A Different Kind Of 'Back To School': Growing Young Again At A 50th High School Reunion
So how did this happen?
One day I am a cheeky, "good trouble" high school student, editing the school newspaper and being a goofy teenager without a trouble in the world.
The next thing you know, I am a creaky old man, waking up every morning to a new ache or pain, trying very hard to not be the old dog who gets cranky at the young pups around him who wake him up and want to play.
It's only been 50 years.
Half a century since I dressed up in a blue robe, wore a mortarboard and found myself in Dayton's Memorial Hall, graduating from Belmont High School. I still remember the post-graduation family dinner at Marion's Pizza; I wanted the pepperoni and sausage with onions and black olives.
All those years disappeared in a flash last Saturday, at VFW Post 9927 in Kettering, Ohio, in the post hall and on the picnic grounds.
The Class of '71 took a trip in the Way Back Machine to a simpler time, when we were young and without a care in the world.
And, for a few hours, we went back to being high school kids. Some of us dancing (or trying to) to our Boomer music, the best ever made, blaring over a loudspeaker in the picnic shelter – The Kinks; Sly and the Family Stone; Janis Joplin; Hendrix; The Doors; The Rolling Stones; Chicago; Three Dog Night. And the Beatles – yes, of course, The Beatles.
It was the 16th annual Big Belmont Bison Bash, a multi-year reunion that had to be cancelled last year because of the pandemic but came roaring back in the Class of '71's 50th anniversary year.
It includes graduating classes from the beginning of Belmont in 1958 through the 1970s. The Bash always draws hundreds to the VFW Post where Belmont grad Jerry Steiner is a member and makes sure the food and beer is plentiful.
We almost always have the biggest contingent. I don't know why. Maybe there are just more of us around who can make it to Kettering on a Saturday night in August. Maybe we just miss each other more.
I drove up early Saturday afternoon to the home of my best friend from Belmont, Dale True, and his wife Lynn (an honorary Bison). We sat and talked for hours in the living room of their home in Huber Heights, the far northern suburb of Dayton before we got in their SUV and drove to the far south end of Dayton and the VFW hall.
Dale and I not only went to high school together, living only three or four blocks apart, but we were best of buds at Cleveland Elementary School too, which was on the same street I lived on and just a stone's throw from Dale's house on Wyoming Street.
Dale and I parted ways in college – he studied biology and medical technology at Wright State University; and ended up in North Carolina where he established himself as a published author of books on wildlife preservation and nature.
I went to Ohio University; and I assume you know how I ended up.
Even though we would go for years without seeing each other, we always kept the bond of friendship – which became a lot easier to do with the dawning of the age of social media.
He's back in Ohio now; and I'm glad. Next week I'm hoping that he and Lynn will go with me to another Dayton Dragons game at Day Air Ball Park. They confessed that they are secretly rooting for me to move back to Dayton in retirement. We'll see.
Dale and I were quite a team, both in grade school and high school.
In the fifth grade, we put on musical shows during Mrs. Phipps' homeroom morning exercises, performing elaborately staged covers of Allan Sherman comedy songs. I can still sing just about all of the tunes on Sherman's My Son the Nut album. Ask me. I'll be glad to oblige.
In high school, we worked together at the Hilltopper, the student newspaper, and suffered under the journalism teacher, Mr. Palmer, who was simply there counting the days to retirement. We wrote songs and performed them before small groups (Dale was the musician; I was the lyricist; we both sang). Our two biggest hits were "The Buffalo Song" and "Big Time Wrestling." I still remember the words; and I think Dale still has a recording of one of our performances.
When the first Earth Day came around in April 1970, Dale and I got into it deeply, organizing a tree planting around the perimeter of Belmont. We went out and made a film documenting some of the major sources of air and water pollution in Dayton. That landed us a segment on an early Sunday morning TV show on what was then WLWD-TV, where we showed the film and were interviewed by the host.
The only thing I can remember saying is offering advice on the natural, non-chemical way of controlling insects in your garden – put out a pan of stale beer. The insects drink themselves to death.
Saturday, the first people we saw were Dale's older sister, Treva Couturier and her husband Art. Treva was in the Class of '58, the first Belmont graduating class. As I kid, I used to hang out at Dale's house, but I would rarely see Treva – she was already off to college when we were still grade school kids.
She's one of my favorite people now; and Art too. The man is hilariously funny.
The first Class of '71 people we ran into were Steve Zahn and Gayle Ingram – who we knew better as Gayle Pedicord back in the day.
I don't think I have ever seen Steve in anything but a loud Hawaiian shirt. He's an unstoppable punster and joke machine; he never fails to make me laugh. His Facebook page is a classic.
Then there is sweet Gayle. As sweet today as she was as a little grade school girl back in the 1960s. She's another one of the Class of '71 who I knew since our days at Cleveland Elementary School. She got a big hug from me Saturday.
A few years back, she took it on herself to make beaded wrist bands for everyone that spell out "Belmont '71." When I told her that mine somehow got lost in the transition when I moved to a new home last year, Gayle ran to her car and ran back with a new one for me, which I have been wearing with pride ever since.
After hanging out in the picnic shelter for a while, passing out hugs and handshakes to the Class of '71 and admiring the custom auto show organized by our Belmont gearheads (and we had a a lot of them in our class), we got in line outside the VFW hall to pick up our meals – fresh-grilled hamburgers, baked beans and some famous Belmont Bakery potato salad.
We took up a table inside the crowded hall and started telling stories of days gone by and wondering where some of our classmates had ended up.
Then, dear Donna McGraw came with her plate of food, smiling as always.
"How are you?" I said in the crowded, extremely loud VFW. Donna thought I had said who are you?
"Howard Wilkinson, you know perfectly well who I am,'' she said. We both had a good laugh and a good hug.
I'll always remember Donna, who worked with Dale and me on the yearbook staff, as the person who was always bringing people together. She worked across the cliques; she could get along with everybody.
Hasn't changed. As she ate her dinner, she was constantly scanning the room, looking for people she knew, and would jump up and run to anyone she recognized.
What a kind and gentle soul.
I saw so many of them that night; and was so glad to be there.
The one thing that struck me all night long was this – we are all much older; we have all had good times and bad times; we have all changed outwardly over five decades.
But at core, we are still the same as we were all those years ago. Our teenaged selves come bubbling to the surface.
And we are all made young again.