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You CAN Go Home Again but Beware of Great Expectations

September 15, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

To Thomas Wolfe's admonition that "you can't go home again," I would add one important cavil: It depends on your expections. If you expect too much or too little, it probably won't work.

Expecting too much sets you up for disappointment unless your ability to fantasize can protect you from whatever realities you find. And if you expect too little, you shouldn't go at all. This kind of defense has to be put away. One of the exhilarations of "going home again" is the risk of disappointment. If you need to protect yourself from that risk up front, forget it.

The catalyst for my trip was my 50th high school reunion in Ft. Wayne, Ind. It took place the other weekend--a warm, funny, boring, exhilarating, dismaying, puzzling and altogether endearing 3-day bash that on balance was enormously successful. But before the big event took place, I was batting about .500 in the disappointment department.

Among the disappointments: I spent half a day on the University of Iowa campus searching for signs of the place I remembered from Navy preflight training. I drew a complete blank. Nothing looked familiar, and I had no recollection of a river bisecting the campus, which it assuredly does now. I felt totally disoriented until I let the memory go and allowed my senses to respond to the beautiful campus I was exploring.

Comiskey Park, where the Chicago White Sox play their home games, was my haven for almost a decade starting in the mid-1940s. I remembered it with great warmth as a kind of spiritual and aesthetic oasis on Chicago's grubby South Side. I should have left it that way, but I didn't. I went. And what I saw was a derelict ballpark--tired, down at the heels, wearing a new coat of paint as embarrassing as makeup on a gargoyle. Sad.

Many of the neighborhoods in my hometown--once groomed and protected fiercely against the encroachments of weather and age and the poverty of the Great Depression--have turned into ugly, even squalid places. Not all of them--but enough to depress.

On the positive side, the small towns in northern Indiana look just as they always have--and, one hopes and expects, always will. Islands of at least superficial stability. Front porch swings that creak and are used every summer evening. Resplendent town squares around beautifully sculpted courthouses. Friendliness and a kind of ingenuousness that makes sophistication look second-rate. And greenery--the wonderful, lush, almost limitless shades of green that grace the Midwest, even in years of drought, and frame every street and lane and highway.

So I went to my reunion with a mixed bag of reactions and expectations--and that's what I got there, too. Thinking about it later, I realized that there are three groups of people with whom we are thrown into close contact with little choice in the matter: family, military associates and schoolmates. We can change jobs or churches or neighborhoods, but in these three areas, what we have is what we get. We can pick and choose among them, of course, and do. But at a class reunion--as at a family reunion--they're all on hand.

More than 300 people attended my 50th class reunion--about 180 of them members of my graduating class. The attrition rate is lower than I expected; almost as many of us were killed in World War II as have died since.

So many easy generalizations can be made. A surprising number--more than half--of these people have spent their lifetimes in Ft. Wayne. Men--for reasons known only to God--age better (at least cosmetically) than women; I recognized many of the men but few of the women.

Much of the talk is superficial and can get awkward. Once you have established identities, you move instantly into two areas--reminiscence of memories you share with that person and an account of what he or she is doing now. And once those two areas are exhausted, unless you can push into uncharted conversational waters, the bond gets tenuous and you both look for other places to start the same conversation.

But on the other side of that coin are the wonderful surprises: the once-close friends who hold up, with whom you can move into new places. And the not-so-close friends with whom you forge new and exciting bonds--and wonder why you didn't recognize these qualities in them many years ago.

Both of those things happened to me, and they were enormously rewarding. The program at the reunion dinner was funny--half a dozen surviving teachers of the Class of '38 introduced, the surviving members of our state championship basketball team canonized anew, an emcee telling the same jokes he told in 1938, the dean of a major university sociology department and a federal judge leading the crowd in a cheer and the school song.

But the substance I bring back with me is the feeling of tradition, of permanence, of having belonged--and the surprising and exhilarating knowledge that some of these people I knew so well so long ago are people I would like to know again today.

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