Of all the books I once used during my high school years, the textbooks and the paperbacks, there was one, especially during my senior year, that mattered the most — the yearbook.
It was called The Flame, a book used primarily as the repository for messaging that seemed so very important at the time, sentiments like “Social studies would have been boring without you bothering me every day” and “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m actually going to miss you.”
Despite the importance of that senior yearbook that we passed around to say our goodbyes to those with whom we sat in all those straight rows, in some cases, all the way back to our Catholic elementary schools, I think we knew the book would enter a period of dormancy.
And, so it did for me. I’m guessing for a good three decades it sat on a shelf in the basement without my ever picking it up. However, in my sexagenarian years, I find myself picking up that yearbook more frequently, for sentimental reasons when those with whom I shared the happiest and most optimistic of my days die.
According to my pal since second grade, who embraces his unofficial role as class chronicler, the count is approaching 30 from our class of 235. When I become aware of each death, that’s when I find myself opening that yearbook and wistfully looking at the image of a classmate now gone to see what my first memory is.
So tenuous is our hold on life that there were the deaths of some classmates so very soon after that sunny May graduation day in that seminal year of 1969, when a music festival in upstate New York closed the New York State Thruway and a local hero would take one lunar small step at the same time he was taking one giant leap.
I remember the first classmate to depart this world was a boy named Bob, a boisterous fellow with an unforgettably spontaneous laugh. While still in his 20s, he just wasn’t old enough to envision the inherent danger of riding in the open bed of a pickup truck with someone driving interstate speeds.
While I miss each who die with whom I showed my youthful foolishness, I think I miss the ones the most I knew since my first day at St. Charles after my emigration from Chicago.
I remember grabbing that yearbook six years ago to look at Jim, who became a dentist and died suddenly at 63 in Dayton. Having grown up in an era of parochial corporal punishment, he and I absorbed many an open-handed reminder that conduct mattered to the Good Sisters of Charity.
When I looked at his yearbook photo, what immediately sprung to mind was a recollection of his stoic reactions to his frequent punishments. When he saw the nun advancing down the aisle toward him, he would remove his glasses and put them on the desk, fold his hands in front of him and look straight ahead and then, unflinchingly, absorb the blows. Following his “reminders,” he would pick up his glasses and slide them back in place above a pair of suddenly reddened cheeks.
When a quiet boy named Paul passed a little over a year ago, while looking at his photo, I instantly formed an image of him on the St. Charles playground when he astonished all of us still spindly-armed fifth-graders by using the cross bar behind the basketball backboard, pumping out over two dozen perfect-form chin-ups. Without question, in my mind, he was the strongest of our 235. Fortunately, for all of us, he was a gentle soul.
Just a few weeks ago, I again grabbed that yearbook when another classmate, who once walked with me in the St. Charles hallways, suddenly died. Like Paul, Dave was quiet, another who easily yielded the floor to big mouths like me who always had far more interest in being the class clown than the class scholar.
As I gazed at his photo, a memory came not from St. Charles but from our sophomore year. You see, Dave was one of the first to turn 16 in our class. Once others became aware he got his license and had access to a weekend car, suddenly the boy who often seemed barely noticed while traversing our school’s halls became very popular, that is, as long as he’d be the wheel man and pick up some guys for Friday night runs to a teen center.
Surely, Dave must have known what fueled his sudden popularity, yet so nice was he that he did indeed lend his services as one of his class’s first drivers, knowing full well that once others got their licenses, he’d again walk those halls in relative obscurity.
Yes, that yearbook bought so very long ago, primarily as a place to for my mates’ scribbles, now is often sadly being used again, this time to say my final goodbyes to those who knew me first.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a division of AIM Media Midwest. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.