|Class of 1970 Moorestown New Jersey|
In eighth grade, he stuck a wad of freshly chewed gum on the seat of my desk in US History class. I failed to notice it as I took my seat in front of a classroom of fellow students who silently snickered as I sat down. When the bell rang at the end of class, I gathered my books, then stood up suddenly realizing I was tethered to my chair by a long string of gum on the back of my dress.
The class howled in laughter.
My face turned red and tears instantaneously sprang from my eyes. I was the butt of a nasty practical joke. The teacher, Mr. DiBaise, did not laugh, but glowered threateningly at the class.
“Who did this?” he thundered.
Billy Walton, a friend since 6th grade, raised his hand. “I did,” he murmured.
The class grew silent. By this time, I think they recognized how awful it would be for any of them to have been the laughing stock of the class. Mr. DiBaise dismissed the class, asked Billy to stay, and went out to find a female teacher to help clean the gummed dress.
“Sorry about that,” Billy said pathetically. I wanted to slug him. Maybe I did. I don’t recall that moment through the haze of embarrassment. Billy was given a couple afternoons of detention, minimal impact for the pain he’d inflicted.
Mrs. Dunn the typing teacher escorted me to the Staff Women’s restroom where I removed my madras plaid dress, huddled in my slip, while she scraped off the gum and washed and dried the dress. She gave me a late pass for my next class. I walked into that class still angry at how everyone, not just Billy, had laughed at me—not with me.
By lunchtime, many apologized for laughing, and Billy Walton had gotten an earful from them as well. Eventually, I forgave him. Gum on my ass was but one of many of my teenage stories during my years in Moorestown Junior and Senior High Schools.
Stories like this come to mind as my class, originally with 246 seniors, prepares to gather in early November for the 50+1 year high school reunion. Given my medical status and level of safety during COVID time, I won’t be able to attend. But in the past year, I’ve been thinking, not only about those early years, but about those classmates who didn’t make it to 50+1 years past high school.
Billy Walton was one of them who didn’t. In high school we became comic foils for each other. In the senior play, our characters were an old married couple. We dyed our hair grey with spray paint, and he wore my father’s old maroon bathrobe [I was in charge of Props for the play.] He would joke that we were a “couple” and one night at the local teen dance, we tried out how it felt to make out—kissing and doing what teenagers do.
|Billy on right in play Mother Courage starring Debbie Field|
After a while, he said, “Nope. Didn’t work. Didn’t feel a thing.” We then discussed at length what that meant for him.
Ultimately, he figured out that he was gay.
We kept in touch as Billy’s new life as a gay man unfolded. He still called me “Wifey”, but we both knew it was the name of just a friend.
By the early 1980s, AIDS was making its way from Africa to America. I learned about it early on as friends of mine were postdocs in Dr. Robert Gallo’s lab at the National Institutes of Health. AIDS and the virus HIV were identified by the late 1980s and deaths, particularly among gay men, skyrocketed.
Billy died in 1994, at the peak of deaths in the United States from this epidemic. When the AIDS quilt came to the Washington DC Mall, I went and found Billy’s square. Fortunately, drug treatments followed and many people who were dying alone in hospitals had a new beginning.
For those of you not familiar with Moorestown New Jersey, it was a town with very wealthy people mixed with sections of town where low and middle income families lived. We were all aware of who lived where. I grew up firmly in the middle class of Moorestown, next door to Franny Stein [Kasen]. Our families did well, and stress about money was rare in our house.
Danny and I became secret friends in our senior year. I was a known goofball, iconoclast, wild card—a person outside the notice of any Cool guy. Both of us were signed up to attend the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts for students, which took place four times a year on a weekday night. Somehow—and some way—in the parking lot where students were boarding the bus for Philly, he and I decided to drive down to the Jersey shore, one hour away, instead.
|Capt. of wrestling team|
We’d never had a conversation before, but I was intrigued by his relative notoriety. It was exciting to have small adventures like this. One of my talents is getting people to talk, reveal their problems, discuss what’s important. Within minutes of heading east, Danny opened up and talked constantly until we returned to the high school parking lot hours later.
The day after that first trip, I looked forward to continuing where we left off. But, when I saw Danny in the hallway where he stood stoically as a hall monitor, he ignored me, looking straight forward when I said, “Hi Danny!”
Man, is that ever “high school” behavior. I forgot about him.
But then when we met prior to the next concert, we hopped in the car together and started back up where we’d left off.
On the third trip, as we ran around the beach on Long Beach Island, he grabbed me and gave me a kiss. Just the one. Sandpapery, short. But a display of affection. I smiled and felt good.
By now, I knew the “drill” back in school. We ignored each other. I hoped he’d call some day, but he never did. Looking back, Danny Dwyer was a bottled up guy, who struggled with being his own person—not the popular guy everyone wanted him to be.
By the time I took off for Penn State in summer 1970, I left my nerdy persona behind and became a foxy freshman. I was having a ball meeting Cool guys on my own, never mind my time as a Nerd in Moorestown.
That first Thanksgiving as returning college kids, many of us met up at the local dance hall to see our old friends. There was Danny—now with long hair, looking shaggy and edgy.
“Hey!” I said. “How are you doing?” I assumed he’d left that high school crap behind him like I had.
“Want to buy some pot?” he asked. I frowned. Is that any way to greet a friend?
I was offended, no longer willing to let people treat me like I didn’t have a personality. I shook my head, said no, and walked away. Danny actually called me a month later at Christmas time, asking me again about buying drugs. I told him, finally, that I was disappointed. He could do better. Where was that excited guy who told me his life dreams? He was gone.
Just before New Years Eve in 1975, he committed suicide. Looking back, knowing what I know now about mental health—he was overwhelmingly depressed. The frayed, disheveled guy in 1971, mentally and physically declined and ended what should have been a sparkling life.
Our class of 1970 was also dragged into the Vietnam War and a drug culture that went along with it. Boys, soon to be Men, had to consider the Draft as soon as they graduated from high school. In my homeroom class, we had a number of aging “Boys” who were slowly passing through school, flunking classes on purpose, and (I’m sure) taking pretty serious drugs. Marijuana smoke wafted out of the restrooms in the mornings. It was well known that heroin was a drug of choice.
Debbie Field (now the famous jazz singer Rachel Gould) and I watched as more and more of the guys sat slumped at their desks every morning. This was tough to see them like this because we’d been in school with these guys seemingly forever.
The late ‘60s was also the heyday of rock and roll and some of our friends were cool enough to play in bands. David Fenwick, who I’d known since 6th grade, was one of them.
Our class’s first dance in 6th grade was held at the Junior High gymnasium. Several gals had gone with dates, but I went alone hoping to snag the attention of some cute guy—and I did. David asked me for my first dance! Wearing a scratchy grey woolen suit, he looked uncomfortable and was sweating in the un-air conditioned gym. It was a slow dance: we held each other at arms length, swaying stiffly with the music. Afterwards, he thanked me formally—and I, him, and we went back to our segregated huddles of girls and boys on the fringes of the gym floor.
By high school, David drifted towards nightlife, lost weight, and was the drummer in his older brother’s band. He was a far cry from the awkward gentle fellow in 6th grade. I worried about him, as I worried about everyone ravaged by the scene at that time.
|L-R: Jim Duffy, Max Brinck, and the late talented David Fenwick|
By 20 years after graduation, I was relieved to see that many of those guys from homeroom now looked vital, had wives and children, and had thrown off those earlier destructive behaviors. When our class learned that David Fenwick had died in 2019, his obituary informed us he was still a musician (!) and also a beloved popular high school teacher. He made it through a difficult time in life and prospered on the other side.
Three favorite stories of mine—three songs in remembrance of those who died too young. For Danny Dwyer, the song “Forever Young” comes to mind. For Billy Walton, that classic by Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder “That’s what friends are for” produced to support AIDS research. For David Fenwick, who made it out of a young funk, a retrospective “Light My Fire” by the Doors.
Too many of my classmates are gone: 16% felled by heart disease, cancer, and life. For me, who ponders the longevity of my life almost daily, I’ve been blessed to make it 50+1 years past the tumultuous time of high school. It’s a lesson for the rest of us.
When the class meets in Moorestown and via Zoom, we’ll be raising a glass to those who didn’t make it. And reminding our selves to live life to the fullest.