JIM THIELMAN: At A 50th Reunion: Fewer Witnesses

I arrived early to my 50th high school class reunion after hitting a bucket of golf balls with Dad’s clubs, the same clubs we used when I last hit a bucket of balls in 1989.

It seems that range balls are no longer purchased after a stroll to the pro shop. A machine near the tees plops them into your bucket. It’s a mystery this has taken so long because German vending machines first spit out food in 1895.

Hitting a bucket of golf balls takes less time now that dispensing them has drawn even with liverwurst sandwiches, so with the reunion about a par-5 from the driving range, I was presently at the cookout.

During its lean beginnings, I chatted with the 24-year-old event photographer, who stood inches taller than any classmate. He golfed. I told him that I’m not a golfer, but I had not wanted to look like an arthritic old guy on the driving range. 

He said, “No matter how bad you are at the driving range, you can look over and see some guy who’s worse.”

One of my viscous circle would have come up with that. The competition for valedictorian in our class had been thin, but an epic battle was waged for class clown.

One candidate — come to think of it he might have won — elbowed through the classroom door after one messy morning lecture and noted that the teacher had become “a little drifty in there.” The same guy bounced his red rubber nose into the clown campaign the day he bet all his chips on teacher apathy.

He sat down, confidently, to the history essay test and wrote four sentences in the first paragraph. This exhausted his knowledge of the topic, so he reordered the same four sentences and wrote them again. The ploy could be foiled at a glance, so he kept shuffling the same four sentences for a page and a half.

This was the kind of problem-solving that made him a successful farmer. He got a B, and the encouragement of seeing “better than your usual” scribbled atop the paper.

I hesitate to suggest I had an Algonquin Round Table of friends. Maybe we weren’t Dorothy Parker and George S. Kaufman, tossing out bon mots while tossing back olives, but high school was an endless laugh. Witticisms ran from September to May, with summers off for general maintenance.

Two classmates had arrived early to get the grill going at the reunion. One had blown out a pair of tires on a curb while playing Ice Capades with his car during a surprise April snowfall before graduation. He found a ride home, then left a note for his parents: “Wake me up in the morning. I’ve got good news.”

I greeted the other chef. We had beaten our teammates to baseball practice one day, so I said, Cmon, lets go for a little run.” He looked at the cleats in his locker as if they were glass shards. Naw, Im in such great shape Id have to run 80 miles to do me any good.”

When a confusion of faces arrived at the reunion, one announced that he didn’t even need to look at my name tag to identify me. I said, “If that’s true, then you must remember this guy from our class,” and looked up at the tall, footloose photographer with the thick brown hair.

There was less talk about cholesterol and hip replacements than you might expect, and none of politics. There was also a smaller inner circle to recount my shady past. My three oldest friends from kindergarten were gone, along with three more whose friendships stretched beyond college.

One day I had asked one of them why he had chosen the pole vault as a track and field event. He said, “I needed to confront my fear of heights.”

He ended up working for “agri-giant” Cargill, which had reached a historic, controversial grain deal with Russia just before we met one day. I went on about the grain deal for some time. Smugness built before he said, “Some day, Cargill will own Russia.”

I’m also the only one left to sculpt events that preceded the police visiting five of us in Mike’s car one Sunday afternoon at an A&W drive-in. We thought the officer was there for fries.

I’d like to report it was a scandal, and that the FBI started files on us, but I’ll just chalk it up to the Nixon Era.

The well-thumbed pages of my high school journal assure the accuracy of these stories, not that it matters. With so many close friends gone, I can tell the stories any way I like.

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