As our graduation approached in the spring of ‘66, we began to realize that we were about to enter a new phase of our journey through life. Within the next few months, we’d be heading off to university, the military, or the real world of full-time employment without the support group we had been a part of for the past six years. It was both an exciting prospect as well as a daunting one.
Joel Barlow opened its doors in the fall of 1959 and our class arrived just a year later. We would be just the fifth class to graduate and the second of only five to complete all six years at Barlow. The 7th through 12th program would be short lived, ending when Redding and Easton completed their middle schools in 1964 and students entering the 7th grade then remained in their respective towns. By the fall of 1965, Barlow only housed grades 9 through 12.
A combined junior and senior high school was a rarity, even in the early 1960’s. Six full years of growing and learning together provided us with an opportunity to form friendships that would last a lifetime.
In the mid-sixties, America’s teens were on the precipice of a cultural change that, for better or worse, would alter family life as we had known it for over half a century. We were among the last of a generation who dressed up to have our class photos taken. Young men wore a dress shirt, tie, and a sport coat, while the young ladies dressed in pleated skirts and wore fancy sweaters.
Most of our families ate our nightly dinner in the dining room. Linen table cloths, napkins, and a real home cooked meal by our moms. Everyone ate the same meal at the same time and attendance was mandatory.
If a young man wanted to date a young lady, he had to do it in person. No wooing a girl online. That also meant being grilled by her parents prior to receiving their blessing to take her absolutely anywhere. Good preparation for future job interviews, only much more intense and personal!
Sixteenth birthdays included a trip to the local DMV to pick up a learner’s permit. Upon being issued the permit, the recipient would usually slide behind the wheel of mom’s behemoth station wagon and drive it home while mom clutched her rosary in one hand and braced herself against the dashboard with the other. While I am sure there were driving schools in the 1960’s, I can’t remember any of my friends availing themselves of the service.
Our class witnessed a good deal of history making events during those six years we enjoyed together. We sat in awe as the school’s intercom system broadcast the entire flight of Alan Shepard’s 1961 Mercury Freedom 7’s mission into space. That year, we all listened as Dion sang about Runaround Sue and Roy Orbison’s sad love song, Crying, was number nine on Billboard’s top one hundred.
In 1962, we spent the second half of October nervously watching President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khruschev bring us to the brink of nuclear annihilation while they argued about the deployment of nuclear missiles in nearby Cuba. Meanwhile, we listened as the Shirelles sang about their little Soldier Boy.
A year later, we were dismissed early on a Friday afternoon in November after John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been hit by an assassin’s bullet while in Dallas. In unison, we mourned as a nation for almost an entire week. While the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ U.S.A. came in at number one that year, Peter, Paul, and Mary’s rendition of newcomer Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind cracked the top fifteen and ushered in a new genre of socially conscious music that would permeate the airwaves as the Baby Boomer generation began to assert ourselves.
In 1964, we had front row seats after the North Vietnamese attacked two destroyers from the Seventh Fleet in the Gulf of Tonkin, an act that led to Congress giving President Johnson wide ranging powers that greatly widened the conflict in Vietnam. The clouds of war were beginning to obscure the years of sunshine we had all grown-up in. The arrival of the Beatles gave us a much-needed infusion of happier music as well as a new style of attire and hair length for men.
In early 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City. On November 10th, everyone at Barlow was given a free pass on not completing their homework after the entire east coast suffered a major blackout due to a human error that shutdown the power grid during rush hour on the 9th and lasted until the early morning hours of the 10th. While none of us could get the goofy lyrics and catchy tune of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ number one hit, Wooly Bully out of our head that year, the haunting lyrics of Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction certainly set the tone for the great national divide that the war in Vietnam was going create.
By the spring of 1966, many of us were still anxiously awaiting the mail, hoping that the university of our choice would be as happy to welcome us as we would be to attend. Those of us who had gained early admission were more relaxed and much less worried about the last couple of marking periods – we were in, and it was then time to thoroughly enjoy the rest of our senior year at Barlow.
I think we were all raised with the expectation we would continue our education after high school. But reality is often different than expectations and dreams. Not everyone was cut out to attend university, and while higher education in the middle 1960’s was certainly inexpensive by today’s standards, the cost was still higher than some families could probably manage. As May and June approached, we began to learn that not all our classmates and friends would be continuing with us on our journey. For some of the boys, the military was looking like a viable option, and by 1966 that meant that some of our friends could be heading to Southeast Asia and combat duty. Two of 1966’s top billboard hits were California Dreamin’ by the Mamas and the Papas, and The Ballard of the Green Berets by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler. The dichotomy couldn’t have been much greater, and it surely wasn’t lost on any of us.
Graduation from high school was big deal. We eagerly looked forward to it from the very first day of school in September. In the early days of autumn, we had no idea that ending that portion of our journey would be such a joyful and melancholy experience all at the same time.
The first real hint that it was coming to an end was probably felt at the Senior Banquet. For some strange reason, it was held in Brookfield at the White Turkey Inn, an aged banquet facility that looked like something straight out of the 1940’s. All dressed up and walking back in time instead of into the future seemed somewhat surreal. I kept expecting to see Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce emerge from the kitchen to see how we liked our chicken croquets. The reading of the class will seemed somehow inappropriate for a group of teenagers just starting out in life, not exiting it on the other end.
I realized on the ride home that our time together was now numbered.
The day of our graduation began with a pool party at one of my fellow graduating senior girlfriend’s house. We certainly had big plans for the next 48 hours. I have no idea how or why our girlfriends’ parents had all agreed to allow their daughters to accompany us to our graduation party in Danbury – a party that was scheduled to last until dawn, followed by five couples heading to Westport for a day at the beach. The beach party would end up back in Easton that night for another graduation party at yet another pool.
Sleep? Who needed sleep? We’d be running on adrenaline. Ready, willing, and anxious to take on the world. But not without each other. Six years of great comradery was something we were suddenly fearful of losing. If you’ve ever seen American Graffiti, you know exactly how we were feeling.
Real life was out there waiting, but maybe we all wanted a little more time before walking through that door. It was one-way only, no going back.
The theme song for the graduation ceremony was from West Side Story. Somewhere. The only thing I remember from that event was standing up there in the bleachers singing that song. It still plays in my head every now and then. It couldn’t have been a more perfect selection.
There’s a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us
There’s a time for us,
Someday a time for us,
Time together with time to spare,
Time to learn, time to care,
We’ll find a new way of living,
We’ll find a way of forgiving
Somewhere . . . Somewhere…
There’s a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we’re halfway there.
Hold my hand and I’ll take you there
It certainly took some of us longer than others to find that place, but eventually, most of us did. More remarkable is how many of those close friends stayed in contact over the ensuing years – 57 years at last count. Too many have already passed, but those of us who remain still occasionally see each other. We remember those good years we spent growing up in Easton and Redding, and we are forever grateful for having had that time and each other.
So, for all those high school seniors who will graduate within the next few weeks, spend your final weeks enjoying those around you who have shared your journey. Believe it or not, a lot of those friends will still be there, no matter how far you travel, no matter how long it takes. Somehow, someday, somewhere!