Thirty of my high school classmates wiped out in a few seconds! Did disaster strike a class reunion? No, in truth they have been dying one by one over the years, while I was unaware of it, just as I was unaware of any details of their lives. But reading the list of the names of the deceased, as I did recently, was like reading in the paper that they had all been mowed down at the same time, and I was shaken.
This experience has made me realize how my life, divorced from contact with anyone from that time in my past, has been unrealistic in a certain way, shielded from the strongest material evidence of mortality, the numerous deaths of those my own age with whom I shared the rather unhappy years of my adolescence. Suicide and heart attacks and causes unknown to me—accident? AIDS? cancer?—have brought them down. The total represents roughly ten percent of our class, which seems reasonable, though the list is probably incomplete. Of the thirty dead, twenty-two were male.
Some of the names on the list I merely recognize as belonging to a classmate but associate with no face or personality. A couple of names are even below that level of recognition. A few names evoke phantoms I can almost but not quite make out clearly. Some names are attached to persons or events that have survived in my memory. Here are some I remember, without mentioning names.
The girl and boy whom I and the rest of the class gathered around to watch dance the “dirty bop” at the seventh grade Christmas party—they’re both dead. That girl whose ass caught my attention with such curious force (as I watched her walk out of the room one time in the seventh grade) that the event seems to have marked the beginning of a new phase in my life, as if some dormant primate instinct came to life at that moment—she’s not moving now, or ever again. The senior football player, whom I saw brutally put a sophomore player in his place (I picked a tooth up off the ground)—he’s no longer commanding respect on this Earth. The catcher that threw me out at third base in “Show Me Where It Hurts: Memory Illuminates a Few Moments of My Baseball Career” is gone as well. Our exuberant male cheer leader—silent now as old Marley. Dead also is the boy I envied as he related how a neighbor kid’s older sister had called him into her bedroom for an initiation I could only dream of.
My friend with the Ford convertible, one of only a couple of boys with whom I could talk about books, God, life, and death, now knows nothing—or perhaps everything—about what we pondered then. My fellow unexpected National Merit Finalist—he’s been dead some twenty years. A girl whom I imagined to have suffered, as one deemed so unattractive must, feels neither suffering nor joy anymore in this life. A boy that later served voluntarily in Vietnam and survived the war, now rests in endless peace. Another who went to West Point (and Vietnam too?)—also dead. An odd fellow I really didn’t like, who once in the ninth grade invited me to meet him after school for a “friendly fight,” is now among those I’ll never meet again in this life. How could that boy I knew as such a lively, smiling kid in junior high, before he slipped into the background for me, have come to such a static, stolid end? The boy I resembled superficially, whose name a friend would tease me with, owes any current resemblance to the embalmer.
Also on the list of the dead is a guy with whom I shared a hair-raising (for me) ride home from an out-of-town football game as he drove at high speed on the city streets; we stopped to retrieve beer from the back of a building, the site where he had earlier in the evening used the full beer cans as missiles in a battle with someone encountered on the way to the game. Had he tried to escape there, only to find himself cornered? Or had he and a different passenger been the pursuers? I never understood what had happened. The chance for him to clarify has passed away with his existence.
I’ve written this piece to convey the shock that I experienced on learning of all these deaths at once and then the contemplation I fell into about this new knowledge. I remembered some of the dead and have presented a few images of them, just to cast the light of memory on a moment or two of their lives. The moments I remember are by the nature of memory—mine anyway—ones that stand out because of something out of the ordinary in my experience, and thus they are not at all of the sort to give a full and undistorted picture of the person. Should any of my surviving classmates read this (and I know at least one will), I request you not to ask me about the identity of any of the people in these memories. Read the names and see what images your own memory pulls up. As far as relevance to the lives of those dead classmates goes, I could have made up my memories. To me these memories made the people real again, though, and let me experience more intensely the knowledge that they have left this world forever, trailblazers for the rest of us in the class, whose names will all surely join theirs on the list of the departed within the next three decades.