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The Village Idiot

Before You Go to War, Know Your Enemy

Jack Deatherage, Jr.

(8/2013) "Do you know another teenager died of heroin overdose in Emmitsburg?"

Memories are triggered. I couldn't help but wonder what defined a heroin addict. In looking across the internet I discovered this on-line test: "am I a heroin addict test" which answered a lot of questions for me.

A friend sobbing, he can’t feel his legs. Some drug he’d ingested temporarily paralyzing him from the waist down. Anger consuming me as I storm from his parents’ house, intent on laying waste to the people who sold him the drug. His younger brother pushing me back, hissing, "He knew what he was swallowing. They’ll kill you. You aren’t going to die for that fool."

"Jack, I had to know. They stuck the needle in my arm. Fire flowed to my fingertips, up my arm to my chest and into my head. God, it was the greatest thing. I sat and drooled on myself for hours. Best time I ever had at a party."

A young woman crushes white pills in a spoon and adds a bit of water to them. Using a lighter she heats the spoon, the pills dissolve. I held the spoon as she carefully sucked the syrup into a syringe. She went to her boyfriend who had a vein popped, ready for his amphetamine fix. He’d been twitchy for hours as his cravings grew to the point we were afraid we’d have to restrain him. (He was a big, strong man. Some of us would get hurt.) The needle went in, the plunger depressed, relief settled over him. He became the guy we enjoyed hanging out with, the first "speed freak" and needle junkie I would meet, but not the last.

A cousin quietly told me he’d tried heroin because the guys at work were using it. He said it was like going to heaven, only he hadn’t died. He liked it so much he knew he couldn’t use it a second time or he’d die a junkie. "But, oh God, it was so good."

I sat all night on the end of a couch a cousin had curled up on after eating pills she thought would keep her awake. They caused her stomach cramps. All she could do was lie there in pain until she passed out from the alcohol she’d consumed earlier. Twelve hours I sat watching that she continued to draw breath. Twelve hours I sipped beer and thought about whether anything made sense.

"Dad, I have a soaking wet girl (a pajama clad 14 year old) in my apartment. (I hear thunder and rain.) She’s crying. I don’t know what to do." Not something I want to hear from my son an hour after midnight. The girl’s mother had mixed drugs and was freaking out. I didn’t want the girl seeing her mother raving as they took her to the hospital. I sure as hell didn’t want my son witnessing it. As bad as that night was the next day was worse when the released mother accused the daughter of embarrassing her and ruining her reputation by calling 911.

I stood next to a young man in an ER as his wife, of just a couple years, lay twitching, sobbing, laughing, gasping, trembling as some "legal" drug worked it’s way through her system, eventually leaving her susceptible to returning panic attacks that left her helpless until they passed.

They buried a young cousin I’d held as a baby. He died from a heroin overdose.

I’m pretty much tapped out of compassion, but I can’t help but wonder how we’ve gotten to this point.

I know potheads who can make damned near anything from wood, or stone, or metal. They repair vehicles from roller-skates to tractor-trailers. They plow grain fields and build houses. I don’t know any heroin users who do more than sponge off their families, collect welfare, deal dope to other fools or acquire money through burglary. (The latest heroin ODer to die in Emmitsburg had recently broken into our factory and robbed the business we share the building with, making it difficult for me to feel much besides contempt.)

I stand listening to two elders argue about who is old. One turns 80 in a week, the other in five months. (I’ll be 60 in a year.) The pecking order established, the elders begin telling stories of their youths. They’ve a puppy to instruct.

As I listen, it occurs to me I’d heard similar stories from older cousins, uncles and acquaintances all my life. People who’d strayed, fallen, gotten back up and gone on to build decent lives. They are my mentors. I wonder, who is mentoring the heroin users?

As my kidlet was growing to full size, I filled his head with stories of my youth. Not only the things I’d done, but the stories I’d heard growing up. I was advised (by experts) not to do this, as he’d think it was okay to do the things I had done. (He was growing up in this place! He’d hear the stories anyhow, so he was going to hear them from me as I remember them, not as others’ exaggerations have twisted them.) As he approaches his 25th year, he still thinks I was/am an idiot, even though he has confirmed some of what I told him by repeating my stupidities, as I knew he would. What he hasn’t done is stick a needle in his arm.

"We have to do something…"

Like what? A teen club? It was tried almost 40 years ago. The drug dealers showed up in a pack. It was hilarious. Throw money at the problem? That was tried more recently. Ted Brennan attempted to get $100,000 in federal grant money for an Emmitsburg youth program designed to distract kids from readily available drugs. As I understood the situation, the grant was lost when the town refused to admit it had a drug problem. It was more important to sell the houses, still being built, than it was to get control of the kids. Besides, only a couple of youths had died from overdoses. (Evidently, the houses have been sold as I hear the town now admits to having a drug problem. Must be grant money in the air?)

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, illegal drugs slammed the north end of this county in a tidal wave. Generational alcoholism, dating back to the town’s founding, had prepped a generation of kids for the drug trade. Many of us embraced it willingly while others were bullied into it. Few of us died, fewer still became useless users and addicts. Most of us "outgrew" it and went on to have normal (as normal as the heirs of this burg can be), productive lives.

So why are kids dying from their drug usage now? It isn’t the drug they’ve chosen to use. No. It’s much worse than that. If this town is going to war, it had better get a clue as to what it’s going to be fighting. As it stands, the town’s already lost, again.

I’d rather be writing about my gardening triumphs (okay, this year’s disasters) but the war’s begun and I’ve been asked to engage. Don’t know which side I’ll join. I see nothing but losers to choose from. Maybe I’ll side with the kids. I’ll have to think on it. (Damn it. I hate thinking.)

Read other articles by Jack Deatherage, Jr.