Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Fabulous Phil Mattson Reunion

Reunion En Plein Air
Jean-Antoine Watteau
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.
---Albert Einstein
The buds swell imperceptibly without hurry or confusion, as if the short spring day were an eternity.
---Henry David Thoreau
Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.
---Wallace Stevens
I've titled this particular piece of pondering so that Google will pick up "Phil Mattson," and I'd better get right to the reason why. A couple years ago I wrote the first of a few articles about this remarkable vocal teacher, which you still can take a look at here and a few other places on the Internet. The followup articles, like this one, came because of response from former students, who wish to express gratitude and make contact with each other. One of Phil Mattson's students from 25 years ago, Roy Turpin, has gone so far as to propose a reunion celebration next July in Creston, Iowa, where the venerable teacher continues to inspire young people. I'm trying to help spread the word a little bit. Contact me if you want referral to more information.
But what about this urge to reunion? It seems to be one of those traits we humans have come up with that's nowhere else in creation. I understand elephants have graveyards they revisit to mourn and remember relatives from the herd...but that's like Memorial Day. Some flying creatures migrate to the same places, but I guess they don't do that to say hello to each other. I wonder if dolphins and whales have reunions with those who have gone away from the pod.
Many of us who came up through the 1950s probably remember family reunions, where as a kid you didn't know anybody but hoped there might be distant cousins there you at least could play with. There was a lot of food, chiefly baked beans as I recall. Then came school reunions which rebellious outsiders like me tried to avoid at all cost. I enjoyed seeing old friends, but didn't want to risk rejection again by people who didn't like me in the first place. I phoned up a friend from college a few years ago, told him I'd be in town, and suggested we get together. He said he didn't see the point in visiting the past and so refused to see me. I never went that far, but I guess I can understand where he's at.
I still felt I didn't particularly want to go to my 50th high school reunion even as I registered for it...which I succeeded in putting off until I had to do it late. But now I thought it was sort of my duty to show up, and I admit to curiosity about some of the other old duffers with whom I'd lost contact. Surely most of our class of 350 or so would be there...unless they'd died---and quite a few have. So it was I drove the 6 hours---well, 7 now that I honor the gas conservation of the actual speed limit---up from Ohio to Jamestown, New York, where I was born, raised, and schooled all the way through.
The first meeting was Friday afternoon at JHS itself for a tour of the expanded facility. I got there 5 minutes early to find a group of 75 people standing around in the parking lot. Some few were talking together, but mostly we apparently were strangers. This was the first indication we were not going to know automatically who people were anymore. There's a bit of a shock to that because you figure you haven't changed that much (in 50 years---heh heh) so what's happened to all these other folks? Finally a guy turned to me just to make small talk, said his name, and then I recognized him immediately. I would have that experience over and over again for the next 2 days.
A picnic was to follow that evening, and I must say we 75 now had an edge on everybody else. At last the nametags were distributed, with a little photo on it of what we looked like in 1958. Of course quite a few people stayed in Jamestown through these years, and most of them knew each other. They formed the core committee that planned all this. But like many small cities, this one suffered loss of industry and jobs and many of us, who didn't move away to go to college and live somewhere else, were forced to do so to find work. Now I stood in line to get my nametag and try to be cool and not show any anxiety that people might not recognize me at all even then.
What happened from then on seemed to happen similarly to other people too. At first I tried to remain the mature, accomplished fellow I am today---harrumph---but as I met more and more people, particularly those I had known since grade school, I began to enter the Reunion Time Warp. There were reminiscences, some of which I had forgotten, or TRIED to forget, and other memories I knew very well. Mostly there was laughter, but sometimes we paused over something serious that had happened during our development or to mourn a lost friend. At one point, at the big dance Saturday night, I stood before the 3 "girls" I had had crushes on prior to high school. Such an event never had happened to me before. By the end of the evening I was 18 again.
So obviously I had a whale of a time---and if whales don't have reunions, they should. Maybe they don't need to, because they don't wander off the way we do. We leave the tribe on our walkabouts, and we don't come back. We become men and women and we set up somewhere else, maybe form a new tribe or decide to do without. Some of us keep the same job and family for 30 years. I used to change jobs every couple years...until the times began to get rougher. I was divorced once, had 15 years of being on my own, and now celebrate a marriage and new family of 26 years.
The drive back home was revelatory for me. It was like all my formative years had passed before my eyes. My wife reminded me it would be natural if the days just following this would seem like a letdown...and that's true, they have. My ego has had to get back down where it belongs. Reunions are good, whether you have to grow into them as I have, or you've been at it all along. There's a human trait to reunite, probably because we think about things. We want it to be all one package, understood and organized, when finally we breathe our last. We want to be able to pass on in joy, with a smile and thanks.