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Testimony : ONE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIAN'S STORY ABOUT LIFE ABROAD : 'There's a Lot of Angry People in California'

September 13, 1993|As Told to ROBERT SCHEER / Matt Welch, 25, grew up in Long Beach and traveled through Europe before landing three years ago in Prague , where he helped found the English-language newspaper Prognosis. He is currently the newspaper's bureau chief in Bratislava, Slovakia. He was interviewed in Prague. and

When I went home to Long Beach recently, I visited my alma mater, Lakewood High School, home of the now infamous Spur Posse.

I first heard about this scandal reading the International Herald Tribune in Bratislava, where I have been reporting for the English language newspaper that I helped found.

When I visited Lakewood High, I talked to kids and teachers, and everyone asked, "Have you heard about the Spur Posse?" And the one thing everyone agreed on was that the media was terrible. There had been hundreds of journalists there. Teachers said they were hounded in a zoo-like atmosphere, and every sophomore was interviewed. But the stories never got to the point--that that's really normal behavior for that area--it's not atypical.

You could see it in the reaction of some of the parents of the guys: "Hey, boys will be boys."

All my friends in school played some sport or other. Mine was baseball, and the whole (environment) is just geared up to everyone reaching a peak at age 17, when they are varsity linebackers or shortstops. Long Beach is an amazing baseball factory--about 10 are now in the major leagues--but still only a few make it.

Everything that goes with a sports-heavy culture--guys with big chests and male bonding--which I still like--along with that comes an extra leeway for jocks, and there's this extraordinary sexual pressure. The whole point of going out at any time is "to get some."

Of course, most of my circle never managed to get any. Believe it or not, most of us lied about it; I was a virgin until I was 18. But we all lied about it. You'd make an average from the number of women you had sex with divided by the number of times it occurred. "Hey, dude, what are you hitting? I'm hitting .304." Hopefully it was close to a solid baseball batting average that you were also hitting.

Suddenly, after high school graduation, the whole basis on which they've lived was done with and they are a relic in their hometown. They thought that their lives were going to keep getting better--we were on a high of societal approval--then they crash and feel anger because they are in their 20s in an economically depressed area.

What are they except an ex-high school shortstop, and they no longer have any of the perks, no longer are on top of the social scene; The girls liked those kinds of guys, but now it's over. The mighty have fallen.

Some guys go to college, many become cops--that's the fun thing. The type who become cops are exactly guys who took steroids and worked out a whole lot and were decent right tackles and now are just (angry). Its not accidental that the Long Beach Police Department has a notorious record, given the pool of angry white guys whose lives peaked at 17.

I'm one of those who went off to college--UC Santa Barbara--and found a niche writing for the college paper. I lived in a fairly fantastic atmosphere. I got kicked out of school after the first year for bad grades but went back to Long Beach, worked in a body shop and went to city college at night. It was a very humbling, awful experience. I got bad grades, (blew) away my parents' money--an irresponsible lout.

One thing (that made me uneasy) about my recent visit home was that I looked different; I had grown long hair and had an earring and dressed poorly. That was antithetical to this pure jock short-hair boy, which was the norm that I had sort of been.

Like a lot of people my age, including those who did graduate, we felt like traveling around and ended up in places like Prague almost by accident. I decided to come here in December, 1989, after reading about the student-led Velvet Revolution. They had really accomplished something. I wanted to see what made them different.

I found an incredibly exuberant feeling that anything is possible because of luck and chance, hard work and all that stuff and in this anything-is-possible atmosphere and a great exchange rate, we were able to start our own newspaper. The thing that makes this place valuable for people our age is that you have a chance to pursue directly whatever idealism we have in a way that no one I know is doing in the States.

Back in Long Beach, young people were defining success as making car payments and getting a new VCR or an 18-rack CD or a good deal on tires.

In Prague there was, and still is, a chance to do things exactly how you want to do them because the entrenched rules of behavior in business or social life don't much exist. Even in going to nightclubs it's much looser--people don't generally worry about how they label themselves--punker, heavy metal dude or whatever. The concepts of labels and divisions seems a silly concept here.

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