I remember when my parents went to their 30th high school reunion. They rode in old cars and carried class banners in a small-town Minnesota parade with a bunch of old people. That was a year or two before I graduated from high school in Oceanside, Calif., 50 years ago this month. My class reunion is next week. How did that happen?
I don’t feel old. Achy, sometimes. Sometimes, maybe often, the correct word or name won't come to mind when needed. One sunny good snow day at the ski run this winter, I caught an edge and almost bit it. I muscled my skis back in line, and the muscling was hard, and I thought instantly that such a small edge would have been no problem 20 years ago. Then I thought that most people my age aren't on skis at all.
So fortunate is what I feel -- downright lucky. I recall good times and bad: Coretta Scott King mourning her husband in Washington, D.C., in 1968; the big, strapping, rugby-playing college roommate who was struck down by cancer before he got to Social Security; the writers and singers I've known; my own kids and grandkids, whom I've watched grow up and coached in soccer and baseball; the 34-year marriage that didn't make it to 35.
But mostly, when I think about the last 50 years, I think about how wide-eyed and stupid my generation was, jumping into the world in 1960, a time before the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, before the word "Vietnam" mattered to us, before riots in Watts, Detroit and Washington, D.C., before freedom marches, sit-ins and anti-Vietnam War marches, before the Berlin Wall, the Pill, black quarterbacks in Texas and black basketball players at Kentucky; before acid and crack and Janis Joplin's death from an overdose.
We didn't experience the Great Depression, but our parents and grandparents did and wanted to make sure we didn't. We didn't know war, though some of us had parents who knew it well and wanted to make sure we didn't. We'd watched POWs come home from Korea, and waited for a neighbor dad who didn't return. But that story didn't live in the hearts of most families.
Some of us knew other hard things about fathers who quietly carried their own war stories, about alcohol at home, abuse, infidelities; frustrated moms who'd wanted to become doctors or lawyers instead. But we didn’t talk about these things all those years before Oprah.
We knew little about the place we lived: Oceanside, a small town nestled against the Pacific Ocean with wide beaches and idyllic climate. We could see the snow on Palomar Mountain and Catalina Island -- as well as the smog to the north, over Los Angeles -- as we walked to school on Horne Street. Our Minnesota family simply ate fish from cans.
We saw but didn't see the unpaved streets in Posole Town on the north side of Mission Street. Posole was where most of the Mexican kids lived, and where we picked up beer on Friday afternoons after making sure no cops were following.
We white Californians sat in classes and played football with Mexicans, but didn't see them much after school. When Fred Astorga, a year ahead of us, came back from college to teach at Oceanside, he couldn't rent any of the apartments across from the school. At the 40-year reunion, only one of dozens of these classmates showed up.
We lived short miles from Indian reservations but didn't know that some of our Mexican classmates were more Indian than Mexican. Years later, I learned that being Mexican in California in the '40s and '50s was much easier than being Indian, so people "passed," just as light-skinned African Americans passed as whites across the land. We didn't know that Asians, including the parents of classmates, could not marry Caucasians in California until 1948; mixed couples had to go to Tijuana for that. Girls who were athletic got to cheerlead and lead songs, and "do sports" one day a year. There were no protests; that was just the way it was.
Maybe every young group coming up is as naive as we were. And maybe ours has been a half-century of extraordinary change. We don't choose the time or the place that we come into the world. But we do get to choose where we go and how we live from there.
Rich Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Joseph, Oregon.