Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Faces in the Yearbook

I’ve never gone to one of my high school class reunions. The last one would have been the 46th. I find this hard to believe. McClure was a big high school in north St. Louis County, with over 3000 students, grades ten through twelve. Sometime in the 1980s, the planning committee for our 20th or 25th class reunion tracked me down in Washington state. Ever since then I’ve been receiving yearly reunion notifications. In recent years these emails have also contained death notifications of some of my former classmates.
I didn’t know a lot of my classmates and many of the names in these emails sounded familiar, but I had trouble putting a face to the name. I saved the emails thinking that one day I would look these people up in the yearbook, which has been stashed away at my sister Karen’s house for the past umpteen years. On our recent trip to Seattle, I found the box containing yearbooks at the bottom of a stack of boxes in her basement and I threw it in the car for the trip home to Arizona.
The other day I looked up all my now deceased former classmates. To my surprise, I recognized most of them. Not only did I recognize them, but I could hear their voices and see some of their mannerisms. I’m sure I haven’t thought about these people since we were in high school, but now they have come back to life in my mind.
When I look at their pictures, my thoughts and feelings about them are frozen in time. I’m 63 years old, yet I’m looking through the eyes of a 17-year-old. That girl was really cute and what a body! That guy was tough, I wouldn’t have wanted to get on his wrong side.That girl was really sweet to me, why didn’t I talk to her more? That guy was  cool but that one was a real nerd.
I found myself feeling compassion for all these students. We were together in high school at the very beginning of our adult lives and at a time in history, just before our society radically changed. I’m sure many of them married and divorced, lost spouses or children along the way, had multiple ups and downs and now those of us who have survived are in the last part of our lives.
One guy from my class never got a chance to be a hippy, go to college, have a career or a family. His name was Mike and he died in Vietnam in 1967, just two years after we graduated. He was one of the cool guys, tall with blond hair and good looking. I didn’t know him well, but we had a mutual girlfriend. To be more precise, she was my friend and his girlfriend. Her name was Marley and she went to a nearby Catholic school. I first met her out cruising the burger stands with some of the guys. This was an activity she never did, but on this one occasion the car she was riding in ended up right next to our car at the Jennings’ Steak & Shake.
That night we all ended up over at her friend Birdy’s house. Birdy’s parents’ weren’t home for some reason, so we raided their liquor cabinet, drank mixed drinks and listened to music. At some point, Marley and I paired off and found we had a mutual passion for a lot of the same music. It was 1964 and the Beatles had opened up America to the British invasion. She didn’t like some of the British groups, but she did like The Animals, The Kinks and The Zombies. We also shared a love for the early ‘60s girl groups like The Shirelles, The Chiffons and The Ronettes as well as Mary Wells. But our musical tastes parted company in several areas. She didn’t care for the “Stones” and she liked jazz and folk music, which I wasn’t into.
Marley was excited to share an album with me that she’d recently bought. It was “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”. I had never heard of the guy. At first I didn’t like it. I thought he had a terrible voice and was an even worse harmonica player. But she convinced me to hang in there with him, which I’m glad I did. Marley and I became friends after that night. She called me Yeager and I felt I could talk to her about anything. We got together periodically, just to talk and listen to music.
After graduating from high school, I went on a week long trip to Florida with my friends Petie and Jeff. We drove non-stop from St. Louis to Fort Lauderdale in Petie’s Corvair, Monza, with the top down. When we got there, after considerable effort, we found a motel room to share. The rule was, if any one of us hooked up with a girl, the other two would stay clear of the motel room.
I spent most nights sleeping in the car or sitting on a bench on the board walk looking out at the ocean. Luckily I had the motel room all to myself to sleep in during the day. On one of the nights, I remember hearing the familiar nasal voice of Dylan coming from the arcade nearby. But it wasn’t one of the folk songs Marley and I had become familiar with. It was rock ‘n’ roll. The song was “Like a Rolling Stone”. I found the jukebox in the back of the arcade and played it over and over again that night. I was anxious to get back home to ask Marley what she thought about Dylan going electric. I thought about her a lot during that trip and decided I wanted to tell her my true feelings and that I thought our relationship should be more than just friends.
But I never told her my feelings and shortly after that I went into the Army. When I was home on leave after completing my training and prior to going to Vietnam, I went over to her house. She was surprised and happy to see me, but when I entered her living room, there sat Mike on the couch. I could tell they had a romantic thing going on and it made the visit awkward. Mike asked me about the Army. I told him I had signed up for 3 years which allowed me to choose my MOS(Army job). I felt my choice of Intelligence would be interesting and a lot safer. Mike was 1-A at the time and said he was going to allow himself to be drafted. I mentioned that he’d probably get stuck in the Infantry and he replied, “I’ll take my chances.”
I got a letter from Marley when I was in Vietnam. I had about 2 months left on my tour. She said that Mike had stepped on a landmine and was instantly killed. I had trouble feeling bad about it at the time. I had already experienced so much death and destruction. I knew Marley was devastated, so I wrote a letter back with what I thought were comforting words. I told her I would see her when I got back.
Mike looks happy in his yearbook picture. He wasn’t dating Marley yet, but I think he had a lot of different girlfriends in high school. I found his name on a replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Truth or Consequences, Mew Mexico a couple years ago.

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