Monday, September 21, 2009

The Gathering Steps

In its greatest days, these steps were the place where classes joined and crammed together for a class photograph that would appear the following spring in the Wah-Sha-She, the name given our school annual and the school newspaper.  We thought little about it when the photograph was being snapped but relished its appearance at the year's end when we saw ourselves and our friends together for the first time.  There were the class photographs such as our 1957 7-1, 7-2 and 7-3 groups, and then there were identifiable birds of a feather that flocked together, such as band, basketball, football, and all of the different opportunities that were open to us.  Seventh and Eighth grades had the numbered divisions of 1 for choir, 2 for band, and 3 for anything else that didn't fit the first two classifications.  I don't know if that continues today.Once we were freshmen, we had broader choices and if we were in band, it was the entire band, made up of all classes freshmen and above. 

Over the years, I have taken time to look at my collection of Wah-She-She books and those annoying moments of posing together then now take on new light and new life.  Those moments were silly and we acted silly, performing immaturely to prove how mature we were.  If we had behaved better, the photographs might be better.  But we were kids and behaved as kids and perhaps that is some of the greater charm today; that the photographs captured some of that giddy, laughing, teasing charm.  There would be time for maturity later.  It would come in the forms of the death of a president, a war that could not be won and would cost so many lives; maturity would mean marriages, births, divorces and even deaths. 

So those days, we were supposed to be just what we were.  I look at the photographs and I see gaps where a boy stands in the photograph.  The inimitable Henry Jones, a Pawhuska original, looks back at me and I laugh at him, just as I did at the flesh and blood Henry Jones.  I see him, yet I know he is gone, preserved only in photographs and in our memories.  The photograph is black and white, now taking on a bit of a yellow tone.  The picture in my memory is full color, with the blue tones of Levi jeans that most boys wore, the black and white plaid shirts, abundant then, the Lavender Blue of Doug Givens old chevrolet, once he finally finished his masterpiece.  I know that memory is not perfect and that in some way, those pictures I carry are just as faded as are those on the pages I see.  But what has faded seems to be the hard edges, the grudges we kept, the comparison to prove who was faster, tougher, better.  I remember only the laughter now, the smiles and a few stupid human tricks that we did, such as putting Bobby Lovelace's little blue car between two parking meters near the Dairy Queen. 

Left to our own devices, instead of being forced to pose together for school photographs, some of the kids would never have appeared in photographs.  Some were camera shy, some were poor and could not afford a camera and film.  Some were just too busy.  We did not have one person who carried a camera and constantly snapped photographs.  Some took photographs, which were dutifully left in the hands of their mother when they went off to college, military service, their own lives. Once in a while, some of these surface.  I found the simplest of all photographs of Jess Tomey and me.  We were in Long Beach, California and in an amusement park, we stepped into one of the old photo booths and for about $.50, we took four or five photographs. A quick glance at it and Jess comes to life again, as he is laughing in it.  Triggered by that photograph, taken in about 1963, I have a flood of memories, mostly in Pawhuska though some are of California.  We went to so many bad movies at the Friday night previews, mostly horror movies, and they were horrible indeed.  We didn't care.  We weren't movie critics; we were kids, and having the time of our lives in our way. 

I'm grateful for the gathering steps and now for the photographs we were forced to make, for they were often the only record of someone we knew, weren't best friends with, but knew, and now, the great gap of time since then makes them friends.  We have all lost so many friends and any connection to them keeps them alive, so now we clutch at stories to help us remember.  The boy that I barely knew who was standing five places away from me in the photograph has been moved closer to me by the gaps created.  He and I are now best friends as we tell stories about the boys we knew who stood between us in the photograph. 

One of my friends said, and I do not remember which friend, "There will be another gathering, later, in a better place, and we shall all get together then, to remember and tell stories as we once did.  Only this time, it will last an eternity."  Perhaps it too will be on The Gathering Steps.

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