Summer is the time for reunions, and I recently experienced an important one. It was my 50th high school reunion. Yes, I’m getting old. That’s a truth I was forced to face.
As I mentally prepared to see classmates I hadn’t seen in half a century, my thoughts returned to a decade that only those who lived it could understand. In fact, I’m not sure we understood it.
Kennedy, The Beatles and Vietnam
Our innocence was shattered in November of our senior year when President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Classmates bowed their heads and openly wept sitting in their desks as live news broadcasts were piped into classrooms through the school’s intercom system. A few hours later, we anxiously watched the black-and-white news special on CBS when Walter Cronkite was handed a bulletin. He announced, “From Dallas, this flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. . . .” He paused and wiped a tear from his eye. We, the viewers, did the same.
I also thought of a note passed to me in the English class from a friend. “Hey, Ron, have you seen the members of that new group, The Beatles? They’re freaky. You should see their hair!”
I remembered being forced to register for the draft as the “conflict” in Vietnam was heating up. I was called in for my physical examination during my senior year, a good sign that I was about to be drafted. I remember a classmate, Jimmy Nakayama, a year ahead of me in school, enlisted and requested Vietnam service. He was killed a year later. The movie, “We Were Soldiers,” made many years later, accurately portrays his death.
I remember a rush by my classmates after graduation to join the Idaho 116th National Guard unit. Their reasoning was they could avoid the army and Vietnam. The unit was later activated and sent to Vietnam.
I remembered the civil rights upheaval in the South and the Freedom Riders brave actions in Mississippi, and the assassination of Martin Luther King. I remember movies with such questionable content that, for the first time, a rating system had to be implemented.
Even so, my small Idaho school was idyllic in many ways. No school resource officers, no gangs, no school shootings, no drugs, just a random group of kids thrown together because of their birth dates and home addresses.
50th class reunion directory
But I digress. Back to the reunion. Because I was apparently the only member of our Class of ’64 who had any experience with publishing software (let’s be honest, I was one of few who owned a computer and knew how to turn it on), I was nominated by the reunion committee to do our 50th Year Directory. I created a questionnaire, and a motivated group of my classmates helped research the information. I created the document.
We discovered that 18 of our former classmates had died. That list included one of my college roommates, a fun-loving, slightly crazy guy who was the center of nearly every college prank or ill-advised activity we had. He had survived Vietnam but lost a battle with brain cancer. I did not know about his death prior to the reunion. I was surprised and saddened by others on the list as well.
Death, of course, is an inevitable part of life. That wasn’t the truth that I took away from a weekend in Idaho with most of the other 114 people in our class. That truth, the lesson I learned and that stays with me, came from their responses to a question I included in the questionnaire.
Here’s the question:
“The poet Mary Oliver in ‘A Summer Day’ asks, ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ What have you done with yours (so far)? Include your greatest accomplishment(s) if you like.”
I can only guess from the responses that this question gave them pause. Some were apparently overwhelmed by the implications of the question and elected not to answer at all. But most answered. Few answered in a way I had expected.
Entrepreneurs, cattle ranchers and a rocket scientist
If you have attended any high school class reunions, you know what they are like, especially a 20-year or 30-year reunion. We want to appear as skinny, as beautiful/handsome, as intelligent, as accomplished, as financially successful as possible. But we don’t want to come off conceited or unpleasant.
But our 50-year reunion was different. We dressed casually. Nobody manipulated conversations to include their worldly successes. We enjoyed each other’s company. We laughed. We reminisced.
Our high school class, like yours, has its share of successful people: prominent attorneys, engineers, psychologists, entrepreneurs, college professors, business owners, cattle ranchers and, yes, even a rocket scientist.
It wasn’t until the reunion that I realized how heavily Vietnam impacted our Class of ’64. The 1960s were divisive on that point. Dozens of our classmates fought in the Vietnam war. One Navy pilot in our class flew 209 combat missions and had over 500 carrier landings. Many others served in Vietnam in other capacities. One classmate was killed in Vietnam.
Conversely, I suspect that others in our class participated in anti-war rallies, grew long hair and maybe went to Woodstock.
Our greatest accomplishment
But let’s get back to the question about greatest accomplishments. The question invited, practically cajoled, an aging demographic to share, instruct or brag.
Few actually did.
[pullquote]Instead, the most frequently mentioned accomplishment was not honors earned, professional accomplishment, or wisdom gained. Although class members worded their responses differently, the most common answers included the same word: family.[/pullquote]
Instead, the most frequently mentioned accomplishment was not honors earned, professional accomplishment, or wisdom gained. Although class members worded their responses differently, the most common answers included the same word: family.
If you are old enough, you probably remember the moving ‘70s story song by Harry Chapin called “Cat’s in the Cradle.” If you’re not old enough to remember it, check it out on YouTube. Its theme is terrible parenting, and the truth presented is what goes around, comes around.
Most of my class members apparently believe they have avoided the protagonist’s fate in “Cat’s in the Cradle.” Apparently, most of us now-retired, Vietnam War-affected, failing-health-afflicted, approaching-70-years-old members of the Class of ’64 are pleased about one thing: We have amazing children who produced even more amazing grandchildren. That accomplishment, the majority of us proclaim, was our greatest.
Was it wisdom born of pain? Perhaps, in some cases, but I suspect it is a lesson that time teaches nearly everyone who gets married, has a family and begins to get older.