We The People

The 40th

The 40th

By Skip Eshelman – “When you can’t be with the one you love, love the one your with” -Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young

Well, in this case a group of people, and admittedly somewhat conflicted. I expected the notice, but hadn’t mentally prepared for the delivery. The announcement of my 40th high school reunion showed up out of the clear magenta blue Wyoming sky, causing me to consider my senior status. They picked August, which is generally pretty humid for western Pennsylvania. On the plus side, the corn should be great. Hard to believe, four decades ago, I walked in the halls of Grove City High School, facing adulthood, and scared to death. My family was disintegrating, Americans landed on the moon, war raged in the Far East, and I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do for work, or anything else for that matter.

The mainstream media keeps telling me I am a “baby boomer”, born and bred into a life of privilege, luxury and affluence. That is, until Obama showed up of course. Remember, he’s the guy who shouted “Hope and Change”, and under his breath “to socialism”.  Anyway, the front edge of the boomers have been looking their 60th birthdays in the face for a number of years, and mine is only two away.

My story probably isn’t the ordinary or “typical white person’s” scenario, as our national racist and president likes to say. If it is typical, then God help us all….. My folks worked real hard, divorced in real time, and my father took it real bad. Never got over it in fact, to the point he rejected my siblings and me when he died of heart failure at the ripe old age of fifty-eight, the same age I am at this writing.

Mom and Dad were splitting my senior year of high school. It was coming for a long time, but we did not see the signs, or the nuance of trouble ahead. They were in their early to mid-forties. Damn, that seems young now. She married the service manager of a car dealership situated next to her real estate office. Dad betrothed a spinster, who worked as the Dean of Women at the local college. When Pop kicked the bucket, the spinster turned step-mother got it all. Point being, as a baby boomer, nobody gave me anything.

I married a second generation American Italian at the age of 20, and discovered families aren’t all totally dysfunctional. Bought my first home that same year. Managed to build a ranch, retire early from the computer field, and harvest most of the big game species of Wyoming. I can ride, shoot, and fix fence. Paint, write on social issues as well as for myself, and return from the gas station with at least a couple stories. I value the truth, love freedom, believe hard work has its own rewards, and family is what its all about.

Feeding, burping, and changing a baby, without waking them up is a piece of cake. We raised three wonderful kids; putting them through college without the federal largess of PELL Grants, or student loans. After thirty-eight years, my little wife still deems it necessary to provide verbal whippings and critiques for encouragement, which are apparently well deserved, because she doesn’t have an apologetic bone in her body.

Yup, I have it all including high blood pressure, a fused back, new left knee, thinning hair, thickening mid-section, and failing eye sight. Reading glasses are mandatory. People insist on talking quieter, and my family complains the TV is too loud. There’s also the two cholesterol meds, that replaced snacks before bed a long time ago. I’ve come by the gimp honestly, some days looking more like Grandpa McCoy than I prefer.

Attendance at the 30th had been spurred by curiosity more than anything else. I never maintained much of a connection with any of my classmates. I lost my best friend in our senior year because his girl said I made a pass at her, the witch. Wasn’t true. Fact is, I thought her rather homely, and self-centered of all things. Anyway, the friend took her word over mine, we exchanged blows, and that was that. Years later, I saw him in a store during one of my visits home. He couldn’t even say “Hi“, let alone make eye contact.

A fella by the name of Green, now a retired columnist with the Denver Post, had reported on his class reunion, coincidentally for the same year, and held a month earlier. Turns out, no difference could be determined, other than fifteen hundred miles, between the two reunions. Basically, a bunch of folks showing the wear and tear of life, arrive with the intention of leaving as early as possible. The jocks weren’t real viable, the beautiful people became just a bunch of middle aged folks like everybody else, the majority exceeded their health chart recommendations by quite a bit, and all had become party poopers. Locals didn’t care to show up for the most part. I don’t know what the logic is of that phenomena, except perhaps they felt left behind. What they may have failed to realize, is there wasn’t anything at home to anchor most of us who did leave.

Like Green, the Denver reporter if you have forgotten, I stayed behind to help clean up the hall. Unlike Green, I had bought some wine in the hopes of getting the old gang to rendezvous at the closed city park pool, and visit. I never even broached the subject to the oldsters. Most were obviously up way past their bedtime. The rest just flat looked bored with all the activity (sitting there, staring at their watches). By 9 P.M. they left as predicted. The one bright spot of the evening would be the vote. Patricia Wettig, an actress of some note, and class mate, had informed the “In” crowd she would grace us with her presence, but didn‘t make it. Someone suggested an up or down poll to see if anyone actually cared. I will let you find out how it went (part of the suspense of this essay, which I understand is necessary to keep your interest). My bet is, no vote had even been taken when I passed on the 35th reunion, recovering from back surgery. Who would have guessed?

Heres my dilemma. Should a fifteen hundred mile trip by car or plane, be taken, to an event featuring old people who amassed ten more years of age, that didn’t have much to say to me when we were in high school, and once again be relegated to clean-up crew out of civic duty? Or, should I attend the 40th right here in Cheyenne, not a mile from home, where all my kids graduated, where I have attended more high school functions than three alumni’s, and as a side benefit, save enough dollars to see some Las Vegas shows?

Think of it. The music would be the same, the jocks would be balding and fat just like the cheer leaders, well fat anyway, and nobody would dance, partly because they don’t want to embarrass themselves, partly because they don’t want to aggravate their injuries, or incur new ones. We would compare notes on bad hearts, repaired backs, various cancers, knee replacements, hysterectomies, sugar, AA, divorces, marriages, raising kids, returning kids, how to encourage kids to leave, what we will do with the demise of Social Security, dying 401Ks, the advent of socialism, and of course, how to get our old toilets back. All important issues today, regardless of the zip code you’re from.

I did love the music of the 60‘s and 70‘s. Cant say high school provided a good time, no matter what kind of light I shine on the experience. My Dyslexia wasn’t heard of back in those dark ages, and such problems were considered symptomatic of retardation (now called special needs, etc.). I remember a junior high counselor telling my mother , “the best Skip can hope for is a simple job at the manufacturing plant in town.” It is interesting how things work out. I continued attending college most of my adult life, pulling good grades too.

Heres another thought. If I attended Cheyenne’s reunion, I wouldn’t be carrying the considerable baggage of a broken heart, snubs, social distinctions, athletic stratification, and parental disappointments my former classmates would conjure up for me. Still, I am haunted by this lingering curiosity of how those who shared the experiences of youth with me, fared in life.

Two questions are, “who has expired?”, and “would I care?”. There is this need to right some wrongs,
done by me and to me, and set the record straight, that require some sort of resolution. A few apologies are owed too. Maybe even ask some “why?” and “what were you thinking?” questions. None of this is probably important to the other parties, but what if its been on their minds as well? What if they retained their heart and soul after all these years, while putting up with the dynamics of life? What if they carried the same burdens, the same questions, the same or similar wounds? What if I am asking too much of these people? I have been disappointed in my countrymen of late for a variety of reasons.

I’m sitting here poolside at the Peppermill in Reno , writing this essay. The youngster, not 20 feet away, is trying her best to encourage melanoma, but doesn’t interest me in the least, even though she is busting out of what little bit of coverage she managed to find, which I‘m quite sure is expensive, and my thoughts are flowing about life at her age.

The way I see it, there’s four options:

1. Go to my own 40th reunion
2. Go to Cheyenne’s 40th
3. Go to both and compare notes
4. Bag the whole thing, and use the money saved to buy some trees for the farm, or replacement chickens

I’m leaning toward option 4, and making a promise to lose some weight after seeing all these orcas in the chlorinated waters of Nevada.

Still, theres this persistent nagging need to try and connect with my youth , as tormented as it seems. I did make several attempts over the years , but those childhood friends wished to remain just that. Their rejection kind of completed the entire circle of relationships, except for my kids and a sister. All of this sounds like stuff discussed supine with a disinterested professional I suppose, but somehow this junk is stowed away, to be revisited from time to time, at the slightest provocation.

Then there are the signs that suggest an appearance is necessary. As part of spring cleaning, my little wife decided we should go through all the boxes of correspondence and memorabilia accumulated over the past 39 to 40 years, with the goal of recycling most of the cards and letters. All those pieces of mail felt so sacred. One shoe box was presented to me for the purpose of high grading the bits and pieces of my personal history. It contained correspondence just out of high school, to about a year and a half later.

The evening was spent swimming in wave after wave of emotion, and in disbelief that I had ignored many pleas for correspondence. My mother gave out my address freely. She must have sensed the loneliness I did experience in the center of a million people. If the cards and letters were saved by a young man of eighteen, they were wanted and welcomed in my estimation, and should be enshrined somewhere other than in bathroom products or paper towels.

Coming from a small town in western Pennsylvania, did not provide for carnal knowledge of the authors, or classmates. This didn’t hold true for big city youth in the sixties. There were only a couple of girls who went away for a time, while in high school. Admittedly, heavy petting did occur on a regular basis, but somehow respect for women was instilled against my better judgment. This didn’t strike me to be the case for my counterparts in the metropolis. Could be that I dated the proverbial girls next door. My folks knew their folks, I knew their brothers, etc. The letters were tossed, and I regret that. Perhaps the authors would have wanted their work for posterity, or at least to read their own thoughts so many years ago. I figure this would be part of my apology tour at the reunion.

While rummaging through the memories, I found seven letters from another great friend, who was a couple years older. They were post marked Viet Nam, for free of course, and contained pictures as well as commentary about how much he looked forward to coming home in a little less than five months.

Ten years after the “conflict” was over, I had boxed up all his letters and sent them to my mother-in-law. I knew he lived in the same city, but I had no current address. I hoped it would tickle him to get all those thoughts and feelings about his experiences back into his hands. I also worried they might bring up bad memories too. Figured I’d send them to Grammy, and he could decide if he wanted them or not.

This would be the proverbial “cold call”. I hadn’t seen or even spoken to him for twenty years. Maybe secretly, I wanted to pick up our friendship, and start the reconnection process. That wouldn’t happen however. “Robin, do you want your letters back from when you were in the service?”, I had asked him. “Hell yeah!”, he said. “I can’t believe you saved that stuff all these years!”. “Well, they’re at Mrs. J’s. You remember were she lives?”, I asked. I told him Grammy understood the circumstances, and didn’t mind holding the letters for him. The excitement in his voice could be detected clear out in Wyoming. I called Gram to warn her Robin would be over to pick them up, and as we visited she announced, “He’s here!”.

I never heard back from him. When I returned for my 30th reunion, I looked Robin up. He had lost his wife to cancer, and raised the two boys by himself. He spent a career working with troubled kids from the greater Pittsburgh area, and enjoyed the experience for the most part, he had told me. Ten years later, I once again sent him the seven letters, but again, I have not heard back. I worry he didn’t get them from time to time. Maybe, I expect too much.

Except for the 30th, all the other reunions were missed. When we gathered for the class picture, the photographer had me kneel in center front, and placed two of my buddies on either side. Somehow, she managed to place smaller and smaller people to my left and right like a pyramid. Then the next line of mostly women stood behind us, and lastly, the back line of nearly all men. The pictures were taken. We groaned in unison while getting back on our feet, and laughed at the feebleness shared by all.

After several months passed, I sent email to one of the class members, who still lived in our home town. He had taken over the family golf course business, and hosted a class tournament for the 30th. I asked him what the status was on the picture, and he informed me no one he knew had received a shot, but he would let me know when they hit the streets. Several more months went by before I received an email informing me that the “Skip Eshelman and his Class” photo was on its way.

Could have been my white shirt, straw colored leather vest, and tan jacket. Possibly my rugged look with boots and blue jeans, but I stuck out like a sun lit bull elk against a backdrop of timber. The girls who had wrote to me all those years ago, managed to be standing behind me. I should have given the lady photographer more money for such a great picture. Nah, just kidding. She did that composition all by her self. What I should have done, was send her flowers. Now it comes to me.

Just may talk with Sally (who tipped me off about her 40th Cheyenne reunion), to verify the date, and check her thoughts regarding my attendance. During a transaction at the Credit Union, I happen to mention the event in Pennsylvania, and she informed me she too is a member of the class of ’70 there in town. At least I could say I made the 40th.

The ironic thing is, my little girl is planning her 10th class reunion for the Cheyenne East class of 2000. She is nervous about the efforts success. I understand there are different expectations with each reunion, but having only one under my belt, I can‘t provide much insight.

As parents, we lived through the high school years my daughter, and her two brothers experienced, but they seem surreal on reflection. All the conferences, plays, events, ceremonies, proms, and games had been attended, but somehow their youth in my mind, had been clouded by concerns for college financing, work, etc. I remember the heartaches of their passage thru life’s experiences, and we suffered with them. I also recall their successes too, and we rejoiced as well. While they contended with their teens, we wrestled with our own passage thru middle age. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to work. Each generation is distracted by their own day to day living requirements.

Receipt of the 40th announcement, along with periodic solicitations to join senior groups, the aches and pains, all now serve to remind us we are moving into the last phase of our life. It really hits home, when reflections of a couple hobbling thru the mall, keep following us. I’ll say to my little wife, ”Look at that Mom, we’ve become old crippled up folks over night!”. Building a ranch from scratch, crawling around mountains, riding horses, and standing on her feet most of a 40 year nursing career will do that to a couple.

Like her husband, the gorgeous woman has become faded and gray . The prospects of a bankrupt Social Security, weak 401ks, and questionable vested retirement plans probably hurries things along. There’s the worry over our kid’s futures too, giving those concerns priority over our own it seems. I won’t die a millionaire like my own father, leaving his good fortune to strangers, but I will make sure my kids get a little piece of Wyoming heaven. It will be up to them after that, and I no longer have confidence they will be allowed to keep it. This is on my mind.

I think the answer has arrived, that is, people are similar across the country, distinguished only by the experiences of their times, but can I let my hypothesis go without testing it? That remains to be seen. Let me throw this out for consideration. Think about a reunion closest to you. Maybe not in the same town, but within an easy drive, and make it a mini vacation. This would be true for those who never left town as well. Nobody will know you, just like at your own reunion, so you can pretend to be the jock, or cheerleader. At this age, the genders are starting to look alike, so you can live out even more fantasies.

Dance the night away. Toast to those who couldn’t make the festivities, no matter what their excuses. Raise another to the men and women who keep us free, and sacrificed when necessary. Then hoist one last glass to those who played such important roles in our lives: parents, teachers, friends, team mates, first loves, lost loves, etc.

The main thing is to have fun! I’m thinking such occasions will become rare events for quite a while.

Post Script:
Robin called. He’s doing fine and enjoying retirement.
After sending the essay to a few classmates, I received several nasty-grams dis-inviting me to the reunion, as my presence was not wanted, nor appreciated. I replied I would take their advice, and avoid the name calling (vitriolic, woman hating, racist, but she left out homophobic for some reason) along with pontification from the west coasters, and the cold shoulders of the eastern sea boarders. I’m thinking a ride in the mountains with Red, my Tennessee Walker, would be time better spent. Wanted to do that anyway, but couldn’t convince myself.

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Timothy Bennett
9 years ago

This is a great article with a very interesting insight into how life passes us all by. I am one of those old school friends of the author who have good memories of him and our school days. Those memories are a part of us that we carry through the years, where ever we may end up living or how life treats us. I thoroughly enjoyed the article and the humor he used in telling the story. Thanks Skip!

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