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The Fiftieth

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Signs across the sagebrush high desert are “Open Range. Watch out for Stock.”   “Antelope Crossing.”  No signs for restaurants, or gas stations, or rest stops for 120 miles.

It’s a long way from the west coast to Bismarck, North Dakota, and an even longer trip at the high school reunion.  In North Dakota, and at the reunion, the pandemic doesn’t exist.  No masks.  No distancing.  An Elks Club cash bar and a celebratory cake, name badges that have us squinting to find the 18-year-old standing across from us.  I loved it.

The Fiftieth fulfilled any stereotype and was personally gratifying.  The class president (from 1971) had organized the event, or not organized the event, depending on the critic.  President for Life, just like Idi Amin or would-be Donald Trump, although in this now-red state we avoid the Donald’s name or any topic that smells like politics.  One classmate has been state attorney general for about twenty years and lost in the gubernatorial primary to a more conservative candidate.  When I left, we had a Democratic governor.  The last one.

The other classmate who made it to the big time had bussed in from the farm an hour away.  I barely remember her, only as the girl with the funny eye, the Nort’ Dakota Cherman accent (think Lawrence Welk) and the ratted hair.  She worked hard on her speech, had cosmetic surgery, and her grooming and hard work gained her national notice as a correspondent on the networks. I salute goals and personal transformation.

The first guy who asked me on a date is now publicly out as a gay man.  This time might have been his first reunion; forty, thirty years ago the culture would have been hostile.  

At fifty years we’ve stopped performing, mostly.  We’re retired, mostly, with gray hair and paunches, mostly.  A small set of what I thought of as the California Second Wives Club were well coiffed and tanned and had good work done.  They had been popular in high school.  They still screamed a tiny bit and hugged each other.  I did go up to one “boy” and say, “You look so much like Mr. Larson you must be Jerry.”  He nodded and said he’d accepted he had become his father.

I heard myself referred to as the girl with long blonde hair. It’s now short and graying.  I was the preacher’s kid; I had forgotten that piece of my identity which I was so glad to shed.

One friend, as we drove around town, had an exacting memory, so we drove through a ghost town and not the modern city which had tripled in size.  “That’s where the Cowan Drug Store was, that’s where the Olsen’s lived, before the Schmidt’s moved in.” I told myself while driving out that we were all different people.  But no, here we were all 18, hiding in aging bodies.

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