Of a compulsive gambler They found him lying in front of a downtown church. A river of blood ran down the steps from a slash wound that crossed his neck from ear to ear. He was the second homeless man killed in San Antonio in as many weeks. His death was too close to home, two blocks from the Salvation Army’s Dave Coyle Center, where I resided.
I was homeless and had lived at the Salvation Army for 14 months after I couldn’t afford to pay for repairs to my previous home, a Mercury Tracer.
I realized with the death of this second homeless man that I had to change, or I, too, would soon end up dead. You see, I am a compulsive gambler.
When Mayor Peterson proposed paying for a new stadium with slot machine revenues, I shuddered. Why should gambling addicts be the primary financiers of a public building?
The National Gambling Impact Study Commission Final Report, released in June 1999, links the increased availability of gambling with the growth in the number of people victimized by gambling addiction. It reports between 15 and 20 million Americans are compulsive gamblers and says that number may be significantly understated.
I was born in 1948 and raised a Connecticut Yankee, the son of a World War II veteran who worked the Atlantic boatyards to support his wife, a homemaker, and two sons.
It wasn’t long before Uncle Sam called on me to serve in that unpopular war in Vietnam. That’s where I met my first wife, the mother of my three daughters.
I opted to become a career soldier, a medic who saved lives rather than taking them. I retired from the Army at age 40 and eventually went to work as a safety representative on offshore oil drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, the Persian Gulf and off the coast of West Africa. The money was good and the job exciting. I was laid off in 1995. That event marked the beginning of the end.
A horse racetrack, Retama Park, opened in San Antonio, Texas, where I lived. I had the misfortune of winning $75 the first time I ventured there, on opening day of live racing.
Excited by the prospect of winning more money, I went back the next day. I met a retired CPA who had come to the track daily since it had opened three months earlier.
“Whatcha doin’ here, kid?” he asked. “Ever been to a racetrack before?”
I told him about my beginner’s luck of the night before. He smiled and said, “Whatcha wanna do, give it all back to ‘em?”
“No, I want to win some money.”
“Then keep your wallet in your pocket and sit with me. I come here every day and usually leave a winner.”
The lonely old accountant seemed harmless, so I agreed. For the next two weeks, he taught me all about handicapping and choosing winners. The most important lesson he taught me – and the one I ignored once I became addicted to gambling – was money management.
Once hooked, if I didn’t have money, I did anything I could do to get it. I used my family and friends. My brother sent me money because I told him I was out of work and needed to pay rent.
I borrowed $400 from my second oldest daughter, ostensibly to help with a deposit on an apartment, but actually so I could bet on the Kentucky Derby. I stole from my second wife and pawned my property, including my wedding ring.
My daughter wouldn’t speak to me for three years. My wife divorced me. I lost everything except the clothes on my back.
I first gambled the morn of my seventh Christmas. I received a board game that contained dice. My “uncle,” who joined us each year, unwrapped the cubes and began rolling them on the hardwood floor of our living room.
Nick was a minor mobster who owned a tavern in New London, CT. My father bowled, pitched horseshoes and played softball for the bar’s teams. I watched Uncle Nick throw the dice against the baseboard a few times and asked him to teach me the game he was playing.
This was my first introduction to the world of gambling. The lesson cost me $11.00, all the money I received as Christmas gifts.
“Give it back!” I pleaded Uncle Nick.
“It’s mine now, kid. You gambled it away,” said the wizened mobster. I should have learned my lesson that day. Unfortunately, I didn’t.
Fast forward to 2003. My bridges had become ashes. I had tapped every source of gambling funds and was running on empty.
My youngest daughter lived in Indianapolis. She agreed to help me beat my addiction. We weren’t successful.
By January 2004, I had thousands of dollars in debts to Internet casinos. I knew I needed professional help. On Jan. 25, I began a pilgrimage to what I hoped would be a place of healing for a mind and body that had been badly battered by compulsive gambling: the Veteran’s Hospital at Brecksville, Ohio. After a restless night in a motel, on the morning of my 56th birthday, I went to the Brecksville VA Hospital where I began the process of being reborn.