Hal McRae

April 22, 2007


Chapter 2

After the first time I got busted at boarding school, for stumbling around plastered on rum at a school dance, I was put on probation and forced to attend a weekend encounter group with other students who had run afoul of the section of the campus code of conduct pertaining to drugs and alcohol. The group was run by the campus counselor, whose purpose, I suppose, was to try to get us to understand why we were engaging in behavior that had led us to the group.

We did some “drug-free” stress reducing exercises such as lying on the rug of the classroom with the lights out and tensing and untensing various parts of our bodies while imagining ourselves lying by some quiet generic placid lake with strong zoning against jet-skis and whatnot. When that was over we got up and sat in the metal and formica chairdesks of the classroom, which happened to be the same classroom in which I was failing American History, and the counselor tried to get us to talk about our feelings especially vis a vis getting drunk or high. I participated far less than any other student, having none of the polished insights that the other students were able to flawlessly unleash like country-club-taught tennis court backhands. In that way it just seemed an extension of all other public life at that school: the other students there all seemed more sophisticated, mature, and intellectually advanced than me.

The one insight I still recall from that weekend encounter group was from this bleary-eyed red-headed kid who saw part of the allure of smoking bong hits as deriving from its ritualized aspects. Smoking pot at boarding school certainly was ritualized, much more so than in any other pot-smoking context I’ve been in since: You get the lights in the room just right. You put on the right record. You roll up a towel and put it in the crack between the door and the floor. You remove the bong from its hiding place in the closet. You roll up another towel to use as your “hit towel.” You pack a hit in the bowl of the bong. You remove from the top of the bong the odor-trapping device known in the typical homoerotic slang of the school as the “dick” (some “dicks” were fashioned out of big wads of masking tape; others were simply objects that happened to be the perfect size to stop up the head of the bong, such as the upside down—and depantsed—Mr. T doll we used in our bong). You light the bowl. You take the hit. You hold it. (Here’s where things usually start to go wrong. Guys start coughing or guys bust out laughing. The room fills with incriminating smoke amid accusations and, because everyone’s getting stoned, hilarity. This is known as “blowing” the hit.) If you are able to hold the hit without “blowing” it, you exhale into the hit towel, leaving a brown marijuana kiss on the fabric.

I see all this now but at the time of the drug-free weekend I had never once thought of it that way. The red-headed kid used as an illustrative metaphor for his theory the ritual of eating a piece of Bazooka Joe. A big part of the fun of eating a piece of Bazooka Joe, he explained, is the ritualistic unwrapping of the gum and the reading of the comic and the fortune. In that sense I had been exhibiting the behavior that would lead me to the encounter group for years and years, ever since participating chronically in the ritual of opening baseball cards: You buy the cards and before opening the pack you carry the pack home, feeling the bump of gum inside and the stack of brand new cards, that moment of wide open possibilities in some ways the best moment of all. Once you are in the perfect place for unveiling the new pack, you slide your forefinger under the lightly glued flaps, opening them, releasing the gum scent into the room. I always blurred my vision at this point, not wanting to know the identity of the first card visible below the flap. That card was always face down, and I had it in my head that the first card I learn the identity of should be face-up. As I flipped the stack of cards the plastic wrapper fell away and I slipped the stick of hard gum in my mouth and broke it up and chewed, releasing the sugar just as I began to look to see which Cardboard Gods were a new glowing part of my own little solitary world.

But even when the red-headed kid had presented his theory I had partially disagreed with him for what I intuitively felt was missing from the theory. I didn’t actually voice any disagreement, and wasn’t even able to put the disagreement into words in my own mind. I think, at the time, my first thought was: “That’s it? That’s all getting high is? Chewing Bazooka Joe?”

Basically, the pale red-headed kid had offered a perceptive but completely joyless explanation. To me, getting drunk and getting high were huge. I mean they were these experiences that dwarfed the everyday happenings that made me feel small and useless. They were openings into whole other worlds. His theory left out that feeling, and more than that left out the fact that when we got high we laughed so hard tears rolled down our cheeks. If he’d been talking about the ritual of opening packs of baseball cards, he would have described the process as I did above, and he would have stopped there, leaving out a description of the revelations and visitations the ritual led to. He would have left out, for example, the feeling of finding this beamingly happy 1976 Hal McRae card in a brand new pack. This is why I bought cards. This is why I smoked pot and drank alcohol with my friends at boarding school. It made me happy. It threw open the shutters. It let in the sunlight.


  1. 1.  I have been thinking about the process of using drugs a lot lately, mostly in regards the screenplay I am working on. Whether it is crushing the weed, opening a cigarette to get the tobacco, carefully lining it up on the paper and then finally rolling the joint, just to smoke or it is crushing the coke with a credit card and fashioning equal sized lines for everyone in the room, there is an experience of making something. This is only heightened by the fact that people give compliments (“This joint has lasted forever, nice job”) or criticisms (“That hurt, you gotta crush the coke better”).

    As for that sunlight, I have always felt closer to my friends in that other state. There is a real esprit de corps, a 3 Musketeers “All for one and one for all” feeling in the shared experience. People, men especially, are normally a little restrained from honest emotions, but even a few beers can lead to that “I love you man” type of moment.

  2. 2.  Poor Mr. T.

  3. 3.  I think I’m more known around here for starting flame wars with other Toaster writers than I am for complimenting their work. This might be a good place for me to mention that I’m really proud to be part of a group of such talented writers.

    The above piece is one of the best I’ve ever read online. Truthfully, I think a magazine like Esquire is missing out by not having Josh contribute a monthly Cardboard Gods feature, as it fits the writing that exists in what I think is the best magazine in the world.

    I know I’m gushing and possibly going into the category of man-crush, but in my best 14 year-old voice I can say Josh’s site is “Rockin’ like Dokken!”

  4. 4.  Damn, this is some good stuff.

  5. 5.  3 – I agree wholeheartedly. This is a love at first sight website. I am trying to work my way back through the archives because I love your writing so much. It is gorgeous and it features that sort of specific nostalgia that is universally emotionally resonant.

    The only bad thing is that you reference life as a struggling novelist and if you can’t (haven’t yet) make (made) it, I better work harder at my day job.

  6. 6.  2 “Poor Mr. T.”

    Don’t you think living his life in the passageway of a bong would be, like, Mr. T’s dream life?

  7. 7.  I don’t think so, EE. He might come off his high and find himself on a plane.

    I only recalled McRae as a DH, but I checked and he did get some significant OF time until 1977.

  8. 8.  3, 4, 5: Thanks for the praise, guys. It’s really encouraging, and much appreciated.

    To further visualize a key detail in the Hal McRae post, please see the below link to an ad for the Mr. T action figure that became part of our drug paraphrenalia (note the timely plagiarism of the “Beat It” guitar riff in the theme music):


  9. 9.  Beautiful Josh. To experience, and really live life, it’s those simple things that are most pleasurable . . . you nailed it.

  10. 10.  I just can’t picture this Happy Hal hurling phones and such across the room.

  11. 11.  Great stuff. Happy to find this thanks to a reference from lboros at veb. I also enjoyed your lowlights and miscellany, and have been getting into the archives and touring the toaster.

    Reflections upon the days of bongs and bazooka made me happy. I also liked your 4 points (or 3) to happiness. Thanks

  12. 12.  11: Viva el Birdos! Yeah, I didn’t realize McRae was the Cards’ hitting coach until I was checking out the VEL site. I imagine he knows about as much about hitting as anyone. One thing I am kind of disappointed about in this ongoing “Happy” saga is that despite focusing at some length on McRae in two different posts I haven’t been able to squeeze into my self-obsessed monologue anything about how great a hitter he was. He could rake! He retired as the best DH ever (since toppled by Edgar Martinez, I guess).

  13. 13.  “…leaving a brown marijuana kiss on the fabric.”

    Funny story about “the kiss” – I had a friend named John Koch in HS whom had/has 9 brother and sisters. His house was huge – it was so big we could blow bongs in his bedroom (unheard of at the age of 15 !).

    At any rate, we pretty much used the same method described above. We would blow smoke into an old baby blue “Ocean Pacific”
    T-shirt and there were many brown marijuana kisses on the fabric as we used the same shirt for an entire school year.

    When the last day of high school came along everyone tried to out-do each other by wearing the silliest possible clothes for the last day.

    John showed up for the last day wearing that old and unwashed OP shirt. The kiss marks were plainly obvious to anyone who had ever smoked pot and blew smoke into fabric. He smelled like a giant ball of resin. We all laughed and laugh and laughed and laughed.

    There was one teacher (the art teacher) who knew exactly what was going on. At the end of the day she sought out John and invited him and his over to her place for a session. We all went and had a wonderful time (an art teacher’s house is invariably cool and stimulating) – it was a coming of age for all of us…

    Good Times !

  14. 14.  Thanks for the story, Buildabong. The key detail for me was the fact that the T-shirt was an OP.

  15. 15.  Loved the paragraph about opening the package of cards. It really threw my mind back. I’d forgotten the joy and anticipation of the actually opening of the pack!

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