Hel-LO! You’re … Who Again? (class reunion by Dick Cavett)

June 14, 2013, 9:00 pm

Hel-LO! You’re … Who Again?


It takes a certain amount of guts to go to your class reunions.

Particularly when your graduation ceremonies — from high school and from college — are about a half-century back in time. There are too many reminders of “Time’s wing’ed chariot.”

By the time I signed up for the first high school reunion I went to I had become a “television personality.” A fact that skewed the otherwise normalcy of the occasion.

I couldn’t wait. What would my classmates’ behavior be? Adoring? Awed? Fawning? Pointedly unimpressed?

Would I have the almost surreal experience of actually signing autographs for my classmates? (Yes.)

I blush now to recall how I fantasized what the impact would be of my grand entrance into a milling, partying crowd of those classmates. When it happened, the effect was enough to gratify even an excessive ego. I could immediately see, “He’s here!” “He came!” and “There’s Dick” on numerous lips.

More confession, this one a bit cringe-making:

What I was feeling, irrationally and way too strongly, it took a moment to identify. It was: why couldn’t this famousness have been true back then, when I felt socially inept and awkward with girls? Then would Barbara Britten have gone out with me?

I was partly embarrassed by it all and partly struck with myself. I felt a bit like Bob Hope in a period comedy, stepping out of a carriage to an adoring crowd, with, “I wonder what the dull people are doing.”

Not an entirely pretty sight, self-adoration-wise.

Working into the crowd at the Legion Hall, I tried to make eye contact whenever possible. When I was able to actually pluck a name from memory, the reaction was almost embarrassing.

I saw a guy named Berwyn Jones not far away and mouthed his first name through the din, an easy name to read at a distance. “YES!” he mouthed back, pleased as punch. His delight was touching.

Of course there had to be at least one instance of the inevitable. A guy deep in his cups, with a redwood-size chip on his shoulder, shoved at me a big glass of scotch: “I bought you this drink.”

“A few sips of wine are my limit,” I said politely.

“So I guess you’re too damn good to have a drink with a nobody like me?”

Thank goodness, I suppressed anything like, “You’re getting close to the truth,” as his embarrassed wife led him away.

A surprising thing began to come clear. The girls I’d known long ago in school were now of two distinct sorts. Some of the prettiest had become with time, um, less so. But some who back then would have been, in the awful phrase, “desperation dates” had miraculously blossomed, with time. Into lovely and appealing women.

Time giveth and time taketh away.

A startling piece of news. One of the queens of my class — a beauty and a “big wheel” whom I had deemed a goddess too far above me by half to even speak to — had landed up a divorced mother of three, toiling as a waitress in a roadhouse cafe in Texas. My mind ran to Ecclesiastes’ “Time and chance happeneth to them all.”

Adonises from my class were fat and balding.

And I still felt inferior to them, as I had way back then. Until winning a state gymnastics championship assuaged any wimp factor floating about.

Quite a few Lincoln High reunions went by, at five-year intervals, before I ventured again.

This time, maybe a decade or so ago, there were only a couple of classmates in the registration room. One said, “You don’t recognize us, but we know who you are.”

Then I saw it.

A large bulletin board panel displayed rows of 8 x 10 photos of some of our classmates. The shock was immediate. They were those who had — as the world’s favorite euphemism puts it — passed away. Even as a kid I wondered, is “passed away” better than being dead? Away to what? Or where? (I still wonder.) There was poor Tom H. and unlucky Ted P. — a car crash — and, oh, no! Not Sally L.!

Too many rows of them grinned out at us from their old, beaming graduation photos, faces full of life and eager promise.

Arriving at Lincoln’s Cornhusker Hotel a little late for that night’s big dinner, I was greeted by the cheery lady at the desk: “Mr. C., you’ll find your classmates at the bottom of that escalator.”

“Still standing, I hope,” I said. I was Bob Hope again.

From just a little way down the escalator, looking at the people below entering the big dining room, I saw that the nice lady had clearly misdirected me.

There were several events in the Cornhusker that night and this one was obviously one for old folks. An elderly wife helped a lame husband.

And yet there amid the elderly, was that not Karen Rauch, looking great as ever? What event was Karen attending with what looked like elderly relatives?

I didn’t get it.

I ran the few steps back up against the tide of the torpid escalator and said to the woman at the desk, “I think you sent me wrong. That looks like a reunion of The Early Settlers Club.”

“That’s your class, ” she said. “I guess that’s what happens.”

Noticeable shock. Poetry came again. “Time, that subtle thief of youth” ran in my head.

These oldies were me, and I was them.

The strangest part of the aging factor is that, as with suffering, people don’t experience it equally.

A goodly number looked recognizably as they had in high school. Others, like those people’s parents. The ages seemed to range a decade or more above and below what, by definition, our common age really was.

It was as if the casting department had been told by a movie director, “I need a few hundred extras who graduated high school in the ’50s. Throw in the usual number of good-lookers, some not so well preserved. And, of course, toss in a few shipwrecks.”

Another bad moment happened. Some parents had been invited and I said to a man whose badge said, let’s say, Jim Parks. “Young Jim and I were in French class together,” said I. His face changed.

You guessed it. This was young Jim. My brow hottens, just typing this. I’ve almost gotten over it.

Then there’s hair.

In high school, white hair was on the teachers.

Now — to put it rudely — to look out over the audience was to risk snow blindness.

There were side events, including a walking tour of our old high school. Seeing again the old corridors, lockers, and even drinking fountains exhumed long-lost memories. Like the time poor Leland (last name gone) during a fire drill, while the deafening siren drowned any talk or sound, decided to scream, “HI, DICKIE!”

I should have only seen, not heard, this. But in the instant between Leland’s intake of breath and his deafening scream, the siren had stopped. His scream had no competition. Leland seemed to shrink about five sizes. I was weak with laughter.

Every head turned as Leland was taken somewhere.

Suddenly, there was my picture. Part of an “L.H.S. Hall of Fame.” My fellow “successes” were largely in business or state politics, I gathered — except for me and a pretty blond. My friend Sandy Dennis — yes, that one. Also departed.

Now, sex.

I still can’t reconcile my guiltless world in grades 7 though 9, when sex was only rumored, at least for me. There’s no avoiding “How times have changed.”

In an earlier column I wrote about the variously worded newspaper headlines that year reporting, as one put it, “Fellatio on Junior High Bus — While Others Cheered.” Would my Welsh Baptist minister grandfather — upon being informed what the key word meant — have expired on the spot?

Considering that naughty trick of Mama Nature’s of endowing the male with his sexual peak at ages 14 to 16, the question becomes why — with virginity now a rarity in high school — don’t way more than the few in my graduating class knock (or get knocked) up? Or do they? Keep your answer brief and to the point.

A group of us had opted for the tour of our old school’s halls. The sharp young principal ultimately led us to a certain door in the “new section.” It was inset and locked, so only a pair of people at a time could peer in the window.

Coming away, they looked puzzled.

My turn came. It was a room that looked like a large kiddies’ toy store, all in bright colors with everything padded to prevent injury: tiny tricycles, fluffy, short ladders for climbing, and enough stuff to supply a sizable number of small people with playthings. People guessed at its purpose.

A woman asked if it was a nice charity project where poor kids could come and play.

I don’t think anyone guessed the correct answer.

It was for the children of the students of Lincoln High School. There was a collective intake of breath.

Surely a boon for teenage day-care needers.

I haven’t been to another L.H.S. reunion. I’m not sure why, but I have an odd theory.

Could it be an irrational fear of walking in to that registration room on Day One and — in a moment out of “The Twilight Zone” — discovering my own picture on the “Those Who Have Left Us” wall?

About MZR

I am a middle aged man trying to be the best person I can become, make a positive difference in our world, while trying to make sense of my life's journey.
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