Over the past six months, I have had several high school classmates contact me through Facebook to get access to my Facebook site (I know, it is easier to just say “friend me”), and I have contacted several to get access to their sites. That jogs my memory. Few of us look much at all like we did 35 years ago. Do I look recognizable, I wonder?
I had no Facebook friends from high school until about a year ago when Clark Stiles got in contact with me. He came across my name doing a Google search a few years ago when Barb VanderKolk Smoes died of cancer. I had written a story about my history of bicycle riding in which I referred to Carol Smoes (more on that later). The Google search turned up that story, and that is how he found me. Carol and I have exchanged Christmas cards for 20 or 30 years. She is an artist, a graphic designer, and makes her own beautiful and interesting cards. I had always wondered what Clark was up to. He and I were Chemistry and Physics lab partners; I remember him liking Pink Floyd, Monty Python, and Dr. Demento. I thought Clark was a genius. He certainly was one of the smartest kids from my high school class, certainly one who read more widely than probably anyone else. Since I was not too dimwitted, I have wondered since getting out of high school what other of the smart kids ended up doing—like Carol. To be sure there were a good number of dipshits and dimwits. I wonder what happened to some of them. But I was much more interested in where the smart kids went and what they did. It turned out to be pretty disappointing. I thought there were a large number of intellectually sharp kids in my class, and expected there to be several who became doctors, attorneys, college professors, artists, leaders of various sorts. Don’t get me wrong. Many have had great success in lots of other respects. I just expected much more temporal success.
Here is one example. Early last summer I bumped into the valedictorian or salutatorian of my high school class at my nephew’s wedding and reception in a barn in Ravenna. It was an eighty year old dairy barn, renovated for hosting weddings and parties. The milking area was all painted white and gutters covered with steel plate. The upper level, where the hay had been stored, was the banquet and dance floor area. My classmate was very smart, very studious. She had excelled at all subjects: math, sciences, literature, social sciences, music and arts. I think she competed in some sports: volleyball or basketball. And she was a cheerleader. She played the piano at the wedding, and I recognized her. I spoke with her during the reception in the hayloft. She went to college for a year, and dropped out to get married. After raising two or three kids, she went back to college, finished an education degree and teaches high school math. I had expected her to become a physician or physicist. Was I disappointed? She looked very happy. It seemed that she had been a good mother, as her kids seemed to be doing well. She’d been married to the same person for probably thirty years. She looked healthy, even to the point of not having gained more than a dozen pounds since high school. Which, when you think about that alone is stunning. Today, the average American adult weighs thirty or thirty-five more pounds than the average adult weighed in 1970. Can you say “high fructose corn syrup”? Can you say “soda every day”? Can you say “what the hell is ‘cooking from scratch’”? Can you say “why walk a mile when I can get in my car and drive it”?
Another example is Clark. I said that I had always wondered what he did. I expected him to become something like a biochemical engineer, or a chemist working at Dow Chemical or Amway or some pharmaceutical company. He was brilliant and creative, just what you want in a research scientist. Shortly after he had gotten in contact with me, I was going from Minnesota where I lived to Michigan to visit my parents. I got in contact with Clark and made arrangements to meet. He had gone to college for a year or two or three. But somewhere in there a close friend killed himself, but it wasn’t exactly a suicide. Clark was crushed by the event. He dropped out of college. He eventually, I don’t know if it was within a year or a dozen of years, got a job working for the state social services. I think he worked with the poor and disabled. About a dozen years ago he took a similar job at Salvation Army, doing drug and alcohol rehabilitation. No Ph.D. lab scientist like I expected, Jeez Louise not even a college degree. He never finished it. Where is he now? Giving cups of cold water to the least of these. I also found out a lot about Clark, and about teachers from my high school, that I didn’t know. The house where Clark grew up, on East Randall or Arthur (same road, the name changes somewhere close to the house) just east of the railroad tracks, is a Centennial Farm. That means it has been in the same family for over 100 years. His grandparents were farmers there. The house passed onto his father. His father hated farming. He started or took over a grocery store in Coopersville, and leased out the land to other farmers. Clark grew up poor, but they always had enough to eat from the store. Somewhere around junior high his dad gave up the grocery and became some sort of a traveling salesman, and did very well. Suddenly the family had money for things other than food. I also found out about some of the teachers. A couple were alcoholics (including the band and the government instructors, the superintendent and vice principal), and were fine as long as they were sober. I guess with his dad having been a grocer, and his mom active in the local Methodist Church, they knew stuff, and got to learn stuff that my family was never privy to. We lived ten miles from the school and went to church ten miles in the opposite direction. We never got to learn shit on anyone. Maybe a good thing. I had no particular reason to dislike or disrespect a teacher, except when they were pompous asses, like the one rotund English teacher who was such a dickhead and whose name fails me now, but even if I were to recall it I should keep it to myself.
I often also wonder where girls I liked in grade and high school ended up. Late in my freshman year, I was very attracted to Carol. In the summer I had driver’s training at the high school. That was ten miles from my house. Several times I had to ride my bicycle there, because my parents had only one car, and my dad needed it to go to work. Maybe we had two by then, but my mom or one of my older sisters needed the car. So I got around by bicycle. Driver’s training was every morning. If I recall correctly, on several days, but not everyday, we had driving in the afternoon, three of us with the instructor. The cars were equipped with a brake pedal for the instructor. I remember driving to restaurants where the instructor, some athletic coach, could get coffee, a donut, and suck down a cigarette or two to calm his nerves. Then back on the road again, being driven around for several hours by fifteen year old, barely post-pubescent kids. You'd think he would have had us stop at a cafe next to a bar; we'd go to the cafe for a coke and fires, while he'd slip into the bar for a mid-afternoon boilermaker. Maybe that was on the way home after the daily sessions. When I had the full day of driver’s training activities, I would ride my bike two miles north of school to Carol’s and spend the lunch time break with her. Her mother and a younger brother were always there. Her dad was the town barber. I never met him. Carol is a graphic artist, still very beautiful. She graduated from high school weighing all of eighty-five pounds, maybe ninety. I am not kidding. And she wasn’t anorexic or bulimic. Even now she looks awfully close to a buck even in weight at the most. She got a BFA, her husband is a successful architect.
I have kept in contact with my junior year girlfriend, Jayne Fettig. She went to college, got a degree in English, I believe. She got married just out of college, and raised a litter, five kids I think, and several of them are spitting images of her face. Her husband owns a gravel pit, hauling, and snow removal company. She has worked alongside him for about thirty years now, driving truck or operating the front end loader. She was always tough. I was to her house, about fifteen or twenty years ago, and saw all those kids that looked like her. No doubt who they belonged to.
For a brief period about twenty-five or thirty years ago, I had gotten in contact with a girlfriend I had from midway through my sophomore year, after I got my driver’s license, until into my junior year. Her name was Sherry Terry. She went to another school, and I met her at church youth group. I liked her. She was attractive. I must say I never had any unattractive girlfriends. I was shallow. You had to at least be good looking if I was going to be interested in you as a girlfriend. Sherry was very cute, pretty in fact. And she was smart. I guess that criterion raises me a step just above abject shallowness. All my girlfriends were smart. If you couldn’t do geometry, algebra, chemistry and physics, and weren’t interested in reading good literature, you could go to Burger King and listen to the Bee Gees or America or Captain and Tennile or Olivia Newton John or Eagles with someone else. Like I said, I liked her, but was unsure that she liked me. I found out after a youth group meeting when I asked her if she wanted a ride home instead of calling her parents to come pick her up. She lived about four miles from church. She said yes. I was pretending to be a gentleman, and opened the passenger side door of my 1967 Pontiac Tempest Custom, two-door medium blue, with a 326 cubic inch V-8 and a two speed transmission. She got in. And slid over to the middle of the front seat! So when I got around the back of the car and entered the driver’s seat, she was up next to me! Gosh she was sweet. I bet she was that sweet for her next boyfriend, and for the man who eventually became her husband. I am not sure what happened to her after high school. I think she went to Lake Superior State College (now University), but don’t know if she graduated. I know she got married, becoming Sherry Quackenbush. I don’t know if that was a better name change. I heard from one of my sisters about five years ago that she bumped into her in a chiropractor’s office. Over the past several years when I would visit my parents, I would go for a bicycle ride for twenty to seventy miles, and plan the route to take me past the house where she lived on Indian Lakes Road by the Rogue River Golf Course. Back in high school, I lived about fourteen miles from Sherry’s. My parents have moved, and now live less than ten miles from where she used to live. On one of those rides, one closer to seventy miles, I also rode past the house where Carol grew up. And another time I rode my bicycle past Jayne’s childhood home.
I wonder also about a lot of the guys that were my friends and acquaintances from high school. I think, however, I am more interested in how my former girlfriends are doing. I don’t think that is creepy. I think it is because I genuinely liked them. Indeed, I think I genuinely loved them. I think I continued to love them enough to hope and want the best for them. I wanted to know that they were doing well. Yes, as a teenager, I think I could be in love, I could love people. In fact, I broke up with one of my high school girlfriends (and maybe the only one I broke up with, the rest dumped me, always resulting in a heart break for me) because I thought I wasn’t good enough for her, that she deserved someone better than me. Really, I am not kidding. She was beautiful and smart, so that wasn’t it. She had a good heart, a very good heart. She probably had one of the finest characters of any in our graduating class. I felt like I would corrupt her, detract from the good soul she was. Not to this day have I told her that I broke up with her because I felt I was not going to be good for her. I remember the experience because when I told her I wasn’t going to be her boyfriend anymore, she was devastated as only a fifteen year old girl can be when she feels rejected by a boy she likes. She sobbed, and I remember to this day her saying to me in a nasally crying voice, “you hate me, you don’t love me anymore.” I said “I don’t hate you,” but I didn’t try to explain it any further. I was heart-broke that I broke her heart. Maybe it is too pompous or phony chivalry, paternalistic before I was even a pater; I felt I owed it to her to get her away from me. She felt emotionally hurt, and I felt lousy for hurting her.
About a month ago I got out my high school yearbook and looked through the photos of my classmates. Several I couldn’t remember a thing about. Several I could, some of those things not very flattering. Things like, “I remember he smelled bad.” “I remember he was really stupid.” “I remember she was what we considered fat, but nowadays would be just barely bigger than the average sized high school girl.” “I remember he had bad acne.” For all I know, I may be the only one who got a Ph.D., and the only one to be a college professor. Surely it is odd to have a graduate of a farming community high school become a philosopher. I wonder when they look at my photo what they remember about me. I probably don’t want to know. Or I hope that what they remember is much worse than what I am now. Strangely, I hope their memories are not very flattering of me. And I hope that were they to meet me now and spend an hour or two with me sucking down some ale, they would be surprised in a good way. One would hope that thirty-five years would bring some improvement.