Male Version of Big 50th

The “Big 50th” High School Reunion
St. Louis Park, Minnesota High School Class of 1958 – held July 31, Aug. 1 & 2, 2008
by Roger Johnson (written with strictly a male viewpoint in mind)

SLP’s Class of 1958 had five functions planned for its Big 50th Reunion: An informal, Thursday “night before” gathering at Bunny’s Bar in St. Louis Park, a time on Friday morning for a formal revisit of the old high school, a long-overdue bus-tour of the city in which we grew up, a set of private parties on Saturday morning, and finally a formal country club dinner and program on Saturday evening at the Minneapolis Golf Club – site of our graduation activities and location of a couple of our previous reunions.  The whole reunion was for me a “five-fer” – five shots at nostalgia for the price of one.  It was kind of like a “return to the scene of the crimes” – that’s a plural.  Don’t get me wrong; it was all very nice.  Nothing bad could or would come of any of the five-item, three-day-filled events.  The reunion planning committee had done a yeoman’s job in all the preparations, and everything came off as previously scheduled and intended – and with gusto.

There were a few Saturday morning and afternoon smaller group gatherings at various venues.  I went to the one at Nancy Atwood’s mother’s place on the shores of Lake Minnetonka.  Other small clicks of high school chums gathered for breakfast or lunch around Hennepin County by personal invitation of graduates who managed to live or stay in the area.  But the four big events were the Bunny’s gathering on Thursday, the tours of our school and city on Friday, the BBQ at Tim Kiernan’s Farm, and the banquet on Saturday.  I “hit” all four.  It’s not that as a class leader I had obligations to be there.  I had to give a speech and introduce others, and carry off the agenda, sure.  It was far more than that.  I knew we’d all have a wonderful time.  But best of all, over the intervening years I had figured out some reasons why I love these people so extravagantly, and probably will forever, and why the hell nobody seems to ever want to forget high school.  By the end of this piece of prose, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Yeah, there’s college for some after high school, and maybe frats and sororities, and then there’s military service and job experiences and a hundred other groups and organizations which occupy one’s time over the intervening 50 years.  But these all pale in comparison with the high school experience.  We can, and do, collectively join hundreds of individual groups to which we devote thousands of volunteer hours during our work lives; but none of them are as memorable as our friends and acquaintances in our high school graduating class.  High school is the “mother lode” of group memories.  It’s the imprint and paradigm because that’s where the roots are; and for all time, that’s the real connection.  Face it: Where we went to high school – well – that’s home, the site of our coming of age and where our adult lives all had their beginnings.  And the people?  These are the indelible faces of those with whom you started your life.  Being able to see those faces once again, at a class reunion, is what gives you the best sense of the reality of your true beginnings, and confirms that you are indeed alive, an adult having emerged simultaneously with others from the same “cocoon” of your childhood; we are all children of the same “mother” and suckled together from the same breast of mental and emotional nutrition that gave us the confidence to move outward to explore our own world, but always with the confidence that our common siblings “had our back.”  You have to go back every 5 years and check that they are still all right, so you can be all right too!  Frankly, it’s good for one’s overall health to go to one’s high school class reunion.  You go back in time and reset your emotional compass.  It’s reaffirming.  It’s the right thing to do.  It’s like programming your car’s GPS system for “home” after you’ve been away on a long trip.  It’s always so refreshing to know that regardless of the trials and tribulations you may have suffered along your personal trip away, your personal guidance system is about to bring you back to the place where you always felt most safe, and where you can regroup knowing that whatever new adventure you plan, there will always be a place where others accept you for what they know you really are.  It all gives you a sense of inner peace and being loved unconditionally, regardless of anything negative or depressing that may have happened to you along your path in life.  One proof of this reality is that although several of our classmates failed to graduate with us, but instead entered the military at age 16 or 17, and finished their education elsewhere during their work lives, they found us and asked us to take them back and make them feel welcome to join with us at our class reunion activities.  A couple even moved away during our senior year, and graduated at another school; but they asked to be a part of our class and its reunions.  They knew where their roots really were.  What better evidence do you need?

The informal Thursday night consumption at Bunny’s was a way of bringing us all back to St. Louis Park.  Not everyone wanted to start a reunion at a drinking establishment.  I get that.  But lots of us did, and we came from all over America, winding ourselves through faintly familiar roads and avenues from our youth, until we found Bunny’s on Excelsior Boulevard.  It had moved in the intervening years from one location along Excelsior to its location today.  I guess that was an upgrade.  The parking lot was so full that one could hardly find a place to park the car.  If we had been successful at getting our senior year foreign exchange students to come back from Finland and Austria, it would have been an international gathering.  That would have been really powerful.  Bunny’s has this intriguing history where some of us, thankfully a minority, came to consume alcohol during their 20s, 30s and some beyond, much to the chagrin of many of us who knew that the regulars were ruining their livers.  I knew that one classmate had laid claim to a particular bar stool that was his in perpetuity.  And another used the bar as the only place where he could ever be contacted by mail.  Nevertheless, Bunny’s was the bar of choice to kick things off, and our class responded in droves.  I hugged women who I never hugged in high school, as if I had been their lover then.  It was terrific; but I felt sort of stupid hugging at last women who I should have been able to hug in high school, but was too afraid to do so, I think because of my gross immaturity.  Maybe I was just too plain and unexciting.  Somehow things seemed backward and even awkward.  Why was I so dumb as to not have enjoyed these women at a time when we could have had so much fun together?  What a glorious waste!  Was that punishment for something I suffered at birth?  Or is that simply nature’s way of protecting its young girls from being chased after by teen boys who would interrupt their lives far too early, and destroy their own lives before they’ve learned how to properly manage all the aspects of a successful life?  Or, did God know that in order to maintain the propriety of having us all be “children of the same mother school” that he had to keep us separate to avoid incestual intermingling by having the boys remain emotionally stunted and immature while he made all the girls beautiful, voluptuous and desirable?  One thing I realized for sure that night is that our teachers, who we all thought were devoted to their professions and smart, never told us about this boy/girl teen ambiguity factor, or how that was going to finally work itself out in our adult lives.  Why that wasn’t part of the high school curriculum continues to perplex me, even today.  Shouldn’t high school have been the place where our teachers taught us about what women want, and what men need?  It can’t be best to leave that teaching to Hollywood movies, can it?  Anyway, everyone in attendance smacked backs or kissed checks or hugged, both when we got there and when we left, and everyone nodded approval and waved goodbye, extending best wishes for a safe trip to wherever temporary home was, until we’d meet again tomorrow at the high school for a tour by the principal and a bus tour of the city of our youth.

Some of us were the rebellious sort, and yes, well, that label doesn’t mean diddly squat now.  Others, like me, were conformists, and never a threat to anything or anyone.  But it was rather OK to be a tad rebellious.  I guess listening and dancing to the music we loved in high school was a bit rebellious – at least as far as our parents were concerned.  But it was big in the 50s to be rebellious, what with Marlon Brando and James Dean and Jackson Pollock and Elvis Presley.  You see in the 50s conformity was all around us like a strait jacket and the label “rebel” had import.  Remember the James Dean movie, “Rebel Without A Cause”?  Dean was really cool; and we all wanted to be like Dean.  I guess we guys thought the girls would like us better if we were rebels without any cause.  We liked Ike but face it, he was dull.  The world is beyond all that now, but I can say for a fact that sin was a lot more fun when sex was prohibited and dirty and there were some real taboos to break.  Kids today can’t get that.  But I digress; the joy of this whole reunion is to be there and celebrate life lived with those who still stand above the green turf rather than with those who lie in state below it.  This 50th class reunion – this is the time not to rebel but to savor.

The Bunny’s meet-and-greet night was great, the tour of the high school was informative and left us all convinced that today’s parents provided a lot more for their kids at Park High than our parents provided for us…and we thought we had it great.  I guess it’s all relative; but that school sure was a nice place.  They had preserved what was good from our day and have added far more features than we could have ever dreamed of.  There certainly is no excuse for any graduate today not to leave there thinking they are ill prepared.  Not unexpectedly, the tour of the city by bus showed us lots of improvements in St. Louis Park.  Like the high school, the old stuff was often preserved, maybe with a new upgrade or coat of paint.  But in the last 50 years it was obvious that St. Louis Park had developed virtually every parcel of land into some form of residence, business or industry.  It was indeed a time on the bus to savor the fact that what we knew about the Park was still preserved.  So in a sense our youth wasn’t all dug up and reburied.

That afternoon we all left the school’s parking lot and somehow re-emerged in Buffalo, MN at the hobby farm of classmate Tim Kiernan.  What a neat place!  No wonder he finds solace in the woods and fields at the western edge of the county.  This was the first and only time during the five-fer reunion that I really had time to speak with everyone in attendance.  We broke bread together, maybe the first time since the high school cafeteria, and the buffet line at the BBQ was long but moved quickly.  Bob and Pete did the cooking but lots of other dishes and desserts were supplied by nearly everyone who came.  This idea of sharing with one another really started to stand out.  That was part of the mystique of having roots at the same place, and having drunk at the same fountain of knowledge and gained emotional nutrition at the same venue.  We weren’t children of lesser gods; we were children of the same god.  So we ate together and it was nostalgic.

We even sang together and watched four of our classmates put on a show with dancing the dances and singing the songs that we all knew from the 50s.  Most of us felt how brave they were and wondered whether or not we could ever have the guts to do the same thing.  Together – drinking, eating, singing, dancing, conversing – that’s what we all did, and that’s what a reunion should be about.  We even watched fireworks together after dark.  We were all siblings of a common family, and did everything such siblings would be expected to do.  It is so reassuring of “self” to be a part of a large group cavorting together for the glory of togetherness, just as we did on the Friday night of our homecoming game against Edina, when we cavorted together to cheer our team onto victory. 

My time at the Atwood lake place was relaxing and informative and put another layer on the cake of remembrances.  Some of us went swimming.  I never went swimming before, in high school, with that female classmate from New York who I always admired.  Whatever happened to my time in high school?  Why didn’t I take the time then to really get to know these people?  I love them all dearly, but I once again realized that I never did anything overt to either express my love for them as individuals or earn their love in return.  But that’s not required is it?  Just being in school together, as teens and pre-teens, growing up together, establishing those indelible roots is all that was necessary.  That time alone made us soul mates; and nothing we did or didn’t do personally makes any difference now.  I realized at this 50th reunion that we are linked forever, and supportive without effort, one unto one another.  It’s an act of our creator’s genius, and there is nothing we can do to change it or stop it.  It’s all natural; and it’s all good.

We all dressed up, trying to look our best and checked in at the Minneapolis Golf and Country Club for the final, fifth act of our reunion.  By this time I was no longer swimming in Lake Minnetonka, but instead swimming in a sea of nostalgia.  There my classmates were, in the flesh, and it didn’t matter anymore who drove the big car and who had the big house or who had gathered the most titles or money or didn’t have much of either.  There was just this incredible love chattering back and forth and it “ratatattatted” around you like a boxer hitting a speed bag.  Nobody gave a damn about much except they were glad they and you survived and we got to see one another again.  We swapped memories and pulled out pics of grandchildren.

It was great.  One guy said, “I’m swimming in a sea of nostalgia,” and it was then I realized I was not swimming alone.  People surged up into my face in waves, remembering this or that, and recalling this or that, and everywhere that roiling sea was around us.  We drowned in it, drinking down the fine salt taste like some damn magic potion.  And we got drugged because instead of seeing gray hair and fat and wrinkles, we lived also in that world where we saw ourselves as sleek and joyous boys and beautiful buxom maids because that world was right there, too, both simultaneous in space-time, the old and the young, seething and intertwining.  It was living before us in our own memories and in the hundreds of memories in the minds running movies all around us.  So we relived the good times with those we loved or lusted after 50 years ago; they were now standing there right before us, and glad to see us.  And to be quite frank, back at that early age there was real confusion as to what lust was and what was love, and if there was or even could be a difference, or hell, even a separation; back in high school we had absolutely zero way of telling.  I’m uncertain whether or not we even know today.  Some of our old teachers were there and it was obvious they never knew the answer to my questions about lust and love either.

Damn, it was fine, standing in a perfectly beautiful and wonderfully decorated St. Louis Park Golf Club party room on an August night, sucking up the rare and intoxicating wine of remembrances, taking pleasure even in people you never really knew and hadn’t seen for all those 50 years but overwhelmed now with their being there and happy they survived and knowing so well what experiences they shared and recalling common occurrences.  Like, “Hey, I remember the paper you did in junior English that was so good that Ms. Glendenning made you read it in front of the class.” Or, “Hey, weren’t you the guy who loosed that horrendous fart in French class during the final exam?”  Or, “Hey, I never laughed so loudly as when you blew your nose into your hand, didn’t know what to do with it, so you took off your loafer and wiped your hand on the bottom of your sock!”  Or, remember when that guy just released from Red Wing came around our school on a Friday afternoon, and wanted to fight the toughest guy in our school, and Assistant Principal Paul Schroder heard about that and locked you in his office?  So the kid from Red Wing fought our second best, and got beat anyway?”  Or, “Remember when we were seniors, that sophomore girl who was ‘doin'" all the guys in the back seat of someone’s car after the football game?  What was her name, do you recall?  Whatever happened to her, I wonder?”  Yes, we trotted out those happy joys.

And so we burbled on through the night, flitting from table to table, sucking the marrow from the very bones of our memories and loving every morsel of it.  I recall announcing from the stage that, “Since this is our 50th, if there’s anyone you had wished to get close to in high school, and didn’t, that now was the time for you to do so, for we may never meet again.  And if there is anyone you wished you had hugged or kissed in high school, and didn’t, that now was the time to do so.”  Well, that was a good move, for as the evening drew to the end, I had lots of hugs and kisses.  Wow!  Where did I go wrong 50 years ago so that I had absented myself from such a wonderful experience?  Too bad, I thought, that I should have to wait for so long to finally do what seems so natural today.

In the entrance to the banquet room the reunion planning committee had placed a wonderfully decorated easel with a reverent roster of the names of 42 of our classmates (out of 347 we kept track of) who had become deceased over the years.  I looked intently at it, approvingly, inasmuch as they had seemed to get all the names correctly listed.  I asked a classmate who was passing by whether he had looked at the list of the dead.  I said, “Did you read it?”  He said, “No,” because it spooked him and he didn’t linger over what was already a big list because, “Hell, for all I know, what’s on there might be catching.”

He’s right, of course, death is here with us as we push up toward 70 and there’s no denying it.  I recall years ago my boss telling me something like, “Well, you know, the good Lord only gives us three score and ten.”  I redid the math and we were almost there.  Spooky.  It’s just an average, I keep telling myself; with any luck I might be able to come to the end a couple of standard deviations beyond the mean.  I know for a fact that the classmate who was spooked about reading the roster had a serious date with his urologist about his prostate troubles in a matter of days.  The list of incurable and chronic and fatal diseases among us is staggering.  A lot of the guys I talked with, when we ran out of stories about our good times at Park High, just compared their experiences at cardiac rehabs.  It’s there, all right, the knowledge that time is running out and most of the good stuff is behind, rather than forward; but for now, for blessed now, there’s just laughter and a swim in memories and chugging down the joy of life lived and the swimming in the even greater joy of our early lives together, all of it now remembered…and the continuing angst that overcomes us when we ask ourselves why we didn’t date that cute gal in school, or if we did, why we never kissed her at the end of our first date, or why some guys claimed to have “scored” with their date, while the rest of us cowered in fear that even touching them would give us the cooties.  Maybe the guys that bragged of their conquests were really just full of bullshit.  But it remains true that some of our girls disappeared before graduation, and we heard that they were pregnant.  So some of the guys were likely telling the truth.  But it wasn’t very many, and their relationships ended without any permanence.  Maybe “cowering” was a God-given mechanism built in to protect us from making a mistake that would not only upset too many societal mores, but protect us from violating some gene-pool DNA mingling from school based siblings of a common mother and thereby despoil all future class reunions.

At the formal dinner the microphone was passed around.  Every member of the class stood up and told a little about themselves and where they lived and introduced their significant other, if present, and after a hundred or so it was hard to hear the girls and even the boys got muffled because as much as we wanted to hear, there was just one more secret to share with the guy to the left or with the girl to the right.  It was refreshing to hear from so many guys that they, too, were in love with the same 7th-grade art teacher that I was, and who we had invited, in fact, to our reunion and she did come to our dinner, along with her ex-husband who was one of our renowned coaches.  None of us figured our lovely art teacher would have changed in the past 50 years.  We thought she would still look like she was 25.  What’s wrong with us?  Why do we think that it’s only us who are growing older?

One poor devil almost forgot his wife’s name when he tried to introduce her and that caused some hoots.  Another claimed he’d divorced two wives, had two children and now all he had left was the kids.  Of course they had to be near 50 years old, so they were likely starting to take care of him.  One of our more comely girls trotted out her new husband “after several others.”  One lady who didn’t graduate with us came to our reunion anyway, and appeared to be on the “make” for a husband she could extract from our batch of newly available bachelors.  Where was she when I was in high school? 

One wag began with, “My name is Tom, and I’m an alcoholic.”  He wasn’t of course but there were four of our classmates who were admitted alcoholics and three of them had done professional counseling so, to get even, one of them went up and offered to take him to a meeting.  We are a helpful group.

In our senior year, our track and field team won the state championship.  After we won that title, the Monday following, the day that sprung out there on us was, well, nothing short of gorgeous.  It was clear that nobody wanted to go to school.  And it seemed like all the student body hung outside in front of the school before the bell rang.  We had to be 1,000 strong – or so it seemed.  Al came up to me at the dinner and talked about that day.  He said he got kicked out of Student Council for his role in the riot/strike.  But he reminded me that I was also involved.  He reminded me that I was coming down the walkway from school and he was coming up and somebody told Al that some schools with state championship teams got the day off as a reward and celebration.  Of course, Al said he and I jumped on this idea and we quickly spread the word that we, too, were surely owed a day off and pretty soon we had a mob out front, screaming and yelling and pounding and I was, yes, it was true, there at the front as the crowd demanding of our principal, the formidable Ed Foltmer, that “We had done good, ‘cause our track team had done good, and we demanded a free day.”

Of course, we didn’t get it and Foltmer wouldn’t cave in, saying, “Roger, if you don’t stop this and get back in the school, I’ll see that your class presidency is expunged from your record.”  That was enough for me.  The mob dissipated quickly, everyone went inside and the school bell rang.  But Al and I just went out the back door and took the day off anyway.

How’s that for the Fifties?  I didn’t get kicked out of being class president; nor did I lose my position on the Student Council.  One teacher told me later that the faculty couldn’t believe I was out front threatening any student who might want to break the picket line.  What?  Oh, pshaw, me?  Anyone who knows me knows I would never be capable of such nonsense. 

Well, at the reunion dinner we munched hardily and blew the wheels off our cholesterol reduction meds and near evening’s end the incredibly nostalgic slideshow started to the tune of “Close Your Eyes” by Ronnie Milsap.  We all swayed to that music and dreamt we were slow dancing with every girl in high school that we’d ever looked at in lust more than twice. By then I’d gotten all pooped out running around seeing that everyone else was happy and renewed and so I asked the first girl I ever loved to sit and talk with me, which was as sweet as when I loved her 50 years ago.  She, of course, had loved someone else.  At least it wasn’t my best friend, that sort of thing.  No wonder I was unsettled all throughout college.  She’s widowed now, and I’ve got health problems, but we talked and drunk again the wine of remembrance.  It was super!

Driving home I was tired yet happy.  I had this sinking feeling I had forgotten something important.  And, truth be told, I had.

One of the first deaths in our class was Peter Hobart, who died in 1963, just six weeks before I got married.  He had, several years earlier, come down with a form of Hodgkin’s disease, which ultimately claimed him at just the time when he should have gone forth from a college education to lay his contribution down on humanity.  He was a brilliant student in school, president of the Student Council, and had as much potential to do great things as anyone in our class.  I got particularly close to Peter our senior year, as we considered together on the Council and at other times those matters that come before any senior class.  He was someone to admire and to emulate.  My discovery of him as such a rich and full and vital person was a treat.  His father was chairman of the school board.  His gift of leadership would have been a marvel to behold had he lived a normal life.  I guess God had other plans for Peter.  I was saying whatever prayers I could that year for Peter.

I wrote a poem that year about Peter in the summer of 1963, shortly after his death.  And I swore to myself a quiet oath that on our 50th Class Reunion I’d read it in his memory.  That would have been a nice treat that everyone at the dinner would have enjoyed.  Sure enough, it got lost in the 45 years between 1963 and 2008.  I couldn’t do what I had sworn.  Perhaps that was best.  Like the orange and black boarder display of the list of the dead, it would have been a downer.  I do remember one line of poetic description of Peter.  I said he was “stout and strong like Oaken tree.”  You could say things in poems like “Oaken” back then.  Then I went on with untimely “felling” or something.  Now Peter didn’t get to share the last 45 years; he missed a full half century of joy and agony and gain and loss and victory and defeat and all of it.  He missed the rest of his life that we all who remained above the turf got to live.  Like I’ve said many times as I entered the ORs of our area hospitals, “Death is here and sometimes I turn and feel his hot breath on my neck.”

I failed to read your poem, Peter, and for that I am truly sorry.  Truth is, I lost it.  Besides, it would have been a downer and since this is the dance of life and we’re still moving, I think you’d approve of the lapse.

But know this was in my heart that night: That I love you like I love the rest of the St. Louis Park Class of 1958, living and dead.  And 50 years later I remember your smile and the personality you hid and then shared and I still mourn the life you missed and could have had.  I want to say again, God bless you, Peter, because you are our eternal boy.  We never really knew you as a mature adult man.  You are the super boy of our class.  You are the boy for which the school board named an elementary school in your honor.  No one else in our class possesses that honor.  You hold that joy exclusively.

So lastly, why is my affection for all these classmates so extravagant?  What are some reasons nobody forgets their high school years?
• This was the place I grew up.  Not the place, really, but the people.
• This is my spiritual home.
• This was the place where I was safe.  They continue to harbor me.
• This is the ground where the seeds of my later life got sowed.
• These were the people who were the anvils upon which I forged who I was and what I would become.
• These people were the loving “teachers” of all the really important lessons of living and of life.
• To forget your high school years is to amputate a major part of you.  It isn’t over, of course.  The members of the Class of 1958, they teach me yet.
• They teach me now of the importance of holding life in reverence.
• They teach me the critical importance of enjoying the moment and living well in it.
• They teach me the strength of humility, the futility of pride and the emptiness of achieving money and power and status at the price of one’s soul.
• And most of all, they teach me gratitude.  And all this teaching is far greater than the sum of all teaching I have had in my life, which is considerable, and all the teaching that I have given to others over 40 of the past 50 years.

God Bless Them All.  All who have gone on ahead; and All who remain.

I lost the poem.  But this prose…this prose is for you, Peter, and for all the ’58 Parkites, living or dead.  This “Big 50th” Class Reunion is just one of many in a sequence of renewals and reaffirmations where I can say, “I love you all and I thank you for giving me life in abundance.”  I can’t wait for the 55th, the 60th, the 65th, and 70th, and any or all of them which God can grant to me, to say again to you, “Thanks again.  I have loved you for so long, I can’t remember how long; but however long I have, I will never stop the flow of love I have for you all.”

May God forever bless all of the 1958 graduates of St. Louis Park Senior High School, and bring peace to their souls for all of eternity.