Fast Times at a 10th high school reunion
It was a balmy 82 degrees on a Saturday morning. The clouds parted just enough to convince the 12 of us that it would be a good idea to canoe the Crystal River.
“Pete get in the canoe,” I said. I was starting to get annoyed. The problem was that Pete’s a big guy and he wants to sit in the front. “Sorry man, you’re going have to get in the middle.” I held Pete’s beer and his cigarette as he slowly and carefully climbed into the wobbling aluminum canoe one foot at a time as if he was timidly dipping his foot in a hot tub. My old high school girlfriend Tracey was sitting in the front and I was steering from the back. As he stepped in I jumped over the stern and braced it with all my strength similar to a cartoon soldier hopping on a grenade with his helmet. Once everyone was in, we pushed off and slowly began paddling down the river.
I hadn’t seen any of these people in a decade. It was our 10-year high school reunion. Canoeing a river might not be a typical activity for a high school reunion, but then again we didn’t go to a typical school.
After more than two years at an inner city high school in Lansing, Mich., my parents, literally concerned for my safety, sent me off to a boarding school on the northern beaches of Lake Michigan for the remainder of my secondary education. It’s called Leelanau and if you’ve ever met someone from Michigan they would open their hand and point to the top of their pinky to show you its location.
The day before, I called Pete and told him I was going to pick him up in Grand Rapids (which would be slightly left of the center of your palm). “I don’t know man, I got a bunch of s%$# I got to do this weekend. I haven’t RSVP’d, I’m supposed to go to Chicago and I don’t really want to hang out there all weekend, man.”
“Okay,” I said, “We’ll just go for tonight and then I’ll drive you back.” Pete responded, with a long Darth Vader like sigh over the phone, “Alright, but we gotta leave early in the morning. I’m not playin’.” After I picked him up, I listened to him go on and on about how he wasn’t psyched about seeing any of his old teachers and classmates.
As we paddled down the Crystal, I smiled as I thought about how I didn’t have to implement my backup plan if Pete didn’t want to go. The plan consisted of convincing him to meet up for a beer in Grand Rapids and then once he got in the car I would drive off with him yelling and screaming. Just 12 hours ago, he was convinced he didn’t want to be here and now he was happily plopped down in the middle of the canoe chilling beers over the gunwale in the cool river water. He wouldn’t say it, but both he and I knew he wasn’t leaving in the morning.
It was important that he was here. This was the same guy who, during his senior year, lost a bet and had to play the entire 18th hole in a high school golf match with his balls hanging out, only to have the school’s Dean of Students spot him at the green putting for bogey.
My school was small, and when I graduated, we had roughly 120 students. There was a total of 27 people that graduated in my senior class and 12 showed up for the weekend (a pretty good stat for any school). Afterward, my parents asked me if there was any one person I was most excited to see but really there wasn’t. The best thing about the reunion was the dynamic of having everyone there. Even the kids I used to think were super annoying back in the day somehow transitioned into cool and interesting people.
We met up Friday night at our old haunt, Art’s Tavern. There was a sense of nervous chatter. We were certainly excited to see each other, but arguably, no one was comfortable. We asked each other the typical questions: So what do you do? How are your kids? Parents? Health? College? Dog? Then eventually the conversation inevitably leads to “Remember when?” or “Do you still?” (That’s also about the time when the tag-along spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends collectively checked out of the conversation and quietly sat in a corner for the next two days).
The more I found out about my classmates, the more I realized things hadn’t changed a bit. Sure, they may now be married, bald, fat, skinny or tattooed (one with her ex-husband’s name tramp stamped above her ass) but these “adults” are the same kids that used to whap each other in the nuts, pull all-nighters and sneak out of their dorm rooms at 2 a.m. to party on the beach.
On the river it was hot, humid… jungle-style hot. So sitting in a half-sunken canoe that’s an inch from tipping over with Pete in the middle smoking cigs and Tracey not paddling wasn’t all that bad. It was probably similar to what “Apocalypse Now” would have been like if they’d had beer … and a chick … and an absence of pissed off enemies hiding along the shoreline. We soon ran out of beer and the chicks were getting lazy. Thankfully, after a few turns, we found ourselves at the canoe landing and hoisted our canoes onto a boat trailer. To get back to the dorms, we took a trail that was once used by smokers hiding from faculty and also by Goth kids who wanted to do weird s%$# in the woods. I used to avoid it.
It’s funny how the smallest things seem to trigger memories that haven’t surfaced in years. When I got back to my old dorm room and flipped on the light, I inhaled deeply through my nose and clear and abrupt memories flooded in. The smell was as distinct as it was 10 years ago. An attempt to describe this smell without the preciseness of a choosey wine snob would be a mockery. It’s kind of a musty cheese fart with a hint of pine. My old biology teacher, Mr. Blondia, was there over the weekend. When I told him that the dorms have this particular smell unlike any other he responded, “That’s impossible … we’ve painted, carpeted and replaced almost everything in those rooms.” It’s fair to say that cleaning supplies and new furnishings are no match for years of tipped over tobacco spitters, puke, ramen, beer and straight-up relentless teenage funk butter.
That night after everyone dried off and ate a formal dinner, we made our way down to the beach to celebrate our last night together. After two cases of beer and $100 in liquor, we delved into things as if nothing had changed. Nicknames, habits, inside jokes all popped back into our heads as if the conversations never stopped a decade ago. This resulted in some awesome testimonials and a drunken game of Red Rover.
That morning the emotions at breakfast were similar to the last day 10 years ago. At that time, however, when we said goodbye we were so excited to graduate that we failed to stop and think that we may not see these people in long, long time (and maybe back then we didn’t care). This time, everyone said their goodbyes and swore to keep in touch, only I think we honestly meant it.
On the drive back to Grand Rapids, Pete talked how he patched things up with Mr. Blondia (who was the Dean that caught him with his fly down) and after a few minutes he finally said to me he was glad he came. The thing about a 10-year high school reunion is it doesn’t matter how things were when you graduated. Whether you left on bad terms or good terms, no one really remembers, much less cares. I think it’s just good for people to time travel now and then, even if it’s only once in a decade. As Doc Brown from “Back to the Future” once said, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” Maybe instead of a DeLorean all you need is a canoe and a case of beer.