The first time I ever smoked weed was in the fifth grade. We were on the annual class picnic at Sunnyside Park in Kansas City. It was a good, warm day in May. A small swimming pool stood at one corner of the park. About four of us followed a kid named Todd over and away from the picnic to the pool building, which had small changing rooms and bathrooms. The place wasn’t locked and our little cabal gathered in the boy’s changing room.
The light of the afternoon dribbled into the room dimly from the steel-mesh grates at the top of the cinder-block wall. I could hear the robins in the trees that lined that side of the park, which was about four blocks square. The other kids were up playing on the swings and in one of the baseball diamonds.
I remember feeling the glow of approval from my mates. They were the most popular kids in school and they had taken me with them. I rarely ever felt included in grade school. I was the fat kid, the last kid chosen for the team. Being with the other boys made me special.
Todd was a tall, lanky, red-headed, long-haired kid. He was exotic to us. He had come to the fifth grade from a public school to our Catholic elementary. He seemed much older than us. He was quiet and had a mischievous smile. For some reason, he was always in trouble with the nuns. Either he didn’t do his work, failed to bring a permission slip for some outing, or got caught laughing at the teacher. I think, most of all, he made teachers feel ineffective. No amount of punishment could wipe that smile off his face.
The little cinder-block room was painted cerulean blue, a hallmark of the small pools that Kansas City had built in several of its parks. The place smelled of cement and urine. The wind was blowing steady that hot afternoon, and the breezes helped clear the funk out of the room enough for us to stay, sitting on the concrete benches built into the wall of one side of the room.
Todd was quiet but giggled every now and then. He reached into his pocket and took out the little sandwich bag and some rolling papers. With expert hands—at least we thought he was expert—he rolled a fat joint and lit it with a Bic lighter he had in his other pocket. He said that since it was our first time, he would have to “teach you how to smoke dope.” He took a couple of deep drags and held his breath as long as he could. He did it again, and then a third time.
He then passed the joint to Keith, who mimicked Todd as best he could, and then passed the joint to Joe. Joe passed it to me.
I was on treacherous ground. I grew up in a house where smoking anything was evil. My father was a big man, probably the largest physical specimen I knew to that time. His punishment for infractions of his arbitrary law came swift and hard. Many more times than I can remember, I said or did something with confidence in myself that resulted in me being smacked down, slapped, or spanked with a belt. I learned to fear my father. At the same time, I constantly sought his approval. I would open the door for my mother just to hear him say that’s my boy. Or I would help around the house without being asked just to get a pat on the back. Many times, however, just as soon as he rewarded me, I would do something that brought the crack of his knuckles across the top of my head.
If he was harsh to his children, he was also rough with the world. He drank every day, many times to inebriation, but derided those whose alcohol consumption lead them to dissolution. He made a point of criticizing cigarette smokers, and when he was around them, complained of smelling of cigarette smoke.
But as much as he considered smoking tobacco the worst kind of human depredation, he thought even less of drug culture. It was an era of hippies and alternative lifestyles. Anything out of the ordinary “two parents, a house, a car, and a couple of kids” ate him alive. In the evenings, he might toss the paper aside, put down his beer, and scream at the television during news shows about how drugs and delinquency drew America down the drain. This was, after all, a guy who was a member of the John Birch Society. Sinners and sin was everywhere. The American way of life was at stake. Drugs, long hair, and anti-war protests, if allowed to continue, surely portended the end of the Republic.
As I took the joint from Joe, I suspected that I committed a sin. My guilty conscience rose up inside and told me I ought not take part in what we were doing. But as I looked around the room, I wanted the adulation of these esteemed individuals. I put my guilt aside and drew deeply off the end of that joint, and since I had the preternatural ability to hold my breath for up to five minutes, I held onto that smoke until there was none.
At first nothing happened. This was, it seemed, a chimera. I waited for something to happen and nothing did. I smoked more as the joint went around the room. Todd rolled another. When it was smoked to nothing, we waited. Todd stood in the center of the room looking at us with a big smile. We all waited for something to happen. The smack of the kickball at the baseball diamond seemed to echo in the room. Soon, my mouth began to dry out. It felt like my eyelids were swelling. I couldn’t feel my face after a while. About the fourth time the joint went passed me, I was good and high. I started giggling.
The weed didn’t seem to affect Todd or the other kids. They laughed at me, calling me a lightweight. I didn’t know it then, but I was stoned. I found saying anything difficult. I kept laughing, well aware nothing funny had happened. It all just seemed absurd. I had sinned and, boy, it felt grand.
When we finally left the room, the light outside was too bright for me. I squinted and wobbled with the other boys back up to the baseball diamond, where Mrs. Worth stood, keeping order. When she asked where we had been and why we had wandered off, Todd said that we went down to the woods to climb trees. I quit giggling and felt that Mrs. Worth knew what we’d really been up to. I didn’t say anything. She divided us up and put us on the kickball teams. I felt like laying down for a nap.
Somewhere during that afternoon, the kids began to get out of control. Mrs. Worth yelled and screamed. Some of the other kids began to yell back at her. Now, as a teacher, I understand when I’ve lost a class and it begins to live its own life. It’s best just to call it a day and leave the work to later. But Mrs. Worth was stuck with a whole fifth-grade class in open revolt.
I was sitting on the bench in the dugout. Emboldened by the chaos around me and wanting more approval of my mates, I started yelling at Mrs. Worth like the other kids. Only, I really tried to outdo them. I mocked her voice and her manners. I yelled, “What do you know?” I don’t know what I was thinking but the chorus grew. I finally stepped out from behind the fence and screamed the worst invective I knew.
I told Mrs. Worth in the loudest voice I could muster to go to hell.
That brought things to a complete halt. Everyone was stunned and quiet. My utterance brought the entire fifth grade class at Christ the King School back to order. Mrs. Worth then told everyone to line up. We marched the couple of blocks back to school. The next thing I remember is standing in the rectory. The Monsignor sat in his armchair with his hands folded over his stomach. The other dope smokers were next to me. I was crying. (When I was younger I cried all the time.) The guilt of smoking the devil’s weed and affronting my elders lay heavily on me. I was still unsteady from our little weed session.
I suppose when my mates and me joined the melee, we amplified what was already running off the rails. Mrs. Worth accused all of us of yelling and screaming at her and generally contributing to the chaos of the picnic. She looked at us from behind her thick glasses and said we’d ruined school picnics for the future. No one can have fun now because of you. Then she turned to me and accused me in front of the Monsignor of telling her to go to hell.
Until that moment, the Monsignor had a look of detached amusement. I guess he’d been around long enough to have seen more than one school picnic break down. He suddenly looked serious and asked me if I had indeed told Mrs. Worth to meet eternal damnation. I denied it. The more Mrs. Worth and the Monsignor insisted I did just such a thing, the more I denied my actions. I wanted to blame Todd but exposing him would lay me open to the even greater sin of doing drugs. The denials got me nowhere.
The Monsignor stood from his chair. Go back to your classroom, he said to the other boys. Don’t let me hear of one instance of backtalk today. I will take care of this with your parents.
Then he turned to me. Do you need a confession, son, he asked? We should to that now.
That really got me bawling. My dad would beat me for sure. I would be grounded. I would have to live the rest of my life sweeping the dirty, dank basement and weeding the garden. The guilt of sin lay on me. I supposed, at the time, I got what I deserved. It wasn’t fair that the others got to go back to the classroom while I had to stand for greater humiliation.
I was crying so hard that Monsignor told me he’d look for me at the next time the fifth graders went to confession. I know what to expect from you and I want to hear it, he told me.
For weeks, I lived in fear of the phone call that would get me a whipping. My holier-than-everyone-else father would come down on my like God’s own vengeance. I made deals with the Creator. I’ll never smoke dope again, I said, if you just let me out of this one.
I never once confessed of my crimes. I had the good fortune at class confession to get Father Kelley in the confessional. He was a rotund mutterer who didn’t like kids much. He scared me to my bones. I wasn’t about to confess to him about yelling at Mrs. Worth to go to hell, and I sure wasn’t going to tell him about smoking dope with Tod, Joe, Keith, and Bob.
I didn’t smoke dope again until high school, and then only a couple of times. I equated dope smoking with dissolution and criminality. Plus, I found out that I just didn’t like being high. Instead, when I was eleven, I started drinking. I’d climb up on the counter and get at my dad’s bottles. I even learned to water the booze when he began to mark the bottles. He wasn’t sure if he was drinking that much or if his wife had taken to drinking on her own.
As far as I could tell, he never suspected me.