So, it’s been 40 years. That’s a long time since my old high school days, but it was surely good to see so many familiar faces at my reunion last weekend.
They say you can never go home again, and that’s never been so true as it is for a vagabond like me. I do long for the old comfortable feeling I used to get when I’d pull up in the driveway of Mom and Dad’s house for special occasions, that sense that no matter what, at the end of the day, there was always a place to come back to, a connection to my past, and a warm welcome waiting for me. My Dad would come out first, grinning and waving from the porch, excited about my new car and any news from my own home. He’d grab one of my bags and we’d scurry inside, where Mom’s cooking would fill my head like a heavenly cloud. There she’d be in the kitchen wearing an apron and slaving away for someone special, making a dinner with the kind of everyday love that only a mother can give or understand.
They’re both gone now, but I made the trip by my old home just the same. I got out and snapped some pictures for reasons I can’t really fathom; I guess just to document where I was and where I lived, because after all who are we except the places we’ve lived and the people we’ve loved? It was a bittersweet experience, to be sure, but a necessary one.
I checked into a hotel that I’d booked online and was surprised to find out that it was the same place I’d worked as a kid only under a new name and a very new management. I was greeted by an Indian guy complete with a dot on his forehead. There was a swami seated in the lotus position in a kind of gay-looking sarong pictured on the wall. I chuckled thinking about what my old boss would have said to that.
The rooms were a whole lot nicer than I remembered, though, and pretty soon I was cleaned up and ready to head out to a reception at one of the organizer’s homes. The route to the house was unknown to me, which is amazing since I misspent much of my youth barreling down the backroads of Alabama at suicidal speeds just for the sheer joy of it, and, though generally speaking I was in a quasi-inebriated state, still I would have bet my last nickel that I’d seen them all and could navigate the most obscure of them even in an alcoholic haze while passing a bong. Yet the homes I cruised by on the way far surpassed anything I’d experienced as a teen, and on roads that were either new or so improved as to be unrecognizable. Huge five-acre lots with white picket fences dotted the countryside. Many of the homes fronted ponds. All of them were big, stately affairs designed for large families and/or entertaining. That last point came in handy, as I soon found out.
I rolled up to the address on my GPS and was greeted by some people in the driveway who were setting up the band. “Go on in! There’s people inside!”, encouraged one of them, so I did just that, even though I was a little curious that things looked like they were still in disarray: tables being set, food not out, and…no one there but me as a guest. I walked in the back door and there was the hostess, who was gracious but very, very busy trying to get ready for the party that was going to start in an hour. Yes, I forgot to set my watch.
Embarrassed, I offered to help, but it soon became evident that I could only get in the way, so I made a hasty exit and returned at the appointed time.
I’m here to tell you the party was marvelous. My class had over 300 graduates, and I think it’s mighty impressive that over 60 showed up. There was some great food, including the kind of BBQ you just can’t find in Florida, and the band started about the same time as the rain but nobody seemed to mind.
The organizers had thoughtfully prepared name badges with our class photos on them so we could see just how old we’d become, but I have to say that, like a fine wine, I think most of my classmates have aged very well indeed. True, I probably wouldn’t recognize most of them on the street, but they’ve all mellowed into a nice middle-aged maturity. The only disconcerting thing to me is that, for the first time, I think I can say we are all officially old now.
Old age is of course a moving target that brackets ever higher in step, more or less, with the age of the definer, so that as a teenager I called my Dad the “old man” and anyone over 60 was practically deceased to my way of thinking, but as I aged I kept thinking that I myself would always be just one step under my own self-appointed official elderly category…until now. I think I can say in all honesty that, at 58, we’re a good looking group, but we’re, well…old.
Face it, when that first grey hair appears, a man calls it “distinguished” and a woman covers it up, but when nearly all of your hair is grey or gone altogether, it’s a sign. And it’s also a sign when we can’t seem to “Get down, get down to it!”, like the song says, without first consulting with our orthopedic surgeons, who we all know on a first-name basis.
But old does not mean dull, and, even though I left early, I have it on good account that the party went on into the wee hours of the night, as late as 11 o’clock. 🙂
On day two, we toured the new high school, the largest in the state, and grand doesn’t even begin to describe it. The scale and scope rivals that of a college campus. 1800 students. 4 gyms. College level courses in nursing and aviation. Computers everywhere. A performing arts center as big as the one in Melbourne. 3 floors, soaring ceilings, an indoor shooting range, soundproof recording studios…WOW!
We walk through the giant buildings not only in awe but, at least in my own case, bemusement, especially when comparing it to my own old high school building. I wonder if the kids get a better education today? Probably..at least I hope so for the $90 million that it cost to build the place.
Back at the lobby, we pause to consider the wildcat sculpture (our mascot) on the wall. It’s a beautiful piece of work made from (I believe) stained brushed aluminum, and it’s surrounded by 8 small cat prints, each bearing a name, a poignant reminder of the tragic day Enterprise made the national news, when, in 2007, a tornado struck the city and killed 7 students and one resident, and the reason why there are several large storm shelters in the new facility.
After lunch with some classmates, I return to the site of my old school and am surprised and a little disappointed that it’s not there. An elementary school has replaced it, and, so far as I can tell, there is no brick left of the old building. There is, though, yet another reminder of the tornado victims in the form of a small but dignified memorial that speaks without words of the courage and solidarity of the town and of the students in the face of that disaster.
That evening, there is a party at the elegant old Rawls Hotel in the center of town. The chef is the son-in-law of one of the organizers, and there are some fine appetizers waiting for us when we arrive. There’s also a cash bar, and a band, so after a few drinks I’m out on the dance floor making a fool of myself and not caring at all.
I’m able to talk with most of the folks during the course of the night. There’s no Indian Chief, but there’s a doctor and lawyers and a lot of former soldiers. There are teachers and salespeople, truck drivers and businessmen, architects and engineers, professors and PhD’s. They’ve all made their way in the world and now they’ve got children and grandchildren and nothing to prove to anyone. There’s no pretense anymore, if there ever was, among our group. They’re at an age where the best part of their lives are both behind them and ahead of them, and they’ll look forward to a future where maybe they’ll teach the grandson how to fish or help a friend in need or just keep plugging away at work. These are successful, good-hearted, friendly people, comfortable in their own skin, the kind that Enterprise and America should be proud of. I know that I’m proud to be one of them.
I hope I’m here for the next reunion. Some of my classmates didn’t make it to this one because they’re gone now. Here’s a tip of my hat to all of you. Somehow, you don’t seem so far away.