Marijuana’s musty aroma escapes through the cracked windows of a car that’s just pulled up outside a Fort Worth club. On this particular night, the club is open to minors only — no alcohol served.
So teenagers are showing up with buzzes already firmly established. Still, there’s a balancing act — they must keep their wits together enough to run the gauntlet of chaperones, security guards, and club employees hovering near the entrance. No need to get too wasted: The dance will end at midnight, leaving plenty of time for partying afterward. By 8 p.m., a steady stream of teens is arriving with the boys wearing jeans and T’s, and the girls wearing … well, almost nothing. A slender young woman talking on her cell phone struts with a Paris Hilton vibe, wearing a two-piece bikini fashioned from silver Coors Light packages — ironic since the proceeds from this event benefit a drug treatment facility. “Paris” is too busy on the phone to be bothered, but one of her buddies describes the high school party scene these days as “pretty much what people assume it is. It hasn’t changed — stupid kids who don’t behave themselves.”
Take the girl in the tight blue dress … please. A security guard is grilling her on how much alcohol she’s consumed. The defiant girl — an Arlington Heights student — insists she is fine and can walk a straight line with ease, thankyaverrmuch. The guard leads her to a yellow stripe in the parking lot and tells her to toe the line. She takes a step and then pitches sideways. That’s it; she’s banned. Her friends lead her back to the car and haul her home. The annual Headbangers Ball at Ridglea Theater began as the brainchild of a group of Paschal High School seniors several years ago. The historic school sits in the shadow of Texas Christian University and boasts one of the region’s best academic programs. Parents camp out to get first crack at the few transfer openings that become available each year. Paschal had 18 of its students named as National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists this year, more than any other school in Fort Worth — more, even, than all the high schools in the Dallas Independent School District combined.
All of which is impressive but doesn’t make the school immune to problems that trail young adults across the country. Drugs, booze, tobacco, and violence are equal opportunity vices. Immaturity and raging hormones aren’t new concepts either. National Merit semi-finalists at Paschal have been suspended for drinking on school trips. Police prevented an off-campus gang fight during lunchtime last fall, resulting in one arrest and the suspension of about 20 students. Some of the school’s brightest students recently held an event to raise money for a distant, impoverished country. The event? A boozefest with jello shots, beer pong, the occasional cannabis break, makeout sessions, puking, passing out — and $800 for charity! Imagine throwing a party for charity, giving it a name such as Boozing for Bosnia or Swilling for the Sudan, and printing up souvenir t-shirts.
“I guess I’ve heard it all now,” said Susan Bragg, director of victim services for the North Texas chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Drinking-related events for charities aren’t new, but Bragg said this was the first she’s heard of that was hosted and attended by minors. She’s astounded, and not in a good way. Early drinking often leads to alcoholism in adulthood, and “we are seeing younger and younger alcoholics,” she said. The good news: Fewer kids are drinking these days, and drunken driving has a much stronger negative stigma than it used to. “I like to think that things are changing,” she said. “I have three kids under the age of 21, and I can tell that their schooling is becoming more and more focused on healthy behaviors: Don’t use drugs, don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol before age 21,” she said. Not everyone’s listening, though.
“People have been partying since civilization started,” one of the party organizers said. “Since we’re partying anyway, we ought to make it where we can use the money for something good.” The Headbangers Ball attracts students from many different high schools, and on their way inside the club they provide a rolling portrait of a generation enthralled by music, mind-altering drugs, alcohol, and sex, even as they strive to complete their studies and enter the adult landscape of college, employment, and survival in a complicated world. “This generation is full of weekend warriors; I know National Merit Scholars who smoke a lot of weed, and drinking is very popular too,” said a Paschal senior who’s sporting a black t-shirt with “Fuck You” printed across the front. He zips up his jacket before entering the club so the shirt won’t draw attention.
Another kid describes high school as “a lot of drinking and using tobacco, but not so much pot.” They focus on studies and activities during the week and save the heavy revelry for weekends and holidays. “We get an education, then we party,” a senior said. An hour passes, and the guy with the obscenity printed on his shirt walks out of the club with friends and heads toward the parking lot. The dance is crowded, and they’re ready for a more intimate gathering. “About three-quarters of the kids are fucked up,” he said. “They’re drunk, hammered. A lot of it is the over-privileged crowd. That’s the funny part — it’s the captains of the football teams, the cheerleaders.” Mr. Obscenity Shirt doesn’t exactly embrace abstinence — indeed, his group is leaving for a smaller party where they’ll smoke a little weed, drink a little whiskey. In fact, he’s proud of his group’s moderation — something he said many of his peers don’t think about. Statistics don’t reflect much of an alcohol problem. Only 31 alcohol-related policy violations were reported in all 14 Fort Worth public high schools during the 2006-07 school year, down from 42 in the previous year.
Even though a handful of students are sent to alternative schools for drinking each year, most of the guzzling is done on their own time — such as getting stoked for the Headbangers Ball. Drugs, particularly marijuana, are another story. This year, drugs were involved in 290 violations — up from 242 the year before. But that makes sense — dopers say it’s easier to function in society on a good pot buzz than trying to maneuver at school on a slurred booze binge. “This generation needs to change their outlook on life,” Mr. Shirt said. “From inside [the club] it looks like all we care about is the taste of vodka on a stranger’s tongue. When it becomes a habitual lifestyle, that’s the danger.” The next danger, of course, is that a generation of screw-ups will lead us into the future … and right off a cliff. J.P. is a fairly typical kid of 18, lanky, reserved around strangers, with long brown hair, a protruding Adam’s apple, and a mischievous grin. He lights a Marlboro Red and inhales as if he’s smoked all his life, although cigarettes are a new habit. He’s played sports from second grade through his senior year — he won a football MVP award in his junior year — and resisted cigarettes all that time. Now, he’s been graduated from high school for a week and is done with sports, so what the hell? Cigarettes go well with alcohol, and he loves his beer. It brings him out of his shell and makes him feel alive and do crazy things. Getting drunk is an adventure, a wild trip to a mental amusement park. It’s also a problem.
In the seventh grade, his parents were called to pick him up at a party after J.P. guzzled a pint of cherry vodka and, not surprisingly, got staggering drunk. The next year, he learned how to make his own wine and took a bottle of homemade vino to school and stashed it in his locker; it fell out and shattered in the school hallway. He got out of that predicament but was later suspended from junior high for drinking beer on campus. By the time he hit high school, getting drunk was a regular event. Friday and Saturday nights were spent driving around town for hours on end, knocking back beers and whiskey shots. Police stopped him on several occasions, but J.P. could gather his wits in an emergency, say “yes sir” and “no ma’am” with sincerity, and squirm out of trouble. Once, however, he got mouthy after being told to empty an entire bottle of Jack Daniels on the side of the road. That’s bullshit, he snarled at the cop. “Fine, you’re going to jail,” came the reply. While J.P. was getting hauled off to the drunk tank, his friends were allowed to drive away in his truck. They ran it out of gas later that night and abandoned it at an intersection, blocking traffic. My dad was so pissed the next morning; I had no idea where my truck was, J.P. said.
After getting his truck back, he went cruising with friends, got drunk, and found himself near Joe Pool Lake on a foggy night. Visibility was limited to about 40 feet, and, to test the limits of their bravery, he pushed the speedometer to 50 mph on an unlit back road and waited to see who would chicken out first and demand that he slow down. None did. The road suddenly ended, and the truck skidded and flipped. Remarkably, nobody was seriously hurt, but the truck was totaled. It was the second car he’d wrecked in two years. J.P. somehow convinced his beleaguered parents to let him borrow the family car — a brand-new sedan — to go to a school dance. He promised not to drink, but went into a jealous funk after seeing his ex-girlfriend flirting with another guy. He left the dance, bought beer, drank it down behind the wheel, and accidentally jumped a curb, sailing through a mailbox and a trash bin. The next day, his parents found their sedan in the driveway with shredded tires and a broken axle. On mornings like those, J.P.’s heart sank and his stomach churned when he saw his mother’s face. He feared his father and dreaded his two-hour lectures, but the worst punishment was looking into his mother’s forlorn face. She was a sweet and loving woman who couldn’t understand why her son, an otherwise sensible and sensitive kid, would turn into a wild man every weekend. His parents didn’t drink, smoke, or curse. They couldn’t relate. And booze wasn’t the only thing that troubled them. They knew he’d been experimenting.
I was 12 the first time I smoked pot; I’d never even smoked a cigarette, he said, recalling how a friend stole a joint from an older sibling and invited J.P. to get stoned after a game of touch football on a Saturday afternoon. It was the summer between the sixth and seventh grades. His friend taught him to inhale, and J.P. held the smoke in his lungs with minimal coughing. He got high his first time and enjoyed the feeling — not only the weed buzz, but the sense of plowing into the unknown, bucking authority, testing barriers. By eighth grade, he and some of his friends were buying marijuana on a sporadic basis. It wasn’t hard to get. Students bought and sold weed on the junior high campus. Some of the school’s best athletes were getting high. Nobody in authority seemed to notice, at least for a while. By 10th grade, J.P. and his crowd had become stoners. Weekday mornings began with a group smoke-out in a park near the school. Everyone floated into first-period classes with shit-eating grins. Lunch offered the chance for another smoke-out, sometimes in the school parking lot. Once the final school bell rang, the rest of the afternoon was a pothead’s paradise — getting high and playing Frisbee golf, working on cars, cruising around, talking to girls, fishing, planning the upcoming weekend.
J.P. wasn’t the only one having problems with his parents. “My mother thinks I’m just a damn drunk,” said Lloyd, a friend since elementary school. Some of Lloyd’s mishaps in his senior year were legendary, like the time he broke the lid on his bottle of butyl nitrite (sold in head shops under the name Locker Room) and propped it up on his dashboard for safekeeping, with the lid carefully nestled atop it. While he was driving home, the bottle fell over and spilled, and he had the rush of all rushes just as he reached his destination. The next morning, his mother found him slumped over the steering wheel — and the truck parked in the front yard with the engine still running. Many of J.P.’s friends began dropping out of sports and spurning school activities. He envied their carefree afternoons while he was stuck in football practice or running hurdles, but he was determined to stay in sports, make decent grades, and try not to put his parents through any more hell than was necessary. Once weekends rolled around, however, all bets were off. It was party time.
He was caught stealing a case of beer from a delivery truck outside a convenience store, but he kept that theft off his record. He got into drunken fights, and had a beer mug broken over his head in a Dallas bar. He woke up the next morning to his mother’s startled scream — he’d staggered home after getting his head stitched up at the emergency room and simply flopped on the couch with his face and shirt still caked in blood; his mom saw him lying there and thought he was dead. Bad things happen to drunks, especially young and dumb ones, and his group wasn’t exactly charmed. A friend was stabbed outside a Fort Worth bar, but he survived. Two others were killed in a car crash after leaving a club. Others were kicked out of school, kicked out of their houses, kicked off teams, kicked out of the military. Parents and teachers wondered what was wrong with this generation of kids who had once held such promise but were deteriorating into a scruffy pack of losers who didn’t seem to give a damn about anyone but themselves.
The truth is, J.P. didn’t feel like they were doing anything too horrible. He and his friends might be poisoning their bodies, but for the most part they weren’t hurting anyone but themselves. Sure, they vandalized mailboxes or broke streetlights now and again, but they were just as likely to help a family whose car was broken down on the side of the road. They held part-time jobs and displayed random hints of responsibility. They took no pleasure in the sorrow inflicted on their parents, but they had to go their own way. I didn’t ask to be born, J.P. said. It’s my life; I’m going to live it the way I want to. Those instincts kept leading him further toward indulgence. Then, psychedelics and amphetamines entered the fray. Acid and speed made the parties more intense and the conduct unpredictable. Juvenile pranks moved further toward anti-social behavior. Where once they might have thrown a water balloon at a jogger for kicks, now they were more likely to throw a beer bottle at a passing car.
One of his friends, John, had started injecting speed, though most of the crowd drew the line at needles. Less than a week after graduating from high school, these crazed youths were about to carry some peculiar behaviors into the real world — college, for some, but others, tired of school, were ready to earn wages. My dad is offering to pay for my college, he’s practically begging me to go, but I just don’t want to, J.P. said. Instead, he passed an exam for a commercial driver’s license and lined up a job driving a dump truck for a county road crew. He and a friend rented a house, which quickly become party central. Weekend partying evolved into a near- nightly ritual. Put in 40 hours at work, pay the rent, go wild at night, and take it one day at a time. Who knows how long it could last? Life is short. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a pipe made of gray quartz, crammed a thumb-sized bud into the bowl, and fired up. It wasn’t yet noon, but what the hell?
Stories like J.P.’s haunt Bragg, the local MADD spokeswoman. She speaks at schools and tells kids how drugs destroy lives, how car crashes are the number-one killer of people under 25, and how alcohol is involved in half of those crashes. “It can lead to a life of misery,” she said. “You’re not using the gifts God gave you in a positive way. You’re throwing away brain cells every time you drink and you’re under 21. It’s like playing Russian roulette with your brain.” As for J.P. and his buddies — only time could tell whether the hammer on life’s pistol would land quietly on an empty cylinder or hit a live round and create more statistics. Actually, time has told. If you haven’t figured it out already, J.P. is me, Jeff Prince. And everything described in this section happened between 1972 and 1978 in a public school district in Tarrant County. My 30th high school reunion is fast approaching, and looking back lends credence to Bragg’s dire warnings. Some of us paid a high price. Few escaped without scars.
My best friend from junior high, Kevin, was buried last year. He’d battled alcoholism for years and was using meth toward the end. Several trips to rehab failed. He watched a successful business go bust, lost his wife and family, and ended up in a homeless shelter. One day last spring, he woke up in an Austin drunk tank. After he was released, he went to try to patch things up with his wife, but nobody was home. Kevin went inside, got a pistol, and shot himself. It was his son’s birthday. And remember John, the guy experimenting with the needle? He didn’t last long. “He was young, but the truth is he died of old age,” Lloyd said. “He rotted out his insides with hard drugs and his body just gave out.” Lloyd carries his own scars, including a big one on his forehead, a memento from one of several car crashes he’s survived. Would any of us change our past behaviors? Probably not. My friends and I made our choices knowing full well the possible dangers — addiction, family trouble, health problems, death. Those dangers are partly what made the trip exciting. There’s a perverse satisfaction in survival, perhaps a feeling similar to climbing a mountain or completing a marathon.
Still, it’s not a lifestyle I would recommend to the generation I watched wobbling around at the Ridglea the other night. The truth is, my friends and I all could have gone down in flames. Our habitual drunk driving, illegal drug purchases, and escalating mania could have easily hurt innocent bystanders and put us in prison or the abyss. All these years later I’m hesitant to reveal so much personal drama — my parents endured enough pain and shame back then and don’t deserve another round. But a story on high school party animals called out for honesty — and an, um, historic perspective. The Class of ’78 turned out OK on the whole. Yes, there were casualties, but my ragtag gang of young derelicts now includes a college professor, pilot, highway designer, warehouse manager, car salesman, business owner, and defense industry worker. Oh, and a journalist … with two public intoxication arrests on his record from those bygone days and a long history of panic attacks, but also a fulfilling job, two acres and a house in the country, a mutt named Hazel, and many memories fine, proud — and otherwise.
You can reach Jeff Prince at firstname.lastname@example.org.