What with weddings and graduations, June has always been the big nostalgia month. My own was to go back to Pittsburgh for my 50th reunion at Peabody High School.
June 1929 - it was the last graduation before the Big Bust that began in October and led into the Great Depression. Our school yearbook included an ad for the Sheridan restaurant declaring that "you will appreciate our Special 50 cent Lunches and 75 cent and $1.00 Dinners." Photos show lots of the fellows in plus-four knickers while the waistline of the girls' dresses hung on the hips.
Of course the classmates are the real story. Those of us who were Peabody June '29 have been boasting for a good many decades about our star classmate, Eugene Kelly and , sure enough, Gene flew in from California to join us for the big dinner evening. Maybe he didn't seem quite as spry as the mind's eye sees him in, say, "An American in Paris," clicking heels high in the air, but he was the same humorous nice guy we remembered.
The 1929 class questionnaire had Kelly only one of three in a tie for "best dancer," third for "wittiest" but first for "thinks he is" witties. What I found most surprising was Kelly's literary contribution to that half-century-old yearbook; here it is:
Some streets wind crookedly between long rows
Of dingy, dirty houses
That frown down upon them with their lank, long faces.
Some streets flow gracefully along, bordered by stately tress.
And calm, palatial mansions
That smile at them in silent, tranquil peace.
One street I know climbs roughly up a rugged hill,
Surmounting many huge, impeding boulders
Until it gains the top;
And then slopes gently down the other side,
Finally merging into the cool mist
Of a blossomed, green-turfed valley.
A man I know is like that street,
Who having climbed the rough and rugged hill and reached the summit,
Now steps upon the springy, carpet-grass and steadily makes his way down into the valley;
There to pause, a wearied of his tiresome, toilsome trek,
And lying down upon the moist loam, allow the cool, damp mist to cover him
And he will sleep.
At our class banquet the other day, it was no surprise, then that Kelly made a sentimental little speech about his high school years and those companions who hadn't made it through the next five decades.
The yearbooks contained 429 pictures in all, and 111 classmates showed up at the Alleghency Club in Three Rivers Stadium. Some classmates simply have disappeared while 59 are known to have died, among them our "best all-around fellow," who became a surgeon, our class president, and the undoubted brain of the class, a girl who became a neurologist. The Mary Louise who was voted "prettiest girl" didn't come back, much to my chagrin since I had some fond memories of bowling dates, but the other Mary Louise I had gone with did come, with her husband, and she was just as striking as I remember her.
There were 11 blacks among our 429 and none came back. Fifty years ago Peabody was Pittsburgh's largest high school and the neighborhoods it drew from were mostly white. But the blacks who lived there came, too, and I have no recollection of race problems. Today the school is more than half black in enrollment, I was told, and there are strains in some neighborhoods. The school building itself was rather undistinguished except for four pillars with ionic capitals. Since then a totally new building has replaced the old with the pillars rather incongruously stuck on either side of the front door under a free-standing entablature.
The East Liberty neighborhood, site of the school, is still recognizable, but barely. Gone are the Enright theater where Dick Powell got his start singing through a megaphone, the Cameraphone where I froze to the seat when Lon Chaney turned around to show his face in "The Phantom of the Opera" and the office building where my Dad so long practiced dentistry. There is a sort of mall where the two main streets crossed but the streets themselves, even with the streetcars long gone, all seem narrower than memory says they were.
Our reunion committee got together a mass of biographies and for the most part they are not very memorable: The Great Depression ended college dreams for quite a few. Now most are retired. At dinner we swapped tall tales and small talk, complimented each other on our looks and then went our separate ways. Soon everyone will be swamped with memories and histories of the Crash of '29 and the fruits, both bitter and sweet, that it bore. But today, I am content to remember those final golden months of innocence. CAPTION: Picture, Chalmers Roberts, upper left; Eugene Kelly, lower right.