Saturday, June 27, 2009

Surrounded by a Bunch of Old Men

Last evening my wife and I spent the evening in the company of a group of old men and their wives. I had warned my wife before we arrived, "I won't recognize anybody." And I was correct. Fifty years ago these old men and I walked across the high school stage and were handed our diplomas. We didn't look like teenagers any more. Time does terrible things to one's body. Twenty were already dead.

There were conversations about bypass surgery, stents, enlarged prostates and other sordid topics that I recall my older relatives discussing after Thanksgiving dinner long ago. Yet, these were my classmates, those energetic, narcissistic and optimistic fellow graduates who I last saw in June of 1959.

No one looked the same as that small photo glued to our name tags. When approaching someone, each would quickly glance at that 18-year-old graduation picture, before speaking. "Bill! nice to see you." "How are you, Harry?" "Remember 4th period study hall?" "What ever happened to Jim Smith?"

Surely, each of us, had we been brutally honest, would have said, "Damned, Bill, you sure don't look like that photo stuck on your shirt; what the hell happened to you?"

Fifty years of gravity, stress, sun-exposure, and careless health choices had made their marks. It was clear- we were a bunch of old men. Nonetheless, we were a jovial lot throughout the evening, telling tales of our classroom misadventures and rating our teachers. "I hope he's burning in Hell!" was a common phrase said about one of our history teachers. I may have been the first one. He really was a bastard. Lots of sentences began, "Remember when...?"

Tales of another time, another world. Kennedy was just a senator and the Washington Senators were customarily at the bottom of the American League standings. Jim Bunning a pitcher for the Tigers, and no one then thought he's become a U.S. Senator. No one had walked on the moon; no one had a cell phone or a PC. Typewriters and White-out for errors. 'Mack the Knife' "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "Stagger Lee" on the new transistor radios. Studebakers, DeSotos and Packards in our driveways. TV's were tuned to Rawhide, Bonanza and, of course, American Bandstand. Two new states, Alaska and Hawaii. The word 'astronaut' entered our conversations as did Cape Canaveral. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper go down- the day the music died. Doris Day and Connie Francis and, of course, Annette Funicello lit our fires. Some cigar-smoking revolutionary named Castro topples the Cuban regime. Here in Toledo, the St. Lawrence Seaway opens to bring international ships to our city. Our youngest sisters have Barbie Dolls in their bedrooms and our girlfriends might be wearing pantyhose. Two monkeys were shot into space and a far-distant place on earth called Vietnam began to catch our attention.

Ancient history to our grandchildren. Just yesterday for us.

Little did we know, as we gathered those 50 years ago for photographs with our classmates and family, how our world would would change and, in fact, define us . We were at that ripe age that kings, dictators and other political miscreants sent off to foreign lands to fight the old-man wars- for glory, greed and vengeance. The killing fields of Vietnam awaited us. Vietnam would forever both define and scar this graduation class. Some would return in body bags; others with life-long PTSD.

Who knew, in that summer of '59, that America would fight another war? Our dads and uncles had just come back from Japan and Germany, and our oldest cousins from Korea. Surely we thought, in our naivety, that our generation would be smart enough to avoid yet another war. Our new and young president would not ask us to go 'over there' and fight 'the enemy,' would he? We had college and marriage and careers ahead of us, not another war. Surely not our generation. Surely not us.

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