Years ago, a friend gave me some interesting advice.
"There are two things that you can't understand without direct experience," he said. "Combat and group sex. You absolutely can't predict your reaction to either — you have to experience them."
Add high school reunions to the list. Last Friday I joined 40 or 50 of my classmates from Colorado Springs High School at Patty Jewett clubhouse to celebrate the 55th reunion of the class of 1958.
I'd spent at least an hour looking at the yearbook, trying to match memories to the list of attendees. That was difficult, since there were 450 in our class, and I had about nine friends. I'd gone to Steele and North Junior, but I attended Fountain Valley for three years, coming to CSHS my senior year.
I was a sad, lonely kid. My father had died in 1957, and I was acting out with a vengeance. I just wanted to hang out with my friends, drive aimlessly around town, and drink 3.2 beer at Giuseppe's, then located in the basement of the later-demolished Rex Hotel on Cascade Avenue.
I participated in no activities, played no sports, and was too shy and withdrawn to talk to a girl, much less have a girlfriend.
Through the years, I'd been to college reunions, Fountain Valley reunions and previous CSHS reunions. I knew what to expect.
You walk into the room where your classmates are slowly gathering and ... OMG! Who are these old people?
First thought: I don't look as old as they do!
Second thought: Every person in this room is my age.
Third thought: So I look exactly like them.
If you had fantasies about the icy prom queen dissolving into slatternly old age and living in a trailer with the morbidly obese star quarterback, forget it. She's probably still icy, still beautiful, and living in a mansion with Alec Baldwin. And she didn't come to the reunion.
"All of those old people — it would just depress me."
Twenty years ago, we looked like our parents. Now we look like our grandparents. We're on the leading edge of the demographic tsunami that will sweep the country as Baby Boomers age. Only one of us has a living parent, Carmen Ruiz Grande, whose mom just celebrated her 103rd birthday.
Most of us are retired, and many have serious health issues, not all attributable to old age. In 1958, adults didn't exercise or pay attention to diet, and didn't expect to stay slim. Smoking calmed you down, and martinis in the evening would take the edge off. Fifty years later, you pay the price.
We knew how fortunate we were. America was the land of opportunity, and most of us were eager to shake the dust of Colorado Springs off our shoes and pursue our dreams. The class scattered — today, only about 20 of us live in the Pikes Peak region.
We were too young to fight in Korea, and few of us were scooped up in the Vietnam-era draft. We loved doo-wop and Elvis, not the Stones and the Dead. As the social chaos of the 1960s and '70s changed the country, we were observers, not participants. We're a micro-generation without a name, born as the Depression was ending but before America entered World War II.
The room didn't feel like a high school reunion. It felt like an assisted living center, or a Saturday Night Live parody. None of the guys wanted to talk about cars, girls or dreams — just all illness, all the time.
"I had prostate cancer 20 years ago," one told me, "It hasn't recurred — but anyone who doesn't get examined is nuts. Have you had a DRE, John?"
A what? "A digital rectal exam," he replied. "Go get one, and make sure it's a woman doctor. Their fingers are smaller."
Then I saw Helen Kidder, still radiant. I had a crush on her from sixth grade through high school, but never acted upon it. We talked for a while, and as we left she gave me a chaste kiss on the cheek.
I was unreasonably pleased.
"I thought Helen looked great," I told my spouse as we left, "especially compared to the other women."
"Oh, she's not that pretty," said Karen, looking great in a becoming pair of size four jeans.
Welcome to high school ...
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