Clarence was in my senior class in high school.  That was 45 years ago.  I haven’t seen him since.

Clarence marched to his own drum.  In chemistry class one afternoon, Clarence proposed a project to the teacher Mr. Cross.  Clarence’s project:  Clarence was going to make gunpowder from scratch.  Surprisingly, Mr. Cross agreed and the idea was put into motion.

Of course, once you think you’ve successfully created gunpowder, it seems like you’re defeating your own purpose if the experiment was to make gunpowder without testing it.  I mean, that’s the point, right?  You have to know it works.

You must test your brilliance.  Always.  Hold my beer.

Weeks later, our chemistry class assembled outside on a back lawn of the school.  The students formed a ring around the gunpowder “pile.”  Mr. Cross made all of us keep back for safety purposes.  Clarence got out some matches.

Clarence knelt in front of his Frankenstein creation and proceeded to give it life.  With Clarence in the kill zone, Mr. Cross stood up behind him as the match was lit.

It was over in a flash.  Literally.  Like you see back in the days of early flash-photography.  As the smoke cleared, Clarence stumbled up and back and it was then we realized his face was blackened and his eyebrows were singed off.

Nobody freaked, although Mr. Cross seemed nervous, more so than usual.

Clarence dusted himself off and laughed.

The students all laughed once we saw he was okay.  We laughed again when he searched for his missing eyebrows and realized they were completely gone.

Mr. Cross told us we would not be attempting any redos.

And that was that.

Mr. Cross was not fired.

Clarence didn’t have to be whisked to the emergency room, just to the boys room to wash his face.

Clarence’s parents didn’t come to the school or file a lawsuit.

Eventually, Clarence’s eyebrows grew back.

And for all I know, he got an A in Chemistry.

I graduated high school in the state of Maine in 1973 at the age of 17.  The school was only a couple of years old when I started my Freshman year in 1969.  My home life was not a refuge, but school was.  I looked forward to going to school.  I was safe within those walls.

My senior class was relatively small – roughly 150 kids.  Our group was an amalgam culled and bussed from surrounding areas that weren’t large enough to support their own high schools.  I spent 4 years there with a group of people that still know each other’s names.

In prior schools, I’d been bullied.  With the exception of some towel snaps in the locker room, that never happened in my high school.  I never felt threatened in those 4 years.  The kids were good kids, decent from an early age.  Even the jocks who had to pick my spindly frame for their team in Phys. Ed. when I was the last one to pick did it without too much eye-rolling.

The class of ’73 holds a reunion once every 5 years.  I just attended my 45th year high school reunion.  Previously, I went to the 35th.  The 25th.

I started with the 20th.  Truth be told, I wasn’t going to go to that first one.

I’d missed the first few reunions due to living overseas and by the time I was living in the states again, I don’t think anyone from my class knew how to contact me.  This was before Facebook and social networking could aid in tracking someone down.  I ended up reaching out to a classmate who put me in touch with the folks running the reunions.

I only went because I’d escorted Judy to her 20th in South Carolina.  Truth be told a second time, I wasn’t too interested in attending that either.  But I went and spent the evening at the bar with all the other spouses that weren’t in her class.  As they like to say in Maine, I ended up having one wicked great evening.  And that’s what turned me in the other direction about reunions.  It turns out you can hardly know anybody and still have a good time.

But it can be even more fun if you know some of the people.

For many, high school is the worst period in their lives, so I get there are some who don’t care to revisit.  I’m always intrigued with who shows.  Or who doesn’t.  The memories in my mental Rolodex are scattered and fleeting.  Events and people blur with time.

Each reunion is a unique gathering.

This time I met Marie and Jean – I hadn’t seen them since school and it was a delight.  Never mind we needed nametags to figure out who we were.

There was Paul.  He would trade me half of a roast beef sandwich for my mother’s burned cookies.  I was often invited over to his house on the weekends and during the summer where we would go into his brother’s bedroom and hijack his chintzy little battery-operated stereo.  Paul’s older brother had a nice stash of Beatles records and we would crowd around this little plastic record player and play Beatles until the turntable started slurring.  I’m not sure if Paul’s older brother ever figured out why his batteries didn’t seem to last any time at all before having to replace them.

I never see Paul at the reunions I attend.

The smartest guy in my senior high school class was named Jeff.  I don’t see him either, but there’s a reason for that.  He did not live an incredibly long life.  He died from HIV when it was called AIDS.  In addition to being a whiz, Jeff was a really nice person with a wicked sense of humor who wanted to be a doctor and help people.

I had a moment of envy with Jeff that he never knew about.

In one of our English classes, we had to turn in a book report.  I was hit or miss with schoolwork, but on the book report, I thought I’d done pretty well.  But Jeff didn’t just turn in a book report.  He turned in a book report with a hand-drawn cover.  When the book reports were handed back by the teacher, she proudly held up not my book report I got a B+ on, rather she held up the smart guy’s A+ paper with the beautiful cover he’d rendered.

The teacher specifically mentioned his cover had impressed the hell out of her.  At the time, in my little fit of being green, I thought to myself, “That’s cheating.  His had a cover.”  But what I eventually took away from that experience was that I’d cheated myself.  If I hadn’t been lazy and had used my under-utilized creative mind, I could have gotten an A+ too.

I learned from all of these individuals, students and faculty alike.

Our senior yearbook was dedicated to one of my English teachers, Miss Beverly Cotton.  Miss Cotten was not only insistent about you being attentive in class, she also excelled at being a decent and caring human being.  Of all my teachers in my senior year, Beverly Cotton was the one who I think most sensed what was going on in my home life.

Ronald Dolloff was our principal.  He had slicked back hair in a time when dry hair was all the rage.  He seemed a little bit square to me.  Plus you’re always supposed to make fun of the principal, aren’t you?

As I recall – and maybe I’m conservative in my recollection – there were 3 times I was formally invited to the office to be in his presence.

Our study periods were optionally played out in our cafeteria before and after lunch.  There were traditional study halls as well, or you could go to the library, but there wasn’t much studying going on in the cafeteria study periods.  The cafeteria had a stereo set up with speakers and kids were allowed to bring in records to play for everyone.  One particular morning, I borrowed a Nilsson album from Aleta who had warned me one of the songs on the album had eff bombs in it.

Oh.  Probably shouldn’t have told me that.

To Aleta’s horror, I promptly walked up and presented her album to the just-out-of-college English teacher, Miss Manoogian, who was supervising the study period.  She put the record on.  The offending song, You’re Breakin’ My Heart, doesn’t come on until about 5 tracks in.  The initial of several eff bombs humorously planted in the tune comes right at the end of the first verse.  And Nilsson’s vocal is crystal-clear – there is no doubt he’s dropping bombs.  At the end of that first verse, Miss Manoogian popped her head up from her book, but she let it go.  By the 3rd bomb, she realized she was dealing with Doug Bari forces and got up to remove the vulgar vinyl.

The Nilsson album was handed over to the office.  It didn’t help that the accompanying lyric sheet spelled out the eff bombs prominently.  I had to go see Mr. Dolloff and explain myself.  Plus I needed to get the record back because it wasn’t mine.  I was contrite.  I lied and told Ronald D. that I had no idea there was swearing on the song.  I was Joan Crawford.  Which eye do you want the tear to fall from?

Mr. Dolloff gave the record back with a stern “Don’t let this happen again” admonition tacked on.

He gave me a pass when he shouldn’t have.  In his defense, Mr. Dolloff already knew a lot about my home life because the first time I was seated in his office was after I returned to school as a runaway.

When I was 16, just prior to entering my Junior year, I ran away from home.  And not just for the night.  I left Maine and hitchhiked to New York.  I was gone for almost 4 months.  I literally disappeared off the face of the Maine map at the tail end of the summer and didn’t come back until after Thanksgiving.

I missed the entire first quarter of my Junior year.  My first day back in school found me sitting in front of Mr. Dolloff’s desk.  I thought he was going to tell me the situation was too dire to fix.  But he didn’t.  Without wading into my problems, Ronald D. laid things out for me.  He’d spoken to my teachers, all of whom said they’d be willing to work extra hours to help me catch up so I could graduate with the rest of my class.  But I had to be willing to work hard with them.  Was I up to it?

We worked hard.  Me.  And a bunch of teachers who were willing to give up their free time for some wayward kid.  Those were the caring souls who guided us.

Another time I had to go see the principal was for something a little more serious.  It was early in the school day.  I think I was still in home room.  A messenger came to the door from the office, summoning me to see Mr. Dolloff.

“For what?!” I thought as I was led to see the principal.

I was ushered into Mr. Dolloff’s office and the door was closed behind me for privacy.  Mr. Dolloff sat at his desk next to a phone with the receiver off the hook.  There was a call for me.  It was my younger brother Burt calling from home to tell me our stepfather had killed himself.

After I hung up the phone, I remember standing there in this weird stillness and muttering, “I think I have to go home.”

A student with a car volunteered to drive me.

I will never forget the empathy in Mr. Dolloff’s eyes.  He understood things a lot more than my young adult mind could appreciate.  He spoke to me while I waited for the ride.  I don’t remember a word of it, but it was all comforting.  Meant to be fatherly in tone.

In my 60s, I see this from a bird’s-eye view.

It’s all about decency in the long run.  I was so lucky to be around so much decency.

I was the official male class clown in our senior yearbook.  I had some pretty stiff competition from 4 other gentlemen who I thought on occasion were funnier than me.  Two went away and were never heard from again.  One went on to have a career as a fisherman – he recently died sitting in his living room.  And about 10 years ago, the other one committed suicide after having a fallout with his girlfriend.

Toward the end of the evening, I spoke with a classmate named John who I ran against for President of Student Council.  One of the issues the kids wanted addressed was a smoking area for any classmates that wanted to smoke during study halls.

And just like with Jeff’s A+ book report, John gifted me with a life lesson or two.

I was convinced that no administration would allow smoking, so in my “campaign” speech, I told the first of several student audiences smoking would never get approved.  Then I joked we should pursue putting ashtrays in the restrooms.  I did, in fact, get a good laugh and John took notice.

The next time we had a “rally” in front of a different group of students, John went ahead of me and used my joke.  He torpedoed me before I even got on.  Not only did he have great success using my joke to loosen up the crowd, he then went on to say that smokers wouldn’t have to resort to hiding out in the bathrooms.  He was going to deliver on a smoking area.

When he told the crowd that, I knew he was doomed.

John won the election.  Handily.  I came in 3rd.  Out of 4 people.  So clearly, in the eyes of my fellow students, I was good class clown material, but didn’t have the right stuff to be presidential.

And guess what?  John pushed that issue through and got the administration to buy off on a courtyard area where students could smoke if their parents gave prior written permission.  And lots of parents signed.

Each time I watched the smokers chilling outside in their coolness, I reflected on what I learned from my ill-fated presidential run:

  1. Doug isn’t always right.
  2. Doug doesn’t know everything.
  3. Doug needs to think more outside of his own box.

I have moments when I wonder if I’m done with reunions.  On this last visit, roads and structures that had been my touchstones were either gone or rendered unrecognizable.  So what’s the tether?

Us.  We’re the tether that was formed almost a half-century ago.  Bonded in geography and timeframe, we were the fresh batch out of the oven, undaunted by worldly demands and broken dreams.

I guess maybe that’s why I go back occasionally.  At every reunion I’ve been to, there is always a tidbit or two.  Another dent in the fabric.

You never know who’s going to show up.

Or who you’ll talk to.

There is always this light of veteran recognition.  Of what we all know now vs. what little we knew then.

My senior crowd is not immune from destructive demographics.  We’ve lost a significant amount of people.  It’s a spin of the wheel.  Heart attack.  Car accident.  Suicide.  Dementia.  Stroke.  Pick a cancer.  About 7 years ago, we had a guy named Donnie crash in his plane on his way to deliver supplies to a Maine island cut off from the shore during the winter.

It’s been 10 years since I’ve been to a reunion.  There’s always a moment in the evening where I go through the high school yearbook with other former students to get the latest.  I’m always surprised by who’s gone.  Or maybe the surprise is that I’m still here.

Mr. Cross is gone.

Beverly Cotton recently died from cancer.

Most people I know say they have no regrets.

I never got to tell Miss Cotton what an impact she had on my life.

Nor did I take time out to reach out and thank Ronald Dolloff who also passed away recently.

And once again, Clarence wasn’t there.

Maybe next time…