Monday, June 25, 2012

In the Company of Old Men


It was our 50th high school reunion last fall and I was full of anticipation.

I had gotten an unexpected phone call the summer before from an old classmate who was
a photographer during high school. He had several pictures of he and I from back in grade school and a few in high school. He sent them to me and we started having break-fast every once in a while.

Then through a mutual acquaintance, I reconnected with another casual friend from high school. With both these guys, I was able to recapture some of our old camaraderie with-out reliving our (mostly imagined) glory days.

I was looking forward to reconnecting with several more old comrades from our tenure at our all boys, military, catholic high school. As the reunion grew closer, I started to imagine entering the gathering and immediately reconnecting with homeroom buddies, military misbehavers, chess foes, party planners, old friends and other asundry fellow raiders.

There were several days of activities. A golf tournament: sorry I don’t play. Mass; I don’t think so. Awards given for being alumni for fifty years: no thanks. Finally, the Annual Alumni Banquet where the class of 1961 would be honored (and hit up again.). That I would attend.

I entered the large auditorium full of anticipation and a little dread. Would I recognize any of them? Would they remember me? There was a large sign on one of the breakout rooms: Class of 1961. I moved confidently through the open doors. Would it be like Cheers and there would be a rousing welcome for the kid from down the block? Would I recognize those old familiar faces?

I strolled through the door, confident of my stance and personal appearance.

But instead of my classmates from 1961, I entered a room full of old men.

No one looked up. There was no rousing cheer. A glance or two was all that greeted me as I shyly moved toward the drink table for moral support and a stiff drink to steel my now crumbling self-confidence.

Two things became immediately clear. The gathering around me had been divided into two distinct groups.

The first was the ‘Oh, yeah, he looks about the same with a few miles etched on his face.’
Time and age had been kind to them. A lack of exercise might be apparent and he wasn’t about to replicate his linebacker stance, but he looked pretty much the same.

The second kind of reaction was a cold, clear ‘what the hell happened to him?’ The ravages of time and age had played hell with some of my old classmates. A cruel fact
was that some of them hadn’t aged too well.

Very quickly, I would either recognize an old classmate and tried to remember something we did or had in common. Or I felt I had entered a senior gathering at the home. Little left in between. Of course, there were no mirrors present to dispel my failure to imagine what they might have thought of my appearance.

My old high school girlfriend’s husband was there. After I was dumped, he picked up the slack and won her heart. At the reunion, I got the impression that he took pride in his besting me. In actuality, we both ending up winning. He got good. I got better.

It really wasn’t just my old classmates physical appearance that surprised me. We all grow old. We all change, some of us more so than others. What totally shocked me, as na├»ve as it may seem, was our total lack of connectedness after all those years.

We had all graduated in May of 1961 and were thrown out into the real world. More real for some of us than others. Now 50 years later, we were meeting once again with absolutely nothing in common except four years at a good school, shared teenage drama and angst, and all our grand plans after that.

After we had graduated, most of us had gone on to college and forged careers that span-ed more than 30 plus years. These were accomplished men. Businessmen, professionals, tradesmen, family men’ and most were respected pillars of their communities.

It was a group I should have been able to relate to. And yet I couldn’t. Instead of ‘Welcome to the Homecoming.’ it was’ Welcome to myself’. This is who I’ve become.

We had all left Cretin with grand aspirations. Most had succeeded in their goals. Yet that absence of fifty years had voided out most of our shared high school memories and left me in a room with one hundred and fifty strangers. Whether their faces were familiar or not, we had no shared experiences beyond high school. We had little to talk about beyond now grandchildren and great grandchildren.

I tried very hard to reconnect with a few several of my classmates that I recognized but it became immediately apparent that there was nothing to talk about. None of us were interested in reliving our past football victories, prom dances, weekend parties or loves found and then shattered when she wised up and found someone better.

We had all collectively moved on after high school and past memories weren’t enough to bond us back together under that nebulous moniker ‘Class of 1961.’

So I left that evening feeling a bit sad and yet glad that I had ventured back into my old stomping grounds if only for one last time. I have little interest in attending our 60th or 70th or 80th reunion (I should be so lucky). It was an interesting experience. So thanks for that.

Part of the thinking of clear-headed people is to ask at some point in their lives, what have I done with my life thus far? And is this all there is? And what now?

At this stage in our collective existence few of us really have anything left to prove to anyone. We’ve either done it or we haven’t. We’ve had good fortune in our marriage or perhaps did better the second or third time around. We’ve connected with our kids or we can keep trying…maybe with a little more attention to our grandchildren in the process.

It’s too damn late to begin over again. I’ll never ride that tramp steamer around the world like I wanted to back in ’61. I’ll never become another Bob Dylan or one of the Beatles. I can’t even play a musical instrument or carry a tune.

There are some things I’m very proud of. Like adult children who are citizens of the world. And five grandchildren who will be at some point in their lives. That is their legacy.

We did some traveling, not so much now.
We made some money, not so much now.
We accumulated a lot of things, not so much now.

Yet I haven’t found a cure for cancer.
I haven’t grown an apple.
I haven’t run a country.

Maybe that’s why I like the idea of reconnecting with old friends. Not to rekindle the past but to honor and appreciate our collective lives and find some semblance of connective- ness for the future. If none is there, none is there. If a new friendship can be woven out of the shared experiences of our past that’s all for the better. If not, then we can recognize our past for what it was and move on with a simple: ‘It was good.’

I never want to ask: Where did it all go? All those hopes and dreams and grand aspirations. Some are now washed away like runoff down a rain gutter.  I have no problem with taking some of that residue I’ve had accumulated over a lifetime and pronouncing part of my past. I have to believe there is still a future in me.

I want to focus on the future, all the while accepting my sometimes-stiff joints, constant need to lose more weight and overall goal of staying healthy.

Maybe that’s why I’ve decided to start another career as a writer. The thought of being retired scares me to death. There’s no reason why it should but it does. Perhaps it’s a fear of beginning that long (hopefully) slow (probably) slide toward who knows where.

I need goals in my life. I need to keep proving to myself that I can or think I can. Therefore I must try. Lame perhaps but it defines who I am…. without apology or explanation.

Who knows, someday I may meet myself coming around the corner. Hope I can recognize what I’ve become.

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