Old Friends

Old friends, memory brushes the same years, Silently sharing the same fears”
Old Friends – Simon and Garfunkel

A gathering of classmates for a 50th reunion. Faces changed by time ask “do you remember me?” And you find yourself embarrassed by the disadvantage. The person has called you by name, you see, and you struggle back through time, seeking familiarity in the stranger standing before you. A name is given and your mind wipes away the age wrought changes and you see shadows of the face you knew and, as the conversation continues, the shadows become reality as the individual becomes as you remembered him or her before.

The class of ’59 graduated 42 young men and women. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were poised at a moment in history which would see radical changes in the decades ahead.

Many of us had been together since the 1st grade and early class pictures show a motley group of children standing on the steps to the gymnasium, squinting into the noon day sun. Scraps of memory accompany some of those pictures. The 1st Grade teacher who told one boy that if he didn’t stop squirming in his seat, she was going to bring a piece of rope to school and tie him in his seat. He didn’t and she did. It was a lesson in discipline that was not lost on the class; a lesson not possible in today’s politically correct world. Memories of recesses when we would swarm out of doors and expend an hour’s energy in 15 minutes. “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Jerry come over.” The idea, of course, was to pick someone you thought could not break through your line. I have been told that children are no longer allowed to play Red Rover for fear of someone getting a broken arm. We were never hurt and never heard of anyone being hurt, but what did we know, we were just a small school. Oh! For those of you who might not know, the person picked ran as hard as he or she could at the opposing line of children looking for the weakest link and charging into the line. If the line held, the person called over was added to that side. If it broke, the person called took someone (usually the biggest) back to the line from which he or she was called. The game ended either because of the bell or because one of the lines got too small to maintain itself.

Halloween carnivals, sock hops, proms, class trips crowd around as this is being written. One classmate looks to be remembered, the victim of a fatal accident one cold October evening when we were in the 3rd grade. He had been building a fort in the woods when he apparently slipped and caught his chin on an outcropping branch which held him suspended above the ground in the gathering cold and darkness of the night. The bruise was still apparent as our class filed silently by his casket a couple of days later.

Fifty years later, talking to what is now a stranger, the temptation is great to ask repeatedly, “do you remember?” “do you remember?” As we come together for a reception, knots of people, the women mostly, gather together around albums of pictures and clippings and other memorabilia. There’s a picture of my wife at a slumber party. There, some of us are at a picnic. There we are beside cars, in cars, on cars. The people in the pictures are old friends. I recognize them immediately, can hear their voices, the laughter set to a background of Buddy Holly. The person I am talking to, while the same as the person in the picture turns out to be a stranger. We share no common memories and 50 years gave us different challenges.

Forty-two of us graduated and 39 of us remain; one dying early on and two within the last year. Of the 39 remaining, 31 of us gathered for one function or another, many with disinterested spouses in tow. Assembled at the Alumni Banquet held every year to honor that year’s graduating glass, it also honors the 25th and 50th year class reunions, we watched as members of the classes of ’39 and ’49 got mention. Listened as the class president recounted some highlights of the past 50 years and gave some vignettes of our time together. We were mentioned in the vignette, my wife and I, and our names were usually said in one breath, John and Judi. It was noted that we held hands a lot. She and I probably are the only ones who remember that we marched in together for Commencement and sat together on the stage, receiving our diplomas one after the other. She first, as it should be. We still hold hands and occasionally still are known as John and Judi. The other class couple to marry were too far apart in the alphabet for such an intimacy at graduation. As an aside, it was amazing to me the number of our classmates who have divorced and remarried. Far more, it seems than those of us, the other couple included, who have stayed together.

There was a buzz around our table as we recognized one of our teachers. As one of our coaches, he also was our Social Studies teacher and was a class favorite. It was he who taught us how to take notes, a skill I maintain to this day. We spoke briefly and, somewhat surprisingly, he remembered my name and went on to tell me that we were the best class that he ever had. Of course, teachers used to tell us that all of the time and we thought them being polite. Perhaps, after all of these years, he really meant it. That he enjoyed subsequent classes less and less is possibly a social commentary. Our conversation reminded me of one I had with another teacher at another gathering, years before. She asked where we lived and what I was doing and, as she got ready to leave for the evening, she pulled me aside and gave me the admonition, “don’t ever come back here to live.” Other teachers, many gone now, I would like to have seen, if for just a few minutes, to thank them for their positive impact on my life, even the 1st Grade teacher.

Still, we were strangers at a table brought together by a common event. Many of the classmates I had not seen in 50 years and, as we parted, I knew that, for many, it was for the last time.