Grim Reaper takes Message to Courthouse.
Thursday, May 11, 1989
by Bob Welch
The pink lmportant Message slip on my office desk was simple, The Grim Reaper had called for me Tuesday at 1:28p.m. Fortunately, I'd been at lunch and missed him. But I felt obligated to return the call. "Uh, hello, is this Grim, er, Mr. Reaper?" and, after, hanging up the phone; I had to face the reality: The next morning, I had an appointment with Death.
Death In a black robe (courtesy of a Lutheran choir director), black hood, holding a scythe, with white cheese-cloth wrapped across his face--and, uh, wearing glasses.
The Grim Reaper, I learned, was nearsighted. Nevertheless, he sees an injustice in the world, which Is why he spent Wednesday standing in the rain in front of the U.S. Courthouse In Seattle, waving a Jim Beam whiskey bottle at passersby.
Beneath the garb he's a 46-year-old self-employed Woodinville man, a husband and father. He will not divulge his name "for the sake of my family."
Two or three times a year, he dons the Grim Reaper outfit to protest alcohol. In the past, he's been out in front of St. Michelle Winery in Woodinville, at a Woodinville convenience store and at the Olympia Brewery.
ON THIS day, he has chosen the courthouse because an important case involving alcohol is being tried inside: Harold and Candace Thorp vs. James B. Beam Distillery Co. The Seattle couple contends that their 4-year-old son Michael, was born mentally retarded because Candace drank large amounts of Jim Beam whiskey during her pregnancy. The company's bottles, they say, should have carried a warning that alcohol drunk by pregnant women can cause birth defects.
Reaper doesn't so much defend the woman as much as attack the liquor company. "They're trying to make this lady look like a drunk, and maybe she was," he says. "but before she started drinking alcohol she was a tax paying conscientious person and mother. Now they've destroyed her and want her to look bad."
The company, he says, got it's profit. Now the rest of us will, wind up paying the price with our taxes for the child's medical needs. That's the Reaper's biggest complaint: Society, as a whole, suffers for the carnage left by folks who drink too much.
"Today we have welfare. child abuse, wife abuse, poverty, homelessness, crime -- and all these are the backbone of alcohol" he says. "People get their start on fine wines and good Jim Beam whiskey, but when they die, they die on cheap wines and no-good whiskey."
He recommends honking twice every time you drive by a place that sells alcohol, be it a tavern, 7-Eleven or liquor store. "We gotta declare war on these outfits," he says. "We gotta get mean."
OK, but what about individuals, not companies -- don't they have a responsibility in all this? "People who drink," says Reaper, "are never responsible. The companies are the only ones we can pin down."
He says he wouldn't mind if people made their own beer or wine, drank it at home and were responsible for their guests who drank. But that isn't the case, so he blames the makers, not the drinkers.
RAISED IN logging camps around the Northwest, the Reaper says he's been witnessing the effects of alcohol since he was a child. "When I was 5, I saw a drunk logger molest one of my classmates," he says.
His parents didn't drink and he's only had "two or three gallons" of alcohol in his life. He's been speaking out against alcohol (or the past 15 years -- and dressing up as the Grim Reaper for the past three. Two years ago while driving, he says, he was hit by a drunken driver and sustained minor injuries.
We've been hoodwinked, he says. "The advertising shows beautiful wine and a candlelight dinner. But that's not the real picture. The real picture is children who are suffering, and poverty and abuse. They paint a picture of alcohol that looks like a bunny rabbit.
Grim Reaper endorses what Surgeon General C. Everett Koop has suggested: curb the availability of alcohol, raise taxes on it and limit the advertising.
Pretty unpopular stuff in America circa 1989, particularly the first two. But, the, this is a guy who realizes you don't win popularity contests by dressing up like the Grim Reaper. He points to a Washington Post article that says, "Koop is resented by advertisers. He's the sober party crasher announcing to an industry drunk on power and wealth that the merriment is over. With an annual 100,000 alcohol-related deaths and $130 billion in economic costs, the issue is now public health."
But isn't the Reaper get-up-a bit on the morbid side? "You haven't seen morbid till you've seen a drunkard's home" he says, "I'm nothing. Have you ever seen a car accident with children all over the road?"
After a few minutes on the courthouse steps, Reaper is told by security officials that he cannot be on federal property; he needs a permit. Besides, masks are not allowed. Reaper moves into the street, by the curb. Some people look twice; most show little reaction. he talks to people who agree with his stance; others who disagree.
He's used to it. "A lot of people will honk twice -- that's what I want," he says. But he also gets what he doesn't want -- snide remarks and obscene gestures.
And, occasionally, teenagers driving by, proudly holding up their beer cans, laughing in the face of the Grim Reaper.