Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Forty Years Later, a Reunion

I was a little nervous as I headed to the reunion dinner at the VFW, in the tiny western New York State town where I grew up.

My classmates and I were gathering from locations that ranged from an apartment down the street to a house in Thessaloniki, Greece.

I’m sure every one of us heading to the event felt a touch of the silly old fears that come with these gatherings. Then I spotted the big orange sign on the nearby bridge over the Erie Canal:

“WARNING: Emergency Scene Ahead.”

Logically, I knew the sign wasn’t put there as a caution against what lay ahead at my 40th high school reunion. But I worried that it might turn out to be an omen of some sort.
Would I say something stupid and hurt someone’s feelings? Would I still like these people? Would they still like me?

The cliché is that those who gather at reunions are, at least on some subtle level, trying to impress one another. But that doesn’t apply to most reunions in the small towns of places like Vermont and New York.

After all, my classmates and I had known each other from a very young age, in many cases since preschool. We’d attended Ms. Weidman’s summer program for kindergarteners and survived her overpowering perfume. We’d played Little League together, shared First Communion.

When you’ve known people that long, there’s no fooling them. Whatever polish your personality might have in midlife, they recall the little kid you used to be.

They remember what an idiot you were in junior high school. They have a vivid image in their minds of when you barfed up lunch in second grade. When you threw the interception that cost your JV football team an undefeated season.

They were there when you almost blew the entire Senior Play by drinking hard liquor in the girls’ locker room, minutes before you were to go onstage.

They haven’t forgotten the day when you tipped so far back in your desk chair, halfway through Mr. Jelomono’s 7th grade math class, that you fell over backwards in your chair and brought your desk thundering down upon you.

And the secret love notes that were in your desk? The ones that slid out for everyone to read as you lay there on the floor in stunned silence, trapped beneath the heavy desk and the onslaught of telltale papers?

They remember that, too.

Coming to an event like this, you don’t check your ego at the door. You had to check it years ago.

But that doesn’t mean nothing has changed.

For me the most heartening shift at this reunion was the matter-of-fact acceptance of a classmate’s gay sexual orientation. No one seemed to give it a second thought, even though the town remains somewhat insular and strongly Catholic.

Outside the doors of the cozy VFW, however, we could see that another, more disturbing change had occurred. Along with most of central and western New York State, the village has seen a slow decline in prosperity.

Some of the houses in which we grew up are in disrepair or boarded up. The once proud downtown -- where we shopped as kids and where, a century before that, Abraham Lincoln stopped on his trip from Illinois to assume the presidency -- is largely dormant. A few of its stately, mid-19th-century brick buildings are being sold to anyone willing to pay the back taxes.

Yet I take hope for the town’s future from several of my classmates and former high school teachers, who are helping to create a local renaissance through light manufacturing and Erie Canal tourism. Thanks to government stimulus money and a cadre of committed townspeople, the downtown looks noticeably better than it did just three years ago.

And anyway, the nostalgic human heart transcends it all.

Whatever traumas befell us as kids, however ragged the old homestead may look, most of us retain a strong affection for the small town where we came of age.

The place commands a tremendous loyalty from those of who learned in her schools, played on her fields, sipped a first underage beer in her back alleys.

I doubt people feel that way about the suburbs.

As a kid, I couldn’t go anywhere in town without being noticed. When I was 16 and learning to drive, I once illegally passed a parked school bus that had its lights flashing. Later that same afternoon, the bus driver paid a visit to my family’s house to tell me, sternly but without malice, never to do that again.

I could misbehave a mile from home and -- by the time I got back to the house -- my mother would know all about it. And when I occasionally did something well, I’m sure my parents heard about that, too.

Thanks to all those growing-up years, I have always found our Addison County towns – from Bristol to Vergennes to Middlebury -- to be both familiar and comforting.

And when I think of that phrase about how it takes a village to raise a child, I think of those towns.

And of a little place called Clyde, N.Y.

- 30 -


Blogger S. F. said...

Wonderful article, Greg! Thank you.

7:06 PM  

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