I attended the 40th reunion of my high school graduating class a few weeks ago. The event had been planned for the better part of a year by a small group of my fellow classmates who were truly motivated bordering on obsessive about the whole thing…
Some of you may remember a rant published in Opinion8ed last year about the silliness that was rampant (To Twitter or Not to Twitter). Fast forward one year: There was a “rehearsal dinner” get-together the day before, an organized morning bicycle ride, an afternoon gathering on the beach, the party itself, the morning after brunch, etc. Personally I was rather curious but truth be told a tad anxious, so I only signed on for the main event. The evening included the requisite ID badges complete with our wild and crazy 1970 yearbook photos, a photo disk with lots more reminders of who we once were and a couple of other lame souvenirs. Fortunately the people I most wanted to reconnect with also decided to attend.
Forty something years ago a small group of idealistic young Long Beach High School students with lots of stuff on their minds got together to exercise their freedom of speech and publish an alternative “underground” newspaper. Frox started out as an unassuming plain-Jane affair printed on a hand cranked A.B. Dick Ditto machine. You may remember these classics – the kind in which the material to be printed was typed or hand drawn on a “master” which transferred the monochromatic purple image to a glossy piece of 8 1/2 x 11 paper leaving a faint whiff of the characteristic solvent that kids would invariably inhale, killing off a bunch of brain cells as the teacher’s handouts were passed out. There were only a limited number of pages you could print before the ink on the master sheet became too faint to read so the circulation was restricted to about 150 copies – not nearly enough for the school population of 1000+. The content varied from articles on pop culture to opposition to the Vietnam War.
One of my favorites from the early days was an impromptu interview that my friend Harvey and I did with B.B. King. We had gone to see B.B. in a relatively small club in New York City before he had successfully “crossed over” and become popular within the established pop (i.e., white) music scene. So the place wasn’t too packed and before his first set we somehow scared up enough chutzpah to tell the club manager that we were reporters for our high school newspaper and would like to interview the King of the Blues. Miraculously he agreed to meet us back stage between sets and we scrambled to think of what the hell we would ask him. We started out really nervous but despite our age and naiveté, B.B. was the perfect gentlemen and helped us out by answering our short questions with loquacious answers and interesting stories.
For some strange reason the high school principal didn’t think our unsupervised journalistic endeavor was healthy for the fragile minds of the student body and he declared Frox off limits on school property. When we chose to ignore his arbitrary ruling he promptly suspended anyone involved in its publication or distribution. Outraged, we took our fight to the Board of Education but were unceremoniously rebuffed. So we retaliated by contacting the New York Civil Liberties Union which agreed to take up our case. After a law suit was prepared the School District backed down, the principal swallowed his pride, and we were given permission to distribute the paper as long as we agreed to avoid publication of libelous and/or obscene material and we agreed to take on a “faculty advisor” (we found one who was totally sympathetic and adopted a hands-off approach). The publicity surrounding our case including a detailed story in Newsday only helped stimulate demand for Frox.
We quickly upgraded from ditto to mimeograph in order to print more copies. This technique was a step up because ink was applied to the master template which easily allowed production runs in the hundreds of copies. The first “new edition” of Frox sported an original hand drawn psychedelic cover by one of our classmates in the style of Richard Avedon or Peter Max. We also quickly upped the ante and pushed the limits of what the administration considered obscene and/or libelous material – we were, after all teenagers with an attitude who wanted to speak and be heard. The result was more suspensions that we bore with pride and with additional notoriety, interest in our endeavor continued to grow.
Finally we got sophisticated enough to print the paper using photo offset printing which, until the recent onset of digital printing was the method that professional publications used. Once we learned basic journalistic layout skills, we were able to put out a fairly professional looking paper. Back then, layout was a physical cut and paste affair with scissors and rubber cement – more laborious than but not unlike the electronic cutting and pasting used in word processors today. We subscribed to Liberation News Service, a progressive news outlet that opened our eyes to issues beyond dress codes and lunch passes and provided both news stories and original graphics for publication. We engaged in the issues of our times, such as opposition to the Vietnam War, civil rights, women’s liberation (yes, it was still referred to in those terms), gay rights, free speech, legalization of marijuana, pop culture and on and on.
Fast forward forty years…The Frox principals and several co-conspirators meet up again at the reunion. Of course we’ve all changed in appearance – lost some hair, turned grey, put on a few pounds but interestingly everyone’s voice was just as I remembered and instantly recognizable. As if the 40 in this year’s 40th reunion wasn’t enough of a red flag we were reminded of our advancing age by comparing war stories regarding our health. Each of us confronted and survived a serious health condition: cancers, stroke, open heart surgery, seizure disorder. And then there’s the not insignificantly small list of deceased classmates. But to a person, I don’t think any of us think of ourselves as old. None in this group has retired, most have grown children (no grandchildren yet) and one has even started over – he and his wife are raising a four year old. Where they find the energy for that is a mystery.
Certainly things haven’t turned out as we expected, indeed as we knew they would. We were ready to change the world tomorrow and never would have anticipated where we’ve wound up: a doctor, banker, head hunter, proprietor of a vintage guitar store and an environmental research engineer. We’ve all moved on and while today we debate whether our words were arrogant or naive (or both) there was no doubt that our motivation was sincere. I was pleased to realize that none of us has become cynical – the core values and vision for a better world that motivated us then remain alive and well, 40 years ago today.