The thwack of the ball against a metal bat echoes up the hill from the baseball field. I can almost make out the Laguna Beach High School game, except that the thick grove of my neighbor’s eucalyptus trees thwarts any view.
In the echo of that all-too-familiar sound comes a pouring of memories of when my own son, Austin, was a star member of the high school baseball team.
Much has passed since those golden days, when young men had nothing in their future but hope and dreams. They were a great gang of kids: Ethan, Kyle, Jimmy, Micah, Evan, Shawn, and Beau.
They’d been buds since they were junior high grommets. Laguna kids, through and through.
I think most little boys hold in their hearts the idea of being a sports star. Some realize that ambition; others fall by the wayside.
For Austin, there were many opportunities, including full scholarships and scouting by major league teams. But his dream was not enough to hold or carry him. A darker shadow lurked behind every success. His own drug addictions would crash and collide with a potential and glorious future.
He’s not alone. The generation born in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s has had more than its share of challenges, awash with rapper/ gangster music, pop idols with drug convictions and rap sheets, and an easy access to “club” drugs that gave new meaning to recreational use.
I can’t imagine using my own body as part of an experiment. But many of today’s kids don’t feel that way. Surrounded by peers and a loose supply of pharmaceuticals, there is a never-ending menu of ways to get high.
And of course, young people are impervious. I was. They are going to live forever. A hangover can be a badge of honor. Being loaded and not getting caught is a glory. Nothing can really hurt them. Not in their minds. Especially if it is something — a lifestyle choice — that their music, screen and sports idols embrace.
I don’t know how to protect them. The most common message to parents, keen on protecting their kids from drug use, is to keep them busy. Keep them in sports. Austin was involved in athletics until I was purple from cutting soccer half-time oranges and weary from fundraisers for basketball and baseball. While I was trying to teach him honor, manners, and respect, major league players from all walks of sports were being arrested for rape, drug use, and graft.
I don’t know how to change their course. There isn’t enough language in the universe to convince a kid who is bent on experimenting that it isn’t the right thing to do. I couldn’t have been convinced, although there was a little bird of logic in the backside of my brain that kept saying, “No, don’t go there. To hurt yourself is stupid.”
Some of them sneak through. Some of them have a cast iron will that protects them through the most difficult hours of adolescence.
Not all of them.
Statistics from recent surveys rank Laguna Beach as No. 1 for alcohol and drub abuse in Orange County. Other studies indicate that at least 57% of polled students had been offered drugs.
Laguna Beach started a voluntary drug-testing program in 2002.
Parents can choose to have their children tested once or month or randomly. The tests cost the parents $35. But what does one do with the results? A serious scold? Counseling?
Austin tested positive on the first shot. Screaming fights followed. “You don’t know anything. You are stupid.” A retreat to his room and a slamming of doors. From my side, grounding from activities, which proved a futile endeavor.
His journey was not unusual. Alcohol to marijuana, marijuana to ecstasy, ecstasy to cocaine, cocaine to crystal meth. Other stops? I don’t want to know. Drug rehab. And then drug rehab again.
The problem with most drugs is that they affect the dopamine centers.
This is especially true with stimulants that break down the body’s own system, causing the user to use more and more in order to feel good about themselves. Never mind that it steals their lives, creates paranoia, loss of weight, skin sores, and incessant scratching.
Another thwack of bat and ball brings me back to the present, and I remember. Baseball. Hot dogs and peanuts and innocence.
I started taking Austin to Dodger games when he was three months old. He’d sit in my lap and cheer his team. I think of him, that kid in the Laguna Beach High School maroon and white jersey, crouched on the field with his eight team mates, and silently, I still cheer.