For the past three days, I had a great time traveling back in time. I didn’t need a time machine or hypnosis or any scientific enhancement other than my buddies’ cars and the Long Island Rail Road. I traveled 30 miles and 50 years back to spend the weekend with my high school class, many of whom I’ve known since elementary school and a few even before that. From Friday to Sunday I felt like my everyday life was far away, and I was transported back in time and given a gift to relive a piece of my youth.
I was born in Manhattan in 1949, just a few blocks from where I live now. When I was 2, my parents decided to move out of the city so that we would have more space for our growing family. They also thought that kids would thrive better being surrounded by grass, trees, farms, and a good school system. Since they both lived all their lives in New York City and had never even been to Long Island, this was going to be quite an adventure.
They weren’t alone in this exodus. After the end of World War II, there was a housing shortage in the city. Highways were built to facilitate the expansion north, west and east. Tract houses sprang up all over Nassau County. In 1951 hundreds of city dwellers moved their young families to the sleepy little country towns of Merrick and Bellmore (30 miles east of Manhattan). All of a sudden, there were Baby Boomers everywhere. All our fathers had fought in the war, and almost all our mothers stayed home to take care of us. From the age of 3, my mom would say, “Go outside and play with the other kids. Make sure that you are home in time for dinner.”
There were half a dozen elementary schools in District 3, which covered Merrick and Bellmore. Elementary was K-8 and high school was 9-12. Our one high school was Wellington C. Mepham High School, named after a member of the school board, who, I believe, had the good fortune to die at the time the school was built in the early 1930s.
While I was in elementary school, the population of our two towns grew exponentially, forcing the construction of more elementary schools, 3 junior high schools (grades 7-9) and another high school. In the ’60s there would be one more high school and junior high and I think a couple of elementary schools. This was the Baby Boom.
My experience in elementary school was pretty idyllic. For the most part, our teachers and administration were kind and loving. They encouraged us intellectually and personally. We were grouped homogenously, so for the smarter kids, the classwork wasn’t particularly difficult, but I always found ways to challenge myself. Plus we were all exposed to the arts and encouraged to participate. Everyone took General Music, where we sang folk songs, memorized all the stanzas of the Star Spangled Banner, were introduced to a wealth of Classical Music and learned how to read and write music—not just me—everybody. We also all had art class, the chorus and band. Before you could be in band in 5th grade, you got group lessons in school on your instrument for a year.
Aside from the arts, we had gym class and academics. We learned how to read and write on a functional adult level. We also learned arithmetic, history, appropriate literature and poetry. If I had left school after graduating the 6th grade, I could have functioned in the adult world of 1961. But our parents and we students wanted to aim higher. Our parents told us that we could be anything we wanted to be, if we worked hard enough. This was exciting. I had no idea of what I wanted to be until the first day of junior high school.
My mother told me that I was going to love junior high. In fact, every time I went to a new school, she would tell me that I was going to love it. In 6th grade, we all took a test that would determine which classes we would take in junior high. There were 3 tracks in junior high and high school. Advanced was for the 90 kids with the highest IQs, Applied was for those students with learning disabilities (mostly mild), and Regents was for everyone else. Aside from IQ scores, our 6th grade teachers were consulted as to who was placed where. Mrs. Moylan preferred the girls in our class, but for some reason, she made an exception for me. And so, she recommended me (along with Chip, Judy, Ginny, Eric and Nina) for the Advanced Curriculum. I was excited at first.
When I got to Grand Avenue Junior High, I was in classes with about 20 of my friends from elementary school, and about 70 new faces. Immediately, I realized that these new kids were really smart. I mean really, really smart. And there were lots of them. I knew how to deal with Chip, Bobby Stein, Karen and Nina, and the other kids I knew from Smith Street. I understood their intelligence. I knew how they thought. We all read the same books and had learned together, but these new kids? Ivan was talking about trapezoids the first day, and Marc Rose getting 100 on every test and turning in hundreds of note cards to Mrs. Stoloff (when I was lucky to fill out 25). On top of that, our teachers were not the coddling types. They didn’t say or do anything to reassure me that everyone wasn’t smarter than me. They could have at least lied to me.
Now, with assumption that I was at a disadvantage, you would think that I would want to work twice as hard, so that I could keep up and maybe even excel? But something happened that first day at Grand Avenue. I was playing trumpet in the band, and at the end of that first rehearsal, Mr. Sharbo announced that there would be a dance band rehearsal at 3:05, and anyone who wanted to join should show up. Since I loved playing the trumpet, I figured that it would be a great opportunity to play more. I had no idea what kind of music the dance band played. So I went.
We started to play a piece of swing music. I couldn’t read it at all. The feel was so completely different from the Classical Music that I was used to reading, but after less than a minute, I was hooked. The rhythm of the music swept over me and I knew right then and there, that whatever this was, I had to learn to do it. I’m sure we sounded horrible, but it was close enough that I got the idea. This was my music.
I asked Mr. Sharbo if I could bring the music home to practice. When I got home, my mom and aunt were having their usual 4:00 coffee and English muffin at the kitchen table. I had my notebook, text books and about 50 trumpet parts from dance band. My aunt asked about the music. I told them that I joined the dance band, so they asked to see what tunes we were playing. I showed them the music. They knew most of the tunes, and directed me to my parents’ record collection where I quickly discovered Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole…and one special record that changed my life forever: Take The “A” Train by Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra. I must have played that record a thousand times.
I’ve never made what most people consider a lot of money, but my love of Duke Ellington’s music has enabled me a lifetime of fulfilling my musical dreams. After that fateful first day of 7th grade, my time and energy went to learning the language of jazz and preparing to be as good a musician as I could be. Naturally, this left little time, energy or interest for my classroom studies.
I got by on my wits for the next six years. Math and Art came easily to me, and Social Studies and English were deal-able. I was pretty hopeless in Science, French and shop. I actually failed 7th grade metal shop, but that was really because Mr. Hezel was insane. He graded on a curve and he let some of the other kids with worse grades than me bet on his electrical wheel of fortune. Chip, who was clearly the worst student in the class, won his spin, and got a passing grade. Can you imagine me trying to explain this to my father? He thought I was making this all up. I could see that my story did sound ridiculous, so I told him that I would try harder.
There were a couple other intimidating issues in 7th grade. At the age of 12, I had gone from being one of the tallest and most athletic boys in elementary school, to being the prey of the bigger and stronger 8th and 9th graders who had gotten to puberty a year or two before me. Speaking of puberty, although I was friends with a number of girls from my neighborhood and elementary school and a few of my new classmates, and sex did seem awfully appealing, I was too afraid to swim out into those deep waters. In fact I had no idea how I was ever going to get there. I knew that some girls liked me in that way, and I liked some of them that way, but I felt paralyzed. A lot of this had to do with my parents’ criticism and humiliation of my brothers and me. It just didn’t feel safe. This is a real pity, because there were some great girls I grew up with that I would have liked to have known better.
I suppose I made up for that to a certain extent later on in my life, but I know that I could have been a lot happier in those teen years if I could have overcome some of my fears. As an adult I came to understand that a large part of being a teenager is overcoming your insecurities, but at the time, I was awash in insecurity, surrounded by 2000 other insecure Mephamites, some of whom hid their insecurities better than I did.
So, 50 years after graduating high school, I spent three days with over 100 of my former classmates. I always knew that I was lucky to have gone to school with the best and brightest, and that was more than confirmed this weekend.
Here’s a great story Hank Carpenter told me Saturday night. I was there at the time it happened, but didn’t remember it. Hank Carpenter was this tall, skinny, gentle kid who played contrabass clarinet in the band, but his real talent was sports. He was a natural athlete. He was on our ferocious wrestling team as well as our football team. The band played for the half time show at all the home football games. We marched around and made formations while we played. We rehearsed each show for weeks. Our band director, Herb Schoales, would teach us the music and all the choreography. He would be way up in the stands with a bullhorn to make sure our patterns looked right and would be discernable to the audience.
All the guys in the band knew that Hank was on the football team and wouldn’t be able to march during half time, but Hank was afraid to tell Mr. Schoales until a week or two before the first game. Herb got upset. There would be a hole in our formations where Hank was supposed to be. Uncharacteristically, he got angry at Hank for not telling him earlier. Hank told me, “He hated me.”
So, comes the first game. We are a few minutes before the end of the first half, and the band is lined up in the end zone waiting to march on the field. In the meantime, here comes #74. Hank catches a pass and gets tackled just as he crosses the goal line. He looks up and sees Mr. Schoales standing there and flips him the ball. Hank said to me, “From then on, that man loved me.”
Hank spent his life as a coach. I didn’t ask him if his teams won or lost. I didn’t have to ask. Those kids won just by knowing this soulful man. That’s the kind of people I grew up with: teachers, principals, scientists, doctors, lawyers, artists—every walk of life. We all passed on the knowledge and humanity we learned together.
Although like me, most of us have put on a few pounds and gotten greyer and maybe added a few wrinkles, I kept hearing myself say, “You are exactly like you were in elementary school.” Chip drove me home Friday night, and I told him that after 56 years, our relationship was exactly how it was in 6th grade. He agreed.
But it gets better. We all have overcome those insecurities and become more articulate. We all are able to project who we are without fear of rejection. I don’t know if it takes 50 years to get there, but we all got there. Of course we enjoyed reminding each other of all the funny stuff from back then, and missing our fallen brothers and sisters, but the thing that really struck me when I got home last night was that I am one lucky SOB to have grown up with these great human beings. I feel awfully proud to be part of our class. I wish I could have told all my classmates how much I admire and love them when we were young, but I’m a slow learner.
I owe all of them a lot. I realize now that I am the culmination of all my experiences. The experiences of those formative years are the most influential in who we grow up to be.
Last night, when I got home, it struck me that every one of those faces was white. Not one Black, Latino or Asian. That was Long Island back then. The neighboring towns of Freeport, Roosevelt and Hempstead were mostly Black, but our high school had exactly 3 Black students. One of my classmates, who is a gay man, remarked to a lesbian classmate that they were the only gay people at the reunion. When she told me about this, we both wondered how he knew they were the only ones. Gaydar? I wondered why that mattered to him now.
For me, homosexuality has never been an issue, since it wasn’t an issue for my parents. It’s just how I grew up. I recognized that some of our teachers were gay and found out years later that other adults I knew were gay. They were all people that I liked and admired. Being in show biz and the music and dance worlds, I’ve known and worked with people of all races, religions and sexual orientations. Vive la difference. But I had to think about 1967. Coming out was years in the future for high school students. For my gay classmates, I wish their teen years could have been easier. A lot easier.
So then I thought about my opportunities to work with and be friends with people outside my race and culture, and I wonder if my classmates had those experiences, or did they continue the segregated life of our childhoods? I tend to think that the world has changed in the ways that I have changed, and am often surprised when I find out that for many people, they have continued, while I have moved on. This is not to say that I am right, and they are wrong. I just forget sometimes.
At one point during the evening, someone announced that of our class of 700 graduates, 100 have died since then. This surprised me. I could only think of a dozen departed friends. When I mentioned to Maggie that I’d like to see a list of the 100, she asked, “Why?” I told her, “Because I’d like to feel sad.” The truth is that I’d like to think about each of them for a moment and honor them.
So, this was our 50th reunion. We are all 68 or so. People were already talking about coming to our 60th. How many of us will be alive and well at 78? I hope to be. I also hope to see my old friends before then. I’m starting with Glenn. We have a date to play tennis in 2 weeks, and I can’t wait.