Column: Forever isn't what it used to be

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By: 

Roger VanHaren

Do you ever say, “I never do that” after you’ve just done something dumb? Yeah, me, too!

Case in point: Last summer as we were loading stuff into the car to head up to Oconto Falls for a Class of ’57 (We call ourselves “the Great Class of ’57!”) get-together, I stupidly laid some stuff on the roof of the car — my phone, my high school yearbook, and a booklet I’d spent hundreds of hours putting together for our 50th year class reunion.

Well, sure enough, we started our trip up north with these valuable items riding on the roof of our Prius. When we got to Oconto Falls, not surprisingly, I couldn’t find them! So I had to get a new phone, but I thought my yearbook and my “memory book” were lost forever.

Then, about a month after I lost them, I got a phone call from a man who lives in Rosendale but comes to Beaver Dam often for medical visits. He said he’d found my books lying off to the side of the road about a mile from our house, a little mangled but still readable, and by doing some deductive reasoning, he’d figured out to whom they belonged. He wanted to know if he could stop by and give them back to me. I was delighted. He refused to accept any kind of reward, so I thanked him profusely, and he left.

I spent the next couple of days re-reading the memory book I’d spent so much time creating and remembering how much fun I’d had in doing it, and how I’d come to certain conclusions about “time.” I’d sent out questionnaires to all of my classmates asking for updates on their lives — family, work, recreation, memories, etc. Surprisingly, almost all of them responded, so I spent a couple of months compiling the info and laying out the book.

I realized in doing this work that “forever” just isn’t what it seemed to be so many years ago when we were fresh-faced teenagers venturing off into the real world outside of high school. Fifty years had flashed by in the blink of an eye. Now another 11 years have drifted by.

That means that I have to accept certain facts of life: I’m older than I was back then and older than I like to admit now.

In 1957, the population of the U.S. was only about half of what it is today, but back then we knew more of them, and liked them better. In Oconto Falls, we all knew each other. We knew where everybody lived, we knew what church they went to, all kinds of stuff. The average annual income for a family was under $3,000, and people could buy a new home for about $4,000. Life was good.

Most of the moms in Oconto Falls didn’t work outside the home in 1957, except for some seasonal work at the canning factory. “Daycare” consisted of going to your grandma’s house. No one was homeless in Oconto Falls — at least not that I knew of. Everyone who wanted a job had one. Employees were valued, not merely line-item expenses to be cut.

In 1957, we trusted strangers. We believed that everyone was basically good. As a group, we weren’t very greedy, or very materialistic, or so very arrogant. We cared a lot more about others than we do today. We were strong and full of promise. Back then, I think we all thought we’d live forever.

Like I said, forever just isn’t what it used to be. Time has flown by. What used to be whispers of mortality are now shouts. The people we think we are and the people others see have become unrecognizable one to the other.

As I was working on the memory book, I reacquainted myself with the high-school faces that were so familiar to me back then. But some of my classmates sent along recent photos, too, and I had a hard time reconciling those new faces with the old ones. I’m pretty sure that my classmates would have the same problem with my recent photos, too.

A few of the faces (actually quite a few — about 50 percent) I’ll never see again. Those 50-plus people have died. Makes you stop and think.

So now, more than ever, after revisiting my memory book, I’ve come to realize that I’m not much different from everyone else. Back then, we all felt that we were so unique, so darned special when we graduated from high school. Then there was college, the service, marriage, jobs, divorce, gains and losses; our experiences are not much different from each other’s. We’re all 61 years older (and most of us look it), and we can look back and see that we turned into our parents quite a while ago.

We’re not the people we used to be. We’re not as graceful. We have less get-up-and-go. Our bodies do what we want them to do most of the time, but begrudgingly. Our brains play tricks on us, often telling us to walk into a room and then not remembering why we went there.

We become less important to the rest of the world as our age advances. Watch the ads on TV if you don’t think so. Most of the ads are aimed at younger viewers — except for the pharmaceutical promos. There are hundreds of wonder drugs aimed at our “senior” problems.

All right, so that’s a lot of heavyweight stuff to think about. Luckily, most of my classmates from the Great Class of ’57 are fighting the same weighty physiology — and psychology.

Think about it. I spent 12 of my first 18 years with many of these folks, from first grade through high school. Some of them I haven’t seen since that summer 61 years ago. Boy, 61 years is a lot of forever. That’s probably more “forever” than any of us ever dreamed possible back in 1957.

I’m hoping that, thanks to our “advancing age,” my classmates are happier, friendlier, more courageous, less judgmental, and far more at ease with themselves than we could have imagined 61 years ago.

I guess getting older isn’t so bad. Going back through my memory book took my mind off some of the sorry situations in the world today.

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.