by Gail P. Montany

In an ironic turn of events Monday morning, 400-plus St. Johnsbury Academy upperclassmen were listening to "Scared Stiff," a sobering message about the perils of teen-age alcohol use just as nine of their classmates were waiting to be arraigned on charges of alcohol possession, issued Friday night.

More specifically, the message was one youngsters have been hearing for years: Don't drink and drive.

Because May and June are traditionally the deadliest months for teen-agers, and because SJA prom and graduation celebrations are only a couple of weeks away, the "Scared Stiff" program's message was well-timed.

Capt. Michael Bergeron of the St. Johnsbury Police Department, armed with statistics, anecdotes, and graphic slides of some serious and fatal auto crashes, began by asking students to stand and greet the person next to them. He then informed them the person with whom they had just exchanged greetings would likely be involved in a traffic accident within the year. Some, he said would be OK; others would be maimed or injured or - if they were the ''ultimate" - would be dead. The dead ones, said Bergeron, were "winners" because they would not have to live with the external and internal scarring and mental trauma that goes with accidents.

The three As - age, alcohol, automobiles - all too often add up to a fourth A: accident.

The dramatically presented program was not for the faint-hearted.

After describing in detail one horribly gory accident after another, including one, an alcohol-related accident in which a 17-year-old youth died and his buddy was left a vegetable, the police captain said, "Seventeen years old, people, think of it; think of yourself... the next time you decide to drive or ride with someone after drinking."

Another sequence described the post-mortem process, complete with description of the pathologist's tools and how they are used, and corpse-view photos.

"If you ever have to tell a parent their baby, their youngster, has been killed... - it's one of the most tragic things," the police captain said.

According to Bergeron, more than half of the country's known 8 million alcoholics are between the ages of 14 and 19. A conviction for DWI can mean a loss of license for up to a year (or life) plus a large fine and much larger insurance rates "if you can get insurance."

Student reaction was mixed. Some appeared riveted to the officer at the podium and truly shocked by the images of blood and grotesquely twisted metal on the screen. Others attempted gallows humor at the stories and slides.

None of this bothered Bergeron.

"They all heard the message whether or not they acted like they did," he said later.

One anecdote that appeared to get through to students was the one in which Bergeron asked students to consider their younger "bratty" sibling, "the one who always squeals on you when you do something wrong."

"You walk in the front door of your home and see your mother sitting on the couch crying. She's just been told that the little brat you despised so much, your baby brother or sister, was just hit and killed by the guy up the street who has the hot car."

"Many a name on a tombstone has been carved with a bottle of whiskey or wine or beer," Bergeron said, and concluded his program with a rendition of "I'm Only Seventeen," a letter that has appeared often in the Ann Landers and Dear Abby columns over the years, and which also appeared to shock the assembly into silence.

Copyright 1997

The Caledonian-Record

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