Tyee Books

My High Flying Youth in Brandon, Manitoba

Family dinner, zoned on LSD. And more confessions of a problem prairie child, from the new memoir by Steve Burgess, 'Who Killed Mom?'

By Steve Burgess 15 Apr 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a regular columnist for The Tyee and widely published. This is excerpted with permission from Burgess's funny and moving new memoir Who Killed Mom: A Delinquent Son's Meditation on Family, Mortality and Very Tacky Candles, just published by Greystone Books.

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Scouting merit badges? Zero.

I was a good kid once. People liked me. I was cute. My brothers and sisters called me Chicken Hawk, after the determined little character from Bugs Bunny cartoons, because of my adorably pudgy little cheeks.

My 11th birthday was less than two weeks after Woodstock. It was an exciting time, unless you were 11 and living in Brandon. The local radio station played Perry Como and Al Martino and Bobby Sherman. I had no idea who James Brown was. All that counter-culture excitement seemed to be happening on a distant world to lucky, older people. People who took drugs.

Some kids find purpose and constructive fun in athletics and clubs. It's not as though I didn't try. I just sucked at it. For me, the only truth to be found in physical activity was this: young males achieve social dominance through mastery of the very skills I lacked. My brother Jock used to reminisce about witnessing the highlight of my Little League career -- a very loud foul ball. As for manly prowess, I was the only kid in my Cub Scout troop with a naked sleeve, empty of stars and merit badges. It is my contention that this reflected a subtle rejection of authority rather than simple ineptitude. Although I had ineptitude as well. One year my wood shop teacher presented me with a plaque adorned with a question mark and the inscription, "Royal Order of Wood Butchers." True story.

Neither athlete nor craftsman, I was nevertheless a precocious lad. Pretentious, even, if that taunt can be thrown at anyone so callow. (At age 13 I declared myself to be a Communist -- probably the best time of life to flirt with Communism). I was determined to demonstrate an ability to keep up with my elders. Sharing the house with older brothers and sisters who were already getting into high school-level misbehaviour, I wanted in. In particular I longed to join in with Jock and his friends.

Three years older, Jock was part of a remarkable circle. They were in my eyes a young Renaissance group. Even now those teenagers live on in my memory as paragons of vibrant creativity and preternatural sophistication, permanently enshrined as an ideal I will never match. Our basement was the centre of their social activity. They drank but were not drunkards by Manitoba standards, and their gatherings seemed to me more like salons than teenage booze-ups. Once they organized a square dance -- pushed the furniture to one side and swung around to bluegrass music. We had an old, out-of-tune piano down there that nobody in our family could play, but Jock's friend Fat (he wasn't) was a music student. One late night Dad came storming down the stairs to break up a noisy party and ended up sitting on the stairs tapping his feet while Fat banged out melodies.


There were plenty of other influences to corrupt a young mind in those days. Drugs were an integral part of the scene for a questing young person of the early '70s. Being a worldly youngster involved delving into the books of Carlos Castaneda, who told of other dimensions accessible through powerful Mexican substances. Happily, this drug mystique did not extend to anything hard -- our crowd had no romantic illusions about heroin, and cocaine wasn't really available. Hallucinogens were the big attraction, along with marijuana and hashish. I was eager to get in on it all. Since Jock was already of an age when such experimentation came naturally, I only had to stay close to get a head start.

December 1971, Christmas break. I was 13, a Grade 8 student. Jock, his best friend Mike, and I pooled our meagre funds and sent Jock down to the pool hall. His mission: to buy some pot, something we had yet to try. Jock came back a couple of hours later. "I couldn't find any pot," he said, "but I got these." In his hand were several little packets. It was LSD, a variety the seller had described as "purple microdot." We took them.

I still don't know if that was the best LSD ever or whether the effect was just amplified by my youth and inexperience, but it was certainly overwhelming. We put on an appropriate record -- Pink Floyd's Ummagumma -- and waited for the stuff to kick in. It didn't really hit till partway through King Crimson's Lizard. Then, liftoff. None of us could talk for a while, a function of brains racing with inexpressible thoughts. Stupid and nonsensical thoughts, most likely, but understood at the time as profundities too awe-inspiring for mere speech. I recall constantly brushing at some sort of red bead curtain that seemed to hang in front of me. At one point I had the sudden conviction that my arm was going to eat my head.

It's hard to recommend LSD as an alternative to summer camp, but it seems to me now just another part of my adolescence, alongside more prosaic activities like playing sports or watching TV. It isn't heroin or crack -- those relentless hobbies will turn you into a frantic mother bird with a nest full of gaping mouths. LSD and other hallucinogens -- my brother and I would eventually try a few -- were more like a series of self-contained experiences that picked you up and dropped you off about eight hours later, sated. At about five bucks a pop, once every three or six months, LSD did not require any of us to steal TV sets.

Nor was it the end of childhood innocence or the beginning of a jaded and premature adulthood -- it was an artificially induced experience of wonder. My use of hallucinogens ran its course by the time I was 17. It would have ended one hit sooner, but one night at a party some acid-happy friends stuck half a tab into a Pop Tart and fed it to me. They did have the decency to explain the situation immediately. With about eight or nine beers under my belt, I didn't believe their story -- until, in a remarkable demonstration of the drug's power, the drunkenness slid away, as if the LSD had simply taken me by the collar and lifted me above the fog. It would be my final trip. And my final Pop Tart.

Dinner's ready

Later I would learn first-hand that any kind of contraband drug use carried dangers. You never really knew what you were buying. On at least two occasions, my attempts to buy powdered mescaline led me to something that turned out to be, in all likelihood, PCP, a.k.a. angel dust -- a substance whose one-time popularity remains an enduring mystery to me. We used to call it "horse tranquilizer." Consuming it was always an accident, like getting food poisoning at a restaurant. PCP produced a feeling rather like being drunk and sober simultaneously -- stupid, slow, and sloppy, yet without the blissful oblivion of alcoholic intoxication. You remained perfectly aware of your disgusting condition. It's horrible stuff, sold in the guise of various other products. Powder in tin foil looks like powder -- there's not much quality control in the street drug business.

Mom and Dad would not have agreed with my assessment of LSD's relative harmlessness. Although they did not find out about the acid-dropping until many years later, there was one near-miss. A friend and I dropped some acid one Saturday, expecting it to run its course by dinnertime. Whether because we started too late or because the dose in question proved too powerful, we miscalculated. And so I found myself sitting at the family dinner table while still firmly planted in Strangeville. It's a nightmarish scenario for any young acidhead. As countless hipster films have suggested, the everyday world of the North American family dinner becomes a surreal and somewhat horrifying experience when one is under the effects of LSD. The quotidian seems absurd, and in the complete absence of hunger (acid works on the appetite in a way almost exactly opposite of marijuana) food can appear both ludicrous and vile. Stifling the urge to laugh at amusements no one else will perceive is a struggle. Worst of all is the paranoia that results from the complete inability to judge the suitability of your own behaviour. Then, once your odd demeanour has attracted suspicion, your saucer-like dilated pupils are there to confirm it.

The real giveaway was the cutlery. I couldn't manage it. Throughout dinner I repeatedly threw down my knife and fork with loud sighs of frustration. "May I be excused?" I barked.

In the resulting silence I scurried down the stairs. Not cool.

My parents came downstairs and went into the basement den. They almost never did that. I headed up the stairs, making for the back door and freedom. Too late. "Steve," Dad's voice intoned, "can we speak to you for a minute?"

My parents, I felt sure, were not well-versed in drug culture. They'd have read scary stories in newspapers and Newsweek magazine, certainly. But even if Dad read that Timothy Leary book his psychiatrist gave him, I don't think he really grasped the pharmaceutical foundations of those psychedelic prayers.

I needed a story, something plausible that would take the heat off. There had been occasions recently when Leslie's friends had popped Wake-Up pills, over-the-counter amphetamines, for a cheap buzz. I decided to offer that up as my explanation.

They bought it. And were devastated. Wake-Up pills! Our son! My relief at having sold the story was tempered by a new realization of just how appalled they would be to discover the truth.  [Tyee]

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