40 years one night
“The Wild Bunch is gonna ride tonight,” said my old basketball pal, Jeff Wise. I nodded in agreement as we sat shoulder-to-shoulder on chairs in the Woodland Hills (CA) Hilton ballroom. Because only he and I knew what that meant.
Thomas Wolfe once famously wrote that you can’t go home again. Of course, for him, home was some poverty-stricken Tobacco Road affair in Asheville, where everyone was either blasted by noon or jobless, or both.
Not so for me, Tommy-boy. Because I was home again: Wise and I were surveying the El Camino Real High School Class of 1976’s 40th Reunion.
The high school reunion is American folklore, truly the go-home-again scene writ large. Big minds like Wolfe can wrestle with the agonized gestalt of youth; small minds like Nellie can revel in seeing the pals with whom formative, important years were spent.
I had two basic groups of friends in high school – determined jocks and student council brainiacs. I was mediocre at the former and not smart enough for the latter. Hence, I learned a lot from both, for which my gratitude will never end.
For my athlete pals, I start with the tallest: At 6' 8", Big Al Kennedy, former San Francisco 49er, winner of two Super Bowl rings, now running a large Bay Area security company. Matt Staker, Best Man for the groom in "My Fair Brady" (Chris Knight a.k.a. Peter Brady was a classmate) and a longtime computer company executive. Kurt Vetter, a fast-mover with Coca-Cola and now President of an international food company whose products I guarantee you have in your kitchen. Jim Benkert, one of the winningest high school football coaches in California history, with four state title teams. Roger Lang, former UCLA baseball scholarship man and AT&T executive. And, my Wild Bunch comrade Wise, a well-known Northern California teacher, coach and athletic director.
In minutes, we all dispense with the trivialities like careers and kids and move onto the important stuff. “Vetter was always bummed that season because we couldn’t get past Canoga High”....“Matt started Varsity in 11th grade after getting no PT on BEEs”....“In the Taft game, Benkert body-slammed Fisher (Jeff Fisher, now head coach of the L.A. Rams)....“Roger had that future NBA guy one-on-one with rest of us in the box defense on the corners”..."Check out Al's rings..."
After every season had been rehashed, I head over to the student government table. Emphatically, I tell the wife of Mark Pearl, a onetime neighbor: “Your husband, Futterman, Zipperstein and Shapiro were the smartest guys in the class.” I subsequently learn that ole Zip is a General Counsel for a Fortune 20 company, and Futterman and Shapiro are big-time attorneys in the Bay Area. Then she tells me her and Mark’s son was valedictorian of his high school class. “See, told you I was right!” I say smugly.
On to the “girls,” now women. I tell them all that I had a crush on all of them in 10th grade but was too much of a geek to pursue any of it further. “You weren’t a geek,” they assure me with no enthusiasm and then ask what I’ve been doing in my career. Ascertaining the political winds in the room, I tell them the truth. “I’ve worked for the Evil Party for thirty years” and then I pause dramatically. “But I’m better now.” They nod approvingly and I slide on. Why upset anyone unnecessarily?
The disc jockey – they are now called “DJs” for your information - is "spinning" groups like Chicago, Neil Diamond, Van Halen, and Elton John. I shudder as I see people dancing.
One kind soul asks me if I have any kids. “Yes,” I say brightly, “Three sons and two have cleared parole.” Between the throwback Van Halen and the crowd noise, maybe she doesn’t hear me. “That’s nice,” she responds and drifts away.
I always have had a good mind for numbers (though don’t ask Staker and Geoff Horn how we gamed Mr. Reedy’s 11th grade Geometry class; no wonder I’ll never be Senate confirmable). So I tell the nine athletes at my table what their jersey numbers were in 11th grade. This turns out to be my sole original contribution to the evening.
I understand quite well high school is a super-charged environment in a long life that can be awfully benign, and perhaps I’m unusual that my experience was truly good - except then I glance at my athlete and student council pals. Like them, I had a lot of friends, I was too nervous to get in trouble, I was around guys and girls who were motivated and resilient, and not much of this good fortune ever wore off. I look at these individuals now – many virtually unchanged in appearance and every one of them solid contributors to the great machinery of American society.
Near the end of the evening, I’m with Wise and he confides, “The Wild Bench went out in style, that’s for sure.” He’s right.
It was February 8, 1976, El Camino Real High versus Jefferson High in the Los Angeles City Playoffs. Wise and I were, in fact, the sole members of the Wild Bunch. It was our self-proclaimed nickname, gleefully familiar to every kid in the school. Because when the Wild Bunch got in a game, everyone knew that game was out of control.
El Camino was behind by 20 points with 50 seconds left when suddenly, Wise and I were thrust onto the floor by our mournful coach. Dribbling, Wise bounced the ball off his knee, it caroomed to me, and he got an assist when I lofted a crazy, off-balance jump shot (two of my four points for the entire season). The El Camino crowd erupted in good-natured laughs and cheers, as though we were up by 20. Take that, Wolfe-man.
Wise kind of muses, “Nellie, I remember that game and man, it just doesn’t seem that long ago.” Looking back 40 years over a room full of once-inseparable friends, I too recalled the game and the lockers slamming in the gym and the school bells and the books thumping shut and the joke sessions at lunch and the yells across the football field and all the years of success and shortcomings and general prevailing.
I paused and then replied, “It wasn’t.”