“Who are these people?” has to be the most common question those arriving at high school reunions ask themselves. Even the third of the Calvin Coolidge High School class of 1971 who still lived in Rolvaag, Minnesota must have wondered about most of the other two-thirds.
According to the roster, none lived further east than Illinois, except for one who became a farmer in Germany, from where his great-grandparents originated. Mostly, west was still the direction of such movement as occurred. I know that three-quarters of my classmates who went on to college went either to Mankato State or the University of Minnesota. The rest went to private (church) schools in Iowa and Minnesota. We were schooled to look down at Iowa, not just on maps, so I was not surprised that, 40 years later, none of my classmates lived there.
Though I had oriented myself at New York from grade school on, I fled winter to the University of Arizona and then Berkeley. Some no-shows lived in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, and my adopted state of California. Vanette Mower, who was well enough integrated in the high school status structure to be a cheerleader and a Homecoming princess (and a hockey goalie) outdistanced me all the way to Australia.
My co-salutatorian, also named Steve (as, indeed were half of my high school physics class), dropped out of the Mayo Clinic Medical School to go “back to the land.” Unlike many of those who had taken over family farms, his family had no land for him to roost on. They used to own a factory, which metamorphosized into condominiums. (Miss W would insist on “condominia,” but I only hold the line on datum/data…) Not approving of his dropping out of medical school and becoming a hippie, perhaps his parents did not buy him the land which he worked with oxen and without pesticides. I had been in awe of his sexual exploits, which he told me about each week in Sunday School at our evangelical church.
Probably he had not been boasting, since the parents of local “nice girls” kept them from going out with him, though his family was perceived as the richest of any of my classmates’ back when the family factory was running. Perhaps the value of rich black-earthed farmland was overlooked and other families’ resources were greater, but for glamor when we were in high school, with his good looks, acute intelligence, athletic ability, family wealth disrespect for authority of any kind, and a sexual animal magnetism that cannot be analytically separated from some of those other characteristics, Steve Segal was It.
Forty years on, he still had residual charisma for me. I also liked his wife, who was as beautiful as she was gracious, though I thought it a bit creepy she bore the name of Steve’s sister, Susan, especially since he was practically the only person in town who did not like the first Susan Segel. (There were not quite as many Susans as Stevens in my graduating class, but there was another Steven/Susan sibling pair even on the block where I grew up.)
Somehow, different as I felt as an adolescent who did not Segel and almost all the other patronyms in our church were German. My father typified people by their church ethnicity: German Lutheran, Norwegian Lutheran, and Swedish Lutheran. Why these distinctions among Northern European Lutheran groups was salient to my father, I don’t know. Not quite a native – he had arrived by train with the livestock and household goods before he was one – these differences may have loomed larger when the then older generation had speakers of these languages, though I wonder if he could distinguish the sounds of Swedish from those of Norwegian. I can’t and, watching Bergman movies, am not sure whether Liv Ullman speaks Norwegian in them.
I was aware of Catholics being different, primarily because they arrived for junior high after parochial grade school (now long gone). And one Southerner arrived sophomore year. My only high school fight was a wild swing from him calling me a “nigger-lover” for my staunch if entirely abstract support for racial equality (there being no black people within a hundred miles of Rolvaag).
My mother came from the countryside of a Danish Baptist village. My father’s father was the son of an immigrant from Ayshire, Scotland, though he could tell me which of the two Scottish Murray clans. My father’s mother was descended from 17th-century Massachusetts Bay colonists. She was a devout Baptist.
My paternal grandfather was unchurched, so both sides of the family were Baptist. My father would have gone wherever my mother chose, but she rejected her mother-in-law’s church as too rigorist. They banned makeup, dancing, and card-playing, as well as smoking and drinking. She didn’t like their music or their stark (knockoof brutalist concrete) church interior. The church in Clark’s Grove in which she grew up had stained glass, I remember, and did not have airconditioning. We sometimes attended services with my maternal grandfather and various cousins there, but my mother must have kept her mother-in-law from inviting us to her church there in Rolvaag. I never asked either of my parents if they were aware that the Evangelical church was otherwise comprised of families of German descent, and couldn’t say if my mother felt solidarity with the more numerous other kinds of loa Scandinavian or disdained Lutheranism. And if there was ever contention about avoiding the local Baptists with either her Baptist father or Baptist mother-in-law, it was out of my earshot.
The only consequence that affected me was that our minister realized I had not been baptized, so that that had to be done before I could be confirmed. I got to speak for myself, but had no godparents and no christening gifts. And the minister mixed up names, baptizing me as “Steven James Segel.” Definitely, I would have liked to be him, but that was as close as I was able to get to fulfilling that fantasy.
Perhaps it would not have mattered, since her Danish-speaking great grandparents came from the Saxon duchy of Slesvig, possibly fleeing Prussian rule. The vicissitudes of 19th-century history of the Jutland Peninsula was not something I learned about either from my mother or in our 11th-grade World History class. That now seems to me unusually fixated on the communist revolutions of Russia and China, ignoring the Roman Empire and subsequent history of western Europe and the “Middle East.”
And back in 8th grade geography, Miss Dirk showed us slides of her travel (including Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue) and absolutely nothing about geopolitics or ethnicities. Knowledge about the world is notoriously lacking in American curricula. I learned more collecting stamps than I learned in school. Some of us now know that there are Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite pluralities in Bahrain and Iraq, but we did not learn that there was even this basic split among Muslims in Rolvaag junior high school or Coolidge senior high schools.
Closer to “home,” it would have been difficult not to notice obesity and hair loss. With nametags bearing senior-year yearbook photos, the contrast between then and now did not have to be imagined. At least in terms of appearance, I didn’t have to wonder “Who were these people?” I could – and did – still wonder how much, if any, importance I had once attached to what they thought of me… if they thought of me at all 40-55 years earlier.
With the exception of the Catholics who arrived in the middle of our slow march from west to east through the connected grade school, junior high school, and senior high school complex, most of us had been together from kindergarten through high school graduation. Forty years on, I could remember what instrument those who were in orchestra with me had played, and the positions on the football team of some. The bloating of Dave Peterson, the class’ best all-round athlete, provided some skadefryd (the Danish and Norwegian cognate of schadenfreude), though the middle of some of the former athlete’s bodies had not expanded, offsetting this unworthy pleasure.
The looks of a few, mostly women, had improved with age. One of the few who were present in whom I had any interest in talking, Rhonda Erikson, the orchestra’s concertmistress, reminisced about our vain conductor Siegfried Gottlieb, and our junior class play in which I had steadied her when others were freaking out about the lines she had difficulty remembering. I was glad that someone had a good memory of me as a human being. I never considered being “the Brain” as personal, let alone human. A computer feels no pain and an island never cries… I did, but no one noticed then, and I was not going to bring up the subject 40 years on.
For that matter, I did not see the need to come out. I listed my male partner on the list of spouses, but his name is not gender-marked. There was only one somewhat leading question about my absent spouse all night. Even the Susan who verged on prying was more interested in talking about herself and offspring than in trying to learn about the lives and relationships of others.
Among the no-shows was a former friend whom a court case in California revealed was gay. I recalled one snippy remark from Daniel that recognized what at the time I did not fully recognize: the extent to which I was in (unrequited) love with the official “Outstanding Senior Boy” of the class of 1970, Mark Mandel, who arrived midway through sophomore year, slid easily into the local German Lutheran church, and was also my partner on the debate team.
I’ve fortunately forgotten the arguments we advanced. I’m certain they were lame. I have not, however, forgotten the nights we spent, either at my house or on the road (in bunk beds in both cases). He sleep-talked, but I still wonder whether he as faking sleep in some of our conversations in the dark.
I remember Mark as being the only boy in our class who had not suffered genital mutilation at birth, but perhaps the other latecomers to our class, the García brothers (whom I now think more likely to be cousins, though it is possible they were not the same age, but started school together) were also uncircumcised. I don’t recall when they arrived. We did not have gym classes senior year, and if they were there the year before, perhaps they had gym during a different period. If they’d had foreskins, I’d have noticed!
Our class had at least three Davids: the one with the largest penis in the class, and one who gave the third a fatal injection of heroin the summer after our graduation. It still puzzles me that there was heroin in Rolvaag A. D. 1970. There was barely marijuana. The David convicted of murder found Jesus in prison and did not find his way back to the assemblage of his classmates A. D. 2010.
Nor did Bobby Vorlaut, the only classmate more impudent than Steve Segel. I had heard speculation that he died of AIDS, which was attributed to shared needles. Not having seen him since our tenth reunion, I have no reliable information, but if he did die of AIDS, I would not assume that his infection was from needles.
Bobby used to pick me up on his motorcycle (out of sight of my mother who would have been appalled) in the mornings. He did not teach me to hold onto the sides. I was happy to have a reason to hold someone (of either sex, at the time I failed to realize the preference). Fantasies of having sex over the motorcycle came much later: the first gay pornography I saw was not until after I’d graduated from college. But Bobby spent a suspicious amount of time with the bachelor teacher Mr. Sparks…
Plus a woman murdered by a passing stranger, another Steve who perished in an auto accident (having survived a serious motorcycle one while in high school), and the always-sickly Tom who was not expected to live through high school (but did). No one from my class died in Vietnam. I don’t know if anyone went there…
For all the years of copresence, did in anyone in my graduating class know me? Perhaps Heinrich and Mark knew me better than I knew myself -not a major accomplishment- and better than I knew them. I think that I knew more of Steve, with whom I went through Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts and church youth activities (as well as Sunday School classes to which we paid no attention), than most. Though smart enough to succeed in medical school, I knew that he lacked the sense of vocation, but if I’d forecast his future, it would be as an urban libertine, not as an organic farmer.
That does not really make me 0 for 120, because many stayed around and became replicas of their parents. That I expected. Call me a snob for this condescending view, I’ve been called worse. Fortunately, sticks and stones have not broken any of my bones (a curb on which I landed after flipping my bike on loose gravel on a Tucson street did). Labels have not much hurt me either, but there are some phrases that include “leaving you” that have. Those painful phrases were not rehearsed at the 40th reunion, nor will they be if I go to a 50th one!
(For an interesting systematic study of class reunions, see After Pomp and Circumstance by Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi (an outsider perspective by a sociologist who did not go through high school in these United States. She undercuts the expectations that many bring to reunions, forgetting the lack of union (bund) in the original time and place of high school. What she observed also showed that staying away increases rather than decreases the extent and the nastiness of being talked about for those of any prominence in any subdomain of the long-ago school that remains the central institution in town.)