St. Louis Park High School, Minnesota, 1979, on the strange and stormy night of our graduation ceremony. A gypsy fortune teller sets up her tent in a small corner of the parking lot, and she offers glimpses of an event 40 years into the future. We newly-minted graduates see our older selves gather at a gleaming Colossus of Football, built over the ruins of a more prosaic facility for which construction would commence that December. We have become doctors and lawyers, account executives and pet sitters, as well as a principal and a teacher for the school system that produced us. Many of us are married to fine people of either the opposite or same gender—What’s that? Really?!?? ask the Brady kids—while many of us remain single—“And loving it!” adds Maxwell Smart. Hey look over there, it’s Joe Berman showing off a photo of two grandchildren, ages 14 and 2….but wait, check that, they’re his own kids! Now he’s acting really foolish, pretending to catch a pass on the field while Sue Ribnick tackles him. What the heck is going on?
Well, ahem, to step back into the present and reality, I have an answer to my own question. For me, the reunion transmitted a two-part message, the first part of which is: Life is amazing. I certainly never predicted or foresaw the circumstances of my own post-high school history, let alone the byzantine collection of stories and adventures from my contemporaries. Nor did I expect that I could go ten, twenty, thirty years without seeing an old friend, and then pick up right where we left off.
Let me add that my opening scenario is inspired by two episodes of The Simpsons, a cartoon show that does not quite span the past four decades, as we do, but comes close. One of the episodes, called Bart to the Future, also predicted the ascension of the current occupant of the U.S. Presidency. In the story, Trump was succeeded by Lisa Simpson, the precocious daughter, now all grown up and successful, so perhaps this could be a good omen for one of the women currently seeking the Democratic nomination.
But I digress. I am always digressing. The reunion was complementary to my writing style because most conversations were interrupted by the arrival of new parties and the quiet exit of previous, thus pinballing the conversations from comparisons of hearing aids to “Steve! You haven’t changed a bit! Ha ha ha. Forty years, man, whatcha’ up to?” and then onward to the good life in San Francisco/Seattle/Austin/Nashville/D.C/New York City/Minnetonka/White Bear Lake, as well as reiki, the Burning Man festival, robotic vacuum cleaners, rabbis and cantors, Uber and Lyft, mustard museums, and expeditions to deserts, tundras, pueblos, the Amazon Rainforest, and the Minnesota State Fair.
I was expecting the reunion to be a Tardis-like drop-off into the late 1970s, but it was more akin to a Ski-doo trek across a utility cut of personal history, destination as far back as elementary school. You need to know that my high school class was big. Really big—north of 600 students*. This means that you (now referring to a reunion attendee) were likely to run into classmates whom either you had completely forgotten, or equally likely, had never known in the first place, only to discover that Mr. or Ms. Mystery Guest was a childhood chum of your best friend in high school, and they’re shrieking wildly when they see each other. Hey, it’s all good. It’s just part of the deal.
It felt great to relive the classes of Bob “Wino” Winegarden from eighth grade. He not only taught algebra, he encouraged us to draw cartoons and write jokes and stories on the board. I still use his expressions, like “turn the crank” for solving a simple equation. Carin Wold told me that the experience helped inspire her to become a math teacher herself, which I never knew.
With the Fern Hill crowd, I talked about Mr. Nash from sixth grade, who read poems with great gusto, and who wore Jade East cologne that my mother did not like, and who encouraged Dan Wilson and me to skip the math lessons that we didn’t need and instead to research auto safety, of all things. There was Mrs. Carmichael from fifth grade—except that wasn’t her name! What was her name? Help me out!—who insisted that I keep rewriting my essay on fire prevention to neaten up the handwriting and remove the stray pencil marks, and that essay wound up co-winning the district contest, the other winner being my classmate and friend Lisa Lurie (who reminded me of the whole thing.) And there was our fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. V-der-P, other letters withheld because my main memory was that she was drunk a lot of the time, even though I didn’t quite diagnose her condition until later.
We also gave a quiet toast to our late, great friend Scott Horwitz, who has been gone for over 25 years now.
Those teachers are all gone, too.
Which brings me to the second take-home message of the reunion: Life is short. Often, life is TOO short. Throw in sad and painful, sometimes, as well.
A table near the entrance honored the departed classmates, a list that was a little longer than at the previous reunion in ’09. The table was an island of sadness, but an important and necessary island, and well appreciated.
Valerie Harper played Rhoda on the Mary Tyler Moore show, the character whom we can pretend had resided in the third floor of a house near Lake of the Isles. Ms. Harper died exactly one day before our reunion, succumbing to a long bout with cancer. The newspaper tribute closed with a quote from her. “Don’t worry about death. If you’re alive, go live.”
During our junior year, I forget exactly when, an election was held for class president. The campaign speech of Scott Horwitz at a school assembly was, and remains, the funniest damn thing I have ever witnessed. He began with a rapid-fire, completely off-topic diatribe on a subject that I think was the separatist movement in Quebec. Then he looked up to the audience, smiled mischievously, and said “Oops. Wrong speech.” Somehow, banners reading “Horwitz for President” descended from the ceiling accompanied by a theatrical explosion. Somehow, the rest of the speech was accented by the off-stage drumming of Matt Wilson. Somehow, the competing candidates survived the experience and subsequent defeat in the election to go on to productive and successful lives, while Scott, alas, did not. But oh, I’d give anything to hear that speech again, or read a copy of it. A real masterpiece.
A lot of us stayed at the party until the end, when the staff closed down the bar and turned off the lights. Just like that, the evening was over. Just like that I was back in my hotel room, alone, 14 floors above the ground, looking out the window at my neighbor for the small hours, the Foshay Tower, which stood as silently and stately as ever.
I arrived back in Massachusetts late last night, finally crawling into bed at 1:30 AM, only to be awoken five hours later by the 2-year old, who insisted I peel an orange and help him play with toys. I tried to do this while lying on the couch, because I was exhausted, but Nathen would have none of that. He can be very insistent. Eventually my wife woke up and made us some coffee, which helped a lot. She enjoyed my stories, she liked the photo of me and Sue goofing around on the football field. It’s good to be back home.
*Corrected from 400 students in an earlier version. Reliable sources tell me the number is more than 600–wow!