A Bunch of Old Guys: The Joy of Being Told to Go Fornicate Yourself.
Afterward, I would go next door to the ice cream shop and get a heaping cone for a nickel. A couple of stores down was the Bracciotti Drug Store, where classmate John Bracciotti worked after school.
Milk was delivered right to your home in glass bottles. I can attest to that. I delivered milk for Fallon's Farm, gulping down milk by the quart, before going to school. Chevys with tail fins and jukeboxes were everywhere.
Elvis, Eddie Fisher, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis dominated Radio, TV, and the movies. The favorite TV program was "Dragnet," though it took about five minutes for the TV to "warm up."
There was no race issue, at least not one out in the open. This was a time, before civil rights, when black Americans were called "Negroes" and "coloreds" and did not enjoy the same rights as other Americans. The idea of a "Negro" President of the United States was unthinkable.
With the Korean War recently over, it was a time of Cold War with the U.S. and Russia locked in ideological warfare. With the two superpowers threatening each other with nuclear destruction, the "commie threat" and visions of mushroom clouds hovered over American society.
At Stoneham High, none of this mattered to us kids. Who cared about "commies"? We were into being young. We wanted to hang out, throw off parental controls (parents were to be feared in the fifties), to be good at sports (being a good student was so boring), and, most of all, popular.
Guys at Stoneham High wanted to be like Johnny Lawrence. He was a three-sport star: football quarterback, basketball guard, and baseball catcher. He was also King of the Carnival Ball, with his Queen, Joan San Angelo. Together, they were voted Class Pair. In addition, Johnny got Best Natured, Best All Around, Most Popular, Class Athlete, and Class Sweetheart.
I remember the Carnival Ball well. When Johnny was up there with a crown on his head and decked out in white robes with his radiant and smiling Queen beside him, I stood invisible way back in the crowd asking why he was up there and I was not. And over a half century later, when I heard he got elected to the Stoneham High Athletic Hall of Fame and I wasn't, I wanted to ... well, let's say I was not happy for him.
And then there was Eddie Newton. Tall, handsome, perfect dark hair, he moved on the dance floor like Fred Astaire: smooth, assured, a girl magnet. In the 1955 Yearbook, he was described as "well-known for his dancing feet." A look from Eddie set girls' hearts aflutter. All the girls dreamed of dancing with Eddie.
In Stoneham High days, I was on the short side and painfully shy. I was afraid to ask a girl to dance, especially when all they wanted was to dance with Eddie and, of course, Johnny. Also, I couldn't do a real dance the way Eddie could. In this era of rock n' roll, all I could do was stand there and shake my ass.
Thankfully, with graduation in 1955, Johnny and Eddie both lost their captive audiences -- and a lot of their luster. I happily welcomed them down to my level, being a nobody. The three of us found ourselves on the street without a clue about what to do with the rest of our lives. We had crummy dead-end jobs and no plans for college. We were adrift.
So one day, on the spur of the moment, the three of us went down to the local U.S. Army recruiting office and signed up. Soon we were soldiers taking basic training at Fort Hood, Texas. Eddie remembers one incident at Fort Hood involving me. "A guy said something you didn't like," as Eddie tells it, "and you practically jumped over a table to get at him."
We were separated before any harm was done.
When Johnny first called to invite me, I was curious but had qualms. Did I want to see my old Stoneham High classmates as old men? Did I want them to see my bald head and white goatee and have them remind me of the great passage of time and my own mortality?
Did I want to hear about all the aches and pains and surgeries of a bunch of old guys? Old age. Realistically, isn't that a mountain of physical and cognitive decline, loss of loved ones, increasing irrelevancy and social isolation, and no future -- except death? Do I need that?
I needn't have worried.
A funny thing happened when I went to the first meeting at Brother's. Instead of feeling old, I became young again. Instead of nearly 73, I was 16, my age as a high school senior. I was the second youngest in the class. To my great surprise, I acted and talked the way I did then and so did everybody else.
"Where the f--k you been, Jodgie?" Al Muse asked when we met after a half century. He called me by the name everybody called me when I was 16, "Jodgie." It was a name I had not been called for over 50 years. Al, a retired firefighter, looked great and I told him so.
"You look no more than 50," I said.
"You look good, too," he said. We had a nice easy, filthy-mouthed chat about the old days.
At the latest meeting, I was sitting with Johnny and Eddie and saw a face that was vaguely familiar. That happens a lot and I usually end up asking somebody for a name, usually Johnny. This time, miracle of miracles, a name popped into my head.
"Is that Eddie Murray?" I asked Johnny.
"Yeah, that's him," Johnny said.
"Holy shit," I said. "How did he get so f-----g old?"
Johnny raised an eyebrow. He didn't say anything, but his look said, "Looked in the mirror lately?"
One classmate after another told me they would not have recognized me in a million years. It was no compliment, but neither was it intended to hurt. Usually it was said with a laugh, a slap on the back, and genuinely warm words about how great it was see me again.
I felt the same. Having come this far in the human life cycle, these guys are all survivors. Much more than that, they -- we -- all take deep breaths of life every single day.
This weekend I, "Don Quixote", and milady "Dulcinea" saw a brilliant performance of "Man of La Mancha" put on by the Worcester County Light Opera Company. So heartbreakingly true and pure were the emotions portrayed that -- please keep this to yourself -- I cried like a baby.
Like Don Quixote de la Mancha, one of my heroes, by the way, we don't let the facts of old age overwhelm a great truth of this time of life: it can be purposeful, happy, and beautiful. (For why Don Quixote is a hero to me, thanks to Judy Armen for recommending a terrific film, click here.)
Like Don quixote, we're not waiting around to die. We have passions and dreams and we're pursuing them. With increasing longevity, we're reveling in an exciting new stage beyond midlife, the encore stage. Instead of preparing to pack it in, we're starting over.
I know I am, as an E-book publisher. I will soon have three e-books on sale at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. My novel, State Kid, though fiction, is based on my high school experience. When old fogies hear about it, it's going to sell like gangbusters.
Though the names of classmates who have died come up regularly, it is not so much with sadness and sorrow as with fond memories. Time after time, death takes a back seat to happy, often funny, stories of the departed classmate. I hope to be remembered in the same way, as "Jodgie, the crazy bastidd." (Boston accent).
John Bracciotti now goes by the name of "Jack," though we all knew him as "John." He says that he used his given first name to please his mother, but now feels free to use his preferred first name, "Jack."
"You're John to me," I told him. "Always were, always will be. Is it okay if I still call you John?"
He said it was OK with him.
I told John that I will always think of him behind the counter of the family drugstore in Stoneham Square. Now I'm going to whisper something about John, but you have to promise not to say where you heard it.
Here it is: John is still the same polite, soft-spoken, quick-to-smile guy he was as a kid. Unlike just about every other classmate here, he has not once told me to go fornicate myself or called me a shithead.
I'm paying John a compliment here. Former classmates at Stoneham High do not hand out compliments. It is evidently considered bad form. Robust, obscene put-downs are the norm. For example, I tell Johnny Lawrence that it's a crime that he is in the Hall of Fame and I am not.
"You thought I was a blocking back," I tell him. "But, in fact, I am a talented broken-field runner. You just never gave me the ball, except once, when you needed a yard, and I went 60 yards for a touchdown. It was in the Maynard game. Remember, asshole!"
All I get out of Johnny is a smug smile. It says, "Tough shit. I made it into the Hall of Fame and you didn't, loser."
I go up to Larry Saunders. He was a great athlete at Stoneham High, a star basketball and football player. As we talk, he recalls games in amazing detail, including the weather. He recalled the big game in which I fumbled the ball at a crucial point.
"Oh, I see," I said. "You remember that fumble but you don't remember when I ran 60 yards for a touchdown in the Maynard game?"
Without missing a beat, Larry said, "Why would I want to remember that?"
I later caught Larry flirting with my Dulcinea, who was sitting in a booth with my sister Marion, apart from the reunion group. (The reunion was strictly for guys. Girls are not invited.) Larry had his arm around her and was nuzzling her neck when I came up and spoiled his little party.
"I see you met Larry Saunders," I said to my Dulcinea. She didn't know what to say. I gave Larry a flint eye.
"Still at it, eh?" I asked.
He smiled, unrepentant.
At Stoneham High, Larry was the proverbial lady's man, handsome and dripping with charm. When it comes to the opposite sex, the old Larry is the same as the young Larry. And so, it seems, are we all. I may be George today, but a good part of me, I now realize, is still the Jodgie I was at Stoneham High.
Trying to spread myself around evenly, I went up to Bobby Testa. "Hi, Bobby," I said. "I just realized I hadn't talked to you, so I thought I'd come over."
"Thanks for ruining my day," he said loudly so all could hear -- and made like he was moving away.
Of course, Bobby was playing with me. He had a wicked sense of humor when he was a kid at Stoneham High and it is still very much there. And, ouch!, it bites, but you can't help but laugh.
I went over to pay my respects to Buddy Chambers. Buddy was one of the greatest hockey players ever to come out of Stoneham High. I remember him from Dikes Pond near where he lived and where we both learned to skate.
Buddy was a natural who could perform magic with a hockey stick and puck. With Buddy, it was "now you see it, now you don't" and an opposing player is faked out of his jock. Though he never went on to play college hockey, he has been active in hockey all his life as a player, coach and equipment merchant.
His days of skating may be over, however. He has had both knees replaced and the knees are causing him pain again. But he is filled to the brim with life.
"Come outside," Buddy said to me. "I have a picture in the car that I want to show you."
I looked at it and said, "Wow"! I had never seen it before. I was in it, wearing number 2, in the second row from the top. Buddy is right beside me wearing number 3. I said I would guard it with my life and scan it so it would be preserved.
We went back in and Buddy wrote out all the names in the photo. He put X's above the names of those who have died, Lee Vogler, Warren McCarthy, Charlie Sprott, and Bob Barney.
We said goodbyes. Another reunion was planned for late May. I told Johnny I would be there.
Finally, guys, I want you all to know that my birthday is Monday, May 2nd. I am 73 years young. I know you all want to do something nice for me on my birthday. Despite all your put-downs and name-calling and filthy talk, I think that, deep, deep down, you all like me.
Here's what I would like for my birthday. Money. Cash. Moolah. Lots of it.
What? I hear grumbles. Don't tell me you guys are a bunch of cheap bastidds!
Send the f-----g dough!
Ah, go fornicate yourself!
So long and keep moving.