When that invitation comes in the mail about your high school reunion, you generally have one of two reactions. It could be "Count me in!", or "Not no, but hell no!". There is always some hesitation before making that decision to go or not. You wonder, will the hair transplant look natural by the time of the class photo? Returning to my hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, was a bittersweet experience, an emulsion of varying emotions, some positive and some sad. My old high school is somewhat unusual in that reunions are held once every five years, and they are all class reunions so generally, more than 2,000 people attend starting at the earliest graduating class who still has living members. Hotels are booked years in advance in anticipation of the bonanza of activities that are delightfully crammed into two exceptional days of reunion bliss.
2015 marks the 173rd year for the founding of Fort Scott by the US Army and the 158th year since the Fort Scott Town Company was formed to organize a town. My family arrived in this place in the mid 1700's and built one of the very first homes in the old fort. At one time, a lovely old colonial home with wooden shutters and white columns lining the front porch, my old home now sports an actual porcelain toilet in the front yard, which conveniently doubles as a flower bed. Approximately seven to eight cars occupy the driveway and any one time, and the house is in tatters. I guess that Thomas Wolfe was right when he said "You can never go home." At least he was correct for me, as the current owners would not even let me in to take a peek at my old home front.
Reunions themselves can be quite confusing. Today, with the omnipresence of Facebook, we find ourselves connected at the hip, or at least at the smart phone, with even the remotest person on your list of life acquaintances. I am very happily connected now to a great number of my high school classmates, right down to a girl who walked to school with me every day in the second grade. We may not have actually seen this person in real life for over 30 years, but in our mind's eye, we have their faces engrained in our virtual memory. Even so, after my arrival at my first class activity, I found that name tags come in quite handy. Most people were not easily recognizable. When in doubt of an identity, I would gaze deeply into a person's eyes, as the eyes never change much no matter how much the rest of the body has progressed. There are also those nagging fears. Will the football player who you rejected at the Twirp dance now weigh more than the Dodge Ram pickup truck he is driving? Will the girl who failed PE class and occasionally vomited on your shoes in the breakfast line be a highly successful executive and doing much better than you? Evidently, there is a statute of limitations on telling a fellow classmate that you had a mad crush on him or her after 30 years as well, so be ready for some surprises in that area. At my reunion, it was deemed you were "hot" if you made the "People you would still want to do" list that was being battered around after the class became more inebriated.
I found that the fleeting years also wreak havoc on the memory. One guy came up to me recalling all the special moments we shared at the junior prom, the photos we posed for, the stolen kisses on the dance floor, and I swear I had never met him before. And then there's the guy who rushes to embrace you, and even the eye recognition technique failed me. I relied on the "N.A.S." policy: Nod And Smile. At least if he decides to take everyone hostage, he might let me go first. Another classmate, Kevin proudly informed me that he did not own a computer, nor did he have even an email address. I was not even able to respond to that remark.
For my special class dinner, we all drove over to the historic part of Fort Scott and had dinner at a Mexican restaurant called La Hacienda. I admit I did hesitate for a few seconds, but then meandered in amidst a crowd of low hanging smoke and people smiling like idiots. Instinctively, I began hugging everyone I saw. After a few minutes, I remembered some of the people from long ago as they had plucked at my most filed away memories, and then suddenly I realized that I had not only hugged my old friends, but also some of the wait staff. About half way through my burrito picante con queso, one of my highly successful realtor classmates made a mad dash for the door with her smart phone and briefcase to negotiate a long distance transaction between North Carolina and Singapore. Alas, her burrito sat sadly alone and congealed while money was to be made on the sidewalk. The questions people asked one another were fascinating, and sometimes, the answers were even better. One guy in my class proudly reported that he had sold his business for almost $2 billion and now owns another high flying company building horse barns across the country. Funny, I never read his name on the last Forbe's Millionaire list, and I did actually read it. Sexual activity was judged based on how many children you have, and success was measured by the number of grandchildren. (You see in Kansas, folks get married young. I think 43.5% of my classmates got married at age 14). One heated argument ensued over the actual date when one woman lost her virginity. Her friend insisted it happened in summer camp, while the other swore it happened in Gunn Park behind the swings.
After a rather sordid discussion of personal trivia, I left La Hacienda to visit the dead in sharp contrast to the bustle of activity at my class dinner. I drove to Evergreen Cemetery to visit the graves of my grandparents and my recently departed mother. We took flowers for the graves. Walmart offered the most choice selection of plastic flowers in town, with a total of three floral varieties in two "designer" colors: white and red. As I drove from the historic part of town to the cemetery in the rural outskirts, a drive which lasted all of seven minutes, I realized how different driving in Kansas is. In Northern Virginia, I often drive 30 minutes just to buy a gallon of milk. There are no two points in Fort Scott that are more than 10 minutes apart, which is sometimes more of a detriment than a benefit.
On my final day of reunion weekend, my class all congregated for our final luncheon at a work shop of one of my classmate's husband's. Amidst table saws, nuts, bolts, work tables, sheets of plywood, and construction materials, we ate delicious pulled pork sandwiches, and enjoyed hot peach cobbler for dessert. I took it upon myself to interview the one man in my class, Brian McFall, who has somehow purchased a monthly supply of water from the fountain of youth all these years. He looks precisely as he did in his high school senior photo. I will actually go beyond that and say he hasn't aged since his sophomore year! His secret? Simple: daily exercise and eat whole foods.
Well, that dreaded moment for the hair transplant recipients finally arrived. It was time for the class photo. As I was asked to be the photographer for this year's photo, it was up to me to arrange the 30 plus individuals in an appealing way. I asked the tallest to stand in back, the middle row of women to be seated, and I carefully chose those of low to medium height to be the sitters/front row kneelers. There was a prerequisite to the sitters/front row kneelers' position. Not only must they be able to get down on the ground to sit, but more importantly, they had to be spry enough to get back up without the aid of a pulley system or crane. It took a dozen or so clicks of the camera to get everyone's eyes open for 1/120th of second. At the risk of being crass, I had to tell the group that someone in one of the front two rows had farted in order to get them all to give me a big toothy grin.
My time in Fort Scott was even more meaningful on this trip. Not only did I see my high school boyfriend, who is now gay and married to a man, and whom I still love desperately, ( a thing which would normally require years of therapy, but because I am so balanced and normal, it doesn't bother me), but I renewed many old friendships as well. I drove to all the old places where I had spent my youthful days. I cruised up and down National Avenue like we did on Saturday nights looking for who knows what, only this time driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee rental car with my 19 year old son riding shotgun. We ate chicken sandwiches at the Sonic drive through served by young high school girls wearing roller skates. I photographed the grand Victorian mansions where my grandmother's lady friends lived and hosted high teas. I found and reunited with my 100 year old nanny who still looks like Halle Berry. What a wonderful site to see. I walked through the historic old fort buildings where I once played tour guide in a hoop skirt. I drove to the old country club where my family had special dinners and we swam in the pool. It was sadly just a ruin now, with only half the golf course in use. Many of the old Main Street buildings had burned down a few years ago. However, I did make it to the infamous chicken house south of Fort Scott called Chicken Annie's. It is a tried and true tradition and should never be omitted from a visit to Fort Scott. All in all, however, the town I hold so dearly in my heart and mind seems now but a shell compared to its robust and bustling feel when I was a kid. The structures remain intact in most places, but the family and many friends I loved do not. It seems that the filling is missing from that sweet chocolate Hostess cupcake. Still, I wouldn't trade even a minute of the time I spent there.
On my last night in Fort Scott, I visited an old family friend, Ken, who owns one of those grand Victorian houses on Crawford Street. We drank lemonade, sat on his porch swing and rocked back and forth for hours reminiscing until finally the sun set and cast its gold and orange hues over his trees and front yard. What a wonderful "small town" thing to do, and it was pure bliss. It took me back in time, and made me feel young again.
My reunion, after all, had provided an escape from my daily life, while producing illusions of what might have been "had only…". Reunions are reminders that no matter what we do, material success is not a guarantee for a path to happiness. Nothing is for certain. The bad often do well in the end, and sometimes good people go bad. The heavy girl in your class could very well be a super model in Milan now, and the guy who was voted most likely to succeed could be on death row. It is a good thing to see your classmates again. You can't escape your past and you certainly cannot relive it, but you can enjoy it. Without that random group of people we travelled through time with since we learned to read, we would not be the fascinating people who we are today. And Kevin Darling, I hope this blog doesn't make you mad if you ever do get a computer and read it, which I doubt you ever will. Either way, I apologize. As I left Fort Scott, I felt joyful, tearful, sentimental and blessed. I suddenly got a warm feeling spreading through my chest, but then, after a minute or two, I realized it was fallout from that burrito picante con queso from La Hacienda the previous night.
Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! `I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' she said aloud. `I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think--' (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) `--yes, that's about the right distance--but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I've got to?' (Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but thought they were nice grand words to say.)