I graduated from high school just over forty years ago. (Please don’t do the age calculation.) This past weekend, I attended the 40th reunion of the 1969 graduating class of Hood River High School in Hood River, Oregon. It was, all things considered, a pretty remarkable experience.
At some point in your lives, most of you have probably attended a high school reunion. Me, I never had. This was my first. And it was a bit unusual because I didn’t really graduate. I left Hood River just before my senior year, moved to Manteca, California, and finished my schooling there. But Hood River has always been the alma mater of my heart.
There were issues when I left town years ago. It was 1968. We were in the midst of the Vietnam War, one of our most divisive experiences as a nation in modern times. My father, an English teacher at the high school, was profoundly anti-war, a sentiment that in our small town was not looked upon kindly. It wasn’t uncommon for me or members of my family to hear unflattering epithets yelled at us from cars passing on the street. We left Hood River for good reasons, but under a kind of cloud. And forty years later, as I was contemplating my return, I wondered if some shadow of that cloud might yet remain.
Over forty years, people, of course, change. But something in them—in their faces, their eyes, even their gestures—often remains the same and beautifully unique. At the first reunion function, an informal gathering on Friday night, I was astonished at how many people I recognized easily. Like me, most were grayer and grizzled and thicker and bent a little, yet the seed of who they were long ago, probably the seed of who they were from the very beginning, was still there.
But there was also so much more to them. Those seeds had grown and, in most cases, blossomed in rich lives. They were lives that had, for the most part, taken similar shape: marriage, children, careers, grandchildren. The stories I heard were, generally speaking, not astonishing in their particulars, but they were told with satisfaction. People were comfortable with who they were and where they were and how they’d come there.
As for me, the most surprising realization was that no one really remembered why my family had left Hood River. No one really cared about the conflicts of the past. Time heals in part because it veils.
I did a bunch of typical things a guy might do in this situation. I drove past the house where my family had lived. Yes, it’s smaller now. Visited the high school. Ditto the size thing. I searched out, with some difficulty, the home of my high school sweetheart (who was not at the reunion), where, on her doorstep at the age of sixteen, I’d given—or was it received?—my first kiss. I drove the long valley of the Hood River, a place of astonishing beauty. And finally I went swimming in the Columbia River, where I lost my cell phone and, for reasons I won’t go into, for a brief time caused some real concern that I might have been swept away in the powerful current of that giant of a river.
Like most people, I tend to measure cost against return. It took quite a bit to attend my reunion, in money, time, and energy. (I have a new book out this week, and I should probably have been focusing entirely on that circumstance.) But in the end, I believe I received something not only worthwhile but also necessary. Something that feels to me a lot like peace.