There comes a time in one’s life when you can feel the arc of life start to descend. The realization that the road is ahead is shorter than the one behind. Your age is part of it, but only a part. For me, I had this sense initially when my mother Ramona passed away in May, 2002. It was a much different sense but unquestionably familiar when our fourth child, Maggie left for college three years ago. At that point, our dog, Bernie, was my constant companion. Then the time came when we had to say goodbye to her.
You feel the momentum continue when the obituaries are the go-to section of the paper.
Aging plays a role. You go to a convenience store and catch a glimpse of someone on the security camera. He looks old. He isn’t standing up straight and his pants are hiked up above his waist. It’s you. You stop at the airport at KCI and while there you study your face. You are racing to catch a 6:05 a.m. flight. You see that the bags you just checked don’t include the ones under your eyes.
And then a new year arrives and you realize it’s time for a class reunion. #40.
But lest you think you’ve started a column written by Debbie Downer, I have news. This column is funny. And our reunion, which had a low bar from previous gigs, was an absolute joy.
For me, it started a day early, on Thursday, Sept. 7. A couple classmates decided the best way to get in the mood was to meet at Dixons/Lumpy’s – a bar worthy of a historical registry. In the 70’s we would gather there, drink dime draws and get yelled at by Kelly – aka Kell. Kell had a tattoo on his forearm. He had bony elbows and a high pitched voice he reserved for smart aleck 18-year-olds.
I strolled into Dixons at 7. I looked around and saw two women sitting at a table near the door. They seemed about my vintage so I walked over, sat down and introduced myself and we talked for a couple minutes. At some point I asked them “Are you excited about the reunion?”
“What reunion?” They traded glances. “We went to Ellinwood.” I made some new friends — Kim Morgenstern and Debbie Worman.
We laughed heartily. My Virgil needed replenishment. We laughed some more. In a bit Marty Murphy, Renee Reinhardt, Kurt Kennedy and Lori (Scheuerman) Einspahr gathered. We covered the intervening 40 years quickly. There was very little discussion of the topics that had dominated previous reunions. Kids and jobs took a back seat to moms and dads and coping with life’s transitions. In a world hungry for authenticity and genuineness, this gathering had it all.
You could say that the class of 1977 wasn’t noteworthy by any conventional metric. Our sports teams were dreadful. Academically, there was no one worthy of Jack Kilby’s legacy. Our class did produce a notable news personality, John Holt. Another one is dedicated to luring in the next Amazon, Jan Peters. And then we have Bill Niederee, the go-to guy for delivering a calf in a driving snowstorm.
And then there’s everyone else.
We graduated 320 students, largely the products of loving parents who were deeply imbedded in the culture of a town where people looked after each other. Our dads fought the wars, won the freedom and had a work ethic second to none. The mothers boomed the babies, nurtured the flock and read the bedtime stories.
We had devoted teachers, like that guy who answers to Homer. He had a penchant for handing out pens adorned with a red pig while challenging his students to reject conventional thinking. “Was the Warren Report right? What were the errors?” Or Mrs. Trowbridge, my English teacher and a devotee of KU in a sea of K-State fans. Or our 6’ 6” Principal, Don Halbower.
Our common experiences were shaped at Crest Theater watching our first R movie, whether it was Carrie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or in my case, Walking Tall, circa 1973. [The one with Joe Don Baker.] Our parents dropped us at Brit Spaugh Park to toss carrots at the polar bears or visit the monkeys and watch them use sticks creatively.
The world events that transpired during our high school tenure could fill a volume of encyclopedia Britannica. In those years we saw both the Vice President and President resign, Bob Dole selected as Vice President with his kick off campaign from Russell, and a peanut farmer was elected President. Jimmy Carter’s first official act was to pardon all draft dodgers. The country became unglued.
None of this ruffled our feathers. I don’t remember any bullies in school, and as a four-year debater I was in a position to know. The stresses of today’s high school kids were not found at GHBS. By contrast, last week the New York Times Magazine carried an extensive story detailing an anxiety epidemic with today’s high school students.
So on Friday we returned to Dixons. Virgils were poured, drained, and poured again. After awhile some of us headed to the football game. I caught a ride with Matt Schaeffer. Matt came back from Florida. His rig was a 2005 pearl white STS Cadillac. Climbing into it felt like a scene from Back To the Future. “This is mom’s car. She lives in Wichita now. My dad died years ago and she lives there with my sister.” In the five minutes we drove together, we shared old stories and some new ones. I heard about his two daughters and the hazards of owning his own mortgage company through the 2008 credit meltdown. “For a year money went out, and nothing came in. We managed to get through it and have done well since.”
He lives on Singer Island — named after that sewing machine guy. Google it.
We arrived at the football game. The air had a crispness to it. It felt nostalgic. As the Panthers fell behind, it felt even more like the good ole days. We sat for a bit, and got thirsty and headed over to the Knights of Columbus, another iconic watering hole notable for where Kurt and Joni Kennedy had their wedding reception some 30-plus years ago. Students of Barton County history would also know the Knights as one of the venues where Vern Miller raided on Oct. 4, 1971, finding very little (OK, some (yawn) slot machines). For me, John Holt and Bill Niederee, its where Troop 151 held its Monday night meetings. We would slip away from knot tying class and into the bar, where a fog of cigarette smoke would greet us. There we watched Howard Cosell and the halftime Monday Night Football highlight reel.
At the Knights I reconnected with old friends and made new ones. Wayne Simpson might fall into both camps. He runs a sobriety clinic in Wichita. We talked about his new venture, discussed his mother passing away, and what life is like being sober. This was a different person than the one that I knew some 40 years earlier. Later I was standing at the bar when Wayne approached the bar tender and asked “do you have any sodas?”
He walked away with a coke.
Maybe it says something that even classmates who didn’t finish with us felt welcome. Allan Nichols lived in Great Bend until ninth grade when he moved to Virginia. His father was a First Christian Church preacher in the early 70’s. Now a successful event planner in Chicago, his invitation was the outgrowth of a renewed connection made on Facebook with Leslie (Halbower) Barrett and Lahree (Merten) Jenkins. He had a blast. “I couldn’t be more thrilled that I returned.”
On Saturday the venue was the Wolf Hotel in Ellinwood. This included a tour of the tunnels below the hotel. Our guide was one Joyce Schulte – a colorful storyteller whose anecdotes started by recounting a conversation she had with her German grandmother years ago. My initial reaction was to look for a fire alarm, fire exit or trap door. But Joyce’s shtick grew on me.
We proceeded to the tunnel’s western entrance, underneath the antique store. If you go, and I do recommend it, I would suggest you bring three things: 1. A flask that no one can detect, because otherwise you will be attacked. 2. See #1. 3. See #2. The tunnels make you thirsty. There is no other way to put it.
Rather quickly Joyce described ghost sightings. This was rather engaging and seemed credible. This is where she channeled the Ghost and Mr. Chicken. We heard about a barber who ran a shop in the basement – a Mr. Jung – we heard about his throat surgeries and other things that made me even more thirsty.
One person who has never been in the tunnels – the Orkin man.
We then convened at the hotel. The hotel itself had its own history and tour. I could recount it here but this column has a word limit.
It is worth adding that below the hotel was something special - at the end of the tour we walked into a — wait for it — a BAR. A place called the Sunflower Sample room. I’ve spent time in bars in far away cities and in nice hotels. This watering hole was on par with most. There they served Gutch English Mild Ale, Boulevard Wheat, Blue Moon and Fat Tire. Even more interesting, one of the original owners of the bar were grandparents of a classmate, Julie (Kutina) Cothran.
At dinner Saturday they had the photos of classmates passed. Leslie (Hallbower) Barrett read their names and recited a poem. The room became very quiet. Some of those who passed were dear friends — Phyllis Richardson, Brent Lupton, Larry Miller, Katie Clavin, Michael Elsen, and Monica Bell were just some that stuck with me.
On the drive back to Kansas City, I had a lot of time to sort through the weekend. Our class helped usher in an age of innocence. No wars. Civil strife had largely passed. We were years before the days anyone would conjoin the words helicopter and parents. We set off on adult journeys only to return 40 years later and feel like we never left home. My thoughts also returned to that brief but memorable conversation with Wayne Simpson. The courage sobriety demands of those who stay sober every day.
A couple days later this is what Wayne shared with me: “I’m grateful for consequences of today” he said. “Without serious consequence for this hard headed addict. Life changes that would not have happened — jails, institution, or death. I’ve learned now that giving back to others is my key to recovery. Today in my business and personal life I try to show people what took me over 15 years of incarceration to understand. I’ve learned I don’t have to use to avoid my true feelings anymore.”
He’s a bigger man than me.
Here’s to my classmates and hopes for another fun gathering in 2023. And hats off to those who organized this year’s event – Kathy (Degenhardt) Foster, Renee (Donecker) Dykes, Jean (Stambaugh) Peter, Steve Pringle, Sharon (Kaiser) Feist, and Leslie (Halbower) Barrett. And if in the meantime anyone sees a ghost in Ellinwood, just hold the news until the next tour.
Write to Matt at his Website, matthewkeenan.com.