I went to my oldest brother’s 64th—and last—high school reunion Saturday afternoon. The reunion committee decided it would be their last, because it has become too difficult to do at their age, (early 80s).
My brother’s in a wheelchair, thanks to having only one leg, and his one real foot having been operated on recently so he can’t walk on it. So I went along to help him get around.
He was sixteen when I was born and was off to serve during WWII before I was three. Then, by the time I became a teenager, he was off to spend the next almost half century in Japan, as a Franciscan missionary, until his recent return due to health.
In all the photographs of me and my family when I was an infant, Tommy, as we knew him before he changed his name to Father Campion, is usually holding me and smiling, as he is in the attached photo—taken before I was born, and before John, the brother between me and these five, passed away as an infant.
In this photo, Tommy, sitting on our stoop between Jimmy and Robert, is holding infant Irene, and as almost always in these family photos, he’s smiling (as opposed to my oldest sister Joan, on the bottom step, whose frown may have something to do with her soon after being diagnosed with childhood diabetes).
Toomy obviously loved us all, or at least it seems obvious to me in the family photos that exist from the years when he first became a big brother until he left home. He’s almost always holding the latest infant in our brood, and smiling.
It was an honor and a delight to escort him to his reunion Saturday, and to sit at a table with some of his classmates, including Alice and Jane, a woman he still keeps in touch with, after all that time, and Bob, a man who he hadn’t seen since high school but still recognized. I ended up sitting between these two charmingly self-effacing survivors.
His friend, Bob, entertained the reunion group before and after the luncheon, playing the sax with such terrific tone and rhythm, it had me tapping my foot and singing along under my breath to old big band era tunes I love, and still play myself now and then on the piano.
Like most of the boys in his class, Bob entered the service after high school. My brother didn’t see any action, but Bob did. As they caught up on what had happened since high school, Bob mentioned in passing, that he had been an infantryman in one of those units that fought their way through France and Germany toward the end of the war in Europe.
I was thinking he must have seen some terrible as well as inspiring things. But he passed over the whole experience in a few words, and when I asked if he’d watched the recent Ken Burns documentary on WWII he just said “No” and then spent the next twenty minutes or so happily describing the big band he ended up playing in toward the end of the war, after Germany was mostly subdued.
(His reticence about the actual fighting he took part in was like that of any of my neighbors or relatives who saw action in WWII, or for that matter any war. They never talked about it. When I asked them questions, they’re answers were either evasive or bluntly dismissive or non verbal. When I was little, I thought it was the usual modesty most grown men exhibited back then, but when I got older I began to understand it was the impossibility of sharing the reality they had experienced—too gruesome, too terrible, to emotional, too impossible to articulate or simply too painful to recall.)
It was an official Army band, but one that played exclusively in the reclaimed clubs or newly minted ones created in still intact buildings, for the G.I.s to go to and let off steam dancing with the local young women or just bopping to the big band sound.
Because of their unique duty, this band never had to make formations or march or do any of the usual tiresome stuff you do as a low ranking man in the service, they were too busy being trucked from one conquered city or town to another to entertain the troops.
Unlike the most famous Army big band of that period, the reconstituted Glen Miller band, that was always being called on to play for the top brass at important functions and formations and to march in their big parades etc. So much so, that many of the Miller band members put in for reassignment to the band Bob was in.
It was obviously one of the highpoints of his life, playing with these renowned and professional, highly successful musicians in that Army band. They even got to make recordings that were played over the Armed Forces Radio. Old 78s that he still regrets they were never given copies of.
When I repeated for Bob that my brother told me he learned everything he knew about music from Bob when they played together in high school in a big band called “The Modernaires,” Bob said “poor guy,” in that self-deprecating humor that seems such a symbol of the ways that generation practiced humility and modesty, as least in my experience, traits that I rebelled against somewhat in my youth and young adulthood, but now admire more and more as I age.
I don’t want to get all mushy over “the greatest generation” and all that yada yada yada, because there were plenty in that generation that would never deserve the qualifier “great,” as in any generation. But still, there’s something about that time, those people, which came through in Ken Burns’s documentary as it does in almost any documentary of that time I’ve seen, something modest and humble in the face of life’s overwhelming unfairness and the particular struggles that generation faced, children of The Great Depression and fighters of the last “world” war.
As I made clear in the title of one of my books, IT’S NOT NOSTALGIA, because it’s not about wanting to go back or seeing the past as better or wishing for things and people and times lost to not be. I accept the reality of every moment as best I can, that’s the source of whatever peace I’ve found. No, it isn’t going back or trying to or yearning to, it’s carrying the past within me that makes me think of these things and cherish so much I’ve learned from my own life’s experience, as well as the experiences of others I can tap into through their art, music, writing, sharing, and all the ways they might express themselves, even the easy banter of old survivors at their 64th—and last—high school reunion.