You’re looking at a photograph from one of my high school reunions. The class of 1961 is standing on a beach in front of Sebago Lake, Maine under storm driven clouds that will eventually drive us inside the pavilion and cancel our boat ride. Probably because I’ve started writing this blog on pilgrimage, I look at the photograph and see all of us now as pilgrims, “reunioning” every five years or so to catch up on where our journeys have taken us.
Along the way, most of us have gained weight. Men have gone gray, white, or bald. Some of the women are gray haired and buxom, while others color their hair and show that sinewy look that comes from regular aerobic exercise. Most of the class is smiling. Several of us in the front row don’t know what to do with our hands, so we cross them in front of ourselves, like those paintings of Adam and Eve after they learn about sin and realize they’re naked.
Reunions are a unique combination of past and present. One minute four of us guys rhapsodize about drag racing over the Cousins Island Bridge, while the next minute we compare the fiber contents in our breakfast cereals. Gazing into the picture, I can hear Doug’s HAW HAW HAW booming over the sand the same way it used to echo in the gym when we called him “Spider.” Some of us who used to work in Bornheimer’s Market Garden are chuckling about how many beet greens we’d be able to cut these days. My old jazz band, “The Ivy Leaguers,” remembers our appearance on Channel 6’s “Youth Cavalcade.”
We began our respective pilgrimages by crossing the threshold of the familiar, and going separate but similar ways. At some level, we all wore tie-dyes and long hair, went to Viet Nam, saw Nixon’s name on the ballot and waited in gas lines. We’ve listened to Elvis and Little Richard, Dylan and Baez, the Beatles and the Stones; we’ve given up cigarettes and taken up bottled water, personal computers, and cell phones.
Like all pilgrims, we’ve had to relinquish our grasp on certainty and control. We’ve been to one degree or another broken. Half of us—the national average—are divorced. Most of us have lost our parents, some have lost brothers or sisters, and several of us have lost children.
And then there’s our own decay. We try to make fun of our creaky backs and artificial hips and knees and arthritic shoulders, the hearing aids and pacemakers, but cancer and COPD and CHF are not laughing matters. Almost twenty per cent of our class has died, mostly to cancer and heart failure. I recall Marty, who’d already died from cancer of the esophagus when this picture was taken, and Tom who died from lung cancer shortly afterward. I hear Marty and me singing “Palisades Park” in his uncle’s Ford as we peeled out of the Scarborough A&W Drive-In; I watch Tom and me playing pool at the Pine Tree Billiards Center—“The Tree”—in Portland.
A pilgrimage requires a degree of discomfort, even sacrifice. At least half of the men standing on this beach in front of Sebago Lake served in the military. Most of us—men and women—have put in long hours working to support our families. Some of us are still working. We’ve gotten out of bed in the middle of the night to look after our sick children, taken aging parents into our homes, sat in the hospital with ailing parents, siblings, and children.
But in the process of being broken, we’ve received gifts far greater than we ever could have imagined in 1961: children and grandchildren, the knowledge that we have been loved, the solace of memories, the joy of lasting friendships.
Of course, the fact that we came from a small graduating class in a little Maine town may explain why so many aspects of our journeys look the same. We had no minorities, no “one-percenters,” no refugees, nobody who was not a U.S. citizen, and, as far as I know, nobody for whom English wasn’t a first language. Even our differences reflect a common background. Some of us look back with nostalgia at the way we lived 55 years ago. It’s a rare month that I don’t receive an email or Facebook litany of all the ways our lives were better than those of today’s kids: we worked harder, we were better disciplined, we were healthier, smarter, better looking, and more respectful. Our pleasures were simpler, our food was better, and our music was cooler. Others of us remember the narrow-minded small-town provincialism, the lack of opportunities for women, prejudice against gays (“homos,” we called them), French Canadians, Jews, the closet alcoholism and sexual abuse, the lack of education for those of us with learning disabilities, the jock culture, and teacher brutality.
There are those of us who want to keep things the way we remember them being when we grew up, and those of us who want to eliminate those prejudices and provide more opportunities. At no time is this more evident than during elections years. And because of the acerbic nature of this year’s national campaign, it’s almost impossible to avoid the rhetoric that masquerades as discussion. I cringe every time one of my classmates posts something espousing his or her political stance, no matter the position. (Okay, okay. I cringe more when it’s a view counter to mine, and suppress the urge to hit the “Like” icon when I see something that says what I’ve been thinking.)
But as the philosopher said, this, too, shall pass. We in the class of ‘61 are tied together in deep and special ways. We know things about each other that no one, not even our parents or our spouses or partners, let alone our children, know: sneaking into the Yarmouth Drive-In movie theater by hiding in the trunk of Scott’s car, Craig bouncing a cue ball through the window of George Soule’s pool room, Jerry letting the tarantula out of the jar in Mr. List’s biology class. We share not only a history, but also a private language (“Fire up!” “Walk on it one time!”)
And our small and largely homogeneous class also walks the larger human pilgrimage. Although we have different ideas of where our journey leads and what it means, we’re all hoping to find our way to a better place. And, as with all pilgrims, no matter where we eventually go, no matter to whom we’ve paid homage, no matter what gifts we’ve received on our journey, we are all eventually called home.
Some are already there. Waiting to welcome the rest of us.