Interstate 40...the road home
by Greg A. Land
In high school I remember reading about 40-year reunions in my hometown newspaper, the Neosho Daily News. The people pictured seemed so different and a destiny to which I felt obliviously immune. But in the blink of an eye, I changed from being the reader viewing the picture to the person in the picture viewing the reader.
The reunion was a milepost in my life. Our 1966 social caste system lay in appreciated ruins. We all had been centrifuged into a single layer by a 40-year post graduate curriculum. We were stretched past the urgency of pegged pants by bright success or the blackest of grief. We finally had a core sense of who we were--a quality that only experience can impart to the all-knowing 17-year-old.
The reunion's experience was surreal. I rebounded between memories of 1966 and the reality of 2006 like a ping pong ball in a hotly contested match. In the same millisecond of time while listening to golden oldies I was shuttled through pages of my own history book wedding the past and present for better or for worse. I listened to candid observations of high school years that had lost the need for secrecy. Either they were from too long ago or had finally been put in perspective.
Like others, I externally seemed to have undergone a reverse metamorphosis: the butterfly turned into a caterpillar but a darn good-looking one. Internally, my eyes had better depth perception.
The old gang
"CR" was there. She was the first bridge I knew in high school who quietly spanned a great diversity of egos and social levels with softly spoken words and a pen. She had a genuineness that allowed her to migrate through social walls like a ghost. I appreciated her attention as I struggled to present a sense of normalcy in my freshman year after my parents divorced. Unlike today, then was a time when divorce and leprosy were pretty much interchangeable.
"BA" didn’t surface until the next day. A rebel of the 60s, he now is firmly anchored with his family and farm, volunteer church work, and a Texas Longhorn pet steer appropriately named “Horney.”
I associate "BA" with his first dive off the Noel Bridge. It was painfully memorable because he managed to maintain a perfectly flat attitude before slamming his body into the Elk River with a splat that resembled two 10-foot pieces of liver being slapped together. The word spread quickly and a crowd gathered for the next lift off. They weren’t disappointed either. Through eyes laced with freshly ruptured blood vessels, he looked at me squarely as possible and said, “If I ever do that again, shoot me before I hit the water.” To this day, I can still hear him screaming under the water. I guess that sometimes we find our niche the hard way.
I missed seeing "MW" whom I remember having had laughing gas pouring out of every pore of his body. His jokes, purposefully crafted with no understandable punch line, caused hysterics after 1:00 a.m. Sometimes he was so incessant that we had to shut him up to avoid getting a laughter cramp in the throat that transformed us into gasping asthmatics.
At 15 his natural musical talent rubbed off on me and fueled a career that helped me pay for college and my first and only new car. I tested the water for a permanent career in music, but after realizing that I was too small of a fish in too big of a pond, I ended up chemically treating the water instead of playing in it. "MW", however, continued to play in it until he died from lung failure.
"CC" has either benefited from the research on aging done by the Methuselah Foundation of Cambridge University, or she sent her cloned 17-year old granddaughter in her place. "RC," whom I shot in the Adam’s apple with a BB circa the 7th grade, and I were both suspicious.
Who would have guessed in '66 that one of my best friends, "MW2" would become a noted Kansas City artist and my brother-in-law. We have slogged the same thought trough, done some joint area exhibits, played music, and laughed. I introduced him to my sister when they were both going through a “vulnerable” period and haven’t been able to get a crowbar in between them since.
Also around the table was "MW2's" cousin, "SS" who is working on a children’s research benefit program, and my wife’s cousin, "MT" who has a pretty full life as a cattle baron. I was struck by the diversity of the spokes connected on a common hub.
But probably the most amazing part is that I was there with my wife my first love. She lived in my heart for 29 years before we were married 11 years ago. I had seen her periodically when the moon was just right or the music took me to visit. Somehow we managed to span 29 years and 2000 miles. For me, she was the final beautiful chord in the 40-year song.
After the reunion, we drove up to Joplin to listen to Max Brown. He wasn't accompanied by the six-piece band that performed at the end of our junior year their classic number, “Baby Let Me Bang Your Piano” or something similar. I recall a mild controversy about the lyrics that prompted Ralph Brown to unplug Max Brown after only 12 measures. Puff Daddy wasn’t even a whole cell then.
Max has adapted too. He is a musical chameleon who can change his skin from Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello in a flash. He successfully spanned 50 years of changes where the beat evolved from a sedentary afterthought to a frontal lobe pulse. Max listens to his music and also to the people who come to listen. He is a master of ballads and deciphering “Drunkonics”, the official lounge language after midnight. It’s a marriage of deeeeep southern drawl, and Novocain mouth. Anyway, Max has switched to employing cyber- musicians on a computer module--quite a technological advancement from the cereal box Dick Tracey wrist watch radio that was the amusement when I was 10.
As we changed, so did Neosho. The saying popularized by author Thomas Wolfe that “you can never go home again” is bunk; just be prepared for the mixed bag you might find.
I discovered that my house now sported a malignant cantilevered addition, the earmarks of a Frank Lloyd Wright/Timothy Leary joint venture. The transformation put a nick in the umbilical cord that connected me there. Its new residents were living in the same space where my mother died, and walking over the secret room I dug underneath the garage floor. They had to be oblivious to our history and secrets beneath their feet.
My grandfather’s house, where I spent many years tinkering in the basement with tools my parents would not let me use, had fallen prey to the sags. The entire front porch roof structure had been ripped off, leaving four rock support columns standing like sentinels but with nothing to guard.
And my wife’s country home had a new wing now with indoor plumbing. I still miss the many Sundays spent there with the chickens, cows, and fresh garden vegetables. That’s where I learned to put up fencing and carved my first heart in a tree.
I saw that businesses were planted in the empty fields along the boulevard. Even after the 71 artery bypassed the heart of the city, progress was not halted, although I lament the paving over of the “Gay Way Roller Rink."
Creating signatures on Senior Hill still seems to be a ritual. Most look like they were applied by an air brush with stencils, and the 3-D color schemes were so good I swerved the car a few times to miss them.
The only things that stayed absolutely static were the gravestones of my parents. They were buried in the same section of the IOOF Cemetery. It’s odd death brought them back together again and closer than they were in life.
The next time a homeless person asks you for some spare change, give him a map to Neosho. And to any current Neosho High School student who might be perusing an account of a reunion as I once did, remember we are also looking back at you from the ink on the paper. The only fence between us is a fragile millisecond of time. But in that millisecond, please keep painting Senior Hill, do it better every year, and keep the tradition for as long as we need a familiar road that will carry us back home.