by Kenneth Harper Finton
Who in 1960 could imagine life in 2015? Those who did try to visualize the future were horrified by the novel 1984 and the dictatorial police state that it portrayed. For the generation that grew up in the shadow of nuclear war, their expectations for their own futures were cloudy and uncertain.
The turn of the each century has aways brought grave change to the American landscape and culture. The year 1700 brought to the world the seeds of revolution against monarchal tyranny and religious repression. 1800 heralded a new spirit of expansion into unknown lands with the promise of greater freedom for all than the world had ever known before. 1900 brought dreams of industrial expansion as the railroads opened up the western regions. Capitalists conceived of factories that could bring a better life to all and great profits for those whose dreams and ambitions could become manifest realities. The year 2000 was greeted with a great mistrust of the technological forces that had so quickly changed our lives.
A fifty-fifth class reunion of the 1960 Greenville High School graduating class was held in August 2015. Back in 1960 we could never have imagined the changes we were subjected to in our lifetimes. 2015 was far away and inconceivable to us. We were the immortals who never died out of necessity. Life had to go forward despite the atomic catastrophe that we believed would certainly envelope us.
It was not that we were unaware that people grow old and people die, that times would change and we would become mature adults. We knew that well and looked forward with hope eternal. We were familiar enough with nature’s ways to know that a potential tragedy lay around every curve in the road. We dimly realized that we were not going to be different from those who long ago had been laid beneath the sod, those whose silent granite and marble tombstones pocked the hills and valleys all over the rural countryside. It was just hard to imagine we too would grow old and gray and our youthful agility would erode––that those lean bellies would enlarge like swollen dough and stick out over our pants. We gave little thought to the fact that our belts would slip down in the front and rise in to the top of our rears like a lopsided tire lying on a steep hill.
Those lovely girls whose hips engaged us and whose bosoms entranced us would put on fifty pounds or more. They would look more like their mothers than we could ever imagine. Those smooth long legs that drove us to distraction would pucker with cellulite. Those gleaming teeth would dim with tobacco and coffee and some pearly whites were lost to time. Often the vacant spaces were not filled with bridges and caps.
My father devoted much of his spare time to cataloging the names in the old church side cemeteries throughout the county. Many a weekend it had fallen upon me to hold a mirror and reflect the light of the sun just to illuminate the faded lettering with shadows that they might be read and the names and dates written on a yellow legal pad. I gave little, if any, thought to the fact that both he and I would lie in similar places one day,
We gathered at the Bistro in downtown Greenville the Friday night before the class reunion. The Bistro belongs to that new breed of higher end bars with several large and luxurious rooms with filtered lighting and perky barmaids that bring drinks upon demand. Nothing of the kind existed in Greenville in 1960. Bars were either small, dark places that smelled of cheap beer and cigarette smoke or clubs with strange names where old men gathered to smoke cigars, drink and curse with fervor until their hearts were content and the tedium of the day was washed away. Today smoking is no longer permitted and cursing is frowned upon.
One by one, old classmates arrived, sometimes in groups of two of three. As they arrived, the others would try to guess who they were, as even five of ten years makes a big difference in appearance when you are older than your allotted three score and ten.
Greenville, Ohio is an historic town, founded in the late 18th century when Indians far outnumbered the European immigrants that came to settle the Ohio wilderness. The residents have always been proud of the fact that the Treaty of Greene Ville was signed there in 1795. The Indians were forced out of their villages and settlements. The treaty highly favored the victors in the Indian Wars and opened the entire Northwest Territory up for settlement by emigrants to the new lands. Greenville’s main street, called Broadway––five or six blocks in length––is comprised of picturesque three-story Victorian buildings that were built from 1870 to 1910. Most of the store fronts have changed dramatically over the years, Some of the Victorian charm was lost with the ideas of modernization that took root from 1950 to 1990. All the storefronts lost their canvas awnings that shaded the shoppers for decades. A Federal-styled bank building went through hideous renovation in an attempt to make it look like a modern and successful place to do business.
Come Saturday night the class of 1960 gathered at the American Legion hall, which has now been relocated to a newly built area that had previously been next to the old city dump. Now filled with new structures and fresh greenery, the place bore no resemblance at all to what it had been in 1960.
Some of us have already joined our ancestors. Gerry Greendyke never made it home from Viet Nam. Wayne Beasley wrapped the front of his car around a tree shortly after graduation.They say he fell asleep at the wheel. Ralston King caught his pant leg in the drive wheel of a tractor and was turned over and over again until the tractor ran out of fuel and his body was mutilated beyond recognition. Rollie’s death was made even more tragic when his first child was born on the same day the accident happened. Several were lost to cancer and sudden heart failure. A few died of other diseases and traumas. Quite a few still remain out of the class of one hundred and forty. We have since spread all over the nation. I came in from Colorado. Some came from as far as California and Vermont.
The stories of our lives are written on our faces, the history of our diets on our bodies. Facial wrinkles track our concerns over our lives and families, while the corners of the mouths silently recall the sadness and the joys we have experienced.
One finds that as we get older, even high school classmates that we avoided are worth having as friends. Be they pump or skinny, successful or not, rich or poor, professional or working class, these differences no longer matter much over the age of sixty. The need to impress leaves us and the need to share becomes much more important. The men are no longer in competition with the other men for the fair ladies. The fair ladies no longer feel the constant need to impress the men. That is part of the freedom that age brings, the reason why people say with age comes wisdom. Wisdom does not really come with age. Yesterday’s dunce is still dumb. Yesterday’s jocks are simply a memory. Experience might not create wisdom, but it does tell an interesting tale. By the time we get to a fifty-fifth reunion most of the participants are experienced reunion alumni. They have learned to avoid small talk about politics and religion. They have perfected their ritual jokes and stories. They have learned to talk sparingly of their work achievements.
One classmate related a story of his school days. Back in the days before central heat, stores and schools were often heated with basement furnaces. The heat rose to the floors above through large grates in the floor. It did not take long for the pubescent boys to realize that by standing below these grates they could see up the dresses of the women that walked by or stood above them. His story was about how he and his friend spied up the dress of one of their teachers at school, only to be discovered by the teacher herself when she looked down and saw them staring up at her from below. Highly embarrassed, she promptly ordered them to the principal’s office. They thought that their school days were over. Surely, they would be whipped, expelled or worse. But the male principal told them: “I was a boy myself once and I know how it is to be one. This time I am going to overlook it, but I want you boys be on your best behavior and not embarrass Miss Schwartz by doing that again.” With a sigh of relief they returned to the classroom with a new respect for the principal and a lot more knowledge about their teacher’s choice in underwear.
Older men and women can still be quite sensual and handsome. Older men still show a keen interest in the pretty girls and women. However, the constant urge to copulate does temper with age. As teenagers we wore our hearts on our wrists like watches. Passing women quickly became the subjects of instant fantasies. The simple act of riding down a bumpy road in a car awakened those male hormones that swell the lower extremities as much as the trot of a horse awakens the female libido. As the years go by, the flow of blood in the arteries and veins become more and more restricted with the deposits left by time and diet. That universal signature of maleness––the automatic salute that nature provides in response to the females of our species––can become more difficult to obtain. It can make us feel awkward and inept. We were taught as children to rise when a woman came into the room. The privilege of not rising was reserved for the crippled and the infirm. Not that the older generations become prematurely infirm, but it does seem that nature has provided a release for older males with a gradual release from the those adolescent passions that plagued us for so many years. Many things that used to make no sense become clear. We understand that bras are singular and panties are plural even though it makes little grammatical sense. It is as it is and that is all.
In past years I made videos of the class reunions. They can be viewed on Vimeo. Here are the links.
https://vimeo.com/57391196 for the 50th GHS reunion
https://vimeo.com/57326400 for 30 Years After, created 25 years ago before high definition TV and home video editing was even feasible.