My summer of 1977 was bookended by Harry and Elvis. Harry Whittaker, the President of our Senior Class at College High School, always had a way of making you feel better than you had the right to feel about yourself. We were talking, just hours removed from walking across the stage to receive our diplomas. We reminisced and shared some parting words, and he wished me well in life. As we shook hands, Harry slipped me a five-dollar bill, settling a wager we had made about some game I can’t even remember now. It was his way of saying goodbye with a blessing of goodwill.
I went off to college at the end of that summer, listening to Elvis sing about a river flowing surely to the sea. He was suddenly gone, along with all those innocent summers of youth. Summer was the time that we tried to make sense of life. We had the 3 R’s down cold from school. But we learned a fourth R in summer. Rhetoric. We composed and argued and formulated life as rhetoricians each summer, trying to wrap our minds around those ideas we learned in school. In other words, we were trying to validate ourselves. Some of us did so eloquently while others simply played in the woods. Which is a pretty good place to argue about life, especially since there were no adults within earshot.
When my children were still young enough to be impressionable, I took them to this place in the woods behind our old home because I wanted to show them where I flipped over the handlebars of my motorcycle and ran my bike over a black snake. This was a kingdom unto itself, where the tough kids went to smoke, where the nerdy kids went to catch crawdads, and where some went just to be alone. It was the wild place my brother visited after he was baptized, just like Jesus when he went into the wilderness for forty days to contemplate what was to come. My brother went there after the perfunctory baptismal banana split celebration at Braums, filled his banana split boat with sticks, and floated it down the creek as he considered his decision to plunge into the watery depths with Christ.
The paths we trod upon as children in that wood each summer helped form our personalities, careers, and ideas of how we would spend our time one day as taller humans. School was important, but we needed summer to become ourselves. We were a band of children forming our own body politik with customs and powers and beliefs and ever evolving oral mythologies. We were formulating and persuading and having fun, but eventually, it was time to return to school.
It’s funny the things we think are important when we are in school. Deciding on a college major, improving your G.P.A, or just finding a date on a Friday night. Sometimes what I think is most important are simply the moments I shared with people I loved. People like Harry and Carol Lynn.
The summer of 1977 was the last time I saw Carol Lynn. I was awkward and shy while she was unapproachably beautiful, at least to me. I don’t remember speaking to Carol Lynn before I became her “little brother” in Sue Smith’s Family Living class. We became friends despite our differences. Carol Lynn was a Pom girl and I was the golfer with unkempt hair and Sansa-belt slacks.
That summer, we were alone on a paddle boat in the middle of Sunset Lake, drifting aimlessly and talking about things that a boy and girl talk about when they are eighteen and alone and everything is still possible, while Seals and Crofts song, We May Never Pass This Way Again, played on the jukebox in my mind.
All the secrets in the universe, Whisper in our ears
And all the years, come and go…
We must gather all our courage…
Sail our ships out on the open sea…
Seals & Croft 1973
These days, Sunset Lake seems small. But that summer, on that paddle boat with Carol Lynn, with our lives stretched out before us like an unwritten poem, it seemed like an endless ocean.
College High School Class of 1977: 40th reunion