THE SCATTERING WAS almost done. The girl voted most likely to succeed had gone. The rueful dropout who had come back to watch his classmates in their caps and gowns had disappeared. The beefy tackle who once had a Plymouth called the Gusto-mobile that was less a car than a way of life had left with his friends.
The only one who lingered was Jon Kimball, president of his senior class. Of the countless tasks he had assumed for the past year, the last was clearing the graduation stage at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall and loading the flag poles and folding tables into a beat-up yellow station wagon parked by the backstage door. He squeezed into the front seat next to a bass drum. It was hard for him to believe everything was over, done.
Yet it was. The class of '80 at Montgomery County's Walter Johnson High School was no more than 378 faces in a yearbook. And all the seniors whose lives had been woven together for four years were gone.
For the most part they were typical suburban kids who had grown up on the tree-lined streets that wind past single-family homes in north Bethesda. Mainly white, mainly upper middle class, they had sorted themselves into groups, embraced values, dress styles and even friends as elements of still uncrystallized identities.
There was, for instance, Willis Chung, a violin-playing, straight-A computer whiz, the only Walter Johnson senior headed for Harvard.
There was Kris Hughes with black hair and a bouncer's build, a founding member of the Gusto-getters who only drank Schlitz beer and were liminaries on the stretch of Walter Johnson linoleum known as Jock Hall.
There was Lisa McCord, a flaxen-haired blonde who could dance, act, sing, and who was voted most likely to succeed.
There was Greg Milligan, whose blond locks brushed his shoulders and who was once allied with the dope-smoking "freaks" in the front of the school before dropping out.
And then there was the extraordinary Jon Kimball, who hated his wiry brown hair and who worked more than 1,000 hours for a class that half the time could not tell him apart from his twin brother Louis.
Their last week together was a time of powerful feelings that crested in festivity and celebration and plunged in sweet sadness and nostalgia. Slowly it dawned on many seniors that they were leaving more than the tribal life of high school that had had its center inside the red brick walls of "WJ." Something of their own youthfulness was passing too. In the days before the June 9th graduation at the Kennedy Center, they took long lunches, did exams that didn't mean too much, lingered in front of lockers in the halls, made summer plans, partied, reminisced and scribbled foolish pledges of fidelity in their yearbooks.
With five days left they went down a river.
The crowd began to assemble in the parking lot across from Pier 4, where the cruise boat Diplomat lay waiting to carry the senior class down the Potomac and back. It was a breezy Wednesday evening, and as students arrived an impromput party began.
Down by the gangplank Jon Kimball was fretting. Although he had been planning the senior class trip since last August, when he had driven down from Bethesda to inspect the 124-foot, blue-and-white Diplomat, worries, worries, and more worries plagued him. He didn't want anything to go wrong.
Ever since he had become senior class president he had been worrying. His datebook of meetings, things to do, and memory-jogging notes looked like a roadmap of an urban area. Since January, for instance, he had been worried about the boat-trip music that was being staged by Mike Carter, one of the class' premier audiophiliacs who had brought in a professional console with two turntables -- only after Jon had begged for his services.
Wherever Jon Kimball went he cradled a three-inch folder of class affairs. He was the class organizer, promoter, supervisor and impresario. With the Montgomery County superintendent of schools, he co-signed the lease for the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center. Tuxedo companies shipped him samples. His dedication was so unstinting that he even crashed the family Opel for his class one icy winter day trying to get some plates for a class function.
At the Homecoming Dance he could not relax for worrying that everyone else was having fun. He rolled up his sleeves and ladled punch and afterward took down chairs. His date wasn't too happy being with someone who seemed more devoted to a constiuency than to her. She decided to go to the prom with Jon's twin brother Louis, who is such a carbon copy that they sometimes stand in for each other.
With disco music blaring and Klaxon sounding, the class of '80's floating hop got underway. On the upper deck seniors sat at tables spotted around a dance floor awash in light. Down below, Gregg Hand, who wore alligator shirts and alligator socks, leaned on the rail and watched the tangerine sun slip into the trees on Roosevelt Island.
His girl was Lisa McCord, and she was in the bathroom curling her hair. She curled her hair a lot, but Gregg liked her a lot, so he didn't mind waiting. They had gone out before but it didn't happen like it had happened until they kissed Feb. 3, 1980. Since then they'd been inseparable, always kissing when they said goodbye. And they knew each other's locker combinations.
For the last few days before the boat trip Lisa had been walk around in stockinged feet. She was trying to break in her new white prom shoes and half the time she had to take them off and carry them around, they hurt so much.
The secnd half of her year had really picked up, because of Gregg and because she was a blossoming stage star. She was going to sing "Tomorrow" from Annie at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall at graduation Monday. And she already knew that she'd been voted the girl most likely to succeed. Gregg was going to announce the winners on the boat trip, but the two of them and the Kimballs had tallied up the ballots.
The many signs of the end were making Lisa sad. When they had finished counting the votes in all the other categories, she sighed," I wish I could stay this age forever."
Near the stern on the Diplomat's lower deck a platoon of athletes, cheerleaders and assorted party-hounds had established a sea-going replica of Jock Hall -- that stretch of Walter Johnson High's hallway where preppily dressed girls swarmed around sports stars who where mostly busy trading macho quips with each other, or forming gantlets to razz the occasional long-hair bold enough to pass through.
Over the rail and into the river flew cans of Schlitz and Bud. Kris Hughes, the 225-pound tackle, stepped to the rail clutching a bottle of Mogen David 20/20 wine. As a founding member of the Gusto-getters, he usually was partial to Schlitz. "This party is stupendous," said Kris. "Mad Dog, M.D. Yahoo."
If you were a jock who wanted a party on a Friday night, more often than not when you finished blowdrying your hair you got a few cases of the sale-priced beer at Dart Drug along Rockville Pike, motored over to WJ, and parked out back by the auto-shop and the baseball diamonds.
That's what the dozen or so members of the Gusto-getters liked to do in their yellow hats emblazoned with Schlitz patchs. Their transportation, pride, and very nigh their means of self-expression was Kris Hughes' 1970 Plymouth, the Gusto-mobile. The brown Fury, beamy like its owner, had a 383 under the hood. The only extra was a tape deck that crooned Elvis Presley and golden oldies from the '50s while pop tops went pfsst. The night it died was dark indeed.
The club had just gotten big Schlitz decals from a local distributor to paste on the doors. They were cruising around, running over trash cans. Nobody remembers how many Gusto-getters were in the car, but suddenly two tires went flat, and there was no gusto in the spare. They walked home. The next morning the windshield was smashed. The tape deck was gone. Kris got $50 for the car, and the club thought about wearing armbands.
The Diplomat had come about off Mt. Vernon and was headed back up the Potomac toward the lights of Washington. Gregg Hand had announced the winners of the Senior Superlative Awards and handed out the prizes.
"Flash cards, it's embarrassing," said Willis Chung, the WJ wunderkind with jet black bangs and bottle-bottom glasses who won "most intelligent." He went back to a table off the dance floor where several other scholars sat.
Willis was something of a celebrity. During the school year he had held a job at the Bureau of Standards repairing computers and designing programs. He had built two computers of his own. Sometimes he would diagram complex ideas in patterns of electronic circuitry in a sort of personal shorthand.
The academic paragons in the upper fifth of the Walter Johnson senior class generally escaped getting guff for being joyless grinds or dressing out of vogue. Although they never wore Bermuda shorts like jocks, they were mostly left alone. There were few ways you could call someone a brain and make it sound like an insult, especially if you wanted to go to college, too, as most of the hard-partying jocks did. Many of his classmates viewed Willis in outright awe.
His friends remember the time he was handed a calculator whose inferiority only he could have known, and he turned to his supplier with a disgusted look as if to say, "How do you expect me to use this piece of junk?"
The boat hummed on. Mike Carter at the turntables began to mellow dance floor whirlagigs with slow songs. Couples wrapped together swayed as gently as the boat. As he had all night, Jon Kimball prowled the decks proffering bags of pretzels and potato chips. "Food," he cried like a vendor at a ballgame. "Anybody want food?" The class of '80 was talked out and tired. Some stood quietly at the bow, gazing out at the light that glinted off the river.
The Diplomat slid home to its Pier 4 berth before midnight. Jon and Louis stood at the gangplank, saying goodbye as the senior class marched ashore. Their classmates praised the trip profusely. Then Jon walked to his car with his brother. There were still the worries of prom and graduation, but the senior trip was done. "I knew people would like it when we came down here last August to look at this stupid boat," Jon said. "I thought this would be more important than prom."
Friday was the final day of four years of high school. There was an assembly for seniors, who were told to shake with their right hands and take the diploma at Monday's graduation with their left.
Jon Kimball was given a plaque, and even the reclusive principal, a big, silver-haired bear of a man named Donald Reddick, ambled out on stage. He would freely admit that half the students probably didn't know who he was, but it was his laid back style that had set the tone of their education. He liked to describe the school that had been his bailiwick for more than 19 years as a "gentle" place.
In the spectrum of strict to loose, Walter Johnson is at the far end of loose. Students choose their own courses and administrators build the schedule around the selections. The lunch hour is actually an hour long, and students can go off the grounds. That was a privilege the class of '80 had to exercise some self-discipline to retain after merchants at the local shopping center complained. that WJ kids were loitering and getting loud outside their stores. No pass was needed to roam the halls between classes, and the hall monitor was not the sort who would drag a strange face out by the ear.
The atmosphere at WJ was sometimes bemoaned by teachers who thought it made their job more difficult. But a mellow style had long been a characteristic of the school, in part stemming from the liberal values of the highly educated, mostly white professional community WJ serves.
Often the members of the class of '80 came from families where both parents worked at places suchas the National Bureau of Standards or NIH. They had their share of loudmouths and egotists, but they were also distinguised by their leaders and their school pride. Their class gift was another Kimball production -- a bulletin board outside the main office on which each day's events could be posted.
The graduation-rehearsal assembly ended with a slide show of gruesome traffic deaths and an exhortation by a Montgomery policeman not to drink and drive. That night they would be together again -- most of them, anyway -- in the ballroom at the Mayflower Hotel for the Senior Class Prom.
By taxis they came from lavish suppers all over the city. They wobbled into the Mayflower lobby on high heels, wearing white, lavender and yellow gowns with sprigs of baby's breath in their hair and wallet-breaking corsages pinned on their shoulders. Their dates were attired in frilly, rented, zoot suits that ranged from the natty to the preposterous.
Inside the ballroom, overlooked by a dozen second-story balconies, two bands played danceable rock and roll. Round tables were spread with red cloths and decorated with centerpieces. At the rear a long table lay replete with trays of bacon, muffins, eggs and juice that no one who had just come from dinner could take much interest in. Jon Kimball had had the horticulture teacher at WJ help design the floral display.
While Jon, Lisa, Willis, Kris and more than 300 of the senior classmates traced all sorts of merry parabolas on the dance floor, a tall, thin-faced, 18-year-old in a grey tux wouldn't budge from his spot in the lobby, even though the dark-eyed senior named Lelu who had invited him to her prom wanted to go in and dance.
His name was Greg Milligan, and until spring he'd been in the class of '80. The crowd of Frisbee-tossing long-hairs that had been his crowd before he dropped out in March had dwindled over the years at WJ, but those still left prided themselves on the signatures of being a "freak" -- a bandana at the ready, a concern for "ecology," an aversion to nuclear power.
Greg Milligan had quit school, he said, because "spring was coming on and I couldn't see sitting in a classroom slaving away."
Lelu in her turquoise Indian cotton dress scooted out of Greg's arms and disappeared in the ballroom. "I should be dancing with her," Greg said. "I want her to have a good time. Ten years from now I'd regret not coming to this. But it's like getting in a pool that's ice cold. It was a toe going in when we were parking the car, and it'll be getting all wet to go in there."
Lelu popped back. "Please come in," she said. "There's only 35 minutes left."
When the end came, the band played "sail on" by the Commodores and the stage lights flashed red. Every third couple had swooned in a prolonged kiss. "Sail on, heartache," went the words, and couples clenched more fiercely as if to wring all the poignancy from the night of the senior prom. Up on one of the balconies, there was Lelu and Greg inside at last, looking down at the alien crowd.
"Thank you, Walter Johnson" shouted the guitarist into the mike as the house lights came up. "Love you. Goodnight."
Afterward, Gregg Hand and Lisa McCord had a small party in a room upstairs in the Mayflower that Gregg had taken for $82. The Kimballs went back to their house for a small reflective gathering that ended at WJ, where they watched the sun rise undramatically in an overcast dawn. Kris Hughes and a big crowd from Jock Hall flocked to a party, and then a lot of people lit out for Ocean City. Gregg fell asleep in his chair in his expensive room. Monday morning all of them would come back together one last time.
By 9:30 on the morning of June 9, women in white polyester gowns and men in green had formed long queues under the massive chandliers outside the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center. Latecomers streamed in, surrounded by entourges of aunts, nepews, camera-toting parents.
Near a marble bench in the lobby, Greg Milligan stood in a blue sweat shirt wistfully eyeing the crowd. "Hey Greg," said one girl whisking past in graduation garb. "How come you're not wearing a cap and gown?"
"I wish I was with them," he said."I could do it next year, but it wouldn't be the same. I told Lelu I wish I was going up there with you."
The class of '80 at Walter Johnson filed into the Concert Hall as the school band played "The Way We Were." Jon Kimball, who was sitting up on stage with various honored guests and functionaries, had seen to it that things had been done right. He'd gotten a good deal, too -- splitting the cost of the potted ferns with another high school scheduled to graduate in the concert hall that afternoon.
The program that followed was a familiar melange of grandiloquent forecasts and sentimental recapitulation. Jon Kimball, in his speech which he had worried about for two weeks, urged his classmates "to reach for the sky." Lisa McCord stepped out of the wings in front of 2,000 people, clasped a microphone and threw her all into singing "Tomorrow -- you're only a day away." There were cheers, one acrobatic flip, and gestures of exultation as Willis, Kris and their classmates paraded across the stage, shook hands with WJ principal Donald Reddick and were graduated. High up on the third-tier balcony, Greg Milligan looked on.
When it was over Kris Hughes skipped out onto the terrace and scaled his green mortarboard out toward the Potomac. On his head in the fall he would wear the helmet of Shepard College, where he had a four-year football scholarship. Lisa and Gregg had thoughts to stave off the bleak day coming when she went one way to Syracuse to study music theatre and he went to college at Franklin and Marshall. Willis Chung was going to have a lark in microcircuitry before Harward swallowed him up. He was going to build a tank that could fire rockets and throw flames by remote control, and he was going to match it in battle against a similar machine a fellow brain was crafting. It would a fight to the finish.
The old family station wagon of the Kimballs, the tailgate plastered with political bumperstickers, was parked by the backstage door. It had hauled the senior float, and now it was full of stuff from graduation. Jon had a government job for the summer. In the fall he was going to Dickinson College."I'll probably miss WJ the most," he said ruefully. "At Dickinson I'll be nothing." Then he brightened a bit. "But, boy, am I ever gonna get involved."
The class of '80 president climbed into the front seat, next to the school band's bass drum which somebody wanted him to take back to his alma mater.
Away he went.