Centennial Revisited

Tom Kiske has written many wonderful items for your web site. Tom's latest effort is his reflective musings on our great Centennial celebration of last fall. This exciting celebration of our school's 100th anniversary brought together many former classmates and provided a grand reunion for everyone that ever attended the great school.

What do you remember thinking back?
What do you think of at dusk in the slack
Evening when the mind refills
With the cool past . . .

“Ever Since” by Archibald MacLeish

October 16, 2004, a Saturday. It is the morning of the McKinley Centennial. Mike is already helping out at the school. The rest of the Wancho Gang – Bill, Warren, Bob and I – are gathered around a table in the lobby breakfast bar of the Sunset Hills Hampton Inn guzzling coffee and discussing our homework.
The Centennial coincides with the annual Wancho Reunion, the get-together of some high school buddies we’ve been doing for the past nine years. Most years we assign ourselves some type of “homework,” something to lend a semblance of respectability to our more typically male beer drinking, pool shooting and other testosterone-friendly activities. This year we were to read “The Purpose-Driven Life,” a long time bestseller by Rick Warren. We’ve had almost 12 months to finish this slim book. Most of us get an Incomplete for the year, but in true Goldbug spirit, lack of preparation does not preclude discussion.

What is the purpose and meaning of life?

When you reach 60, or so, it’s a subject of more than passing interest. Among the four of us, there are a variety of opinions, from catechismal to humanistic. It is an easygoing exchange of ideas. No one is here to argue or to proselytize. We’re old friends who’ve journeyed far from each other over the past 40 years or so and now we’re back together trying to cobble together some common sense teleology from the disparate lessons of those years. It is a time for listening as well as talking.

The conversation flows and ebbs and I think to myself: our table is not round nor will we be the stuff of legend, but in our way, we are Gawain and Tristan and Perceval and, yes, flawed Lancelot. We’re back from 40 years of adventures. Like all men in all places and times, each of us has faced rivals, wooed fair maidens, battled dragons, spent lonesome nights in dark forests and borne our wounds with silent valor. Our quest has been for no mystic grail, but perhaps by virtue of our years we’ve been permitted a small sip from the cup of wisdom – a taste that may provide some insight into the eternal question at the heart of our homework assignment.

I’m jolted back to reality by the cleaning girl, who overheard our discussion and offers her view. “I don’t believe in evolution,” she blurts.

Four heads swivel in her direction.

“Well, it’s just all too complicated,” she continues, “God must have designed it all.”

Wancho’s, like all good Goldbugs, are polite. We smile and nod and murmur our “Uh-huh’s.” Some of us no doubt sympathize with her creationist views. Others wonder if she accepts the heliocentric model of the solar system.

But, the coffee pot has run dry and it’s time to head down to our Russell Avenue castle. The Centennial takes precedence and we must shelve our philosophic inquiry unresolved. It’s time for fun!

We ride together in Warren’s SUV down I-44 into the city. The Centennial Committee has arranged offsite parking and bus transportation to the school, but we circle the block first and luck out: there’s a spot right at Missouri and Ann. We pile out and head for the side entrance. Immediately, something’s wrong.
“Hey, didn’t there used to be stairs here?”

“Uh, yeah. You had to run upstairs from the boys gym and then down the outside stairs before jogging over to the campus for PE.”

No matter, it’s different now – one of many differences, as we will learn. We enter directly into the McKinley’s basement catacombs. It seems a little strange doing it this way, but I haven’t been inside this building since 1961, so probably any way I entered would seem strange.

The boys gym is locked up so we pass it by until someone in the hallway mentions that what was the boys gym is now some sort of ballet/dance thing. This demands a closer look. We peer through the glass in the door and sure enough, there are mirrors and all sorts of dance paraphernalia where once somewhat rougher sports held sway. We glance quizzically at one another.

“Geez,” someone says, “I wonder if the place still smells like old sweat socks.”

Bob wanders across the hall.
“Hey,” he says, “Where’s the boys john?”

All four of us try to figure out what happened to it, but there’s no sign. It’s disappeared leaving no trace. Bob’s mystified. “Well, where the heck do they go to smoke and pitch pennies?” he muses aloud.

Yes, McKinley offered a broad spectrum of educational opportunities, including quite a range of extracurricular interests. Besides Sodalitas Latina, the chess club and similar officially recognized activities, there was a thriving fraternity of penny pitchers. Oddly, none of the yearbooks includes a photo of this group, despite the fact that it was so popular that guys who’d graduated (or left McKinley under less ideal circumstances) often sneaked back in just to pick up a few bucks pitching quarters for dollars.

Yes, valuable life skills were learned at the old alma mater.

We continue down the hallway, which has been converted for the day into a McKinley Hall of Fame. Photos of many of McKinley’s more notable graduates are posted along the lockers that line both sides of the hallway, along with a brief synopsis of their accomplishments. I’m truly amazed at how many Goldbugs have achieved great things, including several from our time – kids we went to school with. I’m looking for one in particular, though, and soon find it. Mitch Kordonowy has earned his place of honor because of his charitable activities.
There’s something heartwarming about this; not just because this guy was a close friend, but also because the committee responsible for this Hall of Fame, in true McKinley spirit, chose to recognize not only the more “worldly” signs of success, but also a graduate with an uncommonly generous heart.

Walking further down the hall, I see others who’ve given back to their community and I mentally tip my hat to them and to those responsible for putting together this tribute. I’ve never been more proud to be a Goldbug. A great sense of dignity and honor pervades the length of this old hallway.

After a while we go up to the main level, give Will McKinley’s bust a commemorative nose rub, then find the registration tables and get our official name tags. At first, I thought nametags was kind of a silly idea. It turns out they’re essential. As we encounter other folks, everyone smiles and does The Nametag Double Take: glance at the face, down to the tag, back to the face. Do I know this person? It’s a far cry from the days of walking these halls and knowing by sight most of the kids you shared them with.

We wander around and check out those special places we recall warmly from the past and all the Goldbug memorabilia in the new gym, but what’s best is running into old friends. Faces may change over the years, but it seems personalities are much less susceptible to the effects of time. Judy H is perhaps a bit more outgoing than she used to be, less hesitant to laugh and display that charming smile.

Pat’s the same. Her hand is partially wrapped where her horse stepped on it.

“How’s the hand?” I inquire solicitously.

By way of answer, she laughs and, displaying her healing middle finger, flips me off. Kind of reminds me of the responses I got back in high school the three or four times I mustered up the nerve to ask a girl for a date.

“ Pat,” I say, “Next time you play horseshoes, remember to remove the horse first.”

Other meetings are not so light-hearted. One old friend is suffering the effects of Parkinson’s. Like most of the folks we encounter, we don’t get to spend nearly enough time with him: a handshake, a brief conversation and then move on. Still, I’m so glad to have seen him as well as Gene and Judy J and all the other faces from the past, grown even more esteemed with the vintaging decades.

We are in a place outside time now, and time runs away with us. We’d thought to spend perhaps an hour at the Centennial, but it’s after three when we finally leave. As we drive off our bellies remind us we’ve had no lunch today. The reunion dinner begins at 6:30, so where can we get a snack to tide us over? Our faces light up as Bill announces the obvious answer: Gus’s!

Later, sated with pretzel brats, we’re back at the hotel where some of the guys separate to rest up, fetch wives and prepare for the Big Doin’s tonite. Alone in my room I make a couple of phone calls, then, reclining on the bed, ponder the events of the afternoon for fully five minutes before dozing off. Awakening with a start, I barely have time to shower and dress before rendezvousing with Warren and his wife, Kay, in the lobby. At the last minute, attending to some vague internal voice, I decide to drive separately.

Concord Farmers Club is already packed by the time I arrive. I’m happy to see more of the old gang. Judy A and Judy E and Cleo are here, Gloria and Angelica, Charlie and Carol and others, a reunion of old friends that warms my heart. The bar lubricates camaraderie and loosens tongues.

“Tom, your hair is so gray,” Gail marvels. Why thank you,” I grin, saluting her observation with a raised wine glass, choosing to interpret her remark as a compliment rather than a comment on my impending senility.

Gail seems puzzled by my reply. “No,” she responds, “I mean it’s really gray.”

Once again I toast her observation and enjoy the quizzical expression my response brings to her face. Oh, man, it’s great to be back with the old gang.

After dinner I head down to the bar for a drink or two, then step outside the back door for a breath of cool night air. Instead, I get a breath of . . . well, there’s a familiar sweetish aroma lingering in the air that makes me grin. Mary Jane’s been here and my guess is she was escorted by some of my ‘61 classmates.

I wander back upstairs to find the party in full swing. Music is playing, folks are dancing and talking and laughing – all the knights and ladies are literally having a ball, and for a while I join in the bonhomie. Then, in the midst of the revelry a paradoxical melancholy wells up inside and I find myself apart from the merrymakers – distanced from them by some mysterious thing that draws me away. For a while I try to force this shadowy creature back down, but loosed, it will not again this night be caged.

I take my leave by the front door and outside I pause a moment, and then another, waiting, I suppose, to see if something will call me back inside. In my hand is my souvenir wine glass bearing the McKinley emblem. A last drink remains and I raise a silent toast to my classmates and friends, both those inside and those present only in memories.

The evening is crisp as I set the glass on the stair and walk to my car. The gravel underfoot calls to mind the poet Rilke’s words: “...one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next a star.” Overhead, a billion such stars sparkle in the night sky and I wonder again, what meaning do we take from this?
Life and the universe are far too vast in scale to be grasped by my limited human intellect, but this much I do know: there is a reason many folks devoted precious hours to planning this day and something drew thousands of people to the Centennial and to this reunion as well as others like it across the city. Something has brought us here across the miles and years – Don and Jim and me from Texas, Gloria and Angelica from California, Warren and Kay from Michigan and others from distant places as well.

The something is an intangible you cannot see or touch or taste, but it pulses with a vital energy tonight that offers a clue about meaning and purpose. Friendship seems an almost inadequate term, but surely this is the invisible flame that warms us tonight and unites us with those who await us in some more distant reunion. Call it, as Robert Burns, auld lang syne, or call it what you will, it is a form of love, and as such, perhaps the strongest force we mortals can know.

It is meaning enough for this October night.

-- Tom Kiske