I went to my high school reunion this week. I am not going to say which one. Well, alright, I will, if you insist. It was the 50th reunion. I have known most of these people since I was 12 years old. Several are life-long friends. When I was in the hospital for most of 2017, these were the people who checked on me and visited me, and were in tears over the news of my death, which, of course, didn’t happen.
There was something that particularly struck me. The people I talked to, all in their late 60’s, seemed comfortable with themselves and the lives they have lived. Most, or many are retired. Some were teachers, one or two served in the military, a few engineers, an investment counselor, and an attorney or two. A few who remained close to Topsfield, Boxford or Middleton, where we grew up. I spent my life sailing and traveling, and working around the world, and admire those who have a place they really can call home since childhood.
Many are retired, but not to the golf course or a chair in front of the television. One works with special needs kids. A good friends is a park ranger. He said, “All I do is talk to people all day.” As a volunteer, he also helps people who are older than we are with small tasks. These good people who are my friends don’t look to the future. They live in the moment, and do the best they can with the day at hand. These are people who are comfortable with life, and give of themselves to others. I cannot imagine reaching this point in life without a sense of giving and generosity.
Those I know who are comfortable with themselves have made an effort to atone for mistakes; not just to try to avoid the same mistakes, but to the best of ones ability, to try to atone and make amends. Everyone makes mistakes; doing nothing is a sign of a lack of conscience. Not recognizing that certain acts are mistakes is a sign of a lack of moral fiber. I found my fellow classmates, for the most part, to be comfortable with themselves. I like that. Most of life is behind us, and we live grateful lives.
Those early years when we were teenagers were tough for me. I never stood out. I was shy, and it manifested itself as either withdrawn, or making silly or stupid comments which I could hide behind. There was a particular person I sought out at the Saturday reunion. He really didn’t know me, but I thought of him once in a while over the years.
We grew up in an area that was, for the most part, upper middle class white people who went either to the Catholic or Protestant church every Sunday. No one wore blue jeans, and the entire family went together in the station wagon. Nearly every father was a World War II veteran. No one wore a hat with the name of the ship or the division they fought with. It just wasn’t done.
There were no people of color in my class of 1968 There was one Jewish boy. He is the man I sought out at the reunion. I watched as he was taunted and abused more than 50 years ago. I did nothing. It stuck with me, and bothered me. I was married to the woman who was courageous enough to stand up for this boy so long ago, well before there was much of a movement of any kind. She was, and is, kind to the core. She has since told me she was not really courageous; she merely extended kindness and friendship. I didn’t.
I approached this man while he was with a small group, and asked if I could speak to him, and moved to an unoccupied corner.
We chatted a bit, then I said, “I know there was a person who abused you.”
“There was more than one,” he interrupted, which told me that he remembered, and it cut into him. How awful for one who was bullied to have such instant recall of something so many years ago.
“Look, it bothers me that I watched and did nothing. I am sorry.”
He was gracious, and said, “It was so many years ago.” I think he was, in some way, grateful for my contrition. Doing nothing was a lesson for me. I have tried not repeat that mistake. I gave him my phone number. He lives near me in Florida and I hope he calls so we can meet for dinner.
There were no people of color in the our class of 1968. It came up in conversation at a breakfast I had with a few folks this week. There were in the class behind us, someone said, but couldn’t remember her name. I do. Cheryl Langford. The day before, I had driven down the street and past the house where I grew up, and the house, right next door, where the “colored family” had lived.
“Her family moved next door to us in about 1964 or so,” I said to the breakfast group.
I went on to say that there were a few who tried to keep them from buying a house, denying an American family the freedom to live where they chose. Those who thought of themselves as good Christians took it upon themselves to “protect property values,” self justification for outright racism. In the early1960’s, I doubt those who tried such a thing would have described it that way. It flies in the face of the values which, I suspect, are held by every person who was at this reunion. I pains me to think of where we were in my youth. In the early 1960’s one person, one family, stood up for the family who came to be our good neighbors. All it took was one. Thank God, for one good man, one good family.
It makes me think of the quotation, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing,” said Andrew Marshall. And I watched as the Jewish boy was bullied. I have not repeated that awful mistake.
My first ride in a private airplane was with our neighbor, Mr. Langford. It was good of him to invite me to ride in his plane, which he kept at Beverly airport. We flew to western Massachusetts and back that day, as he explained how the radio homing device worked, changing frequencies to track from point-to-point, having written them down in a series of notes before we left. Funny what I remember. I even remember him checking the fuel for water. Maybe I remember because he took the time to explain to me what he was doing. It was just the two of us. I was only 14 or 15 years old, as I wondered where he had learned to fly. Years later, I had found out, and why he was such a disciplined flyer.
Gilbert Langford, whom several had tried to keep out of the house next door, was like many others who had fought in WW II in one respect; he kept his record to himself. His record, however, was special. The man who lived next door had been a Tuskegee airman, and with the all-black flyers who earned a reputation as being among the best fighters to take to the sky in American planes, even though the planes they flew were not the best; the white pilots got them.
No one I grew up with knew the story of the man who was my neighbor. One said, “That should be part of the history of our town.” To me, it is. Mr. Langford rests in Arlington National Cemetery. Those of us who served recognize it as a place reserved for special American warriors.
This story is not ancient history. It is partially a story of what I saw, and the wonderful place where I grew up. I wish it had been such a place for all.
Cheryl, thank you for allowing me to use your family name in this story. I know of your strength, admire what you have done with your life. I am grateful to your family for the kindness extended to my family, and to your father, who I was honored to know as a boy, and admire as a man.