I can die happy, the return of the native, the dark at the top of the stairs, look homeward angel and/or you can go home again if only momentarily.
Fifty years went by like lightning. The banner class of Penn High School held its 50th class reunion during the first part of September this year. I’d never attended a reunion before but one of the really good guys I went to high school with, Mort Stanfield, contacted me and asked me if I would conduct an “after the dinner talk and conversation.” I had to think about it for a couple of days and then I thought, “This would be great.” And just like The Lion King, it was the Circle of Life.
So riding back from Sturgis by myself I worked on what I thought I would say. Remember, we’re not the hippies, we’re not the beatniks, we were not a protest generation; we were simply children of the ’40s and our boyhoods/manhoods were spent in the ’50s. I was out of high school almost two years before Jack Kennedy was killed. (Now I sound like my mother talking about Pearl Harbor).
So into the Hamar House restaurant in Harmarville, Pennsylvania, on a Friday night I strode with my close personal friend Dena Pastorini with a lump in my throat and a brick where my stomach was. I had had breakfast that morning with Mort and a man from my neighborhood, Mike Laus, who had managed to get himself a PhD from the University of Alabama. We had breakfast in a café close to the steel mill I worked in as a kid that has now been torn down and the scrap metal I think got shipped to Japan.
One of the women we went to high school with now owns the café, and after being with Mike and Mort for breakfast, I really could have gotten on the airplane and gone home. They had been in touch with a lot of people and knew the outcomes of many of our classmates’ lives. Mort, after returning from Vietnam, spent his professional life helping young people in Pittsburgh. Mission accomplished.
But that night it took about 15 minutes for all the walls to drop, all the stories to begin, all the tears to flow and all the hugs and embraces to start.
Everybody wore a picture of who they were in 1961 — their high school yearbook picture with their name attached. Two old guys would look at each other — not at their faces but at each other’s chests where the pictures were, and then exclaim: “Jesus Christ I thought you were dead!” or “Did you marry her?” or in one of my dearest friends Sam Miglioretti’s words, “WTF have you been doing for the last 50 years?!”
Now Sam, whose real name is Savaro, brought his award-winning homemade wine for our table. Note to self: Sam and I talked about being 12 and 13 years of age and drinking his father’s homemade wine after school and me stumbling home to my parents’ house with the heat on in 1958. Some things just don’t change. (The idea of being in recovery from alcohol seems to have skipped a lot of folks in Western Pennsylvania).
I bought drinks for a lot of guys at the bar that night — now remember where I grew up a mixed drink is a shot and a beer or as they say, “An imp (imperial whiskey) and an iron (Iron City beer).” Now as my uncle would always say, they sent a sample of Iron City beer to a chemist whose return report said, “Your horse is really sick.”
One of the local old DJ legends by the name of Charlie Apple spun the tunes. You forget how wonderful late ’50s and early ’60s doo wop music really is.
Over the course of the evening one of the fellows, whose name I won’t use in this column, had recently come home from over 35 years in the state penitentiary. The beef was murder. Between 1959 and 1961 he was one of the finest athletes in Western Pennsylvania, now reduced to a seemingly frail old fellow in a white shirt, a stingy brim hat and eyeglasses. His sports were track and field, basketball and football. I introduced him that night without mentioning everything that had happened after 1961, and the room gave him a standing ovation. It was definitely a highlight for all of us. And later in the evening my girlfriend Dena went over and asked him to dance.
So what have we learned? Things don’t change, but the more they do change the more they really remain the same. Included in the night’s program was a list of our classmates who had passed away. The series of events were the Vietnam War, accidents, sickness and lifestyle choices. I found out that one of my dearest friends from the first grade on, a kid named Johnny Gest, was gone. That one hurt.
A local physician friend of mine had said, “Well Peter, not everyone gets to live to 70.”
I hate that.
Returning to Pittsburgh was like Neil Diamond said, “L.A.’s home but it ain’t mine and New York’s mine but it ain’t mine no more.” And without the help of my nephew Pad, I couldn’t have found my way around. Thank God Dena understood how to use the GPS. I drove by my Dad’s house and somebody had put aluminum siding on it. I can’t believe six people shared only one bathroom in a place that little. I went to the cemetery to visit and discover my Uncle Gene and Aunt Helen’s graves were there as well. Gene, who had gone all the way to Anzio across North Africa before it was time to go home, drank hard the rest of his life and was always terrific to me. Went up to his grave, put my hand on the stone and said, “Thanks Gene. You were great to me as a kid.”
And so with that we say, I don’t think there are many reasons to return to Pittsburgh. But to see the Allegheny River, that went past the steel mill I worked in after high school, knowing that river is going to be there when everyone from the Class of 1961 is gone, or as they said with the Wiffen Poofs, past and forgotten with the rest.