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Class of '76 Got Chatty

Before their 30-year reunion, the author and scores of Claremont High classmates went online to really get to know one another.

July 08, 2006|Terril Yue Jones | Times Staff Writer

We became a notorious crook, a movie star, a cartoonist. We broke gender barriers, designed nuclear weapons and cleared the skies after Sept. 11.

And across time and distance, we became friends.

As Claremont High School's class of 1976 geared up for its 30-year reunion today, the teenagers who went on to become teachers, cops, car salesmen, lawyers, architects and pilots reconnected over the last couple of months with technology none of us could have imagined then -- and all of us take for granted today.

A couple hundred of us are in touch on the Internet. We reflect on coming of age in the mid-70s in eastern Los Angeles County -- in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam War era of civil rights and equal rights, when Gerald Ford was president and disco ruled the airwaves.

This online "preunion" allowed us to recount our successes and failures, showcase our families, lament our expanding waistlines and receding hairlines. As we swapped ancient memories, we got to know again -- or for the first time -- classmates with whom we shared our youth.

I missed out on knowing many of them the first time around. I spent my senior year in Japan with my family while my professor father took a sabbatical. To make up for it, I started a chat group on Yahoo that now includes almost half of our class of 500.

E-mail exchanges have blossomed on the subjects of teachers we despised and loved -- sometimes going back to kindergarten -- teenage crushes and first kisses, life's embarrassing moments, disabled children, politics, freedom of speech, corporate greed and global warming.

The semi-anonymity of our cyber-conversations has encouraged people to open up. One pal recalled his reddest-faced moment in high school, when someone stole his jockstrap and hung it up in English class, its owner's name emblazoned in big block letters. Others spoke of brushes with life-threatening illness.

So when we get together today at Claremont's Cahuilla Park, we'll be able to dispense with many of the usual pleasantries. We'll know what so-and-so has been doing all these years. With luck, we'll be able to do what is rarely possible at high school reunions: form new bonds. Thirty years ago, we felt immortal and unique. Now, as we close in on 50, we feel our mortality -- at least 18 classmates have died -- and recognize that, for all the things that make each of us special, we are more alike than different.

"I've learned so much more about the people I spent my childhood with, and who they've turned into, than I ever could have at an ordinary reunion party," said Eric Daniels, whose lifelong fascination with movies and art led to a career as an animator. He won a technical achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2003. "People who wouldn't spend two minutes with me in a roomful of people with drinks in their hands are opening up about deep, personal things.

"I find it much more fascinating than the inevitable who- looks-more-like-hell-than-whom comparisons or struggling to put that I-recognize-you expression on your face when, in fact, you don't. I think this virtual reunion has gone a long way toward breaking down the social walls that we, perhaps unwittingly, erected 30 years ago.

"I mean, hey, I've actually had conversations with our cheerleaders."

Hundreds of high school graduating classes mark their 30-year anniversaries every year in Southern California. But this class in the unassuming, leafy college town of Claremont always felt it was different.

We were situated among the Claremont Colleges, which many saw as bestowing a lively intellectual cachet on our cultural oasis amid L.A.'s suburban sprawl.

Plus, we were the class of 1976, graduating on the bicentennial. It was a presidential election year, an Olympic year, the year "Disco Duck" by Rick Dees & His Cast of Idiots and "Disco Lady" by Johnnie Taylor hit No. 1 on the Billboard magazine charts -- though so did the syrupy "Afternoon Delight" by the Starland Vocal Band and "I Write the Songs" by Barry Manilow.

We felt the class had a spirit of '76 running through it. Claremont High's class of 1975 didn't even have a 30th reunion.

Until three months ago, not having a reunion would have been fine with Ben Waldman, who said he in effect flunked as a junior and left Claremont High a year early, earning credits at Citrus Community College before getting a GED.

He hardly looked back and didn't count any high school contemporaries among his close friends. But like me, he has made fast friends online with people whom he never had spoken to in high school.

"Music, art, travel, science, politics are all discussed with passion and knowledge," said Waldman, who went on to work in Ronald Reagan's White House and served as televangelist and presidential candidate Pat Robertson's press deputy. "It is said that small people talk about people, average people talk about things and big people talk about ideas. This is a group of big people."

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