It wasn’t long after high school graduation that the invitations began to come in the mail. “You’re invited to our one year reunion.” I just saw those guys! Not interested. “You’re invited to our five-year reunion.” What could be different in five years? Still not interested. “You’re invited to our ten-year reunion.” I just didn’t see how much could change in that short a time span. Not only that, I was busy with kids and career; to get me to drive ten hours it had to be something special. Finally the invitation came that caused me to reconsider my previous misgivings: “You’re invited to our 20th high school reunion.” I talked with Julie and we decided to make the drive.
Of course, going to these events causes one to take an internal inventory; after all, you don’t want to be embarrassed in front of your peers. Decent job? Check. Decent car? Check. Acceptable hairline, waist line, hair color? Check, check, check. I know it’s all superficial, but since I skipped all the other reunions, I was a little worried about appearances. Until I arrived at the first nights event.
As we entered the event hall, I saw a lot of people I didn’t recognize. I kept Julie close by my side, one because I was proud to have her as my wife, and two: identification purposes. As someone would come into view I would whisper to Julie, “Who’s that?” She would in turn whisper back a name, and then the introductions could commence. Occasionally, someone’s identity would stump us both, and Julie would track down her sister for further help. Julie pulled me aside in one instance and whispered, “Guess who that guy is?” I stared across the room in his direction in a casual, inconspicuous manner, trying to rack my brain and figure out who he was. “I don’t know. He looks like someone’s dad.” Julie cupped her hand to my ear and whispered a name. “You’re kidding. That guy looks old!” “Shhh He’ll hear you!” she said as she punched me.
All the while, across the room there was another couple looking my direction and whispering, “Man, do you see how old he looks?” I suppose we all have our own special mirrors for just such an occasion. We continued to mix and I was genuinely surprised at how much fun I was having. Eventually the guys separated from their spouses and ended up at a large table. The conversation turned to work and then family, but eventually stories began to surface from our twenty year past. It was fun reliving the events that had bound us all together. I found myself engaged in a really good conversation with someone who later on I would tell Julie, “I wish I had known him better in school. He’s a really neat guy.”
Of course, there was the obvious conversation about the girl who during high school had been a wallflower and now, twenty years later, had become quite the flower. Or, on the other side of the coin was the popular, good-looking guy that all the girls used to swoon over who had lost all of his hair, developed a protruding beer gut, and was working for the county mowing grass on the side of the highway. Again, all superficial, but wasn’t that what high school was all about? A caste system if there ever was one. Everyone pigeonholed into a particular group. At least now, most of those things didn’t matter anymore.
As the evening wore on, Jim, Andy, and John approached me and asked me if I would be interested in going on a float trip. It had been many years since the four of us had done anything like that, but I was definitely interested and said, “I’m in town for a few days. Count me in.”
The next day’s events were in the park and included a picnic and family introductions. Everyone seemed anxious to have you meet their kids; Julie and I were no exception. Our two boys didn’t seem all that keen on being introduced to a hundred different people, but seemed to endure it just fine. As the day wore down, I began to think about the float trip and camping out with the guys.
We finally met up and quickly put together enough gear to set up camp. Since I was an out-of-town visitor, my contribution to the supplies was strictly monetary. We were going to stay at a campsite overlooking Shoal Creek, just off highway 71. As we left town, the four of us in the car, it suddenly felt like it did twenty years earlier. It was good that I wasn’t driving; the radio was kept at a level where we could all still hear the conversation. The guys in the backseat leaned forward to be a part of the conversation and we headed south out-of-town.
When we arrived at the campsite, it was dark and we had to have flashlights to set up camp. Setting up camp in the dark isn’t ideal, but we all pitched in and got the tent set up. The next thing on the agenda was to start a campfire. Andy, who must have had Indian blood somewhere back in the family lineage, insisted on starting a fire the old-fashioned way. We had lighters and propane torches, but Andy insisted we do it his way. We all gathered sticks for the fire, going off in different directions in the dark, occasionally getting whacked in the face by a tree limb, while Andy took some dried grasses and leaves, a few small twigs and a couple of rocks and began to create enough sparks to catch the dry grasses on fire. As I observed him on his knees, face down to the ground, softly blowing on the beginnings of the fire, my mind wandered back to the many times I had seen him do the same thing in our youth.
With the campfire blazing, we all sat around staring into the fire and enjoying each other’s company. I’ve always found the campfire to be the best part of any campout or fishing trip. I asked, “Did anybody bring any cigars?” That was the one thing we had overlooked and it was too late to run back to town for them. Jim said, “I’ve got the next best thing to cigars,” and reached into a bag and pulled out a pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco. So, here I was again, faced with chewing the tobacco and being made fun of for getting sick, or declining the offer and being made fun of for that. As the pouch was being passed around, I decided that there were many years passed since my last incident with chewing tobacco; maybe I was cured! When it came to be my turn, I reached deeply into the packet and pulled out a minimal amount of leaves and twigs between my forefinger and thumb and inserted them into my left cheek, trying to make it look like I had a mouth full.
Unlike the rest of the guys, I didn’t really chew the tobacco, I just let it sit there, between my cheek and gum, and every once in a while I would spit into the fire for effect. As the night faded into deep darkness, Andy suggested that we do some late night catfishing down in the creek. It sounded like a good idea to everyone, so we grabbed our poles and made our way through the woods and down to the water. We realized immediately that we didn’t have any bait for the catfish and decided to dig around under some downed logs and see if we could find a few night crawlers. We found some, but by this time I was beginning to feel really queasy, like I get when I’m on the ocean, in a small boat, bobbing up and down in six-foot waves. With all the physical activity of coming down the side of the hill and digging for worms, the tobacco had made its way down my throat and was beginning to work its way back up.
I tried to hide it the best I could, but the guys noticed the ashen look on my face (reflecting in the moonlight or possibly flashlight). By this time it was late, we weren’t catching any fish, and we were scheduled to get up at sunset to start our float trip. As we made it back up the side of the hill and rekindled the fire, I drank some pop to try to ease my stomach and we talked ourselves to sleep.
The next morning we were up at daylight, fixed a quick breakfast and met up with the canoe rental guy. He took us upstream, almost to Granby, where we put our canoes into the water and started our day long float; Jim and John in one canoe, Andy and me in the other. All of us had spent plenty of time on Spring River and Center Creek, but this was our first time on Shoal Creek. I was not disappointed. The water was a pretty blue in the deep spots and the current was strong. We let the current take us for the most part, working at it when the rapids appeared. There were plenty of good fishing holes and we took advantage of them throughout the morning; smallmouth bass and bluegill were the two most popular offerings.
We hadn’t planned on staying dry, and when the sun became hot enough, we stopped at the perfect swimming hole for a while; taking turns jumping and diving off the short bluff overlooking the deep hole. We were having a blast, like time had stood still, our daily lives and jobs far from our minds. After eating some baloney sandwiches, chips, a pop tart and some cold pop (the cheap grocery store brand; grape, orange, root beer, blackberry and cream sodas were plentiful), we jumped back in the canoes and started paddling. The river began to widen and the water began to slow, which forced us to paddle harder, not knowing how much farther we had to go until the pickup point at the 71 highway bridge.
All of a sudden, as we floated around a bend in the river, we noticed a railroad trestle across the river about a half mile downstream. Andy and I looked at each other and he said, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” “We’re going to jump off that bridge when we get there!” I answered excitedly. Jim and John didn’t seem so sure; some would call them cautious, others would call them discerning; Andy and I called them chicken. When we finally got close enough to estimate the height of the trestle over the water, we figured it was a good twenty feet. Looking at the water, we decided that it was deep enough to dive into (not being altogether prudent, we didn’t actually test the depth other than stick a boat paddle down into the water and call it good). Andy and I pulled our canoe over to the side and quickly made it to the base of a stone pillar holding up the bridge. As we scaled the stone wall, receiving scrapes on our arms and torsos, we eventually made it to the top. With Jim and John in their canoe egging us on, we both did the “Geronimo!” and jumped the twenty feet down. The water was deep enough and the jump exhilarating enough to entice us to go back up and do it again. Jim and John seemed satisfied to enjoy the event from the relative safety of their canoe.
We continued on down the river and began to paddle faster; the sun was moving in the sky and we weren’t sure how much farther we had to go. At one point, we approached a spot in the creek that didn’t look passable at first. There was a large tree fallen across the creek and the water was moving swiftly, and once over the tree, there was an immediate right turn that had to be maneuvered. It became a challenge to see if anyone would try to shoot their canoe over the log and through the rapids and onto the other side. Jim and John, ever cautious, decided to walk their canoe around the obstacle, but Andy insisted that he could make it. I wisely suggested, “Andy, I think I’ll get out and stand down on the other side of the log, in case you need my assistance. That way if anything goes wrong, I’ll be right there.” Andy gave me a look of incredulity and steeled himself for the task in front of him.
All seemed to be going well until the rear of the canoe swung around, causing the approach to be all wrong, an evident disaster a few seconds away. Andy, with a look of terror in his eyes, quickly jumped out of the canoe, realizing he couldn’t make it over the log; the only problem, he jumped out on the wrong side of the canoe and the swift water pinned him between the canoe and the log. I could see him wince in pain and quickly came to his aid, the two of us barely able to keep the canoe from filling with water and capsizing.
Once on the other side and continuing down the stream, I noticed the lump on Andy’s shin was the size of a grapefruit, but true to his nature, he shrugged it off. We finally saw the 71 bridge in sight and looked forward to one more night around the campfire; sitting around, eating some of our catch from the day, talking about old times, chewing a little tobacco (all but me) and finally being overcome by the day’s activities and crawling off to sleep in our sleeping bags.
We all had such a good time, together once again, that we vowed to do it again soon. It’s been another eighteen years and we haven’t yet, but if you get an invitation in the mail that says, “You’re invited to our 20th high school reunion”, I recommend you go. And don’t forget the chewing tobacco.