Thursday, April 20, 2017

Looking back -- a late-life luxury

     Remember, this is a writer’s blog, about the joys and pitfalls of life in October and November. That means, of course, there are times when our personal March and April are part of the conversation.
That is especially true when Imagination -- the mind’s third eye -- is turned loose to weave its mysterious, sometimes magical power. Given free rein it can take us to places we’ve never been, recalling events that perhaps never happened (at least not the way we remember them). With a bit of prompting, imagination can even conjure up stories of the dark and ancient past---all the way back to our adolescent school days.
The last couple years have provided me an opportunity to revisit my own often hazy memories of that earlier time. Reconnecting via the internet with a few high-school classmates has stirred decades of mental overburden---exposing youthful recollections and fuzzy images of young faces staring back at me from the pages of a long-ago high-school annual. 
Of course, like me those folks have become someone very different than the adolescent youngster I remember. Still, weaving them into a story has been an interesting, if occasionally frustrating exercise---a pleasant excuse to return to my own altogether unglorious glory days.
Ours was a large high school. For a social misfit like me close friends could have been numbered on one hand, with a couple fingers left over. Most of the former classmates who have visited our online ‘Class of 55’ website were strangers to me in school, and still are. They are, however, strangers with whom I happened to share a particular time and place. What is it they say about ships that pass in the night?
Still, I have found an unexpected reward in the pleasant reconnecting with those folks, at least the ones who reply. You see, the stories I tell are not set in those youthful, heady days of old. But inevitably my own recollections of that time and those experiences ---the insights and sensibilities, the highs and lows---show up in the stories I tell. There are times when it feels like I’ve been given an opportunity to compare my own recycled recollections with the way my fictional proxies have remembered those times.
One example of how bits of the past can make their way into a late-life story is this scene from Best Friends and Promises, where Aaron Peck and Johnny Blanton are driving off to meet a one-time school pal, Press Fletcher, twenty-five years after their last visit with him.

They were fifteen minutes down the interstate before Johnny’s silent remembering turned verbal.
“Ole Press was always a cool one,” he said quietly. “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,” he said. “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 out that part.”
“Hey, that’s just who I was back then. That was the Aaron Peck everyone knew. What girl in her right mind was going to get excited about being around me? Without you and Press to lend a hand out I might never have had a date. I could have ended up being a hermit.” 
Aaron paused a moment to recall how he had managed to avoid that unfortunate possibility. “That’s just the way it was,” he added. “At least until I had a chance to start over.”
“Start over?”
“That’s right,” Aaron nodded.“It wasn’t a plan or anything like that. It just worked out that way. I went off to college. Away from Tanner---where no one knew anything about me. I didn’t have to deal with all that baggage I’d packed around all through junior high and high school---all the stuff that made the old Aaron Peck who he was.”
“So you reinvented yourself. Was that it? You became the new, improved Aaron Peck?”
“Well, maybe a little new. Probably not all that improved. The thing is, I was starting fresh. I didn’t have to live down anyone’s notion of who I was. There I was, 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 classy 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. 
“Just think back to our last reunion. It was fifty years after we graduated, and still there were lots of folks who remembered us by those old labels. That’s all they knew about us. In their minds that must be who we still were.”
“So what kind of bad stuff could they have pinned on you?” Johnny asked. “That you ran around with Press and me? I suppose tht gave them something to talk about.”
“That, and a few other vices I’d picked up along the way. Anyway, I went off to college the next fall and bingo---I met this very nice, 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.”

Then, from the story I call 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 at Tanner Southside High School.

The two of us had not been buddies in high school. As I remember 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 that night. It was our fortieth class reunion, a couple years after my divorce from Sandra---the first I had ever attended without her. 
She was there, of course, taking pains to be 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 the two of them were refusing to act their age that night, I ended up at the same table as Jack---each of us alone, each of us lonely. After a few awkward glances at each 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.

Just think of how those adolescent years prepared us for what was to follow. For most of us that time was a launching pad---a place from which to begin a life journey we could scarcely imagine at the time. 
Ready or not, we were taking the first tentative steps toward becoming the person we are today---complete with the dreams we have dreamed and the life we have lived---and the family and friends we have created along the way. 
Now, in the October and November of that journey, having reestablished contact with a few folks I knew back then, and renewing a few hazy memories of that time, I'll admit that I am enjoying 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.

1 comment:

  1. Lot of familiar memories in these excerpts.