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60 Years Later, the Old School Ties Still Bind

August 08, 1994|JACK SMITH | Jack Smith's column is published Mondays

The reunion of the Belmont High School classes of Winter and Summer 1934 was an unqualified success.

We had about 100 guests in our house--classmates of mine and their spouses.

We had hired a valet parking service, figuring our hill would be too steep for our visitors, and my wife had rented four sets of tables and chairs to be sure that people would have a place to sit down. As usual at large parties, most people congregated in the living areas of the house, around the punch bowl, so to speak, ignoring the outside tables.

The party consisted mostly of nostalgic conversation, whoops of recognition, hugs and a few tears.

We even sang the old school alma mater:

There's a school of beauty rare

On top of old Crown Hill,

We're never shy, it's Belmont High. . . .

My wife and I were astonished that so many people came, that so many of my classmates were still alive, still active, still enthusiastic--some of them still beautiful. There were a few signs of frailty. One walker, several canes, including mine. But most of the guests were on their feet and bouncy.

I won't mention any names. I would have to leave some out, and nobody should be left out.

As I sat in my chair greeting old friends, inevitably I thought of those old days. They were hard Depression years. I started at Belmont as a sophomore, having done my freshman year at Whittier High School. I lived with my mother and father in the Prince Rupert apartments at the foot of the hill, near the Mayfair Hotel.

I was a good student. I got straight A's in Latin and English, although I wasn't so good in geometry and science. We had a senile geometry teacher who especially disliked me. He always punctuated his rambling dissertations with the word portion , whose meaning in his context no one ever understood. He would often stare at me and then throw a piece of chalk at me.

My journalism teacher, as I have said here, knew nothing about journalism, and we made her life miserable. Nevertheless, that's where I got my start, being editor of the Belmont Sentinel.

Our principal, Mr. Benshimol, was a stern but compassionate man. He tried to make gentlemen of us boys. He decreed that we must wear neckties every day. I both obeyed and protested this rule by coming to school in a bright red satin shirt with a bright orange necktie.

In my senior year I was center on the lightweight (Class B) basketball team. I was high point man for the year with a total of 48 points in six games. (Michael Jordan used to make 48 points in one game.)

In the beginning my family was prosperous. My father was in the investment business. He drove a Graham-Paige, which I often borrowed to take girls to the dances. It was an impressive chariot.

Later my father bought me a 1929 Ford roadster. That day I became a man. As the Depression deepened, my father's business went downhill. Finally it collapsed entirely and he skipped, leaving my mother and me destitute. I had to sell the Ford. We moved in with my sister, who lived in Long Beach. She had a lovely contralto voice and had a sustaining program on KFOX, making $25 a week. We lived on it.

The 1933 earthquake wrecked Long Beach Poly High, and I dropped out of school until the next semester, when we moved back to L.A. and I went back to Belmont. My grades were a shambles. I had been an A student in Latin. I flunked. My Latin teacher cried.

I continued to get A's in English, and my English teacher, a Miss Keyes, told me: "Boy, you can write." I think those words of encouragement steered me into my career.

In time my father came back to rejoin society and re-established himself in real estate in Bakersfield. He wanted to put me through college. My career at Bakersfield College was spotty. I did become editor of the college newspaper, the Renegade Rip, which further defined my future. I dropped out of college to work as a sportswriter on the Bakersfield Californian and am still trying to write.

Looking through my Belmont yearbook during the party, I couldn't help noticing that all the girls, as well as the teachers, wore dresses considerably below the knee--in fact, just above the ankles. Those skirts were uniformly unattractive. At the same time, other pictures showed the same girls wearing shorts on the basketball court, their long legs flashing quite unshielded. I didn't understand it then, and I don't understand it now.

At about 2 o'clock on Sunday, the day after the party, a classmate of mine appeared at our doorway with his wife.

"Do you know where Jack Smith lives?" his wife asked.

After 60 years, they were 24 hours late.

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