Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Some Things Never Change

Juneau is an island; there is no escape by car. Tourists flock to the Mendenhall Glacier, that tremendous tongue of ice that protrudes from the mouth of a mountain and tastes the bay; a stark reminder of a day when it's like was the rule, and a foreboding of days to come. Ice pockets hundreds of feet deep puncture it's surface, the final stop for foolish hikers, who may someday be uncovered as physical evidence of an ancient civilization.

As a boy I longed to escape to the lower forty eight; I felt hemmed into a fold of snow, ice, rock, and trees, banished to a wilderness tamed by the machines of man, with only the Chinook Wind to warm me. When I graduated from high school my deliverance from island fever came in the form of an acceptance letter to WSU in Pullman, Washington. The state's colleges harbored many Alaskan refugees, so that it was not uncommon to see a familiar face in any Washington city.

Being from Alaska carries a burden. There is a tape recording in the mind of every man, a shared curiosity about the denizens of the nations biggest state, more sparsely populated than Lincoln, Nebraska. Is it always light? Did you live in a igloo? Do you know any Eskimos? Have you seen a polar bear? My answer is no, no, no and no. Not where I lived.

I never looked back once I got out, and suffered nary a regret for leaving. I left nothing behind, and really had no friends to speak of, save for a few. What friends I did have were doing the same as me in due time, going to out of state colleges and getting jobs abroad, such that all of us started new lives and hooked up on special occasions, but never together again in that remote ice hole.

I dreamed of going to my ten year high school reunion, to show everyone how much I had changed. I wasn't popular and still held onto a tendril of hope that I would impress my peers and show them how wrong they were about me.

I caught a flight in Seattle on Alaskan Airlines, and fortune placed me across the aisle from the high school jock, who happened to be sitting with the queen of the prom, and neither flashed me so much as a look of recognition. She sat on his lap and smothered his face with kisses, and he wore a look of smug entitlement. I kept my nose in a book and tried to ignore them.

The captain announced our descent into Juneau, and my ears were having trouble adjusting to the drop in elevation. I popped a stick of gum into my mouth and was rewarded a few chews later with cracks and whistling of escaping pressure in both ears. From my window I saw the most breathtaking scene that was the valley of my old home. The landscape was covered so thickly with verdant green pine as to resemble a lush carpet. The mountains were steeper than I remembered, framing the spectacular view of the Mendenhall Glacier that sparkled like blue polished diamond where it poured into the bay dotted with gigantic bobbing ice shards. My how my perception had changed since the time I had left. In California I thought Yosemite National Park was nature's brightest jewel, and yet here, a place where I spent my awkward teenage years, was a close rival.

Even the trailer park where I lived didn't seem so shabby as I pulled up to Ken's place, where he lived alone now after his parents were murdered after a fashion that I didn't inquire. Ken was a native Indian of Tlinket descent, who shared my interest in music, especially the young Elvis. We hadn't spoken since I left, and yet we fell together like the two last pieces of a puzzle.

We set up cans on his back fence and took turns shooting pellets with his wrist rocket, and as was the way between us, we kept score. I told him of my life since we parted, and let him know that I was a brand new man, that I had changed. I needed to be different now, because the boy who left years ago was not well liked. Or so I thought.

"You say you've changed," Ken told me, "but you don't seem any different to me at all."

I took aim and missed the can. "Shit!" I loaded another pellet into the leather pouch and pulled it back again, concentrated on the target and let it fly. "Bullseye!" I yelled it out and we both laughed. I realized in that moment, taking such pleasure in a childish pasttime, that he was right. But more importantly, I was happy about it.

The reunion itself was a continuation of the old cliques. Faces emerged from the fog of my memory; I was elated and saddened at once as one after another shook my hand with such enthusiasm, so glad to see me, looking for a sign of mutuality, but mostly I couldn't or could only vaguely recall who they were. I had a hard time with myself after that, knowing that I had wished for friends when they were all around me, unnoticed, unappreciated, that I was guilty of the one thing for which I despised in others.

Our prom king was getting married, and threw his bachelor party on that weekend, and the who's who of men from our class were all invited. The old pain, the jealousy, the envy, gripped my chest in a vise as I held my countenance high. I said hello to Dennis in a bar that night, the clown-king of the in-crowd, and monster linebacker on my football team, that occasionally stooped to say hello when nobody else was around. Ken pointed him out as we played a game of pool. I knew I should stay away, but Ken made such a show of pointing him out that I felt like I might say at least hello. He was pleasant enough, until one of his friends, nicknamed Hoss for obvious reasons, walked up and stared at me with no small amount of menace.

"Hey Hoss," I said stupidly.

He just stared back.

"Do you remember who I am?" I asked stupidly.

"NO!" He seemed to grow and inch. "SHOULD I?!"

I turned to Dennis and he just stared like I was a plague victim.


Sadie Lou said...

My husband and I both skipped our ten year reunions. There's no way enough time has gone by to justify seeing everyone and swaping stories. I just don't care enough about what everyone else is or isn't doing. It's funny: I was friends with people younger or older than me too, my own year would be a pointless reunion. I'd rather go to the one before me.

I have family in Barrow, Alaska.
I think I'll wait for the 20 year.

Sadie Lou said...

That was weird. That line I typed about waiting for the 20 year was typed after I said "My husband and I both skipped our 10 year reunions" but somehow it got tacked on to the end of my comment.
I also wanted to say thanks for adding me to your links. I feel special.

Scott said...

You're welcome Sadie. After my tenth I decided that twenty would be no better, and stayed home instead.

The Zombieslayer said...

Ouch. I was so heavily lost in work that I missed my ten year reunion. The thing is, it doesn't matter to me because I'm still in touch with everyone I want to be in touch with from high school. So if I go to the next one, I'll just be hanging with them anyways.

As for Alaskans, we saw a lot of them when I was living in Seattle.

Miranda said...

*grin* I was worse, I skipped graduation. Thanks, Scott. :) You really ought to write a book.

Sadie Lou said...

I wanted to skip graduation. My graduating class was HUGE. It took hours to go through everyone.
...and it was HOT and we were outside.
I wish I would have bailed.

Scott said...

Zombie - Ah, living in Seattle, you know what I mean. It seems like everyone but me had a grip on who they were leaving high school.

Miranda - Thanks, I'm working on a couple of outlines, but ideas are difficult to work out, but I won't quit!

jenbeauty said...

I have been on the planning committee for 3 of the 4 reunions we have held. The 15 year failed because the girls who took over for us...well...I won't say anything, that should be enough of saying something!

I am currently helping plan the 20 year. I am looking forward to it and hope to see a few people I have not seen since the 5 year.

I was always the girl that knew everyone and threw great parties. I included everyone and felt it was not a party unless I had a huge group of different people.

My core group of friends has not changed, but there are others I am really curious about.

Me, if I would have been next to you, I would have put the meatheads in their place!!

Jason said...

I skipped my 10-year to go on a trip to New Orleans of all places. Like Sadie, I didn't think enough time had passed to make a difference. My 20-year was actually quite fun, though -- I traveled farther than any other classmate to be there. What was shocking was how many of my classmates have died.

Kathleen said...

I went to my 5-year (HUGE MISTAKE) and left crying. I didn't even contemplate the 10-year as I was certain it would be pure hell. I went to my 20-year and it was NOT as bad as I expected. Not that it was good, it just wasn't the hellaciousness I had geared myself up for. I don't see me going to any more.

Scott said...

Jen - I appreciate that you would have stuck up for me. What pisses me off is that I should have kicked the shit out of him. Then the whole trip would have been worth it, and grist for a story of real dramatic change.

Jason - A classmate sent me some pictures. I was surprised at home many people were bald! Everyone was middle aged. Sad.

Kathleen - I skipped my 20th, but I should have went for the few friends that I did have, and focused on that for the trip. I'll probably go to my next if I don't have my teeth in a glass.