Thursday, May 7, 2015

Looking back -- an October luxury

  Remember, this is a writer’s blog, about October and November---which means, of course, that March and April are sometimes part of the conversation.
For instance, Imagination -- the mind’s eye. It’s a mysterious, sometimes magical thing. Given free rein it can take us to places we’ve never been, recalling things that perhaps never happened (at lease not the way we remember them). With a bit of prompting imagination can conjure up stories of the ancient past---all the way back to our adolescent school days.
The last couple months have provided an opportunity for me to revisit my own often hazy memories of that earlier time. Reconnecting via the internet with a few dozen high-school classmates has stirred decades of mental overburden---exposing youthful recollections and fuzzy images of folks staring at me from the pages of a long-ago school annual. Like me, they have become someone very different than the person I remember. Still, it’s been an interesting, if occasionally frustrating exercise---a pleasant excuse to return to my altogether unglorious glory days.
Ours was a large high school. For a social misfit like me close friendships might have been numbered on one hand, with a couple fingers left over. Most of the former classmates who checked out the online ‘Class of 55’ website were strangers to me in school, and are strangers now. We are, however, strangers who happened to share a particular time and place. What is it they say about ships that pass in the night?
Still I’ve been surprised to find an unexpected reward in the pleasant reconnecting with those folks. You see, the stories I tell are not set in those heady days of old. But my own impressions and recollections of that time and those experiences---the insights and sensibilities, the highs and lows---are a part of every story I tell, sometimes an important part. So lately it’s felt like I’ve been given an opportunity to compare my own recycled recollections to how my fictional proxies have remembered those times.
An example of how bits of the past can make their way into a story is this scene from Best Friends and Promises, where Aaron Peck and Johnny Blanton are driving off to meet Press Fletcher, twenty-five years after the last visit with their old friend.

They were fifteen minutes down the interstate before Johnny’s quiet remembering turned verbal. “Ole Press was always a cool one. There weren’t many like him, at least not that I knew. God, even as a kid he had a way with the ladies. He must have been born with it.”
“Yeah. He had the touch all right. There were a few times when he even managed to fix me up with the leftovers.” Aaron let those pleasant recollections rattle around in his head for moment, tracking back to the beginning of his friendship with Johnny. “You remember how I was then, back in the ninth grade. I was a gawky damn kid. I stuttered. Had terminal acne. And there I was, just beginning to understand why I liked girls.”
“I knew you’d eventually figure that part out.”
“Hey, that’s just who I was back then. That was the Aaron Peck everyone knew. What girl was going to get excited about being around me? Without you and Press to help me out I might have ended up being a hermit.” Aaron paused a moment to recall how he had managed to overcome that unfortunate possibility. “That’s just the way it was, at least until I had a chance to start over.”
“Start over?”
“Sure.” Aaron nodded. “It wasn’t a plan or anything. It just worked out that way. I went off to college, where no one knew anything about me. I didn’t have to deal with all that baggage I’d packed around through junior high and high school---all the stuff that made the old Aaron who he was.”
“So you reinvented yourself. Was that it? You became the new, improved Aaron Peck?”
“Well, maybe new. Probably not all that improved. The thing is, I didn’t have to live down anyone’s notion of who I was. I was starting from scratch---making first impressions for the second time.”
“And that seemed to work, eh? Being the ‘new’ you.”
Aaron was grinning at the thought of it. “Do you think a girl like Leona would have paid any attention to me in high school? Not a chance. You remember how it was back then. By the eighth or ninth grade everyone had been given a label of some kind. Once they pinned that on you, there was no getting rid of it. 
“Think back to our last reunion, fifty years after we graduated. There were lots of folks there who still remembered us by those old labels. That’s all they knew. In their minds that’s who we still were.”
“So what kind of bad stuff could they have said about you back then?” Johnny asked. “That you ran around with me?”
“That, and a few other vices I’d picked up along the way. Anyway, I went off to college and bingo---I met this very classy and really cute girl who had never heard all that stuff about me. Turns out she liked me just the way I was, without ever knowing who I used to be.”

Think of how we have changed over the years. Elly Warren was reminded of that in this bit from Second Chances. She has returned to Tanner after a long and bitter divorce. Now, in the company of her great-niece, Tricia, she has run into a high-school best friend she has not seen in fifty years.

“Mike and I never had any children,” Elly explained, grimacing a bit at the tone of Esther’s unsubtle question. “So there are no grandkids in my life. Tricia is Don’s granddaughter. You remember my brother Don, don’t you? Anyway, she’s here for a week or so to help me unpack and get settled in.” Turning to the girl Elly explained, “Esther and I grew up together, honey, here in Tanner. We were Club Brats together.”
“Club Brats?” Tricia asked warily. 
“That’s right,” Elly laughed. “Our parents belonged to the country club. That's where we hung out. A bunch of us spent our summers and weekends there. We called ourselves Club Brats. You haven’t seen the club yet, but you will. It’s just down the hill from here.” Then to Esther, “I suppose it’s pretty much the same. Isn’t it? Or has it changed like everything else?”
“It’s even better,” Esther grinned. The remembering smile that spread across her face was framed by long, nearly white hair. She was staring out the window as she continued. “Those were good times to be young, weren’t they---especially at the club? Swimming every day. Getting great tans. Flirting with all the boys.”
“Esther,” Elly exclaimed with a joking gruffness. She was shaking her head as she winked at Tricia. “You’re going to give her the wrong idea. I’m sure she can’t imagine her Aunt Elly flirting with anyone.” 
Aunt Elly was right of course. There was no way Tricia could create a convincing image of her great-aunt as a flirty teenager. True, she was still a pert little thing---attractive in a mature sort of way. But the wrinkles and the gray hair were more than Tricia could fit into the youthful portrait Esther was describing.
“Goodness, I haven’t thought about any of that in ages,” Elly said. It had been a juvenile, silly time. She remembered that much. Even now, after all those years, she recalled how that close-knit clique of country- club youngsters had considered themselves rather special. In those carefree teenage days it had been easy to think of themselves as different than, even a step or two above, their classmates. Being part of that select group had been a defining given in young Elly’s life.

Finally from Becoming, here is Carl Postell’s recollection of the night he and Jack Bentz first connected, forty-some years after the high-school days they had shared.

The two of us were never buddies in high school. As I remember those times we were both a part of the same niche group---bit players, hanging around the fringes, wanting to belong, with neither the self-confidence or social skills to make that happen. 
Ironically it had been our individual isolation that brought us together in the first place. Our fortieth class reunion was a couple years after my divorce from Sandra---the first I attended without her. She was there, of course, making sure I noticed that she and Tom Ryan were being more friendly than necessary. She might have been disappointed to know I was silently wishing Tom the best of luck. As near as I could tell they deserved each other.
Anyway, while they were refusing to act their age, I ended up at the same table as Jack that night---each of us alone, each of us lonely. After a few awkward glances at the other’s name tag we got talking. Actually we got drinking, then talking. In fact, the more we drank the more we talked.
For a couple of naturally insular guys like Jack and me, a real conversation was a nice change of pace---especially with someone who felt no need to “one up” everything the other said. Both of us still lived in Tanner, so once we became acquainted it was an easy thing to get together every week or so, which we had continued to do. When we had time we visited over lunch. If we were in a hurry we chatted over a beer.

For most of us those adolescent days were a launching pad---a place from which to begin a life journey we could scarcely imagine back then. We were taking the first steps toward becoming the person we are today. Now, in the October and November of that journey, having recently reestablished  contact with hints of that past, I am inclined to enjoy the luxury of looking back. At the same time I give thanks for the way my personal journey has played out. Hopefully yours has been just as good.

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