June 11, 2009
“And now I can’t wait; they’ve set the date;
Our fiftieth is coming, I’m told.
It should be a ball, they’ve rented a hall
At the Shady Rest Home for the old.”Author Unknown
Shaving every morning, the face in the mirror has aged without my noting. My hair, once dark, turned grey then white. Lines appeared where none existed. Brown spots surfaced, initially unnoticed, not to mention unwanted. How pertinent seem the words from My Fair Lady, “I’ve grown accustomed to your looks, accustomed to your voice, accustomed to your face.”
So, in many respects, attending my fiftieth high school reunion was a shock. Those seventeen and eighteen year old faces, etched in memory from fifty years ago, and recalled in a recent perusing of my year book, had morphed into strange, and elderly visages. The sensation had to have been similar to that experienced by Dorian Grey when, in the attic of his house, he discovered the painting of himself – the painting in which the portrait had aged while he had remained eternally young.
The weekend, though, proved more enjoyable than I expected. Being exceptionally immature at the time I attended Williston, I never took advantage of the privilege and opportunity the school offered and so had been disinclined to return to the place from which I garnered so little and gave even less. However, what I discovered was a coterie of classmates who had grown into mature and pleasant men. Gone were the cliques of the past – the jocks, the nerds, the preppies and the hoods – along with the competition which marks younger men in their prime. Instead I found aging gentlemen, many of whom have had fascinating careers and lives, but from whom all radiated a sense of achievement and inner happiness.
At one point, as we were jostled together for yet another round of photo-ops, I was almost overcome by the magnitude of fifty years. It is a long time. Fifty years after the Continental Congress declared “that these colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States,” the United States was under the leadership of its sixth, democratically elected, President. Fifty years following the silencing of the guns at Appomattox, sixty thousand British troops died in the first three days of the Battle of the Somme.
The fifty years following our graduation from Williston have been a remarkable period. We have had eleven Presidents, from Eisenhower who was old enough to have been our grandfather to Barack Obama who is young enough to be our son. The population of the United States has almost doubled during those years - 180,000,000 to over 300,000,000; living standards have risen concurrently, giving lie to the doomsayers of the Club of Rome. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen from 629.97 on June 6, 1959 to 8763.10 on June 6, 2009 – a compounded return of 5.4% before dividends. We have known nine recessions, but far more years of economic growth. We have stood in gas lines, dealt with the twin concerns of high inflation and high interest rates. We underwent the soul searching years following Vietnam and have benefitted from the bountiful results of the Reagan Revolution.
We have witnessed a race for space that began our junior fall, when the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957; twelve years later, in time for our tenth reunion, America became the first nation to put a man on the moon. Our country fought and lost an unpopular war in Vietnam at the cost of 58,000 lives. We successfully pushed the dictator of Iraq from his invasion of Kuwait. We were attacked by Islamic terrorists on 9/11, an act which altered our country and divided our citizens, but highlighted those liberties we take for granted and reminded us of the fragility of our democracy and of our individual mortality. We read of the murder of untold thousands in China, as the Cultural Revolution began and then ended coincident with the death of Mao Tse Tung. The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 shortly after our graduation and fell twenty-eight years later – at the time of our thirtieth anniversary – as the forces of democracy and capitalism defeated the tyranny and repression of Communism, providing freedom and opportunity to millions of Eastern Europeans.
Great strides have been made in the social fabric of the Nation. The Civil Rights Wars were a part of our young man-hood. At the time we graduated segregation was the rule in the South: African-Americans were made to drink from special water fountains, to sit at the back of busses and were not permitted in many schools scattered throughout the South. Yet, in time for our fiftieth, we elected as President our first African-American. Women, who were forbidden from opportunities in the workplace and from attending many educational institutions, have achieved equality. Three of the last four Secretaries of State have been women, one of them an African-American. The Speaker of the House, the third highest office in America, is a woman. Democracies have mushroomed around the world, more than tripling in the past fifty years. Communications and the internet have changed our lives in ways inconceivable at the time of our graduation. The advantages many of us had growing up are now offered to an ever-increasing multitude.
Reunion weekend was an opportunity to look back on the passage of half a century and to consider the age we are now. It was sobering to note the appearance of a tent for those celebrating their twenty-fifth and fiftieth anniversaries, but none for the seventy-fifth. At a moving memorial service on Saturday, the names of those graduates who had died in the past year were read aloud. It had been forty-five years since I attended a reunion and fifty years since I had seen most of my classmates. As I heard the names of those of the class of 1959 – Bill Ellis, David Westgate and John Willett – men whom I had not seen in fifty years, their faces appeared in my mind as they had been, forever young. As in A. E. Housman’s Athlete, the name did not die before the man.
A welcome addition to the usual name tag was a photo of each of us, recovered from the dusty pages of our year book, embedded on a pin; so, looking at a classmate, one was able, at a glance, to see both the past and the present. Concerns regarding the passage of time and the natural alteration of our bodies gave way to conversations about lives lived well, families loved and expanding, jobs that brought satisfaction, travels that educated and, for several, well-earned retirement. While old school tales, embellished of course, of youthful indiscretions were enjoyed, enough time had passed, so that most of the conversation dealt with other subjects, of the present and the future. Thankfully, medical problems and politics were generally avoided. It was like meeting a group of men and their wives for the first time, but knowing we had something in common in our distant past. The fact that we are no longer encumbered or intimidated by the role our fellow students once played – the best actor, the top student or the foremost athlete – provided the means for familiar and comfortable conversation.
I had not looked forward to the weekend, but as Caroline and I drove home following dinner on Saturday we spoke of the day and a half and the pleasure we derived from spending time with an enjoyable group, importantly ones whom I had known in their teens and now, in the late summer of their years, ones with whom I am reacquainted. My old roommate, John Harper, urged I attend. Thanks, John.