Monday, October 5, 2009

You Can Go Home Again . . . Sort Of

I have just now returned from a quick weekend trip to Chicago where I attended my 40th high school reunion. I have been back to the Chicago area in the intervening years, mostly on business trips or passing through on my way to someplace else, and so I have not spent any time to speak of in the Park Ridge and the northwestern suburbs where I graduated from Maine South High School on June 11, 1969. My family moved to Milwaukee shortly thereafter, and at the end of that summer I was off to college in Florida, and my high school days and life in suburban Chicago gradually faded into a distant memory.

There was one occasion in the interim, however brief, when I had an opportunity to resurrect my memories of my high school days. In January 1992, Sally Ann and I visited the White House the day after President Clinton’s inauguration. Passing through the receiving line, and after shaking hands with the new President and Vice President, I came to Hillary Clinton (Maine South, Class of 1965). As I shook Hillary’s hand I noted that we were fellow Maine South alumni. In fact, her brothers Hugh (Class of ‘68) and Tony (Class of ‘72) were there when I was. We had a momentary "Go Hawks" moment and then she went her way and I went mine.

Earlier this summer I reconnected with a couple of my old classmates through Facebook (say what you will about it, it does open doors to old friends, some of whom I figured where long lost and gone forever). Soon there was talk of meeting in Chicago this Homecoming Weekend to catch up on old times when we were young and innocent. Unfortunately, the others were unable to attend, but on Friday past I boarded an early flight from Baltimore to Chicago’s Midway Airport to begin what would be an interesting and nostalgic trip to my Midwest roots.

Shortly after landing I drove down to nearby Marquette Park, on the city’s southwest side, to visit Holy Cross Hospital, where I was born in 1951. It is hard to believe that I spent so much time in and around Chicago when I was growing up yet never made it down to the Southside to see where it all began. Better late than never, I guess. What better way to begin a trip into my deep past.

I also wandered over to the lakefront, taking a walk through Jackson Park, near the University of Chicago campus, which was the site of the 1893 Chicago Exposition, followed by a drive along Lake Michigan to Millennium Park where Barack Obama greeted the world as President-Elect almost a year ago (I was not invited to the White House following his inauguration, but we never attended the same high school). From there I jumped onto the Kennedy Expressway (odd name for it as nobody seemed to be driving faster than 20 mph) for the slow drive up to Park Ridge, near O’Hare Field. It was here that I began my search for the places so familiar to me during my final years in high school.

First stop, of course, was my alma mater - Maine Township High School South. It did not look much different than I remembered it. Open in 1964, it was still relatively new when I attended. In fact, my class was only the second graduating class to attend all four years at the school. Back then we abided by a rather strict dress code which included a ban on all facial hair and no hair touching the shirt collar. As I walked into the school that afternoon I could immediately see that policies had grown considerably less formal over the years. I reported to the security desk and proudly announced that I was returning alumni attending my first Homecoming. The woman at the desk eyed me with suspicion and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I would have to leave the building immediately. I then asked if there were any Homecoming activities scheduled on campus whereupon she confessed that she had no idea what I was talking about and once again invited me to leave the building in all due haste. Somewhat perplexed by this most unexpected showdown, and wondering whether the fact that my hair (graying and thinning as it is) extended well beyond my collar had something to with my expulsion, I returned to my rental car and that was the beginning and end of my high school homecoming activities. I would have to settle for the reunion which would (thankfully) take place at an off-campus venue. You will, perhaps, be happy to know that I reported my hostile reception to the Maine South principal who was very apologetic. He has offered to give me a personal tour of the school whenever I return to Park Ridge. I am guessing this will be sometime around 2049. I must remember to get a haircut before I go.

That evening there was an informal gathering of the Class of 1969 at Bogies Ale House, in nearby Mount Prospect. Talk about a weird feeling. I had not seen any of my classmates since June of 1969 when we were fresh faced, properly attired, with hair styled to acceptable standards. We were the epitome of youth and vitality. That evening . . . not so much. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. Most of us had gone on to college. We had married and raised families while managing our careers. Some had divorced, and some of them were on spouse # 2 or 3, including a couple of trophy wives and boy toy husbands in tow (I’m sure they felt more "weirded out" than any of us). Some had lost a spouse, and, sadly to say, there were several from our ranks who were no longer with us. A couple of them died in Vietnam not long after graduation and I have found their names on the Wall.

As I wandered the room there were lots of names on the "Hello, I Am" tags that looked familiar yet I could not match them with the faces in my yearbook. Other faces brought a spark of recognition, and I could see it in their eyes, too. "Hey, I remember you." I stepped up to the bar to order a beer and found myself standing next two girls who were in my neighborhood car pool. I did recognize them. We smiled, talked for a few minutes, and then it was over. I had a couple more beers and some slices of pizza, and headed back to the hotel. It was an interesting evening, and an eye-opening experience. I am glad I made the effort to come this weekend and to spend the informal evening at Bogies. At one time, many years ago, we all had something in common. Yet, in the final analysis, I spent the evening with a bunch of strangers.

I got up the next morning and had a full day to explore my past before the more formal reunion banquet near O’Hare that evening. I spent the morning walking around the Park Ridge neighborhoods I frequented back then. It was a typical early autumn day with crisp temperatures and folks out in jacket and sweaters. The forecast called for rain in the afternoon, so perhaps folks were out to take care of errands before the rain arrived. I also drove down to the lakefront, this time across the North Side, down past Wrigley Field to Lincoln Park and Grant Park. The parklands were full of families - dads playing catch with their sons, couples strolling along the quiet beaches, and fall markets set up on various corners. A great way to spend a Saturday morning.

The forecasted rain arrived early on Saturday afternoon and I made my way back to Park Ridge where I found a friendly tavern to pass the afternoon watching football and nursing a cold beer (or two). The gal waiting on me was a 2006 Maine South graduate. Her dad also graduated from there . . . 10 years after I did. Suddenly I felt very old. I made the best of it, but soon enough it was time to return to my hotel to prepare for the evening festivities.

The rain never let up and I had to deploy a large umbrella borrowed from the hotel concierge to make my way into the O’Hare conference center where the banquet was being held. I recognized names and faces from the previous night’s gathering at Bogies. Tonight, however, everyone was freshly scrubbed just like the old days. Out in the lobby there was a table with photos taken at our class’s previous reunions (none of which I had ever heard about). Strangely, the faces from 1979, 1989, and 1999 looked more familiar than those I encountered that evening. Add to this the fact that our numbers are slowly dwindling. There was also a display of alumni no longer among us. The list was longer than I had first imagined. There they were, smiling faces as we remembered them those many years ago . . . as we will always remember them. It was a sobering moment amidst an evening of celebration. All said and done, we had a respectable turnout, and several of us had come long distances to be there. At the end of the evening, everyone left having had a good time and glad that they had come. I was.

This morning I awoke early in order to pack up and check out. My flight back to Baltimore did not depart Midway until late evening, so I had another day to explore the places of my past. On a whim I jumped on the Tri-State Tollroad (the Chicago "beltway" of sorts) and headed north to Milwaukee some 80 miles away. That summer after graduation I burned up this road driving back and forth to visit my girlfriend whom I left behind in Park Ridge. There were many such trips, but one of them sticks in my memory. I had met some of my former classmates (said girlfriend included) at the Lake Michigan beach at Zion, and then I returned to her house that evening to watch man walk on the moon for the very first time. Then it was a late night drive home to Wisconsin. I stopped for gas and stared up at the moon and marveled that two men were walking around up there. I still do.

The rest of the day I visited houses where I had once lived in suburban Milwaukee and in Lake Mills, between Milwaukee and Madison, where I also attended elementary school. There was the cemetery where I announced to Sally Ann that I would marry her one day. I explored the rural roads through the rolling hills of southeastern Wisconsin, places I liked to explore on weekend escapes from the city. Although Milwaukee, even Lake Mills, has grown over the last decades, these rural byways are very much as I remembered them. The autumn colors were at their peak as each winding road opened to a broad vista resurrecting a deep memory I had not pondered for a very long time. It was good to be back. And then, before I realized it, it was time to leave and make my way back down to Chicago to catch my flight home to Maryland.

Thomas Wolfe once wrote that you can’t go home again. There is certainly an inkling of truth in this. Nothing will be exactly as you remembered it. People and places change; it is the natural order of things. But the deep feel of a place, even the people you once knew there, never goes a way entirely. I like to believe that you can always go back, and once there, you will feel the pulse of the place, you will still understand why it was necessary to come back. I reconnected with a part of my past I had not thought too much about in recent years. It is now a part of me again. It was good to go home again.

NEXT WEEK: I will be on hiatus for a couple of weeks as I catch my breath up in northern New Hampshire. Check back on Sunday, October 25.

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