By Neva Knott
My high school boyfriend turned fifty Saturday. His wife threw a party for him at Dirty Dave’s the pizza parlor in Olympia that we’ve all frequented for forty years or more. It was a surprise party, and I offered to jump out of a cake. I got off work too late to make that debut, but made the party. It was a bit of a homecoming.
When I walked into that room, I felt like I should know everyone there, but no one looked familiar. The birthday boy, Dave, was buried in the crowd around him. I found Tammy, his wife. We hugged and I admitted to her I didn’t recognize anyone. She put her arm around my shoulder so that she could steer me, “There’re Helen, and Charlie. There’s Eric…” As Tammy continued to navigate my gaze, a smile, a laugh, or a voice granted familiarity, and I saw my adolescence come alive.
Party talk covered the usual reunion topics: families and kids and parents, jobs, and how much time had passed. The time at the restaurant ended, so the core group of us gathered at Dave and Tammy’s.
Gail, Helen, and I poured glasses of wine and got down to the deeper conversations. Where shall I begin, and what shall I leave for last? This is the question Odysseus asks of his listeners once back under his own roof, and truly was the question for all of us on Saturday. Tammy brought out the pack of pictures my sister had sent–from Terry’s birthday, his twenty-first, the first year we lived in Portland. As we passed the snapshots around the table, we all marveled at our youth, our big hair, and short shorts.
Jim joined our conversation, and we began to talk about how we’d all met each other. I met Dave when we had lockers next to each other in ninth grade, and he’d walk by and sing my name. He wore a big puffy coat, so for a long while I knew him as the boy in the blue puffy coat.
I met Jim on the school bus the same year. We lived out in the sticks. After we returned from living abroad, my parents built their dream house on Nisqually bluff. The bluff is really the edge of Olympia on the way north to Tacoma and Seattle. Then, in the late 1970s, the area was sparsely developed, most of it forested land owned by the railroad. My first day riding the bus from the new house, he walked up to me and said, “Hi, I’m Jim.” Later, when he learned to drive, I’d let the school bus pass and sit on the rock at the entrance to our neighborhood until Jim came by and stopped to give me a ride to school. We were pretty much inseparable. He was the brother I’d always wanted and we pretty much, as he’ll tell you, “grew each other up.” Neither one of us–for me, at least after my dad died–wanted to be home much, so we’d put gas in Jim’s car and drive around for hours, talking.
Gail came to our high school a year later from the “other” middle school. Summers, she and I spent countless summer days biking to Long Lake, stopping at 7-11 for ice cream sandwiches. As we got older, we became shopping buddies. Then, Jim fell in love with “that little red-headed girl,” as he’d call her, so our fates were sealed as friends forever.
Tammy and Helen were friends with our little sisters, Gail’s and mine, Charlie and Rachel.
Many of us in our group are, as Thomas in the film Smoke Signals calls himself and his friend, “children of ash, children of flame.” Many of us had absent parents or, at least, parents who though we could manage on our own. My mom was lost in a bottle after my dad’s death, Jim’s dad was starting a new life that didn’t so much include his seven kids, Terry’s mom and dad were young and trusted us, Eric’s parents never seemed to have an opinion, Dave’s mom didn’t say much as long as he did chores and was home on time. Gail and Charlie’s parents just plain said “no” often, in protection of their daughters. It was the late 70s, and we kept out of trouble for the most part, so our parents thought we were ok. We were gifted a Trojan Horse called freedom, and we outsmarted most of the dangers found within.
We managed our adolescence by bonding together into an inseparable force that was our group. We drank too much cheap beer, had far too many keggers, and passed far too many joints. Some of us started driving too young—as soon as one of us had a license and a car, it was fair game for all–and the boys always drove too fast. But we were always smart about it, even if it meant sleeping in cars or camping at the party site down some logging road, or by knowing whose house it was safe to hang out at or go home to. We also helped solve each other’s dilemmas and helped each other navigate teen life: the crushes, the break-ups, school, jobs, cars, budding ambitions, dreams of the future. Maybe we were a little wild–crazy kids–but we all grew up ok, and are nice people.
As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” The attitude and beat of that song always reminds me of our high school days. We were so close, and just as the characters in the song, we were laughing and a running hey, hey, skipping and a jumping, in the misty morning fog. We were finding our way, some of us out of broken homes, some of us out of a high school existence we loathed, some of us just looking ahead as adolescence prompts one to do. This line from the song struck me today: so hard to find my way, now that I’m all on my own, I saw you just the other day…cast my memory back there, Lord, sometime I’m overcome thinking ’bout…
Arnold Joseph, the father in Smoke Signals, who caused all of the heartache and distance says, at the beginning of the film, “I didn’t mean to.” He had set Thomas’s parents’ house on fire, an event that ripped apart family and community. Until the end of the film, only the viewer knows Arnold had set the fire–the other characters only know he caught the child of ash, the child of flame, Thomas, when he was thrown from the burning building. I am no fire starter, but I feel I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to move so far away from this group of friends. I’m the one who moved away, and I’ve always felt guilty about the distance created when I did.
Jim and I kind of talked about time and distance at Dave’s party. Jim explained that his son is having a hard time moving into the career he wants in the Coast Guard because he doesn’t want to go far away. I gestured around the room and said, “Look at his examples—except for me and Terry, everybody stayed here.” And, most of them have the jobs or some version thereof that they got after graduation.
Just about then, Dave interjected that I was the brave one. He said it in a complimentary fashion. As I thought about it on my drive back to Portland, I decided it isn’t true. Bravery is the lie I’ve been living for so long, the lie that may be the reason I don’t visit Olympia often, the lie that allowed me to grow apart from my high school friends. I didn’t mean to. I just followed Terry to Portland because that was the plan, and after all, we’d been saving for that plan, a quarter a day, since we were thirteen. My own personal Trojan Horse, I guess.
So I’m not the brave one, but because of all the disasters in my life, I’ve had to be brave. At this point, to quote my favorite Cowboy Junkies song, I’d trade it all for a cup of coffee and a wedding ring.
Nostalgia. Friendship. The bond we all have is special. Even though I’ve felt far away for so long, because of Dave’s party on Saturday, I know that I don’t have to ask Odysseus’s question. I know my story begins with the people at Dave’s party, and it will end with them. And just as Thomas learns in Smoke Signals, I know that some bonds are unbreakable, no matter how the sorrows of life entwine. Saturday, the boy in the blue puffy coat turned fifty, and I found my way home, my own heroic feat.