FOR TWO WEEKS I shunned the dark red volume like an overdue tax bill. I opened it fearfully, forced myself to read the first entry, began the next without enthusiasm. But after that I couldn't stop. I carried the book to meals, stayed up 'til two, turned off the light, couldn't sleep and began again.
Early in the morning, in the evening when I should have been writing, in moments between appointments, I read on. One of my more disturbed patients nodded sagely when I explained my preoccupation, but not even he really understood. Only my friend George Blecher did. He was there, in the book with me. The book was the "25th Anniversary Report of the Harvard College Class of 1962."
"Of course," he said. "I read every word, studied every picture. All 1,000 pages."
There are 893 entries including my own. Some are simply factual -- home and office address, birth date, marital status, years in college, wife's college, names and dates of birth of children and names and graduation dates of children who are at Harvard.
Even these demographics could be a bit unsettling. A number of my classmates have a child at Harvard; several have two who are about to graduate. I do a bit of arithmetic. They were making babies, planning ahead, while I was still wrestling with medical school, a 1960s Buck Mulligan, embracing an- tiwar politics and sexual liberation, imagining the apocalypse with my friends on late-night Cambridge streets.
Most of the entries are more complete. Many detail inexorable steps toward partnership in a law firm, executive status in investment banking, tenure at a university, arrival in high office. These classmates of mine winter in the suburbs and summer on the shore or in the mountains. Their wives are wonderful and beautiful, and their children excel at the piano or tennis.
Twenty-five years ago most of these people about whom I am reading were a vague background to my Harvard experience. Now, late at night, their ordered lives crowd me. I oscillate between self-flagellation -- why haven't I made that discovery or achieved that position? -- and tenderness toward people who, like me, I suppose, are willing to expose their joys and sorrows, their pretense and pride so completely to one another.
It had taken months for me to begin my own entry. I wasn't at all sure how to speak to 1,000 people, many of whom I had never known, to find a way to sum up 25 years of experience, to reveal myself to some of the most competitive people on the planet, to be as unaffected and honest as I was hoping I had become.
I read through the book again, more slowly. Vietnam had touched us all. A few classmates died, mostly it seems in the absurd accidents that befell young officers on their way to that mindless and criminal conflict. The restrained notes about their deaths and their survivors -- a wife, a very young child, aging parents -- float away from me like buoys on an ocean.
Many of us -- coming of age as President Kennedy dispatched the first "advisers" to Southeast Asia -- were involved in the peace movement. Though we are angry and saddened by Reagan and critical of Harvard's complicity in the Vietnam War and ownership of stocks in firms that do business in South Africa, we are not as angry as we were 15 years ago. Then, in another report, we wrote passionately about Vietnam.
Along with some of the self-righteousness of our youth we have lost, it seems, some of its fire.
Except perhaps for Terry Oehler. . . . I remember Terry as a quiet, politically conservative youth from the Midwest, pushing his glasses up on his nose in the Kirkland House dining room. But his brief entry in our book is like a thunderclap.
"I do not," he writes, perhaps explaining why he would not be at the reunion, "have dealings with institutions that profit from apartheid in South Africa."
This time through, the pictures move me as much as the text. Next to a portrait taken at our college graduation is a recent one we have decided to send. The first is ponderous, mass-produced. Our earnest overbearing youth is at the camera's and history's mercy. Our faces are flat planes. The more recent photographs reflect both our character and the way we prefer our classmates to see us.
The investment bankers seem bland and harmless, the lawyers alert, the surgeons confident. The physicists and mathematicians are coming into the full flower of their idiosyncracy. The photos and the comments -- about dangers to the free market, the bureaucraticization of medicine, the exploitation of the innocent and the imponderables of late 20th Century life -- fit. Those men who work with their hands or live close to nature or paint or write or make music seem -- I wonder if this is wishful thinking -- younger and happier.
A few images strike me. Peter Sevareid's face has become as reassuring as his father's. George Blecher, who looked like Sal Mineo in 1962 now resembles a cheerful and well-fed Al Pacino. Orville Schell who farms in California and writes about China, is grinning, and Mark Swann and Andy Schenck, a chimney sweep in Washington, D.C., and a conductor in San Antonio, respectively, are more handsome and happier than 25 years ago.
Some of the great athletes have run to fat. Several of the most handsome young men -- I remember the angle of their cheekbones, the way lank hair fell without artifice across their eyes -- are bald and chubby now, like aging chipmunks. Frail serious types who were pale from days and nights in the stacks of Widener Library have grown beards and drawn color to their faces.
There are many mentions of a "midlife crisis" and of "painful" and "shattering" divorces that seemed to be precipitated by or result from them. Private lives -- sustained intimacy and tenderness, women and children -- have become terribly vital to people who, as several of us point out, were schooled only in ambition and achievement. Young men who were stiff and arrogant have bent to comfort a troubled or ill child or to sit beside a dying parent.
Many of us have become religious. Jerry Gans, with whom I lifted weights to Ray Charles on nights before organic chemistry exams has returned to the Judaism of his youth. He tells us that he keeps a kosher home and sends his children to a Hebrew day school. Bill "Red Dog" Desloge who once drove me down Park Avenue at more than 100 miles an hour and later made films with the Black Panthers and Chicago Seven is now a Christian missionary among the Indians in Belize.
Inevitably I am drawn to pictures of classmates who have died, among them some of the gentlest and most talented people I knew. Phil Stone -- his name marked with a cross -- stares at me from under sleepy lids. Faulkner's godson, he had published a novel before he came to Cambridge.
Phil came home with me for Thanksgiving of our freshman year and I marveled as he, lacking my self-consciousness, crawled on the floor with my 3-year-old brother. I can see him in a toga standing on the steps of Widener Library and demanding in Latin, a language few of us understood, that our diplomas continue to be written in that tongue after Harvard decided to change to English. And I hear his voice, a deep Mississippi baritone, shouting from his window in Quincy House to the distinguished visiting professor who lived below him: "Reinhold Niebuhr, do you love your Jesus?"
Two years after graduation, I saw Phil staggering down a Greenwich village street at 10 in the morning. He said he had a place to stay and was "just fine." But he wasn't. A year later, he was dead.
Phil was gay -- or homosexual as we would have said uncomfortably -- and so were several others who have died, suicides of one kind or another. Now it is exhilarating to read in our book the biographies of gay classmates who were canny or lucky or tough enough to survive their own and others' fears and condemnation, and marriages that didn't make sense, to come out of the closet in the family album of our class report.
Reading the book again, writing this, I feel ready to return. In college and after, writing taught me what I felt and helped me to accept it. Now I find it helps to abolish the self-consciousness and competitiveness that I am sure marred my last meetings with many of my classmates. I want to see these people again, to hear their voices and their stories, to gossip and commiserate and eat and drink, to meet their beautiful wives and their new lovers and their talented, hopeful children.
James Gordon is a psychiatrist who practices medicine in Washington, D.C. and author of "The Golden Guru: The Strange Journey of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh," which will be published in August. This week he attended his 25th Harvard College reunion.