There are several things about a fiftieth high school reunion that set it apart from others. First off, you no longer recognize your former classmates. It is amazing how white hair changes a person. Then there is the knowledge that there may not be a sixtieth, and if there is, the number of attendees will be sharply reduced.
The Okemos High School class of 1959 consisted of 74 graduates. When we graduated, Okemos was going through the painful transition from a small farming community to a suburban bedroom for Lansing, Michigan. One building still housed grades K through 12.
Many of us were born in 1940, which makes us neither war babies nor, strictly speaking, Depression babies. I have vague memories of the war—ration cards, my father crushing used tin cans to be used in the war effort, and I vividly remember either V-E day or V-J day as we drove around with hundreds of others honking horns to celebrate the war’s end.
We grew to maturity in the fifties and were called the Silent Generation because we had withdrawn into our private cocoons and desired only marriage and a career. Conformity ruled, and we lived in a middle-class bubble in which both thought and behavior were circumscribed by rules as unwritten as they were inflexible.
Sex was out since it would lead to pregnancy, public disgrace and eternal damnation. Nobody ever discussed sex; it wasn’t necessary because it simply wasn’t done. It was also the age of the synthetic chastity belt—the Playtex panty girdle.
We clung to the cocoons for two reasons: the threat of atomic annihilation and McCarthy. We lived in dread of saying or thinking something that might brand us as a “fellow traveler,” so it was better to focus on the mundane and trivial because too much critical thinking might get you into trouble.
I have always suspected that those of us born in 1940 were the last of the Victorians. By this we have vivid memories of grandparents who grew up at the height of the era. My grandfather, for example, was born in 1873 in Utrecht. I remember that even in retirement he would rise every day and put on a starched white shirt and necktie. (During the years I wandered the valleys of depression and booze it was often the image of that starched shirt and three-piece woolen suit that kept me on this side of sanity.)
At the same time, cracks were beginning to appear in our middle-class bubble. The sixties began in the fifties. Rock ‘n Roll opened the assault. Its raucous beat heralded the arrival of the scourge of “juvenile delinquency” and all the horrors of “The Blackboard Jungle.” Both were simply the intrusion of working class energy into the sedate world of the middle class. This is why both frightened our parents so.
The high school class of 1959 was a watershed class. Many of my classmates took the standard marriage/career route, though most of the marriages ended in divorce. Some took a different path. For at least one, this path was self destructive.
The one thing the reunion brought home to me was that whatever path we took, we were neither labels nor demographics, but a wonderful group of human beings who had survived into our late sixties.