I try not to think too much about the fact that I’ve reached that lofty milestone in age of having attended my fifty-year high school reunion. I graduated from Columbus High School in Columbus, Georgia, in 1966. My graduating class had around four hundred seventy members. Attendees for the reunion consisted of approximately one hundred twenty individuals plus their spouses, resulting in a great turnout of around two hundred people. Around fifty members of the class have died.
Those who chose to attend the reunion are the successful survivors. The reunion was spread over two evenings. Perhaps, some members had other conflicting commitments, or perhaps they had no interest at all in meeting people from our distant past. In any case, it was gratifying to meet old friends and acquaintances. I had seen many of them at the previous reunions every decade. But I re-connected with others that I had not seen for half a century!
The passage of time treats people differently. Some classmates were instantly recognizable. Others had changed so drastically in their appearances, that I had to look at their nametags (showing our photos from fifty years ago) to recognize them. Susan and I were proud of looking among the youngest of the group. Most women color their hair, but very few men do. I seemed to be the only man there without gray hair (thanks to my recent application of hair and beard dye, “Just for Men”). Some of the people looked all too ancient, like my mental image of my parents or grandparents. But the mood of the group was good, despite the fact that we are all visibly older.
I had been in contact with the organizers (some of my former classmates) prior to the event. As a musician, I had volunteered to lead the singing of the school’s Alma Mater. The funny thing is that I had never learned the words to the song, since I always had a clarinet in my mouth whenever the song was sung. So, I studied the words and re-learned the melody. Copies of the words were placed at every table. When the time came to lead the song, I told them that I would play it on my flute first to refresh everyone’s memories. They protested that the pitch was too high, even though I had learned it in the original key, taken from a YouTube recording by the band at a football game. Luckily, I knew it well enough to transpose it to a lower key. Amazingly (to me), when I played the melody in a lower key, a majority of the group quickly sang along. Afterwards, I insisted that everyone sing it again, so that I could sing instead of playing my flute, especially since I had practiced singing the song in advance a number of times. The group singing was impressive.
It is remarkable that only about ten percent of the class is deceased. We were told that some had died within five years of graduation. No cause was mentioned, but some of the men may have been killed in the Vietnam War. There were a few suicides, some acute health crises…in short, our class is a typical cross-section of society at large.
A couple of my classmates have been very successful financially. I talked to one guy that I had literally not spoken with in over fifty years. He was always a high-achieving nerdy brainy type. He became an inventor, specializing in amusement park roller coasters! His designs are in use in amusement parks around the world. His success allowed him to fly his private plane to the reunion. He told me he also owns a bigger plane, but he chose to fly his small one this time from his home in Florida. I had emailed him prior to the event after reading his resume. I wrote to him that we could not have imagined what we’d be doing when we “grew up.” He responded perfectly, “I’m not sure what I want to do when I grow up. I haven’t grown up yet!” This attitude is the epitome of staying “young at heart.”
Another former classmate is a good friend with whom Susan and I had worked during the years that we were seeking to develop a medical device to help premature infants develop their sucking/feeding reflex through the use of music. (The PAL=Pacifier-Activated-Lullabies) We developed a successful prototype product, turned the patent back to Florida State University, who is working with a venture capitalist to bring it to market. We learned a lot. Our friend retired from his previous corporate healthcare job to become an executive in a medical device startup company. His company is working to develop a robotic surgical machine that is compact enough to be rolled by a nurse from one patient room to another. He’s raised eighteen million dollars so far to fund development of the device, and it will be interesting to see how this project develops.
Apart from meeting my surviving classmates, another sobering experience is to visit my old homestead, the “country place” in Alabama, and seeing the presence and handiwork of my parents, who have been gone for over a decade. My father personally built much of the house where I grew up. He was very skilled in building things. I rebelled at an early age from the manual labor that he excelled in. He gave me a good work ethic, but I applied it mostly to playing music, as opposed to making or building things. He was really a Renaissance man, skilled in many areas. I miss him and my mother very much, especially when I visit the family homestead. It’s a reminder that “we can’t take it with us!” I’ve taken loads of things to the dump that my parents saved, but which had no lasting significance after they were gone. At some point, we each will need to look at giving away our collected possessions, rather than to continue to amass material possessions that will be distributed the way we personally chose while we’re still alive, or some other way after we’re gone.
How would we have designed our lives “if we knew then what we know now”? What would we have done differently? Would we still desire “fame and fortune”? Would we have chosen different paths than the ones we now follow? There’s the old saying: Man plans; God laughs. To what extent does our environment (social, physical, geographical, etc.) determine our life paths? Do we make any real conscious choices at all? Or is our small insignificant place in the world the prime determinant of our fates?
I think of my best friend from high school, Norman Evans, who didn’t reach age fifty (due to cancer). I think of what I’ve managed to do since age fifty. I think of my nephew Ari, who died earlier this year at the age of twenty-six (also due to cancer). Ari and Norman were robbed of their lives. For those of us who have survived intact to our current ripe “old” ages, we are blessed. We are lucky. We must be mindful of the blessings of each new day. We don’t know what the future with hold. We don’t know how much time we have left. There’s not as much time ahead of us as we’ve lived already. Ultimately, all that’s left for us to do is to live life to the fullest, one day at a time!