"I've never had a glass of beer. I've never had a glass of wine. I asked a man one time. 'What does a cocktail taste like?' He said, 'Kerosene' I said, 'Well, that's it for me. I don't want to drink kerosene.' Do you know that alcohol is not made in nature? God does not make alcohol. Jesus does not make alcohol. Only man makes alcohol. The brain was made by God, it could not possibly have happened by chance, it was made by a master builder, and in that complicated brain was put marvelous abilities, and man discovered he could make alcohol, and he got hooked on it, and he's been making it ever since."
Cynthia Nelso, Northern California president of the National Women's Christian Temperance Union, is inspired. Her voice is mesmerizing. She talks faster and faster. She puts her hand on her listener's knee.
"We were in New Zealand once and there was the most beautiful little girl. The love for her father was shining out of her eyes, and he was teaching her to drink champagne. And she was holding her throat (Nelson grabs her own throat, indicates gagging) and I was thinking you are destroying that little child; that child will be an alcoholic by the time she is 12 . . . there's so many retarded children, so many deformed children, so much crime in the streets, so many pregnant girls, all from drinking . . . all the bushels of grain that go to make a narcotic instead of feeding a starving child . . . so it is my business. Even if I don't touch the filthy stuff."
Inside the convention hall, where the National Women's Christian Temperance Union is assembled in abstinence for the 105th time, the voices swell: Work for the cause of temp'rance work through each sunny hour; Work when the storm clouds gather, God gives a grace and power We have a sacred mission, Which we must all fulfill Work for the cause of temp'rance Work with heart and will!
The women stand, eyes on the programs. Their dresses are made of tiny rose prints, or dotted swiss, or knits the color of ripening fruit. The hair is mostly graying, "Faster!" cries the women in front, conducting the organ with one hand and the singers with the other. "You're slowing down! Come on! Praise! Your're not praising enough!"
They come together like this once a year, determined missionaries before the portrait of Frances E. Willard, who fell to her knees a century ago inside a salon full of "unwashed, unkempt, hard looking, drinking men" and then rose to the WCTU presidency in those remarkable years before the Noble Experiment. The Experiment (which outlawed the sale, manufacture, and transportation of what the union still calls King Alcohol) sloshed to a halt in 1933, and it is the firm position of the WCTU that America has been degenerating ever since.
"The truth is that the 14 years of Prohibition were some of the greatest years we had," says Edith Stanley, the union's national president, sitting just outside the convention hall squeezing a white handkerchief in her left hand. "There were people who bought homes. Family relations were closer. Many children were able to complete their educations -- before, they could not, because they were compelled to work to support themselves and their families because of alcohol."
They believe, then, that a complete return to Prohibition would patch up America?
"I think it could change tremendously," Stanley says. "There would be better family and community relationships . . . it would remove a heavy burden from our society and from our government . . . we're spending thousands and thousands to rehabilitate people."
But what about the sacred American right to an occasional poolside gin and tonic?
"If you want to give your best to the work you are doing now, then why should you in any manner do anything that would destroy your best mental capacity?" Stanley asks in her small voice. "That doesn't mean being drunk. Alcohol starts working immediately, and nobody notices what the effects will be. Because of social pressure, you want to take a drink, and the first thing you know, you'll find yourself in the clutches."
The WCTU is mysterious, as a matter of national policy, about the number of women who now belong. "Something over 250,000," is all Marie Caylor, the press information person, will say. That figure, she says includes the Loyal Temperance Legion and the Youth Temperance Council, whose members are temperate children; and the White Ribbon Recruits.
"That's infants to (age) five." Caylor says. "They're tied with a little white baby ribbon and the pledge is taken for them, by an adult sponsor. Kind of like baptism."
Literature from the children's activities is displayed in a side room at the convention, which is expecting 1,000 true and sober believers. There are games ("Cover your right eye and fix the left on Jesus. Hold the paper about 10 inches from your nose and move it slowly to and from you. The bottle, representing temptation, will disappear"). There are crafts ("To make Wilber Wobble . . . use a soft drink, ketchup, or juice concentrate bottle . . . cut out legs and arms . . . cut out white bow tie . . . use a small paper sack for Wilber's collection: liquor ad, party horn, TV schedule, prescription blank, robber's mask, bun, wrecked car, and house breaking picture").
And there is also the WCTU philosophy emblazened on books, pins, greeting cards, placemats, and posters: "Booze, Bucks, Bamboozler, and You; Gambling Is for Suckers; Drinkin' Dulls your Thinkin'."
"Back of it, you see, in our feeling, is the Christian principle," says Stanley. "There is a way of life which is wholesome, where our thoughts and our intentions and our behavior are with respect to God and mankind."
The convention itself, over its 5 days, is a sort of combination revival service, pep rally and business conference. Officers are elected. The managing editor of The Union Signal, the monthly WCTU magazine that bills itself "A Journal of Social Welfare." pleads for increased subscriptions. Mrs. Floyd Tate, the blond and rich-voiced Christian Outreach director, preaches and weeps and praises God. There are panel discussions on recruiting the young, protecting the home, and spreading the word of temperance.
And there is no quarter around these parts for the suggestion that Prohibition merely drove a national pastime underground, pushing prices up and quality down."That was one of the biggest lies that was ever fostered on the American people," Nelson says heatedly.
"Nobody drank except the people who had connections with the bootleggers, and nobody wanted to drink. It was not socially accepted to drink. But that's not Hollywood's idea."
The women would also prefer to dissociate themselves from the legendary Carrie Nation, who made headlines around the turn of the century by hatcheting up Wichita's saloons. The 1979 WCTU members are quieter sorts, struggling gamely along in their unlikely crusade against America's drinking habit.
"Carrie Nation belonged to a Kansas local but was never involved at the national level at any time," Caylor says. "We don't go for this sort of thing."