I first left my hometown at 15 as a pariah, the cautionary tale of juvenile delinquency. I ended up graduating high school at the Red Wing “Boys Reformatory,” forever banished from the records of the Jackson High class of 1963.
With shame and defiance, I voluntarily emigrated from the soil of my ancestors and its offspring. I remember well fleeing in a battered, grey 1949 Plymouth. I immigrated to a foreign land–eventually becoming a citizen of a more cosmopolitan universe.
Nevertheless, my hometown remained the psychic map by which I sought to distance myself from the provincial culture and values of my youthful years of 1945 to 1960. I could never listen to the songs on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” without imagining that bend in the Des Moines River. In other words, you can take the boy out of Jackson County, but you can never take Jackson County out of the boy.
In 2010, a terminal cancer invaded both my body and my identity. Suddenly my story of dying went viral, appearing statewide in newspapers, on TV, radio, and the internet. Much to my astonishment, a number of former classmates reached out to me with compassion and affection. They had extended an invitation of reconciliation. Hesitantly, I reciprocated.
As a result, when an invitation arrived last spring for our 50th class reunion, I decided to return for the first time as an honorary graduate. Last weekend, I drove southwest for 180 miles with considerable trepidation. I arrived at the last minute and, without a nametag with a picture, few recognized me. Of the 107 class members, 22 candles flickered for those who had passed, 53 of the remaining 85 attended—a remarkable percentage. Of the 53, 13 of us had become teachers. Perhaps there was something more than fluoride in that landmark water tower.
After an exhilarating two days, I drove for three hours home, luxuriating in my peers’ welcoming balm that heals the soul. I had not fully realized what a festering emotional wound this 50-year-long estrangement has been. It’s difficult making language express the depth of my gratitude.
It was a godsend for this prodigal son to see up close and personal how each of us have been participants in the same human comedy, sharing a plethora of trials and tribulations, triumphs and tragedies. Along this haphazard pilgrimage, all we really have is each other. To the members of the class of 1963, a heartfelt thank you for sharing the early morning and late evening of my brief, but eventful, sojourn on this earth.
Don’t be a stranger.