Why do we do it? Why do all of us snow-heads insist we have to gather one more time to mark a high school graduation? In this case it was our 50th, a September weekend of reminiscing over our days at Hamburg High School, before it added the title "Central."
High school was certainly central to our lives, a shared experience that remains firmly in our collective memories. Now, with our lame knees, artificial hips, false teeth and other infirmities, we have assembled to look each other over.
"You look wonderful. You haven't changed a bit" was the mantra of the weekend. Of course, we have all changed, but some do look wonderful at 66, 67 or 68. We enjoy the prevarication because most of us have looked into our 1947 yearbook to recall how we all looked so many years ago.
There is no rhyme or reason to the changes that have taken place. Some of the big guys have become smaller and the small guys bigger; some of the women have taken on a special beauty of age, and some of the teen-age beauties have lost their glow.
Our meeting was hardly unique. As it turned out, the Hamburg Class of 1942 and the 1947 class from St. Francis High School of Athol Springs were assembling the same weekend. One group still counts its losses to World War II and the others of the Korean War.
All summer, different classes come back for similar reasons, but the big 5-0 is special. First, there is the reassurance that particular friends are here and healthy or, if not here, at least healthy. Then a look at the "in memoriam" list, 30 names from a class of 140. Next, the list of those "missing," another dozen for whom there are no current addresses.
The chore of assembling this information falls on a committee of 11 men and women who have stayed in the area and volunteer to keep the fire of memory burning. In contrast to these loyal locals there are other classmates who have remained in Western New York but avoid joining the reunions.
"They mostly have not done that well and do not want to be reminded of it by meeting with those who have done better," one friend suggests. That seems odd, since none in this class became brain surgeons or aerospace engineers; only one attendee of more than 60 is a physician; none was a lawyer.
By accident I met one of these dropouts, a woman whom I failed to recognize but who recognized me. She certainly looked healthy and displayed a more outgoing personality than I remembered from high school days, but she firmly rejected my invitation to join the celebration.
"They found me, but it wasn't easy because I have moved around a lot," she said of the committee. "No, I won't come. I don't like parties."
I said I would organize a committee to catch her and she replied, "They better be all single men." The spirit was there but I couldn't move her.
The most uncomfortable attendees were the spouses, who, despite the many reunions they have shared, are never quite as convivial as the class members. The husbands and wives from Hamburg can at least share names and memories, but the out-of-towners mostly grin and bear it, especially the husbands, because maiden names were used.
This year's reunion followed a familiar pattern: A Friday night dinner cruise on the Niagara River for the early arrivals. Saturday night was a banquet at the Brierwood Country Club, a marvelous choice because many of the attendees could not have enjoyed the ambience when it was the Bethlehem Steel Co. management playground.
Our year was the year when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball and the Marshall Plan was initiated, but we talked more about our terrible basketball team and undefeated football team and about playing baseball in the cold spring. Others remembered the class play and the orchestra, band and chorus. There was a strong consensus for the most memorable teachers, and remarkably, two of them were there along with the widows of two others.
We challenged that evil Dr.Alzheimer by testing each other's memories for the names of teachers going back to kindergarten. And we shared story after story, most of which were true.
Three-fourths of the class answered "yes": Hamburg High had prepared us for life. Only one said "no" and other equivocated, "yes and no." One woman suggested, "Nothing prepares you," and another addded, "So did the Depression."
We were children of the Depression, people who still turn off unused lights, save everything possible and reuse plastic bags. The memories submitted in writing were remarkably positive.
"Leaving a hot sweaty gym with your ears ringing and walking home on a cold, snowy night," one woman recalled. "Some of us thought we were quite poor; now I know we were all privileged in a lovely, sheltered world," wrote another.
"I didn't realize it at the time, but the education I received was head and shoulders above anything my children got in California," added a third.
For those still in town, the weekend closed with a brunch at the marvelous old Kronenberg House on Main Street, where many of us partied. This gave us a chance to see the lovely houses on that street that have been beautifully maintained even though many are now offices.
Our free time went to cemetery visits, meetings with relatives and friends and tours of the changed village. The "four corners" were altered long ago, with most retail establishments moving out to the malls on the north side of town. One classmate brought along a menu from the old Biehler's Tea Room, our main hangout that was torn down long ago. Anyone want a tuna sandwich for 35 cents?
Our old high school on Pleasant Avenue is being joined with the former Union Street School to become a super elementary school. More startling is the old Masonic Temple that is being used as the center section of a new residence for the elderly under construction on Buffalo Street. The lodge sold the building and now shares space with the Masons of Orchard Park.
"The younger men just aren't interested in things like the Masons anymore," one local classmate observed.
Many of the other residential streets looked especially fine, proof of new families moving into town to take advantage of the well-built, pre-World War II houses. Most of the elm trees are gone, but the more prevalent maples looked better than ever.
The unfinished business is, should we do it again? In five years, as we have before, or should we mark the millennium together in three years? The committee will ultimately decide. Based on the warm memories of our 50th, most of us will return again.