Recently I attended the 40th reunion of my high school class. I had never been to a class reunion, so I was completely in the dark about what to expect.
The venue was supposed to be a country club on the outskirts of town, but as soon as I walked in I knew something was wrong. It was Geezer City in there-wall-to-wall gray beards and white heads. Not a classmate in sight. Weird.
Then I noticed that most of the ancients milling about wore "Class of '56" name tags bearing pictures of themselves from our senior yearbook. Many of those grainy little images looked hauntingly familiar.
Oh the memories! How they all came rushing back! That was the expectation. The reality was different. I could hardly remember a thing.
At one point I was reunited with three grade school chums. Junior reminded me that he and I had played on the baseball team. Susie reminded me that she and I had published a newspaper in Miss Gross' class. When it was my turn to remind Dorothy about something, my mind was blank. Finally I asked her if she remembered the time the two of us emptied a package of cherry Jell-O into Miss Edminister's goldfish bowl. "You made that up," Dorothy said. "It never happened."
"It could have happened," I said.
Next I bumped into an old pal whose memory was even worse than mine. Herbie was wearing an expensive navy-blue suit and a conservative tie. His gray hair was long and wavy and he comported himself with quiet dignity. To the best of my recollection, this same Herbie had been a big, obnoxious kid who always wore a ratty flannel shirt and dirty jeans hitched at half-mast. He and I and several others had often gone out looking for trouble together.
After Herbie introduced me to his wife, I started reminiscing. "Hey Herbie, do you remember how we used to go and poach beer and pretzels at Morgan's Market during lunch hour?"
Herbie glanced at his wife. "I don't remember any such thing," he said.
"Well surely," I went on, "you must remember the time the vice principal made you open your locker and all that contraband you were stashing in there spilled out on the hallway floor."
"Herbert!" the wife exclaimed.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Herbie huffed. With that, he took the little woman by the elbow and steered her toward the dance floor.
During the course of the evening, I met several of the "kids" my girlfriend and I used to hang out with. Conrad was a doctor. Bill was a college professor. Bunny, who had always been one of those Askers of Serious Questions, was as earnest as ever. "Are you happy?" she wanted to know. "Are you really happy? Are you really and truly a happy man?"
"No, Bunny," I said. "I'm a miserable old SOB and I'm going to drown myself in the swimming pool right now."
I heard the obligatory hard-luck stories about classmates who were destined for greatness but had somehow gotten derailed. The most fascinating one concerned Beth, the class beauty, homecoming queen and winner of the Miss Delectable contest at the Annual Bratwurst Festival. She reportedly was last seen working as the Bearded Woman in a traveling carny show. (Actually, I made that up, too.)
Several faculty members were present and accounted for, more or less. My ninth-grade civics teacher mistook me for my brother and, when I gently corrected her, refused to believe that I wasn't. My senior adviser was there, too. She fixed me with her severe look, which made me feel 18 again, and asked: "What do you do?"
"I'm in journalism," I replied.
"It doesn't surprise me," she snapped. "You always did talk too much."
"You must be thinking of my brother," I said.
"No, I'm thinking of you," she said. She reached out and pinched me on the underside of my arm. "I may be in my nineties," she hissed, "but there's nothing wrong with my memory."
The basketball coach — Grumpy Gus, we called him — put in a brief appearance. I had never been one of his favorites. He had come up to me in the gym one afternoon when I was shooting free throws and said, "Doherty, did I see you smoking a cigarette after practice yesterday?"
"No, Coach," I lied.
The next day my name was prominently posted in the locker room, along with the names of several others who had also been cut from the team.
When I saw Gus at the reunion, I decided to let bygones be bygones. "Well, Coach," I said, "you'll be happy to know I quit smoking." He didn't bat an eye. "It's too late now, Doherty," he barked. "You're still off the team."
I ended up feeling pretty good about my classmates. The biggest surprise was how little most of us had changed. The people who were interesting characters back in 1956 were still interesting characters, and the dorks — well, they were still dorks.
You're probably wondering about my high school sweetheart. I'm pleased to report that she seemed just as youthful and outrageous at the reunion as she was the night I asked her to go steady, which came as no surprise to me. After all, I've been married to this girl for the past 38 years.