Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Drugs, alcohol and lessons learned

The deadliest drugs for my generation were tobacco and alcohol and war and cars.


I've considered cantankerous old people a mildly comic separate species for most of my life. My becoming one of them seems to violate the laws of genetics.

I'm not complaining. Sharp-edged wisdom is life's happy recompense for a body that aches after a day of skiing and a mirror that reflects shades of gray. When shocking news comes along, such as the discovery that Wood River High School consumes more drugs than other Idaho high schools, I can put it in historical context.

In July of 1966, going into my junior year at Wood River, I stopped by a gas station in Ketchum where a classmate was working. He showed me a chewing-tobacco can full of marijuana. "You gotta try this stuff," he said.

I did try that stuff at a party that fall. It burned my lungs and it made me paranoid. Paranoia was a logical response to the Vietnam draft that waited on the other side of graduation, but I didn't like the feeling. Marijuana mellowed some people out, but not me.

I wasn't alone. In 1966, two of the high school's bullies were in the habit of splitting a case of beer and then going out and beating up hippies. We hoped that once they discovered dope, they'd be overcome by mellowness and quit hurting people whenever they got intoxicated. Instead, they'd split four or five joints and go out and beat up hippies, only this time because they thought the hippies were out to get them.

I stuck to beer. If the cops caught you with beer, they didn't make a big deal about it, although I did lose driving privileges for 30 days for being in the back seat of a friend's car with a girl and a case of beer on the way to a party out Deer Creek. It was my first and last date with the Blaine County School superintendent's daughter.


The penalty for young Idaho men caught with marijuana was more than just a month of walking around and brooding about stillborn romance. Judges often gave a choice between jail and the Army, at least until the defendants started coming home in body bags.

By the time meth and heroin and ketamine hit my classmates, I was in college, where the draft couldn't touch me. There, the drugs mostly came as uppy-or-downy physician's samples that didn't make you worry about the cops breaking down the door or dosing you with tear gas. Such things did happen, but not if you stayed off the streets and refrained from throwing rocks at them from your dorm window.

When I returned to the Wood River Valley as a college graduate, Vietnam was almost over, and the drug culture of the early '70s was in full throb. The Crazy Horse Saloon hosted wet-T-shirt parties, occasions for flash-mobs of seriously messed-up people. Drug enforcement was lax. When I started bartending in 1980, the No. 1 house rule in at least one Ketchum drinking establishment was "share the drugs."

Casualties marked the journey. A classmate OD'd on heroin in the Alpine Cafe. A co-worker fell behind in payments to his cocaine suppliers, and shotgunned himself when they threatened his family. LSD was the push that toppled a brilliant friend into active psychosis. As a ski patrolman on Baldy, I brought down the body of a man who had shot meth and then shot Christmas Bowl.

But the deadliest drugs for my generation were tobacco and alcohol and war and cars. In the '80s, a friend who had graduated from Challis High School tried to add up all of the Challis students killed in car accidents since 1950. He said they averaged one a year. "I come from a community that practices child sacrifice," he said.

The smokers among my Wood River High School classmates are dead or struggling with smoking-related health issues. I'd name the alcoholics, but they're either dead or anonymous.

These days, I miss the Crazy Horse Saloon, usually when I'm missing being 22. Then I catch myself and thank my stars that a little internal voice always asked me, "What the hell are you doing?" when I was about to smoke or eat or do something lethally stupid. That little voice has delivered me more or less intact to the alloyed comforts of old age. If you're a Wood River High School student in 2010, and you don't have a little internal voice like that, think about going out and getting yourself one.

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