I got to the first event of my 50th high school class reunion when the cocktail party was already in full swing in a hotel party room jammed with some 300 elderly people.
There was no line at the bar.
Drinks were cheap so I got a double and scanned the crowd, spotting an old girlfriend. Like 90 percent of us, she wasn’t skinny like she was back in 1959 when we graduated from Cleveland Heights High School.
She had run off to New York at 21, eventually married and raised a family while running an antique business with her husband and now lived in Florida where they relocated and were still working.
Life was good, prosperity, happiness, family and friends. The room was filled with people whose lives were everything they were supposed to be for a generation that came of age in the 1950s when rock-and-roll and the space age were being born, when ordinary people suddenly could buy houses and cars and kids were expected to go to college.
It seemed like nearly everyone in the class of 600 did go to college. The room was filled with doctors and lawyers and accountants and realtors and insurance agents, teachers and therapists of all types, engineers and executives and entrepreneurs, even a few writers and artists and musicians.
It didn’t matter whether they got all A’s or all C’s in high school. They had grown up in a middle class suburb and now were rich or at least upper middle class. They had scattered all over the country, more in California than anywhere else, and had traveled the world.
There were exceptions like one friend who grew up a pool stick in his hand and a deck of cards in his pocket. He had gone through hard times gambling his way into bankruptcy and blowing up a couple of marriages before straightening himself out 15 years ago with the help of Gamblers Anonymous where he was now a star helping others. He started his own insurance business, married again and now was a devoted grandfather to 14, retired, sober and happy.
I’m sure there were others who had struggles among those who were absent and beneath the surface of those who were present.
But the face we all put forward was the one of a generation whose dreams had come true — true enough anyway even if they didn’t quite fit all the pictures we held in our minds when we were young.
The Memory Book is filled with stories of marriages that have lasted more than 40 years, of loving grandparents, of adventurous travel, of happiness and success. It is the story of America in the post-World War II era of exploding wealth and hyper-consumerism, when father knew best and mom stayed home and took care of everyone’s needs.
By the time we got to college there was the “pill” and rebellion against conformity, social inequality and war but ours was a time of relative innocence and the lives of my classmates reflect that.
We are old now, retired or semi-retired for the most part, the pre-boomer generation with long life expectancies. Our children are gifted with greater affluence and even better educations than we had.
Our parents were the greatest generation, no doubt, overcoming the Great Depression and lack of education to achieve the middle class. We were the luckiest generation, spoiled and indulged, educated and liberated from many of the cultural restraints of the past.
As I skimmed the surface of long-dormant friendships that dated back to grade school, I kept searching for some answers to my own sense of self, then and now, and to who we had become. At times I felt like the same awkward, shy adolescent I was
I didn’t have any moments of epiphany and don’t think I found anything profound. Most of my classmates have become like the rich, protective of our wealth and status, desirous of perpetuating what our families have achieved.
But there was an undercurrent of something else in play, a sense of adventure that ran through most people’s lives as they followed their dreams wherever they led them. I’m sure there are some people for whom life has turned out badly but 90 percent of my class is still alive and kicking, younger and more vital than our 68 years of age might seem, often deeply involved in charities and community groups.
On the plane home I ruminated about my belief that we’re undergoing a fundamental change in American society that goes far deeper than just another economic recession. I couldn’t help wondering about how the lives of all those grandchildren will turn out in a world where economic growth has slowed and opportunity for material success become limited.
Two nights of partying with old friends and acquaintances gave me hope that there’s more to us than just preserving what we’ve attained. We are younger than our years and have much to give after spending the prime of our time looking after ourselves.
Once we believed you shouldn’t trust anyone over 30. Now, we probably shouldn’t trust anyone under 30. Our lives have taught us how to change with the times and maybe, just maybe, we will see how lucky we’ve been, how much we have to give back to help create a new America where everyone has the same opportunities that we in the Heights High Class of ’59 have had.