Astonishing as it is, my old friends and I just gathered at our 40th high school reunion. How can this be, when in so many ways we’re still 17? Wasn’t it just yesterday that we knocked around in tattered VW bugs and sung our heads off at rock concerts by the likes of Springsteen (who played a mixer at our school before he drew slightly bigger crowds)? Are we no longer the sharp-tongued guys who tweaked the Establishment at every turn? What happened to the shaggy studs who charmed girls and worried parents all across New Jersey?
Ah, blame the clock and calendar. As the reunion drove home – and my students in Nebraska these days demonstrate as they morph from high schoolers into college grads – we all change over time. Many of my old friends (though, infuriatingly, not all) have, ahem, somewhat higher foreheads now. Our scraggly beards and mustaches have silvered over. The last superstar I saw live was Dylan and he’s far grayer and now sings in an aging rasp. For most of us, Establishment-tweaking ended long ago, as we became the Man. And, as for charming the girls, well, they now are our wives and daughters and, for some of us, granddaughters.
Funny how that all happened. My father, of blessed memory, said just a few years ago that he looked up one day and, with the snap of his fingers, suddenly saw how the decades had rushed by. Lately, I feel much the same. I’ve now got three kids in their twenties (two of them already in the northern half of that stretch). They’ve got jobs and lives of their own, far from the home my wife and I have made in Nebraska. These days, it’s tough getting us all even on the same continent at the same time, an issue as the years fly by ever more quickly. So much has changed in such a dazzlingly short time.
Of course, the changes have been good – mostly. Education freed us of the illusions of youth. Hard experience stripped away the follies we cherished as kids. The loves we had as teens, fueled by hormones and naivete, gave way to the deeper passions of adulthood. We grew up, just as people always have. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s line about how dense his father was when he (Twain) was 14 but how much the man had learned by the time Twain turned 21.
And yet, it was remarkable to see how these changes played out in friends at the reunion. Many, like me, now honor ideals we once scoffed at. Where some of us marched against the Vietnam War and wanted no part of the military, we now honor the service of young men like my son, now serving in harm’s way as an Air Force officer. While some of us once thought capitalism was the seat of evil, we now see it as a world-changing force for good. Some of us who once spurned the laws that limited our fun – hey, it was all about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, after all — now hold to those laws as lawyers, judges and police officers.
Not all of us were quite so rebellious, of course. Our class valedictorian went to West Point and later became an Army Ranger. He was a great guy, a truly nice guy, in high school, even though we sat – literally – on opposite sides in an English class divided between Romantics and Classicists, anti-Establishment types and those solidly on the side of The System. He remains a great guy now. Another classmate worked his tail off, went on to Princeton and now shapes young minds at Notre Dame. Still another, a good soul with a warm heart, went on to serve his community as a police officer, someone who saves lives.
We were a mixed lot, the class of 1972. We entered high school as clean-cut young men wearing jackets and ties (ours was an all-boys school). We left it far scruffier and more skeptical, maybe even cynical. The world around us turned upside down in those years and we were forced to take sides, as one of my sharpest classmates put it. We sometimes couldn’t see one another for the warm-hearted kids, the decent people, we were. Now, I think, we can.
Sadly, for many of us, experience has been a brutal tutor. We stood in silence for a time at my reunion for the dozen of us now gone. Some fell to dread diseases of the era, including AIDS. One, a Port Authority policeman, died in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center; he had rushed there to help rescue people and was caught inside when the buildings fell. He left behind dear friends who will never forget him. He was, indeed, a hero, as dear friends described him. How can so many of us be gone already? How many more will be by the time the 50th reunion rolls around?
High school reunions are times to think fondly of those we’ve lost and think kindly toward those we’ve grown distant from. They give us the chance to tell friends we haven’t seen in a while just how important they were during those crazy teen years. Careers and families took many of us far from our roots in central New Jersey. We don’t see one another as we lead our lives in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Nebraska and other far-flung places. That’s a pity.
It was good to catch up with folks once so important to me. I’d like to stay in touch. And I look forward to our next big reunion. For all of us, I’m sure, it will come round far sooner than we expect.