MADISON, WISC. -- Since the West High Class of 1967 represented the boomingest of the baby boomers, it was only appropriate that one guy among us was nicknamed Boomer. His real name was Bob Rennebohm, one of those names by which old Madison was defined, and one that brings back strong memories of my high school days: Rennies. Old No. 9 down the hill from school at the corner of University and Highland. Cherry Cokes. Lime Cokes. Lemon Cokes. Heavily buttered Grilled Danishes on those pink plastic dishes. Bucky Burgers. A little petty theft from the candy counter now and then.
When my wife Linda, who was in the same class, encountered Bob Rennebohm during the first night of our 20th high school reunion this summer, she asked the essential question.
"Hey, Bob," she said. "What happened to all the Rennebohms?"
"Well," he began, "my sister Jane is in ..."
A logical response, but not what Linda was expecting. She meant the Rennebohms' drugstores. The ones that are office buildings now, and the ones that became Walgreens and took out the big grills, speckled red counter stools and slippery Formica booths. We left Madison 12 years ago, and in the last four years our parents moved as well, so now the main connection we have with our home town is in our minds. What we remember. And that is what Linda was asking about on the first night of our reunion. She was asking, in effect: Hey, what happened to our past?
Some parts of it, we learned as we drove around town, are forever gone. The elm trees that once formed a lush green archway down Regent Street from Speedway to Breese Terrace have been replaced by spindlings. The racks of dirty magazines have been yanked from Mickies Dairy Bar. College kids now live in the house I grew up in on Regent at the dead end of Lathrop. Gimbels is now Marshall Fields. Kids can't hang out at Rennies anymore. The old McDonald's on University Avenue is a parking lot. The statue garden is missing from the side yard of Lombardino's restaurant. The rolling green field on what was once the western edge of the city is now paved and shadowed by Memorial High and West Towne.
But by the end of our reunion weekend it seemed unimportant that these icons had physically disappeared. In sentiment, we had found our Madison, and it had found us. We discovered that the names and places of our youth are in our souls -- always. Blood is thicker than water, and this city, West High, and the more than 600 members of our graduating class are blood; every face, even the ones that I could barely recognize, even the ones to which I could never put a name, even the ones whose sight long ago filled me with fear or shyness.
In a sense even the water here is blood. Mendota, Monona, Wingra, Kegonsa, Waubesa. It is like a mantra to those of us who left. A few weeks ago, one of our friends and old classmates, David Foster, who lives in New York, called us in Texas and kept repeating the lake names as a sort of warm-up for our return. Mendota takes me to Picnic Point, the Willows and the Union Terrace. Monona evokes the old three-sided pier and diving board of B.B. Clark. Wingra goes the furthest back -- to warm water, red-and-white ropes, ice cream sandwiches, radios blaring WLS from Chicago and, across the lake, to a boys-only diving tree that we called Sunova Beach.
And all of the names take me back to the algae. God how I love the feel of that stuff. It was pure ecstasy for me this time when I dived off the Edgewater Hotel pier and touched bottom, my toes slipping around on a rock. Madison, I thought -- this squishy, slimy feeling is only Madison.
The weekend was like a long dream sequence in which pleasant memories gushed over me in waves. I never really liked high school, but somehow the reunion brought back only good memories, none of the bad or boring ones. And that seemed to be the way most of my classmates felt; there were a lot of people walking around with goofy smiles on their faces, including several friends who at first told me they had absolutely no interest in the event.
Very few people talked about jobs, houses, schools, the acquisition of material goods. Of all the people I became reacquainted with over the weekend, only one or two opened with the question: "What do you do?" In Washington, where we've spent most of the last decade, people ask that before they say hello. The two most common personal questions at the reunion seemed to be, "Where do you live?" and "Are you happy?"
One old schoolmate would do well in the nation's capital. He came up to me and said, "I hear there are only three people from our class who really made it after high school, and you're one of them." I took it as a compliment until I heard him say the same thing to at least 10 others. This fellow was still single and on the prowl -- I don't know why he was wasting his lines on me. I guess I should tell you what Mr. Success does for a living.
He's a prosecuting attorney.
Most of the conversations were about old teachers, romances, hangouts, nicknames. (My high school nickname was "Murray" -- a bastardization of an older nickname, "Mary," short for Maraniss. I used to hate to be called Murray; even though my friends might have been saying it out of affection, to me it always had a condescending ring to it. But when I walked into the reunion cocktail party and someone shouted "Murray!" it almost brought tears to my eyes.)
It was like a convention of hopeless sentimentalists. Since this is the only 20th high school reunion I've ever been to, I can't say whether 1967 graduates are particularly sentimental or whether it is a trait common to such gatherings. The fact that nearly half of our class came back says something, since the average return rate here is said to be about 10 to 25 percent.
Our class, in retrospect, was quite innocent. The '60s as people now think of the decade (hippies, dope, protest) really did not begin until the summer after our senior year. In high school we felt some stirrings of rebellion, but didn't quite know where to direct them. So we tripped in the hallways and dropped books and threw mashed potatoes against the cafeteria wall, but rarely expressed ourselves politically. It still embarrasses me to remember how two of my classmates -- the Ylitalo twins, Susan and Sally -- were scorned by teachers and students for writing an article criticizing the fact that no blacks were involved in an exchange program we had with Little Rock Central High School, one of the symbols of southern racism.
My main criticism of the west side of Madison, then and now, had to do with its inbreeding and homogeneity. Our class at West had only two blacks -- one of them an African exchange student. The only Hispanics in our class were Linda Urrutia and Freddy Meyer, whose mother was from Mexico City, and it wasn't until after they left high school that they felt comfortable expressing their heritage. In college, Freddy became Pablo. There were only 14 Jewish kids in our class, not including me, a half-Jew. I sensed a certain amount of anti-Semitism, so I'm sure the others did, too.
But I would say that our class has gotten better with age. It seems that as a group we've become more progressive, open to different ideas and cultures. It is easy to disparage people of our generation for selling out to middle-class life styles after the '60s, but that is really a narrow way of looking at history. We should not be compared with our college years, but with the culture from which we came -- the Madison of the early and middle 1960s. That was a more reactionary place than people might want to remember.
In preparation for the reunion, the organizing committee sent out a questionnaire asking us about our marriages, children, jobs, the cities we've lived in, our favorite athletes, movies and political leaders, personal fantasies and things we'd do differently. The answers were not particularly juicy, but to me they were reassuring.
John F. Kennedy was far and away the all-time favorite politician, and Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Pat Paulson, George McGovern and Madison counterculture hero Edward Ben Elson got as many or more votes than Ronald Reagan. The two things we would have done differently if given a second chance were read more and study harder. The advice was heavy on the theme of lighten up, life is short, money can't buy happiness. In other words, there didn't seem to be too many self-centered jerks in our class. Our parents, our city, deserve some credit for that, which is really what inspired me to write this story, a love song of sorts, a measure of thanks from a native son.
On the third day of the reunion, at a Sunday picnic, I realized that the essence of my Madison goes back further than West High and West Junior High. The core for me is Randall School. I moved here in the summer between second and third grades, and the first person I met here, a funny-looking towhead with a black patch over his eye, was Frank Roloff, who is still one of my closest friends. And he is just one of many friends that I still have from grade school. There was something about the big red brick school in the old part of the near west side that was special, so special that on that final afternoon of our 20th high school reunion 30 of us gathered for a Randall School class picture.
We stood there, arm in arm, children again, sons and daughters of Madison, and sang our grade school song.
There's a school at 10 North Spooner Street
Randall. It's Randall
You'll find this school is hard to beat
Randall, Randall School
Shouting loud and clear
A cheer we raise for Randall
We work with a vim and we never give in
We are out to win for Randall
Leading the way, as always; and me, trying to harmonize. We shouted loud and clear. A cheer we raised for Randall. And for West High School, the Class of 1967. And for the Madison of our childhoods. Our blood. Nothing can change it.