Sunday, October 5, 2008

Face to Face

A warning to our classmates who are about to reunite after 50 years!
by Charlie Leck and Fred Kamm.

Reality settles in after 50 years apart! It is quite an astonishing thing to come face to face with an old friend – a classmate – for the first time since we were teenagers – for the first time in fifty years (yes, 50 years).

It was a Saturday morning in early October. I was sitting in the little lobby of a comfortable hotel in a Denver suburb. I saw him swoop in through the front door. He stopped quite suddenly when he saw me and I read something in his face. Was it hysteria? Perhaps, it was incredulity. It may even have been horror.

Holy shit! Did I just walk into a horror movie? Old age is one thing, but poor Charlie. Had he been in a car wreck? So that’s what happens when face meets windshield at 70 mph.

Freddy was not what I had expected. He had been a soft, delicate looking guy in high school. He had innocent eyes and a glib smile. Sure, back then he was a little rounded on the edges and appeared squat. But now, he was old, rugged and worn looking –rounded on the edges and squat. My first thought was that I needed to tell him how ridiculously different he looked. I wanted to warn him that he might not want to show at the coming 50th reunion of our class. It could be embarrassing!

I stood. I heard my knees crack and I had a stiff ache in the middle of my back. My first steps forward were not really secure ones. I had a hand stuck out in front of me and I was trying to smile as widely as I could, to hide the sense of shock in my face.

He had both arms out and he was also struggling with a smile. His eyes gave him away, however, and I could see he was stunned by something.

I was stunned by something! I remembered what Charlie looked like 50 years ago. Of course I remembered! How couldn’t I. He kept sending me pictures of himself from the yearbook. And he was pretty good looking back then…sort of like a young prize fighter… after 8 tough rounds. And I always liked that tough street kid look.

I could see that the knuckles of his fingers were bulging and swollen. Instead of shaking hands, we hugged and I patted him soundly on the back. He was greeting me with an aged voice that was crackling and coarse. My friend, this kid who used to play some of the damnedest, most immature practical jokes on all of us, was now an old man. I was embarrassed. What the hell?

What could I say to him? What had happened? I wonder if he’d be insulted if I gave him the name of a good plastic surgeon?

We stepped back and looked at each other. He said something he thought was funny about only knowing me now because my nose was still big and I still had those bulging blue eyes. That didn’t sit too well with me. When I looked in the mirror each day, I still saw that quite good-looking kid who strolled the halls of Roxbury High School with an ice-cream-eating grin on his face. Hell, I was the kid that the McGregor Clothing Manufacturer, over in Dover, chose to come and model clothing for them at their buyers’ conventions. Same old guy I saw in the mirror!

In backing up, my foot tangled with the leg of the chair I had been sitting on. I lost my balance and I collapsed heavily on to the seat, catching myself with a hand against the table to prevent any further fall. Fred was shaking his head and his face flushed red. I thought he might be having a hot-flash of some sort.

I was blushing…thinking about how cute Charlie used to be when he dressed up in those sissy clothes.

He refused a cup of coffee and said we ought to “roll.” He wanted to get over to the dog-park where we could walk ‘Buddy and Puppy.’ We could have a nice brunch after we walked the dogs, he said. He sauntered ahead of me, toward the door and the parking lot. His body was hunched a bit and his shoulders rolled forward. He walked like a man with tender ankles. He was an old man now and I wondered if I should really have brought along the camera that I carried in my hand. I didn’t want to embarrass him.

I had a nice rental car and I offered to drive. I got terribly nervous when I was riding along with older drivers.

“No,” Fred insisted, “you don’t want my dogs in your car.”

When I saw the size of Puppy, a massive Great Dane, I agreed with Fred. Let him drive.

Here we were in the van…the four of us. Charlie and I, Buddy the chocolate lab and Puppy…150 pounds if very masculine Great Dane. I think Charlie was getting nervous as Puppy checked him. Hmm, Puppy was drooling.

I was chatting rapidly as the car rolled along. I guess it was a nervous stammering. I was trying to hide the sense of embarrassment I still felt. Is this what 50 years really does to some people? Yellowing teeth! Reddened eyes! Sagging skin! Enlarged ears! Jowls! To keep from staring at him, I tried to fix my eyes on the road ahead. My arthritis was acting up and I tried to squirm into a more comfortable position. I farted. I hadn’t expected it to be so loud.

“Jesus,” Fred said tartly.

Suggesting it was a little warm in the car, I cracked a window just a bit. Fred forced his window open more widely.

“Dogs are a little stinky,” I said. Fred laughed sarcastically.

God, Charlie must have eaten one of those imitation Mexican burritos they have in Minnesota.

It was a beautiful Colorado morning. Fred’s big van swung around turns and moved in determination toward the park.

“I’m getting current photographs of lots of our classmates,” I said to him. “You know, for the reunion booklet I’m putting together. Wait ‘til you see them. They sure have gotten old. Some of us are still looking young and good, though. You should see Marion! She looks great. So do Val and Joannie and Barb Hegedus. Per is as handsome as he was in high school and George List still looks great. Some of us hold on to it okay.”

Oh really, Per is as handsome as he was in high school? I always liked that Scandinavian street boy look…

“Frankie Pasquale looks good, too. Old, but good! Connie passed away. What a good looking chick she was, heh? Kenny Freund still looks young and handsome. Hopper still looks good, too. Charlie Apostolik looks as Greek as a guy can be. Imagine! Charlie had that sweet, innocent face. Now he’s rugged and tough looking. George Fischer’s a Methodist preacher. He’s got a thick, rugged looking beard. He looks like the Pope in his robes and all. He’s got some years on him, man, but he looks distinguished in those gowns. Ginny O’Rourke is as funny as ever. I talked to her on the phone. She never stops laughing. She must be on something! Carol Rademacher looks pretty good, too, and so does Readie.”

Steneck and Peg are academics, you know. They’re always busy going to seminars and conferences all over the world. We knew it – even way back then, didn’t we?”

“Paula and Charlie got a divorce. Never figured that one. She remarried. She’s lookin’ good, man. Liz Metzger looks great, too. Spent most of her life coaching. I guess we could have gotten that figured right, too.”

I was still chattering on wildly, afraid to slow down. Maybe if I told him about more of the kids who still looked great, he’d see why he probably shouldn’t go. The car was pulling into a parking lot. The dogs grew excited. I saw some young woman jogging along a path. It was good to see someone young. It regenerated me.

Something’s wrong here. “ Kenny Freund still looks young and handsome. Hopper still looks good, too. Charlie Apostolik looks as Greek as a guy can be.” Hopper never looked that good!

The car was safely parked and we struggled out of it and took the dogs down a long a narrow path that led deeper into the thick, rustic park. Buddy and Puppy were excited and they moved quickly along the path. My knees began to burn. I wanted to stop for a short rest, but Fred and his dogs kept plunging ahead. I didn’t want to show any signs of weakness, so I pushed forward too.

He said something to me. Was it a question? I didn’t quite hear him. I didn’t want to speak at the moment. I was breathing quite hard and I knew he’d hear my gasps if I spoke, so I turned, as if to look around, and stopped, as if I needed to in order to properly examine the surroundings. I caught my breath.

“Great park,” I said quickly, still looking away.

“What’d you say?” he shouted to me. “I have a little trouble hearing you know. You’ve got to speak up. You’re mumbling.”

Why was he mumbling? Maybe the plastic surgeon could help with those big floppy lips.

We got to the shore of a rapidly moving stream. The dogs went down to it to play. It gave us a chance to pause and I relished the rest.

Fred explained the creek and told me where it came from and how much the dogs liked to play in it. I let him go on and on while my breathing returned to normal.

I began to look at Fred more clearly as he talked about the park and the stream that rolled through it. He began to come into focus, so to speak. He didn’t appear too old at all. His eyes still had a sparkle. His ears were actually almost normal. The hair growing in his nose didn’t seem so distracting.

“You’re lookin’ good too, man,” I said to him. “You’ll do all right at the reunion. Everyone will know you. You’ll do fine.”

I began remembering. I was transported back to the hallways of Roxbury High School. I could see the sweet, young girls in their crinolined skirts, soft sweaters and saddle shoes. The boys had swirled waves glued in place in the hair over their foreheads. Somewhere down the hallway, Nancy Wallace was screaming and laughing. Locker doors banged shut. A handful of girls ran to get to a classroom on time. They giggled loudly as they went. Some massive football players spread out across the hallway to impede their progress. Their giggling increased. The boys provided a slim crack in their ranks to let the girls squeeze through one at a time. Fred, Nick and Kenny were walking a few steps ahead of me. Rog moved up beside me and put a hand on my shoulder. He asked if I was ready for the test that Mrs. Call planned to give us. I looked over at him and made a clicking sound with my cheek and winked. It was something my old man did.

Drew Lindstedt hollered from way down the hallway.

“Hurry up you guys! The bell’s gonna ring!”

Freddy pushed one of his hands high into the air, giving Lindstedt the finger. We all laughed as if it was the funniest thing in the world. Then, following Fred’s lead, we all slowed our pace a bit, as if to show we weren’t afraid of any English teacher.

Fred was our master of ceremonies. Our yearbook called him the teachers’ nightmare. He wasn’t. He made them laugh the same way he humored us. They loved him and we did, too.

When we got to the end of the hall, where Lindstedt was standing, we each gave him the finger, holding it up against our chest as we passed by him and into the classroom. Lindstedt never stopped smiling and he took our hand gesture as a compliment – a sign of affection.

Suddenly I was back there in the park, standing quietly and watching the dogs frolicking in the water. Freddy was laughing at them and calling to them. He was the same old Freddy. Fifty years and nothing’s changed. He was looking into the stream and thinking seriously about something.

Well, it’s true, 50 years go by, and we all change. I just sat there and remembered all those missed moments. I was smiling now, and drooling.

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