Remember those “American Graffiti” teenagers? We’re seventy-eight

“You have five months to lose twenty pounds and get your teeth whitened.”

That was my friend Sally after I told her I’d registered for my high school class reunion — sixtieth! As the date draws ever closer, I still haven’t followed her advice, including item three on her list: buy an underwire bra with power uplift. Solitary life following Covid lock-downs freed my girls to hang loose. We’ll never go back.

This will be my first reunion since the twentieth. That was a noisy, crowded cocktail party — the kind of event I like to avoid. Conversely, I enjoyed my late husband’s reunions. His small-town graduating class numbered fewer than a hundred; they got together for convivial, laid-back dinners. Everyone knew everyone, unlike my graduating class of some five hundred. 

My graduation photo

The Class of ’62 was comically and accurately depicted in the film “American Graffiti,” whose high school seniors were obsessed with rock ’n roll, cruisin’ and hormonal confusion. George Lucas, who wrote and directed the movie, also graduated in 1962, in Modesto, California. My high school was Woodrow Wilson, Tacoma, Washington. I travelled across the country the summer after I graduated and found that my fellow eighteen-year-olds were pretty much the same nationwide. I wonder, as we confront the deep polarization in our country now, if the Class of ’62 is still so homogenous.

No question these sixty years have been tumultuous, shaking our very foundations. We’ve weathered Vietnam and draft card burning, the fight for women’s rights and bra burning, racial protests and entire neighborhoods burning, and now our mother — Earth — burning. There’ve been assassinations, the technology revolution, 9-11, the longest war in American history, climate change, global shifts toward authoritarian governments, and a pandemic. Not even Lucas could’ve dreamed up such a sequence of events in one lifetime.

As just a slight tremor among all those earthquakes, Woodrow Wilson High School no longer exists by that name. Given our twenty-eighth President’s dubious record on issues such as racial equality, school district powers-that-be changed the name to Dr. Dolores Silas High School. She was the district’s first black woman administrator and also sat on the city council. We’re told students have shortened that to “SIHI,” which sounds like everyone’s taking a deep breath. Advisable.

I likely wouldn’t attend this reunion except that I promised Nick, one of the handful of classmates I’d kept in touch with. After the fifty-fifth reunion, Nick scolded me for missing — again! — and made me swear I’d be at the sixtieth. Last year Nick, the picture of health, keeled over and died of an apparent heart attack while running a weed-eater in his yard.

The reunion invitation was accompanied by a list of classmates who have died. I got out my yearbook and looked up the graduation photo for each name. Given our class size, there were many I didn’t remember. For those I did know, looking at their eighteen-year-old faces felt like they’d died way too young. By skipping all those reunions, I knew nothing about their lives after high school. I missed a lot of good stories. Everyone has at least one.

Catching up on those stories is reason enough to attend the reunion. That, and my promise to Nick.

Ah! The patina of age

Flushed With Success

Seven a.m. My first thought as I awaken this perfect summer morning, a cool breeze gently lifting my eyelids, is of the clogged drains in my kitchen sink. No! I inwardly moan. I don’t want to think about plumbing issues first thing. I want to wake up with gratitude, with joyful expectations for the gift of a  new day.

But what can I expect when the last thing I encountered the previous night was a sink half full of backed-up, icky gray water, a sight as welcome as a slug in the garden but draining at nowhere near a slug’s pace. I’d spent the evening as YouTube instructed, dosing the drains with boiling water, baking soda and white vinegar. While the soda and vinegar combo created a satisfying froth, they did nothing to clear the blockage. 

It’s early, but with a twinge of hope I call The Plumber. The answering machine gives me his cell phone number “in case of an emergency.” One person’s emergency is another person’s mere inconvenience. I won’t call the cell phone because I want to be in good graces with The Plumber, because I want him to come THIS day, because it’s Friday and because I’m expecting a house guest this weekend.

Seven-thirty a.m. My dog and I head out for our morning walk, basking in 70 degree temperatures, knowing it will be in the 90s by this afternoon. The dog is basking, at least. My mind is going round and round, practicing words of entreaty for The Plumber. Stop it! I interrupt myself. And I scold: you should just be thankful you have pure, safe water that runs, even if it doesn’t drain. Think of all the people who don’t have the conveniences of kitchen, bathroom, laundry. And when you’re done with that, pay attention to the pastel blue sky, the floating clouds, the swaying trees, the sweet air, the bird songs, the river’s persistent flow … oh! that my drains would flow as freely as the river.

Eight-thirty-two a.m. I call again and a real live human answers. I explain my plight. “Okay, I’ll tell them,” she says, carefully making no promises. I babble some more. “Yup,” she says. “I’ll let ‘em know.” I envision The Plumber and his crew casually discussing triage over their morning coffee. Which of the callers have a bona fide emergency and which are merely inconvenienced?

My neighbor and his son happen by and chide me for not calling them first. The son would’ve freed the drains with a plunger (at this point the son makes plunging motions in the air) and would’ve saved me a lot of money. 

Eight-forty-five-ish. Plumber and helper arrive! They go to work as quickly and efficiently as an ambulance crew. While the assistant operates the electric rooter, The Plumber explains why plunging wouldn’t have been sufficient. In older houses like mine, he says, the pipes slowly deteriorate, the metal chipping off in flakes that need to be ground up with the rotating rooter head. As he lectures, he too is demonstrating with his hands so I can envision the chipping metal and rotating machinery. The eroding bits of metal and other gunk need to be forced through my pipes and carried away into the city sewer.

In his own home, The Plumber continues, once a month he fills his sinks with hot water, then pulls open the drains simultaneously to create a tsunami that will push accumulated debris onward to the ultimate destination, the city water treatment plant. Suddenly my mind is swirling as fast as the rooting device, only I’m moving backward, through decades, to The Big Flush! 

My late husband and I lived in a house twice as old and three times as big as my current home. Every once in a while, when the aged drains began to balk, he would announce, “It’s time for The Big Flush!” He’d fill all the sinks, stationing me downstairs, poised for action, with him upstairs at Command Central. When all was ready, he would yell, “FLUSH!” We’d run around opening sink drains and flushing toilets.

I thought it was hilariously fun. I didn’t understand the mechanics, but it worked. As far as I knew, he was employing some kind of metaphysical incantation. I never knew how he knew what he knew. He had an uncanny genius for solving household problems, maybe the result of growing up on a farm.

Nine-thirty-two a.m. Plumber and helper have cleaned up and left. Drains are draining. I’m  reliving cherished memories of my problem-solving beloved. I learned so much from him, and — fifteen years after he’s gone — still I learn. I open my calendar, click on the date one month from today and type in a reminder: FLUSH!

shiny kitchen sink
Happiness is a well-drained sink

Roads Less Traveled By

Coyote Falls in the foreground, Enloe Dam in the background

My late husband John could recite from memory Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” I too relish roads “less traveled by,” sometimes to my peril.

Just last week, I started off innocently enough. Destination: Coyote Falls on the Similkameen River, near the Canadian border, less than an hour’s drive from home. I planned to attend the traditional Native American salmon ceremony, when fish are invited to return to their spawning grounds. Tribes have been doing this for millennia, although these days the ceremony is pretty much symbolic with a soupçon of politics. Just above Coyote Falls, salmon are blocked from proceeding upriver by the defunct Enloe Dam. The dam hasn’t produced power in half-a-century. Indian tribes on both sides of the border and various environmental groups are campaigning to have it removed.

There’s a fine hiking trail on the other side of the river, but the ceremony was to be held on the road side. In my case the wrong road. The river flows through a deep canyon. High on the canyon wall, a two-lane, paved road snakes around multiple curves. I knew I’d have to turn onto a gravel road to reach the canyon bottom at some point, but I couldn’t remember where that turnoff was. I’d noticed a bright blue car in my rearview mirror and then, after one of the curves, that car had disappeared. By then I’d driven beyond the falls and dam and decided I must have missed the turn-off.

After a quick u-turn, I spotted a flash of blue making its way down a steep, winding gravel road. You don’t usually follow someone who’s behind you. That alone should have been a warning. Slowly, cautiously I proceeded downward, noting the “Primitive Road” warning sign that the county posts on back roads that are not maintained. This one should have had a skull and crossbones at the bottom.

By the time I realized I had no business on that road, it was too late. With barely a single lane, I clung to the canyon wall that brushed my car on the left, trying not to think about the sheer drop-off on my right. The ruts were troughs, littered with rocks and shards that threatened to high-center the car. Downward I crept in low gear, wishing I had a lower than low-low gear. I tried to calm myself by talking to John, pleading with his spirit to intervene, rescue me.

Finally, miraculously, halfway down the canyon, I reached a wide spot. The blue car had pulled off and parked, as did I. Thank you, John! I noticed the other driver, whom I didn’t know, had started walking downward and then stopped to wait for me. 

“I’m so sorry I took that road,” I said as I got out of my car. “Me, too,” he admitted. Turned out he was a tribal member from British Columbia. He asked where I was from. When I answered “Omak,” he asked, “You Colville?” Never before has anyone confused this blue-eyed blonde as Native. I was deeply flattered. I explained that I’ve lived for a long time along the Okanogan River, which is fed by the Similkameen. “I love the river and all its inhabitants,” I continued, as if I expected the cast of characters from “Wind in the Willows” to join us at any moment. 

Despite my lack of tribal bona fides, he treated me as the elder that I am, generously offering his arm to steady me as we scrambled downward. At this point, the road was pretty impassable even on foot. I gasped when we finally reached a large, flat area, where a dozen or more cars were parked.

“How did they get here?!” I exclaimed. That’s when we noticed the other road — the one MORE traveled by. We could have taken it had we gone up the canyon a little further.

I never did make it all the way down to the river but watched the ceremony from the bank above. The drum beat and chanting were inaudible above the roar of the falls. Still, I joined others in rhythmic clicking of rocks, calling to the salmon. Tribal biologists tell us that native fish returning to our river are pitifully few and far between. Eliminating the dam, one biologist said at a recent meeting, is “their only chance.”

I walked away from the river, wondering if my own chances of getting my car back up that road were equal to salmon butting heads against a concrete dam. But a combination of prayer, John’s encouragement, and front-wheel drive pulled me slowly, safely upward. Back on pavement, I was heading home when a coyote ran across the road ahead of me. I slowed and noticed that he stopped in the middle of an alfalfa field, turning back to watch me. In Native legend, the coyote is a trickster, a mischief-maker.

“Yeah, you thought you had me back there at Coyote Falls,” I said. “But all you did was teach me a lesson. From here on, I’ll be taking the roads more traveled by.”