Time-Traveling To a Reunion

AFTER I attended my high school reunion last weekend, I learned that a new magazine titled Reunions is to publish its first issue in September. Click.

This confirmed my feeling, as I met old teenage friends at a place appropriately named the Clock Tower Inn, that Peggy Sue and all the rest of us have arrived at the Age of the Reunion.

Part of it is that the centrifugal forces of history scatter today's alumni farther from the center than before. Of the 270 celebrants attending the 30th reunion of East High School's Class of 1960 - some of whom came from as far away as Australia, Scotland, Alaska, and Canada - more had left town than in my parents' generation. Among the 782 classmates listed in a reunion directory, only 41 percent still live in the Rockford area.

More had also married more than once, and a handful more than twice, giving these mid-life adults added reason to seek the reassurance of old moorings. In the midst of transience and instability, a class reunion is a comforting point of return.

The farther you've traveled, the more things have changed, the more remote you've become from the person in the class pictures, the more it means to come back. We're talking roots. Formative-years identity. A sense that ``This is where I came from. This is who I am - or at least who I was.''

For some out-of-towners returning to this conservative, heavily Swedish city 90 miles northwest of Chicago, the weekend sentimental journey begins on Saturday morning at Stockholm Inn, a friendly, crowded restaurant where Swedish pancakes and lingonberries are a local tradition. Others head for Marshall Field's to stock up on Frango mints. Still others make a pilgrimage of sorts to see the schools they attended and the houses where they grew up.

But it is the Saturday evening dinner-dance that remains the primary attraction. ``You haven't changed!'' celebrants exclaim to each other as they assemble in the ballroom, spotting familiar faces from long ago.

Well, maybe not on the outside. But who can begin to describe the changes wrought on the inside by the choices and decisions that have shaped individuals and families since that Friday morning in June 1960 when we collected our diplomas and scattered to the wind like seeds on a gigantic dandelion puff? In this sense the reunion directory, with its staccato listings of careers and children, is as much camouflage as it is revelation.

The evening brings small disappointments, to be sure: The name tags are too small to be easily read in the candlelit room. The music is too loud, the deejay too corny. And certain hoped-for friends fail to show up.

But there are unexpected pleasures, too. Despite the ``Cherished Memories'' theme, for the most part this is not a memory-lane, remember-when evening. Behind the usual reunion jokes about hairlines and waistlines, a partygoer senses a more mellow mood. Gone is the competitiveness that characterizes 10- or 20-year reunions, when classmates try to impress friends with job titles and possessions. These 30-year celebrators wear their accomplishments more modestly and speak of their disappointments more candidly. ``Comfortable'' is the word several graduates use to describe the prevailing tone.

At the end of the evening, as departing alums dash to their cars in a midnight downpour, they might not be able to say exactly what they had come looking for, but they have at least some sense of having found it.

Edith Wagner of Milwaukee, publisher of the forthcoming Reunions magazine, sums up the sentiments of reunion-goers everywhere when she says, ``Everybody seems to be nervous before, and everybody talks about what fun they have after.''

That talk continues on Sunday, when out-of-towners head for O'Hare and the flights that will take them back to families and jobs. As the airport bus rolls along the Illinois Tollway, past late-summer cornfields and lush pastures, they savor the moment equidistant between their past and their present.

Thomas Wolfe may have been right when he observed that you can't go home again. But he never said you can't go back for a class reunion.

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