Old Ruts and New Beginnings at the 40th High School Reunion

Last weekend my high school class gathered for our 40th class reunion. Bleck. The class of 1973 at Dickinson High School once numbered just under 200. According to the count of our informal class historian, ten of us have died so far. (The clock has started to matter). But only about 45 of us turned up for the reunion. The usual suspects. Where the other 150 graduates were I have no idea. Perhaps they thought it would be impossible to find rooms in the new Dickinson of the Bakken era.

We followed the time worn pattern. Reception Friday night with homemade hors d'oeuvres, made by the same cluster of women who have done all the work at every function since we were in first grade. The Rough Riders Roundup parade on Saturday morning. And then a banquet in the appropriately named Sodbusters Room at the Elks Club on Saturday night. Plenty of drinking. Lots of catch-up talk. Really You joined the Peace Corps Why didn't I know that How did you like Upper Volta So this is your fourth wife Well, she's really very lovely. So prison's not so bad, huh Or my favorite You've lived in Dickinson all this time I've never run into you in 40 years!

The most amazing thing about a high school class reunion is that everything is different and yet everything is also frozen in time. Some of the kids from the wrong side of the tracks have prospered in amazing ways, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and done remarkable and important things in the world. It's thrilling to hear their stories. It makes you believe in the American dream again. And yet the moment they enter that room, they walk through a portal back in time to 1972, when George McGovern made his quixotic run for the presidency against Richard Milhous Nixon, and the Watergate break-in touched off one of the most fascinating political crises in American history. Suddenly we are all thrust back into a small town class system that is surprisingly tenacious (and vicious). Social cliques that have been unfed for forty full years suddenly reassert themselves, and everyone is immediately made aware that the popular elite continue to regard themselves as a breed apart and above. For the most part everyone accepts their allotted place on the great chain of being. We're like dairy cattle suddenly let into the barn we all waddle right back to our old assigned stanchions.

Ancient grudges catch fire like an ember long buried in a heap of ash that suddenly gets a whiff of oxygen. Ancient unrequited romantic longings play themselves out as if someone pushed the eight-track tape back into the slot right where it left off at that famous spin the bottle party in 1969. People stand around gossiping about who has a crush on whom, and who won't accept that Brent doesn't fancy her and never will. The incident at the state basketball tournament is hotly debated as if it occurred a week ago Thursday rather than 42 long years ago, at the other end of our lives. It's as if we are all helpless to emancipate ourselves from our primal roles. Actually, I think we secretly like the old stew of adolescent angst.

We could not have been more pathetic in the big Saturday morning parade. Almost everyone turned up late, as if to a float-decorating session on the weekend before homecoming. Some of us had to be hoisted up onto the flatbed with a crane. Most folks brought deck chairs, and the usual women brought extra chairs for the ones who forgot to bring them, just as they forgot to bring a pencil to math, or a note from their parents before the bus trip to Williston. We were Float 139 or something, so far back that the lead vehicles virtually lapped us before we moved at all. If there had been a lamest entry in the parade we would have won hands down. The parade, in fact, was essentially an elongated trade fair for the Bakken Oil Boom featuring gigantic rigs of mysterious purpose that lumbered through the streets of west Dickinson like a stray herd of Triceratops. We (of '73) just sat there on those deck chairs, all spread out to appear to be numerous. It felt more like the outdoor deck of a nursing home after supper than a class of young men and women that once looked upon the world as their oyster. Nobody cheered us. I studied the crowds along the street. They were looking at us with the same disbelief we once reserved for the Class of 1947 To this fate I will never come. I will never be that old. And this is just the 40th. Ten years from now we'll need an array of oxygen valves.

We all gathered more or less on time for the big banquet at the Elks. It was just like old times my date stood me up, even though she had invited me to the event more than a year ago. I gave the after dinner talk, because RB, our class president, didn't show up again. He has been specially invited to each of our four reunions. On several of those occasions he has agreed to come—and speak—and each time he has failed to turn up. At which point the organizers have tended to turn (in dismay) to me, the junior runner up.

I told two stories, one about adolescent love and one about mature love. The first story was about a girl named Linda Kokko with whom I was helplessly in love in eighth grade. It took me eleven movies at the one-screen downtown movie theater to work up the courage to hold her hand (about the time the credits began to roll), and then—on a perfect winter night at the skating rink over by the college—I somehow stumbled over the threshold and had my first kiss. She moved to Billings shortly thereafter (so far as I know, unrelated). As a farewell gift I bought her a birthstone ring at Britton Jewelers for $2.45. When my father—a decidedly hands off father—found out about it he came in my room one evening and closed the door. (Trouble ahead!). He asked me to confirm the story that Miss Kokko was leaving the territory and that I had spent all of my available capital on a birthstone ring. Through crimson blushing I confirmed the word on the street. At which point he gave me virtually the only advice he ever offered: 'Son, never buy oats for a dead horse.'

Well, I have been buying oats for dead horses all of my life, no letup in sight.

But then I told the story of my mother, now 81, who attended her 50th college reunion in Moorhead ten years ago. My father had been dead for eight years at that point and mother had sworn off any possibility of second romance. She ran into a boy she had dated a couple of times in college. Back then—the cad--he had sent her a Dear John letter, which—in her sweet Germanic way--she still has, and has thrown in his face from time to time. They rekindled their romance at their 50th class reunion. They are still an item, very much in love, and mother is, I believe, happier than she has ever been.

I've adjusted to this amazing occurrence with my usual evenness of temper. My shrink says I should stop wetting the bed sometime late next year.