any way at all. I just wanted her to live.

The doctors asked permission to do a tracheotomy. A short time later, just nine hours after she had fallen into the pool, two doctors came to me and said her heart had stopped during the surgery and they had been unable to get it started again. My little Valentine was dead.

I collapsed on the floor in a blubbering, sodden heap.

My marriage was dead, too, from that point--although it didn't end formally for some years.

I got through the funeral in a haze of sleeping pills and anguish. During the days after and for many months beyond, the sleeping pills were replaced by booze--a substance I'd long had a weakness for.

It was a time of craziness. I did outrageous things. Unforgivable things. I should have been fired many times. I should have been put in jail--and probably would have been under usual circumstances. But the bosses cut me a wide swath out of pity. So did the police.

I wasn't a nice guy. I took their pity and wallowed in it as if it were my due. I went as far as it would carry me.

You have to understand. Those were different days between police and newsmen. Some of my best and most trusted friends were cops. I used to brag about my black-and-white taxicab.

Like the time a liquor store clerk called the cops because I was drunk and creating a disturbance. Two motorcycle officers were the first to arrive. I staggered out the door and met them face-to-face. One was a friend. I grinned broadly, threw my arms out as though he was a long-lost brother and shouted: "Bruno!"--and fell flat on my back.

It drew a crowd. The patrol sergeant pulled up and a couple of backup units. With all those people looking on, what to do?

They cuffed me and stuffed me into the back of a patrol unit and drove away . . . into an orange grove. Someone had phoned my wife. They shoved me into the back seat of her car. "Take him home, Mrs. Hughes, and don't let him out anymore tonight."

One special friend was a homicide detective named George. His marriage had broken up and he was sharing a ratty little apartment with another friend. George had been hitting the sauce a bit more too.

We were both drunk one night. Just talking. I was maudlin, which was more or less my usual state--looking for sympathy. I said, "Ya know, George, wherever my little girl is, I want her to be able to look down and say, 'I'm proud that he's my Daddy.' "

George looked at me with those deceptively sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes and said, "Do you think she'd be proud if she could see you right now?"

The words went through me like a white-hot sword. I saw myself for what I had become: a ridiculous fool demeaning the memory of the only thing important to me.

I didn't quit that instant, or even the next week, but by the end of the month I was on the wagon for good. I've been dry for more than 30 years.

I don't call myself "recovering." I tell people I'm a reformed lush.

Funny thing about that night, George didn't remember what he said, although he remembered saying something. I'm glad George found and married Alice. She was a nice lady and they had many good years together.

I've told this story before but not for print.

What makes it different, special this time?

I have always said that I quit drinking in Julie's memory. But yesterday it struck me that it was Julie's Valentine to me.

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