Through the miracle of research Charles Miller discovered the phrase, 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there', was first used by author Leslie Poles Hartley in his 1953 novel The Go-Between. L.P. certainly knew what he was talking about...Charles disagreed with those who told him that he lived in the past, but admitted that he had accumulated a vast amount of Frequent Flyer points from his constant nostalgia trips...
The paragon of nostalgia is the reunion.
He had heard horror stories about reunions where former friends and schoolmates meeting again was a no-holds-barred battle of one-upmanship. Neighbourhood news said the Catholic Girls High School one of his childhood gang attended no longer had reunions due to the constant angst and vicious snobbery. On the brighter side, an Australian book he enjoyed said that the longer the time passed since the key event, the more the participants bonded and congratulated each other on their longevity and survival skills.
The subject of the reunion you choose to attend is where you believe your life had peaked. In Charles' case his shadow soldiers never had reunions, as no one knew if they were dead or alive or merely hiding, as their name implied, in the proverbial shadows. They all wished to keep their anonymity...if they didn't, their families certainly did.
He had no interest in his high school reunion; when he went through his cliquey high school he couldn't wait to get out of it. His large school had over 1,000 kids in his final year, an even 800, 400 of each sex, had graduated. He hadn't strong friends in his own year; for his close friends were from different years,
Charles's high school years had been a major disappointment to him. His template for adolescence were The Polaroid Swinger camera commercials depicting double dating with Ali MacGraw on bicycles to picnics in the forests or the beach set to Barry Manilow singing the instructions of how to work the camera. Those images, and the ones from from Archie comic books, Andy Hardy movies and TV's Dobie Gillis prepared him for a fun social life. Instead the women in school had at best ignored him, at worst insulted him; if they didn't want to go out with you. they were incapable of normal conversational courtesies. The males they did go out with rewarded them by boasting about not only their conquests but highly detailed anatomical descriptions of the girl's bodies, their intimate conversations and love making habits. Like boastful criminals who wonder how they were caught, they probably had no interest in going with them unless they could later be the centre of attention as a locker room storyteller.
In contrast, he wished he could attend a reunion of his neighbourhood grade school from kindergarten to the sixth grade. All of them were nice and they got along with each other. Each grade had been divided between two separate classes; if you weren't with one friend one year, you'd be with him the next. He saw some of them later in his junior high school, then only fleeting glimpses of them in his large high school.
In his old age he would forget things that happened a week or sometimes a day ago, but his memories of his childhood remained fresh in his mind. Once he asked a well-educated friend just why this was so; she replied that recalling his past was heavenly pleasant, recalling his present was a hellish chore. He'd often recall the fun he had with his grade schoolmates who were almost as fun as his neighbourhood gang.
One day his wish was granted.
A friend forwarded him an email announcing that at September's end, the same weekend as his high school reunion, a Saturday afternoon reunion of his grade school class would be held in his old school!
The past was a foreign country; he lived in Eastern Australia but his reunion was in the American Midwest...should he go? He had the time and the money...would he always regret not going? As an afternoon reunion was a long haul for merely a whim; he wrote a list of other things he could accomplish on his literal flight of fancy.
That night his subconscious gave him orders like Ike gave the go-ahead for D-Day...Go!
* * *
As he stayed with his old friend Jeff who resided near Chicago, he saved on hotel bills.
On the last Saturday of September, the pair travelled to Waukegan for his eagerly awaited grade school reunion. The skies were bright blue, and the leaves were turning yellow. It wasn't as warm as summer, but he didn't need the sweater he carried in his kit bag.
Jeff let him off in his old neighbourhood; they would reunite for dinner at a local restaurant.
'I hope you find what you're looking for, Charles.'
Jeff may not have understood nostalgia trips, but he accepted and facilitated his friend's dreams, for that's what friends do.
Everyone he had known from his neighbourhood was long gone, there were considerably less trees, and of course the parked cars were of recent vintage. Otherwise, the intense quiet and total emptiness of the streets and pavements set his memories to going, as he softly sang Try to Remember that Kind of September to himself. The only people besides those driving cars was the traditional sight of two teenagers playing catch with a football in the only vacant lot left in the neighbourhood.
As his reunion was at one p.m., he ensured he was at Louie's, his neighbourhood restaurant before noon. Louie's was still there; its new ownership kept the original decor and menu, including the giant clock over the bar. He unsuccessfully hoped to find some of his former classmates there having lunch.
As he walked thought the streets and an alleyway to his old school, he wondered how many would show up. Would any of them show up?
He arrived around 12:45, when once the school's afternoon classes started. A group the size of over a third of one of the classes were waiting by the reddish brown brick school's southwestern entrance. His anxiously awaited smiles and salutations came out from them; half he recognised, half he didn't until they introduced each other. He was in ecstasy!
'Long time, no see! Where did you come from?'
'Australia! Long time to fly, lots of sea to cross!'
'Any health problems?'
'None! I'm fine!'
There was an atmosphere of disappointment.
'Ever hear from your old buddy Nicky Demo?'
'No. I was hoping he'd show up; are any of you in touch with him?'
None were, but Susie said that her older brother went to school with Nicky's older brother George. The family moved away nearly a year after Nicky was sent to military school; no one knew where they were or had heard anything about them. Everybody liked Nicky Demo, but Charlie was the only one who really knew him.
A smiling woman in her early thirties unlocked the door. Charlie was disappointed she didn't ring the electronic bell announcing it was the time to enter school.
'Welcome! You're quite a few years late, but I won't say anything...this time.'
Everyone laughed and followed her inside.
'I hope there's no latecomers as I have to lock the door. So anyone who's tardy won't be able to join us.'
Tardy was a word they hadn't heard since they attended school; it was a fine icebreaker.
'They'll be reported!', Mickey snickered.
All laughed again; being reported meant a trip to the principal's or dean's office that was a fate worse than death.
Charlie felt the hallway and stairwell hadn't changed. They walked past his kindergarten and 1st grade classrooms up to the same classroom where he spent his 3rd, 5th and 6th grades. He recalled the feeling of pride he had at that time that he was growing up, as now he was upstairs, instead of at the ground level of the lower grades.
Some of them made a scene of how going up a flight of stairs was a major effort.
'Well don't run up the stairs, otherwise you'll have to walk up and down them ten times!'
They entered the same classroom that most of them had been in, but the room was totally different. The former austere walls with the green cardboard signs featuring handwriting examples of proper letters in white that went around the room and the Stars and Stripes they pledged allegiance to were gone. Now nearly every space on the wall had a colourful piece of child's artwork, or National Education Association shibboleths that resembled children's artwork. It appeared that today the teachers were striving to be at the level of the children, whilst in his yesterdays...
The desks of the teacher and children were of a different design than they had been. There was a ring of chairs in a circle at the front of the room that they all were instructed to sit down in as they couldn't have fit in the school desks...
'Welcome, from not only myself, but Glen Flora School. My name is Juanita Hernandez, and I teach fourth grade here. I'd like to go clockwise where you'll tell us your name and what you've been up to since leaving school, starting with...Why don't you start?'
'My name is Pattie...'
Their Journey to the Beginning of Time had gone back to the When Nearly Everyone's First Name Ended in a Vowel Age...In high school the boys called each other by their surnames, like the army.
As everyone had their say, Charlie's feeling when he first saw them waiting at the door seemed to be confirmed. All of them lived relatively locally, or not too far away, and they were in frequent touch with each other. Everyone started with, 'As everybody knows...'
Susie seemed to be running the reunion; she passed on large manila envelopes for everyone that contained colour photocopies of her annual class group photographs. Charlie was in some of them.
'Charlie Brown!', everyone laughed.
'My name is Charles...Charlie Miller, but everyone called me Charlie Brown. Since I left school I soldiered around the world and I now live in Australia.'
'Australia!', smiled Mrs. Hernandez.
No one else smiled as they previously had. Though his was by the far the shortest of the speeches, he seemed to have gone over like a lead balloon. He remembered The Time Machine when Rod Taylor told everyone he came from long ago and was eager to learn about them, but the Eloi, like his former classmates, all had expressions of boredom, indifference and perhaps veiled hostility...as his parents did when he visited them...for once you permanently leave the fold you're forever beyond the pale...
'How many children do you have, Charlie?'
'None that I know of; a rolling stone gathers no alimony payments!'
The males guffawed, the females save Mrs. Hernandez glared. Their smiles returned when the others talked about their grandchildren, pets and health problems.
'Are there any apologies?'
Jay mentioned Davy who was killed riding his bicycle in Florida; the others stated that riding a bicycle on a busy road or highway was a stupid thing to do. Charlie recalled Davy's Show and Tell on trapping animals for their pelts in forested areas with his Dad. Davy proudly showed his traps and pelts as he gave gruesome descriptions that made the boys laugh, the girls gasp and the teacher nearly pass out that made them laugh and gasp all the more until teacher ended Davy Crockett's presentation.
'Does anyone know what happened to our 4th grade teacher Miss MacNeill?', asked Charlie.
'She married and moved out to McHenry County to teach...she died of ovarian cancer over thirty years ago', Susie, the Keeper of Knowledge replied.
Charlie felt as if the world had ended; he was significantly older now than she was when she died...
None of them seemed to mind.
Mrs. Hernandez gave the now a word from our sponsor propaganda address about the school and the need for more funding. Then...,
'How would you like to take a tour of the school?'
Everyone did, with the same excitement of the annual school field trip to the Hawthorne-Melody Dairy Farm or the 6th grade's final school picnic at Petrified Springs.
They went back down the stairwell and through the halls that didn't look all that different. They passed the principal's office and she led them into the school's gymnasium.
Though no one actually said anything, all seemed to enter the past as Charlie did. The first afternoon when they came with their mothers to register and milk and cake were served. The year when recess was replaced by gym where the boys put on their gym shoes that were tied to their desk, the males loving Bombardment where they threw and hit each other with rubber balls. The Assemblies, where the entire student body would be lectured or each class had to sing a song, Cub Scout Pack meetings in the evenings, the October School Carnival when it was filled with games to play and prizes to win...
Everyone kept their memories to themselves.
Charles had the impression that as his classmates had been in constant contact with each other, every funny reminiscence or question had been said before...and had no reason to be said again...
He had another unpleasant surprise where Mrs. Hernandez led them back, but instead of returning upstairs, she produced her keys to let them out.
'Thank you very much for coming, see you at the 100th anniversary?', she had the same smile as Loretta Young did when she asked her television audience if she'd see them next week?
'That's it? I thought we were going to talk about what we learned, what we hoped to accomplish and what we still wanted to do!'
Everyone groaned at Charlie as they did when someone asked a question that had been previously asked or one too close to the end of school.
'I wanna watch the news', Marty whined, as if it was an obligation.
'That's all, there is no more', sang Shelley, echoing a song they probably sang in class that he didn't remember.
'You don't expect to stay until 3:15 do you?', Donny said in an angry voice.
Charlie wondered just what someone his age would have to do that was so important.
'Our futures are over, Charlie Brown.'
Or they never had been...
He thought that Socrates must've proclaimed, 'Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people' after his class reunion...
They all thanked Mrs. Hernandez and exited. Charles didn't pursue the issue, he listened to several of them talking about their ailments as they walked to their cars in the faculty parking lot. It was another confirmation that the group he was with were still friends and on one of their occasional outings; as in high school, those not amongst their local clique weren't worth bothering about.
'Where's your car, Charlie?'
'My friend from Glenview's going to pick me up at Louie's at five. I've been walking around.'
'No one walks!'
They all said their goodbyes,
'Some other time...'
Like the song of that title from On the Town, that summed the afternoon up exactly...
They drove off leaving him alone...
Charlie had the same feeling of shock that he had on that late November Friday afternoon so, so long ago in the same classroom where they had been. The intercom demanded all teachers report to the principal's office; that had never happened before. If there was a faculty meeting, some of the teachers would be left to go in and out of the classrooms to make sure the kids didn't act up. Instead of the usual horseplay, monkey business and clowning around, there was a feeling of intense curiosity that finished when their third grade teacher returned, her face literally as white as a sheet to announce that President Kennedy had been assassinated and to go home immediately. No bell rang, well before 3:15 the kids walked home in silence.
Charlie walked alone in silence again...
He had expected the reunion to go at least until three o'clock. The longest thing of the afternoon was his peers talking about their aches and pains and living through their grandchildren; for that was what their life had become...and it was nothing else but...
Years ago his film society screened and discussed the 1950s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They quoted the film critics who said was it was a metaphor for McCarthyism, for the lefties said everything in the 50s was a metaphor for McCarthyism, then shouted him down for saying the film's metaphor was marrying, having children and suburban living. Whereas in the past every one of his classmates had their own personality, now in their old age they all seemed identical.
The tribe had spoken, they had voted him off the island that was once theirs...
His melancholy passed as he walked up to the block of shops across Glen Flora Avenue though the large grassy schoolyard recalling the goofy games, jolly jokes and silly songs of the pleasant picnics of each grade at the end of the school year. He suddenly wanted to run and sing,
'Hurry hurry hurry hurry come on the run!'
He wanted to relive his Saturday afternoon treats and go to the long gone White's dimestore to look at the aisle of toys and buy a candy bar...then to the gas station for a bottle of pop...well, at least the bakery was still there.
Over coffee and a chocolate éclair he looked at the photocopies of the old class photos. He remembered It's Always Fair Weather where Gene Kelly and his war buddies mournfully sang I Shouldn't Have Come to the tune of The Blue Danube.
There was more time to kill in his neighbourhood until he met Jeff. His brain meandered as his feet did on the Waukegan streets. Why did he come? Better to have gone and discovered that he hadn't missed all that much; he still had an enjoyable time with Jeff. It was more of a major disappointment that his subconscious had urged him so strongly and let him down; there hadn't been a reason to come all that way...for the first time in his life his subconscious had lied to him...
He felt dizzy, was he going to pass out? He had no medical problems so it couldn't be that, but there's a first time for everything...
Waukegan went fuzzy and faded; the parked cars on the street looked like those from his school days. A teenager was walking up to him, it looked like him at that age; it was him at that age...
'It's even quieter than I remember...where is everybody?'
'They don't walk in Waukegan...', his teenage self replied.
'No, they never have...they reside here, but they don't live here. They don't feel where they are...'
'Are you from around here?'
'I used to be...a long time ago...'
'I don't know why, but you seem familiar'
'You know me as much as you know yourself...'
His younger self seemed momentarily confused,
'Charlie, don't worry about your someday leaving...you have to...there's nothing here for you in the future...Everything and everyone you know here will be gone forever, sooner than you think...appreciate things as they happen...remember things as they were, but always go forward.'
'You're fading away!', the young Charlie shouted.
'We don't walk in Waukegan, our dreams and memories do...'
The period cars parked on the street were fading away, so this was why his subconscious urged him to come...he had seen and spoken to himself again...as the cars and streets changed to the present, a faint memory came back to him, of an unusual man he had met long, long ago...he had never remembered it until now...
Were these memories or hallucinations? After Glen Flora School he didn't have a social life in Waukegan, he had bizarre mental adventures. Had he known he was going to meet himself in his past he would have made a list of things to say that were worth saying.
He mellowed and smiled as he continued his neighbourhood walk; he had seen his old friends and entered his school; he had their photos together from the day...the photos would stimulate more pleasant memories...
It now was approaching five, when his gang would shout 'see ya later, alligator', then go home to watch the Garfield Goose and his Friends puppet show and have supper. He returned to Louie's for his dinner rendezvous with Jeff; he laughed that his old classmates had turned into old puppets.
In tracking down the origin of quotations and axioms, he discovered the phrase 'Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be' wasn't from Yogi Berra, but from Peter De Vries' 1959 novel The Tents of Wickedness.
No, Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, but then it never was...
That's all, there is no more...
Author Notes: I am the author of three Extra Dimensional/Ultraterrestial military science fiction novels MERCENARY EXOTIQUE, OPERATION CHUPACABRA and WORK IN OTHER WORLDS FROM YOUR OWN HOME! as well as two travel books THE MAN FROM WAUKEGAN and TWO AUSTRALIANS IN SCOTLAND (all from Lulu.com). I live happily ever after with my wife in paradise (coastal Kiama, NSW Australia).