Last weekend I traveled back to my hometown of Paducah, Kentucky, for my 40th high school reunion. That’s right, my fortieth! That’s the new thirty, right? Not only was it reunion weekend, it was Barbeque on the River! I don’t know how anyone from our class wouldn’t have wanted to be there. And there’s no such thing as too much barbeque!
Paducah is a smallish river town – about 25,000 people – that is located about halfway between Nashville, Tennessee, and St. Louis, Missouri. At the foot of Broadway, the Tennessee River meets the Ohio, and there’s a floodwall covered with beautiful murals depicting the history of our city. The town was laid out by William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark Expedition) in 1827, and it’s named for the Chickasaw Indian chief, Paduke. It’s the home of a gaseous diffusion/uranium enrichment plant (aka ‘the Bomb Factory’) that was built in 1950 and operated then by Union Carbide. It’s no accident that my class, born at the height of the baby boom, was the largest ever. Although numbers vary, about 423 other people graduated when I did from Paducah Tilghman High School. Other than being a big class, our claim to fame was that we were BAD. Oh, yeah, back then, there was none of the molly-coddling self-esteem stuff going on. At my junior high graduation, they told us we were the worst class ever. Same for the other junior high school in town. When we all started at Tilghman, we were double trouble! So, not to prove our elders wrong, we did our best to live up to that billing! Funny, forty years later, that is one of the most prevalent collective memories of our class. Moral: pay attention to the words you use when dealing with young adults.
Amazingly enough, most of us managed to live to adulthood and stay out of jail, and many of us are even gainfully employed! As you might expect, many pounds have been gained and much hair has been lost. Wrinkles are more prevalent than grandchildren, although not by much. We’ve had divorces and deaths, but several high school sweethearts are still happily married. What’s really amazing to me is that even though the years seem to melt away when we are all in the same place together, we don’t go back to our high school cliques and immaturity. Even though we look past our current looks and see each other as we were then, we also see each other for the people we have become. Gone are the lines that used to divide us into the jocks, the nerds, the hoods, the popular kids, the mean girls – you know the groups. We’re just ‘kids’ who were lucky enough to grow up in Paducah and share a lifetime of memories. Or at least 18 years’ worth!
Even the rest of this song’s lyrics don’t really apply, over and over last weekend I thought of this song by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton – “You Can’t Make Old Friends”. How true is that? The people you grew up with are unlike any other friends you will make or have for the rest of your life. They knew you when, and they love you now. How cool is that? I’m grateful for the childhood I had – it really was a “Leave It to Beaver”/Donna Reed/Father Knows Best” kind of life from a simpler time. Part of me wishes my kids could have grown up in a place where they could ride their bikes all over town, or catch the city bus on Saturday morning, ride downtown, spend their allowance, have lunch at Kresge’s or Walgreen’s, see a movie, and ride the bus back home, hours later. Or where they could have walked to school from kindergarten through ninth grade, knowing that if they’d gotten in trouble at school, there would be more trouble at home and the news would have beat them there. I wish they could have known what it was like to get up at 6 AM on summer mornings, ride their bikes to swim team and back, and then spend the day at the Country Club pool until the street lights came on – the universal signal for “time to be home!”. At the age my kids had cell phones, I was still ‘talking’ to my neighbors on our tin can phone stretched from our tree house to their carport. My kids never had the good fortune to learn the lessons of patience and courtesy that those of us who grew up in one-bathroom homes came by naturally. Heck, they never even shared a bedroom until they went to college! You can tell that my friends and I did a lot of reminiscing from my nostalgic musings here. We did, and it was awesome! The best thing is that we know exactly how lucky we were to have been born when and where we were.
I hope your childhood and high school memories are as fond as mine are, and I hope you NEVER miss a high school reunion! And for those of you who live in the towns you grew up in – NO EXCUSES – go to your reunions! People you haven’t seen in years came a long way to see you. You won’t be sorry you went.
Here are some photos of my hometown, my high school, and my friends:
p2P Blueprint Zebras