Riegel: Adolescence in an era of sanctioned debauchery

While our divided nation squares off once again, this time over embattled U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, those of us who are around his age have been thinking back to our own adolescence in the 1980s—with a lot of ambivalence and chagrin.

It was just 30-something years ago, a mere blip in historical terms, and yet so much has changed in such a short amount of time—some for the worse, but some, unquestionably, for the better.

Kavanaugh is a year older than I, and the tales of his exploits at Georgetown Prep and Yale University sound eerily reminiscent of the social scene I knew as a high schooler in Uptown New Orleans and a coed at LSU.

Granted, I didn’t know any guys who sexually assaulted someone—or, at least, I wasn’t aware of any such incidents. But so much of what was permissible back then would be considered over the line today, so it’s hard to really know.

That’s not to say I don’t believe Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. Nor is it to suggest that because times were different back then, what Kavanaugh allegedly did is OK.

It is to say that it is interesting, if nothing else, to reflect on what a different reality we were living back then, before MADD and the 21-year-old drinking age and the #metoo movement—in an era of sanctioned debauchery.

Like Kavanaugh, my friends and I counted ourselves among the “good” kids. We didn’t do drugs. We studied hard and did very well in school. We were the leaders in student government and ran all the clubs.

But we drank hard in a culture where drinking was not only permissible but, in many instances, fostered by the adults. We went to formal dances at downtown hotels—hosted by private organizations like the cotillions here—that actually distributed drink tickets at the doors (two each!) to all the guests, most of whom were underage.

Even at the time, I marveled that it seemed excessive to give high school juniors and seniors access to a professionally staffed bar, where two tickets could be traded not only for beer and wine but cocktails and high balls.

During Mardi Gras season, we went to high school balls, where at the late-night supper dances (curfew, anyone?) they placed mixers in the center of the table—tonic water and club soda—to wash down the bourbon, scotch and vodka the guys invariably brought into the ballroom in their breast pocket flasks.

We went to bars, too, where, if we couldn’t sneak or sweet talk our way in—some bouncers actually did enforce the 18-year-old drinking age—we’d hang out in the parking lot, as if at some massive street party, and wait for older friends to bring us drinks outside.

Much of the time, though, like Kavanaugh’s crowd, we went to keg parties—and there were lots of them. A couple of times that I remember there was an entire beer truck parked outside someone’s house. I don’t know whose homes these were, and I wonder, in an era before social media, how we all knew where to find them.

I do know these were not the kind of parties some Ferris Buehler threw while his parents were at the beach for the weekend. These were bashes that only parental orchestration and financial backing could facilitate.

As a parent myself, I cannot imagine what these adults were thinking. My father, an attorney, never let us serve alcohol at our parties because of the potential liability. My mother objected to it on principal: it wasn’t “nice” for girls to drink. They wouldn’t even help me make a fake ID, like my friend’s dad, who made hers from the color copier and laminating machine at his office.

It was fun, by the way, really fun. But also really twisted and dangerous. The girls, as I recall, at least in my circle, were careful not to drink if they were designated driver. But the guys took pride in their skill behind the wheel after tying one on, and we seemed to think that was OK—as if it was somehow safer for a drunk boy to be driving than a drunk girl.

By the time we got to LSU, we were old pros at partying. Freshman year we celebrated Tuesdays with quarter beer night at Murphy’s, Wednesdays with wine and cheese in our dorm, and Thursdays at sorority-fraternity exchanges. Weekends were a big blur of revelry. Only on Sundays and Mondays did we dry out and study.

Somehow, by the grace of God, we grew up in one piece and grew out of it. But I certainly cannot say there was anything redeeming in any of it.

Fortunately, in the decades since, we have evolved as a society. We still have plenty of social ills, some that were unimaginable in the 1980s. Kids still drink and some parents still enable it. But it’s also true that we have become more responsible as a society and have passed laws, that are generally enforced, designed to curb underage drinking, drinking and driving, and the kind of behavior that came come from them.

As I reflect on the tortured Kavanaugh hearings, I cannot help but be dismayed at how troubled and divided this nation is. It’s at least comforting to know we no longer laugh off as acceptable what was once considered typical teenage behavior.

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