YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A General in the War on Alcohol

January 25, 1998

As the family story goes, my great-great-grandmother Stinson, a whiz with an iron skillet and with a character forged from the same substance, once set down her frying pan and took up the hatchet to campaign against strong drink alongside Carry Nation, the saloon-smashing crusader who was to more dignified and restrained temperance advocates what Madonna is to maidenly modesty. Grandma Stinson waded midstream into a movement that has swept Americans along throughout our history and still flows strong and deep today: clean-living campaigns against alcohol and tobacco and drugs.

Temperance once had its own political party . . . and a first lady, "Lemonade Lucy" Hayes, who would serve nothing stronger in the White House. For 150 years, whole states went "dry" and "wet" by turns. Kansas, Carry Nation's turf, was so stringently (and astringently) "dry" that into the 1950s, I have heard, airliners flying overhead were required by law to stop serving drinks in Kansas airspace.

For women, especially, the saloon was the vampire of family life, draining the breadwinner's time and sobriety and paycheck. Women knelt in the mud or dust outside and prayed that those double swinging saloon doors be shut forever. (The temperance movement was one reason men resisted giving women the vote, fearful that skirted killjoys would vote to shut down male pleasures. In 1919, the year before women got the vote, the nation passed the 18th Amendment, Prohibition. In 1933, it became the only constitutional amendment to be repealed.)

I still have that iron skillet--stored next to some wine bottles, true--and America still has the WCTU, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, 124 years old and the most fabled and durable of temperance groups. When the heretofore dry city of San Marino recently edged away from its civic abstinence, I wondered how the WCTU was faring in the mixed-message '90s, which have proven it right on some points--drunken drivers are the scum of the freeways and the Marlboro man is a sucker with emphysema--but a glass of red wine is adjudged practically medicinal.


Four generations of Colleen Wilson's family wear the white ribbon of the WCTU: her 92-year-old mother, Olga B. Jackson, herself, her daughter Natalie Duvenary and her grandchild Sylvia Colleen Duvenary. They work temperance, play it and pray it, at county fairs and conventions and church, the Wilson brigade marching with the white flag, "emblem of total abstinence, self-control, pure thoughts, clean habits."

The WCTU membership oath sworn today is virtually identical to the pledge its founding members took after the Civil War: "I hereby solemnly promise, God helping me, to abstain from all distilled, fermented and malt liquors, including wine, beer and hard cider, and to employ all proper means to discourage the use of and traffic in the same."

Colleen Wilson can spiel a blue streak about her labors, but the headline, the bottom line, is three words: "Alcohol. Ruins. Lives." "I have seen it break up homes. I know people killed by drunk drivers. As a child, I was seeing people who drank and who mistreated their families. We are soldiers in the field, and the battle is not ours but God's."

For men, there is honorary membership status, which her husband, son and son-in-law hold. They volunteer at the WCTU's summer camp in the pines of Idyllwild, where tobacco and drugs join alcohol in the unholy trio of stimulants. A man brought his 9-year-old daughter when he delivered his check for the camp. As he sat there telling Colleen Wilson about the drugs he uses, "I kept trying to shush him in front of his daughter, but he said, 'She knows. That's why I want her to go to your camp.' "

Wilson doesn't hold with the "addictive personality" line she hears on TV. "People will say anything to make it all right: 'My grandfather drank and my father; we're a whole lot of drinkers, it's in my genes.' I don't believe that."

The only hesitation in her discourse came when I asked about the biblical account of Jesus' first miracle, turning water into wine. "That's very controversial, isn't it? It has been a source of discussion at our meetings. We have big arguments back and forth on that."


The summer that I was 9, my friend Marilyn and I took our slingshots and our Classics Illustrated comics down to where a culvert ran beneath the old highway. Where the water flowed over the rocks, we found a cache of bottles--old something, the labels said, Crow or Harper or some such names. The contents looked like tobacco juice and smelled worse. We used the bottles for slingshot practice. We were very good shots.

It was days later that we heard that the town drunk had reeled into the town's one tavern, cursing and weeping. Someone had smashed the stash of booze he had so lovingly hidden among the cool rocks. Timidly--for the man was a grownup, even if he was a drunk--I told my parents what we had done. They thought it was hilarious, and told the rest of the family that I was a chip off the old block.

Los Angeles Times Articles