The Choom Gang

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    Tom Topolinski   High school friend

    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. …

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    Kristen Caldwell   Obama's childhood friend

    (Text only) She grew up and attended Punahou School with "Barry" Obama. She recalls how as a young child, Obama alternatively told classmates he was an Indonesian prince or Kenyan royalty. Caldwell also recounts how a young Obama reacted to a disturbing racial comment from a tennis pro. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 27, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Was the Choom Gang a thing that was known, a group? Or was it just a thing among themselves...?

    I think for the most part it was among themselves. I mean, they had their name. I certainly knew what the word meant, choom, toke. You know, it was another expression. I had never heard it anywhere outside of Hawaii, but it didn't originate with that group of guys.

    I knew all of those guys who were in the Choom Gang. I didn't know they were on the Choom Gang. Many of them mention it in their senior section of the [Punahou] yearbook. And certainly now they've gotten a lot of attention.

    But no, I wasn't aware of it. It doesn't surprise me that people were smoking dope, but I wasn't aware of this sort of en masse group. Everybody knew -- not everybody -- I think most people knew that a lot of kids went over to the Makiki Pumping Station and got high. And a lot of people would sneak out from Bing Mall to go across the street, because you certainly weren't going to do it all on campus to get high.

    Another tennis-playing kid -- I think he appeared around the tennis courts right around the summer after eighth grade and started at Punahou at ninth grade, ended up getting kicked out of Punahou because he got into dope and got carried away with it. That was nowhere near what Barry was involved [in].

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    Tom Topolinski   High school friend

    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.

    Did the Choom Gang have a reputation? Did everybody know about the Choom Gang?

    You know, everyone did. The word "choom" did come out before our gang was particularly formed. "Choom" was the slang for smoking marijuana. Somehow it reached our group and became an identifier as who we were. We were the Choom Gang. There were other people who have used that term, but no one coined the phrase for the type of friendships that we had. (Laughs.) We were the only ones that said, "All right, let's make this our name," or, "Let's be regarded as one of the Choom Gang friends." And it wasn't an aggressive gang; it was just a bunch of guys who just want to hang out and have fun. …

    …There's a story of Ray, the drug dealer. Was there a bit of a dark side to the whole thing?

    You know, I probably felt that dark side, and felt more awkward about it than anybody else in Choom Gang. I was raised by my parents that you keep your nose clean; you deal with the right people; don't associate with this person or these types of people.

    So Ray freaked me out. I was afraid of the guy. But he did befriend us, and he was our connection for a few things. And there were times where he would take us to a drive-in movie. Back then there were still drive-ins. And he had a Volkswagen bus as well. He partied with us, but there was something about him that never made me feel comfortable. And I probably was affected by that more than anyone else. It seemed as though the other friends and associates of Choom Gang didn't really pay it a whole lot of matter; it was not a big deal.

    The guy was a maniac on the road. He tailgated everybody. I was afraid for my life every time I rode with him. But he was a connection for us; that's what it was. So therein lies the dark side. …

    Obama thanking him in his yearbook -- what's the relevance of that?

    You know, even though this is part of the dark side, in the Punahou yearbook, it was very common for us as seniors to look back and thank, and also glorify what we did and who we hung out with. And I think there was a little bit of that with Barry. I honestly think that when he said, "Thanks, Ray, and thanks, Choom Gang," there was not a dark aspect to that. That was all about, "Hey, thanks for the good times."

    As far as Ray is concerned, I don't know if Barry felt like since he wasn't in the yearbook, because he wasn't one of us, that he felt the need to acknowledge his presence and what he did for Choom Gang.

    And lastly on drugs and stuff, I should ask it journalistically, the harder stuff, the cocaine, the possibility of heroin, did any of that come into play, and how do you view that?

    Well, during high school we were potheads. We loved our beer. I was too afraid to try anything harder. From my recollection, there was no evidence of Barry or any one of us jumping into cocaine or heroin or pills or anything with a syringe or needle. We were just happy with the pot. It was good; it was fun; it was enough. …

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    Tom Topolinski   High school friend

    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.

    Girls. We haven't mentioned girls. How big a part is girls in all of this lifestyle?

    We did a lot more talking with girls than walking with girls. We were all girl crazy, and we all shared our secrets about who we had crushes on. We all wanted each other to hook up with someone hot. I think that's indicative of any male-bonding type of group. But yeah, we'd sit there and just shoot the bull about who was looking good today and who you want to take the dance. And we would share notes a lot. And there was no relation to anyone's nationality. It was like either you were hot or you were not. And we were just your typical boys.

    And I don't know if Barry took this any different, being of mixed race -- like I said, we're all mixed race. So I don't know if he felt like he would be at a disadvantage. If he did, it didn't show. He was always charismatic.

    But yeah, we were about girls, too. So yeah, beach, basketball and babes. Yeah, it was all that.

    Was Obama pretty good with girls?

    Barry was very good with girls. And it's because of his mannerisms. He was very much a gentleman. He always had a lot of class. He was non-offensive. He wasn't very forward. He was just very, very, very much the gentleman. And I used to, at times even I was jealous because he'd strike up a conversation with someone that I probably couldn't get a "Hi" out of. And I thought maybe I need to work on my approach a little bit more.

    But Barry had made a lot of friends, both male and female, and was highly regarded by the females as well. …

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    Kristen Caldwell   Obama's childhood friend

    (Text only) She grew up and attended Punahou School with "Barry" Obama. She recalls how as a young child, Obama alternatively told classmates he was an Indonesian prince or Kenyan royalty. Caldwell also recounts how a young Obama reacted to a disturbing racial comment from a tennis pro. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 27, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Did he get in trouble? Was he known as a troublemaker ever? I mean, there's all the stories about the Choom Gang and stuff. How do you view that? Was that sort of a search for a kid? We all go through those years, a search and making some trouble here and there, or searching for identity, or smoking too much dope, all that sort of stuff?

    Well, to be fair, in the 1970s in Hawaii, marijuana was very available. A lot of kids smoked dope, even Punahou kids. And some smoked it so much that they ended up getting kicked out of school because it impacted their studies or they got caught. And obviously yeah, you would get in trouble if you got caught.

    I'm not aware of Barry ever getting caught. I'm not aware of it having impacted his studies. Perhaps he would have been an amazing student. If you look at our high school program, the senior year graduation program, commencement, it has everybody's names, and it has -- you have an asterisk or a little plus next to you if you graduated with honors, or if you got the President's Award, and Barry doesn't have either one. And that's not a bad thing. Everybody was smart. Everybody was capable. It is a little amusing in hindsight that he didn't get the President's Award, since he's the president. But that was an award that you were nominated [for] by your classmates and ultimately picked by your teachers, so you sort of had to be something extra.

    And I think people who got the President's Award were considered pretty special. I think that Barry really found himself and his stride, I would say, later, I would say after Punahou. And I do know from his book, obviously, that he went through a lot of self-discovery and trying to figure himself out more then.

    I'm glad that he did.



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