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Sam Stone's last balloon

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-07-18


The first time that I saw the Sex Pistols was on a national news telecast in 1978, and the report completely unsettled me. NBC has sent their veteran reporter, Jack Perkins, to cover the opening leg of the band's disastrous American tour, and it was obvious from the start that Perkins was disgusted by his subject. His acerbic tone and revulsion throughout the report showed that he felt he was covering some twisted freak show, a bizarre and grotesque phenomenon from that foreign country that had not too long ago sent us those nice boys The Beatles. To the patriarchal, middle-aged Perkins, the safety-pinned fans and transgressive stylings of the band and music clearly represented a disturbing harbinger of imminent social disease, if not outright social death.

Two years after the show aired I got onboard with punk music, but in '78 my delicate, lily-white sensibilities were nearly as thrown by the band as Perkinses' were. Though the band members were just a few years older than I was, they seemed from another planet, and I was scared by how incomprehensible they were to me. I knew nothing about England, the queue, Malcolm McClaren, Toryism, or any of the other social forces that caused the band to be thrust into the spotlight.

Thirty years later, it's easy to laugh at my initial fear of the Pistols, but remember, this was 1978, the year that Grease and Happy Days dominated the nation's entertainment, the year that the idea for the "Moral Majority" was just beginning to take root. Punk's rage and raw animal energy seemed incredibly intimidating, and it was hard for mainstream critics and Midwest sissy boys to wrap their heads around it.

In my adult life I try to stare aware of most currents and phenomena, still, every once in a while I'll discover some trend that is as inexplicable to me today as the Pistols were in '78. In June, of this year, I read a news report that brought back that same, vertiginous feeling: a high school senior, in La Porte, Indiana, died a week before graduation from a heroin overdose. In the article, the saddened coroner said that the girl's death reflected an epidemic of trouble in the area, and that heroin use was the biggest problem in the region. Not the biggest "health" problem. Not the biggest "social" problem. The biggest problem, period, greater than the area's unemployment figures. He talked about the rash of recent heroin overdoses in La Porte and the certainty that more heroin fatalities were on the horizon.

This was the first I heard of a heroin problem in the state, but some quick research showed that heroin use has exploded in the Midwest in the past five years. Dozens of other small Midwest towns, similar to La Porte, had reported strong increases in heroin overdoses and arrests since 2005. Police officials in Indianapolis declared that heroin use has risen nearly 300% in the past 3 years, and that heroin trafficking now outpaces cocaine trafficking across the state. A 2010 study revealed that Chicago was the No. 1 city for heroin use in the country, with many of the new users coming from the affluent west suburbs. (Interstate 290 in Chicago, the Eisenhower, has been dubbed the "Heroin Highway" for it's a direct link between the DuPage county buyers and the dealers in the city.) Indeed, the demographic for the typical user was changing: white, suburban teenagers were now the group showing the most increased levels of heroin usage. Closer to home, five pounds of heroin were seized by Fort Wayne police in March of this year, with a street value for the drug of nearly $175,000.

Even with the stats, the heroin epidemic seemed unbelievable to me, so I began polling my friends for anecdotal stories about heroin in Fort Wayne and Indiana. Without casting too wide a net I discovered that in my circle of friends, two had reported knowing someone personally who overdosed and died from heroin (and yes, both were suburban, white), while a few of my more street-level acquaintances convinced me that it would take two phone calls, no more, if I wanted to buy the drug myself.

When I asked everyone "why," though why heroin, why now, why the suburban teenagers nobody seemed to have a sure explanation. While some factors in the popularity of the drug can be understood it's cheap, it's available, it's cosmetically easier to take (no needles), it's "in" the elemental question of why a generation of teenagers would choose to experiment with this addictive and destructive substance remains a puzzle. In my time, the 70's, heroin was a one-way ticket to oblivion and death and it scared most "recreational" drug users away. But now? I've been trying to figure it out since I read the La Porte story, and I've yet to come up with anything remotely satisfying. But if I was forced to choose one overriding reason, I would probably pick the one that Mr. T would favor: "Pain."

I know a nurse from Norway who works now in the U.S., and she believes that Americans are pathologically terrified of experiencing pain. "In Europe, when you have a surgery, you expect it to hurt. You come out of the procedure and there's pain. Here, though, nobody expects to feel pain. You wake up in recovery and bam, here's the painkiller schedule." The over-abundance and over-prescribing of painkillers, she believes, has led to a country hard-wired for massive addiction problems. Oxycontin, widely considered the uber-painkiller of this era, debuted in 1996, and within five years it was racking up $2.5 billion in sales. Abuse of painkillers is still the leading cause of overdose deaths in the U.S. (e.g. Heath Ledger), but the growing numbers of heroin victims signify that the arrow may shift toward the illicit drugs. Many addiction specialists have long noted the link between prescription painkillers and eventual heroin use among teenagers, who eventually decide that it's easier and cheaper to buy heroin.

As a parent, I know there's nothing worse than seeing your child in pain, but I wonder if my generation has done too much in trying to eliminate every kind of pain physical, emotional, psychological from their kids' lives. Pain is necessary, pain is a teacher, and, on an elemental level, pain is the body's way of getting your attention. Yet it seems that my generation has tried to deprive their children of this most natural and important sensation. And I wonder, once a child learns to avoid pain, how far he will go to keep avoiding it.

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