A member of the "Choom Gang," Topolinski was a close friend of Obama from his days at Punahou high school. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.
All right, tell me about the Choom Gang. Who is the Choom Gang? In a lot of ways it seems that the Choom Gang was his family, in a lot of ways. So tell me about who the Choom Gang was and its importance in Obama's life.
Yes. The Choom Gang was a bunch of typical high school teenagers, who were out to explore the world, to make it an adventure, to make it fun, to make it funny, and just generally become a family on our own. I mean, the Choom Gang became more of a family to me more than my own family.
Now, in this modern day, the word "gang" represents something else. For us, it was the old-fashioned gang. You could have been saying "gang" or "family." To me, those two terms would have been synonymous.
And that's why I am surprised to hear about so much of Barry's repressed feelings back then, because we did campouts; we slept at each others' houses on the weekend. It was very, very common for us to take turns and "Whose night is it tonight to sleep over?" We had these sleepovers where we partied with the Choom Gang, "choom" meaning indulge in pakalolo. So that kind of became our symbol of our friendship. But clearly, we weren't a gang; we were a family.
Number one, what's pakalolo?
Pakalolo is the Hawaiian world for marijuana. Lolo means crazy, and I guess you can say it's crazy weed, or weed that makes you crazy. I don't think it did. (Laughs.)
The importance of the Choom Gang to Obama. You just sort of defined it for yourself. Tell me how important the guys were to Obama.
Well, it was one of those friendships where you felt more like a brother. There was no restrictions on what you could say or do. You were among family. You can cry if you want. You can laugh if you want. You can call each other names. To me, that all indicates there was a real family bond there between, I would say, five to seven of us that defines Choom Gang. And Barry was very much a part of that feeling and that support group and that kind of anything-goes mentality. And it was a beautiful thing. It was a lot of fun.
And why was it important to him specifically?
I think it was important to Barry because perhaps it did fill a void that wasn't apparent at the time. I don't think any of us thought of it that way, but now in retrospect, we look back and went, "Hey, we really were a family." This was really, really cool.
And to this day, I am still very close with Choom Gang, many, many years later. Barry's been a little harder to get a hold of. But we were, I think, a very, very close bunch, and that allowed him to be himself. And that was our main thing; you just had to be yourself. There were no other rules.
Take me into some of what you guys would do, going to the beach or Aku Ponds or the Pumping Station. Give us a feeling of what it was like to hang out with the Choom Gang. …
The Choom Gang was all about adventure. We could turn anything into an event. Whether it was small things like playing Nerf basketball … that was one of our go-to activities. … And we'd go ahead and listen to some music, smoke some pot, play some basketball. And everything was animated; everything was funny. It was all about laughter. It was also about competition; we'd play one-on-one in the living room.
OK, so if we're not in the home playing Nerf basketball, we were at the beach, body surfing at Sandy Beach. … Barry got on a surfboard; we'd paddle out try to catch some waves.
Again, we did a lot of these things, let's just say, with an altered state of mind, but it was all about fun and not being devious.
Pumping Station was the main hangout of our class and many other classes at Punahou. It was a very tucked-away, beautiful place. It was quiet, unless we were there. It had a lot of tropical foliage. We would sit there and drink beer. Play some really, really loud music. And it was kind of like our safe haven. At any time of the weekend or night, you'd cruise over to Pumping Station. You'll sometimes find someone that's already there, and the party just continued.
There were nights when some of these Pumping Station parties would be lined up with cars. Now, Pumping Station was a single, unmarked road, and on a good night that road would be lined up with cars. And we're talking a really, really dark shade of night. And it would just be lined up with cars and cars and cars, and the next thing you know, you'd have 15 to 20 cars, maybe even more, lined up. And we would just go from car to car, socializing, listening to music, acting silly.
It was like bar-hopping, except for this was Pumping Station. You just kind of went to other people's cars and maybe passed a joint around, shared some beer. It was a really fun time.
And if we weren't at Pumping Station or the beach or playing Nerf basketball, we were watching basketball, talking about who we wanted to become. Everything really had a sports and recreational side to it.
We often cut class, and Mark, his mom was a teacher at Punahou, so we would borrow her car. I cut European history a few times. We'd take the car and go back to his house, play some Aerosmith, play some basketball. That would work up a good sweat. Jump into the pool, or go to the beach.
I got busted. My parents found out because I came home with sand in my shoes. That was another story. But we liked to do this quite a bit, and we got away with it for a long time. And it was just pure fun. We weren't out to hurt anybody; we just wanted to make another adventure out of another day.
That is, I think, the theme of Choom Gang, was just explore, adventure, and do things a little nontraditional.
Sounds a bit like paradise on Paradise.
It truly was. I look back at my memories with Barry and the Choom Gang. They were all -- this whole thing was special. We probably grew up in the most beautiful place. People were not prejudicial. Everything was wide open, and back then you didn't have the kind of crimes that take today's headlines. Back then, it was just easygoing. Hawaii, they have the theme of hang loose, and that's what it was all about.
There really was a truly carefree time, and that was Hawaii in the '70s. And we enjoyed every single second of that because we didn't have any ulterior motives. It was just a good place to be. Our backyard was a beach. I mean, how bad can that be?
The Pumping Station -- was there ever worries about the police coming out and stuff?
There were only a couple of incidents where the police came up and broke us up. The police, at that time, was a different type of mind-set than it is today. There were times where we'd be drinking beer and we'd have our empty bottles around, and some of these officers would come up and ask us a bunch of questions, and then upon leaving say, "Make sure you throw all your bottles away." And everything was peaceful. There was no harsh words; there was no threats.
The cops just wanted us to clean up our mess. Choom Gang always did. We cleaned up our mess. And once they changed the laws, I think it was during my latter half of my high school years, then it became a little bit more, "OK, you're not supposed to drink in public; you're underage," or whatnot. But at the time, even the police were really, really, really relaxed. And we enjoyed that, too. None of us wanted to get thrown in jail.
What was the music that was being played out at Pumping Station?
Music varied. It was anywhere from Earth, Wind & Fire to Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Boston, Kiss, Stevie Wonder, Ohio Players, the O'Jays. It was really a mixed bag, but they were all, I think, indicative of the music explosion of the '70s. …