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Elder Wisdom

The Drunkest Generation

circa 1955: Portrait of a teenage girl lying on a sofa with a bottle of ginger ale and a telephone. A box of popcorn sits in front of her.
Photo by John Zavisho/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I’ve been more nostalgic than usual this week, having gone to a funeral for Ms. Carey, a lovely woman from my childhood neighborhood, and seeing lots of faces for the first time in decades.

I grew up in Northern Virginia in the 1970s. I don’t remember lots of specific things from my adolescence. But when I think back, as I’ve done lots lately, I always get a general sense that the world was a different place and I laughed a whole lot. For years, I’ve told anybody (except my kids) who asks what those days were like that from everything I recall, Richard Linklater’s 1993 feature film Dazed and Confused is a note perfect re-creation of my teens. 

Turns out my memory holds up to scrutiny: I know this ever since stumbling upon a digital archive of the Jaguar Journal, the student newspaper published occasionally by Falls Church High School, my alma mater. The database covers 1948 through 1996. I went back to this treasure chest this week during my sentimentality binge. A hilarious/scary percentage of the Journal stories from the 70s issues deal with drinking or fighting or drugs, while others cover drinking and fighting and drugs. 

I found a 1976 issue of the Jaguar Journal that had a letter from Principal James Wilson about student conduct at school dances: “The greatest problem has been students who arrive at a dance under the influence of alcohol. Several have become very ill. A few have had to be taken home either unconscious or unable to walk. In addition, some girls have taken beer into the restroom in their purses. This situation obviously cannot continue.”

Oh, but that situation can continue, Mr. Wilson! And it did! Back to the archives:

Another article from 1976 on the possibility of raising the legal drinking age from 18 years old held that local stores were already selling beer to “15 and 16 year olds” without ID, and accepted that new limits wouldn’t change anything. “The [legal] age, as it stands, really bears no significance in the access of beer,” it read. “The drinking and drinking while driving is going to continue among teens as it has in the past, no matter what the laws are.”

Then there’s this summary of the status quo on school grounds from a 1977 think-piece titled “Alcohol and Pot Should Stay Out of School”: 

Usually, students drink and smoke at parties and during the week-ends, but the number of students using alcohol and pot during school apparently is on the rise. It is not an uncommon sight to see a group of students going into the woods and coming out swaying, red-eyed and smelling like the Capital Centre during a rock concert. Or is it not uncommon for some to go out during lunch on a warm day and down a quick six-pack?

(The Capital Centre was the local arena where as a teen I saw Led Zeppelin, Foghat and five-consecutive Jethro Tull tours. I can confirm that concert goers throughout the decade, and even the whole building on show nights, smelled like beer and weed.)

The writer of that piece also expressed weariness over students who loiter in the parking lot during the school day so they can “break into others’ cars to smoke their bowl and then steal a tape deck.”

Any principal would be fired if the behaviors described in these pages became normalized at any high school today. Here’s a cartoon from a 77 issue showing the lack of seriousness in curbing drinking and driving among the student body. 

Surveys on hedonism were apparently big in school newpapering at the time. A teacher wrote a letter to the editor in 1978 to argue that his research shows that a recent survey published by the paper showing 85 percent of students had tried marijuana was erroneous.

“I conducted a survey in my classes last week and found the number of students who tried marijuana was not 85%, but was 58%,” the teacher wrote.

The archives also hold a survey published by the Jaguar Journal in 1979 that found 71 percent of students admitted to being drinkers. Asked why they boozed, the report said 64 percent of those surveyed answered “because they like it.” And 61 percent of the Falls Church student body said that “football games gave them an opportunity to drink alcohol.”

The impact of all that underage drinking was indeed on public display at our sporting events.

A 1977 story from the Jaguar Journal covered one of the frequent parking lot brawls after a basketball game. From a teacher quoted in the piece: “It was like some Latin American revolution. Everywhere, people were fighting and yelling and screaming ugly things.” Mr. Hollowell, the athletic director who was never not wearing a plaid sportcoat, described jumping into the melee himself in boys-will-be-boys tones: “I saw some people whom I knew and cared about who were in the middle of a fight and were outnumbered,” Hollowell told the Jaguar Journal. “So I flipped off the old coat and went in to try and help. I took a few punches and it wasn’t much fun.”

I’m not smart enough to nutshell any larger meaning from the oodles of dated debauchery contained in the Jaguar Journal archive. I know that Reagan came in at the start of the next decade and boosted his approval ratings by launching things like the D.A.R.E. and Just Say No campaigns, which made all our fun seem dirty. The drinking age was raised to 21 in Virginia in 1984. I would guess those programs were in some ways equal and opposite reactions to the guiltless drinking and drugging of the Me Decade. 

The pendulum seems to be swinging back a bit now, at least with the de-demonization of weed in recent years. But while re-reading the Jaguar Journal recently, I couldn’t stop thinking that kids today don’t have it as good as we did. Then again, I’m a parent now; old as I am, I have kids currently in high school and middle school. So maybe I’m just being as naive as 70s parents were about what their children were up to. I guess what I’m saying is, between us, I hope my kids don’t have it as good as we did.

In any case, I’m going to go watch Dazed and Confused again now. RIP, Ms. Carey.

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