A few months after he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, Carl Demoray was stone-cold sober, driving down the street and humming a tune. The next thing he knew, his car was headed for a ditch.
This was a good thing.
"I almost drove off the road I was so happy," he told people. "And I didn't have a belly full of sauce."
When they come in droves this week to celebrate his life, Mr. Demoray's friends will toast him again and again, bottled water raised high.
Mr. Demoray died April 14 in Largo at the age of 91. He was a World War II bombardier, a devoted family man, a traveling salesman so smooth he could sell parkas in Key West.
But for 62 years, his life revolved around sobriety — and not just his own.
"When a new person walked in the door (at AA meetings), he was always the first person out of his chair to shake their hand. Always," said Sue Lennon, 52, of Seminole, who met Mr. Demoray the same way thousands of others did — through AA.
"He took me under his wing, as he did a lot of newcomers," Lennon said. "He was somebody to hold my hand and say, 'You're going to be okay, kid.' "
Mr. Demoray, gruff but sweet, was a fixture at AA halls in Seminole, Pinellas Park and Madeira Beach. He served as a personal sponsor for hundreds of recovering alcoholics. He supported thousands of others with jokes and stories and encouraging words, and sometimes, a kick in the pants.
To many, the presence of the funny old guy from Michigan was proof that life could be good again, even without Jim Beam on the rocks.
"I probably wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for him," said one AA member who, like several others interviewed for this story, requested anonymity because of the group's confidentiality rules. "There was something magical about him."
Mr. Demoray and his late wife began snowbirding to Pinellas 30 years ago, then moved to Largo in the early 1990s.
After taking his last drink on Dec. 17, 1947, he attended four or five AA meetings every week for the rest of his life. He went to AA on sales trips. He went when dementia set in. In the final years, friends took him in his wheelchair.
"It was his life. It was who he was," said his daughter, Yvonne "Cookie" Boss. "He really enjoyed being around other people. He needed that in his life. And they needed him."
She has two theories about her dad, one spiritual, one psychological.
Before bombing runs over the Alps, Mr. Demoray would hold court in the Bamboo Club bar and snicker at officers who went to the chaplain's tent. "Bunch of malarkey," he would say. But once the Luftwaffe began swarming, Mr. Demoray would pray.
"God, this is a wild one today. Get me out of this," he'd say. "I'll change. I'll go on the road selling Bibles."
That didn't happen. But through AA, God found another good use for him, Boss said.
Her other theory: Dad traded one addiction for another, replacing booze with something just as intense and habit forming — helping others.
Demoray was a softie below his crusty exterior. He would cry at news that an AA member had relapsed. Sometimes, he'd soothe members with his warm, deep voice. Other times he'd bark, or poke a finger into a chest.
"You don't have what it takes to get with the f'ing program," he once told one. "You don't say that to everybody," the member said. "But he knew that's what I needed to hear. That drove me."
Sometimes — and Demoray did this enough that people don't think it was coincidence — he'd pop up to see a friend in need at just the right moment. Just when temptation was about to overwhelm.
"Halfway through my shift (at a bar and grill), Carl and his wife came in. He said, 'How you doing honey?' " an AA member recalled. "I thought, how did he know I wanted to drink?' "
He knew because he'd been there. He lost one marriage to booze. He nearly lost another. He disappointed his parents. He put his business in jeopardy.
He embarrassed himself beyond belief.
One time, Mr. Demoray and his wife — then living in Michigan — went to a Polish christening, where he got drunk enough to pass out on the way home. His fed-up wife left him in the car, curled up in the back seat.
"I woke up in the gray of dawn, it was 10 below zero ... and I had a shearing pain on the side of my head," he said.
The reason? He had vomited in his sleep. "My hair, my eyebrow and my ear were froze to the mohair upholstery," he said.
Somehow, he managed to remove part of the seat and start walking toward the house, head and seat still one. But then, his father-in-law drove up. Just in time to "see how the newlyweds were getting along," Mr. Demoray cracked.
Mr. Demoray's family recorded this story when he delivered it, with a comic's timing, at a re-dedication ceremony for an AA hall in Michigan.
After the father-in-law line, the audience howled. Then Mr. Demoray got serious: "I did not come to AA to quit drinking."
He came because his second marriage was in trouble, he said. And because creditors were on his back.
He didn't like AA at first, he said. He was afraid he wouldn't have fun anymore.
"Let's not kid ourselves," he told the crowd. "Us guys and gals had a hell of a lot of fun drinking, didn't we?"
The audience roared again. Throughout Demoray's 40-minute speech, they laughed and laughed, and laughed again.
No sauce in sight. But still having a blast.
Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.