Sisseton man, father strengthen bond in sobriety

In this Jan. 16 photo, Frank Keeble, left, shares a laugh with his grandson Billy Keeble, right, as they talk about how much Billy's life has improved since becoming sober in Sisseton. Since becoming sober Keeble is going to college at the Sisseton Wahpeton College and serves as a lay minister at a church in the area. (John Davis/Aberdeen American News via AP)

SISSETON (AP) – A wandering impression cuts between two red and white homes on a cul-de-sac in north Sisseton. The pathway of trodden snow stretches out of sight to a scattering of woods beyond. Billy Keeble’s finger traces the winter-bare tree line above the single-story rooftops. The trees create a natural border along the neighborhood. There are a few curtains rustled by curious homeowners as Billy talks and ablonddog barks an alert from a taut leash. It’s Jan. 16 and breaths rise thick in the subzero air.

Billy, 34, points to another cluster of trees to the southwest, across an empty expanse from this neighborhood. This purposeful grouping borders a school and parish. It would be a quick walk on foot but not this day. Billy’s former hangout spots from his former life are inaccessible now, tucked away under a thick crust of snow.

He gets in his pickup with his father, Frank Keeble, in the passenger seat and drives the much longer street route to the parking lot closer to the second set of trees. He finds that a building has been torn down. Long ago, he’d often used it as a windbreak when passed out. This trip around the corner is a trip four years back for Billy. He’s visiting old ghosts, seeing blurred flashbacks through the eyes of a desperate man without hope, awash in alcohol and grief.

If you ask Billy how many loved ones he’s lost to alcohol-related deaths, it will take some time for an answer. When he was 2, his biological mother, Leta Keeble, died in an alcohol- elated vehicle crash. He speaks of an aunt and uncle, friends and siblings. His name nearly made that list, too, on a Good Friday nearly four years ago.

Frank is Billy’s adoptive father and biological grandfather. Frank could’ve also been on that list. Both men are sober today. Billy for nearly four years, for Frank nearly 40, the Aberdeen American News reported.

Intergenerational alcoholism is a common theme heard at Dakotah Pride Center in Sisseton, said Richard Bird, 20-year director of the treatment facility that serves members of the Lake Traverse Reservation. Bird is regularly faced with people at their lowest points. It’s a challenging position with odds stacked against the center.

“I do what I can do. It’s accepting that you do what you can do there,” said Bird.

There are successes. Both Billy and Frank have been supported by the facility. Billy said methamphetamine is taking hold in his old circles, but alcohol abuse still has the biggest grip. His statement is backed by dire statistics.

Alcohol-related deaths continue to rise in South Dakota. And the rates are much worse for Native Americans compared to Caucasians. In 2018, the rate of alcohol-related deaths for Native Americans in South Dakota was seven times that of white people. There were 236 alcohol-related deaths in total in South Dakota, up from 216 in 2017. The number had risen steadily from 99 in 2009, according to information from the South Dakota Department of Health.

“I used to have a little spot behind St. Peters,” said Billy, pointing at an area empty except for a mound of snow. “We would be drinking, coming to, laying behind St. Peters. All us Rangers would sleep outside or here or there.”

Rangers is the affectionate term for a collective of souls lost in the throes of addiction, set on the fringes of what is a small college town on the Lake Traverse Reservation in northeast South Dakota. He previously shared a photo of an old hangout in the woods. It was taken during a mild season. In the blurred image there is an old, cushionless couch propped against shrub trees and a couple weathered tents. Dingy pairs of sneakers and pillows rest on the shaded and trampled earth, as does a scorched metal bowl.

On colder nights he would head to a flophouse, colored a bluish-purple next to another church. Anyone who had alcohol was welcome. Hurricanes – a brand of malt liquor – were $1.80 or $2.10 at the K & K convenience store. There was also a liquor store directly up the alley. Billy would sit on the post office steps or wander the main streets, panhandling.

Family ties

For Billy, his first drink came around the age of 12 or 13. For a long time it seemed casual. What sent him into complete dysfunction was his adoptive mother’s death in March 2014. Billy found Juanitta Keeble slumped over. Her death was attributed to a heart attack. She had been in poor health, but didn’t drink. Two other relatives of Billy’s would suffer alcohol-related deaths soon after. Billy was distraught.

Juanitta, married to Frank, had been Billy’s only mother since he was 2. She was kind and raised him in the Baptist church after the couple adopted him when his biological mother died.

As Billy’s drinking increased, his reasons to continue turned from numbing his pain to staving off the awful feelings of withdrawals. Sometimes he’d be hospitalized or find himself in jail. This went on for about three years.

Frank was in the depths of alcoholism once, too. He’d started in his later teens, having joined a band and social group where beer was readily available.

“I liked what it did for me. Seemed like it took care of my tiredness, whole outlook on life is different,” Frank said.

He’d gotten married at 19 and worked on a masonry crew with his dad and brothers. The marriage didn’t last.

Then Frank enlisted in the Army. He’s not sure how he made it through with an honorable discharge, but he did. He went back to his old routine and married again in 1969. As a drunk Frank was absent at best. It wasn’t grief that kept him drinking, it was guilt.

“As time went on, on the weekends there was a six-pack, then it became a 12-pack, then it went into a case of beer,” he said. “I’d wake up on Monday hungover. I found if I’d take another drink I’d be alright. Over time I started missing Mondays at work, then Tuesdays I’d have a hangover …

“She said, ‘You can’t be a father, you can’t hold a job, can’t even provide for your family.’ So I kind of smarted off,” he said of his now ex-wife, Loretta.

At the time he knew she was right.

“My dad really didn’t know what made me keep drinking,” Frank said. “I had that secret from him. So I think that’s what (Billy) did, too. Maybe it was his guilt. That’s how I felt. I’d start feeling bad that I’d let my folks down. The trust they had for me, the love they had for me, I killed it all. That’s what kept me from sobering up.”

Frank, like Billy, also had a spiritual moment on the verge of his sobriety. It was July 1980 and he was bumming around Sioux Falls, drinking his days away. The routine was wearing on him. He decided to hitchhike back home, but began to fall into an old routine.

“I was in Sisseton, started a day or two of drinking, ended up in an abandoned house again. I woke up, saw the sun, said, ‘It’s a beautiful day,’” Frank recalled saying to another man.

The man handed him a drink. Frank took it because he was sick. He couldn’t shake the image of the sunlit window as he rousted himself.

“I was in the pool hall, walked into the latrine, I was dry-heaving, vomiting. I asked the Lord, ‘Come into my life, I need your help.’ I walked out a free man.”

Frank went to the hospital and was adamant that he be sent to detox. But the medical personnel suggested he go home with pills to take the edge off his withdrawal symptoms. He withdrew, went through programming with Dakotah Pride Center and devoted himself to a life of sobriety and to Juanitta. He credits his faith for his conviction to get sober.

When Billy was bad off, Frank would keep tabs on him. Both refer to Frank as a bit of an enabler, but both also shrug knowing what their present relationship is and how they’ve leaned on each other to get here.

“He’d see me on the streets, throw me a pack of cigarettes, give me $5,” Billy said.

Occasionally Billy would come home when he was very sick. Frank would give him chores and such, keep him fed and sheltered. But once Billy felt better, he’d be off again. After losing other children to alcohol-related deaths, Frank admits that when he got a phone call, a little part of him expected it’d be Billy found dead from exposure.

“The whole time I was going through my addictions I’d always get a lecture, ‘Billy, you’ve got to get your life right. I ain’t going to be here forever,’” Billy said. “One time that really hit home, he said, ‘Billy with your mom gone, you know how those elders go. Whenever a spouse goes, the other usually goes quick from loneliness.’

“That almost makes me cry today,” he said.

Frank, from personal experience, knew getting sober would have to be Billy’s decision.

The wake-up

“I was walking on the four-lane (highway), hungover, sick. I happened to look over at the Family Life Assembly of God Church,” Billy said.

It’s Jan. 16 and Billy stands among the pews of that same church. He and the Rev. Vern Donnell walk through their first meeting. Billy stumbled in just as the church’s Good Friday service was to begin. Donnell admits he was caught up in the affairs of the day, but it only took him a split second to realize his priorities — a human who was hurting.

Billy’s arm was hurt. He was sobbing, shaking and looked terrible as his body struggled in withdrawals. He pleaded for help. Donnell looked him over, made a call to Indian Health Services, then had Billy sit in a back pew to observe the service. Billy promised that he would behave.

Donnell carried on his pastoral duties, and as the service went on he heard a new voice singing among the parishioners. It was Billy’s. He’d moved to a pew near the front of the sanctuary and was singing along to every word with the rest of the congregation.

After the service, a group of men surrounded Billy in prayer. Donnell called Frank at his home in Grenville.

“It was blowing and drifting. I got a phone call, it was from a pastor down in Sisseton. He says, ‘I got Billy here with me,’” Frank said.

Donnell told Frank that he’d made arrangements for Billy at Dakotah Pride Center and a hospital.

“What I want from you is transportation,” Frank recalled the pastor saying.

A week later, Billy was out of detox and found himself on Nicollet Tower, which overlooks Sisseton and the surrounding area for miles on a clear day. He calls it a spiritual awakening. A flood of emotions overcame him.

“It’s like a pretty cool place, to go way up there. I got on my knees in prayer. I said, ‘Please take these addiction chains away, release me.’ I cried. I felt cold chills, like a ton of bricks were lifted off. Finally knew I didn’t want to feel that anymore,” he said.

Life, sober

During a phone call in December Billy announced, “Just got my last finals done. Sounds like I got a degree now.”

He sounded in awe and relieved when he said the words aloud. It’s a two-year degree. He’s the first from his family to graduate from a college program. It makes Billy sad to know that Juanitta never saw him improve his life, but he knows Frank will tell her about it one day.

“I had a goal set – to walk across the stage when my dad is still alive. When he walks into heaven he could tell her everything I did,” Billy said.

In mid-January Billy and Frank meet at Sisseton Wahpeton College south of Sisseton and next to Agency Village. Billy has a lightness in his step and an easy smile. He was able to book a boardroom for Frank and him to sit in and tell their story again. He’s looking forward to the ceremonial walk and handshake for his degree in May. He’s been busy, and it helps with sobriety. He’s worked at the homeless shelter for three years and looks forward to being a chemical dependency counselor eventually, with more schooling and training. He’s trying to be a good example to family and friends still chained to their addictions. The pastor at Bethany Baptist Church, the church Billy now regularly attends, stepped down and asked Billy to take over this summer. He’s gladly accepted, and Donnell has continued to be a guide and mentor for him in his new calling.

Billy said his focus comes from reminding himself of the old days. No matter how bad he was doing and how few resources he had, he could always find a drink then. These days his goals aren’t drinks, but he goes after his new aspirations with the same desire.

In the beginning of his sobriety, Billy very much avoided his old haunts and relationships. That felt a little isolating, but he knew it was crucial to maintaining his sobriety. More often than not, that’s what pulls people back into their addictions – falling into old routines, he said. It’s how he’d faltered several times before.

Billy credits God, his father and Donnell for being constant support for him. He knew they always had his back but he was unsure how others would react to him. He’d had a perception that he’d be labeled “too good for me” by former cohorts. The opposite has happened. Everyone he comes in contact with seems to be happy for him, proud of him – even those still in turmoil with their own addictions. Maybe his example of hope is rubbing off. That’s the crux for those who maintain sobriety, according to Bird, with Dakotah Pride Center.

“Those that make it seem to find some kind of hope that they’ll get better – not only physically or healthier, but their life will get better,” he said.

Frank and Billy both briefly speak with regret of the wasted years behind them, dictated by alcohol. Neither was expected to escape the grasp.

But their spirits are warm and contented even on a cold winter day. They have come to understand that it’s their hopes and future that will define them.

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