A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, July 9, 2012

Bright College Years

(Above: Karl Marlantes speaking at our reunion)
A few weeks ago I attended my 45th Yale College reunion, and it was the biggest ever.
Literally. My classmates and I received souvenir windbreakers, but we ran out of size XLs within the first few hours.
But our class reunion was big in every sense of the word. We broke all attendance records, and we had the time of our lives.
It stretched over four days, but by day two I knew it was a success because I was starting to feel sad.
Many of my classmates felt the same way – happy because we were having such a great time but sad that it was drawing to an end.
And that's a pretty good metaphor for our lives. We're 67 years old, and while we're still having fun and are grateful that we're still here, we know it won't last forever. The actuarial tables don't lie.
I looked at my friends, and it broke my heart to realize that I'll never see some of them again. I just don't know which ones.
But it was precisely this sadness that made the moment so sweet. Knowing that we're going to die - some sooner, some later - made us more determined to savor the pleasure of each other's company while we still can.
Yale was a very different place the day we first arrived in the fall of 1963.
The most popular record on Billboard's Hot 100 was "My Son, The Folksinger" by Allan Sherman, and there were 16,000 American soldiers in Vietnam.
 On graduation day four years later, the most popular record was "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," and there were half a million American soldiers in Vietnam.
Our class, which was all male, split almost down the middle on Vietnam. Forty percent joined the armed services. The rest of us fought a different fight – to stay out at all costs.
But we never talked about the war at any of our previous reunions. It was the elephant in the room that we all pretended not to notice because it was too painful.
This time, however, we decided to have one of our classmates, Karl Marlantes, as a speaker.
How could we not? He had just won a ton of awards for his novel, "Matterhorn," about his experience as a Marine second lieutenant in Vietnam, and he was already getting rave reviews for his new book, a non-fiction treatment of many of the same themes, titled "What It Is Like To Go To War."
This was the first reunion Karl had ever attended, and before the speech his wife Anne confided to me that he was apprehensive about what kind of reception he'd get.
What he got was a thunderous standing ovation that went on and on and on and on. His eyes brimmed with tears. So did many of ours.
That night, we started passing the hat among ourselves to create a scholarship in honor of Biff McKellip, our only classmate who was killed in the war. We hope to have it in place in time for our 50th reunion in 2017.
It never occurred to me that the reunion would turn out to be about healing the scars of Vietnam. But it did. And it felt so good.