Saturday, April 16, 2016
A 50th High School Reunion: No One Took My Picture
Every generation must go through an awakening and I suppose ours is no different.
You wake up and realize that we have more good days behind us than ahead of us and it becomes most apparent when you attend your 50th high school reunion. The good and the bad memories flow back to you and if you are lucky you can't tell the difference... they will all seem good.
Most of us are not that lucky.
Earlier in the day of the reunion I visited the high school as they opened it for the alumni. Same walls, same floors, same smell, and for the most part even the same colors. If you are looking for ghosts, this is where you will find a few.
One of my activities in school was the theatre club, called Junior Players. When I walked on to the stage in the auditorium I felt the same excitement the first time we had a production... Tall Story... I was just a stage hand with another guy and we were in charge of door-backings.
Being backstage, doing something rather unimportant, out of sight, part of the background...well, it pretty much summed up my high school experience! My only regret is that I didn't know then what I know now... a common regret I'm sure.
I went upstairs to the classroom I had 11th grade algebra in, taught by Mrs. Jablonski, a witch of a woman who hated me. I sat at the desk I was sitting at when around 2 PM the announcement came on the PA system that JFK had been killed. It all came back. Some things you never forget and some feelings never go away. We all aged into adults that day, at that hour.
I don't know what others felt when visiting the old school, but for me it was a re-living of the trials, tribulations, and pains of growing up. But I'm glad I went. If you have the choice, make the visit. It's a learning experience... pain and pleasure.
I looked into the room where the yearbook group worked. One fact that came back to me after all these years is that beyond the obligatory senior headshot, no one ever took my picture for the yearbook.
The town of Great Neck, NY had changed a lot in the past fifty years since I left... but that was to be expected. I saw faces that looked familiar, but with names I didn't remember, walking around the village streets looking for a store, any store, that remained from our salad days.
There was only one that I found... a place that made broiled chicken for take-out. Who would have thought that the memorial to my generation would be a chicken take-out place... not a record store, not a teen pizza hangout, not an Archie comic 'malt shop'... but chicken. One thing is for sure. I know there are no pictures of me in the chicken place.
In an earlier missive I wrote about Janice, the girl I took to the senior prom. I drove over to her house and parked in front as I had so many years ago... I remembered the prom, the beach, and thought a bit about the road not taken. I wonder if she will go to her 50th reunion a few years from now and think about me. I kind of doubt it. She never took my picture.
The hotel where the reunion was being held was on a site that used to be a lumber yard, now long gone. My room was in the back, about thirty feet from the venerable Long Island Railroad tracks. Every half-hour two trains, one from New York City and the other from Port Washington on the way to the city rolled past.
We all took the train about a million times when growing up. It never dawned on me or any of us that the sound of the cars clacking down the track would bring back so many memories... the first time our parents let us go to the city... the times we took dates to a Broadway show... and the trips we made to our summer jobs in the city when we came home from college. There was also the train ride to the 1964 World's Fair... which we all went to a thousand and one times with our Super-8 movie cameras or a Polaroid. No one ever took my picture at the fair that I can recall.
What do you wear to your 50th reunion? Do you dress as the hipster you never were (and still aren't?) Maybe a suit with a vest... the Brooks Brothers "my-son-the-lawyer" uniform our parents all hoped for us... or perhaps the California designer-jeans and t-shirt (maybe tie-dyed) that we sort of invented?
The women had it easy. They were going to show their old bling and their new boobs in a dress that says "I bet you can't afford this" or perhaps "I bet you wish you had the work done so you could fit this."
Men? Decisions, decisions. I put on a pair of gray slacks, a blue blazer, and a fashionable tie. I hadn't worn a tie since my father's funeral ten years earlier. Literary guys wear ties, at least most do and I thought someone might take my picture.
I stood in front of the full-length mirror assessing just how much age had changed my looks... and I was pleased. All in all, I looked pretty good... slim, fit... younger looking than the sixty-seven winters I've weathered.
Do you remember the ads in the teen magazines and comic books where the muscled-up guy on the beach is kicking sand in the face of the skinny kid with bad skin... while the girl in the bikini with the Jane Mansfield body is looking on? It was an ad for barbells... the 'Joe Wieder system' or something like that. In high school I was that skinny kid and there was no way anyone would take my picture at the beach!
It was when I was around 24 in grad school at William and Mary that I decided I didn't want to be that kid anymore, getting the sand kicked in my face (by girls!) so I quit smoking, quit using certain illegal substances and started working out, running, and eating well. In about six months of weight training I was the guy able to kick the sand... and still can (to anyone eighty or older!)
And then there was hair. Hair was really important to us in the 60s... we wore it short like the Beach Boys or long like the Beatles and it was a never-ending bone of contention with our parents, to say nothing about our bosses (or school principals in my case as I started out as a teacher in West Virginia... and taught the entire 8th grade in an 8-room schoolhouse.... like out of Walton's Mountain!)
I looked in the mirror. I had most of my hair. Of course, the year of using Rogaine probably helped a bit, but all in all I looked good and I felt good. Too bad there was no one to take my picture.
I ran the lint-roller over my jacket to get the rest of the dog hair off of it, made sure my fly was zipped (hey, we're old... we forget things!) opened the door, took a deep breath, walked to the elevator and went to the reunion dinner.
The line outside the ballroom was pretty long to check-in to get your name badge... with the picture of your yearbook headshot on it. It was awkward standing in line next to someone you know you knew but could not remember... and until we got our nametags, no one recognized anyone.
People were already taking pictures of each other, but no one took my picture.
"Good grief, everyone is so old," I said to the guy checking us in. "Who are these people (and who are you)?" He just smiled at me and handed me my nametag. I got a feeling that everyone asked him the same question!
One of the things about being a shy, wall-flower in high-school is that you become a great observer... which was actually good training for the literary career I chose in later life. And so while I knew almost all of the names, few people knew mine. It was obvious that I would be more of an observer at the event and less of a participant. Since I was one of the few men wearing a coat and tie, and since I was standing around looking very nonchalant, I'm sure most people thought I was a member of the hotel restaurant staff... probably the head waiter!
Facts are facts. To the vast majority of the 150+ people in the room I was the "nowhere man" right out of the Beatles song... just as I was in high school. It was as if I were a ghost... any of you remember Cosmo Topper? I stood there while people just walked and talked through me. No one knew me. I thought that maybe I was dead. No one asked to take my picture.
As a youth I was cursed with a scrawny frame and a funny face... but I was blessed with an incredible memory. Once I saw everyone's name-tag I remembered everyone's 'resume.' It wasn't that difficult if you take into consideration that many of us knew each other from elementary school all the way through high school... all 500 +/- of our graduating class.
In front of the double doors to the ballroom was a easel with a large poster-board on it with a long list of names. These were the names of people who would not be attending the reunion... not because they didn't want to... but because they were dead.
For those who had not met their mortality face to face before, reading the board of names was their wakeup call. I knew every name... some well... David, Wally, Steve, Ginnie, Lois... it was a long, sobering list. For sure, no one was going to take their pictures either.
I spoke to a few of the men standing around... they faked knowing me... offering big smiles and asking the "Weren't you in Phys Ed. with me?" question... which was a good bet since Phys Ed. usually had 50+ guys in it. I smiled and said they were probably right and reminded them how much we all hated the Nazi coaches and the tortures they visited upon us. Talk about instant camaraderie!
There were lots of pictures being shown of us when we wore younger clothes... but there were none of me.
While I was a shy, frightened, pathetic kid in school, I grew out of it in adulthood when I learned that good looks are transient, but stupid was forever... and realized that I was not stupid... actually I was pretty damned intelligent (even though they had to almost burn down the high school to get me out!) I learned to not be afraid to walk up to people and introduce myself... and I rather enjoyed seeing the looks on their face when they tried so hard to convince me that they knew who I was (although a few did from my books and writings over the years.)
I saw the "leader of the band"... of our high school local rock group who actually cut an album... they were well-known in Brooklyn, but nowhere else. He was an arrogant you-know-what back then, as all musicians tend to be, but I immediately noticed that he had mellowed in his adult years. We were in elementary school together, he lived up the block from me but I might have been living on the moon seeing that I was never good enough for his crowd. Still, I said hello, and while he was cordial he had that vague look on his face of "Who is this guy and WTF am I talking to him for?" I got that a lot that evening... but didn't take offense. As a writer and journalist I'm comfortable talking to strangers... these folks weren't.
I walked over and spoke to the beauty-queen of our era... she was not just a cheerleader but one step beyond... a member of the exclusive Kilties... the elite of elite of cheerleaders. Everyone knew her and unlike her friends of the time she never developed the snobbery that cheerleaders of the era were famous for. She came from major money and married a guy with more money... he even had his own jet fleet. But recently he traded her in for a new model... it made us all sad to hear about it. I felt badly for her and wished I had some consoling words. Like an idiot I told her to get a good lawyer... yeah like she didn't know that already? She's smart and attractive and wealthy... she will survive just fine ... and she looked so lovely in her designer dress and Tiffany jewelry that I would have liked to have had a picture of her and me.
Remember the guy who was everyone's All-American? He was the guy who shaved in 9th grade and whom girls would drop their pants for. (Actually that's just a metaphor because back then no one went much beyond second base... but not me as I was always thrown out at first base... even years and years afterward!) Anyway, in front of me was the guy who in 1965 had the Paul Newman looks and the Robert Redford smile and the Elvis hair and the body of Fabio and who could bench-press 200 lb., hit a softball 250 feet, and throw a perfect pass fifty yards. He was now sixty pounds overweight, jowly, sported an alcoholic red nose, wore coke-bottle glasses, was totally bald, with a face like thirty miles of bad road. I wish someone had taken a picture of the two of us so that for the rest of my life I would be reminded that on some level there is cosmic justice!
I remember Driver Education taught by Mr. Ring. In those days we actually went on the road... five of us per car (including the instructor... remember cars were much, much larger then.) One of my car mates was a small, thin, shy, blonde girl with a nice smile and who was unusually smart (for a girl :-) ) I got to know her fairly well in my senior year sitting in the back seat while others took their turn trying to not get us killed on the Long Island Expressway. She was a terrible driver... I mean the worst. She was afraid to go more than 20 miles an hour... and if you do that while getting on the LIE you should have a ramp on your car as they will go right over you! She could not drive... scared the crap out of us... I think she flunked Driver Ed... but she flew the NASA Space Shuttle.... twice! I asked her why she could pilot a space craft but couldn't drive a car? She said she learned to fly before she learned to drive! I wish I had a picture with her!
It was great to see the radio-boy again. In school most of the guys envied baseball players and the girls envied movie stars... but I envied the radio-boy... actually his dad. He and his father were ham radio operators and had this huge antenna at their Great Neck Estates home. He would invite me over and we'd talk on the radio to Europe and Mexico... and I was bitten by the radio-bug. I thought radio-boy was about the coolest kid in school! He still looked fit and young... and he had a hot new wife whom I think was about half his age. I thought she was his daughter. He turned a hobby into a career and made zillions putting up sophisticated antenna systems for the government and others. To me, he was still the coolest kid in the room!
There was a dinner buffet, but no one ate much... well at least the popular kids didn't eat. Most people were wandering around the tables, seeing old friends. You are not supposed to eat at these things... because... everyone knows... it was the class losers who were the ones sitting (usually) alone at a table eating. I was a class loser... and actually kind of proud of it (now)... and I was hungry... so I ate dinner! I wasn't one of the popular kids back then and I wasn't going to be now... and honestly... the food was quite good.
How did people look? The honest truth... with a few notable exceptions... the men looked like crap. Few of them kept in shape and most have aged badly... some looking like they had never seen the sun... spending most of their lives in their offices under fluorescent lights, breathing stale air, drinking too much Scotch, and eating way too much fast food. It was evident that most of the men never renewed their Vic Tanny membership!
But the women... the women without an exception looked terrific... no sags, no bags, good butts, and better boobs (than when we were in high school... and believe me all the funny-looking, nerdy guys like me noticed boobs!) The women were radiant... and beautiful. I've been married for 35 years (some of them happily!) but if any one of them had made a pass at me I'd be hard pressed to turn down such a proposition. Of course at these kinds of events, the past is prologue and few of them noticed me, much less talked to me... and not one of them took my picture.
Back in school most of us guys never had much (if any) romantic interaction with the girls in our class as they almost always went out with older boys, and the senior girls had college boyfriends. There was one girl in our class whom I had a terrific crush on but was always afraid to ask her out because I was sure she would say "I can't go out Saturday because I have to give my cat a bath" and when you hear that you kind of know how you stand with the girl. I heard it a lot. We were just friends and stayed friends over the years. About four years ago she had some major financial issues and I sent her $1000 as a loan. She was appreciative and said she would pay it back when she can, which I'm sure she will. It was good to see her radiant and happy and if I helped in some small way it was money well spent.
Now here is a coincidence. There is this classmate of mine who is a master jeweler. We have the same first name. We went to the same summer camp. We went to the same university. We look somewhat alike. We lived in the same city, San Francisco, for a while. We were never friends in camp, high school or college and didn't connect until many years later. It was good to see him again... obviously a brother in some parallel universe! A picture would have been good.
We had three guys in our class whom today would be called bullies... I'm not sure what we called them back then... because there really wasn't such as thing as a Jewish bully... their mothers would not allow it! These are the guys you knew would push you against a wall and throw your books all over the hall... and enjoy it. I (and others) got pushed around a few times, one of them actually beat me up... but it wasn't something we talked about back then. You just sucked it up, kept quiet, and moved on... but the damage went beyond a few bruises and a broken ego... way beyond.
Now I'm not exactly Bruce Lee here, but I've kept in shape... For the past thirty years I walk three miles a day and run one, and work out with light weights three times a week. Years ago I also took elementary martial arts classes. I'm not proud of saying the following, but I was hoping that all three of them would show up so that I could have a 'few words' with them, maybe in private... perhaps make them an offer they couldn't refuse? They didn't show, and I guess it is probably for the best... I still carry the wounds... and the fantasies. One day their karma will catch up with them and I won't be shedding any tears, that's for sure. I'll be looking for their obit pictures.
After dinner there was music and dancing. I'm a terrible dancer. I'm fairly coordinated and somewhat athletic. I can drive a golf ball 250 yards, I can hit a 70 mph. baseball in the batting cage, I can rope a steer from a horse (it's true,) but I can't dance... I just can't. I like to dance... but I'm terrible at it. That put me at somewhat of a disadvantage in school because all the cool kids were also good dancers... Mitchel's Dance Studio made a fortune on our generation. The studio expelled me as hopeless! I mean if you can't even do The Twist, what chance do you have with the Lindi Hop? (Hell, I couldn't even do the Bunny Hop!)
At every reunion there is that girl... who never aged... she looks and acts much as she did in school. She was striking back then... and is striking now. She is still the teenager on the outside that most of us feel we are on the inside. It is usually the girl who marched to a different drummer... who was an original... who didn't care what other said or thought... almost the prototype counter-culture girl... whom you expected would be an artist living in Sedona.
Our reunion had that girl... not an artist but a psychologist from Aspen... who wore a low-cut, backless, form-fitting, spaghetti-strap little dress that no one could take their eyes off... and she being she... no one was surprised she wore it... because she really could wear it! I loved her back then. Everyone loved her back then.
I was standing around the dance floor watching the popular kids dance to The Rolling Stones Satisfaction ("I Can't Get No Girlie Action" was my theme song fifty years ago!) when that girl walked over, grabbed my arm and dragged me on the floor. OK, now I said earlier most of the men looked like hell, but there were a couple of guys there who still dripped sex-appeal... like the tall, wealthy guy with great hair from Florida who owned everything in the state with a nail in it. But that girl picked me. Me. Not him... me! There are events in the universe that I will never understand. I would give anything for a picture of us on that dance floor.
As the evening wore on and the small talk wore thin, people started to drift out. Some went to the lounge in order to prolong the ecstasy of better times... and the agony of lost youth.
I went upstairs as I had to catch an early flight to Virginia the next morning to see my business partner in our web design company. She also is a world-class book designer.
For the vast majority of the attendees the evening was a huge success. I had an enjoyable evening... and while it probably does not sound like it from this electronic fish-wrap I'm very glad I came and I'm glad I got to see everyone... even though most had no idea who I was.
But for me (as well as a few of us I learned later) there was also a sadness about the reunion that as a writer/observer I was expecting but which I thought I would be emotionally able to handle better than I have.
The bottom line is that this is last time we will get together as a formal group in our hometown. Why would we meet again? What would be the point? All that we could say has been said... and all that can be remembered has been remembered.
The 50th reunion is a milestone to be sure... it signifies that we've come a lot of miles to get here... but it also foretells that there are not that many miles ahead of us. Yes it was (somewhat) a celebration of our life, our generation, our 'culture,' ourselves... but there were the elephants in the room... old age... sickness... death.
There we were, some of the best minds of our generation (to use one rather trite phrase) all gathered in one place but somewhat lost in space (to use another trite-ism) trying to roll back the years and hold in the tears (ok, trite and trite again!) In the near future we won't be getting wedding invitations and birth announcements. We'll be getting emails about funeral arrangements and we'll be reading obituaries. Yes, I felt a sadness.
But I felt joy too.
We came, we saw, we heard, we remembered.
I was pleased that the evening was not about showing off the status of occupation or the pride of children or the results of fortunes made (or lost.) This event was not about bragging rights. This was not about the material world. To our credit, it wasn't any of those.
For me it was about the joy in our souls, the uplifting of our spirits, and the final opportunity to partake of the camaraderie and good fellowship of our old friends (and some old enemies) who helped make us what we are today (for better or worse.)
It was a final chance to say "Look where we came from" and a chance to say "Look where we are." We indulged in probably our last chance, a final opportunity, to talk about how it all happened, and maybe figure out "why."
So many people contribute to a life. We have spouses (often more than one), and we have children (often many) and we have colleagues (long lists of them) but we only have one set of collective individuals who shared our childhood and early youth... who experienced what we experienced and whom have a special commonality with us.
Some of us have already passed on. Some of us will pass from this life soon, and some a bit later. But one thing is certain: we are in the twilight of our days, in the autumn of our years. If a life is a play we are all in Act 3, but this act won't run as long as Act 1 and Act 2. And when the curtain comes down and the show closes, it won't reopen again.
This reunion was a chance to push back time, if only for a weekend... to if not be young again, to at least feel young again through the shared smiles (and some tears) of our youth and from the memories of our town, home, school... our past... and even our better selves.
Knowing that sickness and death are not that far off, it was good that we availed our collective selves of a chance to re-live and enjoy a weekend defined by youth, vigor, optimism, in what Thornton Wilder would call Our Town; long ago, in what we all probably feel was a better world than the one we will leave.
There are still good days ahead, although not as many as there are behind.
A weekend with old friends in the one place we all call home was an event I and most others will cherish and one we will remember.
There was joy to be had there. There was happiness that was shared there. There were memories to remember, and songs of the heart that were sung, and feelings of youth that were again felt.
It was our 50th reunion. It will never come again. For most of us it was the last chance to remember and re-live good times, better times, and important times... providing much for us to savor... as we pass into the ages.
No one took my picture.
But I have the memories.
Alan N. Canton, Publisher