Sunday, May 29, 2011

Where Did The Time Go?

Forty two years ago tonight, May 29, 1969, the Rice Lake Wisconsin Senior High School Class of 1969 graduated and was let loose on the world.

At the time the war in Vietnam was grabbing all the headlines and beneath our high school bravado many of us feared that we'd be shipped off to Nam and come home in a box. Only one kid from Rice Lake ever did that - my cousin Dean Beranek. Nobody wanted to be the next one and luckily nobody ever did.

There were 209 of us in that graduating class and what a bunch we were. There were the brainy types like Marilyn Drew and Tim Lindgren, and the shy ones like Mike Staub (whom I never once heard say a single word), and the Playboy quality babes like Sue Johnson and Mary Holmstrom and Marla Williams to the hell raisers like....well...the Benavides brothers and me :) Our unofficial class motto was "Booze, Broads, Butts, Wine; We're The Class of Sixty NINE". As Steve Benavides told me recently, our class motto now is "Booze, Broads, Butts, Wine; We're STILL the Class of Sixty Nine".

Although some of us were hell raisers we never did anything really stupid - well - maybe just a little. Like the night in April 1969 when Tom and Steve Benavides and I ran out of beer and it was too late to get more from Orville Johnson, everyone's "source". One of us came up with the brilliant idea that we should break into the Omaha Bar and steal a six pack. Known as the "Big O" we drove there immediately. I parked directly in front of the bar and we three walked with larceny on our minds to the side of the bar. One of us knew how to break in locks (don't ask how he knew) and soon we were in the door. We have now committed breaking and entering. Quickly we walked to the cooler where one of us removed a six pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. As we walked out the door Tom became overcome with guilt and left $1.25 on the bar to pay for the beer - technically we hadn't stolen anything but it would have been difficult convincing a judge otherwise.

Leaving the scene of the crime we drove out near Desair Lake and drank our ill-gotten booty. The next morning after milking cows my parents and I were listening to Dick Kaner present the news on WJMC radio. His lead story was how police were investigating a break in at the Big O. My dad, sitting across the table from me, mumbled "I hope they catch the sons of bitches." With most of the blood drained from my face I thought to myself "I hope the hell they don't." They never did but 27 years later when I returned home for my mom's funeral I went to the Big O and confessed. The bartender, who likely wasn't even born the day of our crime, bought me a bottle of beer for my honesty.

In the run up to our graduation the Class of 69 started training in January for the legendary Senior Class beer party. That first weekend we had one half-barrel of beer in the pole barn of a class mate. As winter turned into spring our training got us drinking more and more beer until the night of the beer party (held on land owned by another class mates parents north of the V and M Bar by Brill) nearly 200 of us consumed nearly 5 half barrels of beer (16.5 gallons per half barrel) before the sheriff's deputies raided the party and sent us all home. It was that night, sitting on the bed of a pick up truck that I kissed Liz McGough for the first and only time in my life. That was the first time I ever kissed a redhead and I think that one kiss set me off on a lifelong addiction to redheads. Thanks Liz!

Some of us had really hot cars. Earl "Buck" Smith owned a 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle with a 396 cubic inch engine. One night we got it up to 132 miles per hour on Highway C east of Rice Lake. We slowed down only after a skunk unwittingly waddled out in front of the car and was promptly ground up by the radiator fan. Richard Uchytil used to drive his brothers Corvette to school. One day during lunch hour Richard cranked up the Vette in the High School parking lot, popped the clutch and took off south toward the auditorium in a thick blue haze of burning rubber. When he finally shut down the engine he discovered that he'd burned off both of the rear tires. I can still hear Richard saying "Oh, fuck, my brother is going to kill me."

Alan Arnold, whom I had known since the first grade in Menomonie Wisconsin, was selected to present our class speech. Those of us who knew Arnie well expected him to do something goofy on the stage but, looking back at it now, he did a masterful job. In part of his speech, as he talked about us being let loose on the world, Arnie mentioned that some in our class would become doctors (like Valedictorian Tim Lindgren did) and some would become lawyers (like Bruce Elbert did) and with a smile on his face Arnie said "and some of us might even be mayor of Rice Lake one day." Nearly 20 years later while switching planes in the Minneapolis airport I picked up the St. Paul Pioneer Press, turned to the Wisconsin section, and read a story in which Rice Lake Mayor Alan Arnold was quoted. I'll be damned - Arnie did it!

Some of us took off to explore the world. Clara Hein has been teaching in Australia for as long as I can remember. Tom Nelson joined the Navy and was once stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Others, like a large percentage of the class, stayed closer to home. Some of us like Bob Sharp and Lee Anderson and Eugene Heinz and Tom Benavides were sent to Vietnam while others of us (me) stayed home protesting in an attempt to get them home safely. However no matter where we went or what we accomplished or how many divorces we went through, many of us (probably the vast majority) have remained northern Wisconsin kids even if we are far away from "home."

My time in Rice Lake was only two years because my parents moved us from Cameron (six miles south) to a farm east of Rice Lake between the 10th and 11th grades. Although I graduated from Rice Lake I actually grew up with the "Cameron kids" and always felt a kinship with them. I still do today.

Two hundred nine of us received diplomas 42 years ago today - well 209 of us went through the graduation ceremony 42 years ago today - there is some speculation even today about whether all of us actually had a diploma in our diploma case that Principal Willard Swamson handed out that evening. Today 42 years later we aren't as many as we used to be. Some of us have departed the earth because of suicide and some because of cancer and some because of other diseases. After spending 13 months in Vietnam Lee Anderson returned home in August 1973, entered the Technical College in September and was promptly killed in a three-wheeler accident on a forest trail in Burnett County in October. I'm still angry with "Butch" for being in a drunken situation where that horrible thing could happen. I still feel like a part of me died that night in Brunett County when he died.

With the coming of 2011, all of us are now at least 60 years old or will be by the end of November when Bruce Kleven, the youngest kid in the class, turns 60. Accuarial tables tell us that it wont be long before the rate of our departure accelerates. Each week I read the online version of my home town newspaper and my first stop is always the obituaries to see if anyone I know is on the pages. Increasingly I see more and more familiar names that have passed on before me. And it makes me really sad to think of all those young and vibrant faces (and fantastic chest development in Sue Johnson's case)or near-perfect asses (in Trudy Owens' case) growing old and our hair turning gray and falling out and gravity shifting things around and eventually we are no more. Someone once said that you are never really dead until nobody can remember you. Given the personalities in the Class of 1969 it will be a very long time before the last one of us is ever forgotten.

Looking back on things now it is almost comical how we thought we knew everything back then when in fact we knew nothing at all. Almost everyone who survived puberty and their 20s has had the same epiphany but still its more stark when it involves yourself. Some times I wonder if Kenny Chesney didn't record his song "Young" for all of us back then.

Its because we aren't as many as we used to be that I think the song in this video by James McMurtry titled "Just Us Kids" is a fitting tribute to those of us who graduated from RLHS (Go Warriors) 42 years ago tonight and to my brothers and sisters in the Cameron High School class of 1969 who were let loose on the world on almost the same night.

I will never forget the wrap up of Alan Arnold's now-famous class speech that night long ago. He finished his script, looked up from the podium, gave everyone the peace sign and said, simply, "peace."

I can not think of a better way to sum it up even now 42 years later.