Last weekend I flew back to New Jersey to attend my high school reunion. Although I’ve kept in touch with a small handful of my classmates, most of the people I had not seen in very many decades.
I grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey, an affluent, leafy bedroom community of New York City. Like many American towns, every student of the appropriate age living in Ridgewood ended up at a single high school, and so my graduating class numbered over 700. (I’m in the front of this photo in the white turtleneck.) My family had moved out in my junior year of college, and I’d only been back a couple of times since.
I traveled to New Jersey with mixed feelings. We’d been given a good start at RHS, which had been rated as one of the top high schools in the state at the time.
Had everyone held up physically? Had their lives gone well? And would I be able to connect with all of them, when my path had led me to live in a foreign country for more years than I’d lived in America?
When I arrived, I was dismayed to see that my hometown had changed almost beyond recognition.
My house – at the time a modest, three-bedroomed white clapboard Cape Cod – was now so stretched, expanded and fixer-uppered that it bore no relation to the original.
The Duck Pond, where my brother and I had ice skated in the winter and followed overgrown paths pretending to be lost in the forest, was now a manicured ‘recreation center.’
The high school itself, which had always resembled a small college, had been similarly modernized and expanded, complete with bleachers on the football field and its own ticket office.
With the exception of the Daily Treat, our afterschool hangout for sharing a plate of French fries, and the Warner theater, our movie house, built before the days of multiplex cinemas, the town itself, particularly its quiet main street, had also transformed into a bustling gastronomic hub, boasting some 80 restaurants. Even on a Saturday afternoon, we had trouble finding a place to park.
But that wasn’t the surreal part of the experience. That was to come when I’d joined everyone for the parties.
We were older, of course. Of 170 or so who attended, many had survived cancer and heart problems, knee or hip surgeries and even loss of spouses (some their high school sweethearts), although most had held up reasonably well.
But that night, we were back in 1969. We played music from the late 60s and 70s. We talked about who had dated whom 50 years ago. Even our language went back in time. One of the guys talked about how well a friend of his had scored with girls, rating them in decidedly unwoke language yet to be curbed by #metoo.
I’d remembered reading about a Harvard study, which organized a retreat for a group of men in their 70s and 80s after the researchers had measured the men’s current state of health in every regard.
The men stayed in a monastery surrounded by reminders of their youth – old copies of Life magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, TV and radio shows playing shows and songs from the late 1950s – and were instructed to limit their conversation to discussions about the Cuban missile crisis, Mickey Mantle’s home runs and other current affairs of the time.
By the end of the retreat, when the Harvard researchers took new physiological measurements, they were amazed to discover that everything from eyesight and hearing to weight and cognition had all improved.
The men’s posture had strengthened, their joints had become more flexible. Some even played a round of touch football.
The men weren’t just acting younger – they actually were younger.
In one sense, the same had happened to the RHS class of ’69.
At one point on the way to the event, in the car with Scott and Ray, two of my old friends, I sat back, closed my eyes and listened to their voices, as they described their recollections about homeroom and Woodstock and who’d gotten dumped by whom.
We could have been back in Scott’s old VW bus, heading north on Route 17, in search of beer and some cheap wine across the New York state line where the drinking age was 18.
But my biggest takeaway was seeing myself, as a young person, reflected in the eyes and minds of my classmates, the interesting long-lasting impressions that remained.
One woman remembered how, as a 10 year old, peeved by the overwhelming support among my family and our entire town for presidential candidate Richard Nixon, I had organized a campaign in my class, complete with buttons and ballot box, to urge my fellow classmates to shift their support to John F. Kennedy.
Another reminded me that, as one of the editors on our school newspaper, I’d encouraged him, during a time when he felt alienated by the big emphasis on sports at our school, to review music – igniting, he said, a lifelong passion.
I did not remember any of this. But these vignettes reminded me of who I was at the very beginning of life’s long trajectory, and how it is possible to trace some sort of pattern, some idea that you were, in a sense, fated to be the person you became.
A writer and journalist. A campaigner, slightly contrarian. That was me then and that is me now.
But more than that, what I came to recognize was the indelible mark we leave on each other. There were people who valued my friendship more than I ever knew, in many instances for a remark made offhand.
I was glad I went. On the plane back to London, I came to understand one vital truism. Although I’d left Ridgewood at 18, so much of what I am started right there.