In our society, there are a lot of numbers that hold special meanings.
When you turn 16, you can drive.
If you’re a baseball fan, then you know that Joe DiMaggio hit safely in a record 56 straight games.
All you have to say to anyone is “9/11” and they know exactly what you mean.
And then there’s the number 30. It comes up a lot. Probably more than you might realize. But, think about this…
Usually, when people retire (or, at least when they did back in the day when most companies promised them a pension), it’s after putting in 30 years on the job.
If you want to get a mortgage on a house, every bank has a 30-year-fixed one waiting for you.
In my chosen professional field, the trenchant practice of journalism, someone long ago determined that a story’s conclusion should, for some reason, be indicated by a -30- at the end of the piece.
When you turn 30, you’re supposed to be an adult. The hippies claimed you should never trust anyone over 30. Smash 30 home runs in a big league season and you’re a power hitter worth, at least, a three-year, $30 million contract. And if you order a $30 ribeye at a restaurant, it better be so tender that you can almost cut through with just your fork.
So, yeah, the number 30 has a lot of significance. And that significance hit me square in the face recently as my 30th high school reunion approached.
I should state here that I loved high school. I had good friends, knew a lot of people and was involved in activities such as football, student government, band and drama. I was decently popular, and I like to think that I got along with a lot of different groups of people. I had a million crushes on a million different girls and, maybe, someday I will reveal who they were. I also have enough hindsight after three decades since graduation to admit that during my three years of high school, I could be an annoying, arrogant jerk when I set my oblivious mind to it. But, what 15-to-18-year old isn’t at some time?
On June 10, 1986, I, along with nearly 500 of my classmates, graduated from Gov. John R. Rogers High School in Puyallup, Wash. I then spent my last three months of my last true summer of freedom engaged in a few different activities. I spent part of my time tearing around the greater Puget Sound area having fun with my buddies. I spent part of my time tearing around with my girlfriend in whatever location we could find that was even remotely private. And I spent part of my time tearing up the working area of our local Burger King, where I was known for handing out a free Whopper or two to my friends at the drive-thru from time to time.
That period of abandon came to an end. After that, it was college. And then the Real World. There was almost a year back at my parents house that I spent working at a grocery warehouse. After that, three years in Osaka, Japan, teaching English, writing for an English-language magazine and doing English-language radio newscasting. Graduate school in Boston was next. What was supposed to be a year, 18 months, tops, turned into nearly four years when I got a job covering the then-nascent Internet industry (Remember Lycos, anyone?). I became familiar with the Red Sox and Fenway Park every summer.
But, coming from the West Coast, where, yeah, we have winters, but we don’t wake up having to dig our cars out from three-feet-worth of overnight blizzard, I decided I wanted to get back to the Pacific Time Zone. The San Francisco Bay Area wasn’t the Seattle region, but it was close enough. I took a job offer, loaded up my car, and did the classic cross-country drive. Eventually, I met the right girl, got married, moved to Oakland and had two
daughters. Still have them, in fact, as evidenced by how our living room looks like a trailer park after a tornado every time they walk through the place.
As you might have gathered by now, I never really returned to my hometown. Sure, I go there once or twice a year to visit my mom and brother, but I haven’t lived there in almost 25 years. My life has taken me to so many different places that it became too difficult, too time consuming, to try to keep up with nearly all of the friends and classmates I grew up with. When I would go to visit family, the necessity to see old friends became less and less with every trip. It wasn’t anything against anyone else, but let’s face it: As life goes on, you often move on to a different life than that you lived before.
But, even with my declining attachment to it, Puyallup remains my hometown. And Rogers High remains my school. And every ten years since graduation, the subject of a class reunion would always find its way into my mailbox, both real and virtual. And as the years moved on, my feelings about the high school reunion would change.
For the 10-year-reunion, I knew I wasn’t going to go. The main reasons were practical. I was living in Boston and going to graduate school. I didn’t have a lot of disposable income, and paying for a plane ticket for a 3,000-mile venture to see a few hundred people that I hadn’t kept in touch with just wasn’t a priority.
Plus, if I’m being perfectly honest, I didn’t feel I had accomplished enough in life and didn’t want to seem like a failure to my former classmates. I wasn’t married, didn’t have my own house, and did I mention that disposable income thing? Yeah, I was having an existential crisis at age 28. How goddamn insufferable is that? Anyway, at that time, e-mail was still somewhat of a novelty, and dial-up modems were all the rage. We still weren’t quite at the point of instantaneous communication and immediate feedback. I never saw any photos, nor heard much in the way of reports about the gathering.
When the 20-year-reunion came around, I was more amenable to attending. By this time, I had been in California for a few years, so the logistics of a flight were easier to deal with. And I had actually been making a name for myself my career, so I felt better professionally. But there were other Big Things taking place.
Namely, I was about to get married for the second, and last time. It was all I could think about. Every spare moment Megan and I had was spent checking out wineries, meeting with caterers, talking to florists and working on guest lists and honeymoon plans. We were just too busy, and had too many other expenses to deal with.
But, somehow, I got on an e-mailing list for class alumni. I was able to hear from a few classmates, and saw a handful of photos that got sent around. At least this time, I could see how some people looked two decades after graduation.
This year, things were different.
Thanks to the advent of social media, and Facebook in particular, it’s become almost impossible to not know what anyone else looks like, or is doing, at a given time. Once Facebook opened itself up beyond it’s initial college-student-only user base, it was like Lake Mead broke through the Hoover Dam.
People that I hadn’t even thought about in more than two decades were sending me “Friend Requests”. And I would do the same back. I’d see someone’s name, think “Oh yeah…Him/Her” and within seconds, I could find out what they looked like, where’s they lived, who they were married to, where they worked and how many kids (or, in some I-suddenly-feel-ancient circumstances, grandkids) they had. I knew whose folks had died, whose son was in the military, whose daughter made the cheerleading team and, my God, so, so many photos of dinner and drinks. (And I am just as guilty of this as anyone else).
It felt good to see what people were up to, even though, and let’s be perfectly frank here, most of these people were friends that I knew for a short time a long time ago. That’s no knock on any of them, or the times when we were all together sharing a common bond of high school. It’s just a fact of life. My oldest daughter is almost eight and already my relationship with her has lasted almost two years longer than that of someone I met in seventh grade and went to school with until I graduated, six years later. Life changes. You move on. And sometimes, your friends just can’t move with you.
But, again back to that social media thing…Because of this, we have been able to re-establish ties with some of these long-ago relations. And since this year marked Year 30 since my class graduated, it would be natural for us to gather and acknowledge our time together. As I live out of state, going to a reunion wouldn’t be as easy as getting a cup of coffee from our local Starbucks, but I was interested in going. All I needed to know was when.
In the meantime, life went on. As we do every summer, we planned on driving up to Washington to visit my mom for a week. And due to our work schedules, other plans later in the year, and me wanting to make sure I could get the time off without creating drama with my employer, we put a week in early July on the books months ahead of time. We were set to visit mom. Everything was done and done.
Weeks went by. My daughters brawled with each other. Life went on. Then I found out when the reunion was. And when it was would be right when my family and I were checking into our hotel in Medford, Oregon after about eight hours of driving on day one of our two-day road trip back to Oakland.
It was my kind of fate. We were stone-cold locked into heading back home on the day of the reunion. I had missed my 10th, my 20th and was going to miss my 30th. At the rate I was going, I would be pushing Social Security age before I would ever see any of my old classmates. And with my luck, I could see myself missing the 40th due to something ridiculous like a broken hip or having to take a prostate exam.
But then something happened. I won’t call it a miracle because that would be too corny. With the help of that social-media meeting place, Facebook, some of my old friends–Brian, Katie and Lynette–came up with the idea of meeting up a couple of nights before the official reunion. Call it a pre-reunion, if you will. We picked a spot and put the word out on the class reunion Facebook page about the gathering. Soon, it was on the agenda of the reunion weekend activities.
The evening arrived and Megan and I headed out. I wasn’t sure what to expect. My hometown doesn’t resemble in any way the place where I grew up, and I didn’t know if I would be able to even find the bar for the meet up. Thirty years of putting in Wal-Marts, Home Depots and Targets in place of grassy hills and miles of evergreen trees will do a lot to mess with your sense of direction. But, I’ve mastered subway systems from Osaka to Budapest. Finding my way back to what was my old stomping grounds was easy, not withstanding the two U-Turns I had to make just to get into the bar’s parking lot.
When we walked in, it was like a gathering for a pep rally in the school gym. Only this time we were in a place where we could all legally have a drink. Faces that I hadn’t seen in the flesh for 30 years were now more than just photos on a social-media profile page…
There was Kerry, visiting from Minnesota where she now lives.
Karl and Rich, guys from the area who still lived nearby and whom, like me, were veterans of our gloriously inept 2-7 senior year football team.
Jane, a fellow diehard Seattle Mariners fan who surprised me with a pack of baseball cards of the 1996 team. If only she had the power to give the M’s a few more wins this year.
Debbie, her hair a bit longer than back in the day, and prepping for an upcoming run for state office.
Rob, the writer and professor, and probably the last man in America not on Facebook. He came in from Utah and engaged my wife in a conversation about educational spending and testing requirements. The last time I saw him was a relatively recent 23 years ago.
Shannon, who, God bless her, was the engine that did the planning, found the location, organized the whole reunion and generally made the trains run on time. She had help, yes, but rarely a day went by without her sending out a message about how things were progressing, and I think this got so many people excited about the reunion. This also led to many classmates reaching out to each other and posting old photos online showing how awesome our mid-80s clothing and hairstyles were.
Brian, Katie and Lynette, three of my oldest friends that I’ve know since at least ninth grade, and with whom I also went to college. There’s no way I could begin to count how many nights we spent doing those things you do when you’re supposedly growing up and finding yourself. Of course, many of those nights also involved large quantities of the cheapest beer we could afford. Maybe that’s why I can’t count up those nights.
All told, I think about 30 people showed up. Each of them was a face that brought and returned a look of genuine happiness. We traded smiles and hugs, talked about our kids, where we worked, and our homes. We all gave the condensed version of where we had been for the last three decades, and how we arrived at where we are now; the standard things you talk about with old friends that you haven’t seen in years. Sure, it wasn’t the official reunion, but it served the same purpose.
There was a warm feeling that evening, one that I wasn’t expecting to experience at the start of the night. It evoked what Abraham Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory”; those that you feel only during the rare occasions when you’re with those whom you have shared intense times and experiences. For us, that was what we went through growing up together. These were the people that I knew years ago, and while we may not see each other often, we have a bond that will remain for however long we are here.
It may have been for only one night, but for that night we were able to be both who we were back in the day, and also who we had become. Together.