June 22-27: High School Reunion in Rural America

For the first time in forever, I came home during
salmon season for my 25th high school reunion. I grew
up in a town of a couple thousand people. Our
graduating class of 1981 was 44 students, and I can
likely name every person to this day from our senior
yearbook photo.

The 25th year class is “in charge” of Alumi Weekend.
We don’t have single class reunions as a general rule,
as there hardly enough for a party from only one
class. Alumi Weekend is the biggest weekend in the
community, and if you try to get back to this hometown
once a year, this is the weekend to see everyone.

We started the week with a party for our class of 44.
About half the class showed up – many I had not seen
since graduation. Some looked like they’d graduated
last week. Others, like me, last century. I was the
grayest in the bunch, (not counting the girls with
hair I know was not that color 25 years ago…).

Everyone greeted everyone like a group of forty that
had grown up and attended the same school with the
same people for 13 years. As in all schools, there
are the stoners and partiers, the jocks, the students,
the musicians. In a school as small as ours, though,
most people belong to several or all of the groups.
Most of us were in a sport at one time or another, be
it midget football or cheerleading. Most of us were
in our marching band, which traveled all over the
region and was for many, the only way they would ever
see places like Philadelphia or New York, as these
places might as well have cost what it does to go to
the moon, as there’s not much money here in northern
Appalachia. Our band used to be about 120 strong,
including the color guard, so at 40 students a class,
there had to be a lot of participation and included
kids from grades 7 to 12. I played the sousaphone
(tuba). No one really like the practice or the
parades themselves in the steamy polyester uniforms
and big hats, but we did it for the fun of the
busrides and being with our friends, and though we
didn’t know it then, I think we did it for the town,
as we were the “Bolivar Bulldog Marching Band!”

But back to the reunion. Most of us recognized
everyone immediately, with one or two “stumpers” in
the group who either had changed body size or hairline
or both. The party was not catered at a church hall
or restaurant, as that was never our style. It was
held at the garage of a classmate lucky enough to
scratch a living out here, with coolers of beer, trays
of hoursdeovers (including salmon from yours truly),
and a boom box for music. No band or other activities
were required for this bunch to reconnect. 25 years
may have gone by, but for people who grew up since
kindergartern together, our comfort level with each
other was immediate for most. I think in those years,
we were together with each other more than our family.
No one attending would have thought to put on any
aires they may have acquired in the “outside world”.
We hoped those missing had not acquired aires that
prevented them from attending, as they surely missed
what we all knew but didn’t say – this was a
once-in-our-lifetime–watershed-of-emotion event.

Our class was seen as a not-too-productive class at
graduation. I think there was even some personal
disdain for some classmembers by the school faculty
for things like general and repeated lack of respect
for authority, plus the fact that our class did not
have a strong contingent of atheletes. Twenty five
years later, though, everyone at the reunion seemed
like productive members of society. No one spoke of
anyone on public assistance. From what I remember
from our reunion, our group includes a pharmacist,
nurse, teachers, executive secretary, aviation detail
manager, auto body specialist, auto technician for one
of the big Nascar racers line of shops, college loan
administrator, and business owner of the oldest oil
pipe supply company in the country. Many of our class
served in the Military as that’s many times the first
option for high school graduates without the funds,
grades or immediate desire to go to college. One kid
who graduated about 5 years after our class was a
pilot in the first wave of fighter jets in to Iraq.
And of course, I didn’t hear this from him, but from
his family after I asked if he was still in the
military. Only his haircut suggested his military
status. Just a quiet, nice kid from a rural American
town as I suspect most soldiers are – kids certainly
not invested in Haliburton or born with a silver spoon
in their mouth, and certainly they ain’t no senator’s
son.

The following day, there was a mixer for all classes
at our local country club, where I managed to do what
I had not managed since my gradschool days in
Mississippi – I got sunburned. Following the mixer,
the alumni banquet was next. The event is essentially
a cafeteria-style meal where each table walks from the
gym to the cafeteria in the adjoining room, gets their
meal – complete with the Perrys Ice Cream cup like we
got during your 13 years of schooling – and returns to
their seats in the gym. Every alumnus attending has
their name read. The oldest alum were from the class
of about 1933. Last year, the class had 3 alums
attending, but one- the step father of one of my
classmates – passed away this year. Funny how a
little banquet like this really connects you to both
the past and present folks who have all walked the
same school halls which still conjure up memories of
pranks, athletic events, friendships, and uncertain
love driven by puberty and raging hormones.

I think everyone in the room remembered how it felt to
be the current graduating class, with your whole
future in front of you. The alumni association gives
out thousands of dollars each year in scholarships,
and I knew several of the parents of award winners,
and knew now how much this money would help these kids
who may be taking on what amounts to mortgages to pay
their college tuition.

Our class had seven attend the banquet, and we stood
when our names were read. Everyone applauds after
each name is read. It seems monotonous by the 10th
alumnus, but of course, by then, you’re in for a dime
and in for a dollar, so we keep applauding for
everyone until the end.

Following the banquet is the traditional drunkfest
downtown. Our town consists of one stop light, 4
bars, a grocery store, a convenience store, drug
store, a couple banks, and a cafe. You can see one
end of town from the other, and most homes in town
are, at most, 4 blocks from downtown and 4 blocks from
the school, so no need to drive. There’s a bar in
town that’s new since we graduated. I guess it’s been
there about a decade. Our watering hole has always
been the Bolivar Hotel, which isn’t a hotel anymore.
The Hotel bar and lobby used to be filled to capacity
and overflow right down the steps and into the street,
but the new bar (about 50 yards away) now takes up
much of the younger crowd, which makes things a little
more comfortable for everyone. Many people don’t
attend the alumi banquet, but few under 60 miss the
night on the town.

I ordered 9 beers and a diet coke for me. Only after
I ordered and the barkeep had the caps off did I think
to ask if they took credit cards, which of course they
do not. I looked in my wallet and saw about 29 bucks.
Then, the magic of Bolivar, NY was bestowed – the bar
tab was $18.50 for the whole order. I gave the
barmaid a 20 and motioned her to keep the change like
the big spender from out of town that I am. I staked
out a piece of wall near my classmates, who had staked
out the stairs that used to lead upstairs to what used
be hotel rooms back when Bolivar was an oil-boom town.
We all spoke with each other, and then people as they
moved past us to the bar to reload. I chatted with a
classmate of my sister who also had worked in Alaska.
I spent many a night sipping homemade wine with his
dad, who was also the school art teacher, in their
former house which is now owned by another friend – a
state trooper who grew up in Olean and who I played JV
basketball during my first year of college in
Rochester. During our conversation, the classmate who
hosted our reunion party came storming by with her
sister and husband and my cousin (another classmate),
on their way to the other bar. Looked like trouble to
me, so I followed, of course.

When we got down there, their son emerged from a crowd
with a bloodied face. Momma bear was angry. She
assessed the situation, and alternately went from
someone on the accused side to the police who had also
arrived, demanding they arrest the 3 brothers who had
apparently done this before to her son or another’s
son – I did not catch which. Our town has always had
a group of micreants, with skills of bullying,
cowardice, petty thievery, and speeding handed down
from generation to generation. I had my classmate
identify one of the suspects, and I took up a
position to bar his exit from the area should he try
to flee.

Eventually he went into the Court House, located
conveniently across from the bar, to talk to the
police and give his lie – I mean side – of the story.
That left me free to walk up to my sister’s house
about 2 blocks away, grab my rental car, and drive up
a hollow out of town to sit and drink coffee with 2 of
my classmates drinking beer until after 4 am. We told
stories, the homeowner built a bonfire, and called on
his elk bugle call to which we heard foxes reply out
in the darkness of the adjoining field. The second
classmate eventually made it in a stupor to bed, and
the homeowner and I talked about politics and business
for another couple hours, with crickets chirping and
the barr owls hooting and the frogs croaking – sounds
unheard by me in a long, long time…..


Mark Stopha and Sara Hannan
Alaska Wild Salmon Company
Wild Salmon and Salmon Pet Treats
4455 N. Douglas Hwy
Juneau, AK 99801
907-463-3115
www.GoodSalmon.com