I was confronted recently by the enduring question posed by the Clash and memorably highlighted in an ad for Choice hotels: Should I stay or should I go?
I’m talking about the King High School Class of 1971’s 45-year reunion.
It’s always easier to invent reasons not to go, of course. What’ll we talk about? Haven’t I heard all their stories? Haven’t I told all of mine? Don’t I see the people I care about from time to time anyway? I didn’t lose those 20 pounds. I really could use that weekend catching up on, I don’t know, something.
A further wrinkle cropped up a month or so ago: Some of my work for the late, lamented Tampa Tribune had made the finals in the Florida Press Club’s annual contest; the awards banquet announcing the fate of those efforts (in commentary and feature writing) was set, in St. Augustine, for the second night of our reunion.
My decision, then, wasn’t merely binary: Should I go or should I stay? It was tertiary: Should I go here or should I go there, or should simply chuck it all, put my feet up and stay home?
In the end, for me there was only one viable option.
I went to my high school reunion. After all, they come around only every five years. And, truth be told, as one of those pushing for it when some of the usual organizers thought of calling it off, I’d crossed the point of no return ages ago.
It’s not like sticking by my commitment wasn’t complicated. The heir apparent, who is built like a dream offensive tackle but preferred beating a bass drum to getting his head beaten on — wise lad — was, that Friday night, a part of the Senior Night festivities at Tampa Catholic High.
Now, I’m a big fan of the traditional reunion first night mingle, but Senior Night happens just once a lifetime. So, while my classmates were snacking on hors d’oeuvres and reacquainting with one another, the redoubtable Debbie and I escorted The Boy to midfield for polite applause and photographs, then settled in for the Crusaders’ annual drubbing by the Jesuit Tigers.
Even then, however, it never crossed my mind we wouldn’t go. Never mind the event site was nearly an hour away in Indian Rocks Beach, and that most everybody — because we have achieved a certain vulnerable age — would have packed it in.
After the final horn, we caught up with The Boy to say our farewells and reiterate our expectations — he was about to be home alone for the next 36 hours or so; it would be excellent if he didn’t burn the place down. And then we set off. Finally, close to midnight, we arrived to find a healthy collection of stragglers around tables near an outdoor bar.
Just as I was about to attribute this lingering to alcohol-fueled inertia, someone sang out one of the sweetest phrases known to humans. “There you are! We’ve been waiting for you!”
To be clear: I was not one of the cool kids, exactly. I was a perpetual ’tweener: Not quite an athlete (I was a football placekicker), not quite a scholar, not quite a politician (though I ran frequently, I lost routinely), never (ever) a stoner. I was fringy, associated with lots of groups, rarely occupying the center of any.
Once upon a time, I was not the guy two dozen of the happening kids would have waited to catch up with. Not just in high school, but certainly not at the 10-year or, probably, even the 20-year reunions.
But time — with our class, anyway, and I expect it’s this way with most — peels away clique structures. As the years mount, and the memories fade, we warm to those who shared our coming-of-age experience. This strikes me as against the odds, but the phenomenon is real.
Public high schools throw together collections of kids from backgrounds, family structures, socioeconomic status, ethnicities and ambitions so varied, each and everyone of them could serve as a sociologist’s dream laboratory.
Then there’s the expectation this random population ultimately will gain sophisticated academic knowledge while developing the skills necessary to become suitable human beings — all while coping with surging hormones and awkward bodies. It has proved an imperfect system.
Indeed, it’s a wonder any of us emerge still talking to each other, let alone regarding ourselves as friends. For life. But, we do. People are weird.
And so we gathered, 60-some-odd of us out of a class of more than 500 (admittedly, we need to recruit better). We came together to remember the good times, smooth over some of the bad, refuse to talk politics (on the weekend before Election Day) and to ignore, as well as we could, the passage of years.
Anybody who’s attended a high school reunion past the age of 50 knows the joke: Who invited all these old people?
Well. That might have made the rounds last time we gathered, but nobody uttered it all weekend. This is not definitive, of course. Super hearing is not among my powers.
Maybe the reason I didn’t hear it is because, frankly, for a bunch of folks staring down the barrel of full retirement age, we looked pretty good.
With the possible exception of your humble correspondent, the Class of 1971 has held up exceptionally well. Despite the gray (or white) hair — or lack of same — the full-time eye gear, and the lines of wisdom etched on our faces, it was still possible to detect a twinkle of the kids we were all those years ago.
There is a freshening, too, in reliving old stories. One talked about the summer he picked tobacco in North Carolina — dirty, backbreaking work — and another before our senior year when he and two football teammates acted as counselors in a Blue Ridge Mountains camp run by our head coach.
Then, Sunday night, after we’d dispersed to the lives we’ve fashioned apart from each other, I got a private message from this very classmate who, inspired by the gathering and the photos it produced, joined Facebook to enroll in our online family.
This is not someone who wears his sentiments on his sleeve. In fact, well-suited to his chosen field — engineering — he is the essence of reticence. He studies. He analyzes. So when he speaks, people lean in, as I did when this uncharacteristically revealing assertion popped up:
Getting the gang back together wasn’t just a weekend well-spent, he wrote. It made him feel 20 years younger.
It made me realize I’d felt springier in my steps, too. Somehow, a weekend among my high school mates stirred the optimistic, idealistic kid within.
He’s still there. All he needed was a little nudge from the past. Which brings me to a recommendation for others weighing the high school reunion stay-or-go question.
Go, by all means.
It turns out marinating in memories can be your own Fountain of Youth.
Published November 16, 2016