Dorian Fliegel: Our 50th

Dorian Fliegel:   Our 50th  

     So yet another of life’s official little milestones has come and gone—as equally for those of us who were able to make it as for the majority of us who were not.  These thoughts are not meant as any kind of exhortation to that latter group—simply an attempt to sum up at heart something of what we who came got, or, at least, what one slightly tamer Wildcat thinks he did.

     First an external point of reference:  my pal, Barry, a fellow refugee of our native soil from a much larger school a couple of exits down the LIE, his 50th preceding ours by three weeks.  A born cynic, with a tenacious, dogged devotion to the bottom-line truth as he sees it, his critique is delivered in his usual in-your-face, no-bullshit, rapid-fire, New York crush: 

“Ok, so here’s the deal:  Everyone’s mellow.  Not because they’re wise—just glad they haven’t yet died.  Basically life is over.  There’s no networking—everyone’s retired.  No excitement—no pretense:  Man, if I haven’t called you in fifty years I’m not about to call you now.      It’s really very refreshing;  It’s like—God, just let me get to cake and back to bed.  So there you have it:  That and the fact no one recognizes anyone.  Just a bunch of alter cockers.  Name tags are the stars.  De rigueur.  Make sure you wear yours.”

     So there you have it, indeed. 

     Well, you can’t be friends with someone like Barry for long if you don’t take him with a dashing commuter-train-load of salt, besides, I happen to know a thing or two about his personal history in the underbelly of that idyllic suburban wonderland of ours, where every nuclear family was a purported model of perfection, and dysfunction a nebulous concept whose public light of day was still decades away, and whatever pain we had was an invisible, secret weighted-shame we carried beneath the consciousness of our own and everyone else’s radar.  Suffice it to say if Barry had been one of those children raised by wolves he could not have been more starved for human affection.  Of those wolf children they say, if they are not found by the age of four they will never learn human language.  The heart has its own language, which is also either taught or not.  I’ve always had a soft spot in mine for people like Barry.  For a long time I thought it was a noblesse-oblige case of “There but for the grace of God go I.”  It’s only taken me most of my life to heed my own inner cry:  I have more than a bit of that lone inner wolf in me.

      In any event, I tell Barry, his report notwithstanding, I’m not so sure it applies to my class and our reunion.  For one thing our class was much smaller and closer.  For another, while his reunion was run by some anonymous company at a humongous conference venue, where it was simultaneously producing no fewer than three other nostalgia extravaganzas, our small affair is in the caring, trusted hands of a bunch of dedicated, nurturing people who have made it their mission over the years to keep our class together, not just through gatherings like this—but by every means possible.  I think it will be different.

      “You think it will be different,” says he, “but you can’t cheat Father Time.”

      “OK, “ I say, “we’ll see.”

       All right, so what did I see?

 

Friday Night Hors d’oeuvres, 6:30, Long Island Marriott, Uniondale, NY

     About an hour into the proceedings, I have made my customary progression through the various stages of my latent social anxiety: that initial rigid, stiff apprehension over whether there will be anyone at all to talk to or whether I, sole among mankind, will wander alone and aloof over the face of the Earth, an outcast on the periphery of society; relief that there are in fact a number of people here whom I know, like, and actually have things in common with; gradually relaxing until I am finally happily and mindlessly cruising on autopilot.  Now I have reached that blessed moment of release when I can seriously zero in on the food:  Turkey sandwiches—probably containing nitrates—migraine trigger—nix to that; fresh shrimp—A-OK kosher all the way—just don’t OD on it.  But overall, generally slim pickings for poor little old sensitive-constitutional me, until I fortuitously discover the big bowl of fruit salad at a table, where I sit contently alone on the edges of conversations being had by clusters of others—consoling myself by gorging on acidic grapefruit and overripe cantaloupe.

     And it is sitting there in that lull that the inevitable letdown corners me, backed up by its loyal cohorts—disengagement, withdrawal, and detachment.  Just what anyhow was all this Reunion fuss all about after all?  It’s really no big special deal.  The weekend suddenly looms not as some terrible mistake—that would be giving it too much due—but merely just as yet another something I’ll have to somehow get through.  Only one hour gone and I’m already just playing out the string.  Inside I’ve given up on it.  Barry was right, after all.  There will be no magic here.

     And that’s when it happens.  Sitting there at that table with Louise, Jim, Keith, Roy, Marcia, Cathy, and Maxine—some of whom I once knew well—some not so well—sitting there on the margins of their conversations—a strange, odd feeling settles over me and it is a long moment before I recognize it for the unaccustomed depth of the sense of well-being that it is.  The feeling spreads through me like a warm liquid until it suffuses me, seemingly filling every nook and cranny until I am bathing in it, until sitting there I realize I am actually smiling to myself, basking in the warm glow of it, until I begin then to start to remember—not from the mind out—but from within the muscled depth of the memory’s own flesh:

     For how long, for how many years, for how many countless days, in how many 
     forms and  ways and endless multiple combinations of these individual parts—in
     classes, breaks, and lunches, practices, snacks, and study halls, detentions, bus 
     rides, parties, and late night calls—and Satan only knows what else—did I spend
    
time laughing and lusting and just plain spacing out with these people at this    
     table and in the Reunion room beyond?  Somewhere in the confines of this space 
     an energy has been stirred to life by the vortex of this assemblage of us—the 
     gravity of it—this unique electro-magnetic field we produce—the singular atomic-      
     weighted density of the signature of the product of these bodies in motion and at 
     rest—nowhere else reproducible except right here in our living presence—the 
     feelings, vibrations, and associations that only this one particular confluence of 
     beings could generate—a living Time Machine—a mystery of this Earth and 
    Universe as profound and akin to that which guides the salmon back upstream to 
     the precise spot of her spawning, that which allows the sea birds and the great, 
     heaving turtles to navigate across the vastness of the oceans—something in our 
     collective life that got built into us period by period as we sat side by side all those 
     years we existed together—not as lone wolves—but as members of the extended    
     family of us—our class—more time spent day in and out with each other than with 
     our own actual families—as siblings and cousins to one another—as connected to 
     each other in the flesh as if we were puppies of a litter—stumbling about still half 
     blind and deaf in that time of our newness that preceded full consciousness and 
     identity—discovering the world as much through feeling and touch and, for better 
     or worse, in trial and error, through all that we had—our inseparability with each 
     other—connected forever in wordless memory.

         It mattered not one whit who we once were or what we had become.  What mattered only here and now was that we were once of that same time and place. It is only here now in the presence of these people—my classmates—that this feeling can exist—can be created anew.  I bask in it, am carried and lifted on it,and will float on it for the rest of the magical days of this Reunion.  You have to be here to feel that magic and to enter into that world of feeling and association and whatever awaits you in it.  And I realize then—in a way I would not have understood but a few minutes before—and most certainly if I had not bothered to bestir myself to come at all—that I am here, that I am back, that I am home.

 

Saturday Dinner, 6:30, Wheatley Hills Golf Club, East Williston, NY

 

     Up some wooden stairs into an already crowded lounge.  Carve out a path through the animated throng to the cash bar.  Thanks to three years in the Peace Corps, globe-trotting me is fully capable of ordering a drink in off-the-cuff bad Spanish.  The Hispanic stickmen smile:  I wonder if it’s my terrible accent or that they can detect my tribal origins.  Yes, Dad—if you’re out and about tonight—your boy is actually here.  All those years of plying Hillside Ave in our ailing Country Squires, you and Mom never missed an opportunity to drum it into our brains: “Of course, you know that over there—that club is restricted.”  Now, at long last, could you people maybe give it a rest already?  Case in point:  Dad, it was nice that you finally stopped sitting shiva over my marriage long enough to come visit me once up in Boston—but on the approach to the Old North Bridge and the Minuteman Statue, did you really have to shatter the peace and rustic tranquility of a lovely New England, Concord, Mass morning--embarrassing the assimilated me and scaring the living bejesus out of a busload of Japanese tourists by yelling at the top of your lungs, “The Yiddish Are Coming!  The Yiddish Are Coming!”  From all the photos and video they shot of us it appeared half of them thought you were the original shout heard round the world.  For once in your life would it have killed you to stifle yourself and—dare I say it—act discretely like a bloody Gentile?

     “Just what the hell kind of way is that to talk to your father?  Bernie, do you hear the way he talks to you?  Don’t you see what he’s trying to do?  He’s trying to put you in an early grave.”
     “I don’t think he’s trying to put me in an early grave.  Graves are for the morning birds.  He gets up too late to want to sleep with worms.  I think it’s just his weird, smart-aleck sense of humor.” 
      “Well I don’t think it’s funny.  You know, Mr. Wise Guy—for myself I don’t care.  Me—I’m only you’re mother.  Me—you’ve already put in an early grave.  It’s your father I care about.  You’re killing him.”    

     “Mom, I don’t know how to break this to you—but you’re all already finally dead.”
     “You see that, Bernie?  You see the kind of language he uses?  You see what I have to put up with when you’re not around?”
     “Show some respect to your mother.  She gave birth to you.”
     “I know what mother’s do.”
     “Yes, I’m a mother.  I admit it.  So crucify me already.”
     “Mom, with all due respect, I’m kind in the middle of my 50th here.  Could you possibly put your ongoing crucifixion on hold for a little later in the festivities?”
     “Fine.  Just tell me:  How’s your skin?  You always had to go break out just before your affairs.”
     “Well considering I’m a sixty-seven-year-old man now—it’s not bad.  But I do seem to have this permanent Rudolph-the-Reindeer red spot right on the tip of my nose that Keith Aufhauser feels compelled to keep telling me to my face he’s had to photoshop out of every shot he’s taken…”
     “…Yes, Mom, I know he’s probably just being nice…”
     “…Yes, I know he’s always reminded you of the early Gregory Peck…”
     “…Yes, he was excellent in ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’…”
     “…Yes, I’ll give her your love if I see her here…”
     “…Yes, I know you always had your eye on her for me…”
     “…Yes, I’m sorry I deliberately went out and drove a stake into your warm, still-beating heart by marrying that ice-cold shiksa…”
     “…Yes, I admit you did call that one right from the start—24 years later it did eventually end badly…”
     “…No, for the life of me—me neither—I can’t imagine whatever drove me to forsake the smothering warmth and bosom of a loving Jewish family…”
     “…No, I was not thinking with my winkie—and frankly, I resent that…”
     “…No, it’s not your opinion of my choice of mate I object to—it’s your chronically referring to my dingle in the diminutive.  It’s emasculating.  It was bad enough you did it all your life—but now—still—it’s a bit too much…”
     “…No, my primary intention was not to wreck your afterlife.  Wrecking your actual life was gratifying enough…”
     “…Well I’m glad my finally admitting it makes you feel better…”
     “…Well you were the one who was always preaching Liberalism and acceptance…”
     “…Well how the hell was I supposed to know that was just politics and this is life?...
     “…Well I’m sorry if it makes you seasick now to think your grandkids are Mayflower on three WASP sides…”
     “…Did I know all those years you were giving me the cold-shoulder silent treatment for my own good it was eating you up inside alive—making you only wish you were dead?  Mom, so what are you complaining about?  Please, you can relax in peace already:  You got your wish.  Now if you don’t mind, I think I really better start to circulate and attempt to try to enjoy myself.”
     “…No, Dad, as a matter of fact I actually really don’t think this is what six million died for so that I could be living it up at my reunion at a formally restricted goyishe golf club with rundown décor…”
     “…Who’s taking their eye off of what masquerade ball?  What point, Dad?   You mean you’re actually trying to make a point here…     
     “…No, Dad, I’m not saying that you and Mom like to flit about disturbing the atmosphere just for the thrill of it…”
     “…No, I am not getting defensive and unduly sensitive again per usual…”
     “…Yes, I have heard of clairvoyance and I do happen to recall that you graduated first in your Fordham law class after they wouldn’t let you into Harvard…”
     “…Ok, I won’t forget that me and my big, Little-Lord-Fauntleroy-head didn’t just sashay in through that closed door solo…”
     “…Yes, Dad, I know you’re not just trying to piss on my fancy charade...”
     “…Ok, occasionally I’ll think of something other than myself for once—like all those who got soaked holding all the
mbrellas up over my big, fat head…”
     “…And, yes, Dad, I do:  Despite all my faults, deep down—I always knew that I was deeply loved by the two of you to the fullest possible extent of your ability, even though you were never quite able to come out of the closet and freely say it.”


     OY!  Now I really do need a drink:  A good, stiff, big, liberated, modern-man-sized one.  Order a second sparkling water, double large, on the rocks, with a twist of lime, this time taking no risks, enunciated ever so clearly, in the Queen’s own, good old English.

 

…….

 

     Feeling calmer now:  Drink in hand—take the plunge.  “Once more into the breach, dear friends—damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead!”

     Everyone open and friendly and being very good about introducing themselves, mingling, and not monopolizing one another.  

     There is one guy whose name I don’t catch, whose tag I can’t read, who greets me enthusiastically and keeps smiling at me as if there were something special between us.  I have absolutely no recollection of him, feel bad, and end up trying to avoid him.

     Instead, I fall naturally into place alongside Shaffer and Conace—the three of us, familiar old war horses, standing at ease in a peaceful pasture.  Once upon a time, to our collective horror, we were the front line of a 2 and 15 varsity basketball team.  Now, 51 years later, I only wake up in a cold sweat about it every now and then.  For a long time part of the shtick-bit version of my life story, I used to joke that if a guy could survive being on a team like that—he could survive anything.  But that was in another lifetime, long before I learned something of the true terrors the world could bring.

     Of course, there are all those faces I know especially well.  Kids of the Sputnik Era, tracked in all our classes, they are from that core group of us that were together all the day long.  So instantly familiar to me—it’s as if I only saw them earlier that day in school.  In reunions past, we always gravitated as eagerly to each other as if we were magnets.  Now, although I am, of course, delighted to see them, it’s almost as if we are too close.  This time the locus seems different, the heart’s focus at this advanced hour of life set at a different depth.

     There is a boy of my block and neighborhood, whose acquaintance predates even school.  Once we were frontier children together—our isolated solitary brick houses dotting the potato-growing, earthen prairie—mustered up into bands of roving urchin gangs engaged in dirt-bomb wars from behind the bunkers of newly bulldozed home foundations.  For years after that, I think, we must have been enemies, for we did not speak, and although a distant, wary air of caution still attends, we greet each other warmly as long-lost members of some scattered, now-reconciled clan.

     Another man, rather distinguished-looking, whose name I barely recognize, until our talking brings to life a whole host of mutual characters from the early elementary years of old Northside—long afternoons spent after school in little-boy Long-Island-play, grading our own parkways in the far reaches of our backyards at the edge of the woods with our fleets of metal Tonka construction trucks, paving the way from childhood, mixing up in secret the permanent substance of our own concrete.  Tender young friends of my youth—I abandoned them all in my haste to make it down the road and out of there.

     I make a point to talk to two women my parents were always promoting back then as potential girlfriends, which was, of course, for me, the kiss of death.  Because of this and whatever expectations had been raised—in reality, or if only as a self-absorbed conceit of mine—I always felt a certain embarrassment and guilt before them, as if I had inadvertently hurt or disappointed them.  But we only greet each other warmly now in our unconsummated, cousinly, incestuous affection.  Our parents all were friends and all are now all but gone.  We stand together in the silent shared holding of that knowledge—each of us receding for a second into the pit of our own private sorrow—the brightness and warmth of the girls they once were shining strongly right before me.  I feel nothing but genuine attraction for them, shorn of any sense of rejection—of them or of myself.

     And finally, there are the couple of people I end up connecting with at an instant depth of heart and understanding.  Over the years from the outside I had seen my father have these kind of almost wordless encounters with old friends without quite understanding.  Now I think I do.  A kind of melting of the exterior.  As though the outward forms and boundaries disappear.  As though there is a merging of warmth and feeling of genuine affection and connection, a pure bond in the presence of the other.  Each of these simple encounters seems to take no more, at base, than a minute or two.  Each seems to be of the same piece.  The content hardly seems to matter.  Words are merely the crude vehicles that carry the iron-rich ore of feeling.  No real beginning, no real end.  Just that slowed-down, rarefied focus that all lovers know.  No stated intention to follow up, to even see each other again, or even if we ever will—all that busy stuff of this humdrum world now beside the point.  It doesn’t matter.  Everything superfluous stripped away.  This glowing feeling of pure connection, the essence of which is simply the love that was and has always been there.  And is it not John 4:8, “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.”

     But still there is that guy who keeps smiling at me as if there is something special between us.  At last I am able to grab one of the reunion organizers to ask who he is.  The name does sound vaguely familiar, but still I have no recollection whatsoever of him.  Then it gradually comes to me.  He wasn’t in any of my classes, not on any of my teams, nor of my neighborhood.  But he was a friend—someone I used to fool around with in the cafeteria, in gym, and intramurals.  And with that memory of him comes flooding in a whole horde of other “in-between” friends, others who were on the fringes of all those official categories we had been placed in—the interstices between the spaces and labels by which we had all been separated and divvied up between each other and in our minds—in that timeless, frozen, suburban state of ours, as role-based, class-bound, and caste-restrictive as any feudal, medieval, hierarchical society.  But off in the free, unruly, untested, non-quantified, in-between wilderness of our otherwise overly scheduled and regimented lives we were friends who had had fun together, acting idiotically and foolishly like ourselves—whomever and whatever that was—independent of what any official adult thought of us.  

      In remembering him and all the others, I realized then that in the achievement-driven accounting of my life I had somehow put it all down as counting for nothing.  In the magic of the reunion space, he had illuminated that corner of my memory—reclaimed it from the dark obscurity where I had banished it.  The whole layered textured richness of the landscape of childhood and youth was coming back to me and with it—something that had been wound up tight in me all these years—was finally at last able to let go and slip itself free, like a kid after school—out the screened back door.

     When the soul is rendered flesh it receives of necessity a wounding that takes a lifetime or more to heal.  So, too, is it with our founding as children—this inevitable wounding.  Some of us are met here roughly—dealt a tough hand—life being from the start a struggle that must be endured.  Others of us are welcomed easily and blessed with much—our trials to come later when we find the world—if we prove strong enough to choose to live in its reality—not always so hospitable; and we pay then dearly for the supposed advantage of our early coddling.  One particular high-school permutation of this was the natural animal pecking order of the little social creatures we were—who seemed in and who seemed out, who seemed popular and who seemed not—the parts we played as irrelevant and constricting to who we would eventually come to understand ourselves to be in the real world as if it had all been a big dramatic production and whether we happened to have been given a juicy role or a thin one.  To all of this, is also incurred the particular historical imperatives of our time—in our case the chilling winds of those competitive, fanatical, egomaniacal, Cold-War excesses that drove us steadily onward, apart from one another, and ourselves.

     Here through the magic of reunion’s time machine—in its illumination of the dark corners of memory’s space—we have a chance to heal some of these wounded places.  Some of us, me among them, good little doobies who drank the Kool-Aid, who in the excess of our desire to excel became detached automatons, little, model, cut-throat soldiers of the front lines—academic, critical, and judgmental—separated early from our loving natures—who in our pride lost touch with our compassion, others, and thus ourselves—in the process willingly sacrificing up our souls to trusted teachers and elders on the altar of the national moment, doubting all along, nevertheless, our worthiness.  And others of us, who in our presumed shortcomings and failings before the impossible, insatiable, insane demands of the times lost faith in ourselves and with that our way and place in world—bleeding esteem, seeing only self-deficiency, carrying that burden, sabotaging ourselves for far too long in all sorts of obvious and not so obvious ways—an unpunished crime perpetrated by a deluded vulture of a species of a culture that eats its own young—betraying its own innocent and vulnerable—those whom it should most have protected and nurtured—doing far worse ever to us than the Reds ever did—and all in the name of what?—all for our Holy Grail—Success.  Each of us, whatever the accidental luck of our birth, were not simply made to feel by right that in and of ourselves we were enough.  In the desiccated backlands of Brazil, in some of the poorest and most primitive places on Earth, I saw cultures that did a hundredfold more than that for each and every last one of its members.  For all our wealth—shame on us. 

     Of course, almost all of us, at one time or another, in one way or another, embodied both sides of this coin of our realm—both driven and failed, both uplifted and nailed, both used and wounded by the culture and times, and through these—inevitably injured by each other as mutual agents of our histories.  Time’s golden suburban age in which we lived turned out to be but the blink of an eye that hid the depth of its spreading infection.  We were riding the evanescent crest of a perfect gulf-stream wave that broke shortly after our graduation in November’s fall of ’63.  The worm had turned.  The long, slow, unraveling of the Pax Americana had started—gradually ceding stage to our Pox Moderna.  That feudal womb that had nurtured us had ruptured—hemhoraging its ways through the Sixties and beyond—leaving a part of us forever unfit for life outside our comforting sack—entombing the enshrined perfection of our past.

     It doesn’t matter.   All that’s now done.   We carry these wounds like knots of numbed pain buried deep in the muscle of memory, awaiting the gentle stroke of illumination.  The heat that we generate through our presence together is but one means to such healing.

     The thing about the 50th is—when all is said and done—it really wasn’t that big a deal.  Just another bump on the old Motor Parkway.  High school is over—ancient history—whether we’ve made our peace with it or not.  Our lives, our course, is set.  Nothing, certainly not one little event, is going to change that fact.  Barry was right about that.

     But what reunion as a looking glass can do for you does matter.  None of us chose to be with each other when we were young and not yet whole people.  That choice was largely made for us.  But that we choose to return now to honor that past and what we once were to each other says it all.  We can all help each other to better see something about ourselves and our lives—not because it is “The Reunion”—some once-in-a-lifetime spectacular significant event—but simply because it is one particular prism—one unique instrument that allows us to better perceive.  And with this learning comes an extra hidden bonus:  once you get in the habit of it you will find you can do it with almost anyone anywhere—with strangers even on the street—a spontaneous, unscheduled, gratuitous, reunion of two.  The ultimate connection is of the mind and its humankind.

     To those of us who were not able to make it this time for whatever reason—those of us who were—do not require you to be here.  We can create the magic without you.  But with you—the illumination of that magic will be all the fuller and richer for your presence.  More importantly, you cannot partake of that feeling, know the gratification of whatever insight you may embody, and receive whatever unanticipated healing you yourself may take, without first engaging in this collective, creative act.  Each of us holds some piece of another’s night.  Here’s hoping next time, if there is to be a next time for each of us, you bless it with the presence of your own special bit of light.

 

                                                                                                                               Dorian Fliegel

 

 

 

 

 



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