Saying goodbye to an old friend

Published 9:29 am Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again.

Recently I found out — thanks to the slowly growing nexus of old friends, classmates, acquaintances, co-workers and fellow ne’er do wells I’ve found on Facebook — that my high school alma mater, Wheaton Central High School, is slated for demolition.

I haven’t set foot within the city limits of my hometown, Wheaton, Ill., for several years. But the last time I was there, I remember driving down Roosevelt Road and watching the sandy brick walls of WCHS go by.

It’s a massive place; the entire school campus probably takes up nine city blocks. And it’s an old place; the building is 84 years old, which would put its construction date sometime during the Coolidge administration.

My school had its share of famous alumni. Red Grange, Edwin Hubble, Sam Skinner and Bob Woodward usually get name-dropped. Jim and John Belushi always do.

I have a theory about what happens when you discover that someplace special to you has been, or is about to be, tossed into the dustbin of history: Part of your memories die with the place.

Case in point, I have a picture of what WCHS once looked like in my head. But I’ll bet that if I had been in Wheaton last week for the final “walk-through” ceremonies for alumni, I probably would have seen something that would have brought back a memory or two. These were the halls that I, and all of my friends, walked through as hopeful, nave, confident, scared and confused teenagers.

To this day, the halls of WCHS are a common denominator that I have with a lot of people who I would otherwise have no bond with.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not memories of the building itself that I still treasure after all these years. The people are what made the place special. But I submit that even though we all remember the actors of the play, when they tear down the stage something is still lost.

I have three memories from WCHS that seem to stand out the most. Oddly enough, they all involve my days as a “band geek.”

First, I remember that on Friday nights during home basketball games, I participated in something called the “Pep Band.” Some of us were lucky enough to have found some old orange sweaters from the late 70s that actually said “Pep Band” on them. It was a blast. I remember heckling referees for bad calls against our team, playing the Survivor song “Eye of the Tiger” WAY too many times, and also playing the “Sleezophone,” which was my saxophone mouthpiece on a tuba. It was loud and got people’s attention. But the best part happened after the games, on the long walk back through the dim hallways when we would play “Stripper.”

Second, I remember the oldest part of the building housed the main auditorium. This was the venue for school plays, talent shows and other extravaganzas. At both corners of the building were stairwells that went up three flights in a square. During school hours and between classes, this was the noisiest place in school. But after hours it was the perfect place to warm up. For an average saxophone player that sometimes had to build up the courage to play in front of a packed auditorium, the acoustics of those stairwells were the perfect confidence builder.

Finally, I will never, ever forget the football field. I will never forget going out there with about 120 other fellow band geeks to do things like: twisting “G-shape” formations; marching into a makeshift tunnel in a trench coat at one end and emerging from the other side in my band uniform; a small flag in a holster at my hip; casually using my peripheral vision to make sure I was lined up with the person next to me; spats; white gloves and white shoe polish.

And I’ll never forget the circle we used to march into, with Mr. Redford at the center, at the end of those football games. They were Friday nights that I will always treasure, but darnit if it didn’t seem to rain too many times.

So it is with a heavy heart that I say farewell to a friend that was always there but that I never spoke to, a friend that sheltered us from the elements, a friend that gave us a safe environment in which to learn and grow, and a friend that served as the stage for me and all of the other actors in this life.

Goodbye, Wheaton Central High School. My friend. Thanks for the memories.