Reunion Brings Flood—of Memories

 

Ten years ago, three rivers rose out of their banks in Ames and flooded over land that had been dry for many years.  Two rivers were made of water; one river was made of memories.  The "Flood of '93" and the "Ames High Reunion Class of '73" both arrived in Ames the weekend of July 9-11, 1993. 

As I began my trip south from Minnesota that weekend to attend my 20th High School Reunion, the river levels in central Iowa were approaching reecord levels.  Early July rainfall had already saturated the ground with as much as 13 inches of rain in some parts of the state, and the 4.5 inches that had fallen on Thursday night, July 8, were proving to be too much for South Skunk River and Squaw Creek. 

Cruising south on I-35, I noticed another stream, this one made of memories, was also starting to swell.  During the four-hour drive, I snuck glances at the black-and-white photos of my high school yearbook, recalling specific stories about classmates I might be seeing that weekend.  By the time I pulled into Ames, the river of memories and feelings was running swiftly through me, but I wasn’t worried about losing control of the situation—my emotional levees were well built and strong. 

As I started to drive around town, I discovered that the flooding damage was much more severe than I had anticipated.  Squaw Creek and South Skunk River normally flow together south of the city, each river keeping within its banks and then peacefully joining up and heading on to the Mississippi and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.  During the flood, however, both rivers rose out of their banks, merging further upstream and creating a lake that engulfed many low-lying sections of Ames.  The experts were already calling it a 500-year flood. 

My hotel on SE 16th Street was surrounded by water, and I would have to find a new place to spend the night.  The Iowa State Center where the Reunion Dinner and Dance were to be held was also flooded.  A quick call to a local friend revealed that the Dinner andDance had been moved to the high school gymnasium.

I should have realized then that rivers, whether of water or memories, can't always be controlled.

Walking into the high school that evening, I was glad that the floodwaters had forced us back to the school gymnasium.   The gym was one of the most important places in the school.  It was here that the whole student body gathered for assemblies and pep rallies, where school unity and deep divisions were revealed. 

It was here that the basketball team had compiled a 27-1 record my senior year, winning the State High School Championship and providing a focal point for school pride.  With our school motto, “Ames Hi Aims High,” we had been proud of our academic, artistic, and athletic accomplishments, and we had graduated with expectations that we could make a difference in the world.

But it was also here in the gym that anti-war tensions dividing our country were revealed, as some students wore black armbands and sat with bowed heads or raised fists during the pledge of allegiance.  The early 70's were confusing years to be a teenager.  There were few clear answers to so many questions—questions about everything from national issues like the Viet Nam War, Civil Rights, and the Sexual Revolution to individual dilemmas involving dating, drinking, and homework.

As I walked around the gym that evening greeting old friends, some undercurrents of feeling began to tug at me, and my emotional levees started to weaken.  It was as if a floodgate had been released, and feelings that had been carefully dammed up for years and years were sweeping over me. 

The first wave of emotion was one of sadness as I realized that I would only have time to talk in any meaningful way with just a few people in such a large crowd.  I regretted that I hadn't kept in better contact with my high school friends.  I was surprised at the strength of this feeling, that I felt this strongly about this group of people, about this place.  

The next wave of feeling was just as surprising but not as benign.  During the after-dinner program, pictures from high school were flashed on the screen during a video.  As the pictures and memories mounted, I felt smaller and lonelier.  I had forgotten about those feelings from adolescence, the painful ones about fitting in and trying to find myself.  While growing up, I had wanted to be just like everyone else.  At the same time, I had also wanted to be different from everyone else. A residue of conflict and pain was apparently still there, just under the surface, suggesting that I was still struggling with this basic human quandary. Would I ever grow up?

The third, and most powerful, surge of emotion hit me when I saw several good friends I hadn’t talked to in more than 15 years.  As we had all moved around the country, started careers and families, and made new friends in our new lives, we had built up walls  between us and lost contact with each other.  It wasn't deliberate; it was just a consequence of our busy lives.

But this night, as we met in the gym, we talked, we laughed, and we remembered.  And the bonds of friendship were instantly restored.  It was as if we were rivers that had risen out of their banks and merged.  During those few hours at the reunion, these little floods of reconnection were happening all over the gym.  As the conversations and laughter got louder and more animated, a huge interconnected network of streams and rivers was being revealed. We were all part of a collective river basin, the Ames High Class of '73. 

This weekend, it’s our 30th reunion.  In the ten years since the last reunion, I’ve lost touch again with some of those friends.  I’ve retreated into my comfortable stream bed.  But already, as I look ahead to the reunion, I’ve pulled my dusty yearbook off the bookshelf and started glancing though it.  With anticipation and apprehension, I can feel the memories beginning to rise once again.  Look out, Ames, here comes another flood—a 30-year flood.

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Randy Wedin is a science writer, father of four sons, and resident of Wayzata, Minnesota. 

He’ll be joining his classmates from the Ames High School Class of 1973 at their 30th reunion this weekend.