My Psychedelic American Boyhood

By Peter Bebergal 10/25/11
LSD and pot sprinkled with hash helped this writer escape into a mystic world beyond his Northeastern high school. But then he had to find another way to access his higher spirit.
A trip to remember Photo via

At first I thought I hadn’t gotten a good dose. The tab had an illustration of a phoenix rising out of its own flames, so I was waiting impatiently to be consumed. I didn’t know there would be a delay before it got going. When the acid did kick in, I could feel myself beginning on a course of burning up and being reborn over and over again for the rest of the night. Up and down, up and down, doing everything I could to hold on, and then letting the acid take me wherever it would next. 

We were sitting between the trailers of 18-wheeled trucks somewhere in a parking lot in the North End of Boston. My friend Randy and I, both of us just shy of 17, had come into the city to buy fireworks, literally out of the back of someone’s van. We each got a bag filled with bottle rockets, Roman candles, firecrackers, M-80s, and bloom flowers. Then Randy suggested we go sit in between the trucks, smoke a few joints, and take the acid. I didn’t know where he had gotten it from, but he had four hits arranged in a perforated square. He tore one off carefully and handed it to me. I hoped in the dim light of the lot he couldn’t see my hand shaking as I laid it on my tongue. 

I shouldn’t be on this bus at all. I should be running alongside it, traveling through hyperspace, headlong into truth. Somehow this was so different from what I had imagined. Something was not right, or the acid was no good, or something, possibly, was wrong with me. 

We smoked one joint after another, and slowly I could feel an extra pulse in my chest, alongside my heart, at slightly different intervals. It was an echo of my hearing, but not quite in sync, until every sight and sound reverberated. My insides and outsides were the same. The pulse was from the world, which often felt as familiar as if it were located in my body, and then the next moment it was something alien, something so unlike me, it almost had the quality of mockery. Of making fun of me. Then the whole thing burst into fireworks, as if the ones we had bought were being accidentally set off in the bags next to us. Fireworks over and over again, the pulse now the popping of a million tiny explosions all around us. 

I had to walk. Randy had to also. Sometimes it was like we could read each other’s minds, but mostly we were just being set upon by different psychic animals. We would glance at each other for practical purposes—which way to go, what we should do when we arrived wherever we ended up, when to sit down, when to get up again—and somehow we knew that we had to catch the bus back home at a certain time. 

We eventually found ourselves in an arcade. It wasn’t until I had been pumping quarters into the game Space Castle for 45 minutes that I realized I was peaking. I could not, would not, stop playing the game. There was something far beyond the mere destruction of pixels taking place. My very soul was at stake, my fate bound up in the quickly moving sprites and the twist of my wrist as it controlled the joystick. 

On the way home, I sat in the back of the bus, carefully taking drags of a cigarette I held out an open window. I watched the streetlights and the headlights, waiting for one of them to be a different kind of light, to be a vibration from heaven sent to open something in me. For most of the trip I had been wavering between terror and bliss. Even though I was here in the city, the ancient spirits should have found me, the acid acting as a radio, tuning my psychic frequency into the perfect spiritual beacon. Instead I was speeding along the highway toward my house in the suburbs. I thought we could somehow make it to the golf course before I needed to go home, that maybe I had gone too far from my sacred space. I shouldn’t be on this bus at all. I should be running alongside it, traveling through hyperspace, headlong into truth. Somehow this was so different from what I had imagined. Something was not right, or the acid was no good, or something, possibly, was wrong with me. Where were the crows with frightful but beautiful eyes delivering omens to me? Where was the sorcerer who would teach me how to see? 

Despite my experiments with acid, it was weed sprinkled with pieces of black hash that wound up clarifying my path. Randy’s mother was gone for the day, and we sat in his kitchen while I watched him roll joint after stupendous joint. Randy had become a master roller, capable of churning out spliffs that were five or six papers long, two papers wide, with the technique of an expert cigar maker. Most of our days, in some form or another, had come to involve getting baked. This meant looking for, buying, and then rolling and sorting as much as it actually meant taking drugs. 

Our preference was marijuana, and because our northern Boston suburb was in a choice location, we had ample options. Situated between Lynn—a working-class town kept afloat by a General Electric factory that built turbine engines—and the very well-to-do coastal town of Marblehead, Swampscott got its pot from every approach. For Marblehead, the whole of the coast from Gloucester to Salem fed a steady supply. Lynn bumped up directly against Revere, where drugs flowed like the Nile from Boston through Chelsea and Everett. We only ever had to go as far as Lynn or sometimes Salem, but usually there was an older townie who probably scored pounds directly from the boats off the Swampscott piers. 

I watched with trembling expectation as Randy tore tiny bits of the moist hashish and dropped them along the row of marijuana that lined the open rolling paper. He twisted the ends and finished it off. I had smoked hash only once before. A small chunk had been pierced with a band pin (likely R.E.M. or Ultravox) from someone’s jacket. The whole thing was lit until it was a small burning mass. A glass was placed over it until it extinguished. When enough smoke filled the vacuum, I raised the rim just enough to get my mouth under and inhale the smoke. It didn’t work as well as the aesthetic ritual looked. 

This time with Randy, though, I consumed the hash perfectly along with the pot, and by the end of the joint I was thoroughly stoned. When we had finished smoking, my throat was burning and something had shifted in me. My consciousness felt like a morning glory right before the sun. I could sense what was possible, and my old way of thinking about my life, about girls, about the world outside—fearful and anxious and unwilling to take risks of any kind—was burned away with the joint. 

I had never been in Randy’s kitchen before, and it took on an alien, almost hostile quality. His mother didn’t like me, and this was her domain. (I was surprised Randy was willing to spark up in there, but he found his own little defiances wherever he could.) A vague feeling of hopelessness started to cloud my buzz. I was staring at the cabinet below the kitchen sink and noticed one of the doors was slightly off its hinges. It was metal, with little flecks of chipped enamel. I had never before seen anything so devoid of meaning, so empty of significance. A sickness stirred. I noticed all the old stains, the crumbs, the tiny cracks in the paint. But there was no deeper fault line below, no abyss where I could have easily imagined little devils carving infernal poems into the sulfuric columns. There was no hell below or heaven above or the span of a universe around us. Just this: this crummy kitchen and my giggling wasted friend. 

Nothing I longed for could be found here in the suburbs—now I was certain. Pulling books off the library shelf, my own resin-stained fingers pressing onto the prints of all the kids who had come before, looking for the same thing—a way out, an experience that would reveal the secret language of the cosmos, or just something more than jocks and cheerleaders and teachers and principals—was getting me nowhere. All these ideas in books and at the end of the joint or on the surface of a hit of blotter were just more of the same. Kitchens, bedrooms, golf courses, drugstores, malls, and Chinese restaurants. God wasn’t here. Dungeons & Dragons would never get me to the real secret treasure, and even Tolkien’s elven language was not the true grammar of a lost civilization. 

A little bit of acid, lots of weed, too much Castaneda, and I was ready to move from the magical realm of Middle-earth into a world that was much stranger than any fiction involving stout hairy dwarves and tall white wizards. I sought a world where people took risks with their bodies and their minds, where music fed ideas and action, where sex was not a mysterious ideal but a tangible thing involving jeans and bra straps and saliva. I wanted to find Bifröst, the rainbow bridge that connects mortals to the gods, in the world I inhabited, not a fantasy that ultimately had gotten me little more than picked on and isolated. I didn’t quite know it yet, but what I wanted was rock ’n’ roll. 

Years later, staying drug free meant arranging my life in such a way as to keep the phantoms at bay, no longer with incantations, but by taking care of the simple details that had eluded me for so long: bathing, doing laundry, showing up to work on time. The spirits still knocked, and sometimes I could hear the divine static, as if from an imaginary ghost box. But mostly they bounced off the surface of objects like dragonflies on a pond. 

The above is an excerpt of Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood (Soft Skull Press) by Peter Bebergal. Peter Bebergal is also the co-author of The Faith Between Us and has written for Tin House, Tablet Magazine, The Revealer, Killing the Buddha and The Believer

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