Forty years after we graduated about half the Sheffield High School class of 1964 gathered on a July Saturday night at a local Holiday Inn for our fortieth reunion. Four decades had passed since I left Sheffield, Alabama.
Located in northwest Alabama, the Tennessee River bounds Sheffield on the north. Across the River lies Florence, home of the arch rival Coffee High Yellow Jackets. Tuscumbia, to the south, the birthplace of Helen Keller and to the west Muscle Shoals, keep Sheffield small and relatively unchanged. High school memories cruise through my mind like a southern version of the mid-1970s nostalgic movie classic, “American Graffiti.” On Saturday nights we cruised between the bowling alley, pool hall and burger joints. Radios in our vintage fifties cars beat out rock ‘n roll coming through clearly from WLS in faraway Chicago.
The Sheffield High “Bulldogs” of 1964 comprised the first wave of the baby boom generation. We grew up with the Cold War. In October 1962, our junior year, with the nation perched at the edge of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis, we practiced the “duck and cover” under our classroom desks. The next autumn President Kennedy’s assassination postponed for a week our traditional season-end football game with arch rival Coffee High.
Thumbing through the 1964 annual, The Demitasse, as my wife drove us south from Pennsylvania, I noticed something that today would be anathema in any public school publication: quotes from the Bible. “Seek and you will find.” “Knock and it will be opened unto you.” “Ask and you shall receive.” I recalled how each morning, over the school intercom, a different student read a short Biblical passage followed with a brief prayer. The last Friday of each month the student body gathered in the auditorium to hear a spiritual message delivered by a local pastor. I remembered how proud I was when my father, a Presbyterian minister, spoke.
Homogeneity rather than diversity marked the 64’ Dogs. Racial integration took place the year after we graduated. Ours was an all white and mostly Protestant class. We embraced our parents’ values and their faith, perspectives they carried forward from childhoods spent in the Depression and capped with service in World War II. To be sure, many ’64 Dogs who attended college in the turbulent sixties raged against the Vietnam War and some marched for civil rights. But nobody fled for Canada.
About 10 of the 65 guys among the ‘64 Dogs served in Vietnam. One paid the ultimate price. In part, we soldiered well because our parents, teachers and coaches taught us to listen and to heed instructions. Parents insisted we couple our “yeses” and “no’s” with a “sir” or “ma’am.” When coaches barked, we jumped. Drill sergeants deserved nothing less.
On the “With Fond Memories” page of our reunion program the senior pictures of three girls joined the photo of the Vietnam casualty. Just two years ago one woman died of a heart attack. Tragically, the other two ladies took their own lives. I had a secret crush the size of Birmingham on one of the girls who died so needlessly. When I asked a friend why, her muted reply was, “She lived a rough life.” I’ll forever wish I’d told that girl how I thought she hung the moon. One ’64 Dog football hero missed the reunion. Had he shown up we wouldn’t have included “did time for armed robbery” on his list of accomplishments. I left a lot off the “personal questionnaire” used to compile the reunion program.
Some ’64 Dogs came home from places as far away as Spokane, Wash., and Cambridge, Mass.. A number drove over from Atlanta, up from Birmingham or from places in Florida. Many Dogs who went off to college moved away for good to become physicians, dentists, lawyers or pursue careers in the military, business, academia or the Government. Ironically, the Dogs who went from high school to jobs at the local Ford or GM plants or signed on with the Tennessee Valley Authority have already retired. They own paid-for homes on the Tennessee River. Some have condos along the Alabama or Florida Gulf Coast. The rest of us have nearly a decade to go before retirement. College, graduate school, the military…all that meant we got a late start on marriage and family.
My heart’s eye was blind to the expanding waist lines, receding hairlines and the silver-haired women who once were “the babes” among our ’64 Dogs. For most of us, the next reunion will be in a place without time; where we’re forever young. Until then, warm memories cruise through a part of my mind where it’s always Saturday night and the rock ‘n roll comes through clearly from WLS in faraway Chicago.