Friday, July 27, 2012

Walking Down The Halls, Staring At The Walls...and Reminiscing

It was the best of was the worst of times. (No, wait a minute - that overused line belongs to some movie and book somewhere.)

On June 9, 1972, some five-hundred plus students of Larkin High School donned robes and those funny looking flat hats with the tassels and celebrated their freedom from required formal education, and the accomplishments, joys, sadness, and other hash marks in the emotional spectrum that came with the territory.  Now, forty years later, I am called upon to remember all of that, and put it in perspective. That is not easy to do. I am not one to seize initiative. Nor have I gone far out of my way to keep in touch with the handful of people with whom I was closest in those days. I thank the true geniuses of later generations for creating the means to do what couldn't be done then. Facebook has done more to jog that portion of my memory than anything else. I'll have to send Mark Zuckerberg a thank you card someday. In the meantime, I have to thank Bill Peterson as he suggested I should get in on the fun there. Thanks, Bill. My wife Diane was very skeptical of using it at first, but she gave in not too long after I joined - and she uses it a whole lot more than I do.

Now, where do I start?

I guess I should admit after all these years that I came to LHS with a degree of baggage; all of us did likewise, as unaware as we were in our teens. I was geeky, far from athletic, and lived in South Elgin, which was for a long time the edge of civilization. I was born in Chicago, and even though I lived in South Elgin for twenty years I guess I have always been a city boy at heart. It was also the farthest point from anyplace else. There was no way to get anywhere, because there was basically nowhere to go in South Elgin . By and large that is still true today. They finally have their own high school but it's in the middle of nowhere compared with possible places to hang out, unless you have your own car or a chauffeur; or a parent or friend who plays the role. (Thanks, Mom and Bill Backer for carrying out that vital responsibility.)

I was also rather naive. That may have been part of my Catholic upbringing, and if so I am happy for it, for having that sense of faith helped me learn some valuable lessons, ones not taught in public education. I'll come back to that.

Through Facebook I have become reacquainted with many classmates, some for the first time. (Please feel free to laugh at the jokes. I mean no harm, really.) To those of you who reached out to add me to your list of online friends, thanks very much. I genuinely appreciate that you did. It's an indication that we share a common bond; if nothing else, that we spent three years in the same building, attempting to get ready for adult life to unfold. Tell me, please - did anybody imagine then that we'd be where we are today? I doubt it; I know I didn't. Nothing about getting facts and figures stuck to your brain for the rest of this life can necessarily prepare you for the decisions that some have already faced, and that the rest of us are either preparing to face, hoping we won't have to face, or denying that the questions even exist.

I think it would be appropriate to note that over 700 young men and women began this educational journey after the summer of '69. (The Bryan Adams song keeps coming to mind here, and it's a favorite of mine even though it has nothing to do with anything at the moment.) When the final tallies were made in June 1972, just over 530 were still standing and waiting for diplomas. (Something about the number 535 keeps pinging the recesses of my brain). I wonder what happened to the nearly 200 that got lost somewhere. Okay, some moved; some dropped out - still, 200 of anything is a lot to lose, even over three years. In my profession as an inventory manager, if I lost 200 units of something I might likely be looking for a new job. At home, I'd be in pretty hot soup if I lost $200 - unless in my turn I was not allowed to pass "Go." In my vocation as a Catholic deacon, losing 200 s...well, I'd be answerable to God for eternity on that one. I am naturally curious, but I must entrust their fates in prayer to the One higher than us all.

There are stories I recall. Simplicity, the shortest distance between two points being a straight line as Coach Hofstedter pointed out in geometry class, usually produced the best outcome. Such was the case during one homecoming parade (junior year, I believe) that Bill Backer and I got in by merely attaching a wind-up key (a toilet plunger with cardboard turning pads taped at the top) to the roof of his Ford Cortina. I contrast that with the senior homecoming game in which we planned to shower our star players, most notably Rich Mulhearn with punched card confetti (those infamous 'chads'). I actually had my dad's car that evening. Never got to the game, though. Somehow the chads managed to spill and I spent most of the time trying to get them cleaned out of every nook and cranny in which they found a home.

Other forms of more deviant behavior met with similarly deviant ends. One day a stray dog managed to wander into my first period American history class. When the trusting attendance page arrived to collect the cards of the absentees, Mr. Worth instructed her to advise Mrs. Vaughn that there was no attendance card for "Joe Rover". That afternoon, we wrote our own chapter in geek history and created an attendance card for the wandering canine. For the next three days "Joe Rover" was on the reports that were reviewed. Bill figured we'd better stop before Mrs. Vaughn attempted to call the dog's parents. I'm not sure we were ever found out.

Then there was the infamous election for class president: Rush Kim Darigan vs. William Edward Backer. I don't know if Bill ever had a chance of winning, senior class elections being the popularity contests that they tend to be (and oh, how that mirrors our civic elections today!). However, any chance of Mr. Backer being elected fell quickly when an overzealous campaign worker decided in a budgetary move to write "Back Backer" over several of Mr. Darigan's campaign posters. However, realizing now that being elected class president, as well as the other 'offices',  give the victors a lifetime commitment to manage all the future reunions...well, I'll sum it up with the term "bittersweet."

Some statistics among those in the Class of 1972 I knew and with whom I had day-to-day connections: One married his high school sweetheart (Ben Schmidtke, to Mary McLean) and the happy couple seem to be doing exactly what they want to be doing. I have kept up relative contact with two classmates - Bill Backer and Bill Peterson. Mr. Backer, after a long and winding career, is presently teaching in China. Mr. Peterson is the closest person I have in the category of 'war hero' having served in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm in 1992, only months after my son Nicholas was born. I'm slowly learning more about others. It brings back many memories. Most of all, it points out how adult life took shape. It looks reasonably good as I write today; still, there's the knowledge that life constantly fluctuates. No portly lady has showed up at my door as yet, looking to sing. Each day is a gift, and I try to make the best use out of every one.

Okay, I think it's good that anyone who's gone this far in the narration/tribute should reap the reward of what I took away at graduation. I learned that a person can have many acquaintances and casual friends, and some, a huge following; but true friends are the ones with whom you have deep, life-meaning (and sometimes life-changing) conversations. At the time the more meaningful conversations came over playing Mille Bornes and pinochle in the commons before classes and during lunch period. There were creative binges as well; Marvin Ferguson, Ben Schmidtke and I once dubbed ourselves "Fursoke Unincorporated." A boy band we were not. However, we had taken a lyrical stand on alcoholism (at the virtual bar); and had borrowed a traditional Christmas carol to bemoan our polluted environment that actually got printed as a letter to the editor in the Elgin newspaper. A musical about our school situation was in the planning stages but a bit ahead of its time. (High School Musical...what a concept!) Seriously, thanks to sites like Facebook, I have reconnected with many good people. True friendships can be counted on fingers and occasionally toes, and that's okay. All of this flows from the truest Friend of all - Jesus Christ. It is his ultimate friendship that affords me a perspective on life many don't get to see and others don't understand. I side with him on all those decisions that must be faced. There have been rough patches - nobody is completely immune from them - but they would have been much rougher without him.

My faith leads me in certain directions regarding issues of the day: religious freedom, the definition of marriage, and still striving to treat those with different opinions and orientations with dignity and respect. It's hard. It's very hard. Our Declaration of Independence states that we are endowed by God with three inalienable rights: those of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I emphasize the word pursuit - you may have the right to search for peace and happiness, but there's no guarantee you will find it. Thomas Jefferson and the others who framed this important document understood that happiness is a subjective thing. There will always be people who are satisfied with the status quo and others who are not. Happiness cannot be legislated. Attempts to do so end up tipping the balance in the opposite direction, with those once satisfied now unhappy and vice-versa. I rely on someone larger than this life to guide me through the encroaching madness. I don't want to call it life's challenges anymore, because many of these 'challenges' lack a degree of common sense. We have to fight fairly for what is ours and cannot assume that what anything granted or promised to us long ago will be there when we need it. Enough said.

Sadly, there is the growing list of people whose lives on this earth have passed. At least thirteen of the names on the list (tenth revision as of 7/26/12) shared classes with me. Mike Lancaster and Don Lockert lived in my South Elgin neighborhood. Gayle Parisek was a fellow classmate at St. Laurence (Catholic) Elementary School. I remember the day Rich Mulhearn invited Mr. Peterson, Mr. Backer, and me to his house, many years after graduation, and told us he had been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). During school, Rich was always calling it as he saw it, and with a cockiness not untypical of many teenaged boys, myself included. But on that day, I knew Rich was a friend needing as many friends as he could reach. All the people on the list of the departed get my attention this weekend. I pray that they got everything they needed out of the life they had and that God in his love and mercy has given them more than they could have possibly dreamed of in the afterlife.

To those gathering to celebrate this milestone, still standing 40 years later, you have my best wishes. I will be with you in spirit, and I'll hear the loud racket you'll no doubt be making as I'm only a few miles downwind of you. Here's to the last forty years - let's all try to make it through the next ten! Only now, since more of us are connected online, let's not forget to keep in touch with each other since we have a simple way to do so. I love hearing good news and pray for you when I hear not so good news. Most importantly, keep the faith! It can move mountains...even while battling windmills.

-Bob Balsamo
LHS Class of 1972