Tuesday, October 05, 2004

LA Stories (Part X)

Redux (continued)
When planning my trip to California, I arranged my schedule so that my 30-Year High School Class Reunion was at the end of the week. It would be the crowning event of my trip, and I anticipated having a great time to wrap up my weeklong vacation.

Ten years ago I didn’t know what to expect. My 20-Year Reunion was a whirlwind that completely took me by surprise. Of course I had looked forward to it as well, but didn’t realize how much people would have changed; how much more accepting and mature they would be. I half-expected the “soches” to still be “soches,” rather than mature adults, genuinely happy to see everyone, not merely just the friends they hung around with.

I couldn’t believe the reception I got back then. People who I hardly knew and/or who had never given me the time of day were gleefully approaching me to say how good it was to see me. And not only me, it seemed that most everyone was being receiving equally well by all, regardless of the social “caste” they were in back in school. Of course most people gravitated towards those they were the closest to, but I was careful to note that the wallflowers were few and far between. Most of them appeared to be the spouses of my classmates who rightfully wished they were back at the hotel watching TV.

The theme of the 20 seemed to be all about displaying success. The sheer volume of the number of people who brought their wives or husbands resulted in a huge turnout. From a graduating class of over 900, I would guess the attendance conservatively at around 400-500. Everyone was dressed to a tee. No need for cosmetic surgery at that point, although some of the guys were already well into losing their hair; today’s advancements in hair-replacement surgery might have served them well. At the time I felt as though I held my own with most of the men. Now at the 30-Year Reunion, I would come to find that fortunately I was still at the front of the pack, according to my peers.

Latter first impressions
I was running a few minutes late when I pulled into the parking garage of the Westin Hotel on scenic Ocean Avenue in Downtown Long Beach. I was nervous in anticipation and unable to shake the nagging fear that in neglecting to double-check my invitation (which I had also neglected to bring with me), I may have gotten mixed up on the name of the hotel. It was the Westin, wasn’t it? Or was it the Hilton further down the street? Already heading down the parking ramp, there was no time to rethink. I was committed to find out.

As I took the elevator from the subterranean parking garage up to the lobby, I realized that I had no idea where the hell I was going. I found myself looking around for someone to ask when I realized the tall man in an expensive-looking suit, who had been standing beside me in the elevator, was doing the same thing. Then I recognized him as if he’d just taken off a mask. He was a former member of the basketball team, a jock who I knew only as a fellow passerby on campus or in the locker room. He didn’t remember my name and I didn’t remember his, but we both smiled broadly when we realized that we knew each other’s faces.

“You looking for the Reunion too?” I asked. “Yes I am,” he said nodding.

I spotted the concierge desk and we walked over to ask for directions. The attendant told us the reception was on the third floor and pointed us toward the escalator that would take us there. As we stepped into the escalator the tall man turned and said, “You were on the gymnastics team right?”
“Yep,” I grinned. “And I remember you from basketball, right?”
“That’s right — man, you don’t look like you’ve changed a bit,” he answered.

We continued to make small talk until we reached the top of the second escalator and began to hear the buzz of conversation coming from the reception area where our group’s cocktail hour was already underway. We wished each other well and individually dispersed into the crowd. This guy I had been talking to is a prime example of someone who would have never even stopped to talk to me 30 years earlier, regardless of whether he knew who I was or not. And just as I had experienced at the 20-Year Reunion, I was again reminded that time does change people. We all do eventually grow up in more ways than one. That surprising warmth I had experienced then carried me along for ten years in anticipation of more of the same. Now the time had come, and I wasn’t disappointed. Only this time it was even better.

Mr. Stillthesame
As I approached the reception area I stopped to register at the table that was set up out front, displaying name badges and the free commemorative “Memory Books” that had the names and addresses of all registered attendees. Of course the deluxe version, with the professionally photographed pictures and candid shots from the evening’s festivities (the one everyone really wants), was $30 bucks, and would have to be paid for separately.

As I was affixing to my shirt the name badge (which also bore my senior yearbook picture), I looked up to see Joan and Rick standing just a few feet away. They were both members of the Reunion Committee, and had been instrumental in making this event happen. Their eyes grew big as they approached and greeted me with hugs and handshakes. I don’t believe they were “together,” but just happened to be talking when I had walked up. With the Olympics having just concluded (Closing Ceremonies were going on that very evening), the Paul Hamm gold medal controversy was fresh on everyone’s minds. Rick immediately asked my opinion of it, and he wouldn’t be the last one. At least a half dozen people that evening would later tell me that they thought of me when all that mess was going on, wondering what I thought about it. I have to admit that really made me smile.

Rick and I had a long history. We went to separate schools during our junior high years yet often saw each other at a centrally located neighborhood city park that we both frequented, playing pick-up basketball, baseball or just hanging out. Rick was kind of a hybrid surfer-tough guy back in those days, and I remember well how he used to make fun of my size. He never picked on me physically, but I was always uneasy when he and his friends would come around.

Later on in high school, Rick went on to play football and became a fairly well known social jock on campus. As my star began to rise in gymnastics, he suddenly began to recognize me as a peer. His was a friendship that grew as much as with anyone I knew from that social strata, and I had always felt pretty good about it.

Joan, on the other hand, was a former cheerleader, and the primary organizer of both the 20 and 30-Year Reunions. In high school she was an unattainable beauty and was still stunning 30 years later. Although I can’t remember ever having more than just a “hi” conversation with her back in the day, I would get to know her years later. In the spring of 1994 when the 20-Year Reunion was being organized, I learned that she was taking the lead as the point person for the event. I contacted her for details and offered my services to design the cover for the “Memory Book,” which she enthusiastically accepted. So my friendship with her was completely generated via the class reunions.

Joan was the emcee for this evening and would later do her duty to embarrass me in front of the entire crowd.

After the cocktail hour, we were led into the adjoining dining room for a decent, but predictably unspectacular banquet dinner. At my table was one person I only knew by face, a few I didn’t know (or recognize) at all, and flanking me, two that I knew very well (and was quite relieved to see that they showed up). Timmy was a fellow former gymnast (one of only two other former teammates who came), and Laurie, with her new hubby, was kind of our unofficial gymnastics team manager. She was always around during practices and never missed a gym meet. She and Tim had become best friends over the years and had also come to the 20-Year Reunion together, although they’d never been romantically involved (to my knowledge anyway).

After dinner, Joan grabbed a mic and addressed the room. “Can I have your attention. Would the following people please come forward…” She called off three names. The last one was mine. Nervously I stepped to the front of the dance floor parquet at the front of the medium-sized dining room, wondering what the hell I had in common with the other two classmates, a man and a woman, — neither of whom I knew — although I did recognize the woman’s name, Penny.

Standing behind us, Joan announced, “It is the opinion of the Reunion Committee that these three people have changed the least since high school. And now we’re going to have a show of applause to determine who is officially “The Least Changed” person in our class.”

“Oh my gawd,” I thought. “I can not believe this.” It was a good thing I wasn’t wearing red, because I surely would have disappeared before their very eyes at that moment.

Joan stood behind the guy at the end of the row to my left. Cheers. Then she stepped behind Penny. More cheers — quite a few more in fact. Finally she stood behind me. Again, a lot of cheers, but I couldn’t really tell how many by comparison. To my relief, the winner was Penny! It was nice to be recognized, but to be voted better preserved than a cute, petite woman was one distinction that I really didn’t care to have. Later on, people would tell me that they thought I came in second. One guy joked that it was the gray hair in my goatee that held me back. “Damn,” I quipped. “I knew I should have brought my Grecian Formula 16.”

Tablemates: Right to Left, one of my former gymnastics teammates, Tim, yours truly, my good friend Laurie and her new hubby Fritz.

This is rugged-looking dood is Phil, an erstwhile local rocker who I’ve known since Junior High. He would later come on to help me coach our sons’ Little League baseball team back in 1991. We had a great season, finishing 2nd out of 25 teams in the city. Another really good guy.

The rest of the evening was a wonderful jumble of memories. While at the 20, everyone seemed to be determined to show how successful they were, the 30-Year Reunion took on a much more relaxed tone. It was almost as though we were all just glad to still be alive. The false aires seemed to be at a minimum, with several guys showing up in casual shirts and jeans. The atmosphere was relaxed, but the conversation was still filled with excitement. Everyone seemed to be as enthusiastic to talk with me as I was with them. I cavorted with all the old football jocks and they actually seemed glad to see me. I spent a few minutes with Dan, the other of my fellow gymnasts who attended, along with his wife. We exchanged photos of our families. I was dumbfounded by the images of his five daughters who all looked as if they were on their way to a Vogue photo shoot. There must be something in the water in Southern California.

Making a late appearance (and smartly skipping that ho-hum dinner cuisine), I was delighted to see Steve and Shirley, high school sweethearts, who were married a year after high school. Shirley was the one cheerleader that I always considered a good friend, even from before my entrée into “Jock Society.” She looked absolutely terrific, and when I told her so, she coyly quipped, “Yeah, it’s amazing what an augmentation can do for a girl.” I rolled. Her husband Steve, the captain of the football team, but as nice to me as any other jock had ever been, looked fantastic as well. This was Mr. and Mrs. King and Queen of the Reunion, and for me, it just wasn’t possible to do anything but marvel in their presence. This was a couple you just couldn’t help but like, and it just felt good to see them still so happy together.

Again, my primary reason for this second SoCal trip of 2004 was to attend this 30th High School Reunion. Here are a few of my former classmates who made the trip worthwhile. Most of these folks I have really only gotten to know well *after* high school when I started attending the reunions. Here the two folks to my right are now among my best ex-high school friends, Steve and his wife Shirley; the football god and his cheerleader girlfriend who got married right out of high school and have been going strong ever since — sort of an oddity for SoCal, but two of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet.

The fellow on the far left, Ted, was the most talented illustrator in my class. He was someone I was always envious of because I figured he would actually be the one who would go forth and make a living out of what *I* wanted to do. Today he has a successful construction company and I’m a web designer. Go figure.

And if the guy in the middle looks familiar, his twin brother is second from the left in the previous photo. They were both a couple of crazy mo-fo football players, and a helluva lot of fun to hang out with. That much at least hasn't changed about them.

I even received a casual flirting gesture from a woman named Ruth, who was one of the folks who sat at my table. It was one of those party conversation-type situations we’ve all experienced, in which you sort of roll off of one group of people and into another to begin a new conversation. Ruth and I were standing a few feet from each other involved in separate conversations. I looked over to see her now unoccupied and glancing in my direction. As she took one large sidestep toward me she said, “I…think I’ll stand over HERE…next to AJ…’cause he’s cute! I went on to tell her how fabulous she looked as well and we chatted for a minute or so and moved on. I’m not very used to getting complements like that, so it kinda made my night, and what a night it was.

You know, I’ve been writing this story kind of on the fly, with only a few mental bullet points as my outline. But the first half of this story that I posted yesterday has generated some comments that I want to non-specifically address here.

I fully understand that I am not in the majority when I say that my memories and experiences of high school were among the most special of my lifetime. I was thinking of this last night when I began to formulate the flow of my story. There’s is a reason that out of a graduating class of over 900, even 30 years later, that only 150 people would make the effort to attend this reunion. And I believe even that many showing up is a tribute to our school. And while there are certainly extenuating and discriminating factors that would preclude many from being able to attend, the fact of the matter is that there are probably more people whose high school experience was not as positive as was mine. If that is your story, I do not mean to rub my experience in your face. However I do think those who dismiss idea of going to a reunion because of the immaturity of the people they went to school with should consider one thing: People grow up — they really do. I saw it at my 20, and I saw even more of it at my 30. However I can only speak from my experience, and certainly not in absolutes

I recognize that my self-image, my station in life, and social experience has played a tremendous role in my perception of high school and the people I attended with, as it does everyone else’s. However if you’re one of those still hung up on how people acted towards you back then, I would challenge you to consider something. If you are not exactly the same person that you were in high school, why would you expect that others would be? If you have grown with your life experience, risen above your petty tendencies, and benefited from the maturity of years, wouldn't you assume that others have made the same discoveries? Think about it.

The cross-section of personalities and socio-economic types that gathered at my 30-Year Class reunion was as diverse as the day is long. Jocks, cheerleaders, geeks, ne’er-do-wells, cruisers, surfers, stoners and Jesus freaks all came together. The one demographic that seemed to be missing however was the losers — there just weren’t any. I really tried hard to find someone who looked like they weren’t having a good time, but I just couldn’t.

An early au revoir
As I made my way throughout the crowd, and said hello to everyone that I wanted to see, I had one eye on my watch — certainly not out of boredom — but due to a conflict in schedule that I was hoping to at least partially overcome.

At 11:15 PM, I reluctantly prodded myself to make my final good-byes. I found my way over to Joan, kissed her cheek and thanked her for again leading the wonderful effort in planning, arranging and hosting another very special class reunion. “Seeya at the 40” I smiled.

I gave a couple guys the high sign as I headed out the door. I had 35 minutes to get all the way across town for the grand finale to my magical evening.

Next: Fusion (Epilogue)
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