This past weekend, I went back for the 50th reunion of my High School class in South Carolina. I traveled down I-85, the same road I had first traveled 51 years ago, moving from New York to experience my high school senior year in Greenville, SC.
On my way south this weekend, I guess I anticipated that I would meet old friends with whom I would relive ‘the good old days,’ somewhat of a post mortem done by us folks whose lives were stumbling into a grudging twilight, lacking color or relevance.
Wrong. Most of the talk was about the present and the future.
First, the men: This was the generation of males who went to Viet Nam, the first war not supported by the public, media, and entertainment industries. The modern soldier has absolutely no comprehension of what it was like to come home from ‘Nam. It was the first, and hopefully last, war in which American soldiers were held, by their protesting contemporaries, as having culpability for the war equal to the politicians who started the war. We didn’t understand PTSD back then. Many soldiers had to heal on their own. Some still bear the scars, external and internal.
This was the generation of men who receive no credit for the gains in human rights. Born into a conservative state where racial and gender equality were impossibly alien concepts, these men had to bend. It was their prerogatives that had to be shared with newly enfranchised minorities and women.
The more militant civil rights groups for both minorities and women might historically say that these revolutions happened despite such men. I disagree. Strongly. Aggressive resistance to these sweeping changes existed in other states. Of the southern states, South Carolina was the first to secede from the Union before the Civil War. On the issue of equality in the 60’s, there was no cultural secession and no social war.
I think it needs to be recalled that these men, in order to become parents and social or business leaders in this new world, needed to break with many of the traditions and cultural expectations of their parents. Those of you who have watched ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ understand how tradition can be a burden. And just like Tevya, this generation of Carolina man was compelled by reality and family love to bend. Like Tevya, they bent; like him, they did not break.
Now, the women: When I first came to South Carolina, I was generally impressed that the girls seemed, almost all, to be pretty. They had style and grace. I was, however, struck by the obligatory social pressure they were under to attain only a certain educational level; then groom themselves to become wives, mothers, members of the Junior League and volunteers at the church or local hospital.
They were expected to lose their identities, along with their first names, and become ‘Mrs. John Doe.’ It was into this conservative world that issues of race, feminism, and sexual liberation exploded. It was this generation of women that had to reconcile all of these issues. They had to modify, or depart from the expectations of their parents, and to do it without rancor. They had to advance the legitimate agenda of feminism while avoiding the extremism that is present in all revolutions. Did they do it? You bet!
In talking with my female classmates, I saw that age had had its predictable impact on their prettiness, but had replaced it with beauty. I disagree with the idea that ‘beauty is only skin deep.’ I believe that beauty begins inside and spills to the outside. It soothes, compels, and delights the observer. I was proud to know these women, women whose beauty was born of character.
This was the generation of men and women who had to introduce, into a somewhat doctrinaire local culture, such issues as birth control, abandonment of blue laws; human rights, and cultural relaxation. Yet, this was also the first generation since Reconstruction to abandon a Democratic party that had moved too far away from moral and ethical non-negotiables.
Put these fine men and fine women together, and you find many surprises. When I talked with them and found that they considered themselves ‘retired’ (and darned few of them, at that), I would then ask what they did with their time.
Virtually all of them would go on to describe involvement in what any rational person would consider full time work. These people were involved in teaching, health care, athletics, government, church, synagogue. All I had to do was instigate a conversation on one of the “ 3 f’s” (family, faith, future) and all my old friends’ eyes would light up and dance.
These are the eyes of people who are engaged. You don’t see such eyes staring at video games or computers. The eyes, in addition to being a window into a person’s soul, are also the mouth of the brain. What you place before your eyes becomes brain food. My old friends have a far more nutritional ‘visual diet’ for their brains than the younger generations.
I enjoyed my visit with my friends. While possessing a longer past history than the younger generations, they are no less involved in the present and future than my own children. They put me in mind of Tennyson’s Ulysses:
Come, my friends, ‘tis not too late to seek a newer world
Push off, and, sitting well in order, smite the sounding furrows;
For my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars until I die….
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
I think Wade Hampton, after his initial shock, would be proud of this generation.
– Dennis Garvin