Reunited & Feeling Good
by Steve Heilig, September 18, 2014
"It isn't necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice -- there are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia" — Frank Zappa
“…and I'm never going back, to my old school” — Steely Dan
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Recently, there was a reunion of my high school class, a recurrent traditional all-American event I'd always ignored, but for whatever reasons the peer pressure to attend this time came on strong and at the last minute, against my intuition and convictions, I succumbed, bought a plane ticket south, and went. I half-expected frightening reminders of collective aging, puerile nostalgia, embarrassing alcohol-enabled displays of long-repressed urges, ego-fueled career one-upsmanship, excruciating "sharing" of family pictures, and a general outburst of collective regret and confusion.
Man was I mistaken. This was one of the most joyful and fun events in my admittedly failing memory. My formal schooling through high school took place in a small southern California beach town in the 1970s. Our town, Corona del Mar ("Crown of the Sea" - which unlike most town names, actually fit) was the funkier southern end of the infamous Newport Beach, a stronghold of wealth, yachts, sailors, surfers, fisherman, weekending Hollywood stars of various renown or embarrassment (John Wayne! Ozzie and Harriet! Joey Bishop!) and political values to the right of Nixon (who retired just down the coast). The nutty right-wing John Birch Society had an active presence, pre-dating their Tea Partying heirs, but even our mainstream Republican officials earned nicknames like "B-1 Bob." Our zone was close to 100% white; people of darker skin hue tended to get pulled over when driving through, like blacks in the deep south. Maids walking to work in the beachfront homes, likewise. Nobody other than "the help" rode public transport, such as it was.
All that aside, it was paradise for most of us. At that point, before it all became a southernly beachy outpost of Beverly Hills and the open space was paved over for McMansions, social class was largely invisible in our cultural fishbowl and we had free run of long beaches, open fields, lush canyons, and a town with no high-rise, safe streets, plenty of local character and characters. Plus we had Laguna Beach just to the south - an "art colony" of mostly crappy tourist art but lots of bohemians, gays, and for a brief time, a post-Haight hippie explosion featuring Tim Leary and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love - the biggest acid ring of the time, if not all time. Live music played in the parks, on the beach, in the the movie theaters at midnight. Beach parties were constant. So was drunk driving. The high rates of alcoholism, sunburn, premature pregnancy, and other such maladies were just part of the Iifestyle. It was great.
So, after the reunion - which aptly took place at one of the less-pompous boat clubs, where I had hazy memories of "borrowing" small boats to toddle around the harbor while imbibing stolen booze - I found myself both very glad I attended and reflecting constantly about all the impressions I had. One evening soon after, fueled by a bit of Bulleit rye, I pounded out a few thoughts and posted it on the reunion's facebook page. The response was very positive. "You said just what I was thinking and feeling!", many responded. Apparently nostalgia, or whatever mental disease I caught there, was contagious. But this version is a bit more candid and a bit less, well, "reunionically-correct."
Ten Random Reunion Thoughts
1. Walking into that big room was kind of overwhelming. Who are all these people? Who let all the old people in? Is it OK to look at those litttle name tags, or do we have to be sneaky about that? (Especially when they are on women's chests?). What's proper etiquette when not sure you really remember somebody? How am I going to find everybody I want to reconnect with (which turned out to be impossible)?
2. Do people really change much over decades? Or in such a crowd, do we all inevitably revert at least in part to who were were way back then? I'm kind of a hotshot professional old guy now, or at least some seem to think so, so why did I sort of feel like I was just a punk kid again in that group? I likely have very conflicting "politics" and such from many of these folks. In fact, maybe I'd think some of them are now fascists - and they'd call me an idiot commie. Who cares? Not me. I heard that at least one person there had recently compared Obama to "Hitler" but that just indicates some form of dementia. And as for fears of career posturing, not one person asked me "what do you do?" - it was all just "Great to see you!" followed by a hug, or at least a handshake, and laughter.
3. But why did it also feel so good to greet and even hug all these people from so long ago? Spending all those "formative" years in a large group, some of us through all of K-12 grades, made for a kind of huge extended family group, even though I am not quite sure who all the "family" might be, even if I recall their names. In any event, so many years after school ended, why do I recall so many events, names, feelings from back then more clearly than what I had for breakfast today? Did I have breakfast today?
4. There were about 40 deceased classmates' photos on display - a fairly high mortality rate for our age group, but not surprising given the times and place we grew up (see next item). Causes of death were not given, but I knew of some - cancer, of course, but also drugs, drunk driving, infections, drowning, some combinations thereof, and so on. I've dealt with scores of dying people in my career and life, some of them close to me; But why did that list of people from long ago, many of whom I never really knew and had not thought of in decades, hit me as hard as it did?
5. Our generation hit adolescence at a striking time in history; with the highest rates of drug use, the best (?) music, the sexual revolution, explosion of environmental, women's. civil rights movements, etc etc etc. There were many casualties - I knew of even more who had succumbed but were not on the deceased list, and even more who had suffered but survived - but there were even more good memories. Was our high school era that special, that much different from others - I've had many people since then say things like "you were so lucky to be young when you were!" - or is that just selective, rose-colored nostalgia?
6. At a benefit dinner years back in Marin County, an elegant older woman told me she'd grown up in Corona del Mar too. I said "It was paradise in the 1970s and has been overdeveloped since, don't you think?" She gently replied "Actually, it was best in the 1950s." Do we always think, as surfers often say, "Ya shoulda been here yesterday?"
7. But again, CdM truly WAS a kind of paradise; the beaches, open space, small-town vibe, great people, etc etc. The only thing I think we lacked was cultural/ethnic diversity, and maybe a bit more curiosity about the world beyond "The Orange Curtain." Still, I always feel a bit of melancholy and nostalgia when I visit. It's changed so much, and not much for the better. So I always say, "I wouldn't trade where and when I grew up for anything." How many people get to say that, and really mean it?
8. A pal from later years was once Editor of *Surfer* Magazine, and traveled the world but especially the California coast. When we first met and he learned where I grew up, he said "You guys had the hottest girls on the whole coast." In retrospect, he may have been right (at least in terms of caucasians). A future Playboy Playmate of the month used to come and swim in our pool, and the girl next door married a famous singer, and so forth. Obviously I can't speak for the other gender, or even my own, but I wonder if growing up among such pulchritude ruined some of us males for living other places by making our expectations too high in this regard?
9. Back in my youth, I "streaked" Richard Nixon to protest his closure of a famed surfing beach below his retirement "Western White House." The poster for the reunion featured a blurry shot of two streakers a the actual graduation ceremony (the poster was titled "From the Anals of History"). At the reunion, when people kept asking me if and when I was going to "streak' the reunion and I finally said OK, I just might, the wise visually-impaired classmate sitting nearby said "Now I'm glad I won't be able to see that!"
10. I really wasn't planning to attend. I figured that through the years I'd kept in touch with most of those I really wanted to. I didn't really know the folks organizing the reunion very well. Plus I'm still basically shy (other than streaking). But as it turned out, the gathering was overwhelmingly warm and fun and I walked around with such a stupid grin the whole time that my cheeks felt "slack" afterwards for the first time in decades. It was truly a kind of "family' reunion, even if, again, it was hard to place many in the family. Most of my classmates had kids; some were grandparents. My overly-serious obsession with studying science, ecology, economics, and politics - the "state of the world" - usually makes me wonder how parents do not stay depressed about the world their descendants will face. It ain't gonna be pretty, even if having piles of cash might delay the impact for some folks. Certainly the stockpiles of weaponry some folks in Orange County have amassed won't do them any good. Denial is what so many of us count on - like most people, so it's hard to fix blame for that. But for an evening, all such misanthropic thoughts were pushed out of my head by the parade of faces from the past, no matter how much the decades had altered them.
A bunch of us sat around until early morning afterwards, buzzing with energy. I felt both exhausted and elated the next day. So I had had to just put aside my hard-won cynicism about such things and extend huge thanks to those who put it all together - and to everybody else who showed up as well. I hope anybody's school reunion could be anywhere near that fun and reaffirming. A mass group hug never felt so good.