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The College Reunion, Where Time Leaps by Decades

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Helen Olsson
July 4, 2008

IT was 2 in the morning as I padded down the dormitory’s hall in my flip-flops, catching a whiff of stale beer and moldy carpet in the air. In the brightly lit coed bathroom, a classmate wearing boxers and little else was brushing his teeth. It was an awkward moment. Not because of his state of undress, but because it was 20 years since we’d turned our tassels to the left side of the mortarboard, and he wasn’t wearing his name tag. I was at a loss.

It was my college reunion, and my husband and I had left our brood in Colorado and headed back to Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. We came back to reconnect with old friends, drink lots of beer and, admittedly, satisfy a certain voyeuristic curiosity about how everybody else turned out.

Socializing with a group of people for 48 hours every decade or so is like traveling through some mind-bending time wrinkle. While you watched yourself age slowly over the years, they all seem to have changed, for better or worse, in an instant. As Reunion Weekend unfolded this year, I discovered more about the pace of time than I meant to.

Perched on a hill above rolling cow pastures and cornfields, Hamilton is so quintessentially collegiate it borders on the cliché. An 1812 white-steepled chapel and ivy-covered stone dorms lace the main quadrangle. In 1978, Hamilton merged with Kirkland, an experimental girls’ school across the road. While the Hamilton campus is classic, Kirkland is a mélange of giant concrete cubes. “I’ve seen nicer-looking prisons,” said one spouse.

Staying in a cement cell on the Dark Side, as we called it, was significant. It meant we weren’t old enough to score a room on the Hamilton side. Crossing the road, when it eventually happens, will mark some sort of midline on our lives, and though the accommodations will be swankier, our knees will be weaker, our memories softer.

Truth is, my powers of recollection are already slipping. My only hope of avoiding surreptitiously glancing at name tags was to study my 1988 yearbook on the plane. I wished I had kept my Facebook. (To be clear, I mean the pamphlet of head shots handed out during orientation, which is what a face book was before the days of the social networking site.) I also flipped through the class notes of the college’s Alumni Review. The earlier classes, from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, were filled with news of knee replacements, funerals and golf games going from 18 holes to 9. The younger classes reported on travel, parties and graduate school. Our class fell somewhere in the middle, with updates on career and family.

While the pages of the Review seemed to chart a record of my past and open a window to my future, Saturday’s reunion parade brought it all to life. Led by a band of wheezing bagpipers, the entire class of 1938 fit in a single golf cart. (Three had made it for their 70th.) The class of 2003 brought up the rear, most still blissfully unattached and unencumbered. I could see in that stream of humanity both the starting gate and the finish line of my life.

At the barbecue afterward, in 90-degree temperatures and Amazonesque humidity, we listened to jazz, ate ribs and drank draft beer from plastic cups. Nearby, five-year reuniongoers were playing beer pong, tossing Frisbees and cranking tunes. They had dragged couches into the quad and were lounging around drinking Bud Light. It was a scene from my Senior Week two decades prior, although we had set up an entire living room on the lawn, complete with Oriental rugs, end tables and lamps.

IN the midst of the revelry, the band stopped to announce that a cardiologist was needed. A 1958 alumnus had collapsed. He had, in fact, suffered a small stroke, but he rallied and made it to his class dinner that night.

At my class dinner, most of the women seemed to have preserved well if not improved with age. The freshman 15 — in my case, more like 30 — had melted away, and if things were starting to sag, at least we could afford good bras. Many of the men looked surprisingly good too, though there was a fair amount of graying at the temples and rounding at the midsections. And, of course, hair loss. One classmate had relinquished hope and shaved completely. “I never knew how much hair absorbed sweat,” he said to me over a gin and tonic, as perspiration flowed off his cranium in rivulets.

I was thinking how well we had all aged when someone produced an envelope of freshman-year snapshots. The 18-year-old faces staring back at us were free of lines, the hair was full, the eyes bright. The conversation then turned to who was gone. A handful of classmates have died ... from cancer, an avalanche, a car wreck.

Death aside, a sure sign you’re getting old — or more optimistically, increasingly successful — is the mounting urgency of the reunion fund-raising. At the five-year, the beer is still free and the solicitations low-key. By our 20th, class reps were going table to table collecting wads of cash. I suspect the class of ’48 was discussing estate planning.

To prove we were not complete geezers, after dinner a group of us headed down the hill to Don’s Rok, a local dive. One of the older bartenders recognized me and tossed me a plastic chip. (During the undergraduate years, I had spent a fair amount of time on both sides of the bar.) I never drank the free drink, partly because an inebriated classmate — the guy in the boxers! — poured a full beer down my dress and partly because the music was too darn loud. “Are we getting old or is it too loud in here?” I yelled to my friends. “What????” they yelled back. Seriously, it was really loud.

On the flight back home, I reached into my purse and fished out two plastic chips. One said, “Don’s Rok, Good for One Drink.” The other: “Denver Zoo, Good for One Train Ride.” It was my then and now, resting right there in the palm of my hand. I realized, though, there was no chip foretelling the future. Maybe I hadn’t seen my life’s progression laid out before me after all. Maybe with miracles of tomorrow’s medicine, I’ll be tossing Frisbees and playing 18 holes into my 90s. Because really, you never know.

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