My hometown was my life for twenty years starting the day I came home from the hospital in August 1956 until I left for my junior year of college in August 1976. Everything I experienced growing up in a somewhat (stereotypical) rural small town environment makes up the core of who and what I am today. Just this year I’m nearing the 20 year mark here in NC which for the first time since leaving will equal the years I was in my hometown.
In a small town there are good things and there are bad things. One of the good things is if you live there long enough and make the effort, you can know everyone in town. The flip-side of that is that everyone knows you. For many years I not only felt that I knew most of those people, but identified with them in a deeper way that was based on many shared unique experiences. Decades after the fact, I’m not so sure. (It helped that my dad spent 30+ years as the head window clerk in our Post Office. I swear he DID know everyone and everything about them as well.)
Once I got online in the late 1990’s I began using the Internet to track down people from my “past”. Mostly this consisted of people I knew from growing up and attending 12 years of school in my N. Fla. hometown. After some initial success I was encouraged by others to put together a website dedicated to our 1974 high school graduating class. A few classmates found the site on their own as I continued to search and add to the list of names. The most common question from everyone I communicated with was, “Are we having a 30th reunion?” There seemed to be enough interest among classmates that I began to believe some sort of activity was possible. During the years prior to 2004 I finally made contact with all the class officers except one but discovered they were all either “too busy” to help plan and prepare, or most disappointing in the case of our class president, didn’t seem to care.
I’m a pack-rat and among the items I saved from high school was an early draft version of my senior class “last will and testament”. I originally voiced some opinion about my high school being the most apathetic institution I had experienced. As it turns out the students, specifically my ’74 classmates, were the primary source of that apathy.
The people I associated with throughout grade/high school are not the group of ’74 classmates I most identify with now. After graduation and during the following two years, I attended a nearby junior college while still living at home and working summers for spending money. I still hold those two years as special not only because of what I did but who I did it with. There was a core group of people who were mainly ’74 grads that I was a regular part of. They were the “party crowd” I had not been a part of before. After graduation, whatever happened to be going at any given point in time, I was always welcomed as an active participant. In many ways the “social life” I didn’t realize I was missing previously during high school was fully experienced after June 1974 until I moved away in August 1976 to finish my final two years of college.
Toward the end of my time in my hometown as a resident I became friends with a classmate I’ll call ‘W’. As I knew then and still say now, we had nothing in common (other than maybe we each were our own clique of one, unattached to any larger group) but we got along well and enjoyed whatever it was we found to do. Somewhat surprisingly our friendship lasted after I left town, all the way through college and well into the late-‘80s, after we both married and settled down. ‘W’ arrived in town prior to our sophomore year and did not have a high opinion of anything related to my hometown and especially the class of ’74. (I fully realize the feeling was probably mutual) ‘W’ made it very clear that he would never attend any class of ’74 reunion. Around Christmas of 1977 on a return visit home, I remember talking with one of ‘W’s former “girlfriends” who knew he and I were buddies. She wanted to criticize ‘W’ for some now long forgotten reason and I still remember telling here he was my friend and I wasn’t going to say anything negative about him. When my wife and I moved to North Carolina in 1988, I still remember standing in ‘W’s driveway as he told me that if I ever wanted to see him again I would have to come to Florida because he had no intention of visiting me in NC. ‘W’ divorced, remarried, moved and changed careers. Other than a rare email through one of the online Internet high school alumni sites we haven’t spoken since 1988. But that doesn’t change how I felt about the friendship we had. My loyalty to the class of ’74 is similar to the way I feel about ‘W’.
Even though I (and most others) would have liked to had a reunion, the bulk of the class sort of shrugged its collective shoulders and said “who cares?” Not that I didn’t see it coming. One of the few classmates still living in town and willing to sit down to discuss the topic at length early on warned me that she thought a 30th reunion was highly unlikely. Others expressed similar opinions but said they would be interested if an activity were actually scheduled. I remember our 10th reunion when we showed up, ate and left. It was very structured and left no time for personal interaction. I had the feeling we didn’t have an actual reunion. I missed the 20th simply because by then I was in NC and no one knew how to find me. That taught me a lesson about maintaining connections and relationships. I swore to raise my profile so I wouldn’t miss another reunion. But as I’ve realized over the years things rarely go as planned.
Personally, I’ve been disappointed in how former classmates have treated me as an individual for one very specific reason. (yeah, I have thin skin and a long memory) As some them of them would discover, I had a habit of just “dropping in” unannounced from time to time over the years. Those classmates always welcomed me but there were a couple of occasions where I was met by a raised eyebrow and a look of “what the hell is he doing here?” Whether is was visits(announced or otherwise), email, phone calls or letters, I tried to maintain some sort of contact with classmates but I’ve finally realized I have failed simply because in the 34+ years after graduating none of my classmates have done the same to me and I am really puzzled why. (many have admitted to traveling thru Charlotte on the way to this or that and say they will drop in but never have) As one of the many who moved away I not sure if it’s because of the separation or just that we were never that close to start with. Several long conversations about this with my sister, who also moved to NC but in her case immediately after graduating from high school in 1977 to attend college yielded some observations; her theory is that all the classmates still in and around our hometown see each other so frequently in their daily lives that to them having a reunion is redundant and maintaining contact with anyone who moved away is not a big deal. It is only those of us who are no longer there who hold on to the nostalgic view of what we once had and have the urge to reunite to learn what has happened in each others lives. Yet it is the classmates who remained in the area who expect those of us who are nowhere close by to plan and prepare for a reunion.
Our graduation program lists 133 names. Dozens of that number are people I started 1st grade with. Even though I didn’t know every individual well, at least I recognized them as classmates and assumed we shared some bond. In hindsight, we are now what we were then; a rough assemblage of cliques and sub-groups, each with their own agenda and priorities. Never congealing into a larger group identity nor encompassing the entire class. Almost 52 years on and I’m still trying to understand how and what happened to get my classmates and myself to this point. Unfortunately, no one else seems to want to get together, compare lives and try to make sense of it all.