Homecoming

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“Do you feel any younger?” my wife asked as she set the digital clock of our car an hour back. We had just crossed the Indiana state line into Illinois, returning to Minnesota from my fiftieth homecoming reunion at Albion College in Michigan. Suddenly I had gained an hour, and this got me scheming about how my presence in the Central Time zone might mean I’m not too old for an exciting mid-life crisis to kick in. The downside was that we were so trapped in Chicago traffic I didn’t see how we’d ever get home from my homecoming.

Even as I crawled bumper to bumper with a long line of trucks my wife’s question sent a quiver of hope through my loins. What if? If I had gained an hour by crossing into Illinois, could I gain another by speeding into Colorado’s Mountain Time? And if I could gain still another hour past the Rockies, why not keep going far out enough to gain a few months and years, not all of them theoretical? I’m no genius, but what would Einstein say?

As traffic did its slow crawl it gave me plenty of time to think about how time flies, but my thoughts came to a dead stop whenever they were interrupted by a chance to break free and step on the gas.

A fiftieth college reunion does give one pause, especially if one has been absent from the other forty-nine. I’d returned to my beloved Albion College a few times in those fifty years, but I’d mainly waved my greetings over to the campus from I-94 as I sped by on my way to family in Detroit. From the freeway only the steeple of the chapel was visible, so nothing about the place had changed.

A full week before the homecoming event I dusted off my 1963 Albionian Yearbook, and like a good student I did my homework on my old college mates. The faces in the yearbook seemed familiar and fresh, but I had a very hard time getting the yearbook names to stick to my mind. The yearbook faces there were like many of my current friends at home––memorized. But the names that go with the faces of current friends are routinely disappearing these days, even when I encounter them on the sidewalk or grocery store. Where are well-known names hiding in my declining years, even as the faces that belong to them smile and say hi? If names don’t have staying power, what does?

I worried a lot to my wife. What if I go blank when I’m shaking hands with one of my best old college friends? What if I can’t remember the name of the girl I took to the dance, and what if she remembers mine? “Problem solved,” said my wife. “Just tell them you’re losing your mind. They’ll understand.”

I consoled myself with a recent scientific discovery. Astronomers had just seen a galaxy so spaced out it’s been dead for thirteen billion years. With 41 of my old classmates already passed away, I saw their yearbook faces in a new light. If that dead galaxy were merely old, it still would be swirling in space, though perhaps more sluggishly than it did in its prime. At the reunion our yearbook faces would not be in their prime, but science was giving us a chance to be something else even if we were dead. In the long view all of us in the class of 1963 would be grayed, wrinkled, and sagging, but we’d also be smiling and bright the way we were when posing for our yearbook photos. We’d all be astonishingly new discoveries, suddenly reborn.

My optimistic spin was also encouraged by evidence suggesting that the history of homecomings was a progress story. In the old days homecomings were celebrations staged for absentee fathers and warrior sons returning from distant battlegrounds. Then festivities featured processions in which the spoils of war stolen by way of killing and pillage were paraded in front of cheering stay-at-home moms, grandmothers, girls, and little boys. Nowadays the major homecoming event, the football game, is civilized in comparison. Homecoming features the football team’s return after waging football wars on somebody else’s campus turf. The parade before the big game mainly shows people off, apparently in order to extend the limits of what a society deems harmlessly ridiculous. Though football is arguably a symbolic subtext for war, the spoils of the game are not put on public display. What originated as a celebration of war’s benefits has evolved into a party in which fun is had.

It seems proper that so many homecomings, like Halloween, are celebrated in October harvest time. Homecomings are so popular and ritualized they seem like seasonal holidays during which we return to old fields to harvest what we planted years ago. When I arrived I was careful to deck myself out in plain clothes––no fancy suit and tie. But I felt as if I were a character in a Fellini film, one of those caricatures on public parade hoping others would see there was more to me than what they saw. We, members of the class of 1963, approached each other gingerly. Who is who, and is that really you? Who are you now, and where? We asked by indirection––are you a liberal, conservative, married, divorced, or suddenly gay? Did you like me then? How can I make you like me now? What’s your story? Is it true what Mark Twain said––“You tell me where a man gets his corn pone and I’ll tell you what his opinions are”––or were our futures and fates shaped by circumstance and chance, or, perhaps, by education and choice?

We’re told that education opens windows of opportunity for us, but as my classmates’ stories unfolded I began seeing through the windows my college years had put in front of me. We were all characters in Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, poems I had read as an undergrad about individuals suddenly alive again to tell their tales. The faces of my classmates, fifty years older now, gained the depth and dark clarity I saw in the portraits of Rembrandt and Vermeer. I looked at lives through the epic paradigm Professor Hart had outlined as the shape of a hero’s life: Separation, Initiation and Return. We had all left home to encounter experience, some of it in the form of trials, tribulations and monsters, and now here we were again, returning to “the best days of our lives.” What had our initiation experiences done to our innocence? What did we bring back with us to our homecoming returns? Had we resigned ourselves to lives of quiet desperation, or committed ourselves to pursuing meaningful lives? Had we become cynical, or wisely creative?

The festivities encouraged certain re-enactments, some of them indicative of how history majors like me love fantasy. One of Albion’s graduates, Martin Nesbitt, class of 1985, was honored at a banquet with a Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award. Nesbitt, a friend of President Obama for twenty years, was finance manager for Obama’s state and U.S. Senate campaigns, and also his presidential campaign treasurer. Nesbitt also played varsity basketball at Albion. So did I, once upon a time.

I found myself sizing him up as he received his award, asking myself how good he was. I had about twenty-two years on him, but I concluded that difference should not keep him from going nose-to-nose with me in a little game of one-on-one. He seemed to have kept himself in pretty good shape. I squirmed in my seat at the prospect of putting a few jaw-dropping moves on him.

Later, when I went forward to congratulate him for his award, I asked him point-blank: “Can Obama go to his left?” Obama loves basketball too. “You’ve known him for years, so no doubt you’ve played The Man one-on-one plenty of times. Can he go to his left?”

“He’s left-handed,” Nesbitt replied. “He takes a few dribbles right, but he always comes back to his left.”

I hoarded the secret to Obama’s game, believing it would come in handy someday. For in that moment the past’s immediacy gave the future presence too. I saw myself in the old Albion College S.S. Kresge Gymnasium, squared off against the President of the United States in a game of one-on-one, and I, like the quick twenty-two year old gazelle I was again, would score easily on him and then easily shut him down because I had inside information about his moves. The game, by the way, was being performed before a standing room only crowd that included the girl I had asked to the dance but whose name I couldn’t remember.

So what is it that lures us back to these nostalgic journeys back to our college years that we dignify with the status of a place of origins and stability, a “home”? As an English major at Albion College I puzzled over the words in Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel: “You can’t go home again.” If in Latin the word educare means “to go forth,” I left home to attend college, and from there way led on to way further away from home. In a mobile society paved over with freeways, it’s easy to chase a marriage or job far from parents, family, and old neighborhoods, especially if a college degree greases the wheels. In America homelessness––absence from the comforts, enduring traditions, and responsibilities inherent in an actual place––is a way of life. Lives, like jazz moments, are improvised. Here, and increasingly everywhere in the world, home is where the next job is, or it’s in cyberspace, or it’s where the heart is.

I went to my fifty year Albion College in search of my youth, lost friends who mattered intensely to me at the time in an actual place, a lovely campus where we, for four fleeting years, did what most of us wanted to do most of our lives––learn about history, science, society, art, religion, philosophy, politics, music and literature, test our limits on level playing fields while learning how to win and lose graciously there, talk smart to each other like the professors we loved because they had something to profess. All this while we disagreed agreeably, practiced openness, toleration and cooperation, and fumbled our way toward sex, love and marriage as the sap flowing freely through our veins stirred us to test the limits of the permissible and ethical.

What a wonderful model home in a friendly neighborhood, what a wonderful way to live, everywhere, all our lives.