The past is another country but some things never change

Richard Lutz wanders through lost school hallways at his fiftieth class reunion

“We look at the world once, in childhood,” said a poet. “The rest is memory.”

These were the words of writer Louise Gluck. But I could have had them tattooed inside my eyeballs when I returned to the school I had not seen for half a century.

It was my class’s fiftieth reunion at Poly Prep, a school with a long history. I crossed the Atlantic, came back to the States, came back to New York City, came back to Brooklyn, to the Bay Ridge area of the borough, came back to where I was in 1967.

That’s a lot of Coming Back and when, funnily enough, I saw Charlie D, I realised not all was forgotten. He was always catlike, graceful even on the rough ground of a sports field. Today, decades later, he still seemed to float, Charlie did. The past might be a foreign country – as a British writer once commented – but some things never change.

Charlie and about three dozen others (including me) roamed the school halls, the playing fields, bumped into old pals, checked old haunts or tried to find vanished ones. I had last seen Poly Prep the day I grabbed my high school diploma. The final memory was of seeing Jeff M behind me in the graduation line with white loafers decorated with gold chains and wearing no socks. Things were changing in 1967; pretty fast too.

I had come back, back to my school, back to Brooklyn, back to the States expecting that the major impact was to see old faces, voices softened by age, smiles faded by time. What I had not expected, and what was monumentally apparent, was that I was coming back to see myself. I wasn’t expecting that, silly old me. I looked at the world back then in a certain way and remembered it in a certain way. What I failed to realise is that so did 50 other men.

Every guy had a different (and, happily, mostly upbeat) memory of me. They were referring back to who I had been in 1967 when Sgt Pepper was just out, when Ali was trying to make a ring comeback, when those damned hippies were about to spread flowers through their hair. As David L said: “It was a long, strange trip…”

Back then, we looked at the world as children, no matter what age we were. Now we were remembering that world. 

Of course, reunions, these great get-togethers, are ingrained in American culture. But the tradition does not travel well across the Atlantic. Britain is more phlegmatic. Alumni groups in the UK are more relaxed, less urgent, with no visceral drive as if the world is about to crumble and we have a need, a hunger for memory. For many in Britain, the class reunion is simply non-existent, the stuff of Hollywood rom-coms or at best a table in the corner of a noisy, friendly boozer.

The US, though, feeds off this necessity. I arrived late to the function which included huddles of other graduating years. Everyone seemed to be elsewhere as I tried to find my class. I meandered through quiet hallways I had dreamt about, long thin corridors that severely turned at n inety degrees like crooked elbows as they wove around a quadrangle. Was that the chemistry lab where we were all told by our teacher that each exam was A Golden Opportunity? Was that our headteacher’s small office, the lair of the sepulchral Mr Scull (with his long robes) eternally wreathed, it seemed, in a fug of tobacco? Everything had changed. But not changed. 

Then, the friends, the faces emerged. Suddenly, it seemed. One minute I was careening around those lost hallways. The next surrounded by classmates. Brian C explained his love of Spanish linguistics, Steve F practically jumped and down as he took in the big fight (Klitschko vs Joshua) that raged live in London. The other Steve F, the one who always made me laugh, summed up a high school career like a Catskill comedian: “I had to give up cross country – it got in the way of my smoking.”

Frank S was the MC just as he was the class president half a century ago. And Joel M could still immediately reel off our names backwards (Ztul Drahcir) as he bounced into us fifty years on. Thanks, Leoj Muablednam.

I sat next to Frank B at the dinner. We must have spoken six words to each other in four years as classmates. He was part of that shining super elite that achieved grades I could only have dreamt about. No, could have dreamt about if I hadn’t been so lazy and … lazy. Today Frank (Dr Frank) and I gabbed as if we met every Saturday for coffee and cake.

There were small, poignant epistles to those that had died: Joe F, an athlete described as having the heart of an angel; Kenny N who was killed in a car accident, Bart S who played trumpet from the bleachers at Mets games, who was the first to pass away , not long after graduating. There were others too. 

And then there were the names that had faded or were missing. “Where is Barry B…?” a  voice asked to everyone as we ate in the very study hall where, as a fourteen year old, I had heard that JFK was killed in 1963. Or Donald S or Mike G? They missed the big half century show, or didn’t want to come or had, simply, forgotten. Or just didn’t care. This reunion was a self-selective group of those that wanted this attachment. A group that wanted memory.

A free bar helped things along. Peter M is a guy I had the longest links with – he had been a schoolfriend since we were seven. We talked about families. Bruce K and Alan S shared a seedy escapade with me in Manhattan and, today, we still rolled our eyes. Steve E showed me a clip of his toddling grandson. And there was the guy (unnamed) who gave me diet pills in the locker room to help me make weight for the wrestling team.

Two teachers showed up. Gil F had to sit his 92 year old body in a chair and be helped to stand up. But he was quick to ask me: “What the heck is going on with this Brexit thing?” Good question. Lord knows, I told Gil, and I live in the UK. And Ralph D, who coached me in my highly mediocre athletic career, was philosophic about why teams are important: “Some people,” he said, “just like being part of a group.”

Well said Ralph.

Stories rolled in: How Keith H made it in TV, why Bob S had a second chance, where Eddie S opened his West Village restaurant, why Paul G spent so much time in London.

Simply put, Americans, I have always found, love a good story. The United States is woven with narrative. And this reunion, this second chance at union, was the fabric of the night. It was about defining a life through stories and the past and how we looked at that world once. And how we looked at each other.

Novelist Elizabeth Strout says in a recent interview: “We may think we’re growing and getting older. But we’re just trying to get back to the reference point.” And this reference point, this past, when it comes to school, is our eyes-open childhood. And that is what Gluck is writing about; we look at the world once…

Her lines come from a work called Nostos. In Greek, it means Homecoming. Which was us that weekend. Maybe the word specifically alludes to an Homeric return, the loner from the sea returning and regaining a kingdom. But it could be us, from that year, the little boys, the infant adults, coming back.

13 thoughts on “The past is another country but some things never change

  1. I am discovering one of the few compensations of aging- a more burnished, warmer perspective of the past.

  2. we went to a reunion & found out how much we all share & how much we all care.

  3. You mobilized me to make plans to go to my own HS reunion next week.

  4. I was most shocked by that little phrase “smiles faded by time.”

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