You drink at school, at home, in your car. You drink in shacks and fields. Then you find out who’s up for some crop-dusting
By Doug Cudmore
Randy Taylor is your average country boy. He is standing in his grey coveralls, clutching a case of Labatt’s Blue and waiting to get off work. He saves a bit of his paycheck from the Esso station, hoping that someday the money will help pay for college. Saturday night cars drift by on the highway, and finally Randy’s replacement shows up. Randy, 17 years old and trying to finish grade 12, bolts for a friend’s car, quaint to take him off to another night of binging. “I play sports: hockey and basketball and volleyball at school. I work fifteen hours a week. And,” he says, raising his beer triumphantly, “I do this.”
The car pulls out onto the streets of Exeter, a farming town of 4,500 in the centre of Huron County, a two hour drive from Toronto. It’s a town that can still get away with calling its main street Main Street. The type of place where movie theatres and dance clubs don’t exist, where the police know your name and your teachers live next door. It’s the kind of town, like so many across Canada, where you drink. You drink at school, at home, in your car. You drink in shacks and fields. You drink a hell of a lot. It’s tradition.
Teachers and health officials estimate that about 90 per cent of the students at Exeter’s South Huron District High School are regular drinkers. The national average for teenagers is 40 per cent. The number of young drinkers here may seem large, but it’s not that unusual. Nation-wide, rural kids are 15 per cent more likely to drink than their urban counterparts. They are twice as likely to binge drink, and get in five per cent more drinking and driving accidents. And this last number is surprisingly low, because out here most kids who are old enough to have a licence drink and drive all the time.
Randy and his friend, Jenny Meher, are sitting in the kitchen of the Taylor farmhouse. They’ve twisted off their first beer caps of the evening. Randy is in a hurry—in ten minutes his dad gets home from work. “They know I drink, but they don’t know how much,” he explains. “And if they know I’ve had even one sip they won’t let me take the truck.” Randy drinks about four times a week—twice on school nights, a couple of benders on the weekend. He figures he has about 24 beers a week, double that when he can afford to. His drink is almost finished in three minutes.
Jenny takes her time. Although she’s in grade 12 too, she hasn’t been drinking as long as most of her peers, only about a year and a half. “Jenny was always kind of a geek because she got, like, 90 per cent in school and all this shit,” Randy says.
“I’m in my rebellious phase,” Jenny jokes in defence. “I’m fucking failing out.” She hides her drinking too. “The thing with most parents is they know in the back of their minds that kids are doing it, but they don’t admit it to themselves,” she says. Jenny was given her first beer by a couple of guys who were six years older.
“They raped her,” teases Randy.
“Fuck off,” Jenny responds. “I drank, like, six beer and then I passed out and they dumped beer all over me.”
The Taylor family van starts up the lane and Randy grabs what is left of the two beer. “I’ll chug these in the shower,” he says, scrambling downstairs to his bedroom before his dad walks in.
Ten minutes later Randy sneaks his beer past his dad, and he and Jenny are on the road to pick up their buddy, Dave Vance. Then it’s off to watch a hockey game before heading to the party of the night.
Dave’s dad has a different attitude towards drinking. “He knew I drank in grade nine. The only thing he could tell me was ‘Don’t be stupid,’” Dave says, sitting in the pickup cab enjoying a drink. His father’s sentiment is pretty common among parents around here. The drinking has been going on for decades and the kids just carry it on.
“We hear parents say, ‘Well, I did it when I was a teenager and it never hurt me,’” says Meryl Thompson of the Huron Addiction Assessment and Referral Centre. “It seems to be an attitudinal philosophy that gets passed down from one generation to the other.”
Dave doesn’t see it that way. He just likes to drink and is glad he doesn’t have to sneak around. The kids gulp their drinks as the pickup moves down Dave’s lane. His mother watches from the kitchen window.
Randy loves drinking in the truck. “This is the good life,” he says. And touring (also known as crop dusting), the combination of massive drinking and aimless driving, is the best life you can have.
What’s great about crop dusting? “The freedom to go wherever you wish,” Randy says. “It’s always there. You can always do it. All you have to do is have access to a vehicle.”
“You’re with your friends,” says Dave. “As long as you have tunes it’s good, and then you just drive around gravel roads. You don’t have to worry about cops; you don’t have to worry about getting in a scrap.”
When the weather gets warmer, touring becomes a sport. Table-topping is popular. Kids pile on the roof and hood of the car with their drinks while the driver sits on his window, idling the car along and steering with his feet. Touching the steering wheel with your hands brings the penalty of a one-beer chug. Brave kids will climb onto the back bumper while the car is in full motion, pop the trunk, grab the beer for their friends, and climb back inside. Seatbelt riders yank their belts into the locked position, wrap them around their bodies, open the door and hang out over the road until they finish their drink.
Local teachers, health care workers and police agree that touring is the biggest concern related to teen drinking. “It’s obvious, on the weekends,” says OPP Constable George Finch.
The police use several strategies, including checking backroads late at night and making spot-checks in town, to try to curb the behaviour. Still, the average Exeter officer only lays two alcohol charges a month. There’s too much ground to cover.
In fifteen minutes Randy’s truck covers the miles to the South Huron Recreation Centre. The Exeter Bears, the hockey team coached by Randy’s older brother, Henri, are playing tonight. Henri is a blessing to Randy, a 24-year-old sibling who loves to drink and is always willing to get little brother some beer. Other kids aren’t so lucky, having to scramble for their weekly supply. Some have fake i.d.s, some just have to luck into their liquor.
But Randy always has a supply, and he opens some of it and has another drink. He divides to copy several other carloads of kids and have a couple of beer in the parking lot before watching the game. They talk about alcohol, a favourite topic around here.
The reason for Randy’s love of alcohol is simple, he says: “It gives you balls.”
“Ten feet high and bulletproof,” adds Dave.
“Say you’ve got the hots for some chic, you have the balls to go up to them. Some guy is pissing you off, and you’re a pussy, but you have the balls to stand up to him when you’re drunk,” says Dave.
Drinking is Randy’s favourite pastime. His first binge “was so much fun. I wanted to just keep doing it again and again.”
Just the same, Randy and Dave are not the worst abusers. Smitty and Phil, two of their buddies, drink almost every day. Any break, any lunch,” Dave says.
South Huron’s teachers agree. “You walk through the crowded main hallway, you just get alcohol fumes. You know what it is. Kids have been drinking,” says Beth Jantzi, who has been teaching at SHDHS for six years. “I heard teachers around the school making comments about the number of cases of empties they’re finding in the school parking lot. It’s becoming like a case or more a day.”
The OPP patrol the parking lot and attend some school dances, but alcohol abuse at school continues to get worse. “There’s some frustration, some resignation,” says Student Council Advisor Peter Heeney. “We found that we haven’t been able to discipline. For instance, the Young Offenders Act took away a lot of the power and authority from principals, vice-principals and teachers. So there’s frustration from the point of view that you can do something and perhaps feel that you’re not going to get backed up.”
Randy, Dave and Jenny haven’t been disciplined at school, although they’ve gone through the ritual of being busted by the police. A fine for open alcohol in the car now runs to $210, but cash-strapped teens are usually good about splitting fines with the driver. The rule—always keep an eye out for the cops. Right now, Marti has broken it, and the kids panic as a police cruiser suddenly glides in front of the idling truck. Their music is cranked, their engine is revving. The kids hide their half-finished beer in the back of the truck and watch in fear. The cruiser rolls by and turns the corner.
After a second of silence, all three laugh in relief. “I’m surprised he didn’t lift up a fucking jelly doughnut,” Dave says.
The kids haven’t seen much of the hockey game, but it’s time to move on. They each open another Blue and make the 20-minute drive to the village of Dashwood. The party, being held at a friend’s house, is happening by the time the pickup gets there. Tom Petty is ear-splitting on the stereo. Everybody is there—Smitty, Phil, dozens of other guys in the clique. A group of girls invite Randy into a corner, asking him to help finish off a bottle of whisky. He obliges, taking a couple shots and chasing them down with five more beer. The party picks up, then begins to die out in three hours. Kids drink, kids throw up, kids decide that it’s time to go home. They begin to head out to their cars, taking time to explain the psychology of drunk driving along the way.
“Nasty. Big time around here,” says Smitty after a couple too many. “I think it’s a challenge, kind of. Like, you brag about it. ‘I’m a good drunk driver.’ And, like, you don’t get into accidents and stuff, you don’t get pulled over. That’s the thing to do.”
“There’s a limit, says Phil after a couple more than too many. “Like, if you can’t keep your eyes open. Well, last night I was driving like this”—he pries his eyelids open with fingers—”but there’s a line. I just don’t fucking know what it is.” His girlfriend laughs.
Cars start pulling away just as cars have left parties like this for years. Over the decades, there are a lot of accidents, the odd kid dies or goes to jail. Nothing much changes, laws have little effect. The culture of alcohol is soaked into the country. That culture will have to change.
“Adults have to look at their own modelling behaviour,” says Thompson. “And I think what we have to look at is parents not realizing that alcohol is a drug. We hear the comment ‘Well, thank goodness my son isn’t on drugs,’ and in the meantime their son is getting bombed every weekend. That’s got to change.”
It’s one o’clock, and Randy is one bombed son. “The chicks have left,” he complains, and decides it’s time to go home. He’ll someday probably raise a son to be just like him. Or maybe he’ll end up being a statistic. Either way, Randy says he just wants to drink, and he’s turning the keys in his ignition, like your average country kid.