Teller of Cautionary Tales

“Look at me! Look into this old man’s big, brown, bloodshot eyes! I’m gonna tell you the truth about drugs,” shouts 76-year-old Marty Gruber to an auditorium packed with students. It’s the opening of a two-day drug awareness presentation he delivers to about 20 Clark County middle and high schools each semester. Gruber has a story to tell, and it isn’t pretty.

The son of an abusive alcoholic father, in Cincinnati, Gruber first got drunk in the third grade; he began sneaking whiskey in the seventh grade. He spent the next few years in and out of juvenile detention centers, and at 15 he spent time in a men’s jail. But it wasn’t until 30 years later that he hit rock bottom: Naked and sickly on the flea-infested carpet of an East Los Angeles hotel room, Gruber stuck a revolver in his mouth. Blood and puss seeped from his nostrils; cocaine had destroyed his sinuses. He was deeply in debt and had lost everything: his wife and kids, his job, his self-respect.

That’s when he made a deal with God: “If you help me get off drugs, I will devote the rest of my life to helping kids stay off drugs.”

Gruber made good on his promise. He’s spent the last 13 years captivating young audiences with horror stories, statistics and warnings: “Don’t think it won’t happen to you!”

The stories he’s vowed to tell are painful because they reach beyond his personal tragedies and into the ruined lives of two of his sons. His oldest, a prescription-drug addict, was released from prison three years ago. Nobody’s heard from him since. Christopher, Gruber’s youngest, died at 20, drunk-driving his motorcycle.

After his two-year teenage stint in prison, Gruber was released to his mother in East L.A. He joined the Navy and earned a second-class electrician’s rank and the experience with jets that would eventually land him a career in aircraft mechanics. His addiction, though, raged on through the 1970s and early 1980s, until that terrible day—the gun, the prayer, the promise.

By the time work brought him to Las Vegas in 1989 he was three years clean and sober.

Gruber retired from American Airlines in 2005 and has since co-written a book, Searching for the Truth about Drugs (Inspiring Voices, 2012). He says he will put the profits back into his drug awareness work.

“Do you ever feel guilty?” a student asks when Gruber admits that he did drugs with his sons.

“No.” Another hand shoots up: “Why not?”

“I’m not proud of what I’ve done,” he tells the students. “But I choose to live in the future.” In the evening, in his modest Summerlin home, the old man is tired. He cups his ear and leans into my questions.

“I was a lousy father and a lousy husband,” he says. “And this is me making amends.”

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