Our dirty little secret addiction

Dan Rodricks

August 14, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

The death of Brian Ball was such a nightmare that a lot of people, perhaps most people, will be inclined to kiss it off as an aberration, an event of such singularly extreme circumstance that it could not possibly be a matter for wide public concern.

Let's be real, OK?

How many times has such a thing happened? Even the surgeon general of the United States says she never heard of a case like this one.

I can hear the cop-outs from here to Salisbury:

The boy was naive. He fell in with the wrong crowd. The other kids at that teen binge party abused him. The number of shots of liquor he consumed, supposedly 26, is an outrageous sum, but it's rare -- a million-to-one easy -- that such a thing happens. Brian Ball was a particularly innocent kid in a particularly bad situation, that's all. He didn't have any friends to cut him off. And on and on, and blah, blah, blah.

We might also hear -- though they'll probably murmur the thought over their beers tonight -- from men who reflect on this episode as a rite of passage that just got out of hand. "Boys will be boys," they'll say, or at least think. "And weren't we all boys once?"

Yes, we were all boys once. A lot of us -- perhaps most of us -- started drinking when we were teen-agers. And we haven't stopped since. Some of us are alcoholics today.

So we might react with horror at Brian Ball's death, but we'll find a way to take it in stride. After a little while, after that baby face disappears from the front pages and his family takes his body back to Texas for burial, we'll find some phony satisfaction in the idea that this 15-year-old Boy Scout's death was an extremely abnormal occurrence. The kid, the circumstances -- Stephen King could not have conceived such a nightmare.

We'll indulge in this kind of rationalizing because we have to.

Brian Ball's death makes us think -- as the death of a drunken teen-ager always does -- about the extent to which booze infests the world in which we live. Adults look at this as the result of juvenile insanity, something far removed from the kind of civilized boozing they do in the privacy of their homes, in the comfort of their favorite bars. Men, especially, will resist seeing this as anything more than some uninitiated lad's unfortunate lapse in judgment.

It's the perfect defense against the hypocrisy in which we swim.

Kids binge on weekends. They chug-a-lug on dares. Some brag about swallowing pints of booze through funnels. They sneak off and drink. Why? Nothing new here. Kids want to be cool, they want what their friends want, and their friends want to be grown-ups, and grown-ups drink. Grown-ups have been setting an example for decades.

Too simplistic?

Not at all. For all the yapping we do about drug abuse in the United States, alcoholism remains a far more serious problem. Ask anyone who has worked as a therapist or counselor for people who've smoked marijuana, snorted cocaine or injected heroin. Serious problems, for sure. But booze is still the No. 1 drug of choice. Count your friends and relatives, list the alcoholics among them, then the junkies. I promise you'll come up with more alcoholics than junkies.

And the alcoholic's drug is legal. And it's everywhere. And few of us ever speak up about it. We go along for the ride.

The report of Brian Ball's death appeared in this newspaper the same evening I published a column describing a grand old Baltimore tavern as a community institution, complete with charming drunk anecdotes. Brian's death was reported on Baltimore television a few minutes before a report about bar owners' concerns that a labor strike might prevent them from getting beer shipments on time. And never far away from any TV story of booze-induced tragedy is the slick, high-energy commercial for Bud or Coors Light.

We've been down this road before. We'll sit at bars and listen to the story about Brian Ball and shake our heads; we'll read about it in the newspaper and take a sip of rye before turning the page.

The message we give kids is as mixed as a Long Island Iced Tea. It always has been. If adults think back to their teen years, albeit a stretch for some, it's easy to remember the confusion over booze. The confusion actually might be worse today because, as hard as some groups have worked to smarten teens to the hazards of drinking, other groups have spent fortunes to keep drinking an accepted and legal, even glamorized, adult habit. No wonder kids binge. No wonder about Brian Ball.

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